Monday, November 2, 2015

Something New

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

“REMEMBERING CHRISTCHURCH – Voices from Decades Past” Recorded and edited by Alison Parr, with Rosemary Baird (Penguin-Random House, $NZ45)

It is understandable that there have been a number of literary responses to Christchurch’s big earthquake of February 2011. The urgency of the event produced Jane Bowron’s intelligent newspaper dispatches collected as Old Bucky and Me, Fiona Farrell’s reflections on earthquakes in general TheBroken Book, and then Farrell’s angry polemic The Villa at the Edge of the Empire, which is to date the best piece of writing the earthquake has inspired. All these have been reviewed on this blog.
Remembering Christchurch – Voices from Decades Past takes the oral history approach. It consists of interviews which Alison Parr and Rosemary Baird conducted with nineteen long-term residents of Christchurch. The oldest interviewee was born in 1921 and the youngest in 1942, which means that Parr and Baird talked with people who were all in their 70s, 80s, and 90s. A large-format book, extensively illustrated with period photographs, Remembering Christchurch has a very clear intention. It aims, through the memories and observations of these nineteen elderly people, to reconstruct a city which no longer exists.
In her efficient (if not particularly analytical) introduction, Parr reminds us that the city in which all the informants spent their youth was a small city in which cars were not king; sexual mores were tighter and extra-marital sex frowned upon; there was a divide between Maori and Pakeha, and an informal divide between people of different religions (meaning, in this context, different Christian denominations).
Nearly every interview ends with a brief statement by the interviewee on how the earthquake has changed things, and how the places they remember have gone. Presumably the placement of these comments was dictated by the questions the two interviewers asked. Robert Consedine, for example, remarks that the working-class Addington in which he grew up had already been obliterated by development before the earthquakes struck. But he adds philosophically “I think we carry what we need in us. My memory of Addington – I have a detailed memory which will be with me forever.” (p.219) Other interviewees show considerable regret for what the big ‘quake did. Joan Lydon, living in Richmond, notes that her own house survived the earthquake, but all the houses on the other side of her street were red-zoned and demolished. Janice Moss’s home of 60 years was irreparably damaged, and had to be demolished to ward off thieves, who would have loved to get hold of its valuable copper fittings.  Only one person recounts directly her experience of the earthquake itself. Says Jan Currie, who was in her house overlooking Pegasus Bay:
In February 2011 I was in the pantry and I was standing on a little ladder, reaching up to get something out…. and suddenly the whole world seemed to collapse. I was ejected off my little ladder and everything in quite a big pantry was all pouring onto the floor all around me, who was still regaining consciousness. I was knocked out. And everything in the fridge was pouring out into the floor, and my son Duncan who was living there, was lying on the floor beside me. And he said, ‘Are you all right, Mum?’ and I said ‘I think so – are you?’ And he said ‘Yeah, I think so, but we need to get out of here.’ And we couldn’t get out because all the bricks had come down from the chimneys. Heaps of rocks had fallen….” (p.113)
The interviewers have apparently chosen as their subjects people who will represent as many areas of the city and environs as possible, from Aranui to Addington, from Lyttelton to Richmond, from the central city to distant suburbs. Inadvertently or otherwise, this often reveals to us big class distinctions in the old city of Christchurch.
At the one extreme, you have the memories of Richard Cottrell from Fendalton as he recalls, very happily, his school days at Christ’s College and how he joined his family’s law firm and later became the chancellor of the Anglican diocese. A cheerful and positive chap, but in many ways aware of how privileged his life has been  - although, of course, when he was young, he, like all adolescents, never considered that this affluent life was anything other than the norm. Also in the more affluent belt there’s Reg Miller, who inherited the family firm, which owned the impressive and very distinctive modernist Miller’s Building on Tuam Street. (After the earthquake it had to be demolished, to the great sorrow of all discerning architects.) Meg Anderson’s father was a doctor who was often not paid by his poorer patients during the Great Depression, and the family home was uncarpeted. Nevertheless, that home was situated on upper-middle-class Cranmer Square, and even in the depression, when most Christchurchians felt lucky to have a bike, Meg’s dad “liked the American cars because he thought they started better on a frosty morning.” (p.57)
At the other extreme, there were hardscrabble members of the working class, like Robert Consedine’s family in Addington, where life and employment centred on the Railway Workshops. Or Baden Norris in Lyttelton, going from school to employment in a boot factory at the age of thirteen, and later making a career at sea. Or Doug Couch of the Ngai Tahu, one of the book’s two Maori interviewees, who reminds us of how the poor had to live:
It was during the Second World War that we were growing up and I was a young one then. Going back to my time in the ‘40s we didn’t have electricity, we didn’t have telephones, we didn’t have septic tanks. You know, we had long drops. We had to boil the copper, do the washing, have a bath – with the hot water – and Mum would do that with the old washing board. We had one cold water tap outside our house.” (p.139)
Doug Couch gives a relatively benign view of race relations in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, saying “Maori were welcomed in the Lyttelton community, because a lot of people married both ways.” (p.145) By contrast, the book’s other Maori informant, Alamein Pitama-Scholtens felt the sting of prejudice, more in expressed attitudes than in exclusion. At the secondary school she attended, she was the only Maori girl in her class, and became hardened to some of her classmates’ patronising remarks. She also belonged to the generation where Maori parents actively discouraged their children from learning Maori as they thought it would hold them back in English-speaking workplaces.
Only one interviewee makes a general statement about Christchurch’s social stratification. This is the Anglican city missioner David Morrell (at pp.188-189), where he speaks of the range of welfare cases with whom he has had to deal.
None of this is meant to suggest that this anthology concentrates on complaints or social criticism. In fact, regardless of their social origins, most of the interviewees remember their younger years with nostalgia, even when times were hard. They rejoice in how the hard times were surmounted. In this respect, one of the most bracing interviews in the book is the very first one, with veteran journalist Eric Beardsley. He grew up in the Depression with the family crammed into a bach in Aranui, his father on relief work and his mother often having to go through the humiliating ritual of applying for food and welfare assistance for her children. In Beardsley’s world, the gift of a (second-hand) bicycle was seventh heaven, and being able to sit in a picture-theatre all day for threepence was luxury beyond belief. Beardsley rose through the ranks at the Christchurch Press to become its chief leader writer. Like all the interviewees, he is not upset by social changes that have happened in his lifetime, but takes them in his stride. This includes the great changes in how newspapers are produced. Of post-earthquake newspapers, he remarks:
 “… they did a fantastic job, I think. They went out to places out at the back of the airport and, for the first few months, kept Christchurch alive with wonderful reporting. And I thought that was the best thing I’d ever seen them do. Nothing at all – and suddenly finding ways to produce a paper – quite an amazing output really. It probably wouldn’t have been possible if it had been the old-style newspaper with hot metal being used, instead of tiddling with a computer.” (p.31)
What most people emphasize is the fun they had. The shortest contribution is by the oldest interviewee, Lois Arnold, and it is entirely about her mother’s excellent home-cooking and the joys of cycling in old Christchurch. While being very aware of his social situation, Robert Consedine spends longest on recalling the large fund-raising dances they had in their Catholic parish in the 1950s and 1960s, with illustrious rock bands of the day. Valerie Heinz, while mourning more than anyone else the loss of the city’s architectural heritage in the earthquakes, nevertheless spends most time on the satisfactions of being an art teacher at Christchurch Girls’ High. Even the social activist Anne McCormack’s involvement in protests against the 1981 Springbok Tour is something she remembers with pride and pleasure.
As somebody who knows Christchurch only from a few brief visits, what struck me most often was how the lost world this book commemorates is the lost world of all New Zealand, not just of Christchurch. The past that is recalled is one that all New Zealanders of a certain age will dimly remember.
For years Jim Curnow ran the Dainty Inn tearooms on High Street. To his interviewer he says something that would now enrage Health and Safety – “I’ll tell you confidentially – don’t publish this – we all smoked in the kitchen.” (p.40) When he lists the goodies they used to serve, it is almost like a naturalist poem. We are at once swept into Kiwi cuisine as it once was:
We made all our own sandwiches. The best sellers were ham. And club, I suppose. Egg, salmon, egg and chive, corned beef and as a little extra, baked bean. Baked bean sandwiches. We only sold 16 of those a day – we just made a plate, but they always went. Ninety per cent of the time we used white bread. We drifted a wee bit into that coloured bread towards the end. I think we were a bit ahead of the public, were we? They didn’t want them, no. They wanted white bread, yeah. Oh that’s right, we had rolls too. Besides the sandwiches we had ham rolls, chicken rolls, corn. We did makes toasted cheese rolls, yeah. They weren’t that popular. Bacon was more popular. That was a slice of toast with bacon on the top and cheese.” (p.34)
Something similar happens in the interview with Trevor Smith, who for years ran a coffee importing business on Cashel Street (all of which was levelled by the earthquake). After he lists his wares, I have a quite irrational urge to go into his coffee (and cigar and curry) store and smell all its savoury smells. It is a recall to the days when real coffee was an exotic substance in New Zealand, and Trevor Smith’s customers were often affluent people (Lady Wigram, Selwyn Toogood) who bought his coffee to on-sell to eager coffee-starved friends and associates.
Quite a different part of the Kiwi lost world, applicable to most of the major cities, is Malcolm Douglass’s memoir of university student life in the 1950s, before the university moved out to Ilam. “With only 2,500 students… you got to know a terrific range of students.” (p.116) And it was all procesh and capping stunts and drinking parties and tramping club. Meanwhile Laurel Small remember children’s games, elocution lessons and ballet classes and “whooping cough, pneumonia and measles due to epidemics” (p.175)
So to a personal confession. There are two photographs in this well-illustrated book that almost choked me up. They are not photographs of earthquake damage or of anything particularly venerable. They are the photograph on Page 48 of the ordinary suburban home that belonged to Janice and Wallace Moss (they took ten years to pay off the mortgage). And the photograph on Page 180 of  Laurel and Bob Small’s brick house in Dallington. You at once see the Kiwi dream that is now being lost – affordable home ownership and the happy, if much-maligned, suburban dream.
Do I have any complaints about this very readable collection? Just a minor one. The compilers could have got other pre-earthquake memories of Christchurch from people who were young in the 1970s, 80s and 90s – in other words, from people who are now middle-aged – as well as from the elderly people whom they have selected. That might have given us an even broader panorama of the old city.
But that is a mere quibble. This is a very enjoyable collection.

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