How the truth stands in a pile of stones

The Southland Times - - COMMENT&OPINION -

Poetry, said Au­den, makes noth­ing hap­pen. The same is true of news­pa­per col­umns. I know so. For I’ve writ­ten sev­eral thou­sand of them and they’ve had much the same in­flu­ence on the world as clear­ing my throat has – and the gen­tle­man at the back say­ing that’s how they read may sit down.

This week, how­ever, I hap­pened to go into town and saw a sight that made me won­der whether, per­haps, just for once … but let me be­gin at that ever-pop­u­lar lo­ca­tion, the be­gin­ning.

Af­ter the earth­quakes of 2011, the cen­tre of Christchurch was cor­doned off. Be­cause I could no longer go there I lost in­ter­est in what hap­pened there and to the de­bate about how to re­build it I con­trib­uted noth­ing. When the au­thor­i­ties asked for sub­mis­sions and sug­ges­tions, I nei­ther sub­mit­ted nor sug­gested.

In my ap­a­thy I chose to take no part in the po­lit­i­cal life of the city, and thus be­came what the An­cient Greeks called an id­iot.

So, though it may seem to me, from my re­cent wan­der though the re­build, that the new city cen­tre will be sub­stan­tially uglier than the old one, I am in no po­si­tion to crit­i­cise.

And though it may seem to me that ev­ery de­vel­oper has hired the same ar­chi­tec­tural firm, to wit Messrs Bland, Kor­prut, Krohm and Glasse, I am in no po­si­tion to crit­i­cise.

And though it may seem to me that the re­build lacks a sin­gle bold idea for the peo­ple to grasp and cleave to, I am in no po­si­tion to crit­i­cise.

And though it may fur­ther seem to me that hav­ing been given a chance to cre­ate some­thing star­tling, fresh and dis­tinc­tive, Christchurch is now in the process of fail­ing to take that chance, well, I am still in no po­si­tion to crit­i­cise.

But then I turned on to Worces­ter St, looked up and and saw a sight that made my heart sing like a lark. It was the cathe­dral.

Now, my record of be­ing rude about re­li­gious or­gan­i­sa­tions is, I be­lieve, un­blem­ished. Be they cults or es­tab­lished faiths (the dif­fer­ence be­tween the two be­ing merely size of in­come) I have crit­i­cised them ex­plic­itly and im­plic­itly for fail­ing to ac­knowl­edge the ob­vi­ous re­al­ity of things.

How any of them per­sist postDar­win I have no idea. And yet, that said, I am about to praise the au­thor­i­ties of the Angli­can Church to the non-ex­is­tent heav­ens.

Reg­u­lar read­ers may re­call that I wrote a col­umn in early 2012 sug­gest­ing that the ruined cathe­dral be left ex­actly as it was for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions to gawp at.

There could be no bet­ter quake memo­rial, I said.

Now I have no way of telling whether the Angli­can big­wigs read my col­umn, but that is pre­cisely what they’ve done. They threw a fence around the ruin and let it be.

The re­sult is al­ready spec­tac­u­lar. Af­ter only seven years the cathe­dral has be­come as evoca­tive as a Mayan ruin in the jun­gle. It is eerie. It is beau­ti­ful. It is touch­ing and it is telling.

One end of the build­ing is open to the world. Rub­ble is heaped in what was once the nave. Weeds have colonised the stonework. And amid the rafters pi­geons sit con­tent­edly and coo to each other in quiet pos­ses­sion of a space that once rang with hymns and prayers.

You would have to be dead of heart and mind not to look at it and think.

Here is the his­tory of Christchurch. Here’s the fan­tasy that smug Vic­to­ri­ans sought to im­pose on this is­land in the south Pa­cific.

The fan­tasy was class-bound and church-cen­tred, and its nub was this cathe­dral, built in stone in im­i­ta­tion of else­where.

That stone was its un­do­ing. Had it been of na­tive tim­bers it would have swayed and stood, but it was as un­bend­ing as Vic­to­rian moral­ity.

It cracked and fell. And in fall­ing it be­came a metaphor for the faith that had erected it. To­day we are a sec­u­lar so­ci­ety. And here too is the greater sci­en­tific truth ex­pressed. In place of god we have tec­tonic plates.

Like god they can bring ruin. But un­like him they don’t play favourites.

We’re not the cho­sen species, the favoured mam­mal of him up­stairs. In the face of ge­o­log­i­cal forces we stand on the skin of the earth as vul­ner­a­ble and in­signif­i­cant as ev­ery other crea­ture.

So much truth in a heap of stone.

All I can do is re­peat what I said in 2012. Let’s leave it as it is. (Oh and please, yes, of course I’m aware of the Angli­cans’ real rea­sons for do­ing noth­ing. But can a man not en­ter­tain a brief and harm­less fan­tasy that he made some­thing hap­pen?)

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