They don’t like John Cleese in Palmerston North. And he doesn’t like them, either.
In 2005, Cleese visited the town while touring with his one-man show. And this is what he had to say:
"If you wish to kill yourself but lack the courage to, I think a visit to Palmerston North will do the trick. We had a thoroughly, bloody miserable time there and we were so happy to get out.”
This is the kind of celebrity commentary that tourism boards don’t print on brochures. Heather Tanguay, the town mayor, wondered out loud if Cleese needed more medication. And Paul O’ Brien, from the local chamber of commerce, tried to spin it into a slogan. “Palmerston North,” he proposed. “So Boring, You’ll Relax In a Minute!” Finally, the city came to a consensus. They just stuck a sign in front of the pile of rotting garbage at the city dump. “MT. CLEESE,” the sign reads. “ALT 45.2 M.”
Obviously, we were intrigued. What would the suicide capital of New Zealand look like? Would it be full of staggering zombies, inhaling solvents and looking hopelessly into a dead-end future? No, it couldn’t be. Because that’s Invercargill. Still, our curiosity was piqued.
By the time we got to Palmerston North, I was about ready to slit my wrists, but I think that had more to do with being tired and pregnant than any fault of the town’s. “Palmy,” as it’s locally known, seemed like a very nice place. There was sunshine, and colorful flowers in pleasant little planter boxes, and the locals displayed a healthy curiosity about life.
"How old is your two year-old?" asked the receptionist at the holiday park, and when Peter paused in confusion, she went on to offer him a map. "Sure," he replied. "I'd love a map."
"Would you like a shady one?" she asked, and then Peter backed slowly out of the office, before she could offer him a parakeet or start making airplane noises. Maybe she’s drunk, he thought, and a pitcher of martinis in the afternoon is her only way to cope.
But I needed hard data, so I rang up the guys who handle dead bodies. And that’s how I came to speak to Dr. Temple-Camp, a pathologist at the city hospital. Formerly of Zimbabwe and South Africa, Dr. Temple-Camp is delighted that Palmerston North is a boring place. He spent the first part of his life dodging carjackers, praying for the chance to be bored someday.
“I wanted to ask you about this comment John Cleese made,” I began, once I got him on the phone. “Is it true? Do you get a lot of suicides, here in Palmerston North? Are people really dying of boredom?”
The doctor reflected for a moment. “I wouldn’t say there’s anything unusual about the deaths or suicides in Palmerston North. If there’s anything unusual, it’s John Cleese. Have you seen any of his programmes? He’s rather an odd fellow.”
“So you can't tell if your bodies are overly bored?”
“No, but I can tell you they're overly nourished. They like their food here.”
“Any regional specialties in particular?” I asked, hoping for a restaurant recommendation. Death by Lamb Shank, for example, would be an excellent way to go.
“No, just good food. And lots of it.”
This was going nowhere. A sunny town, full of happy people, with flowers blooming on every corner, and now this: they die from deliciousness. Frustrated and annoyed, I changed the subject.
“Out of curiosity,” I asked, “what did people die of in Zimbabwe and South Africa?”
“Oh, that would have been a lot of gunshot wounds,” he said. “ We don't get many gunshot wounds here in Palmerston North.”
“You'd be pretty safe walking the streets here. You wouldn't really need a metal jacket.”
I thought about the flower-lined sidewalks, the pretty town square. Earlier that day, we’d seen a toddler, dressed in pink, splashing through a fountain. No carjackings in Palmerston North. Just good food, sunshine, and blossoms. I scowled into the telephone.
“I see. And just one more question. When people do commit suicide in Palmerston North, how do they do it?” Maybe now I’ll hear the real dirt. They overdose on chocolate, or impale themselves on butter knives.
“I’d say it’s fairly standard here. Pills, hanging, the occasional gunshot. Carbon monoxide.”
He paused, and then went on.
“The only strange thing about New Zealand suicides, I'd have to say, is up in Auckland. I attended a conference there, and apparently a lot of people are setting themselves on fire up there.”
“I’m sorry, what? People in Auckland are setting themselves on fire? Alive?”
“Yes. I don't know why they would do such a thing. Seems to me a terribly unpleasant way to do it. Perhaps John Cleese should have a look up there.”
Perhaps we should have another look up there. Auckland sounds like a fascinating place.