Reading and Raging (2) by Dennis Hamley

It's odd. I started writing this blog in February. We then spent the last week before we came home from Down Under without wi-fi. And when we came home, I found my unscheduled draft had disappeared. Just like that. A blogging mystery.

But no matter. It consisted mainly of a quick description of Naomi Klein's amazing book This Changes Everything. However, I wasn't to know that the Guardian was about to do a huge feature, including a part-serialisation which treats the book as seriously as it deserves.  So I won't add my own puny comments - except to say that the book is as important as the Guardian says it is. Perhaps it will start at last a movement powerful enough to dislodge the forces pledged to destroy us all. I'm waiting for the inevitable neo-liberal backlash. Not yet though - and could it be that there are signs that for the first time they might find it difficult. The Daily Telegraph gave the book a rave review and maybe that's a hint that the news might be getting through at last.

So how does this apply to Christchurch? Is it still the microcosmic disaster which lights the way to future, bigger catastrophes which I blogged about this time last year? Before we even reached the city we were seeing headlines such as CITY ON WAY TO RECOVERY or THE GREAT RESURRECTION. All optimistic. The trouble is gone, the cloud is lifted. So they say.

And in some ways that's right. The cardboard cathedral, the famous pop-up shops bringing people back to the ravaged centre are just two examples of enterprise in adversity. The great master plan for the new centre probably won't be built in our lifetimes and already it's causing discontent among businesses who fear they will be driven out. But at least someone's thinking about it - and besides, those businesses which moved out to the suburbs are mainly doing very nicely and probably won't ever come back. And then, of course, there's the cricket.

The Hagley Oval, the world's newest and possibly most beautiful Test ground. 20,000 people watch West Indies beat Pakistan. The sun shines. Beyond the trees stand the Port Hills. What can possibly go wrong?  

Christchurch was/is a great sporting city. It regarded itself as the centre of New Zealand rugby. The huge stands of Lancaster Park still brood over the surrounding houses. However, just a few months before the rugby world cup, the earthquake struck and the ground was completely munted. So there were no matches in the city: the world cup passed it by. It was a terrible blow to collective psychology. 

Last year, just as we were leaving in February, a big row was growing over plans to build a new cricket ground in Hagley Park, the sacred green area at the city centre. When we came back this January it was complete. It is a real showpiece. International sport had returned. What's more, the opening ceremony of the New Zealand half of the cricket world cup took place in Christchurch. A huge crowd - newspaper estimates said 70,000. great delight all round. But the cracks still showed. John Key, the Prime Minister, bounded onto the stage shouting 'Christchurch is back in business'. He probably didn't expect the underwhelming reception he got. Some cheering, some booing and a few choice insults hurled, including from the person standing close by on my right.

We'd had a clearer insight into the divide a few days before. One of the judges in the annual 'Beautifying Christchurch' garden competition took us on a tour of the winning gardens. These were mainly in the northern and western parts of the city, virtually untouched by the earthquakes. Here we saw wide roads flanked by comfortable, spacious housing with superb, riotously colourful, beautifully tended gardens. We spoke to people devoted to what they were doing and intensely and rightly proud of their achievements. Truly Christchurch was 'the garden city' again.

But, when we turned east and drove back to New Brighton, we saw the other side of the city and the problems there. We passed the last house on the eastward road, entered the area where the cones spread round us like a net round a beaten gladiator, left the smooth tarmac and rumbled along a ruined, degraded road into a treeless uninhabited wasteland. A Red Zone. Once a thriving estate, now the houses are all demolished, utterly gone. And so to Brighton itself, with its wide, sandy surfing beach, its long pier, its superb 'library by the sea', where thousands come each year to the sand sculpture competition, the kite festival and now the finish of the annual Coast to Coast triathlon.

Yet leave the beach and walk inland and you find desolation, the despoiled shopping mall, the houses in various stages of disrepair, an air of hopelessness and resignation. This suburb seems to have been abandoned.

Demolition site in the Brighton shopping mall.
Understandable attitude, poor sales technique.

Well, it hasn't been abandoned. Not quite anyway, though there are plenty to say that the whole area of liquefied ground round the mouth of the Avon should be cleared and the householders paid off. There are signs that the four-year stand-off between people and government may be ending. Certainly measures to cure the regular tidal flooding are being taken. One such is shown below: a huge hole excavated to accommodate two pumps imported from Holland to pump away the water which regularly collects there, showing how alarmingly close to the surface the water table is.

Where will all this water be pumped? Back into the river, of course. Those who doubt whether this will be an adequate solution may be quite close to the truth. The trouble is that this monstrous operation is taking place very close to home, as you'll see below.

Kay's new front garden. Staring into the abyss.

So, it's a city of two halves. And while the stricken half knows all about the fortunate half, the fortunate half never looks at the stricken half, in fact almost refuses to acknowledge that there's a problem. 'Get over it,' 'Stop whingeing.' So the inevitability of inequality in western society becomes starkly clear in a small compass. The corruption, the cheating, the turf wars between competing departments, the indifference to everything except their profits of the insurance companies, all well-documented, especially by Sarah Miles in The Christchurch Fiasco, continue. There's been little change since last year. I have heard people boasting of how, in the early days, they got the money from the Earthquake Commission for repairs to their houses for damage caused long before September 2010.

I can't do better than quote from a remarkable Reader Report which appeared on entitled Four years on: the post-quake learning curve. It's written by Jordan Caskey, now a student at Canterbury University in Christchurch but four years ago a pupil at Avonside Girls' High School. I've not read anything which expresses so directly the anguish of those days and the regrets in the aftermath.

On the walk to the Palms - that was what you did on half days - my friend and I stopped our journey for thirty seconds to take off her blazer.

An important thirty seconds in the grand scheme of things. I reached the corner of North Parade and Shirley Road and pressed the button to cross North Parade. The red man flashed up, signalling stop. So we waited all of two seconds. And then it came.

I turned to my friend as I heard a rumbling, a groaning beneath the earth.

The question, one so commonly repeated during aftershocks from the year before, was answered in an almighty heave that almost threw me off my feet.

I looked around, at everything moving from side to side and up and down and noticed the church opposite jumping into the air. Not falling down but jumping, bricks spraying outward, the structure collapsing out onto the road. This was no rolling wave where everything just imploded. It was violent, like a crocodile's death roll.

I fell over and my friend fell over me, later saying she was trying to protect my small frame from any danger. That act was not entirely necessary, as it happened. But she had already inadvertently saved our lives. Had we not stopped for blazer removal we would have caught the previous green man on the crossing. And guess on who those bricks would have landed, instead of the empty road?

A vivid personal account, dramatising the sheer horror and fear of the disaster. But perhaps just as disturbing is Jordan's account of what happened afterwards.

Few talk about some of the girls (from another school on the other side of the city) writing nasty messages to us Avonside girls on the toilet stalls. Few talk about sadness that crushes you almost as much as a new building. Few talk about how hard it is to leave a community behind. All of these things are what we miss. And that is why some people in the country felt they could say 'get over it' or 'stop moaning' after a few years. They could not see the continuing battle for all of us. It was not reported, but that does not mean it was any less difficult.

It is no small wonder that we are frustrated with the slow-moving recovery when you consider how short a time it took to render the city in need of recovery in the first place.

Perfectly put.

PS. My launch party for Spirit of the Place was last night. It  was lovely: good food, good wine, good people and good talk. Jan came down from Manchester, Philip Pullman was there and Desmond Morris turned up as well. The Taurus Gallery looked fabulous. I was well, well chuffed, as they say.


JO said…
It was all going so nicely and then you had to mention cricket *head in hands*!!
Kathleen Jones said…
Glad the 'do' went well! I wish Spirit all the best! Sad thoughts on Christchurch, but accurate. I saw people living in ruined houses because they had no insurance and no money. That's how the other half are living and no one is fishing them out. The recovery is only benefiting the corporate sector who are buying up cheap earthquake damaged lots and building things that will only go to people with money. As Naomi Klein has made plain - in times of hardship, everything moves from the 'Have Nots' to the 'Have Yachts'.
Lovely to have you back Dennis - my love to Kay.
Bill Kirton said…
A great evocation of the reality of natural disasters and the totally irrelevant considerations with which corporations and 'the authorities' respond to them. In all the rhetoric, the sufferers get paid lip service or patronised to enhance the speaker's or writer's credibility.

Good, too, to see you mention the importance of the Naomi Klein book. I read the extract in the Guardian and it's chilling.
Dennis Hamley said…
Sorry about that, Jo. But I didn't talk about it for very long!
Mari Biella said…
It's terrible to think that such divisions can exist in a developed Western nation, Dennis - but then again, where else could they exist in such a stark way? Depressing, but probably symptomatic of the world we live in.

Congratulations on the launch of Spirit of the Place, however - best of luck with it.
Lydia Bennet said…
Congratulations on the launch Dennis, good luck with Spirit - the situation in nz is typical of modern wealthy nations, the US did a lot of similar stuff after Katrina - and our own country, though mercifully free of those extremes of weather, has an extreme govt moving money to the have yachts (great phrase) as fast as it can. Well done for bearing witness, it's often our job as writers and though it may be all we can do, it's vitally important.
Kathleen Jones said…
I loved your use of the word 'munted' Dennis - you are becoming a proper Kiwi!

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