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