I was woken at 5.30am by a text message from my sister “Big earthquake in Christchurch. Family report OK at this stage. Death and casualties not known yet.” And another from my sister in law “Hey – there’s been another massive earthquake in Lyttelton – deaths this time”. I live in London now. I have watched this story, from when I was awoken that morning. I watched it develop on Sky News, as replay after replay of amateur footage was shown, over the next couple of days. And as it slowly slipped further down the headlines, overtaken by the massacre taking place in Libya. Rightly so, for the Libyan story was developing, and is a horrendous story, that deserves thoroughly the world’s attention and disapprobation.
But my thoughts, and attention keep returning to Christchurch.
This is the town I lived in until the age of nine. And again between the ages of 25-30. I used to walk these streets every day, I used to work in the middle of town – the middle of town that seems like so much rubble now. I left Christchurch, ached to leave Christchurch, because it seemed to me such a quiet, restful, quaint place. A place where nothing particular happened, where nothing much was likely to happen. Not a bad place, just not my place. I found my place, a few hours up the road in Wellington, the city on the fault-line-that-everyone-expects-to-blow-at-some-point, where all the advertising, documentaries and earthquake preparedness drills were targeted. It was Wellington that was supposed to go, collapsed into ruin, gutted.
An aunt and uncle came over to the UK just before Christmas. They’d left Christchurch for a few days break after the September earthquake. Scared people – trying to remain stoic, but each shake chipping away at their composure, at the composure of the town.
Nobody really expected this, did they? Buildings crumbled, people under them. Bodies in the streets, dust, debris. The skyline, that I had become so used to, had taken for granted that it would always be there, now gone, or at least changed irrevocably. Not here, not Christchurch.
I am walking the streets in my mind’s eye, and the ruin overlays my memory, as if a destructive transparency has been placed over the images I retain. I walk solidly, and suddenly there is a crack in the footpath. I walk past an intact building, and am covered in rubble as it collapses around me, as the light, bright turns to dark. I look out, across the skyline, and it collapses before me, a cloud of dust arises in its place. I turn, in the middle of the city, and take in the icons so familiar to me, and they are suddenly gone.
Joshua has blown his trumpets, indeed.
You’re famous, Christchurch. But somehow I don’t think you care much about that just now. You made it to the front page of The Times here in London. Didn’t think I’d ever see that, my home-town – my true home-town – on the front page of The Times. They’re still talking about you, even now, days later. Admiring your ability to pick up and dust off, to look after each other. You have faded a bit into the background again, as time passed on, after the pictures, and the videos, after the stories were told, after the shock, the aftershock. But they’re still talking about you. Just don’t do anything like that again, OK – not to get their attention. Just not worth it.
I know I’m not there, and I can’t experience what you’ve experienced or seen what you’ve seen. I don’t mean to cheapen or undermine your experience. Rather, I mean to honour it, mourn it, and let you know that people everywhere, care. And I can only understand it from where I sit.
It is an interesting phenomenon that when events like this occur, people look for, and find, symbols to make sense of it, or to give it meaning, or to guide their response to it. Being a person, I too have found some symbols to do all of these things.
This is my Symbol of Realisation:
When I was a child I was admitted to hospital to get my tonsils and adenoids removed. I have some fairly strong memories of that time – the nurse in the hospital that I developed a crush on, despite only being able to see her eyes (such eyes!), because she was wearing a medical mask. Ice-cream and jelly, although I remember feeling impatient that it didn’t come quickly enough after the operation. The day my parents came to pick me up from the hospital. They bought me a big plastic plane, blue with white wings. The wings were to be inserted through the fuselage, and the plane could be flown through the air like a glider.
On the way home after being discharged, my parents took me into town and we passed a statue, which they placed me next to, and took my photo. I wasn’t really sure why they wanted this picture, but dutifully, I smiled for the photograph. The photo would have been taken in about 1973 or 1974, and the statue was a memorial to Robert Falcon Scott, ill-fated Antarctic explorer, and my namesake.
I saw a photo of this statue a couple of days ago, broken, face down on the ground, an inert victim. It is the image that made what happened to this place, that I am so familiar with yet so far removed from temporally and geographically, real.
My next symbol is the Symbol of Devastation. Another photo, taken from the Port Hills, looking north towards Christchurch, which appears some way off. It is a panoramic shot that gets almost all of the city into the picture, and gives a great indication of how cities develop almost organically, yet to a repeatable pattern, the high rises in the middle, the outer suburbs, flat, distant, elongated on the periphery. In Christchurch, this view has in the past been so often obscured by the cloud of smog that is held in place by its own sheer weight pressing down on the city, and the lack of wind to dissipate it. But this time, the cloud rises from the ground, a massive dust-cloud from the earth itself, as it forces it’s way up through the human constructs, having moments ago pushed them aside, shaken them apart.
The next symbol is the Symbol of Survival, and is also from a photo, taken to the north-side of the ruined Cathedral. The photo uses the rubble as a foreground, and the Cenotaph as it’s subject. The Cenotaph, already a symbol of remembrance, now takes on a whole new meaning – for it appears to have survived, spared any major damage. The angel in the centre holds a sword, bending it as if to break it, symbolically to end all wars presumably. The sculptures movement, it’s intention, its inherent disposition is toward the sky, toward heaven – it now appears a gesture of survival, of sheer joy at the reality of survival. It is a symbol of strength, and endurance in the face of death and ruin.
This is my Symbol of Revival:
After the Great Fire of London in 1666, Sir Christopher Wren cleared the ground that had the severely damaged 4th Saint Pauls Cathedral had been built, and lost, on. During the clearance work, a piece of stone was found, engraved with a Latin word: Resurgam, translated as “I will arise” or “I will rise again”. Wren used it as a motto as he built the new St Pauls. The word seems apt in this case, as Christchurch looks to rebuild its own Cathedral, that has as much importance upon its own skyline as St Pauls has on London’s. I don’t know if it’s good, or right, or sensible to rebuild the Cathedral. I just know that otherwise it will always seem, well…
My final symbol is the Symbol of Hope, and Help and Coming Together to Endure. It is the inscription on the Robert Falcon Scott statue, and despite its Englishness, its statement of Empire, it does say something enduring & resonant:
“I do not regret this journey which shows that Englishmen can endure hardships, help one another and meet death with as great fortitude as ever in the past.”