Recently I reread my earlier entries and considered my raw responses, following the catastrophic Christchurch earthquake on February 22nd 2011, and my writing on the one-year anniversary, and decided I still stand by these pieces.
It is tempting as a writer, who also edits, to want to make changes to the work and to worry. Was the writing too emotional, biased, dramatic, distraught? But I have decided that all writing is subjective and one needs to hold a position, otherwise why bother to write. I also see the record as the essential work of a life writer, writing in the midst of extraordinary life events, articulating feelings, questioning, reflecting, remembering and documenting for the records.
When we revisited Christchurch at Queen’s Birthday weekend I wondered whether this time I might write more optimistically about the changes in the city.
A huge amount of human effort has been pouring into the city in the last year. The engineers, geologists and scientists are making it a safer place, the architects and designers are trying to re-make a fully operational and hopefully beautiful city and artists and curators are responding creatively to the very trying conditions. I thought I might seek out the positive developments, take a closer look at the gap filler projects and the Christchurch Art Gallery’s ‘Re-populate’ project but I was also determined to stay true to my feelings.
The weekend began with a visit to an exhibition, from the Natural History Museum, London, of Captain Robert Scott’s expedition to the South Pole in 1912, on show at the Canterbury Museum. This is a building I have wanted to revisit as one of the few remaining Gothic Revival buildings in the city that endured the violent quakes largely intact. It was designed by Benjamin Mountfort and completed in 1882. His Great Hall across the road at the Arts Centre also survived but is currently undergoing major restoration.
In the museum I found the model Christchurch street intact, with its blacksmith’s forge and shoe shop displaying satin shoes, musky pink and cream, some like ballet slippers with little buttons on the side. The toyshop is round the corner and the room with the collector’s treasure trove is still packed with stuffed and scary animals and an enormous elk skeleton with giant antlers like wooden branches. I re-discovered the dioramas of Maori life before the arrival of Pakeha, featuring slightly smaller than life-size models (more child’s size) of Maori men and women in the bush, on the Canterbury marshes and at the bays on Banks Peninsula. They are featured against eggshell-blue skies and olive native bush making fires, roasting mutton-birds, hunting Moa, weaving cloaks… I admired the feathery beauty of Kiwis pecking for pretend grubs in the foreground and felt a sense of relief. They are just as they were when I was a child. There has been no modernisation of the museum, unlike the Auckland museum and the purpose-built Te Papa, and that is a comfort in these strange times.
The Scott Exhibition begins arrestingly with his larger than life-size statue lying horizontal on the ground like a mighty giant fallen. His feet were sheared off from his legs in the violent fall off the pedestal on February 22nd. The exhibition notes explain that Scott’s wife Kathleen Bruce/Scott (1878 – 1947) sculpted the statue following his death in 1912. She had trained at the Slade School of Art in London (1900 – 1902) and the Academie Calarossi (1902 – 1906) in Paris. Six years of training and it shows in the magnificent proud sculpture and dramatic rippling marble folds of cloth.
Kathleen Scott was an interesting woman, strong and determined, she wrote loving letters to Scott when he was away. She was also a very enchanting creature in a Pre-Raphaelite way. She wore her hair long and flowing and wavy. Apparently she urged Scott to make the expedition to the South Pole and be the first explorer to do so. Her letter was found in his breast pocket after his death; “We can do without you . . . if there be a risk to take or leave, you will take it.”[i] Scott did reach the pole but was beaten by the Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundsen, by one month and then Scott and his expedition companions died on their return from exposure and starvation just eleven miles out from a hut that would have saved them.
On Scott’s expedition, he took with him a band of clever men; scientists, a physicist, a meteorologist a medical doctor who was also a research zoologist, two biologists, three geologists and the photographer Herbert Ponting. These men stayed behind at the base hut at Cape Evans and conducted scientific research, pushing forward human understanding of glaciology and geology, pursuing an understanding of the lifecycles of the various species that inhabit Antarctica and collecting over 40,000 specimens representing over 2000 animals and plants, 400 of them previously undiscovered. The exhibition curators have recreated a true-to-scale representation of the hut with a replica large long table around which the men sat drawing their maps and diagrams, sketching their illustrations, dissecting an emperor penguin’s intestine and eating their dinners.
Scott’s last entry in his journal is deeply affecting because he knew, like Katherine Mansfield writing her final entry in her journal in October 1922, that his life was about to end:
… For four days we have been unable to leave the tent – the gale howling about us. We are weak, writing is difficult, but for my own sake I do not regret this journey, which has shown that English men can endure hardships, help one another, and meet death with as great a fortitude as ever in the past. We took risks, we knew we took them; things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence, determined still to do our best to the last …[ii]
I don’t know whether Scott was a religious man, but his surrender to the will of Providence, which can also be interpreted as the will of nature, is pertinent to the situation in Christchurch today. Here people have been reminded of the mighty power of nature and the tenuousness of human existence. At the end of the letter he cries out;
These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale, but surely, surely a great rich country like ours will see that those who are dependent on us are properly provided for.[iii]
The ‘great rich country’ is of course England and the dependents are his wife and child Peter Scott - who later became a renowned British ornithologist, conservationist and painter of exquisite scenes of birdlife - and the families of his four expedition mates; the chief scientist Dr Wilson, Captain Oates, Lieutenant Bowers and Edgar Evans - who perished with him.
There is currently, a discourse around the reconstruction of Christchurch, that focusses on budgetary constraint – which is reasonable in a recession - but unreasonable as an excuse to bulldoze the hell out of Christchurch, destroying most of its heritage fabric and to stall on decision-making over the restoration and re-build of major and important pieces of architecture and the homes of Christchurch citizens. I’m not an expert on the wealth of various countries, but I believe that we live in a ‘rich country,’ rich in cultural traditions certainly but there are big disparities between those with comfortable living standards and those ‘ who are dependent on us’ to be ‘properly provided for.’
Surely our country could do better for the families who have lost their homes and still, two and a half years out from the quakes, are living in caravans and garages. We could do better for people waiting for decisions that will allow them to resolve the fate of their wrecked homes and move forward. The situation is dispiriting and depressing. On this trip I noticed the sour smell of damp and liquefaction in homes and on the streets. When it rains mud pours down the streets and the ground appears to slip and slide.
In a shed-like building in the Cashel Mall there is an exhibition of broken treasures rescued from damaged and demolished buildings and that hopefully might be reinstated or combined in new buildings. I hadn’t realised the exhibition would be directed at the tourism market although a Christchurch friend remarked, ‘We are all tourists now wandering around our city like strangers,’ looking aghast and agape at the scale of loss. And so was unprepared for the big, blow-up photographs of people on stretchers being carried, by Saint John Ambulance staff, away from fallen buildings on the day of the disaster, and other horrors. Fortunately we were warned about the three-minute film re-enactment of the earthquake and could avoid that room.
The first treasure is the beautiful copper cross from the main dome of the Basilica. This cathedral on Barbadoes Street, unforgettable for its stunning colours, the cream Oamaru stone and bright aqua domes is still being de-constructed block by block. The most recent plan is to save the façade and the northwest wall as an open-air relic and to use the remaining stone for a new church. I like this idea. I find it realistic and feel certain the ruin would be mesmerising. I do hope they can keep to their wonderful intention.
I saw as well a maroon leather, father bear-sized chair, that had been the speaker’s chair in the Provincial Council Chambers. That building is still a wreck, but fortunately and thankfully the work is starting on the rebuild. I saw too the stencilled rafters from its lovely ceiling and shivered at the ragged splintered edges which speak of the force of that terrific jolt on February 22nd. Scientists have used the analogy of the ‘supersonic boom of a jet aircraft’ or the effect of planting one’s foot to the floor on a car accelerator to describe the velocity of the event.
The exhibit included a sample of the reinforcement method for restoring the few remaining churches and historic buildings, an arrangement of steel beams cemented to the main material, in this case grey stone. The information panel confirmed this technique will be used to restore the Gothic Revival stonework of the Holy Trinity Church on the corner of Worchester Street, behind the cathedral. I am glad about this. I sat my piano exams in that church in the coloured light of the big rose window and on an earlier visit to the city, had gasped at the gaping hole where the rose window had been pulled out, and wondered why the beautiful light fitting, four simple candle lights on brass arms, was still hanging in the gap under the dark-beamed pitched roof. There are so many questions still and sometimes the answers are not good, and you have to close your mouth and set your teeth.
Since my last visit in January, the mesh fences have been pushed back from Ballantynes department store and now you can penetrate much further to the edges of the square, but not go in – I got hollered at by a soldier when I drifted into the wrong part, trying to get a closer look at Neil Dawson’s silver and blue chalice. Perhaps that beautiful big sculpture will become the new icon of Christchurch because it stood up to the quakes.
Botanical Preservation Project seeks to find a balance between loss and memory, and appreciation of the here and the now. It has been done in memory of what has been, but more importantly it is a celebration of this moment and the possibilities of the future. Their growth alludes to a dynamic and evolving way we can see and engage with Christchurch as it rebuilds. Plants have taken root, without the need for human care, or permission and have provided us with a joyous and readily available marker of life.
My mother-in-law says this happened in London and Europe after the war. Nature swept over the bombsites ‘healing the wounds.’
Very few buildings remain in the city but there are occasional facades, eerily propped up with voids beyond. Gothic and Classical Revival, Victorian Arts and Crafts brick and stone, pierced with steel rods joining them to stacks of colourful containers. These piles look like a child’s building blocks, deep blues, turquoises, bright reds and oranges, parked outrageously on the footpath or on the vacant ground behind the façade. The Theatre Royal next to New Regent Street is being re-created incorporating the remaining facade and the large ceiling dome presently packaged in white plastic under a makeshift roof behind the facade.
Some of the mesh fences in the central city are clad with children’s paintings: a little Maori boy with big white teeth and a speech bubble saying ‘SAVE CHCH by Kyle.’ Jack’s blue painting has a peace sign, and below that a large head with another speech bubble saying, ‘To the world man.’ One painting depicts five, blue, apartments, with little stick people in between, and green gardens, and the words ‘people people people!!! in the city.’ The painting underneath of two apartment buildings, black on pink has the words ‘GAP FILLER’, and ‘Hey Tangata, it’s people’.
A walk through the empty city is a deeply sobering experience. My husband thought it looked and felt like a post-apocalyptic scene. You gaze at the scale of loss and find it unbelievable, unimaginable. Perhaps I was breathing shallowly because I began to feel dizzy and light-headed and had to stop and have a cup of tea and a piece of Belgian slice (comfort food from the old days) at the café that now inhabits what was once Alice in Videoland. They have expanded at the back and created a small cinema as well. Projects like the Gap Filler warm the heart, as do the Christchurch Art Gallery’s pop up installations ‘POPulate’. I heard this time that the gallery might remain closed for another two to three years. So their alternative exhibitions are an inspiring reminder of the adaptive capabilities of human beings in the midst of giant difficulties.
On the cream wall of one surviving and functioning shop in the Cashel Street mall, the gallery has installed a large reproduction of a portrait, Margaret c.1936 by the Christchurch painter Elizabeth Kelly (1877 – 1946) as part of an exhibition called,Faces from the Collection. Margaret Hatherley, whom the artist spotted at work in the department store Beaths, which was once further along Cashel Street, is very elegant in a dark navy dress, with a white belt around her slender waist, and a pink and red print scarf at her neck. She has a beautiful, elongated, pale face, and a dark wavy bob hair cut. Her hands and fingers appear extraordinarily long. Surprisingly, for such a glamorous person she is holding a fishing tackle bag, and her rod leans against a luscious cream, folded curtain. She is reproduced in her gilt frame, floating up high on the side of the building.
Over the three days of Queen’s Birthday weekend, the weather was tranquil. A nor’ west arch hung over the mountains making Canterbury look like scenes from art – Baroque, Neoclassical and like the paintings of Turner who is unclassifiable just his brilliant self, not belonging to an art movement. The banked up, pale blue clouds and yellow white sky reminded me of the paintings of Claude Lorrain (c.1600 - 1682.) The peculiar light, beaming intensely from under the clouds and making everything it touched brighter in colour and richer and somehow unreal as though we were walking through the facades and ruins of a neo-classical painting.
We decided on the last day to push out past the mesh fences and visit the Eastern suburbs. We would head to the beach at New Brighton, down Pages Road, to Hawke Street, where once, in another time, a great aunt and uncle lived at the end near the river, and at the other a diminutive great-grandmother, like Mrs Tiggywinkle, lived in a dolls-sized cottage its cladding faded yellow in the middle of a bank of sand covered in ice-plant, with a little sunroom on the front where she stored a long cardboard box with a collection of knitting needles and measuring devices that I liked to play with, poking the needles through the holes on the metal disks. Off to the left of Hawke Street, directly before Marine Parade, on Keppel Street, lived my grandmother and grandfather in a brick house with a high porthole window in the bedroom. My grandmother bought a bunk so her grandchildren could climb the ladder and sleep in the top bunk next to the window. It had a wide shelf upon which I arranged my books and dolls.
On this day, we drove along Marine Parade past the whale pool. The whale is still there in her concrete pool, with her sad painted eye, swimming nowhere, trapped in a playground across the beach from the sea. The houses along Marine Parade were the same houses I knew as a child. I spied one tiny cottage, very, very old, you can tell from the board and batten construction, painted sea-worn turquoise with patterned shingle cladding on some walls. It was sitting on a sand hill of ice-plant and agapanthus. I thought we might buy it. There was a ‘For Sale’ sign at the front. But my husband thought this was a very silly idea. Later, my friends said, ‘You could probably get it for three dollars.’ These suburbs are sliding around on sand and silt and people say they will probably revert to marshland.
We walked up a track, through marram grass and rabbit tails, the same track I scuttled over as a child with my grandmother, and we viewed the same sea and the endless rollers, and the stretch of beach over which I would run fast because the sand was very hot, and hurtle myself into the fizzing surf. My grandmother stayed behind in the dunes - I knew her location by the trail of cigarette smoke – and when I returned she would shake out a neatly rolled-up towel and hand me a basket with a bottle of Fanta, and a piece of fruit, and a handful of sweeties from a candy-striped bag from the pick ‘n mix section at Woolworths. And together we would roast in the sun.
On this afternoon, the light pouring under the Nor’ west arch over Pegasus Bay and onto a calm green sea was radiant. In the space where the clouds (tinted mauve and blue-grey) joined the sky, the colour was pale egg yolk mixed with white. To the east, Brighton Pier was a light pencil sketch against Whitewash Heads in the far distance. And there was no wind. Not a breath. Even the sea turning over in front of us was silent.
On our return trip we drove towards South Beach and then turned right towards the city getting closer to the estuary and the lower slopes of St Andrews on Banks Peninsula across the water. ‘Stop the car,’ I shrieked and we skidded to a stop in the mud beside a ditch. ‘What is it?’
‘I have to get a photo. Look at the light!’
These days I use my 21st century photography device, an Iphone 4, not the latest by a long stretch, and the results are just okay, not brilliant but the phone is small and convenient. On this day it wouldn’t have mattered what device I had pointed at the landscape, it was simply a transcendent moment, and the imagery had to be beautiful.
‘We can go now,’ I said, satisfied. But we had only moved a few paces over a bridge before I was pleading urgently to ‘take the right turn off the roundabout and STOP.’ Leaping out of the car I photographed the low sunlight beaming brighter and brighter, flooding the landscape with brilliance, catching on native plants and bending grasses in the foreground, making the water in the pond like a mirror that reflected perfect upside down images of a bright blue-green crane and silver light poles.
Further along an abandoned grouping of modern housing, that once upon a time had a view of this bird sanctuary, sat adrift on pushed up banks of silt and mud. Useless and empty a reminder of the pain and devastation wrought by the quakes. But out in the pond a heron, undisturbed by the changes in its midst, raised its leg in slow motion and the reflection made a folding shape like origami.
Here again it was so silent I thought I could hear the small plishing sound as the heron dipped its foot into the water. I listened to the whirring flight of ducks, the Grey Teal and the little native bronzy coloured female Paradise Shelduck scudding in and fluttering out and felt grateful for the natural world and its healing power. It occurred to me that the mighty seismic disturbances under Canterbury that have wrenched at and distorted the ground in repeated blows are an example of a nature that ‘taketh away’ but here now amongst the growing things and the bird-life there is mercifully a nature that ‘giveth back’ and softens the wounds left by the earthquakes.
[i] ‘Risk your life urged Captain Scott’s wife,’ Sunday Times, London, February 15, 2013
[ii] Captain Scott, Scott’s Last Expedition, Volume I, Wordsworth’s Classics of World Literature, London, 1913: 605 - 7