Behind the facades, shaken city's identity still in ruins

STEPHEN OLIVER
Last updated 07:29 03/09/2012

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Stephen Oliver

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The other week, waiting for a connecting flight north, I found myself with a three-hour delay in Christchurch. Nothing is more boring than hanging around airports, paying $5 for a coffee or $9 for a so-called panini. Highway robbery. Or should that be tarmac robbery?

International airports with domestic terminals are like little city-states - law unto themselves. Instead, I decided on a two-hour escape into Christchurch, or the wasteland that is now post-earthquake Christchurch.

One curious phenomenon I had observed was that many of my fellow travellers were armed with Kindle. While waiting earlier at Auckland Airport, I asked a guy sitting next to me what he found useful in the Kindle device as opposed to a traditional book. “It's got a light,” he said. Groovy, I thought. And, that he could store 3000 books on it. I said he could never read that many books. Basically, it was a trendy gadget with add-ons.

As I understand it, deep reading comes without artificial light - except for the one in your head. An attitude and mode of concentration as opposed to gadgetry. What happens when the batteries run out? Does it glow forever? Is Kindle destined to be powered ultimately by nano-technology or plutonium battery? Keep an eye on new applications, citizen - you cannot do without them. Another tool, another trend. Long live the book!

But I digress. I have previously written suggesting Christ Church Cathedral might be preserved at least in part as New Zealand's first quasi-mediaeval ruin. In reality, or at least in my view, it is an example of late Victorian gothic architecture. Up until now, I had not physically seen the structure. Suddenly there it was, stoic and damaged. The quadrant resembled a compound. The cathedral and square were closed off to the public. A security guard directing traffic away from the cordoned-off access points emerged from a guard booth, wearing a black beret, green army fatigues and combat boots. He even wore aviator sunglasses. I did not see any weaponry, armoured personnel vehicles or arc lights but they would not have been out of place. He had the swagger of a cafe-bar jerk. Where was I - in some revolutionary South American country, maybe an extra on a World War II movie set?

Looking at the cathedral, I was surprised to see how much of the main structure remained ostensibly intact. I thought, what is being protected here - is the cathedral the ossuary of Jesus Christ? Does it house the old bones of Anglican founding fathers? That was the point. The Christ Church Cathedral symbolically represents Christchurch and is revered in so far as it “protects” and represents the “soul” or historical identity of that city. Anglicanism, pilgrim! The last of our ties to the illusion of Imperialist Britain.

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That ghost lingers on in Christchurch. Should the cathedral be completely demolished so too would the city's historical identity of and frayed ties to the “motherland”. Of course, that link was effectively severed decades ago; already moribund by the close of World War I. No-one really told Christchurch the game was up. Maybe the telegrams didn't get through. “The Empire Is Dead.” So there it stolidly squats. Testament to an undecided future safeguarding the lie of empire: God, Queen and Country.

George Bernard Shaw, when he visited Christchurch in the 30s, famously said the cathedral represented perhaps the finest example of architectural grandeur in the southern hemisphere. The civic leaders of the day puffed out their Anglican chests and stated they were very proud of their cathedral. GBS snorted, “No, not that one - the other cathedral down by the gas works."

He was referring to the Catholic Basilica with its neo-classical design, purportedly the finest example of post-renaissance architecture in Australasia. The cathedral is regarded as perhaps architect Francis Petrie's finest work.

The Anglican fathers did not want the Catholics to build in the city centre so offered a swampy strip down near the gas works and railway station. Anglicans rule.

As to beauty and style, Christ Church looks like a giant kennel compared with the shattered beauty of the Blessed Sacrament. It has lost its two bell towers, and the great central dome and much of the back structure have been removed. The facade attests to its classic beauty yet its future remains uncertain - just like the identity of Christchurch.

Stephen Oliver is the author of 16 volumes of poetry. He lived in Australia for 20 years and now resides in the King Country, and is a freelance writer and voice artist.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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