There And Back Again - Dennis Hamley

In four days time we’ll be back in the UK trying to adjust to the unfamiliar cold, wet and
darkness by 6pm. We’ll manage it in the end of course, but at first it will come hard, especially during the first week of jetlagged disorientation.

We left Britain on the 6th of December, but in a sense, we were on our way some days before. Several blogs, including mine, have over the years talked about The Kids’ Lit Quiz, that marvellous institution from New Zealand founded by the ebullient Kiwi from Auckland, Wayne Mills, which now takes in pretty well every English-speaking country - and a few others as well. Wayne, a professor at Auckland University, reasoned that one cause of the decline in the reading habit in schools might be that other activities such as sports had status because of their competitive edge. The solitary privacy of reading didn’t. Perhaps it ought. Could it be that readers might compete for a trophy as prestigious as the Rugby World Cup? Well, no, but what competition might do is to add another level  of point and purpose to the enjoyment of the voracious reader. ‘The sport of reading’, as Wayne says.

Thus was born the KLQ, at first modestly in New Zealand, then catching on and spreading abroad. My first encounter with it was in 2003, the first year of KLQ in Great Britain, when I lived in Hertford. Linda Newbery, once of this blogspot, persuaded me to be in an authors’ team at the south-east heat in Broxbourne School nearby. I went, I remember, determined not to be impressed. But, when I saw thirty teams, each of four kids, sitting expectantly round their tables, met for the first time Wayne himself, wearing his iconic top hat (which still makes me think of the Cat in the Hat, with whom he shares some of the same Pied Piper qualities), heard and tried to answer the remarkably sophisticated questions he posed and realised that this roomful of 10 to 14 year-olds was going to wipe the floor with our team of experienced children’s writers, I knew that I was present at something big and important which extends young minds, lets them fully into the joys of reading and  the world of books and, above all, gives excitement and pleasure - which is, after all, exactly what we as writers want to do above all else. So for the last eight years I’ve been involved in the quiz, as supporter and regular team member, though my knowledge and usefulness seem to  decline as I get older.

This year I was at the Oxfordshire heat and, two days before we left, the UK final, the winners of which would go through to the World final, this year back home in Auckland. The Town Hall looked great, the teams were bubbling, the authors present, including our own Ann Evans, were old - and new - friends, the guest author was Frank Cottrell Boyce and several local dignitaries, with chains round their necks to prove it, added an air of respectability.

The man himself

So Wayne entered and the quiz started, with questions, I noted, harder than those in the heat, which was rough on the two teams of authors, who soon realised they were only competing with each other. The real contest was close, exciting and the winners who will go for a big holiday in Kiwiland as well as the chance of glory, were Hamilton Academy in Scotland. Lucky - and deserving - kids. So some of the energy of my adopted second home had transmitted itself before we’d even packed our cases.

Just before we set off, I had uploaded my January and February blogs which, you may remember, were all about railways. And though this time we didn’t encounter steam at Ferrymead or Pleasant Point and though the once-famed Kingston Flyer, though with track, stock and locomotives still there, will probably never run again unless someone comes up with a pot of money, and though we never got as far as taking the Northern Explorer from Wellington to Auckland after all, nevertheless railways seem to have pursued me throughout our time here. An afternoon poring through the books of a local railway buff was a revelation. Kiwi Rail, once privatised, now renationalised, is now but a vestigial thing, mainly scenic specials and a little local freight, after a cull in the 60s which makes Dr Beeching look like a puny amateur. Before that, it was a complex, comprehensive network.  I’d had no idea. But, memorably, I found further proof of it in Queenstown market.

This market is a place of surprises. And one of the biggest was a stall devoted entirely to railway memorabilia, where I found a treasure. Bookends, formed from two sections of actual track beautifully finished and heavy as lead. We have to hope they don’t put us over the weight limit coming home. But, more than that, the package included a note of their provenance. The steel was milled and rolled at the North-Eastern Steelworks, Middlesborough, in 1905 and turned into metre-gauge track to the order of New Zealand Railways. The track was laid on, and fifty years later was lifted from, the long-closed line running through the Cromwell Gorge. That knowledge symbolises for me the whole weight of history and significance, rise and decline, that railways possess. I shall take all the railway books off my shelves, put them on a window sill where all can see and bookend them with a real memento of their subject.

My bookend buffer-stops

And what of Christchurch itself in its long-drawn out travail? The centre is showing signs of recovery. The lovely Art Gallery is open again and showing acquisitions made during the long years of closure. The museum has a brilliant da Vinci exhibition cheek by jowl with the reconstructed cottage, formerly at the bleak south coast village of Bluff, which was the home of George and Myrtle Flutey. A monument to kitsch, with its walls lined with paua shells, strange objects, turquoise, with an extraordinary iridescence only found in New Zealand. A tourist attraction for fifty years and a bizarre juxtaposition, suggesting the infinite breadth of culture. In their way. Leonardo and George Flutey are equally valid.

The Arts Centre is being beautifully restored to its old neo-gothic glory.The Re-Start in Cashel Mall, the home of the pop-up shop demonstrating what a wonderful prefabricated building material the container is, still thrives. Several firms whose premises were destroyed found refuge there, including Scorpio Books, a really good independent bookshop. The mall is thronged with people, the street food is excellent, the buskers great, and  the atmosphere is like Covent Garden, Greenwich Village, the Left Bank and similar places in any number of great cities.

But here is the great elephant in the room. It looks as if, in the end, corporate interests will prevail, meaning that every empty area in the city must be monetised, Re-Start will disappear and anonymous slab-sided offices will take their place. A brilliant reminder of a vital stage in Christchurch’s history and an instance of the sublime improvisation humans under extreme pressure can make will be wiped out for ever - unless enough  people can make a stand.

And that still goes for areas away from the city centre as well. There are many thousands of people still in limbo as the weary process of claim settlement limps on. Many are accepting derisory offers simply to make an end of it all and get out - which is exactly what the insurance companies want. Others are making a stand by commissioning independent reports on their properties. Expensive, long drawn out but with a good chance of success. Southern Response, the body responsible for most of the settlements both reached and unreached, have so far lost every legal action brought against them.

In previous blogs I’ve mentioned Sarah Miles, author of The Christchurch Fiasco and long-term thorn in the sides of the insurance companies. We are meeting her for coffee later this week. The latest blog on her website, a guest blog by Herman Meijburg, makes the following telling comment:

‘The responses and decisions made by the authorities were never clear-cut but always ambiguous and always left one with the feeling that they were serving another agenda other than the one relating to affected citizens.’

In other words, corporate obfuscation is a weapon used against the very people the insurance companies are pledged to help. No wonder that, after five years of this, Christchurchians are apathetic and weary. That must never happen here. While away, we’ve been shocked by the floods in the north of England. Kathleen’s blog about how she and Neil were affected was very alarming. I shall be watching closely to see if the conduct of the insurance companies when the claims come in is any different from that in Christchurch. Is their experience going to be typical of every natural disaster, wherever it is? I have dark forebodings.

Watch, learn and act.

PS. That was supposed to be the finish. But we’ve just had a great experience. We were in Blenheim last week, in the middle of the Marlborough wineries. No, we didn’t drink a drop. Instead, we went up the road to Omaka to the Aviation Heritage Centre. And there we saw something absolutely breathtaking.

Peter Jackson, the Tolkien man, has over many years amassed a huge collection of First World War memorabilia - actual planes, full-size replicas, uniforms, weapons, documents, the recorded memories of the people caught up in the struggle. But this isn’t like other museums. You  plunge right into the heart of the action. Jackson is a storyteller and these are the stories, grim, shocking, dramatic,  sometimes filled with ironic black humour.

A victorious German pilot shakes the hand of his beaten British foe and shares a cigarette while German soldiers wonder what to do with the contraption which you can't see trapped in the tree above. Knights of the air?

The Weta Workshop and Wingnut Wings have taken real events and made them into displays of startling realism and resonance which gave me - and most others, I think - reactions of horror,  fear, sympathy (and, as far as it was possible, empathy) and above all grief for the suffering and the dreadful proclivity of humans to behave like this to each other. Just amazing.


Dennis Hamley said…
2.45am UK time, 3.45pm here on a clear sunny afternon. Two houre ago, with no warning, there was a sudden roar like an express train, the ground shook and then seemed to rear up underfoot, solid walls swayed and it was as if we had lost control of our lives. As sudddenly it stopped. So the momentary feeling of stark fear died away, but it has left a real 'oh, not again?' feeling. A few aftershocks but nothing serious - yet. 5.9 and just off shore. We hear it's a new fault scientists didn't know about

So now I've had the authentic Christchurch experience. Hope it doesn't come again in the next four days.

Here's a link to the quake which just happened, rushed out with incredible speed by Stuff. Aweaome, as they say here. Scary as...
Jan Needle said…
Keep smiling you two - and fingers crossed! See u soonxxx
Bill Kirton said…
Sorry to use a cliché, Dennis, but Wow!

I clicked the comment button to say how much I enjoyed the blog - having long been an admirer of what I perceived to be New Zealanders' mature attitudes to society, politics, culture, morality (and cricket and rugby) - and to thank you for painting such a fascinating picture of the place. But then came the Wow of an actual tremor. Together, the blog and its postscript gave a fascinating juxtaposition of the strength and the fragility of the initiatives you describe. Thanks.
Susan Price said…
Dennis, thank you for letting us know you're okay. What a thrill for a writer, though - given that, I hope, no serious harm was done to anyone.
Great blog - packed full of all kinds of interest.
Dennis Hamley said…
Thank you one and all. There were a few aftershocks. The latest was in the small hours. Today is clear, hot and lovely. Everything seems fresh and innocent. But the genie is out of the bottle and it may not be over yet. Mercifully, no news of deaths or serious injury yet.

Bill, I agree with your list of Kiwi attributes except for one. The government is a set of Tory clones, who seem to copy the worst UK depredations ten years after we find they don't work. John Key, the PM, seems generally reviled yet he still triumphs over a weak, ill-led opposition. The Labour leader is just about the least impressive person I have ever seen. Also, NZ tv is DREADFUL. If the government gets its way over the BBC and Channel 4, that's what we're in for.
Lydia Bennet said…
I thought of you when I saw there'd been another quake in NZ! Glad you and yours are ok. You certainly have some adventures.

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