Sunday, February 27, 2011

Fragility and upheaval...

There is nothing remarkable about these cups and saucers. Except they are survivors of the Napier earthquake. 
I want to talk about them as I now look about our house here in Napier and imagine what it might be like after a terrible convulsion like the one which shook Christchurch.

We were in Wellington last week and I spent the week looking at the height of buildings, the narrowness of the streets - heavy pediments, lots of glass.
It’s hard not to feel frightened.

But these cups are survivors on their own way.

On the day of the quake they were on a dinner wagon in my grandmother’s sitting room. She had had a bridge party the day before. The cups sailed round the room on the dinner wagon, rolling from side to side with the shakes. Remarkably they survived.

One of my mother’s vivid memories of the quake is the family - who only had one bucket of water - they were all filthy and in shock -  were all allowed to use ‘the good cups’.

This was because these cups survived.

The ordinary kitchen crockery had smashed to pieces and was lying in a pool of preserves and sticky jam on the floor.

So these cups - ordinary in one way - are remarkable testament to survival of another horrendous event which happened 80 years ago. 

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Full moon during Napier's art deco festival

It was one of those rare coincidences. A full moon and a gathering of people, many in costumes. The confluence of make-believe, night and full moon made this year's art deco weekend seem unusual, special.

As I was walking along I took this photo. Quite accidentally the boy, dressed in a cap, seems to be gesturing like a small deco statuette.

Over the weekend you see lots of uncomfortable people, or people to whom the style is not suited. (For women in
particular the 'twenties style was based on a slim boyish silhouette. It was young person's fashion, quite deliberately.)
But every so often you see someone who summons up the past. Their costume is extraordinarily evocative.

What I like about the festival is that it gives people the permission to have some make-believe in their lives.
And the way everyone has taken to seem to imply we all desperately need this quality.
Last night driving home the whole town seemed alive.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Bum's Rush

Duncan Fallowell came to NZ a few years back then wrote a perspicacious book about NZ called 'As  Far As You Can Go.' 

He had the effrontery (read perception) to say all sorts of things about New Zealand which needed saying.

For example, when you look at Victorian photos of Auckland and look at it now, you feel like weeping at the loss
of identity. (I was up in Auckland today and walked like a silent ghost past the hideous new DeLoitte's building in Queen Street - a kind of vast glass urinal.)

The site was where a lot of artists like Goldie had studios, a vast brick tiara-ed building. I can just recall it from
my childhood. It had gravitas, style and weight. 

Anyway silly New Zealanders, of which there is a majority, got their knickers completely in a twist
because they weren't being flattered with garbage like 'Wellington is the coolest little
capital in the world.'  (the coldest little capital in the tundra?) We are such a needy bunch. So DF pretty much got the bum's rush.

But what I remember of his book was: he thought wooden villas were one of the loveliest creations and when he
stayed in one, he sort of fell in love with their woody capaciousness.

He has an unusual angle of sight, which I welcome in this commodified world.

Anyway, long story short, on my birthday, on a day so hot even the lampshade is sweating, he sent me this
lovely kind of postcard.

It is a languid disquisition on the power of books, of reading, of the company of words - set in London winter. 

If you have a spare ten minutes to drop out of life then I thoroughly recommend it.

A taste of London for you

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

What's for pudding, Mum?

80 years ago today, at 10.46am, Napier fell to bits. 

I went along with my 94 year old mother to a ceremony to mark the occasion.
The weather was like ‘Earthquake Day’ as I learnt to call as a kid: sultry, hot, close.
We sat outside by the deco soundshell. We were sitting on grass below which was the ruins of the city.
The bigwigs sat on the stage.
There were long moments of silence. My mother sat weeping quietly.
Like me, she had remembered to bring a handkerchief.

It had changed her life, and therefore my life. Nothing was ever the same for her after it. 
She was sent away to boarding school. Her two elder sisters went away to other towns. The family never lived together again. My grandfather, running a firm on which an entire extended family was dependant, was on his way to an early grave.
My mother lived with the memory of the young nurses screaming for help as they lay buried under rubble. 
‘And then they went silent.’

Yet I also learnt things from the stories about the quake: how to make an individual choice in what you do.
My grandfather commandeered a lorry, loaded it up with groceries and took it away from the fire.
Someone could call it looting.
I learnt it is sometimes better to make an individual assessment of things.
It has guided me through life.

As for the ceremony, I was struck by the embalming nature of recollection. 
There was a space for two ‘survival stories’ as they are called today.
Both shared the same kind of folksiness. Both ended on an upbeat note which was a little too cutsie for me.
(A boy in a refugee camp has his meal on the first night and asks - poignantly I guess: Mum, what’s for pudding?)
The other tale had a similar upbeat ending.
My mother’s tears dried. She became eagle-eyed. 
My memories are better than that, she said to me in the embarassingly loud voice of an old person who no longer gives a shit.

By contrast, there were the eyewitness accounts. The best one was from a sailor who was on the warship HMS Veronica which providentially was in port when the quake hit.

He described the sea going out and the ship’s bottom hitting the floor of the harbour -’it was like a mine going off under the ship’. 

They read out the morse code messages from the ship. First of all just registering a quake. Gradually it evolved into ‘ have gone into town. Appalling sights. Entire town appears to be ablaze.’

The sailor also described the reality for the survivors. There was nothing cutsie about it. Most of them were just standing there, in a state of extreme shock. 
Some were clawing at bricks with their bare hands, trying to dig people out.
Other people were burning to death.

We sat in front of two sisters. When my mother introduced herself, she found her own family story trumped.
Their father, a commercial traveller, had died on the morning ot the Quake. He was walking past McGruer’s. the department store, when its elaborate brick facade collapsed on him. He left a family of five children. 
On the day of the quake his wife walked in from Taradale - say five miles - but got to a group of men who turned her back. They said to her words which must have been embedded in her brain forever.
Remember him as he was.’

He would have been incinerated in the blaze that swept through the town after the quake.
The sisters said there was no support and it was the middle of the depression. ‘I vote Labour to this day,’ one sister said.
My mother blinked.

So that was my day of remembering the Quake. 

I wept too. 

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Acrobatic invective

Colensophiliac: someone who is obsessed with William Colenso to the point that she or he reads everything to do with this obsessive creature. ‘You just can’t get enough.’

Fortunately Colenso suffered from a compulsive writing habit.

Reading him is like being a tiny borer insect living inside an old fashioned Encyclopedia Brittanica: you know you have endless volumes to chew through.

There’s no end in sight and it feels good.

Squattopolis: the city of Napier in the 19th century when a lot of squatters, ie immensely wealthy farmers, had town houses in Napier, the capital of Hawke’s Bay.

The Philosopher of Napier: a derisory term applied to Colenso by an opponent writing in the local newspapers.

The Athens of New Zealand: Napier when Colenso lived here.

Or as one punter saw it in 1882...."Now seeing that Napier town is simply one huge fever bed, that the business portion of the 'city' is built upon a sickening mass of putrid swamp and shingle soaked to repletion with the drainage from cess-pits, would it not be as well to admit that Napier a failure?'

These are from letters to the newspapers printed during Colenso’s lifetime, when newspapers crackled with opinion. It was kind of like the 19th century web. What I love about it is the verbal inventiveness. And the invective. Or could one say - the inventiveness of the invective. Verbal acrobatics.


(I am relying on Ian St George's wonderful collection of letters to the newspapers which William Colenso sent.  This collection, called William Colenso - His Life in Newspapers will be coming out later in the year.)