Monday, January 30, 2012

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“OLD BUCKY AND ME – Dispatches from the Christchurch Earthquake” by Jane Bowron (Awa Press, $33)
It’s ironical that I’m writing this, and you’re reading it, nearly a year after the big and horrible event that I’m discussing – the Christchurch earthquake of 22 February 2011. As I write, I’m aware that tremors and aftershocks are ongoing and that they might yet do something dramatic before you read these words on your screen. Anything written about the earthquake has to be a provisional report, but the disaster has so far yielded some good writing.

Nearly two months ago, in the blog posting of 5 December, I discussed Fiona Farrell’s The Broken Book. [You can find my comments via the index to the right]. I said then that Farrell’s was probably the best literary response to the earthquakes we would get. I stand by that verdict, but I don’t underestimate the journalistic response to the quakes either. Now that I’m at last catching up with Jane Bowron’s Old Bucky and Me – Dispatches from the Christchurch Earthquake [published in November 2011], I see there’s a lot to be said for a more immediate reporter’s-eye-view.

To those of us who don’t receive Wellington newspapers, it should probably be explained that Jane Bowron is a Christchurch-based freelance journalist and TV reviewer. “Old Bucky” is her  jocular and rather defensive name for the earthquake and its aftershocks. Old Bucky and Me consists of 41 short articles she filed in the Wellington Dominion-Post and the Christchurch Press between February and August 2011. They are not a day-by-day account of events, but they are a week-by-week set of personal impressions.

From the very first dispatch, two days after the big quake, we are aware that the tone will be under-emphatic, sometimes playful, sometimes ironic, with no histrionics but still taking in the scale of the tragedy. Occasionally it’s “just-the-facts-ma’am” as she observes and records which streets are condoned off, which heritage buildings have taken a pounding, where lives were lost and how rescue and demolition teams set about their work.

There’s the stunned effect of the big shake – our correspondent is left standing in the middle of the street holding the baby of a woman who has dashed off frantically to get something out of her car. Later she discovers that her own car has been smacked by falling masonry. When she can get around in it, she is driving a wreck on four wheels. More often necessity makes her use her “blue pony” – her bicycle.

In the small events of her immediate neighbourhood and the wider events of her city, she chronicles the changing mood of people. At first, Cantabrians have a sense that they’re all in it together and there is some hearty camaraderie and the relief of having survived. Then people begin to count the cost and surliness sets in. There is real post-traumatic stress disorder. There are also painful discoveries about people. Some don’t reciprocate when they are offered help, and they are the ones you learn to shrug off. Being in material distress means having to make some hard decisions about people.

Sometimes class asserts itself. In one bleak dispatch, Bowron recalls receiving a phone call from a “drama-queen” in an expensive suburb, who complains of being cut off from friends but who has apparently done nothing to help other people. Grimly, Bowron comments: “My friend lives in a rich part of the city where there is no spontaneous community going on. Christchurch has always been a class-ridden city – a game of two halves, one half having huge tickets on itself about issues of breeding and entitlement, and the other half bashing whores and making racist attacks – fight stuff. But gosh, I’ve met some brilliant people in all of this. When it’s all stripped back, when the mask falls down with the bricks, you find out what people are really like.”

At the time of Christchurch’s tragedy, and despite the final affirmation in this quotation, no non-Christchurchian would dare to say something like that. But Bowron has no stomach for euphemism; and a dodgy society is still a dodgy society even when it’s suffering.

Naturally Bowron sometimes cracks wise. She says she has learnt the opposite of the three little pigs’ message – don’t build your house of bricks. She says the thing she missed most in the early days after the big one was washing. The supply of water was so uncertain. She notes a local return to a limited form of  barter when banks and eftpos are unavailable.

But always we come back to the mood of the community.

After the trauma, after the jokes, after the camaraderie, there is a gradual descent into tired normality, and the awful realization that the city will never be the same. There are fears about compensation, fears about insurance companies not paying out, fears about real estate agents making a killing out of people’s distress. Don’t expect profiteers to go out of business.  Then there are the rumours about looting and about what is happening inside the forbidden and cordoned-off CBD. There is the curfew and the discomforts of negotiating around the Red Zone and forbidden streets. There is a certain hilarity about the city’s prostitutes moving to more upmarket areas when their usual stamping grounds are off limits.

As a life-long cat-lover I was surprised that I didn’t connect much with Bowron’s chronicle of concern for her cat Benecio. The heretic in me wonders about somebody who can afford $3000 to fix up a damaged puss. Much as I love my own moggy, I’d have her put down promptly if the vet was asking that much. Maybe this is because, should I be caught in an earthquake, my first concern would be for children and family. Other people might react differently.

Old Bucky and Me is a vivid and readable set of impressions, at its very best when Jane Bowron expresses mixed feelings about the way things are unfolding. You can see this in her description of a demolition team taking the roof off a damaged church. At one and the same time, she admires their great skill and deplores the loss of the building.

Pauline O’Regan’s generous introduction compares Old Bucky and Me with Samuel Pepys’ writing about the fire of London, and says it’s the kind of book future generations will look at, to see how the disaster felt at the time. I’m inclined to agree.

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