A Blog of Two Halves - Dennis Hamley
I feel I'm writing two blogs, not just one, this month. The first is current news: the second is the outcome of deeply felt experience which needs to be said because, though happening far away, it concerns us all - a process from which nobody can call themselves safe.
Trivial matters first. I've counted myself an indie author now for over three years and shall remain so. You are probably fed up with hearing me prattle on about a golden publishing summer of years ago. But, most unexpectedly, I find I'm a conventionally published writer again - in a small way: a mere toehold in the big wide world.. I'm pleased - no, not just pleased, I'm delighted, though I don't regard it as another career change. I'm committed to indieism, if there is such a word. I and some colleagues in Writers in Oxford are embarking on a new publishing venture of our own, of which more another time.
Some years ago I wrote some short books for Evans, once a fair-sized and successful publisher. I couldn't help but notice the usual dichotomy: very good editorially but organisationally hopeless. This was illustrated for me and for several other authors by a chronic inability to pay on time. I usually waited at least a year after publication before an advance arrived. But at least it did arrive, which was not the experience of writers with some other publishers.
However, I was not bit surprised when, about eighteen months ago, they went bankrupt and out of business. Well, that was that, I thought. A pity because they did publish very good children's books, aimed at schools and fairly popular. Their biggest seller was the Shades series of 6000+-word stories which had the feel of miniature novels. Hi-Lo books: mature content, simple language. A good formula.
A Short Shades for Evans reincarnated as an On Target for Readzone. A ghost story I was quite pleased with.
Not long afterwards, I was contacted by two publishers, Ransom and ReadZone, both specialising in books for reluctant and less able readers. They wanted to reissue and republish those very books which seemed to have disappeared with Evans. So I sent one to Ransom and one to ReadZone. Both books were published and now Ransom have asked for more. In September they will publish Sixteen Bricks Down, a 'crime caper' which I'm not displeased with, and The Team with a Ghost Player, a football ghost story which brings together two of my great interests and is a completely different treatment of a theme which those who have read my Out of the Deep supernatural short stories may recognise. And there will be more.
So there we are. Chuffed. Now the more ignorant of my fellow creatures will have to accept that I'm a real writer again. One day, they may even accept that I never stopped being one. But I never thought that the day would come when putting books on Kindle would be more important to me than seeing books in print.
I wrote the football/ghost story while we were in New Zealand. Then, on March 5th, we came home.
We returned with our minds full of a tragedy which we witnessed at close hand, are involved in and affected by - the aftermath of the two major earthquakes in Christchurch and the appalling incompetence, negligence and in some cases downright criminality which is characterising what, for want of a better word, I have to call the city's 'reconstruction.' It is a classic case of governmental dereliction and corporate greed. We've seen it before: George Bush's inability either to understand or do anything about the consequences of Hurricane Katrina, the inability of UK governments to comprehend the dangers of flooding and the cynical attempts of insurance companies to wriggle out of their responsibilities (this very morning we have heard that no insurance company will insure self-employed midwives, thus bringing society even closer to breakdown.) But Christchurch is different because it's a disaster with boundaries and therefore its experience serves as an exemplary test case. What is happening there is what will happen to us all when natural disasters occur - as they surely will with increasing frequency in the years ahead. It is how our lightly regulated free-market society works.
A house well and truly munted.
Christchurch was a fine city. Parts of it still are. Hagley Park is magnificent and the Chinese Lantern Festival there just before we came away was memorable. However, I remember sitting in the sunshine on February 16th, 2011, outside Dux de Lux, once a lovely gastropub in the Arts Centre, eating my tasty lunch and reflecting on what a compact, beautiful, happy place the city was. That evening we returned to the UK. Four days later we woke to see on TV the cathedral tower in pieces all over Cathedral Square, noble buildings destroyed, the CTV Centre collapsed with nineteen Japanese students on an exchange visit dead inside. Altogether the death toll was 181. And in the eastern suburbs by the sea and the mouth of the River Avon, as well as the structural damage there was another, subtler, danger. Liquefaction of the ground. Foundations were virtually floating. Whole swathes of houses, seemingly unharmed, were condemned.
The ruined cathedral tower, an iconic earthquake image.
So many fine promises were made after the dust had settled. But the subsequent story is one of muddle and obfuscation. Three years later, thousands of people have no idea of what their futures will be, whether their homes are repairable, how much they will cost and when they will be fixed. And when all is completed, whether they will be saleable. Elderly people are distraught because they know they may not live to see their houses habitable again. Childhood stress is common. Questions to officialdom are either ignored or the answers are contradictory and often plainly wrong. The national and local government organisations shift blame and responsibility from one to another as they fight their own dismal turf wars.
Much of East Christchurch is a wasteland. There is suspected corruption. The insurance money of $30 million for the QE2 stadium, built in New Brighton for the 1974 Commonwealth Games, was supposed, everybody thought, to fund a project to give that particularly hard-hit place a start in reinstating itself. But the money has been swallowed up and gone towards other projects far away from Brighton. Meanwhile, New Brighton has become a run-down, half-ruined wilderness despite its superb beach, pier and wonderful new Library by the Sea.
The cones are on the march. Soon they will submerge the city.
I have twice seen figures, which I can't substantiate but seem ominously likely, showing that while the reconstruction is 15% complete, 60% of the available money earmarked has been spent. But by far the worst aspect is the behaviour of the insurance companies. I can't begin to itemise this. But someone else has.
We were in a tourist information centre in Cashel Street and found, tucked away behind a carousel of pamphlets of the 'Come to sunny Christchurch' variety, a few copies of a book which looked very interesting. It is called The Christchurch Fiasco: The Insurance Aftershock by Sarah Miles. She is an investment banking lawyer who has much experience of the insurance industry and who suffered quite substantially in the earthquakes. It was published in 2012 by Dunmore Publishing of Auckland (ISBN 9781927212035). We bought a copy. It is a brilliant book, hard-hitting, written with what I can only call a sort of fierce detachment. Her case is that the government and council organisations which were set up are negligent, incompetent and unable to stand up against the corporate rapacity of insurance companies, several of which have been taken over by the American insurance giant AIG. She suggests that the insurance companies are so organised as to work against the interests of the very people who pay their premiums. She paints a horrifying picture - and extends it by implication to every country in the world because this is how market economics work.
What upset me most, I think, is that nobody we spoke to had heard of this book, not even our friend an ex-City Librarian and now well-known writer, not even the lady from the bank who was cheated over the plasterboard. These are the sort of people you would have thought would have known about it first. I didn't find this book, essential reading for everyone in the city, on display in Whitcoulls (the NZ Waterstones) or Paper Plus (the Kiwi WH Smith). I was so struck by this that I wrote a mild letter to the Christchurch Press wondering why. My letter was, inevitably, not printed. I suspect, nay, am sure, that there has been huge pressure from above to kill this book by making sure nobody ever reads it. Because if they did, the rebellious misery and so far undirected simmering anger of the inhabitants might break out and become ungovernable.
Yes, I know that New Zealanders can be thankful they don't live in Haiti or Bangladesh and that by comparison they have it pretty easy. But New Zealand is a rich western-style democracy with a first-world infrastructure just like us and it should be looking after its own people better than this. However, like the rest of us, it's part of the market-driven, globalised system which spawns huge corporations with unimaginable power and a keen instinct for self-preservation. And it seems their triumph is now assured. The EU and USA are about to sign a bilateral trade deal, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Sounds pretty good. But there's a clause in it about 'investor-state dispute settlement' which would allow private companies to sue governments which they say are acting against their corporate interests.
Just consider the implications. Pusillanimous governments will be no match for litigious corporatists. Think of that in relation to the Christchurch situation. And then wonder what the hell can we do about it? Because do something we must or our society as we know it will be very hard-put to survive.