Wednesday, August 31, 2011


"Resilience" is a word we're hearing a lot these days in Christchurch. In fact, the visionary new Central City Plan includes the words 'resilient' or 'resilience' 36 times in 154 pages. Our ruined city will be rebuilt with a foundation of resilience. The new buildings which populate it will be resilient to the violent seismic activity which we have now come to expect. Social resilience and the strength of communities will be considered in the construction of urban public space and in zoning decisions. (Technology, in the new Christchurch, will be at the service of society: like the bionic man, the city will be stronger and better than before. A resilient utopia on the plains. Eventually.)

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.

Tough, even.

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.


Hamish Keith said...

Crisp good sense. Digging beneath the denials and the lies and the smarmy sound bites is where we all need to go. Nest one to tackle are the cowardly late responders taking credit for what the did too late and should have the courage to do immediately.

Raf said...

It's all part of the desire to package this experience up and stick it on a shelf somewhere. It's the standard mythical portrait used to bypass the very obvious disaster being lived daily.

Like the Redzone "buy out" it's designed for easy consumption, to appease the peasants. "You're tough, you can handle it" might help avoid tough questions with answers like "you're screwed, how can we help?".

Neo-liberalism doesn't do messy, human stuff. Things need to be categorised so the market can deal with them efficiently.

But markets are designed for business activity not human relations. Reframing the citizen as "staunch allows for the marketing of "tough" solutions without acknowledging that people are just people. Some take things better than others. Nothing more, nothing less.

Chris said...

YES. I hate this line that everyone's so strong and resilient when I'm on the phones at work talking to people who just want out of the nightmare. Once I told a woman, "We're not going to abandon you" and she just burst into tears - when she could make herself understood again she said that that was exactly how she felt most of the time.

It's all to the advantage of politicians. If we're resilient it doesn't matter if schools are forced to pay to repair paths and courts that they didn't even know weren't insured, because they can just get some chewing gum and no.8 wire and put on a sausage sizzle. But they can't do that. We're all running out of money and there are too many problems for private charity to cover. Even the most generous of us have to pick and choose the things that are within their reach to prioritise - their own problems, their neighbours, their friends, their families.

And the flipside of this resilience line is that those people who feel they can't handle it are weak. It's not true. It's just that this is an impossible amount of strain, there's no end in sight, and the people most willing to help are often the least able.

rumpelsnorcack said...

Lovely blog :) I remember feeling this way back in March when I was vulnerable and fragile, and it felt like this 'resilience' was being imposed by outsiders and wasn't actually helping us here at all. This is one of the comments I wrote (after the memorial service on the 18th):

I do have to say that I am thoroughly sick of being called strong and resilient. I don't feel either; I feel brittle and like I could still shatter at any moment, and while I know all the speechmakers were trying to make us feel good, all it does is make me go 'well, is everyone else doing better than me then?' I'm sure that's not the truth, but being told we're so strong, so stoic, so resilient etc etc just makes me feel like I'm not allowed to have the feelings I do have, like it's not part of these peoples' vision of us and thus needs to be done in private - like it's something to be ashamed of. This is not a helpful way to feel right now.

Thank you for pointing out that this is still an issue for nus now and showing just how damaging that can be.

markamery said...

Brilliant. Thank you.

Barbara Butler McCoy said...

This is my first time visiting your blog, but I must say this post hits the bulls-eye perfectly. It makes me tongue-tied and I can only say that my heart and my prayers are with all of you. Take care.

Cameron Campbell said...

Well that was one of the best things about life a year on that I've read.

Well done Cheryl.

Marion said...

Thanks Cheryl - you really expressed what I was feeling yesterday as I drove to work. I was tearful and angry because I was identifying all the "little things" on my way to work that are undermining my resilience. You know - potholes that could be patched, demolition sections that could be greened over with grass but are never going to be because they are just in some "boring suburb", piles of dirt and silt that will turn into dust storms when the nor westers come...

Anonymous said...

Finally... a very good piece of writing abuut the reality of life for Christchurch people. Thanks Cheryl, for being the voice of so many affected.

Kiwi Louize said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you for posting this blog. It’s exactly how a lot of us are feeling regardless of what our individual experiences were and still are since those life changing days. We’re all in the patched up boat floating on the half-set-pudding that is now the ground under our feet.
I feel so relieved this is coming out into the public arena so we don’t feel we have to tough it out alone - together.

Craig Bassett said...

Perhaps a copy should be sent out to all politicians and media outlets including the responses.
I would also like to say a personal thank you to you for this article. As an expat from Christchurch and a relative and friend of people who are still there, its nice to read things from the perspective people who are actually living through it

Thanks again
Craig Bassett

Anonymous said...

I work providing earthquake counselling here in Christchurch and this word "resilience" used so frequently in the community seems to add a feeling of stigma now to those who are are struggling, and make it more difficult for them to "put their hand up" and acknowledge that they are not "resilient". Not seeking assistance early enough will often exacerbate the symptoms of trauma.

Greg Jackson said...

Cheryl, I've been saying how we will need the poet and the plumber for a level revival of the city.
When I was in Haiti last year six weeks after their quake the art produced by the kids in the slums was just stunning.They were pouring their souls onto the canvas and the results were powerful and compelling.
My worry with ChCh at present is that art has become an afterthought and we still have not grappled with producing a creative city that will hold our young, rather than act as a hatchery of talent for the rest of the planet.

Anonymous said...

Thank you. Beautifully written, you described my thoughts, my fears and my struggles.