Christchurch, February 22nd 2011
Christchurch holds onto a small but indelible place in my imagination. I was born there, as was my younger sister, but since then, the city has played only a minor role in my adventures.
We left Christchurch when I was small. To all intents and purposes if I have a “home town”, it’s Auckland. By birth a South Islander, I quickly became a North Islander by habit and conviction.
However, my first verifiable memories are rooted in Christchurch. An image of my father, waving to me on his bicycle across the street in Riccarton, as I’m strapped into the child seat on my mother’s bicycle. In that image, the sun is shining, as it so often does in Canterbury.
Later, there’s the moment that I nearly bit my tongue off falling from a plastic toy tractor, and Mum and Dad rushed me to Accident and Emergency. Nothing the doctor could do. “We don’t stitch tongues“, he solemnly informed my parents. I survived.
And then we moved to Auckland, and Christchurch became a place viewed from afar, in the saturated colours of Super 8 family films projected on the family room wall.
Christchurch was a place of fleeting visits: summer Christmases with my aunt in her sprawling house in Avonhead, lounges full of bean bags, afternoons full of swimming pools and tether-ball on the back lawn.
Christchurch was a duck-blue rowing boat with Not-My-Real-Uncle Tony on the River Avon; the heat of January sun at Pigeon Bay on Lyttleton Harbour; and spotting UFOs from the back seat of my cousin’s car as we crossed the high road over the Port Hills.
In later years, Christchurch became even more mysterious. It was a place passed through on skiing trips to the Southern Alps, a gig here and there at the Dux de Lux. A city glimpsed briefly in between airports, roadmaps and twilight hours.
one million dollars on tour – Cathedral Square, June 2004
Today, Christchurch is again a city viewed from afar: via a flood of hasty Twitter messages, shaky iPhone video taken through clouds of dust, and an expanding litany of bad news on the world’s websites.
French news anchors pronounce “Christchurch” as if spitting out the overly prussian name of one of Bismarck’s generals. Flat-vowelled kiwi accents are overdubbed into Parisian Media French. Al Jazeera interrupts coverage of Gadaffi’s final madness to earnestly report on New Zealand’s destruction – from their Kuala Lumpur bureau. Afar has never quite seemed so far.
My aunt is safe. But New Zealand is a small place, and Christchurch even smaller. Our stories link together strongly. The cathedral where friends of mine sang in the choir is in ruins. The cliff at Sumner has collapsed. We ate once at a suberb beachside restaurant below it, called “Scarborough Fare“.
People are sleeping in tents in Hagley Park, while others spend the night still trapped under collapsed buildings, hoping for rescue. Some are digging in the rubble, or organising food and water supplies, or looking after neighbours. Others still lie silent, awaiting discovery and burial.
When you’re a New Zealander, the chance that you know one of these people personally is very strong. I can’t be anywhere but Paris right now, but for the moment, my imagination is back in Christchurch. Kia kaha koutou nga morehu o Otautahi.