It was technically an aftershock of the quake last September, but now Christchurch, New Zealand is truly in ruins. Because the quake hit at lunchtime, many lives have been lost, many may still be alive or dying in the rubble of the 19th century urban core. Even the cathedral spire has collapsed.
All I can do, sitting here in Australia, is remember some of what Christchurch is, or maybe was, from my visits in 2005 and 2009.
Christchurch starts at the cathedral square, where you're encouraged to stand with your back the tourist office and take this photo:
And yet the place is so mellow and gentle that you don't feel like a tourist doing it. Even here, it's easy to feel the ordinariness of Christchurch, the sense that there's just no point putting on airs when you're way down here at the end of the world.
Still, Christchurch is happy to greet tourists as a pleasant English town ... The cathedral square, the tourist trolleys, the gentle park-lined river ideally suited to small boats ...
... it all seems content to call up the vistor's memories of Oxford, or Cambridge, or whatever your fantasy of an English town might be. But there's also that Kiwi humility about it, a refusal to take itself too seriously.
That inscription is cryptic to the point of being humorous when excised that way. ("Lo these are parts of His ways but how little a portion is heard of Him.") Christian readers who don't recognize it may wish to Google the phrase.
Christchurch takes the arts very seriously, especially for such a small and isolated city. The Christchurch Art Centre, a repurposed 19th century college now full of galleries and studios, is one of the centerpieces of arts tourism on the South Island, an ecosystem that supports hundreds of individual artists.
But there's always a gentle whimsy to it. That phantom house in the air is an installation, on cables stayed to the courtyard walls.
When I last visited in 2009, one gallery was showing "My Place," an exhibit of photographs of ordinary Christchurch people in their workplaces, with beautifully unedited, repetitive texts that are how these people really talk. The texts are meant to be browsed much as the eye browses a photo, with no need to read from start to finish ... here's a sample ...
I’m a loner really, so it’s company for me to go in and have a bit of a yarn for half an hour. They‘ll have a laugh with me, have a joke with me. I feel at home with them, they’re good people. Turn their hand to making anything those guys. Oh yeah, clever, couldn’t wish for better people.
It’s important, I suppose, to have people. I never married – never really interested in it. I’ve had a couple of friends and that, but, you know, we only live from day to day. Live life to the fullest would be the way I’d put it. I just say gidday to anyone in the street. I certainly do. I used to have a dog once too. Labrador Kelpie cross she was but not any more, she’s gone now. I used to walk her all through town and even today people still come up and say where’s your dog. She went on the 25th of November – gone 27 months now. I still count the months. We used to go round the river, chase after possums and that. If she found one, boy, that was hers. She’d bowl you over to get it. She was put down in the end. I didn’t want that, but there you are, that’s life, something you’ve got to take. Sad day. I miss her all right. I’m still a pretty active sort of a guy. I work in a bike shop six mornings a week and on Sundays I walk out to the Riccarton Markets, keeps me trim. After working at the bike shop I usually come into town and visit people – all different sorts of places. Give’m a hand if I can. Generally though I’ll always go into Longhorn first, you couldn’t wish for better company than those guys. Oh yeah, A1. They’re good friends them guys – always will be.
I browse the book again, and wonder where these people are tonight.
Because this town, which looks so much like it could be in a gentle British landscape, is actually here ...
... right next to a violent explosion of rock. Call it the Banks Peninsula if you want to draw the tourists, but to me, especially viewed from above, it looks like the land is still exploding.
And just south of the city, beyond the first bank of hills, right on that first bay, is Lyttleton, a small historic town that is also the deep-water port. (Exploding landscapes are good at creating deep-water ports.)
The pizza in that little green building was superb, but one gets used to superb food on the South Island.
The epicenter was right here. The quake was very close to the surface. I've seen no photos of Lyttleton yet. I've heard only a phone interview with a man sobbing here in the main street, saying that everything, everything is gone.