Means of Escape: Examining the “Heartland” Myth.



THE BLACK BARN VINEYARD hosts a “Growers’ Market” every Saturday morning throughout the Hawkes Bay summer. It’s a bustling affair. Late model motor vehicles line the access road and pack the parking lots while, amidst the carefully tended rows of grape vines, and screened by a leafy circle of trees, the middle classes of Napier and Hastings amble and gape, sample and buy a rich variety of rustic wares.

It’s urban-dwelling customer-base notwithstanding, the “Growers’ Market” presents a thoroughly bucolic scene. This is New Zealand the way the securely employed and generously remunerated half of the population likes to think of itself. As they carry their jams and pickles, cured venison and organic vegetables, back to their Range Rovers and BMWs they bear with them also the myth of “heartland” New Zealand.

This is the New Zealand featured every Thursday in Jim Mora’s “Our Place” Afternoons segment. It’s a world of picturesque villages and isolated towns; of unfailing hospitality and cultural homogeneity. A world as unhurried and reliable as a slow cooker in a country kitchen.

And even though the vast majority of those who hold tightly to this “heartland” myth live in New Zealand’s big cities, they are not in the least fazed by the contradiction. Because, in the breast of every Black Barn visitor lies the dream of one day escaping the fast pace and brittle relationships of modern urban living and purchasing (at an amazingly reasonable price!) a fine old property set among lawns and trees at a location if not actually in the countryside, then very close to it.

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For these folk, life in the city is endured (in much the same way as they endured life in a student flat) as a necessary exercise in delayed gratification; something to put up with en route to somewhere much, much better.

Or, as Gerry Rafferty put it in Baker Street:

He’s got this dream about buyin’ some land
He’s gonna give up the booze and the one night stands
And then he’ll settle down in this quiet little town
And forget about everything.

“Forget about everything”: the politics of these aspiring Heartlanders is captured to perfection in that single line. Because the retreat to the heartland is in almost every case also a retreat from the broader civic responsibilities of contemporary citizenship. Though they might not admit it, the huge allure of the countryside is its distance from the moral and political challenges of the cities. The walls of Havelock North, Greytown and Martinborough may be constructed of Agapanthus, flowering Azaleas and Rhododendrons – but they are walls nonetheless.

And if the middle-classes are only “passing through” the cities: settling in their leafy suburbs only for as long as it takes them to amass sufficient capital to embrace the true “leafiness” of the countryside; then interesting them in improving the city and turning it into a liveable environment for those without the capital to escape its miseries is going to be an especially difficult task.

Dramatically increasing its difficulty is the willingness of the National Party to cover the Heartlanders’ retreat.

Historically, National has always been the party of the countryside and the leafy suburbs: the political voice of all those who instinctively embrace rural “virtue” and eschew urban “vice”. For these New Zealanders, the cities have always been seen as a breeding ground for dangerous classes and dangerous ideas.

The New Zealand poet, A.R. D. Fairburn, described both in his daunting 1935 poem, Dominion:

And the proletarian animal,

product of perversion and source of profit,

with a net paid circulation of a million,

and many unsold, or lying about the streets

bearing the marks of boot protectors;

a crucified ape, preached by Darwinian bishops,

guarded by traitorous pens, handed the vinegar

of a ‘belief in the essential goodness of human nature’.

 The middle-classes have never been great believers in “the essential goodness of human nature”. Theirs is a strange, Lamarckian faith in which the benefits of fresh air and sunlight, parental wealth and a well-ordered middle-class existence are passed down as heritable genetic drivers. The same claim is made (albeit negatively reversed) about those raised in poverty and deprivation.

In Michael Laws’ version of Lamarckian sociology, the viciousness and rapaciousness of one deprived generation is inevitably passed down to the next. Hence his insistence that the rapidly expanding (and incorrigibly “feral”) underclass be legally prevented from reproducing.

Those who are perplexed by the current popularity of “zombie” movies and television series need wonder no longer. For those raised in the morally inert climate of neoliberal economics, the poor’s resemblance to the flesh-eating monster is indisputable. The ideological leap from “Welfare State” to “Zombie Nation” is not a large one. Just substitute “the taxpayers’ dollars” for “human flesh” and you’re there.

Though they would undoubtedly deny it if you suggested to the people leaving the Black Barn Vineyard’s Growers’ Market every Saturday morning that, in their heart-of-hearts, they see the National Party leader, John Key, as their Fearless Zombie Slayer, I strongly suspect that they do. Who else can realistically promise to protect their flesh/incomes from being continually garnished to satisfy the zombies’/welfare beneficiaries’ insatiable appetite? Who is better placed, through rampant house-price inflation, to keep the poor as far from the middle-classes’ front doors as possible? Whose policies will more effectively assist the middle-classes’ acquire the tax-free capital-gains necessary to escape the zombie-infested cities for the zombie-free zones of Heartland New Zealand?

Equating the poor with zombies, and rehearsing Michael Laws’ claim that “intergenerational poverty” and its resulting “feral underclass” can only be eliminated by adopting the most extreme eugenic methods, may seem a very strange point to conclude this discussion – having started it in a bucolic Hawkes Bay vineyard.

But how else should we explain the fact that even though the Black Barn Growers’ Market is only a few minutes’ drive from the Hasting’s suburb of Flaxmere, very, very few (if any) of its mostly poor and mostly Maori residents will ever be found sampling and/or purchasing the stall-holders’ products? The Saturday-morning drive to the market is a middle-class class ritual, at whose heart lies a desperate need to retreat and escape from the consequences of their “inherited” social advantages.

The “Heartland Myth” is about middle-class people running away from their responsibilities. It is about them seeking a refuge from the complex living rebuke of poverty and social injustice. It is about their collective unwillingness to recognise “the essential goodness of human nature” and the terrible cost of evading its most basic obligations.



  1. Although I agree with the general thrust of this article, I fee it limits the true character of thecontemporary neo-con, especially as the inhabit the Wairarapa where I live. I would describe the typical one of these as being a recent arrival to the Wairarapa, recently purchased a one hectare lifestyle property on which they have built a A1, Jennian or some other almost identical brand of home, as well as a huge ute (1000s of these here now). They are more likely to be found at Mitre 10 Mega than a farmers market in terms of volume, and are likely to be sel employed trades people as professionals nearing retirement age. I forgot to mention they are more likely to have moved to the Carterton district, living outside the town and also outside Masterton as well. They tend to be either baby boomers or Generation X

  2. “For these folk, life in the city is endured (in much the same way as they endured life in a student flat) as a necessary exercise in delayed gratification; something to put up with en route to somewhere much, much better. ”

    This does not only apply to those reluctant middle class city dwellers, who dream of making it to a greener one amongst the “leafier” suburbs, or to the ultimate “lifestyle block” on the fringe, or beyond, it applies to the modern day society we have in general, not just in New Zealand.

    It has caught on in almost everyones mind, even many of the poor and downtrodden. Everybody does these days seem to be in an eternal state of “transit”, on the “way ahead” to somewhere, somewhere “better”.

    This is also showing in the modern day “Kiwi dream” that is sold to many prospective and new migrants. Yes, it is not easy, you may need to start doing some work that you may not have aspired for at first, to get the foot on the ladder, to work your way up, to one day “belong” to the rest, to be where you want to be, and to “fulfill” your dream of a “better life in New Zealand”.

    The concept of the “American Dream” is the most famous version of this bizarre state of a society, of all aspiring to do their best, to achieve a better life, as they deserve. Sadly only a tiny minority ever manage to fulfill this “dream”, while US cities saw the drain of the middle class to the vast new suburbs, with shopping malls and endless roads, streets and highways. In the end the “dream” most followed caught up with them, to lock them into a new rut for a life, not in city flats or apartments, but in monotone, stereotyped, alienating suburban jungles. Traffic congestions, pollution, noise and crime followed them.

    Then came the gated communities, but these are slowly also becoming the new “ghettos” of the future. Some “trendy” middle class people move back into cities now, where old buildings have been done up and new ones built, to offer apartment life. But as anywhere else in the world, these apartments will become the ghettos of the present and the future, with their social, environmental and structural problems.

    I see this as a social illness, a disease of sorts, where people are being constantly conditioned and pressured into a ruthless form of a capitalist, highly competitive, consumerist and commericalised economic system. It dehumanises, as it turns people into economic units rather than whole human beings. People are “drilled” and trained to function economically, to make constant, long term sacrifices, to work, work and work, to save, and spend also, to “get ahead”, while the prices for what is aspired keep rising. Even those lifestyle blocks are only affordable for a while, once the first ones chase them, the prices go up.

    Only the real big earners, and most successful or most ruthless, will be able to get where they may want to be, but often they will have sacrificed so much of quality of life, they will be unable to enjoy what they will get.

    It is a race in a hamster wheel, so to say.

    With all this people forget what it is like to be human and “normal”, and to live amongst others, amongst different people also. They lose social skills and become instead kinds of psychopaths. That reinforces the urge to separate and segregate oneself from those supposedly “unwashed”, undesired, unsuccessful and “hopeless” fellow citizens. “Moving ahead” to where I ask, is it not, that most feel uncomfortable in their own skin and body, because they feel they are victims and slaves in a system?

    What about trying to make your surroundings more liveable, to create a society where we do not need to run away from each other or ourselves. No, humans fall for all this crap, and in doing so, continue to “escape” to the last corners on the planet, and in the process destroy the last remnants of untouched and sound natural environments.

    It is in the mind, I think, and we actually can choose a better society. This would mean also, to get rid of the neoliberal madness taught by the Chicago Boys, and enforced on us since Roger Douglas sold much of the country to overseas and local rip off speculators. But such thinking, of a more humane, fairer and sounder system, that is these days VERBOTEN!

  3. I come to think of the “middle class”, or at least the “upper middle class” of today, as rather being the “convenient extension of the authoritarian and manipulative powers of the upper class and rich”.

    The “middle class” think they are “more worthy” than the ones that do not make it to their levels of income, education and status. Hence the drive to get their kids into private schools, offering them “a better future”. Better than what and whose, one must logically ask? The answer is, better than the ones “below”.

    Hence the same members of that class see nothing wrong with being served by low paid local and migrant workers in supermarkets, at service stations, in restaurants, at hair-dressing and beauty salons, and wherever else they go.

    The “Farmers Markets” are just nothing much more than a “fashionable” “lifestyle” shopping option, giving them a feel good factor. Just thinking of people driving out into the country in their fuel wasting SUVs, to shop for a few jars of organic jam, wine or whatever, that is anything but “economical” or “carbon efficient”.

    Perhaps bring back horses and carts, and let them ride their way there with such transport? I would like to see how many would bother putting up with dust, smell and inconveniences. Few would, so all this “heartland fairytale story” stuff is just nothing but a fad, and an extension for bored city dwellers to find modern, wasteful ways of entertainment.

    Perhaps send all school kids onto farms to milk cows and do some hands on work in the country for two weeks a year, that would do some privileged or not so privileged middle class city dwellers a hell of some good, I think. Back to nature, back to the roots of stuff we eat and consume daily, that will wake a few up.

    It will show them the true meaning of the “heartland”.

    • “Perhaps send all school kids onto farms to milk cows and do some hands on work in the country for two weeks a year, that would do some privileged or not so privileged middle class city dwellers a hell of some good, I think. Back to nature, back to the roots of stuff we eat and consume daily, that will wake a few up”

      Looks very much along the lines of what Mao advocated during the Cultural Revolution.

      These sorts of forced activities tend to be a bad idea.

      • They are a bad idea, Gosman, but you could have chosen a more current example in NAct’s boot camps for young unemployed. Please download the 21st century update.

        • Hah, the Nats put certain “difficult” beneficiaries and “criminal offenders” into boot camps or other “courses”, it is time to turn the table, and put the “middle class” into something similar perhaps?!

          Nah, my idea was rather, that most city folks are so out of touch with the natural environment, with the means of production, and what efforts are involved in it, it would be EDUCATIONAL to at least encourage activities like 2 weeks a year on farms or orchards, or even fishing boats. This has also nothing to do with Mao’s failed experiments.

          When people get out of touch with reality, they become uninformed and thus poor voters.

          • The work they do on the farms could be reinforced with NCEA credits and a work reference etc it would philosophically fit the Nats mindset so would be a winner to get through parliament.

  4. Interesting piece, Chris…

    To my thinking, Zombie movies were a form of justified killing on the Big Screen by Americans.

    Shooting Indians in Westerns is no longer acceptable.

    Germans and Japanese our our trading partners. Killing them in WW2 movies would be bad for business. (Hence why “Das Boot” was so popular.)

    Russians are no longer Godless Commos – not since they Got Capitalism. Cain’t shoot them, neither, Jethro.

    Aliens? Too unrealistic.

    But zombies?! Why not! They’re “dead” already. And better still – they’re MOVING dead! Perfect targets for a trigger-happy, gun-totin’ society that expresses itself through “superior firepower”…

    That’s why our American cuzzies love Zombie movies. Perfect targets!

    • Frank, you might be right. …..and that doesn’t clash with Chris view. I am a great fan of Clint and his Old Testament justice plays. Judge jury and executioner in one short cutting the law. He does it with style but at heart it appeals to the fascist escapist in me. We all have our bogeymen and imagined enemies. Zombies must die before as Chris implies they invade Greytown.

    • Interestingly, while your breakdown of the situation is a tad simplistic, there is a school of thought that agrees somewhat with your basic premise. In fact I believe one of your fellow bloggers from the Daily Blog is basing her thesis around elements of this.

    • Actually the popularity of zombies is straight out of gaming (shooters mostly) & graphic novels -the genesis being the japanese game Resident Evil. This was based on political horror director George A Romero’s ‘Dead’ series (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, etc) – the zombie not being symbolically the poor but actually the ‘mob’; sleepy hobbit; tv 2 audience; whatever your prefered title is. Now I don’t know about you guys but I really feel Mr Key is more the zombie master than slayer and I often feel I’m surounded by an ever growing number of the braindead!

  5. With all the amount of Botox faces at the farmers markets I am waiting for the day the botulism agent actually wakes up and turns these people into zombies. Imagine that after X amount of years the beauty agent takes over the client, the after affects are zombies lurching around the markets with baskets. Seems an oxymoron pumping toxins into your face then eating organic jam…but that’s these people all over full of shit and boring.

  6. There’s a lot of truth in this (says I who likes to go to the Clevedon Farmers Market of a Sunday morning). It is why I worry about the 99% vs 1% rhetoric. I think if you are truly anti-capitalist, you need to appreciate the role of the upper middle class in maintaining the status quo, which suits them just fine. After all, nearly half of New Zealanders voted for John Key and his cronies. They’re the ones buying the shares in our power companies and buying up properties to rent to the working class.

  7. –which by the way stands for “down with..” Since forced to live in the city, I’ve planted sweetcorn on my front section, to the amusement of the Island neighbours, and had gardens as big as the space allowed. If, thanks to our wonderful banks, you can’t achieve a lifestyle block–which I agree–are being hoarded by the upper-middle-class-Jennianhome-monsterute pretenders, then plant where you are. It’s all good for oxygen. Now if only it were easier to keep livestock (chooks, birds) in the city, and plant the berms with herbs and veges.

    • Or leave for another country – taking their wealth with them and leaving your country poorer in a multitude of ways.

  8. meh.
    I got the hell out of the city because the noise wide-bore exhaust systems and sub-woofers were making my life a living hell.

  9. Yes , I know what you mean .
    I came from a working class farming background as did my parents who also came from very humble beginnings to drag a Southland farm kicking and squealing into production . It wasn’t until we moved to a significantly larger property in Canterbury that we were rudely introduced to the institutionalized High Country Wankery and What Ho Darkery of the Canterbury landed gentry .
    Red faced and whiskey drinking , the men would mutter dark things about them Maoris and dole bludgers as if they were White South Africans off on a Blik hunting excursion . Their women , alcoholic mostly and house bound knew little of the land other than from what they saw through double vision . They’d hoist their collars to half mast then head off to town for more casks of Sav Blanc and cartons of tailor mades then lie back and dream of England as more ignorant red necks were begat after dinner and before the Test .
    That’s not to say they weren’t hard working people . Quite the opposite in fact . They worked their titties right off and the National Party knows only too well the enduring quality of that particular swindle .
    ‘ THE BLACK BARN VINEYARD ‘ syndrome is a bi product of that swindle .
    Upon meeting others cut from the same linen , the Mwa , mwa , air kiss , air kiss thing’s usually followed by a guffaw and a non stop string of overly rounded vowels to describe , for example the weather . It’s about at that point any brown cow , is so much more than how now dawling .
    Of course , we humans trend like crazy . If we see something interesting and duffrant we copy it . The New and Urban armed to the teeth with their state funded educations and wafer thin connections to the land ( But don’t mention all that cow / sheep sex , death and the various pongs , stink’s and odours coming from the colourful array of the different kinds of shits that stick to ones Guccis dawling .
    The Urban farmer was born . Shops full of paint distressed tables , straw stuffed dolls , jams in naff little jars with hats on , quaintsy , hokey , nauseating junk suffused by a stink of meadow grasses potpourri that disturbingly smells just like cheap toilet freshener stings the eyes in such shops usually found in small , rich , white towns ….. little blue jonky towns .

    And the Oiks , the hoi polloi , the Great Unwashed have yet to have the penny drop . Those whom write about the rural money / urban poverty conundrum have yet to fathom the swindle .
    ( Have I just rambled off-topic ??? )

  10. Nice post MARC. Problem is the vast majority of the working class are believers they think they will ‘make it’ and many will but proportionately the ‘winners’ are becoming a smaller proportion of society. And so as wealth accumulates at one end of the spectrum so does poverty, ignorance, violence, substance abuse etc accumulate at the other pole. Which then requires increasingly repressive laws and apparatus to protect the wealthy from the great unwashed (this has always been the purpose of the police).

    However it is not the Chicago/Neo-libs thats the problem, the right believe they can best manage capitalism via laissez faire. The left believe they can better manage the capitalism by curbing the worst abuses/environmental damages (which they usually cannot – the state serves capital not the other way round). What we lack, and imo need, is a movement to ‘build a new world in the shell of the old’ – to simultaneously reject capital and its state (govt). The solution isnt to crawl on our bellies to the polling booth to participate in a mass submission to power.

    *Not trying to sound accusatory (justs comes naturally).

  11. Well, whatever else, you’re pretty tough on poor old Lamarck, who was much less of a plutocrat than Malthus.

    And it is a Malthusian derived social Darwinism that characterises most of the objectionable right – very old ideas of entrenched privilege derived from blood, later recast as genetics or the kind of ill-defined phantom economic talents that Bill English claims without producing any tangible positive economic results.

    Lamarck was right about the giraffes as it happens, we have vastly more genes than are expressed at any one time, but expressed ones are likely to be evident in offspring.

    But even if Lamarck had been wrong, his would have been a more socially constructive theory. The poor shabby rubbish that Dawkins passes off as Darwinism is ultimately fatalistic – under his view the noble classes or the elite are already ‘tall giraffes’ whose survival is assured, and the mass of humanity have been measured and found wanting. The game need not even be played.

    In real terms however, no-one knows which of the myriad human traits are crucial to survival, but we do know that striving is requisite for all of us.

    A Lamarckian society is aspirational, and built on individual effort, rather than cranking up interest rates to attract the Yen carry trade.

  12. I’m still waiting for the day that Jim features Cannons Creek on “our place”.

    I love National Radio but it sounds very tone deaf talking about designing your bach to have no electricity and be uninsulated so that you can feel more “at one” with the elements. Ah yes let’s spend our surplus money building a “authentic” poors house. Ha ha ha. And while I’m on my rant why are so many of their voices from the mother country. Sounds like us……not.

  13. The dream of owning a piece of land (or owning a house and garden) hasn’t been helped by Labour’s internationalistion of the property market, or immigration.

    The idea that the middleclass are escaping social responsibilities is juzt a delusion of your world view. There are lots of reasons to escape the city badly behaved youth being one of the main ones ; whose responsibility is that?

  14. You talk about escaping responsibilities. Humans evolved in small groups were everyone knew everyone. Charity was based on personal knowledge. Today it all goes into the big bureaucracy and we are expected to trust that people are deserving; that their is no moral hazard. Who is minding the chickens? What is the culture of the public service? We may believe that the left with their crazy world view are in there boots and all?

  15. ” Immigration and tax breaks for investment in residential property are being cited as the underlying causes of steep increases in the cost of housing over the past decade.

    New Zealand now boasts one of the highest rates of home unaffordability in the world as a result of prices rising far faster than incomes, and the government’s Savings Working Group blames that squarely on the policies of successive governments.

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