Christchurch rebuild: Welcome to Brownleegrad

Fiona Farrell in pre-quake days. She says it is impossible to avoid politics when writing about the Christchurch rebuild.
Kirk Hargreaves

Fiona Farrell in pre-quake days. She says it is impossible to avoid politics when writing about the Christchurch rebuild.


Fiona Farrell's new book is a marvellous and wise account of life in Christchurch after the earthquakes, writes PHILIP MATTHEWS. Also, there's a book extract at the bottom of this story. 

Fiona Farrell is a quiet and unassuming presence in the foyer of The Press building in central Christchurch, dressed in a heavy coat and scarf on another below zero morning. As she waits downstairs to be interviewed, she scrutinises an exhibition of historical photographs of troops leaving Christchurch during World War I.

She explains later that she was looking in these pictures for one thing in particular, a detail that may be important in a work in progress. But you can also take it as expressing something about how novelists and poets see the world. They scan surroundings differently and they notice things the rest of us fail to see.

And sometimes they help you find words for inexpressible emotions or difficult experiences. As this is Christchurch, these are usually earthquake stories, often pitched as icebreakers in conversations: where were you on September 4, 2010, or February 22, 2011, and what is the status of your house repair?

Farrell has already covered this in her writing. She lives most of the time in what she calls a little hut on Banks Peninsula but on the cold morning of September 4, she was asleep in her flat in town. She writes about it so well: "The kitchen floor was covered in broken glass. It glittered like unseasonable frost. We swept up what we could. We walked out into the fragile morning. Sunlight dazzled and the very air seemed filled with dancing particles. We were tiny on the shimmering surface of the Earth."

We could keep on quoting but best to pick up your own copy of Farrell's new non-fiction book, The Villa at the Edge of the Empire: One Hundred Ways to Read a City. Some of us have been waiting for a book like this about the earthquakes and the years after; a book this literate, considered and insightful. And not just Cantabrians. On the day we spoke, Auckland writer and editor Paul Little had just published a review in North and South magazine that called it the first indispensable book to appear after the quakes.

Farrell has not yet seen the review and is chuffed to get the news. Once a book goes out into the world, there is no way of knowing how it will be received.

"With a book, you fling it in the air and it lands in the most amazing places," she says. 

An abandoned house in the Christchurch residential red zone. All of our houses have stories, says writer Fiona Farrell.
Iain McGregor

An abandoned house in the Christchurch residential red zone. All of our houses have stories, says writer Fiona Farrell.

"It felt like I was hammering all these bits together and it made sense to me but I had no idea if it would be coherent to anyone else." 

In a way, that speaks to the quake experience. It was an "egalitarian" event, in Farrell's view, because we all went through the same disaster at the same time, but in the years since we have mostly suffered or stoically endured in isolation. 

There is a brilliant image for this in Farrell's book. She talks about empires. The title describes the ruins of a Roman villa in Britain, a house reduced to pieces and fragments. But for us in New Zealand since Pakeha settlement, there has been the British empire, then a US empire and now an invisible, shapeless empire of global capital that only occasionally becomes obvious to us.

We have had a few occasions to notice it lately. As Farrell puts it in the book: "In the empire of the insured, every man or woman is an island."

We are all on the end of the phone or writing emails at home, doing our own negotiations and our own project management. Many feel stranded or abandoned. Farrell's book gets some of this communal experience and conveys the right sense of outrage.

Earthquake damage in L'Aquila, Italy, in 2009. Fiona Farrell wondered how our experience compared.

Earthquake damage in L'Aquila, Italy, in 2009. Fiona Farrell wondered how our experience compared.

Yet it can also be funny. Her opening pages, in which she reviews the bombastic media launch of the blueprint in 2012, must be some of the sharpest writing about the rebuild so far (see extract). 

There is further good news. The new book is the first of two on the subject. The second will be a novel which may even have the same title, if Farrell's publisher agrees. She likes the idea of two volumes in a box set, like an old-fashioned children's book.

"This is the foundation layer. I think of it as a bedrock of facts and history and then I am building this novel that sits on top of it." 

The cover of the first of two books by Fiona Farrell about the earthquakes. The second will be a novel.

The cover of the first of two books by Fiona Farrell about the earthquakes. The second will be a novel.

A book about a house that is kind of like a house? Farrell talks in spatial metaphors, building metaphors. 

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"It could be a really big novel. I'm not sure. I'm just going to leave it to take up the space it does." 

She won the $100,000 Creative New Zealand Michael King Fellowship in 2013 for the two-book project. There has been a fair bit of poetry about the earthquakes, some written by Farrell. There has been tons of print journalism. But fiction? That has been slower to get going.

Fiona Farrell says New Zealanders are very tolerant of change. We're accustomed to it.
Penguin Random House NZ

Fiona Farrell says New Zealanders are very tolerant of change. We're accustomed to it.

"I think it's because facts eclipse what you can imagine," she says. Early on, to create fiction seemed "almost an affront to people who were going through very real, horrible, gritty things". You heard incredible stories from your friends or you read them in the newspaper, so why invent?


The subtitle "One Hundred Ways to Read a City" relates to the fragmentary structure of the book. There are 100 short sections. The novel will work in the same way. It is like a mosaic or maybe, she says, like nailing together a bach out of bits and pieces. Another building metaphor: the 100 pieces could be akin to bricks scattered on the ground. An architect would reassemble them one way, a journalist another and a novelist a third way. 

The fragmentary nature of it suits the quake experience too. There are some isolated pieces you may have forgotten in the blur of events: the Flockton basin flooding, the school closures. But it is still too soon for a smooth, tidy narrative.

"I felt bewildered and puzzled. I had to make a kind of map for myself. That's why I wrote the book, really." 

Beyond Christchurch

Writing a book is an isolating experience but festivals are one way of encountering a real live reading public. In July, Farrell will talk about her work at two events in the Marlborough Writers Festival. In August, she appears in a panel titled Imaginary Cities in the Christchurch Arts Festival. The session could be enlightening – as well as Farrell, there will be young novelists Anna Smaill and Hamish Clayton, urban design adviser Hugh Nicholson and art historian Lara Strongman. 

Fiction writers and town planners? But, then, what is the Christchurch blueprint other than an imaginary city brought to some kind of life?

Another question the book prompts is whether people still want to know. Beyond Christchurch, anyway. 

One of the reasons why the North and South review was so pleasing to Farrell, and to those in Christchurch who have read the book, is that it shows some people still care. When Campbell Live was reviewed and cancelled by TV3, it was reported that management were sick of the show's campaigns on the Pike River disaster and the Christchurch quakes. 

It was as though we had lost a national focus and could only think regionally. Or could no longer follow an ongoing, unresolved, depressing narrative. Farrell sees it as "a failure of empathy". 

"You can make local events, like the Wahine storm, relate to the whole of New Zealand," she says. "Maybe people [outside Christchurch] should be concerned. After all, they're paying for it. Paying billions."

It is true to say that this is also a political book. Fair enough, too, as the recovery is a political story. Farrell sees the imposition of political control from Wellington as consistent with this Government's approach even before the quakes, as we saw in the sacking of Environment Canterbury councillors. The Christchurch City Council's plan was sidelined.

Someone somewhere decided that the new Christchurch needs a big temple to rugby. That in itself could be considered a political act. She writes amusingly about the city of Brownleegrad, in the province of Rugbistan. 

One section of the book covers the Avon Loop where Farrell lived for a time. It was a site of radical and progressive thinking in the city. Elsie Locke was a local heroine. Later, talking about the Avonside red zone clearances, Farrell sees a departing resident write "Brownlee sucks" on a kitchen wall. 

"You can't avoid politics. People talked about politicising the quake as a bad thing." 

She is 67, she says, with a sensibility forged in the "personal is political" era of the 1970s.

"I've always been very interested in the way New Zealand has been framed. I suppose it's become more focused." 

She thinks of herself as a citizen, not a consumer or an asset of insurance companies. The difference is important. 

The book is packed with thinking but the wisdom is, as reviewer Paul Little said, "laid lightly upon the page". Everyone is sure to learn something. Roman philosophers are consulted. The lovely word "solastalgia" is cited. It was coined by an Australian philosopher, Glenn Albrecht, to describe "the psychic disturbance experienced by humans when their landscape has been destroyed or altered radically by manmade or natural causes". He called it "the homesickness you have when you are still at home". 

Albrecht was talking about the impact of mining in the Hunter Valley, but we know solastalgia in Christchurch. We are experts in it.  

Farrell leaps from the Avon Loop to Italy. That's a big leap. The Italian city of L'Aquila is earthquake-prone; it was hit by a 6.3 quake in 2009 that killed 309 people. Farrell visited in 2014 and found a city that was still empty of people. Thousands were moved to temporary accommodation.

She compares and contrasts. Is this better? Is this worse? Much of L'Aquila's beautiful old city will be rebuilt, painstakingly and slowly. It will be built again and it will fall down again. Such reconstruction would be "inconceivable" to us, she believes. Instead, we wanted to clear away the debris and get the city back to business as quickly as we could. 

"We love pulling down and starting again. That's the way we are. I think that New Zealanders are very tolerant of change. We're accustomed to it.

"A lot of us of Pakeha ancestry are not that far from a person who just said, 'Right, I'm off' and made this huge change. It means there is a tolerance for things shifting and moving. The image of a house put on a truck and taken somewhere else is such a part of our landscape."

Some of our post-quake arguments have been about the emotional necessity of keeping or restoring some of what we had before the disaster. It gets back to the idea that places are storehouses of memories, that buildings hold the historical record. 

"[A house] has all those little narrative hooks. That's in my novel. The little crack in the window is where something happened or the nail hole in the bedroom wall means something. I think that when you take away all those narratives, you live in a kind of present. It's very unsettling." 

Which does not mean that Farrell is a diehard heritage traditionalist. She looks forward as well. Who would not feel curious about the final shape of the new Christchurch? She writes that she wants it to emerge as a beautiful city after its extreme make-over.

"There is a bit of me that loves the history of things but I also love going to see new buildings. There is a bit of me that is curious to see what is going to happen. They fight against each other." 

Fiona Farrell is in the Marlborough Book Festival on July 26 and 27. Details here 

The Imaginary Cities panel in the Shifting Points of View section of the Christchurch Arts Festival is on August 30 at the TVNZ Festival Club. Details here 


Midwinter, 2012. 

The dark heart of the year.

But in the city, a new sun is rising.

There is music, a swelling of violins, a sonorous chorus of male voices. It could be the soundtrack to The Lord of the Rings, that moment where Bilbo catches sight of Mordor, when all chaos and pain will pass and order will be restored to Middle Earth.

There is an image of a wide green plain. There's a ring at its centre. From above it looks a bit like Stonehenge, some ancient site of ritual worship, but is more likely the circle left by an irrigator, rendering the stony soil fit for pasturing a thousand thousand dairy cows. Then there's a little jetboat racing upstream between beds of shingle, heading somewhere and heading there fast, and the music swells and a voice-over announces "an unprecedented opportunity in the South Island of New Zealand". A couple spin by on a tandem, a white boy on the front, a brown girl behind, both pedalling unsteadily through green trees, both laughing with delight at the prospect of their opportunity. Earthquakes have destroyed their beautiful city, 70 per cent of its major buildings have been or are about to be demolished. But 106,000 of the city's residents have risen to the call! They have submitted their vision for a new city and here is the synthesis of their dreams, a "flyover of their hopes".

The music changes to something more percussive, the tempo accelerates and we begin to fly. We swoop over the city like supermen, up one street and down another. Over a Green Frame that will sweep away the vestiges of a Victorian mercantile past beneath 21st-century grass and trees. Over the blue and yellow rectangles that are to be new precincts. Health will be dispensed from a Medical Precinct around the existing hospital, justice from a Legal Precinct a little further east, just past a Sports Precinct, whose facilities will cater for all ages and levels of ability. We fly north and there's the Performing Arts Precinct and a Cultural Centre and next to them, dwarfing all else, a Convention Centre, "purpose-built", "state of the art", the city's throbbing cultural heart.

We fly above it all. It's so easy. Like those dreams of flight that are supposed to be something to do with sex. Weightless, effortless. The city lies beneath us in its shining geometry. There's the tiny brown rectangle that will be the new public library, there's the oval that is to be a new cricket ground, making proper, profitable use of the Victorians' dull and undeveloped city park.

We wheel unnoticed over the heads of all the people gathered to party in the Entertainment Precinct before a vast screen broadcasting a rugby match. Tracers of light race and dazzle, and what is that, rising in the east? That vast illuminated pleasure dome? Why, it's a new Rugby Stadium, miraculously teleported here from its previous location on the light industrial periphery and come to rest like some alien spacecraft at the city's core. And the voice repeats the invitation. Come! Be part of this opportunity! This vision that will inspire the world! It's achievable! It's affordable! And it's ready to fly! The blueprint flashes across the television screen, three minutes and 22 seconds of glittering promise, product of 100 days (well, 103, actually) of frantic planning. It's a video game with all its glitter and zing. Like some Deus Ex 3 vision of the city as futuristic wonderland, ablaze with light. Some bitchin' imagery of a home fit for heroes blessed with heavy stubble, curious anatomies that are part flesh, part nano-tech augmentation, and in possession of a wide range of imaginative weaponry. 

Except that this is a design for the distinctly unaugmented. It is a plan for a small city on the edge of a narrow island at the foot of the Pacific. A blueprint for concrete, tarmac and cement. A map to an everyday future. 

Reproduced with permission from The Villa at the Edge of the Empire: One Hundred Ways to Read a City by Fiona Farrell. Published by Vintage, Penguin Random House NZ. RRP $40.00. Text copyright © Fiona Farrell, 2015. 

 - Stuff


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