Monday, August 10, 2015
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“THE VILLA AT THE EDGE OF THE EMPIRE – One Hundred Ways to Read a City” by Fiona Farrell ($40, Vintage)
Why Fiona Farrell’s non-fiction work The Villa at the Edge of the Empire is subtitled “One Hundred Ways to Read a City” is obvious enough. Its four long sections are divided into one hundred chapters – some of them very short chapters - which look at the whole concept of cities from a great variety of viewpoints. Historical, geological, cultural, economic, personal, nostalgic, poetic.
But why it is called The Villa at the Edge of the Empire takes some time to find out.
In fact you are at Page 272 of its 350-odd pages before Farrell uses the term. She is referring to the remains of a Roman villa in Britain, which she once saw an archaeologist friend digging up. She reflects on how it was at the furthest edge of the Roman Empire, and yet its unearthed decorations included things that spoke more of the Mediterranean than of the chilly British clime, which it inhabited. Appropriately or otherwise, the imperial centre (Rome) had given its style to its furthest colony.
Fiona Farrell links this image with New Zealand in general and Christchurch in particular. We have always been at the edge of somebody else’s empire, from the time we were the furthest reach of medieval Polynesian migration to the time we were proudly part of the British Empire to our current dominance by American pop-culture and neo-liberal economic theories. Maybe tomorrow we will be more dominated by China’s growing economic empire. Like that Romano-British villa, we are so often dominated by ideas and designs more appropriate to other places.
But the concept of the villa has a further resonance. After all, so many of the most comfortable homes destroyed, demolished or rendered uninhabitable by the big Christchurch earthquake of February 2011 were early twentieth-century villas. In this case, though, Fiona Farrell suggests that what replaces them may be something much worse than the community they used to represent. In part this is because of the actions of central government, and of conniving insurance companies.
“The houses along the riverbank, the houses in the suburbs that stretch across the plains and out to the coast and up the slopes of the Port Hills exist on the edges of the empire of international insurance and reinsurance.” (p.297)
The starting point of The Villa at the Edge of the Empire is the earthquake. This is not the first time that Farrell, a Canterbury resident for over 20 years, has been fired by this subject. Her The Broken Book, reflections on walks around Christchurch and other places, came out 2011 and was in part a response to the earthquakes. (I covered it on this blog some months before I covered Jane Bowron’s book of newspaper despatches from the stricken city Old Bucky and Me.) Nor will this volume be Farrell’s last word on the earthquakes. An endnote tells us that The Villa at the Edge of the Empire is the non-fiction first part of a two-part work. The second part will be a work of fiction.
Farrell begins in deceptively whimsical style. The first part is called “The Map”. Farrell discourses wittily (and with much research to back her) on ideal cities that have been dreamt up in the past by planners and cartographers far from the actual land upon which those cities were intended to be built. This leads her to Christchurch, planned by Englishmen as “a serviceable, rational, rectangular grid, set four square on a swamp on the eastern coast of the southern island.” (p.27) Farrell knows such an ideal plan was incongruous in the real geography of the plains and the Port Hills. To emphasise this point, she gives an account of the region’s geological history and flora and fauna, sometimes rising to heights of lyricism. Check, for example, her wonderful account (p.29) of eels over millennia swimming north from Banks Peninsula to reproduce and die.
As she muses on Christchurch, she muses on her own relationship with the city, starting when she arrived in the early 1990s and was baffled by the flatness of it. Being an Aucklander who has enjoyed long sojourns in Wellington and Dunedin, I sympathise wholeheartedly with this. On my own brief (all of them pre-earthquake) visits to Christchurch, the flatness not only baffled me but came near to depressing me. Farrell writes:
“Christchurch is flat and tricky. I rode out that morning into puzzlement. Up one flat street, turned into another, across a bridge, through suburbs that changed abruptly from Arts and Crafts two-storey to concrete-block units to post-war state houses to 90s plaster Provencal. …. I rode back into town, losing my way on streets of tall fences and leafy gardens, so that I was forced to cast about from a glimpse of the Port Hills, like a calf that had lost its mother’s smooth brown flank in a wide field. The city took time to assemble.” (pp.54-55)
Nevertheless, she came to love the city and delineates its delights as she tells the stories of the successive homes she bought and the consolations they provided.
Then came the earthquake, killing 164 people, injuring thousands of others, damaging over 100,000 homes, requiring 25,000 of them to be demolished and completely rebuilt, and also requiring 40 of the inner city’s 51 high rise buildings to come down.
In Farrell’s account, this disaster has been made all the worse by the time in New Zealand’s history in which it occurred. We have been living with money- and profit-focused free-market neo-liberalism since the 1980s, that dreaded age in which a new, coded vocabulary was invented and:
“the business study buildings began to swell and a new language began to be spoken. The words took hold like a virus. Sick people used to be called ‘patients’, an old word of great dignity meaning ‘to bear and endure evil with composure’. Now in public documents they were referred to as ‘health consumers’, as if they had a choice like shopping for shoes. They could choose to purchase good health, or they could decline to become well. It was an act of individual will. They would ‘consume’ health services, and in the word alone there is the spark of burning, destroying by fire or decomposition. There is the taint of wastefulness and reckless squandering….” (p.84)
Central government and CERA (Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority) took over from local government attempts to refashion the city, with government minister Gerry Brownlee declaring “My absolutely strong position is that the old dungers, no matter what their connection, are going under the hammer… Old stuff, if it’s got any damage at all, needs to be got down and got out, because it’s dangerous and we don’t need it.” [quoted p.93]
In other words, the pre-earthquake character of the city was to be transformed into something more conforming to the government’s monetarist, free-enterprise model. “Down at street level,” says Farrell “the citizens heard the ricochet, the distant rattle of sniper fire as national government undermined local authority, overturned a modest proposal for reconstruction and forced another direction.” (p.98)
Instead of focusing on residents’ needs, wasteful glamour projects were and are designed to attract tourism. Wryly, Farrell compares these with the woeful story of Dunedin’s new rugby stadium (cost $224.4 million), which has recorded a loss every year since its construction ($4.31 million in 2012) “starving other civic projects of funding and saddling ratepayers with forty years of debt. And for what? A handful of rugby matches and an Elton John concert for which the city actually footed the bill.” (p.119).
Part Two, “The Loop”, moves into a close study of the Christchurch area known as the Avon Loop, to illustrate these ideas more minutely. The area was apparently, pre-earthquake, a homely, comfortable, neighbourly and not particularly expensive residential area not very far from the city centre. As she tells its post-earthquake history, Farrell suggests that, when the Zoning system was introduced, there were shonky post-earthquake assessments of the structural stability of many damaged homes in the Loop. She comes close to saying that in this case, the Zoning was really an exercise in real-estate land-grabbing by developers, supported by the government, who wished to destroy the existing community anyway. CERA basically gave “move-or-else” directives to the inhabitants of the Loop once it was Red Zoned, forbidding them to purchase new residences that were being built in the footprint of their old ones. No wonder “BROWNLEE SUCKS” graffiti began to appear in the area. Speaking of another government minister, Farrell notes:
“Evidently…. Red Zone clearances have not been easy to achieve. Demolition has been piecemeal, according to Roger Sutton, because too many people were hanging on, but now ‘all areas targeted are free of residents’ and work can proceed apace. ‘Free’. The word betrays the man. It’s the word used of vermin and pests and noxious weeds. An island rid of rats is ‘pest-free’…”(p.190)
At which point, in Part Three, The Villa at the Edge of the Empire skips to the other side of the world as Farrell considers how a small city she has visited in Italy, l’Aquila, has dealt with its repeated earthquakes, the most recent being in 2009. Much smaller than Christchurch, l’Aquila nevertheless suffered a similar death toll. It was also, like Christchurch, plagued by businessmen who saw its earthquake as an opportunity to make money, by opportunist construction and demolition firms, and by insurance companies which were reluctant to pay out on their policies supposedly covering earthquake damage.
In this Italian section of The Villa at the Edge of the Empire, Farrell does take the opportunity to refer to Italy’s long earthquake-plagued history, does provide very enjoyable pages on Seneca’s speculations about what causes earthquakes, but still focuses on the fact that, after indignant and lively protests by l’Aquila’s inhabitants, an approach to reconstruction was adopted which was radically different from the one adopted in Christchurch:
“In l’Aquila officialdom would take greater care to preserve continuity. That’s why this city will be restored. They are planning for the future with reference to the past. Restoration makes sense to people in a country where hundreds of thousands of children are educated each year to see themselves as part of a tradition, rather than as individualists and entrepreneurs.” (p.236)
The Italian authorities were also more robust that the New Zealand ones have been in prosecuting the designers and builders of structures that proved lethal when earthquakes struck. (Farrell references here the drawn-out court cases involving the unqualified designer of Christchurch’s CTV building, the collapse of which caused most of Christchurch's earthquake fatalities.)
And so the last section returns to Christchurch, and gives the sordid details of insurance companies, interested only in the bottom line, deliberately drawing out assessment visits and delaying payouts, so that desperate home-owners would be forced settle for less. Again, the virus of neo-liberalism is dissected. Farrell sees the behaviour of insurance companies as being at one with the plans to “consolidate” local Christchurch schools, and to replace real family residences with rows of small flats for young urban professionals. All these things assume that profit is more important than community. But the real community is well-represented in the individual stories which Farrell presents of desperate or disillusioned people still living in damaged homes over four years after the ‘quake struck.
Summarised thus, I have probably made The Villa at the Edge of the Empire sound even more like a polemic than it is. Certainly the polemic is there – the indictment of neo-liberalism, the scorn directed at soothing government slogans and slick PR, the anger at the way real communities are being destroyed in the guise of rebuilding the city, the contempt for expensive, and ultimately pointless, big-scale projects designed to attract tourists. But this book is much more than a polemic. Fiona Farrell pours much of herself into it, so it is also memoir and autobiography. She places Christchurch in the larger context of history, knowing full well that all attempts to design or redesign cities are provisional and flawed – so she is not starry-eyed about the motives of the men who constructed the old Christchurch that is now being destroyed. She is philosophical enough to end on a serene note, hoping (against all her observations) that the flawed rebuilding of the city, and the philosophy that underlies it, might just do some good.
Even so, this book of various knowledge, of lyrical passages, and of real wisdom, is also a book of anger. And it was often the bracing effects of anger that kept me reading.