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.