It’s gloomy here, today, though no rain, just grey, just a bit meah. No tears from Heaven.
Funny word ‘tears’…
(n) watery droplet secreted from the eye socket; or
(n) rips in the fabric.
Both applied to my visit to Christchurch.
Six years ago, (give or take a day) the Broker and I were in New Zealand on a month’s bonding. We’d reached the South Island the day before, pottered around the wineries of Marlborough (his choice) and stayed at a rather quaint B&B in Kaikoura. As I went to bed that night I checked the itinerary… This is what I wrote:
“Feeling mellow, it was only after dinner that I thought to check the arrangements for meeting friends the next evening in Christchurch. With a light heart I opened the email; with a heavy heart I read the date. Sunday 7th. I rubbed my eyes. We were meant to meet on the 8th. Surely. Not the 7th. I triple checked but according to the email exchange we should have been collected from our Christchurch hotel by the time I was reading the emails, not be sitting 150 km north in a comfy B&B. I called, left a message – a high quality grovel though I say it myself – texted and emailed. Odd that there was no evidence they had checked on our absence. A small sliver of hope. Dick Head tours was once again alive and well with me in charge. Had I really got the date wrong? I went to bed with a degree of anxiety and a lot of annoyance.”
Not a great mood, therefore to set off for our next stop: Christchurch. Naturally I knew it had been devastated three and a bit years before. I’d never been to a place so recently overwhelmed. What would it be like?
“When we arrived in Christchurch, cruising through leafy suburbs there was nothing untoward.”
We set off to see the town and initially it was much as any largish city would look. Then:
“we turned South for the centre. We hadn’t gone far before the fenced off buildings and empty plots given over to sad lonely cars as temporary car parks grew in number.”
City art – murals and sculptures and installations highlighted the increasing evidence of an unrestored city.
I’ve never been near a war zone. I remember parts of London still unbuilt in the 70s thirty years after the Blitz but nothing like what we saw here. Maybe nothing on the scale of Syria right now but this was a first: a city with its centre, its civic soul ripped out. Everywhere the crump of mechanical diggers, the coned off streets, the praying cranes, the prison wire keeping the nosey out, protecting us from a future yet to be decided, giving glimpses of the past, the buildings yet to be demolished.
We’d been to Napier, earlier in the tour. Destroyed by an earthquake and a rampaging gas fire in 1931 and beautifully restored in two and a bit years. Back then a benign(ish) local dictatorship did the planning and cajoling; these days there are more controls, more groups to involve/appease. Progress seemed glacial to the residents of Christchurch.
Standing out as a beacon of hope but equally a source of immense frustration and division was the question of the cathedral and its restoration.
We met two dear ladies who were leading a campaign against the Anglican Bishop of Christchurch. Our two wanted a full restoration as was; the Bishop wanted something wholly new. Passions were enflamed and stasis resulted. So sad. I’m told they’ve gone with a replica. Probably how I’d have gone, but there’s no right answer in such situations, only the potential avenues towards bitterness and recrimination.
It was after the sombre realisation of the destruction that we went to view the cardboard cathedral, a temporary replacement sited in the middle of empty lots.
As we took it in, both in reflective mood, the Broker spotted a rather strange sight. Another piece of street art, maybe? We approached it and read the sign. This is what I wrote at the time:
“In June 1870, Charles Dickins died. Samuel Fildes drew a sketch entitled ‘The Empty Chair’ which appeared in The Graphic. Van Gogh interpreted the image and subsequent tragedies have seen the image of the empty chair used: Oklahoma’s bombing and at the first anniversary of 9/11. This is such a powerful image and Christchurch has adopted their own take on this well worn theme.”
“Most touching here were those for the children.”
“I found it almost too much.”
How would I have coped, I wonder? At the time, I thought of the locals as quite remarkable:
“And yet, you know what, the people we met, in shops, in the information centre, in the cabs, in the hotel – they were doing what people do. They were getting on with it. They were happy we had come; they need visitors, they need to be remembered. What they don’t need is my pity.”
Today, in this years of all years when we want to stick it in the ‘forgotten’ box, that’s what we need to remember. I recalled a favourite quote then:
‘Facing it, always facing it, that’s the way to get through. Face it.’ per Joseph Conrad.
The people of Christchurch were facing this together and it was admirable. We’ve faced this pandemic and that, too, has been remarkable really. Amongst the grim reality of a nation unprepared, with lives turned inside out and upside down, we’ve basically just got on with it. We’ve moaned; we’re British after all, it’s what we do. But on we chunter, heading for 2021 and… oh, who knows? What I’m pretty sure about is we will face it, we will get through and we will settle down next autumn to Bake Off and the umpteenth series of the Crown, wondering whether we really should still be wearing masks or whatever the latest group piety requires of us.
Maybe as with my trip to Christchurch there was an unexpected upside…
“When I got back to our hotel, my old friend, the Kiwi Lawyer was waiting for me. He had been held up by a flooded river and was dreading letting us down by not being around for dinner on the Sunday. So my apology came as a great relief. Sometimes good comes in unexpected ways. I really hope that is true for Christchurch.”
And of 2020, too, though at the mo, I’m not holding my breath.
PS and I should mention it certainly didn’t come for Kaikoura and the B&B which were subsequently devastated. Sometimes facing it is just very hard.