The intro read:
When writer David Hill lived in the small Taranaki town of Inglewood, he depicted it as Moaville, a charming community of goodhearted rustics living in pastoral bliss. In fact, it’s the murder capital of New Zealand, notable not just for the quantity of its killings but also for their bizarre quality. Graeme Lay rattles the skeletons in Inglewood’s closet.MURDER IN MOAVILLE
The Australian Nobel laureate Patrick White, who had family connections with New Zealand, also had an abiding fascination with our murders. Homicides here were frequently so bizarre, White observed from the time of his first visit, that whenever he read of an unusual killing carried out in Australia he would describe it as “a very New Zealandy murder”. Bludgeonings, butcherings, stranglings, decapitations, poisonings, burnings: it seemed to him that we had much more than our share of weird slayings.
Patrick White would have loved Inglewood.
Inglewood (population 2000) is a small town on the northern flanks of Mount Taranaki, between New Plymouth and Stratford, on State Highway 3. It is surrounded by dairy and pig-farming properties, and the proximity of the mountain means that it rains there a great deal. Inglewood appears at first glance to be no different from any other small New Zealand town: verandahed shops, a railway line, cenotaph – except that State Highway 3 takes a pronounced kink right in the centre of the town.
Inglewood began in the 1880s when a group of northern English immigrants hacked a clearing out of the bush. They were joined in their endeavour by a group of settlers from central Europe. Even today, surnames ending in “itski”, “dunski” and “newski” are common.
At first the place was called Moa Town, but this was later changed to Inglewood, meaning corner (ingle) in the bush. That’s how the kink came about, I suppose. Anyway, Inglewood may well have remained unknown were it not for a strange conjunction of literary and forensic events.
During the 1980s an Inglewood writer, David Hill, wrote a weekly newspaper column based on the town, which he called Moaville. In it, readers invariably learned that Moaville was a town where dwelt as fine a collection of real dags and well-intentioned rustics as you’d find anywhere outside Baccyspit, West Virginia.
Moaville folks, according to Hill, were a jesting, community-spirited lot who could turn their hands to anything. They practised their pastoralism merrily, when they met in the main street they swapped pleasantries about their milch cows or their porkers, they played rugby in the mud or they ran small retail enterprises – all activities which were sources of wholesome, homespun satisfaction.
Moaville, aka Inglewood, was in short, one of the great repositories of peasant wisdom, a wisdom packaged and marketed as Moaville Magic.
What bothered me about all this was that it didn’t square at all with the Inglewood I remembered or had read about in other sections of the newspaper, namely the court report pages.
I grew up on the other side of the mountain, then known as Egmont. Inglewood was distant territory and I can recall going there only once, to watch a school friend run a steeplechase against Peter Snell. I thought it a dull little town: it had no beach, no surf, and it was hard to catch snapper there. If the distance between the locals’ eyes was not very wide, then that was true of the province as a whole, not just Inglewood. So, nothing much would ever happen there, I thought. How wrong I was.
Some years later a news story caught my attention. A schoolboy at Inglewood High had taken exception to something his headmaster had done. The boy went home, got his father’s rifle, went back to the school, into the headmaster’s office and, in the vernacular of violence, “blew him away”. The case – the lad was convicted – astonished me. I had often wanted to shoot my headmaster, as have I suppose many people, but only in Inglewood had someone actually done it.
In the ensuing years, several other murders have occurred in Inglewood, characterised by bloodcurdling originality. One was carried out by a recidivist who had previously been detained “at Her Majesty’s Pleasure”, in that quaintly memorable phrase, for sexually violating and stabbing his young sister, just along State Highway 3 in New Plymouth. He was 14 at the time. After Her Majesty’s pleasure was gratified and the young man was released, he moved to Inglewood. There he sliced open the throats of two of his friends with a butcher’s knife. He is currently detained in the Lake Alice mental institution.
There he may run into other Inglewoodites, like the arsonist who incinerated a mother and her young child, or the members of an Inglewood church who last year bashed their 12-year-old son’s brains out with a concrete block, to rid the boy of the devil. The arsonist was convicted, but the Bible-bashers were found not guilty of their son’s murder on the grounds that they were insane. “We’re very pleased with the verdict,” declared an Inglewood relative of the couple after the trial.
That kink in Highway 3 is a remarkably apt metaphor for the district it passes through.
Concerned to put what was essentially a casual observation onto an empirical footing, I contacted a research officer with the New Zealand Police. She produced figures which were very interesting. Since 1981 there have been seven murders in Inglewood, including two double-headers (the arsonist and the throat-slasher) but not including the teenage headmaster-killer, who slew before 1981. This rate – seven murders for 2000 people in 14 years – gives an equivalent rate for Inglewood of 25 murders per 100,000 people in one year. The rate for the whole of New Zealand for the same period was 2.1 murders per 100,000 people in one year.
These murderous facts reminded me more than anything else of the fiction of the late Ronald Hugh Morrieson, who lived up the line a way from Inglewood, in Hawera, and who mined the rich seam of Taranaki gothic more effectively than any other writer.
All this shows that there is something pretty swampy in the psyche of Taranaki generally, and in Inglewood especially, and that David Hill, in retailing his long series of small, cute truths about the town, had clearly missed a larger and much more sinister one.
Taranaki again became the object of literary attention with the 1988 publication of a novel called Rainshadow, written by Michael Jackson. No, not Elvis Presley’s moonwalking son-in-law, but an anthropologist, poet and novelist. When I read in Rainshadow’s blurb that this Michael Jackson “spent his childhood and youth in Inglewood, Taranaki”, I knew there was trouble ahead, and so it proved.
Rainshadow is the story of Nicholas Day, a boy who grows up in a town called Moabite. The boy is brought up by his grandparents, is told a little about his father but nothing of his mother. It is not a happy upbringing: on one occasion Nicholas falls into a shitpit on a farm, on another he pokes his penis into the soil (on an ancient pa site) and seeds the dirt.
At the end it’s revealed that the dark Day family secret is that his mother was Taranaki tangata whenua, New Zealand literature’s equivalent of the strawberry birthmark.
Then, late last year, there was a report from Inglewood of an offence which, if proven, will go down in the dark annals – or anals – of New Zealand criminology as one of the blackest of them all. No one died, but perhaps it would have been better if the complainant had, for his alleged fate was, as the saying goes, far worse than death.
I refer to the alleged sexual violation of a bridegroom-to-be, by another man in Inglewood, on the alleged victim’s aptly described stag night. These were not ordinary young men either, but members of a local rugby team. The case makes those old jokes about screwing the scrum and the last man down take on a fresh and hideous significance.
This case, together with the abnormally high rate of depraved slayings, has assured Inglewood its place in myth as the psychopath centre of New Zealand.
There are many tragic aspects to all this, but perhaps the saddest of all is that when the case of the stag-night revel comes to trial, Patrick White won’t be there to savour it.