24 March 2013

First Impressions of New Zealand: Christchurch

We spent the first two days in New Zealand walking because no sensible person drives after a long-haul flight (and this was a very long one). As we were staying in a hotel near the airport in Christchurch, I walked for about thirty minutes to Waimairi Cemetery on Grahams Road: there is a map online indicating the position of the grave of the poet Jessie Mackay (1864–1938), who incidentally was a writer Maurice Duggan struggled with at school because of his perception of her old-style colonial attitude. But although we searched for some time, and the graves were well spaced out and legible, we found nothing. But the walk was certainly not without interest:

Mail boxes are often located at the front of the sidewalk or pavement, as in many parts of the USA, and although I believe there's a general perception that Australia follows the States as a model, and New Zealand the UK, having spent two weeks here now I think the States have (probably obviously) the upper hand, if only in the general street layout: the US-style street grids prevail, land is plentiful, and (as in the US) it feels far safer to drive in towns than to walk in them.
Houses can be strikingly different too, such as this igloo-type one on Memorial Avenue.
The following day (our first full one in New Zealand) we took the bus into central Christchurch, and this photo, although manipulated in no way, is certainly an exaggerated view of the city after the earthquake. A week afterwards we stayed two nights in Wellington on North Island, where parking charges are at a premium. Here, on the other hand, because of the devastation wrought by two earthquakes, parking places go for peanuts.
However, the initial impression of destruction to the Central Business District of Christchurch (and areas inevitably remain fenced off) soon gives way to admiration for the tremendous resourcefulness of the people, of their ability to transcend the temptation of despair and rebuild on the ruins, as this new shopping area – largely built from containers – shows: out of the ugliness of ruin comes beauty – even in businesses, even (am I really saying this?) in bank outlets:
Perhaps the creation of a museum – Quake City – is one of the best illustrations of how to circumvent catastrophe, to create the necessary psychological attitude that isn't a denial, but a positive move into a future that incorporates the horrors of the past while simultaneously looking to the future with hope. I found Christchurch quite a humbling experience.
All places (like people, like memory itself) are palimpsests, but this city is an amazing example of one.
(As for the considerable literature of the Christchurch area, that shall be for a future post. Meanwhile we're in Hamilton, bound for Auckland (particularly the north shore) in the coming week, and the all too soon return to cold England next weekend.)

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