Saturday, December 31, 2011


That was 2011: my year in mobile phone pictures.

(With acknowledgments to Philip Matthews, whose idea this was.)

Pyne Gould Corporation Building, Cambridge Terrace, Christchurch. 13 February 2011

Oxford Terrace Baptist Church, 13 February 2011

Rose, St George's Hospital

St George's Hospital, Merivale

War Memorial, Elmwood School, 22 February 2011

Merivale, 22 February 2011

Sink hole, Heaton Street, 25 February 2011

Damage at Heaton Intermediate School, 25 February 2011

Lamb and Hayward Funeral Chapel, Wai-mana, Rangiora, March 2011. Looking towards the mountains.

Stephen Bambury, Home is the First Abstraction (2011), Jonathan Smart Gallery, April 2011

The Merivale Wolf

Death's head lemon

The colour of the water in August

Anton Parsons, Passing Time, Wilson's Reserve, Madras Street. Installed September 2011

RWC, October 2011

Room, October 2011

Auckland Art Gallery, inside Luc Piere's Environment III, November 2011

Staircasing, 23 December 2011

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Modernism and a chunky rump pie

We're just back from a family holiday on the Sunshine Coast of Australia, which, as ever, involved plenty of sea and sand, and only as much culture as could be gleaned from the shelves of the Crocodile Hunter's Australia Zoo shop.

Some characteristic cultural merch.

Unfortunately I had quite a lot of work that I needed to take with me. There were several occasions during which I lay by the pool in my regulation black artworld swimsuit reading eye-wateringly dull books with 'Aesthetics' and 'Modernism' in their titles, feeling like an utter tosspot as people in flowery boardshorts and bikinis with tattoos in surprising places dived in and sunned themselves around me.

Sampling the local produce.

While I was writing, the kids and the big guy spent a lot of time on the beach, building massive multi-storey sandcastles with moats and general fortifications. Earthquakes, and the social and architectural devastation at home in Christchurch, seemed a long way away. But when the sand was a bit dry and the castles collapsed, the kids referred to the fallen turrets as 'Christchurch ones'. "Earthquaaaaake! Geronimo!" You'd go in for a swim, and see kids itching to jump on the ruins, stamp them flat. Others would want to join in the re-building.

On the beach at Mooloolaba it struck me that the world can largely be divided into two kinds of people: those who enjoy building sandcastles, the larger, the better-engineered, and the more whimsical the better; and those who prefer to destroy them. It's a great pity that the future of our city appears to be in the hands of the latter.

Friday, September 30, 2011

The man with the ponytail

"Hey! Hey!" The three-year-old, in an accusing tone, pointing out of the car window. "That man has a ponytail!"

The small guy, immensely weary, age seven, dragging his eyes up from his book. "Where?"



"There! The man with the ponytail!"

"Oh, OK."

"Why does he have a ponytail?"


"Do you have a ponytail?"

"Cretin. You know I don't."

"Why does that man have a ponytail? Why does he?"

"I dunno. Some men do."

"No they don't."

"Yes they do. That man has one."

"What man?"

"Oh do shut up."

"Does Daddy have one?"

"No. You know he doesn't."

"Yes he does."

"He does not. Shut up, please."

"Daddy hasn't got any hair!"

"Yes he does."

"He doesn't. He doesn't have any hair."

"He does so! Will you shut up."

"No! Daddy hasn't got any hair, but he does have a ponytail."


Sometimes I wish family cars came with a plastic screen between the front and back seats, like a New York taxi.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Verbal restraint

As regular readers will know, one of the things I miss about being in the formal workplace (and consequently the subject of my occasional semi-wistful bloggery) is the swearing. I have no idea if other professional workplaces--accountants' offices, perhaps, or legal chambers--are as sweary as art galleries, whose denizens rival printers, mechanics and even various off-duty doctors of my acquaintance for volleys of creative verbal filth.

It's a terrible truth which antenatal classes and parenting manuals somehow omit to inform you of (and if they were to, no doubt the birth-rate would decline even further): when you stay at home to look after small children, your swearing days are over, or are at least cruelly curtailed. Many women take up part-time work again for that very reason.

If, like me, you come from a long unbroken line of champion super-heavyweight Olympic-grade swearers, you will find this unintended consequence of parenthood both a terrible imposition and a personal liability. Although in the right hands swearing is both funny and clever, it is neither when issuing forth from the angelic mouth of a three-year-old. Verbal restraint is required. For the first time I have understood wherefore 'sugar' and 'flip', though as yet I have not plumbed those feeble saccharine depths.

The Periodic Table to Swearing, by Modern Toss

Consequently, at our house creative substitutions of the Beavis and Butthead variety are occasionally required. But in the hands of the small guy, who has ears like a bat and a great love of colourful language (he does share the industrial-strength DNA, after all), this can quickly lead to conversations of the following nature:

"Zip it, fartknocker!"
"No, you zip it. And don't say fartknocker."
"No, you zip it, Mum."
"Zip it! I mean it."
"OK." (Whispering.) "Fartknocker."
"Heh heh. Nothing." (Very faint whispering.) "Fartknocker."

Etc. As I've noted before, this is not the sort of conversation you'd ever imagine you'd be involved in. But after you have children you're lucky if it only happens once a day. And if it's as mild as this. I've gained a new-found respect for my own father's clearly superhuman powers of verbal restraint.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Art dinners

Tintoretto, Last Supper, oil on canvas, Venice, Italy, 1594. Via The Art Writer

Over the years, I have been to a lot of art dinners. Some of these have been relaxed, stylish, enjoyable affairs: others have not. I've eaten dinner with art people after exhibition openings in cheap and cheerful Chinese restaurants where dinner is a thinly veiled excuse for terrible Karaoke performances. I've been to small well-mannered art dinners in private rooms and clubs, and I've been to the kind of big riotous dinners which end in arguments over the check and no one remembering who ordered what.

I'm familiar with all the tricks and types; the rueful pocket-patting 'lost wallet haka'; the drunken uninvited plus-one; the person who orders several expensive bottles of wine and leaves early, paying only for their food; the person who wishes only to discuss their current multiple international projects; the person who insists on recounting at length the compliments paid to them by other more famous people; in fact, I'm familiar with the whole catalogue of art dinner crimes. I'm also well-versed in the strategic sit-down. This is a technical move in which you hang back and then make a rush for it at the critical moment in order to be seated by interesting fellow-diners. (Or at least not stuck at the end of the table, wedged into a corner with the dull ones. Or having to sit with your legs inelegantly astride the table leg. I never fancy that much.)

Due largely to the dampening effects of earthquakes both on exhibition openings and restaurants, I haven't been to an art dinner for some time. But the other week I was invited to one. I was quite excited about this. So excited, in fact, that I forgot myself completely and started boasting about my past prowess at the strategic sit-down manoeuvre. "Oh yes," I caught myself saying airily. "The important thing is to know exactly when to sit down. It's all about the timing."

I think you may have an idea of where this story is going.

I got to the restaurant a few minutes early. I hadn't been there before, though I'd heard good things about it; a Thai restaurant in a small suburban mall, which has had great reviews. (With the central city closed, the good neighbourhood businesses are really coming into their own.) It was noisy, fragrant with spices, filled with couples and families and small groups of people eating dinner and talking animatedly. Black-uniformed waiting staff circulated busily through the room. There was a long table over to one side. "I'm here to have dinner with a big group," I said to the harrassed-looking maitre'd. "But it looks like I'm the first one here."

"Please sit down," he said, gesturing to the long table.

"Do you mind if I wait over here?" I asked. "I'll feel a bit of a dick sitting at that big table by myself."

"No, please sit down," he answered, his professional smile tightening. So I did. And in the modern style, passed the time tweeting about what a dick I felt.

Some minutes passed. I read the replies to my tweets, variously facetious and sympathetic. I checked the clock. I began to feel uneasy. Had I got the time wrong? Had I got the date wrong? Had they cancelled and no one told me? A waitress came over and took my drink order. "Don't worry," she said kindly. "Your friends will probably be here soon." The glass of wine took ages to arrive, and still I sat there, pretending I had important business to do on my phone, all alone at a table for twenty.

It took nearly half an hour before people started to arrive. Advancing on the long table, a couple looked at me with interest, but kept going, down to the other end of the table. Clearly they didn't want to sit with me. Which was fine, because I didn't know them. But then I was struck by a horrible thought. Had there been a double-booking? I got up and went to the other end of the table to talk to the strangers.

"Are you here for the art thing?" I asked.

"No, it's a dinner for Heidi," the woman answered.

And then I was struck by the most horrible thought of all. "This restaurant is called Sema, isn't it? Sema's Thai Cuisine?"

"No, this is Corianders. Did you want Sema? It's over there, across the walkway."

The woman was roaring with laughter. She was incredulous. "Surely you realised this is an Indian restaurant?" And of course, as I looked around, it was unmistakably so.

At Sema's, my party had already been there for half an hour, the bottles were open, the conversation was flowing, and there were only two seats left at the end of the long table. Happily, everyone present was interesting and I wasn't required to Have The Leg.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Forgive me

At school recently, the small guy and his classmates had a go at writing poems in different styles, using models written by great modern poets. The small guy felt a particular affinity with the example he read by William Carlos Williams, and wrote this in homage.

This is just to say

I have put
a rat
your bed

in which
you were
probably going
to sleep

Forgive me
you said
you liked

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.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Lies I Have Told My Children

Over at the Herald, Sideswipe columnist and miscellanist Ana Samways has quoted a couple of Lies I Have Told My Children.
1. If you pee in the swimming pool, red dye appears in the water around you and an alarm goes off. 

2. If you type in my smartphone password wrongly 10 times in a row, the phone will explode.
Useful? You're welcome.

Monday, August 29, 2011

A packet of cigs at Exeter Railway Station

Exeter Central Railway station, Devon, England. 31/07/1969. Wikimedia Commons, via Rosser1954.

As the story goes, the publisher Allen Lane, returning to London from the West Country following a visit to crime writer Agatha Christie in the early 1930s, was trapped at Exeter railway station waiting for a train with nothing to read. He could buy cigarettes from a vending machine and flick through a newspaper; but otherwise he was on his own. Pacing about the platform and smoking, he conceived of a new range of cheap paperback books which would combine the mass market appeal of American pulp fiction with the modernist design of contemporary German imprints. (After his death, his family described him as part way between missionary and mercenary.) Lane's Penguin paperbacks would make literary fiction available to a wide reading public and would be sold initially from vending machines: the first 'Penguincubator' opened in Charing Cross Road the following year. The paperbacks cost no more than the price of a packet of cigarettes.

Andre Maurois's Ariel, the first Penguin book ever published, and something I have spent most of my life unsuccessfully keeping an eye out for in second-hand bookshops in the hope of making my fortune. (The image above, from, isn't a first edition: the first edition has no accent on the final 'e' of Andre.)

I've always liked this story, not only because I've been a voracious reader and purchaser of Penguin and Puffin paperbacks over the years, but because in my early childhood I too spent quite a lot of time on the platform at Exeter Railway Station, waiting for the train to London and worrying about reading matter. When packing for holidays at my grandparents' house, I would carefully calculate exactly how many books I would need to last both the journey and the visit. Joan Aiken's complete Midnight chronicles. Almost certainly a Molesworth. A couple of Jennings and Darbishires. Second hand copies of Malcolm Saville and Rumer Godden and Alan Garner, picked up from the market. And then I'd pop a couple more in my bag, just in case. Running out of books while away from home would be a disaster. One of the lowest depths of misery, I've always thought, is not having something to read.

On a recent trip away I realised that I hadn't packed a book. Knowing that without something to read I would be pacing around my hotel room like Allen Lane on the station platform, I bought Martin Edmond's extraordinary work of psychogeography, Dark Night, an account of Colin McCahon's lost hours in Sydney in 1984, and The Hill of Wool, Jenny Bornholdt's latest collection of poetry. Both are paperbacks; both include paintings by New Zealand artists on the cover; both writers, seemingly effortlessly, conjure up imaginative worlds with which I am familiar but which are at the same time beautifully, sometimes almost unbearably, strange. (I imagine that I'll carry round forever lines like Edmond's "the way the places we belong to do not belong to us", and Bornholdt's blood-streaked poem "Tower of London".) Both are books I'm pleased to own, and that I know I'll read again and again, but I did notice that each cost considerably more than a packet of cigarettes.

I'm not familiar with the current mechanics of paperback book pricing in New Zealand, but I do think there's something a bit strange when you can order obscure titles to be sent from England at a cheaper cost than you can buy paperbacks in New Zealand. Books are increasingly becoming a luxury item. (My recent purchases cost me respectively three times, and twice, the price of a packet of cigarettes.) I suppose if Allen Lane were still around, he'd be embracing digital formats as literature's new international mass-market vending machine. And the digital future of books, as VUP publisher Fergus Barrowman mentioned recently on Twitter, is likely to lie not with e-books but with "fluid text on multipurpose devices". The death of the novel, of course, has been darkly (and inaccurately) prophesied for decades now, but it may well be that the ubiquity and comparative cheapness of digital technologies will spell the gradual demise as the book-as-object.

I suspect that the distinction between mass publishing and literary publishing may well become increasingly sharp, returning to a time before Lane effectively brought the two together by starting the Penguin imprint. On the one hand, foil-jacketed bodice rippers and thrillers are being sold in mass outlets like supermarkets and big box variety stores, and on the other, literary books are being sold from arm chairs in small quiet rooms or by mail order. It might be wishful thinking, but I hope there will always be room for the cheaply-produced, stylishly-designed paperback book that Lane conceived in my home town: high-end literature in a mass-market format that's perfect for reading in the bath or at the beach or in frustrated moments at train stations when your battery has run down.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

"Excessive physical manifestations of quiet internal desires"

Yesterday the small guy and I paid a visit to the School of Fine Arts to see the annual sculpture exhibition, 'Heavy Pattern'. It's the eighteenth annual group show, and includes work by third and fourth year students and postgraduates. The sculpture lecturers are Neil Dawson, Rob Hood, Louise Palmer and Bronwyn Taylor.

We'd come by way of PaperPlus where we were buying a birthday card for the small guy's uncle, who is an academic with a PhD in English Lit. "This is perfect!" said the small guy, brandishing one with an off-colour joke about a naked 90-year-old man at a flower show.* "He'll LOVE it!" Then his attention was caught by the musical cards. There was one that played the Kung Fu Fighting music when you opened it. Another one barked. But the best one of all had a chubby-faced muscle-man on the front. When you opened it, the man flexed his bicep to the accompaniment of a wet raspberry kind of noise.

"MUM! LOOK AT THIS CARD! IT DOES ARM FARTS!" shouted the small guy across the shop, opening and closing the card at top speed to release a deafening volley of fart noises. "POO! That's revolting! Pfffft! PFFFT! Say pardon! Hahahaha!"

It took some time to detach the small guy from the card, and with wistful looks over the shoulder we were just about to go when he spotted a school friend who'd just come into the shop with his grandmother and little sisters. "Hang on, Mum," he said, scuttling back to the card display and taking out the musical muscle-man again. "This is important. Hey, Oscar, come over here and look at this! You won't believe what this card does ... ARM FARTS! Actual ARM FARTS! POO-WEE! Say pardon please! PFFFT! PFFFFFFT! HAHAHAHAHA!"

And thus another pleasant five minutes passed as I waited in the queue to be served, looking somewhere into the middle distance, while a running commentary punctuated by loud farting noises and raucous giggles filled the shop. Eventually a frowning young man in PaperPlus uniform came over and told them to knock it off. "You're running down the battery," he said severely. "I was just putting the card back," said Oscar untruthfully, and scampered off. "That's probably the funniest thing I've ever seen, Mum," said the small guy, still giggling in the car five minutes later. "Definitely worth getting told off for."

At the art school I expected things to be a little more sombre. The student who'd emailed me the invitation to view the show had said, half-apologetically, that there were no humorous works in it, so I had in mind some serious exploration into mass and form and volume and material properties and negative space and all that proper oldie-fash sculptural stuff. No narratives, no pop culture, no horsing about. The first room was, in fact, a bit like that: a diverse series of works beautifully fabricated and installed.

Among them we particularly liked this work, a wild tangle of tree roots on one side, with the still-attached tree-trunk carved into a rough obelisk on the other. We didn't have a catalogue to hand, there weren't labels, and in some cases the website is slightly enigmatic; so I'm not certain who it's by.

This work by Lucy Matthews was positioned in the foyer outside the gallery. The artist describes it as an "excessive physical manifestation of quiet internal desires".
It was quite large, and the small guy asked if he could get inside it. There was no one around, but I thought it best not.

This work (I think it's Joins by Steve Walsh) is positioned in the courtyard between buildings. It's a satisfyingly improbable object.

This is a view of the sculpture gallery at the art school, which they call The Fridge. We had to wander around the studios for some time to find it, which was no hardship. At centre is our favourite work in the show, Tim Middleton's Phallic Tantrum. It's a punching bag in cast plaster. You really, really want to punch it when you see it, but think better of it, with considerable regret.

This fascinating list was written on a white board at the far end of The Fridge. Is it a work? Disinformation? A teaching aid? An enigma code for art historians?

"The central issue is that ... That is not good enough." Keir Leslie. This is scribbled on the white board near the list of sculptors. I still have this enigmatic text in my head. (I always respond warmly to a slacker aesthetic combined with harsh self-criticism.)

Alissa Gilbert's work for the show is a shop selling handmade objects including soap, T shirts,  sew-on patches, 'tawdry frivolities' and 'contemplative aids'. Pictured above is a shelf of 'Deadwood Soap'. You could also take small free samples of the soap home, which was nice, and we did.

Gilbert has pasted up a poster around the art school which reads COME TO MY SHOP YOU FILTHY BITCHES. The small guy read this out loud with some satisfaction. When he saw the Divine poster pictured above hanging in her shop his enthusiasm knew no bounds. "Buy my sheeeee-it." He was still repeating the phrase under his breath an hour later. It was the second-best cultural highlight of his day. 

I suspect what he took from today's school holiday outings was the useful knowledge that what you get told off for doing in a chainstore is often quite acceptable at an art exhibition.

*Prize for "best dried arrangement".

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

"This is about earthquakes"

Our three-year-old has recently become interested in titling her paintings and drawings. It's interesting watching her process of decision-making; sometimes her titles are informed by visual associations (a drawing with lots of circles might become "The rocks on Gran and Grandad's hill") and sometimes by images from stories that are currently on her mind. I like the simultaneous association/disassociation of her titles; they are narratives in their own right, which, like the painter Cy Twombly's titles, bear only a tangential reference to her mark-making but are spurred into life by the images.

She has also become interested in making little books, with a drawing on each page accompanied by words which she dictates to me. It's hard to keep up with the flow of ideas, and I have to write very quickly.

Here's a page from a recent book.

"This is about earthquakes. Eggs fall down. Houses fall down. A crane tries to rescue people. Churches fall down. You have to get under the table or mummy gets you in the doorway. We have to go through a dirty river and that's liquefaction."

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The trick of standing upright here

Elmwood Park, looking toward Heaton Street, on an afternoon in June.

On 13 June, when the second earthquake came, we were at the park. An hour or so earlier we'd been at home, and after the usual rush for the comparative safety of the doorway, we had sat on the couch and waited for some minutes, in that period of unnatural quiet that always falls after a large earthquake, when time seems to slow and your senses are preternaturally attuned to the smallest signal from the natural world. You sit and you wait for what happens next and you hope that when it comes you will be equal to it. My daughter's arms were tight round my neck. Her breath was warm and regular on my cheek. The lights stopped swinging and the power was still on and everything was quiet and nothing else happened. After a while I found my phone and sent the usual texts to family members. I heard the neighbours' cars reversing down their driveways. I picked up some things that had fallen from the shelves in the dining room, and found my shoes, and my daughter's shoes and her coat, and lifted her into her buggy, and tucked a blanket around her legs. We set off for school on foot, turning into the park along the avenue of old chestnut trees behind the cricket club.

Elmwood Park on a winter morning

Because I grew up down the road, I've spent a lot of time at Elmwood Park over the years, as do most local children, including, now, my own. A stony path around the perimeter of the park measures almost exactly one kilometre; it's a peaceful flat green field bordered by graceful avenues of 90-year-old old trees. The park's used by joggers, dog-walkers, private school kids wagging class, sun-bathers, kite-flyers, picnickers, mothers with small children, and young teenagers mooching about by the playground looking for an escape from their parents. There's a tennis club, and a croquet club, and a bowls club. The cricket club is a proving ground for many of Christchurch's representative players. My step-brother, who captained the Canterbury cricket team back when they were still amateurs, once described Elmwood Park as his second home.

Along with the neighbouring Heaton Intermediate School, Elmwood Park was part of the original Elmwood homestead of Sir Robert Heaton Rhodes (1815-1884), who made his money shipping frozen meat to Britain. The park was laid out in 1920 after the council purchased the land from Rhodes's son, though the son's gift of a final small parcel of land following World War II has meant that history largely remembers the establishment of the park as an act of benevolence from one of Canterbury's founding families. The original wooden Rhodes house off Heaton Street, built in the mid-1860s and said to be 140 feet in length, was razed by fire in 1882 and rebuilt in 1883; its grounds included a notable collection of imported specimen trees, including elms, some of which are still standing near the Papanui boundary of the old property. There was an ornamental lake with waterlilies and a rustic bridge, extensive conservatories, and a tennis lawn which was excavated to a level lower than its surroundings so that it could be flooded with water from an artesian well. The upper part of the estate was built on reclaimed swampland.* That's the land that's subject to liquefaction in a major earthquake, as the underground water is squeezed to the surface.

Elmwood in 1899. Photograph via Christchurch City LibrariesThe architect of the second version of Elmwood was Frederick Strouts (1834-1919)**, who designed many notable Christchurch buildings now destroyed or severely damaged by the Christchurch earthquakes, including an old section of the Ballantynes buildings on Lichfield Street, the Rhodes Convalescent Home in Cashmere and the three-storey Stranges Building on the corner of High and Manchester Streets. Strouts also designed the famous Otahuna homestead for Rhodes's son.

Robert Heaton Rhodes died shortly after Elmwood was completed. The grand wooden house eventually became a holiday retreat for Governors General, before being occupied by the military during the war and falling into disrepair. For some years Heaton Rhodes junior grazed a herd of red poll cattle on the lawns around the house, to keep the grass down.

In 1947 the Elmwood homestead and what was left of its grounds was purchased under the Public Works Act by the Education Board as an intermediate school for local Form 1 and 2 boys. Men had returned from the war; babies were being born; the middle-class suburb of Merivale was growing rapidly. It was a period of educational and cultural expansion, as New Zealand moved from Dominion status to independent nationhood. Only one street away in Leinster Road, Allan Curnow had written some of the great poems of New Zealand's mid-century nation-building period, including 'The Skeleton of the Great Moa at Canterbury Museum', and was moving towards a more personal version of what he later described as his 'geographical anxieties'.

Signage at Heaton Intermediate after the February earthquake.

By the time the legislation to purchase the school grounds was enacted, the front sections along Heaton Street had already been sold off by the Rhodes family: many of the grand, streamlined, boxy 1950s houses which were built there over the next few years remain today, though a particularly fine one in brick is damaged beyond repair. (It's interesting to note that the purchase of the land for the state intermediate school was achieved in the teeth of fierce opposition by the board of governors of St Andrews, the private school next door which took over the neighbouring Strowan Estate: there was still something of a Mexican standoff evident between the two schools when I was at Heaton in the early 1980s.) Rhodes's Elmwood was finally demolished in 1954 to make way for the barracks-like weatherboard brutalist buildings of Heaton Intermediate School. The only part of the Victorian homestead that still remains is the entrance to the underground cellars in front of Room 15.

Damage to buildings at Heaton Intermediate School following the February earthquake. Some buildings have stretched as the ground has spread laterally. There has also been extensive liquefaction throughout the school grounds. But happily, it's open again.

But the past has a way of returning, and Christchurch is currently locked in what seems an endless loop of feedback as the swamps rise to the surface again and the seaside cliffs remake their edges. It's the 'new normal', as the local cliche goes, and it is surprising how quickly one can get used to the strangest things. On 13 June, at the end of the park, by the beech tree with the memorial plaque in the corner, there were the few customary circles of liquefaction, like giants' footsteps in the grass, which had only recently disappeared after the February quake. Having threatened to fall for nine months, the block wall bounding the bowling club had finally succumbed to gravity and peeled away like a Mobius strip, opening a private green world to public view. I was looking at it when I met my neighbour coming the other way, wheeling her bike. "They've just sent the kids back into class," she said, smiling. "Everyone's fine. No one's hurt. They're getting to be old hands at this."

The fallen wall at the bowling club.

When I got to school the small guy's class were on the mat listening to a story. I put my head round the door, half apologetically, and his teacher sent the small guy out to see me.

"I didn't actually realise there was an earthquake, Mum," he said. "We were playing rugby out on the field. But then suddenly I saw people sitting down and crying, and I thought something must have happened. Handy you're here though, because I fancied a wee and Mr S always gets a bit cross if you're putting your hand up and going out of the room all the time getting drink bottles and weeing."

So we arranged to come back at 3 o'clock, and the small guy disappeared back into his classroom.

A council notice nailed to a tree at Elmwood Park after the February quake.

Back at the park, I strapped my daughter into the baby swing, and wondered, not for the first time, what would happen if there was a big earthquake while she was on the play equipment. It takes considerable discipline not to be consumed by such thoughts. I checked Twitter and saw that the aftershock had been centred in Sumner and measured M5.4 (this would be later revised upwards to M5.6, and be considered a foreshock of what came next).

She had just got off the slide when the big earthquake struck. There was a deep, terrible low boom, first, I think, though it's hard to remember the exact sequence in which things happened. The park tipped from side to side and I couldn't stand. I caught my daughter up in my arms, and sat down hard on the damp bark chips of the playground. The trees and the lamp standards beat back and forth furiously. I saw waves run across the big green field, as if it were liquid, as if it were an ocean, as if it were a tablecloth picked up and shaken out at a Victorian garden party. Across the stream the back wall of a house, seriously damaged in the earlier quakes, collapsed in a cloud of red brick dust. A huge pile of slates slipped off scaffolding around a partially-repaired roof and crashed to the ground. A jet of water shot skyward from the drinking fountain.

There was silence, and then the sirens started.

I sat with my daughter for a while on the bark. She didn't cry. The ground shivered from time to time, and then it went still. I stood up. I sent the usual texts to family members. I lifted my daughter into her buggy and covered her legs with her blanket. And then we walked slowly and deliberately down the long avenue of trees to the crossing. This time the pavement had fallen in; the sinkhole had opened up in the same place as in February. The same muddy stream was flowing along the road. At school, the children were outside again in their class groups. The teachers were holding clipboards, as before. I collected the small guy, and we walked home. "At least the war memorial's already fallen over," he said. And then: "Some kids were frightened because this was their first or second big earthquake, but I felt OK because this is my third." The roads were choked with slow-moving traffic and it was hard to cross Heaton Street. My boots were caked in mud. We met N in the very centre of the field in Elmwood Park, the point he'd reached in biking from town and coming to find us.

"I've come from home," he said. "It's still standing. We're OK. Everything's OK."

And it was, and we are.

The cricket pitch roller at the park, which was there in my childhood and has presumably been there since 1920. It's not used any more as the council groundsman drives a motorised one like a tiny steamroller. I hope this roller,  which thousands of kids over many generations have climbed on and skulked behind, is still there in another 90 years.

But Christchurch has always been a hauntological kind of place, a place where evidence of the futures imagined in the past but never realised in the present was reflected in the faux-Englishness of the Gothic Revival buildings and the willows along the riverbank, in the neo-brutalism of the university's architecture and the prosperous mercantile Venetian Gothic buildings of the CBD. It is a place of contradictions, in which a central enclave of high culture and old stone buildings is surrounded by acres of sprayed-polystyrene cookie-cutter subdivisions and used-car lots. It is a place in which people have always made their fortune by speculating on big parcels of land and selling small sections to people poorer than themselves; and a city ostensibly concerned with heritage in which an elite few have always made money by tearing down buildings and building new ones in their place. Since the first days of European settlement in this most civilized of New Zealand cities, Christchurch's guilty secret has been rapacious property development.

And although, after this terrible swarm of earthquakes, nothing in the city will ever be the same, nothing has changed. The people who hold the big parcels of liveable land will win, at the expense of others who do not. It would take the equivalent of an invocation of the Public Works Act to acquire suitable land in order to re-settle many of the people whose houses, or the land on which their houses stand, are now damaged beyond repair. There seems little appetite for that. Instead there is a reliance on the market to provide. This is an event out of which some people will make a great deal of money, while others lose it, along with their homes and their dreams of a future that never happened.

Heaton Street from the park, late one afternoon in June. In the background a giant digger is demolishing the last wing of Parkdale, the grand old house on the corner of Rossall and Heaton Streets designed in 1920 by an American architect named Delamore.

*In the early years of Canterbury settlement, the low-lying district now known as Marshlands (an area of which is shortly to be renamed Highfield, as a new subdivision for the people displaced from their homes in the earthquakes) was known as Rhodes Swamp, after -- as the Christchurch Star had it -- both the landowner and the boggy soil in the area.
**The great Arts and Crafts Christchurch architect Cecil Wood was articled to Frederick Strouts; modernist architect Miles Warren in turn worked in Cecil Wood's office. There is a genealogy of Christchurch architects which to the best of my knowledge hasn't yet been written; many of the buildings, of course, are now gone.

I've drawn information for this blog post from a range of sources, including the Christchurch City Libraries Heritage material, now an extraordinary resource of images of our lost past. My information about the gardens of the Elmwood homestead is taken from Thelma Strongman's authoritative history of landscape design in Canterbury, The Gardens of Canterbury, published by Reeds in 1984.