Tag Archives: christchurch

2 Days in Christchurch (part 3)

No Escape

It was hard to prise myself out my funky room at BreakFree on Saturday morning. I was four floors up, isolated from any noise with a generous (for NZ) 500MG of data.

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I opened the blind and saw the sun rising in the east as a steady stream of fluro-jacketed re-construction workers walked into the CBD through the empty waste of Cashel Street. Apparently their request for parking privileges as they rebuild the city has been declined.

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After some quick stretches (often hard to achieve in a studio room) I went down to the gym to do 15 minutes on a bike. I have a torn meniscus at the moment (cartilage in the knee) and can’t run (or sleep or sit or stand without discomfort), so low impact is the only option. It was great to get the heart going and to stretch the tendon on the same leg that was operated on 3 years ago to correct Haglund’s deformity. The Achilles’ takes a long time to heel. A 7mm bone spur was shaved off and the tendon scraped clean. I haven’t been able to run properly since and when in bare feet have the disconcerting sensation of feeling the cup of the Achilles’ on my heel. It’s not painful. Tendons are just slow to re-align. If I press on the scar on my heel an electric shock fires to the other side. It’s because tendons are piezoelectric, like a crystal in a turntable stylus or the starter for a bbq. The cells all line up and fire as one.

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After a shower in the coolly opaque en-suite I took my bags to the lockers at the bus exchange ($2 a locker for 24hrs). It was warm and sunny (in the sun) but the cool Easterly meant many people were in jackets (especially the South African rugby fans in town for the game against the All Blacks). I regretted wearing shorts. But that’s spring in Christchurch. I headed to the Pop-Up ReStart shops by the Bridge of Remembrance to look for a pressie for my mate who’s just turned 50.

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I went straight to Hapa and found the perfect thing as soon as I walked in the door, a pretty-as solar-powered retro Kiwi caravan nightlight. Lumilight is a UK company that does Alpine chalet lights, and a (surprisingly random) selection of NZ ones (Wool Shed, Otago Hotel!? etc).

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Then it was off to C1. Being a sunny Saturday morning it was packed with a long queue at the counter. On a tight schedule I nearly went somewhere else but I love the place (and food) so much. A group of Merivale/Rangi girls behind me whined about the wait, fussed over their friends who weren’t saving their table right, gushed about things on their phones, and repeatedly pushed into me trying to make the line go faster.

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I didn’t really want a big breakfast but I still chose the Super Choice Bro. Because I had to travel the city. Backwards and forwards. And because of the name.

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As I sat outside scribbling in my journal, ready for a half hour wait, I watched groups of mums rush to grab tables and big-bellied rugby fans look at the café with confusion.

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My pretty-as macchiato appeared after 3 minutes. My killer kai took 7. I was amazed. So fast, so beautiful. Not a hulking pile of fried stodge. The matching oblongs of smoked bacon belly and hash brown were almost too stylish to eat. Almost.

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Then down to South City to the only florist that seems to be open in the CBD, stopping briefly to drool over a couple of bass guitars in the window of CJs music store (where I bought two basses in the ‘80s). I wanted flowers to take to my grandparents. I hadn’t been in a long time. It’s tricky when you don’t live in town any more. I used to go with my mother but it’s nearly five years since she went to ashes, too.

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Tempted by the garish multi-coloured chrysanthemums at the door I settled on simple daffodils (they’re up everywhere in Chch). The florist said she hates the chrysanthemums and laughed. They’re dyed in Japan and people love them but they’re impossible to make an arrangement with.

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I headed back up Colombo St with my three bunches on daffys to catch the bus out east. The driver said I didn’t need to buy him flowers, and laughed. And then three tourists got onto the otherwise empty bus and sat right in front of me making me even more self-conscious. It was the refs for the All Blacks vs Springboks test that night (I do comms for rugby in Wellington and had worked with them a couple of weeks ago). They were sightseeing, killing time before the game, but didn’t recognize me.

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Feeling amused, and slightly aggrieved that I couldn’t escape work, I listened to the Australian video ref school the French officials how to speak NZild English. It was funny and awkward but I didn’t want to surrender my anonymity (or explain the flowers). When they expressed amusement/bemusement at the 185 white chairs lined up on Manchester Street as a memorial for the victims of the 2011 earthquake I spoke up, becoming a tour guide for a block or two before saying gidday (and explaining the flowers).

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I’ve been going to the crem in Linwood since the early ‘70s after my grandmother died when I was 6. My grandfather, Sandy, finally joined his Flo’ in the mid ‘80s. Immigrants from Scotland, they escaped the post-WWI slump in the 1920s. With most of the large family they had in Christchurch now moved on themselves I expected their stone to be untended. But there were flowers. It made me happy. As I kneeled and cut the stems of enough flowers to jam into the plastic vase a small boy ran up to me. “Don’t run in here, Latham!” his grandmother called out behind him. “Do you have a granddad Russell, too?” he asked.

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It’s hard knowing how to remember the past. I try to always think well of it. After touching the stone 3 times, feeling the loss a little less each time, I took the remaining flowers to look for the memorial of close family friends I had yet to pay my respects to. They had loomed large in my life. Throughout my childhood and teens I had spent many holidays with Aunty Marie and Uncle John. Their metal vase had no flowers, and 13 holes. Exactly the number of flowers I had left.

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It was now noon. Time to bus back to town, retrieve my bags and head out to New Brighton to listen to music, drink and laugh, escape and remember the past.

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2 Days in Christchurch (part 2)

Hanging in the Square

Working in theatre, television, sound and health I’ve travelled most of my life. Either up and down New Zealand or through bits of the world.

Even when I’m travelling just to see new places I rarely sleep well in hotels. I think it’s the fact I’m always aware of the unfamiliar, waking to check where I am, rather than due to any discomfort.

That said, I’ve slept in lot of noisy, hot or stuffy rooms. Last night was not like that.

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I’m in one of the new hotels that are slowly rising from the rubble of Christchurch. Breakfree on Cashel Street is the fifth different hotel I’ve stayed in post-quake and I think it’s my favourite.

It’s stylish, interesting – fun to be in. My room is a tiny studio but the design makes it seem huge thanks to clever mirrors and a chunky, industrial glass and steel en-suite in the corner of the room. I almost had to pry myself out of it last night to wander the CBD.

I had hoped to catch up with an old friend and drink beer in the air of a warm nor-wester but he had to work on Evita so I took the chance to be in this nice space and write without the pressures of home nagging at me (fix this, sort that, clean the blah blah blah).

That’s the thing about being alone in a town, you can do what you want. It’s one of the great pleasures of solo travel. The biggest drawback is eating. Eating alone can seem a bit empty. That’s why I sat in my room and wrote and wrote, and it wasn’t till 7:30pm that hunger drove me out on to the streets to see what the CBD had to offer.

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Over the past five years there hasn’t been a lot. The temporary food stalls that have popped up tend to close at night (except for the late-night pissed-folk ones that open late). After a stroll through road cones and re-build, and groups of tourists standing outside burger bars, I found a cool wee Japanese place called Hachi Hachi on Hereford Street. It was very appealing. I wanted a ramen but fell for the sushi burger with kumara chips and lychee Mogu Mogu… just because.

It was delicious. The tastes and mix of textures. I slowly savoured it watching a steady stream of locals bringing their kids in for a treat.

I wanted more. Writing and travel always increases my appetite.

But I had to find somewhere different. Resisting the lure of chips at Wendy’s or BurgerFuel next door I decided to head across the Square to New Regent Street where I’ve eaten many times.

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That’s when I discovered what I should have gone straight to. A night food market in the Square. It was wonderful. The food looked great. Exotic and interesting. The people were hanging and happy. I did three circuits of the stalls before I decided on a wrap with 12-hour slow-cooked pork and slaw (the beef cheek was sold out) from a stall run by friendly chaps who called themselves something Horse (sorry, too distracted by the deep-fried Oreos & ice-cream next door to get the name).

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I ate it sitting at the feet of the restored Godley statue (Christchurch’s founder) feeling like I had stepped into some comforting mix of the past and the future. The Square was alive. In use. Not some sad relic full of tourists standing around wondering what to do in a disaster zone. Maybe it was because it was so dark the crumbling carcass of the Cathedral was hidden. You weren’t constantly invited to mourn, unable to move on.

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I grew up hanging in the Square. Waiting for buses. Waiting for friends. Just waiting.

Last night I got to do it once again.

 

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2 Days in Christchurch (part 1)

Christchurch is the town that made me. I was born here. Grew up here. Shambled into adulthood here. And while I have nearly spent more time living away from my home than in it, Otautahi contains my greatest trove of formative memories.

It is the place I look back to as I grope my way through Dante’s darkened forest of middle-age.

Why am I here?

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I am in Christchurch to revisit the past (something that gets ever harder each time). Yes, family and friends have moved on, but so have the physical surroundings.

I’m here as an old friend has just turned 50. We went to school together. Played in a couple of bands around Christchurch and New Zealand in the ’80s and ’90s. It’s a time that I’ve never really looked back on until the last few years. I had little desire to wallow in a past that was fun but never golden.

Six months ago I was sent a thumb drive with live recordings of two gigs from 1987. Rob, the sound engineer who mixed us, had recorded the performances. As an avid archivist I appreciated the gesture but the thought of listening to juvenilia held little appeal.

But after a few drinks I gave them a listen. To my surprise I really enjoyed them. Yes, the crowds were often indifferent to our efforts (and talent), but we were (often) tight and the songs were (sometimes) good. It was a revelation. For a couple of weeks it was my favourite music to listen to.

It made me seek out another friend and former school/bandmate who had mixed our gigs (and made home recordings) to see what he had stashed away.

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I sent Damian a text. He sent back a meticulous list of about a dozen gigs and home studio sessions he had on tape.

That was the easy part.

Like me, he no longer had a working cassette player (but many boxes of tapes).

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I got hold of a cassette digitiser from another friend (Fiona, who does transcription services), downloaded some ropey software, and stumbled my way through digitising the tapes. It was quite an effort. Most recordings were indexed on the case but a lot were punched into and recorded over with something different. It is nearly nine years since I worked as a sound man, even longer since I drove any audio software. A lot of trial. Many errors.

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All this faffing about turning arcane ‘80s into shiny 21st century 1010101010101100011s that can be trimmed, indexed, Dropboxed, iPoded and shared lead to the most interesting bit for me – digging out my diaries from their dusty banana box downstairs.

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It’s a funny thing looking back at your teenage self from the vantage point of 50 circles around the sun.

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My diaries are full of details that get more and more… detailed. I first played in a pub as a 16 year-old schoolboy and my ‘diary’ that year was just a few lines scrawled on a calendar. By the end of that year I was jamming about 100 tiny words into the box of each day. Three years later I was churning each day into 800 words of… stuff. Nuggets like 3 pieces of toast for breakfast. Watching the Adrian Mole TV series. Impressed. Waiting for my sisters to have showers. Going to psychology and philosophy lectures.  Getting drunk and talking to girls. Doing radio shows at UFM. Countless band rehearsals. Regular gigs. Occasional insights and surprising hopes for the future. Avoiding writing an essay on morals day after day after day after day. 

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Nearly all the venues All Fall Down played between ‘84-‘87 are gone. Gladstone, Star & Garter, Zetland. All the pubs, social halls, University Ballroom, party-houses, squats, warehouses, flats and garages flattened by earthquakes or history.

I’ve only listened to bits of the recordings, to check the files are okay, but in the spaces between the songs hide golden nuggets. Our teenage voices call out for more fold-back, try to jolly the murmuring crowd, shout-out to mates, complain about the hulking great par can lights burning our legs or hair.

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I can’t wait for to tomorrow. To drink beer with Blair and listen to the past. To look at press clippings and dorky publicity shots. To skim my diary entries, laugh at ourselves and celebrate the amazing feat of still standing in this town after 50 circuits around the sun.

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4 Days in Christchurch (part 7)

Postscript

I started writing this blog on the flight to Christchurch. I intended to write fast, as things happened, on a 4 day visit to my home town. It was easy at first, when I had time to wander and play stranger in a strange land. But then I started catching up with friends. Devouring the experience rather than commenting on it.

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Once back onto the treadmill of Wellington I started posting a section each week. But life took over. And there was still more to say. More images to share. Then working through the rush of Christmas, and then two weeks away in a caravan, attempting to relax and unwind the tightened coil of the uncertain purgatory I had returned to.

It’s now 2016. My holiday is over. I am back at work, (hopefully) free of the stress that saw me make unprecedented cock-ups, and receive a call from my manager enquiring about my health/life.

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I have relaxed. But I am still living with the uncertainty that greeted my return from Christchurch.

That week I received the report on my fiction portfolio from Victoria University. It was a strong selection of stories. Better than I have ever written. NZ$2,600 well spent (on fiction and creative non-fiction).

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I was confident they may well get me accepted onto the MA fiction programme (one of the best regarded fiction programmes in the world). It is the third time I have applied. There are only 10 places.

The trip to Chch was as much reward for my hard work as distraction from the impending result. I wanted to do all the things I have mentioned in the previous posts but I also wanted to escape the imminent decision on my future. The day it turned up (report and MA decision) a massive cold sore erupted from my bottom lip; the first since the death of my father 3 years ago.

 

Uncertainty. Stress. Acceptance of loss. Understanding the past. Desire for a new future. All these played into my 4 days in Chch.

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The day before I headed to Chch I received a wonderful package from Scotland. A trove of several hundred slides taken on a world trip by my grandfather Sandy’s sister, Rachel, in 1968. It’s a wonderful trove I am yet to explore. She came out to NZ just after I was born. I grew up hearing stories of the visit. Fortuitously, the slides are meticulously indexed. Often still in order.

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I have used several in the posts but I am yet to find the time to go through them all as slides aren’t that easy to view or transfer. But I will. Amongst the few I have looked at I found a picture of Aunty Rachel with my grandparents, Sandy and Flo’, standing on the banks of the Avon with Aunty Lynette and my cousin Robyn. Treasure from the past.

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I could say much more about Chch. The wonderful art on the streets. The NZ flag flying everywhere at a time when the country is being offered a dubious new flag.

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How happy I felt seeing the statue of Godley (the visionary leader of the settlement) back on his plinth for the first time post-quake. How I sat every day listening to the resolute balladeer outside Ballantynes belting out ballads, rocking back and forth as if on a boat, eyes closed, tin whistle in hand. How amongst the 19th century tales he sang the wonderfully cheesy 1960s/70s song I have only heard once before, about a man in prison who will never see his home again.

Christchurch City is mighty pretty, when the lights are all a-glow

Christchurch City is mighty pretty, where the river Avon flows

I did not get accepted for the MA. But I have been shortlisted. At any moment before March I may be offered a place if someone can’t take it.

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The fate of the decaying carcass of Christchurch Cathedral was to be decided just before Christmas. The Anglican Church wants to pull it down but doesn’t have the guts. Or enough support.

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I’m not sure how I feel about any of this. Conflicted and uncertain. Certainly. Positives and negatives both ways.

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What does the future hold? Uncertainty. Again. And again.

But there will be holidays. And I will write about them.

And I shall keep writing fiction.

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4 Days in Christchurch (part 6)

Accidental Monday

I woke early on Monday morning having kipped solidly through the night on a solidly comfy squab, shared a family breakfast of vegemite on toast then walked through the dunes with my friend and his son to his school in South Brighton. Threading through the regenerating native trees and scrub my feet and jandals got covered in sticky wet sand. Even better was watching his nine-year-old scramble up steps to a treehouse hidden in a macrocarpa. A pure hit of childhood.

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After a bit of relaxing in the shed with music and chat I headed for my rent-a-dent. Turned the ignition. Nothing. Checked the lights. Had I accidentally left them on? Er… Hadn’t turned them on. Had I? Tried again. Dead as. I called the AA. Friendly Trevor spotted the problem straight off. Not a flat battery. A connector worked loose by the corrugated, eternally pot-holed roads of a post-‘quake city. “Welcome to Christchurch. You got an authentic experience there, mate.”

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Bit shagged, Sumner 2012

 

 

 

He advised a 30 minute drive, just in case. I headed around the estuary to Sumner. With Trevor’s advice in mind I couldn’t stop and wander about the imposing wall of containers retaining the cliff face, or the sad pile of rocks that used to be Shag rock.

 

 

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Unshagged 1968

 

One of the reasons I got the car was to head to south Christchurch. I wanted to walk the streets of Somerfield/Spreydon where I grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Kids were sitting outside eating their lunch at my old primary school. There were new buildings but the classrooms where I spent my initial years hadn’t changed at all. At least from the outside. Concrete and brick with tall white wooden windows. I felt somewhat strange sitting outside staring at them.

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The ‘Big field’

I drove down Stanbury Ave remembering moment after moment on the seemingly endless childhood journey to my home at the end of the street. I stopped outside the red brick house my parents built in the 1950s. The surrounding streets and park were named to mark the centennial of the founding of Christchurch in 1850.

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Lord Lyttelton. Visited Chch once. Went home & killed himself

Pioneer Stadium, Centennial Park. Stanbury Ave sits between Lyttelton and Barrington streets (both acknowledge the grumpy depressive peer, Lord Lyttelton, who chaired the Canterbury Association that put together the first four ships of ‘pilgrims’ who founded the settlement). I did a bit of research about this during the sesquicentennial in 2000. The motives. The aims. What actually happened over the ensuing 150 years. I set out to explore the utopian tensions in a novel set in an alternative Christchurch. It was humorous. Iconoclastic. But then nature offered up its own icon-smashing alternative.

 

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Centennial 1st 4 ships float 1950 (photo by Dad, the year he came to Chch)

That 3-bedroom house in Stanbury Ave contains all my founding memories. Infancy, childhood, adolescence, the start of adulthood. My sisters. My parents. Grandparents. Cousins, aunties, uncles, friends. Bootsy, Tiger, Casomi, Norma Jean, Angus, Kiri, Cyril, Sid, Otto, Alf. Too many to categorize or name.

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But as I sat in the car with the engine running (in case it wouldn’t start), it wasn’t the old nest that drew my eye, it was the houses across the street, the ones I looked out to day after day, year after year, imagining what my future held.

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I left home when I was 19. South Christchurch was too far away from where my life was. University in Ilam. Friends in St Albans and squats in the CBD. Band practices and gigs, theatre rehearsals and plays in the city. I lived in five different places before I headed to Auckland eight years later. I drove past the most historic one in Redcliffs that afternoon. Mother Hubbard’s was built in the 1860s.

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Ma Hubbard’s, Redcliffs

Along with Shand’s Emporium it’s one of the oldest surviving buildings in Christchurch. It was already at its second location (on Armagh Street) when I lived there in 1989. A bit of dive with huge character. It got its name from the 2nd hand shop that used to occupy it. I still have bits of furniture the shop left when they moved on. A desk. An iron chair. One night a girlfriend saw an old lady standing in my bedroom. That moment made it into my first published story, a grab bag of ghost ‘encounters’ sold as short fiction. I guess it’s actually creative non-fiction.

 

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Ma Hubbard’s kitchen

After we shifted out it was threatened with demolition. There was a story in the paper outlining its history. A sub-editor made prominent note of the fossilised pieces of white bread I had impulsively pinned to the cupboard doors the night I had a few drinks pre-loading before an Art School party. It was nice to see my artistic statement (whatever it was) recognised.

 

 

 

 

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Hereford Street

Back in town, I was happy to see my old flat in Hereford Street still occupied. I lived there in 1993 when doing drama at University. The landlord was a scion of one of the great squatter families that grabbed the high country for themselves in the 19th century. The Canterbury settlement was an attempt to halt such rapacious greed. My Uncle Barrie made friends with a kid of the same name when in hospital as a child. Got invited to the estate. My grandmother had too much working class pride to let him go. I had the prime bedroom in our upstairs flat. Facing the sun, with my own deck. I could lie in my hammock learning lines, keeping an eye on the hubbub at the Arts’s Centre and Dux de Lux across the road. I felt like I was living in the centre of the world. I was.

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Arts’ Centre 1980s

After dropping off the car I headed back to C1 for a final meal where I ate my first ever risotto cake. Wow. It was a revelation. Walnut, mushroom and sundried tomato. The crispy edges! So unbelievably delicious I can still taste it. My next risotto is destined for cake-hood. The sweet to accompany my macchiato was a challenge. The display case was full of IMG_9908enticing variations. Chocolate eggs (filled with flowing marshmallow!) Lollie-cake on a stick (with allsorts!) Espresso mousse served in Agee jars (with screw-top lids!) White chocolate lamingtons (with a syringe of jam to self-inject)! I wanted them all. Yes, I have sweet tooth. It’s genetic. I had no choice. I chose the lamington. Not because I like white chocolate (I don’t), but because lamingtons were my favourite Nana Flo’ treat when I was a nipper. Also, I couldn’t resist the irony of injecting blood-red jam into a sweet treat on an unplanned day off from phlebotomy.

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Content, ready for home, I caught the bus to the airport. I sat at the back looking for photos to pick off for to the blog. Was I writing travel or memoir? Both? Whichever, I was entertaining my mind at the end of a wonderful, and unsettling, trip.

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And then the most unnerving thing of all happened. An awkward confrontation that made me feel threatened, and a bit sick. Whether it was due to the day, or something from the past, I will never know. The people of Christchurch have been through an unimaginable amount of stress. I don’t mean to be coy but the encounter is so rich it is best explored in fiction.

When I booked my long weekend in Christchurch, I had planned to have three days, Fri to Sunday, returning for work in Wellington on Monday. Somehow I messed up my bookings leaving the cheapest resolution having four days. While I saw a fair bit in that time, caught up with friends, had interesting encounters, there are so many old friends, whanau and faces from the past I did not get to see.

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I shall return. Again. And again. And again.

Christchurch is my hometown. Since the ‘quakes I have ached to live there once more. But my roots are set across this land. I am pulled towards a lifetime of memories, and possible futures.

The homes of an internal migrant are many. Their unresolved tensions continue to jostle me about these shaky isles.

 

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Cathedral Square

 

 

4 Days in Christchurch (part 5)

A Run, Sunday Grey

Sunday morning emerged cool, grey. Quiet. The ceaseless sounds of re-build were taking a rest. Up early, as I always am after a drink or two, I headed out for a run. When I was here a year ago I ran around Hagley Park. This time I was at the southern boundary of the Four Aves (Moorhouse, Bealy, Fitzgerald, Deans) that form a square box around the CBD, so I decided to head south along Colombo Street, to Sydenham. It was eerily silent, a misty rain falling. As I ran over the overbridge that seemed so high when I lived in this flat city I looked to the gap where the railway station used to be. Its absence was disconcerting. It’s no exaggeration to say my stomach lurched.

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At first, Sydenham seemed like a gem. The old artisanal village on the southside of Christchurch was covered in wonderful street art. But as I passed empty shop after empty shop I realised that the Colombo, the box mall further down Colombo Street, has sucked all the life out of the area. IMG_9857

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Even the relocated Honey Pot café, one of my old favs from the CBD, had gone bust. I ran towards Beckenham, swimming in memories from my childhood and youth (fairs at the school my mother attended as a child in the 1930s; the band practice room I shot a video for a ‘90s grunge band; the pet shop where I got Alf and Sid, my pet mice; the Hot Bread Shop I had my first job, earning $$ for my music gear and cameras; the snooker hall where I played on full-size tables with comical ineptitude; the church I watched my girlfriend dance covered in oil with $$ stuck to her by parishioners, and so on and so on). All gone.

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By the time I reached Sydenham Park I felt so good I wanted to run all the way to the hills but as soon as that thought hit the calf of the leg where I had my Achilles’ operation two years ago suddenly constricted in pain and I was forced to start walking: 10 minutes into a gentle run. Grrr. Two years to being 100%? Seems it’s going to be more than that. I stretched and tried not to limp all the way back into the CBD.

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After showering (and stretching, and stretching some more), I checked out of my hotel, took my bag to the lockers at the bus station and returned to wandering the CBD, taking photos and writing down my thoughts. Which can get you enquiring looks when you’re travelling by yourself. People can regard you with suspicion, or that’s the way it sometimes seems from the way they look at lone males. Maybe the locals are sick of disaster tourists taking snaps of the corpse. Fair enough. More than once I would stop and point my camera at some piece of rebuild or tumbled pile only to find other wandering tourists suddenly stop and photograph the same thing, as if by obligation. I began to feel I should be leaving a tip for the locals.

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Not fancying the overwhelmingly fried food at the pop-up mall I headed across the Square to the other anchor of normality, New Regent Street. Like last night, it was full of people hanging out and walking by. I overheard some locals complain about the fabulous piece of giant art at the end of the street “How many millions has that cost us?” stopping myself from saying it looks even better when lit up at night. I cruised the overflowing cafes trying to decide where I would have my lunch/breakfast, saw two wizards having coffee (that felt reassuring), then stumped for the only café with no one in it: often a bad sign.

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How many millions?

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Selfie with the Wizard of Chch (& apprentice)

‘Shop Eight’ looked pretty. Stylish, recycled, handcrafted furniture. The menu: sparse. Just half a dozen items for lunch. Handpicked, biodynamic. Served cold. Hmm. I went in. The waitress looked tired, spoke too quietly, saying both my choices (the chicken, and asparagus & egg) were off the menu. Undeterred, I chose the wild pork and rabbit terrine. I sat on the street watching the trams slide by, eerily within reach, listening to the jazz guitarist across the way noodle out gorgeous tunes, and the old ladies at the overflowing muffin shop next door remark “Look, you could imagine you’re in a different country!” while wondering what a terrine was.

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When the waitress brought me my lunch she forcefully pointed to a corner of the plate and said “that’s the chutney!” My $18 open sandwich was fantastic. Tasty, filling, a joy to eat.

 

Sun Comes Out, Head Inside

In the afternoon I did something I have never done in NZ: I rented a holiday car. I have rented heaps for work or when overseas, but there has always been a car available when I had family or friends to visit in Christchurch. I could have caught a bus to visit my friends in New Brighton, but I had an urge to tiki around bits I hadn’t seen in a while. And at $58 for a 24hr cheapie it was a perfect way to experience the pot-holed, dug up, resurfaced, re-dug up and resurfaced (and repeat) again and again, ever-changing roads of Christchurch.

 

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Heading East

I could write heaps about New Brighton, the sea-side suburb on the east of Christchurch. The ‘70s heyday as one of only two place in NZ where you could shop on a Saturday. The excitement and bustle, the treat of going there. The big long beach at the edge of the Pacific. Getting smashed by the surf. Nothing between the horizon and Chile. The whale park. The pier(s). The Shoreline Cabaret where a crooning Val Lamond (who I had only seen on the telly) sang to my father on his 50th. The decline and neglect (post and pre-quake).

 

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Dad’s 50th Shoreline Cabaret 1975

I saw out the day in a garden shed in the company of two good, old friends listening to music, drinking snake-bites mixed from a chilly bin. We have known each other since school, shared a lifetime of experiences. Become parents. Had many holidays at Jonathan’s family bach perched on rocks on a rugged West Coast beach. Made a lot of music and art amongst us. It was reading Blair’s music blog that inspired me to start my blog. He writes a music memoir and posts his art at blairparkes.wordpress.com We were in bands in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Jonathan made the giant kaleidoscope that stands at the top of New Regent Street (and many other pieces around the city). He organises Greening the Rubble, volunteers installing public spaces on rubble that won’t be rebuilt for some time (they have a Facebook page if you’re interested). We played in a disco covers band in the ‘80s that never made it out of the practice room, even though we had a great name, ‘The Hot’.

 

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Nightshift studio, Beckenham 1985

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The Kaleidoscope, New Regent Street

We talked and talked. Laughed and laughed. There’s nothing like old friends. Time collapses. The past becomes present and the world seems less harsh. I wish we lived closer.

4 Days in Christchurch (part 4)

Saturday in the City

Christchurch is a flat city. Always has been. You can walk or bike around with a lot less effort than every other NZ city where you’re invariably marching up a hill or significant lump.

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I spent Saturday afternoon walking the CBD. I could have cycled. There are bikes you can use for free or a fee via an app. IMG_9831I love riding bikes and they’re a great new addition since I was last here, but it’s not something that appealed. That’s the thing with solo travel. Some activities work better by yourself (setting the agenda, following your nose), while others simply don’t appeal (the Eiffel Tower, roller coasters etc).

With few tall buildings standing there is a serious lack of shade. You can see forever with whole blocks down but it gets hot fast. In Victoria Square a lot of people were lazing on the grass. IMG_9794I had an Ice-cream Charlie, choosing my fav, a mid-size sundae. I have been having them since I was a child. The unique soft ice goes so well with the un-whipped cream, choc chips and raspberry syrup. IMG_9793The young woman in the van said it was a good day to sell ice cream, quickly adding that every day is a good for ice cream, but, actually, she had only worked there for two days.

 

I ate my sundae by the Avon, staring into the gutted shell of the Town Hall, trying to remember all the shows I had seen there. Glen Campbell (twice), Transvision Vamp, Elvis Costello, Devo, Ultravox, The The, From Scratch, Sam Hunt, Peter Ustinov, Pamela Stephenson, The Wombles, Thunderbirds Are Go!, Icehouse, Blam Blam Blam, Coconut Rough, The Exponents. There must be many others hidden in my memory, alongside the ones I wish I had seen. The Clash, The Sweet, The Fall.

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I found more shade at the Canterbury Museum. First time post-‘quake. I grew up amongst the exhibitions and collections. The animals stuffed and skeletal, the insect drawers, the weapons, the colonial street. So many years of familiar. It was like nothing had changed.

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I made a bee-line for the da Vinci exhibition; his drawings and sketches made 3-dimensional. Interesting but somehow a bit weird. Treasures that never really existed.

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The evening was the reason I made the trip; a memorial night of music for a friend who died a couple of months back. I couldn’t make the funeral. Wrote about it in my By George post. I polished off half a bottle of Pinot Gris in the hotel room resting up from all the walking, sun and dust before heading to the Auricle (a wine bar and sonic arts gallery) at the top of New Regent Street. DSC0013It was a gorgeous evening. Summery. People glammed-up to see Swan Lake at the restored Theatre Royal promenaded to and from the show as I drank wine from a stemless glass, talking to the old friends I knew, and others I didn’t. 20 years since I left Chch. 25 years since I did student radio with George, seemingly bumping into him at every gig and party. There was live music upstairs and some via Skype, but I spent most of the evening on the street drinking in the air of a city finding its feet wondering what had changed. Me, my city, my friends.

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Around midnight I headed off. There were so many people around. On Manchester Street a car load of young guys cruised past and one shouted, “Where’s the pussy at bro’?” I stared for a second, wondering if they were trying to provoke something, then slowly pointed at them and smiled. They cracked up saying, “he knows, he knows!”

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At the bottom of High Street where the trams stop before rolling back the way they came I spotted Mr Burger, a wee van parked outside the first night spot to re-open in the city, the Nucleus. It was the best burger and chips I have had in years. I sat watching the taxis and groups of people heading towards the thump of the night club, happy there is now somewhere to go after midnight, content in the feeling that I had no desire to join them.

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4 Days in Christchurch (part 3)

Wandering the Pretty

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After spending an enjoyable morning writing up/posting the night before, I went out to wander the empty landscape and blank blue skies. It is unbelievably beautiful. Yes, there are old facades held up by containers and steel beams awaiting their future. Oceans of empty lots are filled with grey river stones and wire fences. IMG_9764

But there is a trove of art amongst it all. So much I can’t keep my camera(s) in my pocket. This is the land of the unexpected mural. Sides of buildings, yes. But also the unexpectedly exposed arses that haven’t seen daylight in decades. Until the neighbor came down. I love the humorous murals tucked into crannies you may not notice unless you look. I can’t stop smiling.

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I had breakfast in an old remodeled building which is now called Supreme, or Supreme Supreme, or Coffee Supreme (all three are used throughout). It has a great style and feel. Kind of retro modern. A good range on the menu. I chose the pulled corned beef hash. IMG_9752When may sound heavy on a hot day but it was full of fresh herbs and flavour. Perfect after last night’s liquid dinner. I couldn’t help but post a photo on Facebook. I know haters hate, but I have been taking photos of meals forever. Nevertheless, when my waitress sprung me doing it I could only feel like a tool. A saddo sharing a solo moment with no one in particular. But that’s not my reality. Is it? I shan’t look too deep. I am writing a blog about next to nothing.

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Getting sprung meant I decided not to ask the waitress about her intriguing haircut. It’s always tricky commenting on the appearance of younger women. It’s taken me years to be casual and confident about it at work. To not worry if it comes across as sleazy. Or gay (not that I care). The waitress had a short, smart bob but the fringe wasn’t cut straight, it went down at 45 degrees to a point in the middle. I had a flatmate who did that in the ‘90s. It was ‘70s retro back then (in itself an echo of whacky ‘50s, maybe?) Was it just ‘asymmetric’ or did the style have a name? I didn’t ask. I had already indicated I may be a dick.

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After a second macchiato (at what a friend commented on my post was the coolest café in Chch) I set off to wander the pretty.

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4 Days In Christchurch (part 2)

Day 2 (or, the rest of Day 1)

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At the Pop-Up

Day two emerges as the morning after the day before. What time is it? How many beers? It’s a sunny after the gentle southerly that bashed away the nor’wester yesterday afternoon as I was having lunch in the pop-up mall. The change was needed. Big fat raindrops were splatting into the ground filling the air with the smell of hot asphalt. Tourists had their brollies up but there was never enough rain to actually get wet. It was so warm I stepped into the Barkers container shop to look for some shorts. My used-to-be-smart shorts now feature so many holes they haven’t made the trip. The type I wanted were on sale for $60, but as the shop is a container, it only has two changing rooms. The sales assistant was friendly and chatted while I waited, showing great interest in everything I said. She was tall, in some sort of 1-piece pant suit (if that’s what you call it) and heels. We talked eye-to-eye about the changes in Chch, how you are as likely to hear a language other than English on the streets as a NZ accent. How cool that is. How that could make her job hard. Sign language doesn’t always get through. I resolutely ignored her plunging neckline and tanned, prominent side-boob as she made me aware off all the specials on offer.

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Pop-Up Art

 

I love the food area at the Pop-Up. It’s full of interesting food and people. It’s what I miss about the Arts’ Centre and its weekend markets. I had a wee job in the early 1990s setting up the stalls for the Arts’ Centre market with a crew of other young guys. The stories we heard about the tensions between the different stall holders are so good they deserve to be told in detail. Another time. Greek souvlaki vs. Czech potato pancake. With knives. Sellers of scented candles are not as peace-loving as you may think. Drama, conflict, lust, betrayal.

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Town of many Trams

 

Greatly tempted by the Tiki Taco caravan (kiwiana/mex!), but having had a burrito for breakfast, I sidled up the wild game panini hut. Wild pig, venison, ostrich, rabbit. Deliciously too much to choose from. I shuffled sideways to the Thai next door opting for egg noodles with veg and egg. It was delicious. Not too heavy on a hot day. I couple of orange-vested rebuild workers sat down opposite me. A chicken stir-fry and chips. Real worker food. Young, impossibly fit and good looking I took them as Maori. Until they spoke. Spanish. Mexican or South American. Workers from around the world have come to rebuild my hometown. I love this.

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Funky t-shirt from Pop-Up

 

By 2pm I was at my hotel. A studio on the south part of the CBD. Even though the name of the street was familiar, it wasn’t until I got to the strip of apartments (the first new building started post-quake) that I realized it was right next door to the NZ Broadcasting School where I did my TV training in 1994, the year before I left Christchurch. I was a great course. Good people. We have hooked up again on Facebook to mark the 20 years. Shared a few memories. But there are no photos. At least, only one or two. It’s hard to recall the world that existed before everyone carried a camera in their pocket and obsessively recorded their day. Of course, we shot tons of video. VHS and SVHS. I have a large suitcase of tapes slowing falling apart downstairs, unable to be played.

Tidy, cheap and functional my studio apartment is also very hot. Air-con is via a fan I keep going the whole time. You can open the windows (yay!) but then you let in the skill-saws and hammering of the construction all around. It’s the soundtrack of this city. Impossible to resent. (Except at 8am this morning, Saturday, when it pushed me out of bed to write this).

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Yesterday afternoon, after checking in, I made use of the best feature of this apartment. The free Wi-Fi. I posted the first part of this blog, had a shower, watched some of the Thanksgiving NFL games (praise be for football and excess, and TVNZ playing this weapon of cultural imperialism live!), and went to meet an old friend for a beer.

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Back of Smash Palace

 

 

Beers el Fresco

We met at Smash Palace, a movable garden bar that was one of the first temporary bars to open post-quake over by Victoria Street and Bealy Ave. Wire fences and enclosing white tarps made it impossible to see into from the street. Now it is in a pretty, open location on High Street right across from C1. The bar is an old bus, opened up. There are wooden tables and roses blooming on the fence. At a covered snug around the back I spotted a former mayor of Christchurch sitting with a group of people. I saw him tending this garden when I was here last December. He said gidday. It felt very Christchurch.

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Mmm, Brew Moon

 

From 4:30 to 11:30 pm I sat supping pints of stout with my old mate, watching workers of all descriptions pop in. We had a lot to talk about. I have known him since he played drums in our school boy band in the ‘80s. He had an ad up in CJ’s Music store (Charlie Jemmet is the patron saint of the ChCh music scene). It was 1983. I was 16. We played our first pub, the Star and Garter, months later. He turned 50 earlier this year. I’m not far off. We marveled that we ever got this far. In one of the short stories I wrote for my portfolio this year I used incidents from our rock ‘n’ roll past, including a sad attempt to throw an old TV out a hotel window. It wasn’t a hotel. Or out a window. Or very satisfying. We carried an old heavy B&W telly up a 10-story building that was under construction. It was hard work but we were determined. And a bit drunk. It was the Equity Corp flagship that went bankrupt in the ’87 crash. The re-named building came down after the ‘quake. It’s where the pop-up food stalls now stand.

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Like myself, my old buddy has turned from music to writing. Less noise, more control. But we both miss the instant response of an audience. An audience will always let you know if you suck or have their interest. That said, when I checked my phone I found an alert from WordPress announcing ‘massive’ traffic on my blog. My numbers were greater than they have ever been. I was astounded. Checking to see the new total whenever I bought another round.

Blogging is a funny thing. It can give you something lacking in so much writing, an audience.

Late last night I looked up from our table to examine the crowd. Me and my friend were sitting at a table surrounded by a crescent of 14 women. As I looked around them, many made eye contact. It was a little strange. There were plenty of men and mixed groups around the garden bar, chatting and listening to the wonderful mix of music emanating from the shipping container that housed the DJ, but they were all lurking behind the near circle of young women that surrounded us. I couldn’t help wondering if we were messing with a segregated seating plan. But then a group of men approached the women, there introductions and shaking hands, and they settled into pairs.

It was an odd sight. Unworthy of great note. Nevertheless, I have written it down. Why? Because I am in Christchurch. And it is time to find some breakfast.

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4 Days in Christchurch (part 1)

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DAY ONE

Above Te Wai Pounamu

I’m flying to Christchurch. I didn’t entirely expect to be on this flight. As much as I am looking forward to seeing old friends, and checking out the how the rebuild is going, I’m ambivalent about my excuse to visit my hometown. I feel little excitement.

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Harwood International Airport (Chch)

It is 20 years since I left Christchurch. Through 13 years in Auckland and 7 years in Wellington I have regularly flown down to see family and friends, or to work, at least two or three times a year. Often more. It’s what internal migrants do. Notably, however, this is the first year it has taken till the end of November to find an excuse to get down.

Last night I packed as soon as I got home. Put some washing on then fell asleep in front of NFL on the telly until I stumbled to bed at 12:30am. Up five hours later to be gone by 6:30 in order to beat the morning rush into Wellington. Wading through treacle I got away at 6:50, so it was tight all the way into the queues and reluctantly merging lanes. It was 50/50 I wouldn’t make the flight. I could always book another, or just use the ticket I have for tomorrow morning (to be explained later). After all, I got an email last night saying that the reports on my fiction portfolio (from the writing course I have just completed) are now available. To pick up or post out. I’m gagging to read the result. It’s a big preoccupation in my mind. How nice it would be to go and pick them up and see what I did right, what opportunities I missed.

The van at the Long Term Parking took forever to come. I had 10 minutes until check-in closed. I sat listening to Australian tourists talk about the Eagles wondering what I would do.

I made check-in with two minutes to spare. The friendly lady made me run.

I try not to fly Jetstar. They are Australian. Unforgiving with time and weight limits. But it was the only cheap ticket available to rectify a booking fiasco. They also tend to turn the loading of passengers into an unpleasant affair. This time people were relaxed and orderly. Except for a woman who pushed in front of me to jump the queue. Dressed in head-to-toe traveler wear, she resolutely turned her blonde pony tail away from me and the elderly couple beside me, who I exchanged a bemused smile with. Was it worth saying something? Any words would sound angry or petty. Instead I let her have the full force of my inner wanker, that narrative we all share but few voice. Who could be so self-centred? And rude. In her self-absorbed mid-20s. Israeli or South African? Swiss? I latched onto any stereotype who places themselves above others.

I lost sight of her (and my petty grumbling) as we were funneled along the aisle. When I got there, she was sitting in my seat. Friendly, apologetic, I showed her my ticket, eager to hear her accent.

It was a bumpy flight to Crikey. Rocking side to side, up and down. Nor’westers gusting to 110kms on takeoff and landing. Just enough time to write the above during the short flight. To salve anxiety and dismiss the small victories of the morning.

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Chch Railway Station

 

The Purple Line

I’m on the bus into Chi-cha. It’s warm. Dry warm, unlike the humidity of Wellington. I wish I was wearing shorts. It was 28C yesterday. Hot for late spring. We’re yet to hit 20 in Welli. The bus is full of tourists looking at maps, shuffling their bags and packs out of the way. I have never caught this bus into town before. There has always been someone here to meet me. But the last of my family left New Zealand earlier this year. I look up to see the cemetery where we buried a friend over 10 years ago. Through the familiar flat wide streets of Ilam to my old university. Past the ballroom where I played many times. Riccarton Road. So familiar. Early childhood, teens. Beyond. I went to high school just up the road, often going to Riccarton Tailoring after school where Mum ran an alterations business. And the big-arse mall where on a stinking hot Christmas Eve when I was seven, doing last minute shopping, I suddenly felt sick in the sun. Spent Christmas Day in bed with measles. I got a Big Jim doll who could karate chop wood. I only wanted to sleep.

We’re now heading through Hagley Park, through the two Hagley Parks, which I ran around when I was here last Christmas. A steaming hot morning. One year on from my Haglund’s Deformity operation. My first run off a treadmill. I had a rush of euphoria, went too hard, and paid for it for the next week. It’s two years since my op to take bone off my right heel and scrape my Achilles’. If they had told me at the time it was a two year recovery to being 100% I would have been reluctant to go through with it. Still, as of two weeks ago I’m a 100%. Yay!

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In the CBD

Now at C1, the must-stop place for coffee in Chur/Chur since, er, last century. It’s a new, better building post-quake. The re-vamped old Alice In Videoland (the best video shop on the planet), which used to be a pretty deco Post Office. The building survived the quakes (unlike video shops and post offices which haven’t survived the 21st century). C1 retains the original quirky charm. The water dispenser made out of an old Singer sewing machine is a familiar survivor. The old murder house water dispenser beside me is new. Soda water for those who can work out which knob to press (90% give up and look around until I tell them the trick. Are we all out-of-towners?) The pneumatic overhead food delivery tubes featured on the telly are gorgeous, an anachronistic echo of futures past. It’s too early to get sliders and curly fries delivered through the clear tubes so I settle for a breakfast burrito and short macchiato, to which the perky waitress says “nice!”

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It’s three hours until I can check-in at my hotel (one that didn’t exist when I was here last December). But the city is more together. The new bus exchange is open. It is Euro pretty and efficient. There are lockers to leave my bag (only $2!!!) Quite a change from the open makeshift bus stops and port-a-coms of the last few years.

Right, time to send a few messages to Chich friends, wander the rubble and rebuild. Try and find some Wi-Fi to post this.

Flo

One of my earliest memories is from 1969. I was 2. Nana Flo walks through the door from the kitchen towards me. I am tiny. On the floor, maybe standing. Either way, she looms over me. She is carrying a sponge cake. I am excited. Unsure. Is it really for me? I loved Nana’s baking. Everyone did. Lamingtons were my favourite. But on this day, my birthday, there is a sponge cake because I am 2.

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I don’t have many memories from that time. Who does? But I vividly remember going to see my new-born sister, Michelle, at the hospital nursery when I was 3. The babies were lined up behind a glass window. Dad lifted me up to point out Michelle who was by the wall on the right. As I looked at the rows upon rows of babies I remember thinking, I have seen this before. I saw my sister Sonya here when I was 2.

This is snapshot of the few memories I carry of Nana Flo, my mother’s mother. This tiny woman was a giant of my infancy, the matriarch of a large immigrant family who gathered every Sunday to eat food and tell stories.

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Flo as a girl (back right) with her Mum & Dad, sisters & brothers

I remember little of these times. Young as I was the world was an exciting blur of the new and the familiar. I never knew what to take note of so tried to soak everything up. At a family gathering at Nana and Grandad’s, I was about 3. Surrounded by various aunts and uncles relaxing by the fire, Uncle Robert was showing us his guitar. So small I still lived on the floor, I reached up to take the pick he held out to me. Not knowing exactly what to do, I popped it into the round hole behind the strings, treating the instrument like a slot machine, expecting to hear music. The laughter that erupted both startled and unnerved me. I thought I had broken it.

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By the fire, Morley St

My grandparents, Sandy and Flo, lived in a council flat in Bryndwr on the other side of Christchurch from where I grew up. Once, Mum walked us there. With my sisters in the pram (Michelle in the seat, Sonya sitting up on the hood, bags underneath), I tootled along beside them on my blue trike as we covered the 8 kms from Stanbury Ave to Morley St, sometimes dubbing Sonya in the tray of my trike to give Mum a rest. It was a great trip. We stopped at every dairy on the way, rewarded with sweets for good behaviour. Dad picked us up later in our little Morris 1100.

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Morley St. No shed or wood-box down the driveway today

One of the most enduring memories I have of my grandparents is them sitting together on the wood-box in front of the shed at the end of the driveway, smiling and waving to us as we stood on the back seat of the 1100, waving back. They seemed so happy and content. Pleased with the visit. Happy to be alone with each other.

Sandy and Flo, Cathedral Square Chch

Nana also features in my only memory of turning 5. I was running out of the front door at Stanbury Ave when she called to me from the lounge. Had I done something naughty? I could see through the window that she was waving a parcel. For me. Why was she growling? Inside the uncertain package was a book about ponies. I loved it. I grew up loving horses. Race tracks, stables, paddocks, training tracks with family friends. I have an early memory of watching a foal being born. Being told to be very quiet or the mother may get a fright and kill it. It was an extraordinary sight.

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The book of Ponies

The year I turned 5 Nana got sick. I remember going to visit her in 2 different hospitals, Christchurch (very dark) and Princess Margaret (very sunny). Outside her room I was instructed to be quiet. Told that the doctors couldn’t make her better. I found it difficult to understand. Years later, when I was an adult, Mum talked about the shock of seeing her mother lose confidence in simple things. Cooking, looking after kids. I saw this in a vivid event at Stanbury Ave. No birthday cake or presents, guitars or epic journeys; it was a fire in our kitchen. I was sitting with my sisters watching the old B&W TV in the dining room when I heard Nana scream. I turned to see a pot of oil on fire. The flames taller than Nana. Flickering light. She was panicking, calling for Mum, who rushed in and sorted it out.

After one of the hospital stints Nana came to live with us for a week or two. It was pretty exciting as a bed was set up for her in the lounge, and she got to use a yellow wooden stool in the shower. I really wanted to do both of those things, too.

Nana died the month I turned 6. She wasn’t old, still in her 60s. I remember going to Morley Street to see Grandad when it happened. There was shouting between Mum and her brother, Alex, both hurting from the loss of their mother. Mum crying. Me scared, behind the table. So much tension in those moments of grief. I instantly recognized, and relived, such raw ill-directed pain when my parents died less than 4 years ago.

Flo’s wedding and engagement rings, cut off in hospital

I don’t think I went to Nana’s funeral service, I was considered too young. But afterwards everyone came back to our place at Stanbury Ave to eat food and remember Flo. There were a lot of mourners, too many for our house. Flo had 6 brothers and sisters, 7 adult children. A sprawling, ever-growing clan. On that sunny day in April, a white canvas tent was set up in our back lawn for the tables heavy with food. I thought that was pretty exciting at the time.

It’s funny what sticks in your memory. Of all the countless hours I spent with Nana these are the few I recall. I wish there were more, that she had been part of our lives for longer. But this tiny lady was too big a presence to entirely disappear. I have heard stories of her for the rest of my life.

Nana’s swans sit where I write

Earlier this year I attended a workshop in Creative Non-fiction intending to write the stories Mum told me about Nana and her Scottish family. What brought them to Christchurch. It’s quite a tale. Trying to write it down was a great exercise, I’m proud of what I wrote. But it still needs a lot of work. You can’t do such stories justice in 7,000-12,000 words. No single thread can be teased out without pulling on so many others. Me, my parents. My sisters, my daughter. My aunties and uncles and cousins.

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A party at Morley St

Florence Hall was born in 1905, 110 years ago today. I have thought about her most days for the last year. Not just because I was writing about her, but because 1 year ago today, on the day of her 109th birthday, major renovations started on my house. Walls disappeared, floors vanished. Ceilings came down, windows popped out. Through the turmoil and renewal I have kept a small arrangement of old photos as a constant among the dust and grime. This photo of the patron saint of the rebuild used to sit by my mother’s bed.

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It is Nana (now Flo Boyd) taken just after her first child, Alex, was born in Scotland. Her long hair has just been cut short in a 1920’s bob. In the clench of her lips and nearly-smiling eyes I see my mother, my sisters my daughter and me.

Happy birthday, Flo. Your memory endures.

By George

I started blogging two years to find a way back to the joy of writing fiction. The pattern of success and rejection that writers face in their empty room had become too much, especially as life was swelling up around me with such persistence that making up stories seemed a futile dance in front of the inevitable.

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I wanted to exercise my writing muscle, clear my mind; find that joy. I found it crafting pieces I was happy enough to share with whoever cared to read them.

This year I applied for an undergrad workshop in creative non-fiction at Victoria University, using some of my blog posts as examples of my writing. They got me in, and I loved it. So much so that I applied for the short fiction workshop. I’m reading great stories; loving talking about writing with writers.

writingAfter three weeks of exercises it has become even more apparent that non-fiction and fiction are not mutually exclusive. Two of my pieces have been drawn straight from life. One has been made up. My classmates are writing a similar mix.

On Sunday I had a crack at our latest exercise, ‘Negotiating With the Dead’; an exercise reflecting on the hypothesis that writing is motivated by a fear of, and fascination with, mortality. We had to write a 1st-person piece of prose where the dead are given voice via audio technology (a phone, a computer, radio or stereo). Given my run of writing about the subject (“love your writing but less about death, please” said one comment) I wanted to make it purely fictional. And fun.

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That morning I read a wonderful story for class by George Saunders about a hapless old man trying to off himself so he doesn’t end up shitting the bed/being a bother due to Alzheimer’s. It was inspiring in its approach, and humour. It also resonated given my father’s suffering from the disease. I was party to many conversations about ‘exit-strategies’ as we waited for his undignified end.

writI decided to write a help-desk story with the voice of the operator as the only prose. As I wrote it I wasn’t sure if it was people trying to reach the dead, or the dead trying to reach the living, but once I had milked all the gags and Kafkaesque frustrations I could think of it became clear that The Helpless Desk is about a help desk for helpless ghosts.

I was very pleased with it. Even more so to have pulled it completely out of the air.

Elated, as I always am after writing, I went to bed and did something I try not to do; I checked out Facebook. An old friend had died. As I read through the tributes it became evident that it was the type of death that has begun to plague my various peer groups. I was so sad. George was a well-liked person, a true character. A lot of people were hurting across the digital ether.

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I thought back to our many conversations in our youth, when we were student-radio DJs, and live music fans; the memorable night we had to flee a massive house fire just as our private conversation was getting life-definingly interesting. WCBN_main_FM_studio,_University_of_Michigan_student_radio_stationAnd, more recently (around the time I started this blog), when in great despair about whether I would qualify to get my Haglund’s Deformity corrected, he PM-ed me regarding my bleak post-assessment status (stuck in a carpark, crying behind sunglasses… eek! Not like me to be like that, or communicate it without self-deprecating humour). It was a long message that talked about other things, conversations we had had in the past, things he had wanted to say at the time but hadn’t had the maturity or courage… it was incredibly revealing and encouraging. I was stunned and thankful; diverted from my self-absorption. Reassured that support can come from the most unexpected quarters.

Poster0015As I sat in bed on Sunday night feeling like I had failed him, I looked for that message. Was it as long and interesting as I recalled? Yes. A good 1,000+ words or more. And it was two years ago. To the day.

The co-incidence made me smile and grieve. More so having conquered an unsettled weekend wondering how I would give voice to the dead.

I wish I could be at George’s funeral tomorrow, more so at his wake. I want to be amongst my peer group from those formative years. I ache. But it is in Christchurch and I just cannot get away from Wellington. Life holds me tight as it bleeds into fiction.

In the year that surrounded the 4-month gap when my parents died 3-4 years ago, 7 people I know took their own lives. That’s a lot of pain to go around. At the time I tried hard not to look for connecting meanings and patterns, especially as they were all male and around my age. It felt like a curse I wanted shot of. How could I resolve this with having just watched both my parents struggle for life?

memory-loss-mauro-celottiI cannot be there to celebrate George’s great wit and intellect; his sensitivity, humour and life. The bouncy way he walked, the measured way he talked. But I can write this. And I can, when I feel up to it, listen to his voice on the radio shows people are sharing from Soundcloud on Facebook.

I wish he was still around. The world is a poorer place without him.

A Small Crikey

I remember you. You did me last time. You were a Boys’ High boy, right? I was a Girls’ High girl. Remember?

Ah, Ker-istchurch, I thought. The place where everyone is supposedly obsessed with where you went to school (as if that question is never asked in any other city), but which now, post-‘quakes and stalled rebuild, brings forth very different questions.

Ah, Ch-rist…church, that lame cover-up of a sweary/blasphemy word employed by children from other cities (something I didn’t learn until I left Crikey).

Ah, Ker-ikey, that place I tried to escape 20 years ago, moving to Auckland where every second person seemed to have a link to my hometown causing me to often remark (with a nod to Disney), ah, it’s a small Christchurch…

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Chch Boys’ High

Yes, I remembered you, Miss Bryndwr. You pointedly said that you liked Boys’ High boys, and looked for my reaction. I countered by asking of your home suburb, an area I found hard to place as, like all suburbs in Christchurch, it has no defined boundaries and is a general area (to quote Wikipedia).

Although you were sitting down I could see that you were as tall as an Amazon; ever-smiling, Yarpie-forward, confident and chatty, the dead-spit of another aggressively charming young South African from my past.

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Where I waited with Adele

Adele, who I met on a poetry course 10 years ago, who took a shine like a half a bottle of wine, sent me poems outside the course detailing her perfect man, who asked me to accompany her to long-forgotten foreign movie, who, when the class photo was taken on the final day of the poetry course slipped her arm around my waist, pulled me close, smiling wide with a look of conquest. Adele, who I awkwardly stood beside outside a downtown strip bar waiting for her father, who turned and said, my father, he is very protective of me.

Adele, the last teenager I ever went out with.

Miss Bryndwr, although you could have been Adele’s twin (in looks and manner) you were full of far more interesting conversation. Yesterday, we talked about the school you left for university. You went to a different Girls’ High than the one I knew, whose most noted old girls were heavenly creatures made famous in a film by Peter Jackson (no Hobbits allowed).

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Bad girls contemplate moider

I have so many memories of those old buildings that loomed over Cranmer Square, the solid brick, beautiful and foreboding.

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Old Girls’ High

But we didn’t talk of my visits there in the ‘80s to rehearse plays when I was a Boys’ High boy, or in the ‘90s attending theatre workshops when the school had flitted to flash new grounds at the top of Hagley Park on the banks of the Avon.

I wanted to know about the controversy when the head mistress was sacked by the board and the girls rebelled in support of her. It’s always good to get the story from those involved and not rely on press releases and spin.

I won’t repeat what you told me in confidence but it involved that awful ‘quake, death and hubris. Suffice to say you gave me faith in the power of the young to pick through the rubble and do what is right.

When I was your age, Miss Bryndwr, I had trouble interacting with people old enough to be my parent. They were an enemy to be opposed. Such a silly, puerile dichotomy; your attitude is so refreshing. Even when you looked at me and said with pride, my father, he is very tall, 6 foot 6. A giant!

But this was not the most significant conversation I had yesterday, nor the one that has made me write these words. I had other great interactions (students are so much more interesting than when I was at university) but the one I will sketch was with the last stranger I talked to.

She was also very tall, but thin, and as I gathered my equipment to walk over to her, a colleague said that she was dressed rather like Where’s Wally?

By now I was tired and didn’t really want to talk, but I’m meant to engage as part of customer service so I asked her about the book sitting on her lap. It was about Fukushima and she was reading it because the Japanese have put great resources into studying the psychological/developmental after-effects of the disaster (nuclear, ‘quake and tsunami) on their children.

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Aftermath in Japan

A student of child development with an interest in the effects of the Chch ‘quake, she is stymied by the total neglect of this area in New Zealand, so she looks to Japanese research to get an insight.

Our discussion left my conversations with Miss Bryndwr (and Adele) for dead. As someone who grew up in Chch, I have a lot of despair, anger and grief around the subject and have to check myself whenever it comes up. Yes, there’s a lot of positivity and creativity happening, but you have to fight to bring that forth. So much cliché is trotted out by those with little idea, and so much of the rest of NZ seems to have grown bored with the subject.

I did not unload my stories or frustration onto Ms. Not-Wally (it’s often like that, the hunger to talk, to seek understanding, mixed with a fierce need not to have to engage). Instead, my exhaustion and silence gave her space to say that although she wasn’t from Christchurch, she was in the CBD when the big one hit, one block from the Square, smack bang amongst the worst of it (as if any of it could be graded).

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Seconds after the earthquake

She described none of the event and I asked no questions, instead she told me of the frustration she felt about people’s need to offer up their anecdotes whenever the subject comes up. How she gets tripped to tears by the most unlikely things, loud sounds or unexpected movement which suddenly bring back the panic and fear.

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Japanese rescue worker sent to Chch to help

After I completed my task and our conversation ended I had to leave the floor for a good 10 minutes before I could recompose myself and put away the grief.

Ker-istchurch. I need to be near you, I need to be amongst you. I need to say everything and say nothing. I love the hope. I ache with despair.

As I said to Ms. Not-Wally, as a historian, I know we will have little idea what has happened to Christchurch for a good 20 or 30 years.

There is hope, but not in neglect.

I know children are facing far worse in this world as I write this. Corralled and pounded with explosives throughout the night, or as they play. Unlike an earthquake, it is criminal and deliberate. I can only imagine what will become of them in the future. It is not my home but I feel great anger, despair and compassion.

I have another job, quite different from the one I was doing yesterday. Both were impacted by the ‘quake. When the Tsunami/’quake that devastated Fukushima struck about 3 weeks after the Chch event, I was working in Nelson with a television crew from Christchurch, doing the job of a colleague who never made it out of the collapsed CTV building. I will never forget the looks on their faces as they watched the images off the satellites: the silence and disbelief as they relived their ongoing trauma in the most awful way.

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Collapsed CTV building

The children of Chch were not hit by explosives, but they have lived through thousands upon thousands of aftershocks. It is not over and no one knows when it will end.

Ker-istchurch, my home that still looks like a warzone… full of untold stories and stories untold.

I just don’t know what to say.

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People of Christchurch, filling the gaps

On the Road to Crikey

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I’m writing this sitting on the bus to Christchurch. I just got on at Ashburton after a lovely family Christmas at Seafield and the sign says my old home town is 87kms away.

I’ve driven this road countless times over the years, it’s as boring and straight as a road across the desert, with only one or two places where the driver needs to turn the steering wheel beyond a few degrees.
For all of the overwhelming straight nature of the road, it is not flat, the surface of the Canterbury Plains are as bumpy as a corrugated roof so any vehicle higher than a car rises and falls like a boat powering through a moderate sea.
This metaphor first came to me over 20 years ago when I was part of a group of actors crossing the country performing plays in schools. We would often be away down South (or up North) for weeks at a time travelling through the varied landscapes of New Zealand in a second-hand Bongo that had used up its life in Japan.
The Bongo was comfy but when we hit the corduroy roads that lead to Chch the van would bounce as if at sea (or, maybe, sitting on the skin of a drum).
It’s over 12 years since I’ve caught a bus on this road. At the time I was living in Timaru doing a fiction writing course. My family still lived up in Crikey and I often came up to see them when I picked up work at the rugby in the weekends.
I loved being on that course. It made me feel like Harry Potter, as if a veil had been lifted on my life and I was doing what I was born to do. I thrived in the environment and, in the following years, wrote short fiction whenever I could, finding some success.
I even started formulating a novel about my town which had a neglected and unique past. I tracked down and read every single original source about the lives and aims of those pilgrims (yes, that’s how they saw themselves) who crossed the oceans to found and settle a well-planned city on the Canterbury Plains.
Although I was working up in Auckland I would fly down regularly to see friends and family and continue my research. It was a fascinating story that needed to be told and the first chapter of the as-yet unfinished novel was included in an anthology of the best writing of the year.

This straight road to Chch is a dangerous one and head-on crashes plague it. We have just been diverted by one such smash. People blame tourists unused to our conditions but it is invariably due to lack of attention and impatience.

Likewise, my novel was diverted by something sudden and unexpected. The terrifying earthquakes that smashed my hometown, killing so many, also put a halt to my novel. How could I create an alternative Christchurch, made strong by an unexpected earthquake, when nature suddenly did just that?

I have not given up on my novel any more than people have given up on Chch. I am heading there now to stay in a hotel in the Square. I want to be there by myself, to sit by the damaged Cathedral that nature couldn’t bring down. It was a central part of the foundation of this utopia on the plains
and it guts me to think that it will be torn down by those with no real knowledge of why it was built.
My novel lives on inside me just as the lost city continues to exist in the memories of many.
This blog, Zildchurch, is a reminder to me of what I must rebuild.
I can’t wait to be alone with my thoughts, a pilgrim seeking a better future.

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Leaving the Building

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I love being in a town when no one knows you’re there. Not that I’m avoiding anyone but there’s something magical about wandering with no plans, seeing what you see, being a stranger in a strange land.

Maybe the quiet and anonymity is made more delicious by not having the constant 5 year old with me….free of the burbling chatter and desire to climb on my shoulders I feel light and invisible.

This ‘strange land’ is my old home town, which I left nearly 20 years ago. I visit it many times a year even though almost all the strands of my family have also departed. I have friends and memories I need to revisit and grow.

They say you can never go home and that is certainly the case when the city you grew up in is smashed by a cruel and unexpected shrug of nature.

Christchurch has looked like a 20th century war zone for over 2 and a half years; the central city especially so. Life is creeping into the empty spaces with all its quirks and colour but it will be decades before it functions again as it once did.

With a couple of hours free before I have to work then fly home, I’ve come to the Lyttleton market, looking for coffee and an artisanal snack. But it is too early so, like the handful of other tourists, I am loitering, watching the stalls being set up.

For many years I had a job setting up the market at the Arts’ Centre. I could write a novel about what I saw. Maybe all markets are so. I feel the ’90s flooding back. It’s a bit much.

A coffee chain place was open so I’ve grabbed a macchiato while I wait. The barista asked for a name even though the only others in the cafe are a mother and daughter, probably touristing, too, as they have full make up at 08:30 on a Saturday; it is too fresh to be from an all-nighter.
Latching onto my feeling of anonymity, I said the first name that came to mind, Elvis. That made the daughter look.

So, with caffeine fixed into my system and these words tapped out of head and into my device, this big fat Elvis will leave the building, buy some pastries for lunch then head into town to wander the erstwhile ‘red zone’ of the central city, taking photos of the broken, beloved Cathedral & have a real coffee at C1 (the best cafe in Central Chch, recently re-opened).
That is, once I try a Vietnamese pork belly sandwich.

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Well, C1 was looking pretty flash in it’s post-quake building (the old Alice in Videoland…in an old Post Office building).
It sits amongst a sea of empty lots and broken buildings where the city used to be.
There’s always plenty of parking in Chch these days thanks to all the stony gaps.
However, the queue in C1 was massive so I headed on to check out more sights.

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As I stood by the fence surrounding the broken, ubiquitous symbol of my home some tourists were arguing over which way was west. It felt nice being able to put them right, reassuring them the cathedral was indeed laid out on the same axis as all other cathedrals. That it didn’t fall because they put it up wrong.

I could say so much about what it felt like to stand in the Square for the first time since the earthquake. In one word, it was ’emotional’. Not unlike viewing the body of a loved one. Familiar but wrong. Reassuring and disconcerting.

Afterwards, I went to see the temporary Cardboard Cathedral. Funny, it looked more plastic from the outside. But the giant cardboard beams are beautiful.
It is very light inside and, as the old Rev who approached me pointed out, the concrete floor is heated, unlike the beautiful mosaics and tiles of Christ Church Cathedral.
It is warm and looks out on the green of Latimer Square where an elusive horse has been seen grazing, he said.

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When the old Rev asked me where I was from, I said Christchurch. I considered saying the town where I live now. But this is my home town. It has changed (as have I); more buildings have ‘left the building’ than have stayed.

I feel sadness, loss, hope and happiness. A stranger amongst the new and familiar. A visitor with an assumed name.

I wish I was staying the night.