Monday, March 21, 2011

"Drop in jacuzzi: Enjoy!"

Something I really dislike is being commanded by a waiter to 'Enjoy!' whatever he or she has brought to the table. It can put me right off my food. When this happens, which it does quite often (or at least it did, prior to the earthquake, when cafes were open in the central city), I think to myself that -- actually -- I'll enjoy what's been served if it's any good, and if it's not, I won't, whatever you tell me to do. And then I catch myself thinking this stuff (of course I never say it) and feel like a complete tosser and slightly ashamed, as many years ago I realised there are two kinds of people in the world: those who think it's fine to be unpleasant to people in service roles and those who do not.

My linguistic intolerance is not only confined to chafing at commands to enjoy myself; self-indulgent references to "me-time" make me gnash my teeth with impotent fury. A while ago when the people's folk-punk poet Billy Bragg commented in an interview that he really enjoyed walking, as it gave him a chance for much-needed me-time, I went right off him, A New England notwithstanding.

However, the small guy, who has recently been learning to write procedures at school, has come up with what I think may be the only acceptable use of "Enjoy!"

Here it is.

Procedure for making Crunchy Cockroach Cupcakes, by The Small Guy

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Hennessy Youngman on Relational Aesthetics

He had me at "Relational aesthetics is when someone with an MFA wants to meet new people."

In other videos, he discusses how Bruce Naumann saved the planet from an asteroid, and how to deal with curators.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Wolfman of Merivale

The Merivale Wolf hanging around the bins

Here's a photograph the big guy took while biking to work through Merivale this morning. Clearly even before the quake Christchurch was always more than a little feral, but this is something else again.

Monday, March 7, 2011

What are we fighting for?

The story goes that when Winston Churchill was told by his finance minister that arts funding must be cut in favour of the war effort, he simply replied ‘then what are we fighting for?’

The story is apocryphal, but the sentiment is not, and it may be one to bear in mind as the furore over the future of cultural heritage in Christchurch grows increasingly heated in the wake of the devastating earthquake on 22 February.

Meanwhile, if further proof were needed of the enduring importance of art and culture in times of crisis, may I present this photograph, submitted by an anonymous artist to a new site celebrating local creativity: Show Us Your Longdrops.

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.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The week of magical thinking

This time, when the earthquake came, it was just after lunch and I was at home, in the lounge with my daughter. She was watching children's TV. I was writing notes for a talk about the possible futures of public art in Christchurch. At 12.48pm, I sent a tweet.

Three minutes later, at 12.51pm, the quake struck.

If you have the misfortune to experience a major earthquake, and the great good fortune to live through it, you will know that there is no warning, no gradual build-up, no time to plan or prepare or even think. You will know that the violence is immediate. Last time the quake came across the plains like a thief in the night, like a band of raiders in a cloud of dust, vast and powerful and inexorable like a great ship in drydock let slip from failed moorings. It was a clear cold night in September, and the sky was powdered with stars. We stumbled around afterwards for many hours as if in a dream, one of those terrible phantoms of the subconscious whose invisible bonds you struggle to wake from. Real life started again with the dawn. This time the quake came in broad daylight with the numbing certainty of a car crash. The sun was shining. The TV was on. My daughter had a spoon to her mouth. She was laughing. I was wrestling with a paragraph. And then time slowed, as the ground accelerated beyond the pull of gravity.

Just after a major quake, it is very hard to concentrate or even think. You operate on instinct. An ancient animal part of the brain takes over. When the shaking stops, you check that you are alive. You check that people around you are alive. Then you look around to find a safe place, an escape route, firm ground on which to stand. You decide what to do next. You do what you can. You are still, and time is suspended; and then you start moving.

A minute later, I looked up. The house was standing. The terrible shaking had died away. The power was off. Silence fell. I held my daughter. I stood up from the doorway where I'd crouched over her. A huge pane of glass from the front porch slid to the ground behind us. The phone lines were down. I sent a text to N anyway. We're OK, I said. We're going to school now. I found my shoes. I sent a tweet. It seemed important to say something. I stood there stupidly, the phone in my hand. Only three words came. I added a full stop and the #eqnz hash-tag. It felt unsatisfactory, but there were no more words. We left the house.

In this wordless primitive state, I made the remarkably poor decision to drive to school, rather than walk. As I backed out of our drive, the car bucked and yawed like a small boat in rough seas. I thought we had a flat tyre, perhaps a broken axle. Behind us the power lines were bouncing in a parabolic arc like a child's skipping rope. We carried on. The roads were broken, choked with cars, the traffic lights out. I saw the father of an old school friend of mine, on the street outside his house. His hand was held to his mouth. An unmarked police car accelerated down the road at speed, a blue light flashing on its dashboard. The wail of sirens rose. "Look! There's Allen Curnow's house! Is the doggie there?" said my daughter, as we passed its laurel hedge. We waded through a couple of inches of dirty whitish-brown water, flowing down the street like a river. At school the children were sitting in their class groups on the field. The teachers stood by them, holding clip boards. The headmaster carried an old-fashioned megaphone.

The small guy was sitting quietly, his arms and legs folded, next to a friend. He was wearing his school hat. The friend was crying.

"How's it going mate?" I asked. "You OK?"

"Hi Mum," he said. "Did you know there's been a big earthquake?"

We sat on the school field for a while. I felt as if I was waiting for something. I had other people's children sobbing in my arms while my children played under the old trees nearby. Every so often the small guy waved reassuringly to me. The stone war memorial had toppled over and lay smashed. The water had leapt out of the school pool. The soft earth under the grass trembled like a jelly. A light rain began to fall. A friend came over, tears streaming down her face, her eyes wide open. "I can't get hold of Ben!" she said in a tone of deep foreboding. It'll be OK, I said. The phone lines are down. I can't get hold of N, but I know that he'll be all right, and so will Ben. It will be all right.

Later, after more mothers had arrived and taken their children and the crowd was starting to thin out we drove home, the traffic at a crawl. I saw a woman in a business suit and four inch heels picking her way across the silt and liquefaction on Heaton Street. Cars described a slow arc around a sinkhole that had opened up near the park. Our neighbours were out on the street. One got on with the business of demolishing what was left of his front wall. "I've just come from town," said Andrew, "and it's bad there. I hitched a ride, but it was quicker to walk. I watched the CTV building come down, out of the office window. It just fell down. And that old church across Latimer Square; there's nothing left of it. Just a pile of stones. I think a lot of people have died." He paused. "If N doesn't come home soon, come round to our place."

When N arrived home some hours later, his face was white and the shirt was sticking to his back. He shook his head. His feet ached from the long walk home. That night, the children slept on mattresses under our solid oak dining table. The small guy made a sign for the table, as he did once before, back in September. We slept on a fold-out couch nearby. The house creaked and grumbled around us as aftershocks rolled through.

When the power came back on, we watched TV images of the city. Buildings I'd grown up with lay in ruins. Hundreds of people were missing. Smoke rose from the rubble. Clearly I am not a religious person; but when I saw the broken cathedral I cried.

I spoke to my father on the phone. "It's like the Blitz," he said.

Both my parents were war babies. My father was born in 1940 and some of his earliest memories are of bombs falling on London, and long dull hours spent in the air-raid shelter. My mother was born in 1942 in the school-house in Ecclesbourne Road, Islington; her grandfather was the school-keeper. Evacuated with her mother, she spent the War with her cousins in a fishing village in Essex. She was four years old when she met her father, on his return from the front in Egypt. My parents grew up in the East End and North London amid the rubble. Weeds and rubbish accumulated in the vacant lots among rows of Victorian terraced houses built for industrial workers. Eventually, whole streets were knocked down and communities destroyed to make way for the new modernist high rise housing estates. All through my peripatetic childhood  -- we'd lived in three countries and six houses by the time I turned twelve -- my parents would tell us to tidy up our bedrooms by commenting that it looked like a bomb had hit it. "It's a bloody bomb site! Clean it up."

The thing I've read about the Blitz is that you never quite knew what was going to happen next. There would be nights without bombs falling, when you might almost forget that there was a war on; and then nights of relentless bombardment, when the ground shook and the air became super-heated and people died in their beds and on the streets. You never hear the one that hits you, the saying went. But if it had your number on it, then it would get you. No matter where you were, or what you did. If your number was up, then it was your turn to go.

There are many things I can't bring myself to think, or to say, or to write. I expend considerable effort trying not to imagine anything worse than what has already happened. I am trying to think sensibly about cause and effect. The central city looks like a war zone. Yesterday I went for a bike ride round the streets of Merivale, the suburb where we now live and where I spent my teenage years. Graders have pushed piles of silt 10 foot high to the sides of the roads. Eddies of foul-smelling white dust are billowing everywhere as the silt dries. The dust gets in your eyes and your nose. You taste grit in your mouth. I biked through the deserted grounds of Heaton Intermediate, where the basketball courts are a lunar landscape of sand mountains. The flag at the tennis club flapped listlessly at half-mast. Out on Papanui Road, the half-timbered and brick stately Arts and Crafts homes designed by Miles Warren's mentor, the architect Cecil Wood, lie in ruins. Last time people felt phantom aftershocks, but this time there's none.

The earthquake on 22 February took people, and it took buildings. All the haunted literary Gothic places. Christchurchness. The earthquake took the city's history. The past that persisted in the present has gone, lost in a pile of rubble. Our history is now history. It's a new way of life, ahead.