How the truth stands in a pile of stones
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?)