Ki­wis play­ing the long game with the Mother Coun­try


THE first re­minder was a no­tice on the back of the ho­tel door: “In the event of an earth­quake...” The ad­vice was sim­ple: take cover, hold on till it’s over, and only leave the build­ing if the fire alarm sounds.

In the preter­nat­u­rally peace­ful Christchurch, where the only noise is seag­ulls, it is hard to imag­ine the terror that gripped the city on 22 Feb­ru­ary, 2011. That day, a mas­sive af­ter­shock from an earth­quake the pre­vi­ous Septem­ber flat­tened the city cen­tre, and much else be­sides, killing 185, and se­ri­ously in­jur­ing 6,600. It was New Zealand’s 9/11, and since then this douce, leafy, charm­ing town has been al­tered beyond recog­ni­tion.

Seven years on, and there are ar­eas that still look like pho­tos of Lon­don af­ter the blitz: stone build­ings but­tressed in steel, ru­ins open to view, as if the walls had been sliced off by a gi­ant can-opener, acres of empty land, where houses, churches and of­fices once stood, but now there is noth­ing but mem­o­ries.

Christchurch, in Can­ter­bury, New Zealand’s most English colo­nial out­post, had been “munted”, as they say in these parts – to­tally de­stroyed. Ini­tial re­con­struc­tion work took place be­low ground, shoring up against flood­ing and slip­page that fol­lowed the quake, since Christchurch is built on swamp­land. This cru­cial but slow and in­vis­i­ble re­struc­tur­ing added to the sense of dis­lo­ca­tion that be­dev­ils the city. With build­ing work gath­er­ing mo­men­tum, sites are filled and the deso­late city cen­tre, which has lost more than half its work­ing pop­u­la­tion, is oc­cu­pied by con­struc­tion work­ers from across the world. One com­men­ta­tor re­marked that there was dan­ger of the city be­com­ing like a Wild West fron­tier town. As in the days of the gold rush, this army of men has been quickly fol­lowed by pros­ti­tutes. They were not in ev­i­dence when I was there, but the builders and ar­chi­tects and en­gi­neers were, al­most ev­ery other cafe ta­ble oc­cu­pied by men with floor plans, dis­cussing projects and sched­ules. Like ev­ery­one else, they seemed to speak in whis­pers. So un­pop­u­lated you ex­pect to see tumbleweed roll past, there is a deeply un­set­tling sense of fragility about this most wel­com­ing and at­trac­tive of cities. A pal­pa­ble sense of trauma hangs over it. This is not eased by the heated de­bate that rages over what sort of a city Christchurch should choose to be­come.

Ought it to repli­cate its colo­nial hey­day, painstak­ingly re­plac­ing the orig­i­nal neo-gothic churches and Vic­to­rian civic build­ings that would look at home in Brideshead Revisited? Or should it grasp this op­por­tu­nity to leave the past in its right­ful place, and in­stead em­brace a for­ward-look­ing im­age, with ar­chi­tec­ture and lay­out more ap­pro­pri­ate to a mod­ern mul­ti­cul­tural so­ci­ety liv­ing pre­car­i­ously on the rim of the

Pa­cific Ring of Fire? I know which I would choose, but then it’s easy for on­look­ers to make judg­ments. Quite how I’d feel if my home town had been dev­as­tated, and its phys­i­cal ties to the past re­duced to rub­ble, I do not know.

The ma­jor­ity of Cantabri­ans, it would seem, pre­fer to keep the era of the first white set­tlers alive. Per­haps this is not sur­pris­ing, given that Christchurch was founded on the idea of trans­port­ing old Eng­land to the other side of the world. Even to­day, New Zealan­ders’ love of Bri­tain re­mains in­tense. They scorn those Aus­tralians who would oust the Royal Fam­ily – some are glued to the cov­er­age of Harry and Meghan’s nup­tials – and their news­pa­pers and TV channels carry a dis­pro­por­tion­ate amount of UK news. Yet there is one English name they loathe, a man al­most as re­viled as the twerp who in­tro­duced rab­bits to these is­lands.

Ted Heath is a na­tional vil­lain for his role in tak­ing Bri­tain into the Euro­pean Com­mu­nity in 1973, thereby con­demn­ing New Zealand, which re­lied heav­ily on Bri­tish trade, to a decade of eco­nomic de­cline. Be­fore we joined the Com­mon Mar­ket, and then the EU, New Zealand’s sheep, dairy and beef mar­ket was pri­mar­ily fo­cussed on its colo­nial home­land. One Dunedin-born res­i­dent told me that when he was a child, his fam­ily ate mut­ton, not lamb, and never en­joyed steaks. The coun­try’s finest pro­duce was kept for send­ing over­seas.

You might think, then, that as Brexit ap­proaches, New Zealan­ders would be en­joy­ing our dis­com­fi­ture. Now, surely, is their time to take re­venge. As the UK tries to forge new deals and part­ner­ships, the bal­ance of power lies with those friends whom we self­ishly shafted with­out a sec­ond thought. Why would they make things easy for us?

Yet, among those to whom I’ve spo­ken, there is re­mark­able sang froid, and no sense what­so­ever that they bear a grudge. In­deed, good­hu­mour seems to be a uni­ver­sal trait, on both the south and north is­lands. They don’t have a bad word for us, or none they’ll voice. Mean­while, farm­ers in the UK must be con­tem­plat­ing the resur­gence of New Zealand beef, lamb and wool in our shops with trep­i­da­tion. Come Brexit, it could be that New Zealand will be shown to have played a long game, and won. For farm­ers on our side of the globe, the re­ver­ber­a­tions of their pa­tience and un­ques­tion­ing loy­alty could be seis­mic.

Farm­ers in the UK must be con­tem­plat­ing the resur­gence of New Zealand beef, lamb and wool in our shops with trep­i­da­tion

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