Sunday, March 6, 2011

A song from under the floorboards

When I was seven or eight years old, my family moved into a Georgian house in a cathedral town in the south-west of England. The house was built of rendered brick and stone. It had once been quite grand, by our standards at least; it had large sash windows, tall french doors, and a servants' wing of four small rooms which jutted into the walled back garden. My bedroom had a disused fireplace and an old hand wash basin. It also had a crack between the wide oak floorboards where I posted letters to the future.

We lived in that house for about three years, sometime between the hot summer of 1976 and the rise to power of Thatcher's Conservatives in 1979. It was a time of rolling strikes and industrial unrest; I remember the interminable power cuts during which, unable to read, I lay in bed looking out of the window as the night closed in. I was a bookish child; I spent most of my time escaping into other worlds; for one glorious year I was a paid-up member of the Puffin Club, with a badge and a quarterly magazine about new children's books arriving in the post. We left for New Zealand during the so-called Winter of Discontent, early in 1979, when the snow lay in great drifts over the hedges in the fields. I wore my Puffin Club badge on the plane.

My favourite books were those which revealed the secret strangeness in the midst of the everyday. There was the extra hour struck after midnight by the clock in Philippa Pearce's Tom's Midnight Garden, where a modern boy opens the back door to find a sunlit garden and a girl dressed in old-fashioned clothes ready to play with him. There was Joan Aiken's Midnight is a Place, where the hero Lucas falls on hard times and becomes a tosh boy, trawling the sewers under Regency London for ancient treasure in the company of a homicidal maniac. I never tired of the gentle weirdness of Tove Jansson's Comet in Moominland, which recounts a journey taken across the hot undersea sand on stilts after a comet passes too close and the sea dries up; E.C. Spykman describes something similar in A Lemon and a Star, where one day all the water in the town reservoir disappears and the children walk across the cracked mud to an island they've never seen before. Natural disasters, supernatural visitations and wrinkles in the fabric of time heralded the beginning of perilous adventures.

From my life in the world of books, I strongly suspected that real life similarly concealed secret places where the past intersects with the present and where the world of appearances is turned on its head. Like many British children of my age, I spent my childhood tapping walls in an attempt to find sliding panels and priest's holes. I peered hopefully into wardrobes. I looked for hidden drawers in old desks. I scanned pebbles on the beach in the hope of finding a moon-stone. I lay on my back on the carpet and imagined the house turned upside down, with light fittings sprouting out of the floor and the chairs on the ceiling. And I lived in perpetual hope of discovering one of the Roman hoards of gold coins which were still, occasionally, being dug up in suburban gardens in the 1970s. I understood from Puffin books that time and place are not always cast in stone and that something strange could happen at any moment, and I kept a close watch on the world so that I would know when it did.

Sink hole in the playing fields at St Andrews School, Christchurch, 28 February 2011

When I posted the notes through the crack in my floorboards, I imagined a girl in the future reading them. "I am seven years old," I wrote, "and I live with my father and my mother and my brother and two cats. My cat is called Hoffman and he is black and one quarter Abyssinian and my brother's cat is ginger and he is called Tractor." I wrote the kind of letter you might have written to a pen friend in the 1970s. There was a dark hidden space between the floor of my bedroom and the ceiling of the rooms below where my notes, folded into quills, piled up over a period of months. It crossed my mind after a while that the notes might stay there for a very long time, until the house was demolished or the floorboards taken up. I wrote in pencil as I thought that ink might fade, as felt-pen drawings pinned to the wall do over time. I wanted my notes to reach someone, in the future. It's the reason a writer writes.

Our house was number one in a street of semi-detached townhouses, built about 1830 at the time that the cholera epidemic swept through the city. The house predated the European colonization of New Zealand. Its stone steps were worn down in the middle by a century and a half of occupation. Our next-door-neighbours through the dividing wall were an elderly couple, Bill and Jane Hoskins. Their house was the mirror image of ours, except they had deep red velvet curtains and thick carpet that your feet sank into and which made your ankles wobble. On our side there was worn sisal that gave your knees a nasty graze when you fell over and slid along it. The Hoskins's hallway had black and white tiles, like a stately home, and there were lilac trees in their garden whose heavy perfume wafted over the garden wall in spring. Jane cooked on a venerable Aga stove. There were piles of books everywhere.

The son of a local baker, Bill Hoskins was a retired professor of history from Oxford. He founded the first department of local history at a British university; his particular contribution was the impact of economic activity on the British landscape. By the time we met him he had written a dozen scholarly and popular books and had made two TV series for the BBC, the first in 1972 based on his best-selling book The Making of the English Landscape (1955) and the second in 1976, called The Landscape of England. On my tenth birthday he and Jane wrapped up a Victorian finger bowl from their collection for me. I took it out today in Christchurch New Zealand -- where it has survived a journey across the world and two major earthquakes -- and held it and thought of them. When Bill died in 1992 they put up one of those circular blue historical plaques on the house where he was born.

Prof. W.G. Hoskins

Bill Hoskins could look at the landscape and tell you a two-thousand-year-old history of the people who had lived and worked and died on it. He campaigned endlessly, and successfully, to save the ancient landmarks of the city from modern development: not just the buildings, but the open spaces, such as the Bull Meadow just outside the old stone walls of the city which bounded the old Jewish cemetery, which he prevented being plowed under by an inner-city bypass in the mid-1970s. Bill Hoskins was concerned with memory. His life was spent recalling the past to the notice of the present. He was determined that we should not forget.

"Forgetting remains the disturbing threat that lurks in the background of the phenomenology of memory and the epistomology of history," wrote the French historian of memory, Paul Ricoeur. I've been thinking a lot about the danger of forgetting, in the past ten days since the Christchurch earthquake.

Damaged Christ Church Cathedral, 1888, after a 7.3 earthquake in North Canterbury, from Te Ara

Quite simply, we forgot about earthquakes. We lived as if they didn't exist; we paid lip service to the idea that one day the 'big one' would strike, but I don't think we really believed that it would happen during our life-times. Earthquakes remained a perpetual abstraction in a world of possibility; something that had happened in the past and may happen again in the distant future but not here and now in the life of the present. Earthquakes were, essentially, fiction, like dried-up seas and clocks striking thirteen. I forgot the incontrovertible fact that despite ten years in earthquake-prone Wellington, the biggest quake I've ever previously been in was in Christchurch in the mid-1980s, when the windows rattled and the light fittings swung in a crazy arc and we had no idea what was happening.

We forgot that it is inevitable, living in New Zealand, that one day the ground will shake and cracks in the road big enough to swallow a bus will suddenly open up and that in Christchurch water from the underground cathedral of aquifers over which this city is built will rise to the surface and choke entire suburbs in filthy silt that sets like concrete. It had happened before, but little about the design of our central city suggested that we had remembered. We had forgotten that the spire had fallen off the cathedral twice before during major earthquakes. I'd seen those famous historical photographs of the damaged cathedral, but I realize now that I'd dismissed major earthquakes as something that happened in colonial times. In stories. Not now. Because it hadn't happened within living memory, effectively it was as if had never happened. I think collectively we forgot that the modern world remains subject to ancient and implacable natural forces. That modernity is not a cure for nature.

Damaged Christ Church Cathedral, 2011, after the 6.3 earthquake, via Anglican Taonga. Neil Dawson's Chalice, shaped like an inverted conical spire, is in the background.

Previous generations, closer to the last event, hadn't forgotten. Earlier this week it was widely reported that a crane driver found two time capsules in the rubble under the toppled statue by British sculptor Thomas Woolner of John Robert Godley, one of the founding fathers of the city. There have also been reports of another capsule in the base of the metal cross which surmounted the spire of the cathedral. The time capsules -- messages from the past -- are now in the care of Canterbury Museum, where they will be opened slowly and carefully by conservators in order to preserve the material fabric of the message. I am, in a way, less interested in what they have to say than in the fact that they felt they had to say it; that citizens of the past knew there would be a time when the statue would be removed from its base by forces natural or otherwise and they could speak without constraint to the future.

You can see it in the landscape. You can see it in the sharp outlines of the Port Hills at the edge of the city -- which, since the earthquake, are now some two feet higher than they were last Monday week. You can see that New Zealand is a young country, whose shape is still being formed by the movement of tectonic plates. Poet James K. Baxter described it as a 'cold threshhold land', whose 'mountains crouch like tigers'. A hard place to live. When we came to New Zealand, along with the built history, what I missed the most was the soft green Wordsworthian folds of the English hills, worn down by centuries of cultivation and weather and the sheer force of history. New Zealand's landscape looked sharp and hard and brash by comparison, and its buildings looked provisional rather than solid and venerable like the house we'd left. But thirty years later, it feels like home.

Damage to the homestead at Mona Vale, Fendalton, Christchurch, 1 March 2011. The architect was Joseph Clarkson Maddison, who designed many of Christchurch's large-scale early brick buildings, including commercial buildings, grand houses, and freezing works and other industrial buildings.

When artist Rita Angus wrote in 1946 that she was ‘colonial, six generations, and for me New Zealand is in essence medieval’, she was presumably referring to the relatively short duration of New Zealand’s European cultural history as well as to the comparative longevity of her own family’s place within it. In the late 1940s, thirty years before the Maori Renaissance informed a more critical view of its history, New Zealand felt like a young country to its Pakeha artists and writers; and with the youth came a consequent insecurity as well as an uneasy self-consciousness about its identity which has never really evaporated (although they feel very far away at the moment, the arguments around New Zealand's participation in the Venice Biennale are a classic case in point). Long before the Darfield and the Lyttelton earthquakes laid waste to the historical quarters of Christchurch city, and its sandy and swampy suburbs, heritage buildings were being torn down to allow shoddy development in their places. We were always razing the place to the ground and starting again. We are, effectively, at a medieval stage of history. It is more critical than ever that we safely preserve the heritage we have left, and that we construct new buildings, and urban spaces, with an expansive vision worthy of future generations that allows the past a continued life in the present. Because without it, we're lost.

I'm an art historian because I know that historical art brings the past nearer -- art is, like cinema, a time machine -- and because I believe that contemporary art has something to tell us about the present and might, at its best, reveal a new way of looking at the future. When the Minister in charge of earthquake recovery, Gerry Brownlee, says that "heritage is both forward and back" he is absolutely right. But when he says that -- apart from a few civic buildings -- the heritage buildings which remain "have no place in our future history" he is demonstrably short-sighted. Demolishing our history offers no useful solution to the fears of the present day. Without the material presence of the past we are cut off from our collective memory, and there is worse danger in forgetting. Like the world of speculative fiction, the everyday world is capable of sudden and violent change at any point and the more information we take forward with us from the past the better we are equipped to deal with the great and certain strangeness of the future.


Kay Cooke said...

Wonderful writing - loved reading this. You've described beautifully so many important things. Thanks Cheryl.

Amanda said...

Fantastic writing here.

I've lived in Wellington over 12 years and, to date, the worst earthquake I've experienced was in Palmerston North.

Interesting what you say about earthquakes (formerly) seeming like historical events associated with colonial times. As the immediacy fades eventually the current events will be history too. One of my colleagues commented it feels like we are living in historic times. At the vigil outside Parliament this week, which was sad and somber, I could imagine, how one day I would tell my grandchildren about that moment and the surrounding events.

sustento said...

Lovely post Cheryl. The problem is to restore or not to restore? Lisbon started from scratch in 1755, Kobe more a rebuild in 1995. We forget that history constantly remakes itself through the built environment and new spaces. It reminds me of a visit to an old Civil War battle site. I think it was Naseby. It was a ploughed field, long furrows, clean lines and no hint of the blood that was split there. A picket fence surrounded a monument to the battle, just as metal plates dotted around the City of London, to remind us times long since past. The fabric of Christchurch has been torn but the material remains.

Elizabeth Kerr said...

Cheryl, the calm and the quest in your writing - quickly realised I needed this after rapid-fire Twitter through the earthquake and aftershocks, and all recent conversations with question marks about town in Dunedin.

I've forwarded your link to many of the thinkers I know who administrate and apply governance for New Zealand historic heritage.

Congratulations, for having the depth of life experience and scholarship to provide this lovely grounded perception, treasured and shared.

CathyW said...

Thank you for taking the time to write all of this in such a well informed and well thought out way. it was a wonderful journey to make with you.