And significantly, the people of Canterbury, who have experienced more than 2500 earthquakes of M3 and above in the last year, are often said by national and local commentators to be extremely resilient.
That was how National Radio introduced their piece on the devastating news that 20% of Kaiapoi's homes would be forcibly demolished due to severe land damage. "They're tough, in Kaiapoi..."
|Visitors' Centre at Kaiapoi, tilted by the earthquake. Cables restrain the building from sliding into the river. Image via WozaWanderer.|
Except that they're not. And the people of nearby Christchurch are not. They're the same as people anywhere, in Ponsonby or Temuka or Karori or Murupara. The people of New Zealand's second-biggest city are not a sturdy-legged race of dour peasants with a high pain threshold. They're you, and your Mum, and your neighbours, and the guy in the dairy, and the people you went to school with. Just New Zealand people. No tougher, no weaker than anyone else. And a year's worth of earthquakes, the loss of houses and possessions and in some cases friends and family members has taken its toll on us all.
Like their counterparts in town, the people of the Kaiapoi red zone are likely to be devastated that they will be forced to leave their homes and that in many cases the payout they receive will be insufficient to buy another house. Many older people, or people on low fixed incomes, of which there are plenty in the residential red zones (I think perhaps that fact is a story in itself), will be unable to raise a mortgage. They will be forced to rent, seeing the equity they once had in their homes drain into the pockets of others. They will see the modest savings that they had hoped to pass on to their children disappear into the profit statements of banks and property developers. They will be forced to leave their homes and their communities, where the personal relationships built up over years have ensured a means of social support for the vulnerable. The question of people's toughness in the face of these repeated blows to their financial and social security is glib, irrelevant and insulting.
The story, clearly, is in what's happening to the people, not in the presumption of their stoic emotional response.
To their great credit, National Radio instantly changed their tack on the interview with Kaiapoi's mayor, after being tweeted about the inherent wrongness of the "they're tough down there" line of approach. The interviewer read out the tweet and asked if it were true that people were devastated. And immediately, they got a response in which he described the great financial, social and emotional cost that local people, including he and his family, were faced with. The earthquakes were the first disaster; their financial consequences for individuals are the second. The mayor's voice cracked as he spoke. He sounded like a courageous man dealing with great uncertainty. This was proper radio journalism. The right questions were asked to get an accurate account of a person's experience. It told a very different story than the ridiculous pre-packaged Tough Southerners routine.
The frame that's put round a view of the world has a great deal to do with the way we understand what we're looking at. A tiny shift to one side or the other makes all the difference in telling a story. If you're standing in any street in Christchurch, things may look much as they always have: but turn 45 degrees and there will be piles of rubble and gaps in the streetscape like broken teeth. The sheer magnitude of it all -- three major destructive earthquakes, the closing and levelling of the CBD, the sleepless nights, the deaths, the injuries, the financial cost, the loss of certainty and peace of mind and personal security -- is only just starting to be realised. The people are as damaged as the city.
I've never been more aware of the importance of the humanities to people and society than in the last year. The humanities help people make sense of the great events of their own lives and times. There are stories that can only be told through mediums such as painting, or literary non-fiction, or poetry, or music. Stories that in their magnitude can only be approached sideways, through the details of a single life. The eyewitness reportage that journalism adds to the historical account is the basis for many of the stories that can be told later. The particular frame that the artist or the writer puts on their account of life in the city after the earthquake -- what they leave out, what they put in -- determines how these events, and their politics, will be remembered. It's critical that journalism gets it right as the medium of first response.
The first post-earthquake art is starting to be produced in the city. And it's good. Writers started early, endeavouring to make sense of the experience. The Arts Festival featured a work of contemporary dance entitled Tilt, where the dancers performed on a moving, tilting floor surface. And Christchurch musician Ed Muzik has been working on an EP concerned with post-quake life and politics. Entitled Ed Muzik Hates It, a reworking of an ad campaign which features pillars of the local community 'loving' the city, the EP features songs such as EQC Are Looking At My House, The Merivale Working Men's Club, and Double Brownlee (the latter of which includes the immortal lines "I don't know why the peasants moan/ Forget red or green, you're in the brown zone). You can order Hates It here, if you like that sort of thing.
Artist Tony de Lautour was interviewed recently for the Canterbury Arts and Heritage Trust's wonderful Articulate series, in which prominent local artists speak about their experiences of the earthquake. After the quake, he exhibited some of his damaged work in Wellington, following its rescue from his eighth-floor studio in Cathedral Square, behind the red zone cordon.
He talks about the earthquakes manifesting themselves in his work, perhaps subconsciously, as cut-ups, as well as the experience of the earthquake affecting the way artists might work.
"It was a terrible experience and I wouldn't wish it on anyone, but since you're here you might as well make the best of it. It's a totally unique experience that as an artist you should be able to draw something from it. I don't mean doing paintings of the Cathedral broken down or anything like that. But it can affect the way you're working. It can be character-building in terms of toughening up your attitude to getting work done."This is the kind of genuine resilience that I find inspirational. The strength which comes from the traditions of art and culture; from the people who continue to make new works amid piles of rubble. And in the work of artists like Ed, and Tony, and others, we'll increasingly start to see parallels and analogues for our own experiences which might help people to think through the violent destruction of the old way of life and imagine a different future: here, in the same place, where everything has changed.