Christchurch, remixed

Christchurch, remixed
 I don’t need statistics to tell me Christchurch is not monocultural. I see evidence to the contrary every day, and it fills me with hope for the future.

When a city is rebuilt, the wanderer’s eye is particularly drawn to artists’ renderings of what will stand where now, there is bare land or rising steel. Onsite billboards present an idealised vision of what to expect; a permanently cloudless summer sky, gleaming glass, pristine walls untouched by tags or lichen. Little clusters of people hang around these perfect buildings, often a little translucent, like future ghosts.  As we walk through patches of wilderness to reach these little islands of growth, we search, sometimes hopelessly, for the familiar, and examine the new.

I started paying particular attention to who populated artists’ renderings – spoiler: white folks – not long after an outcry over a campaign designed to promote living in the CBD, which featured almost exclusively white or white-appearing professional people.  Some time before that, my then-employers had released a series of posters that sought to depict the exciting variety of typical local newspaper readers: several white people and a dog.  Between the two of these events – which I found people generally responded to with some variation on “but Christchurch really is super white and monocultural, it’s just reality”-  I began counting obviously non-white faces as I went about my day in the CBD.  I’d usually hit between nine and 15 in a 10-minute walk, before I got bored with counting and started thinking about something else.

When I say “CBD”, mind you, I’m not talking about a bustling metropolis, or even the moderately active small city that Christchurch used to be before the 2011 earthquake. I’m talking about a still fairly sparsely populated part of town. It’s a place tourists visit, and it’s a place where international students and new migrants gather to study English. Many of them, it’s true, may not live within the Four Avenues.  But they work or study here. And many would live here, given the option.

I am a white person from a largely white family. Growing up, I really did live in a largely white town. It’s not any more. It hasn’t been particularly homogenous for at least 20 years. Not if you look around. Christchurch may statistically remain overwhelmingly “European” – 83.9 percent of Christchurch city residents surveyed in the 2013 census identified as such, though some of them probably also identified as something else – but it is changing. More of us are Maori. More of us are Chinese, or Indian, or come from the Philippines. More of us are a mixture of all kinds of things. There have always been Kiwis whose ancestry traced to neither the British Isles nor Hawaiki. They’re just more noticeable now.

I don’t need statistics to tell me Christchurch is not monocultural. I see evidence to the contrary every day. Hazara women in sludgy greens and browns examine bargains at the Warehouse. Sweet-faced young Sikh men sporting winter-weight turbans step back to let me on the bus ahead of them. Taxi drivers come from Africa or Afghanistan. People whose origins I can’t readily identify are everywhere, speaking languages I don’t know, and some that I do. The homeless guys who line the streets behind cardboard signs – most of them aren’t white.  While it makes me sad and frustrated to see the latter, and while I fear the rebuilt city will exclude the non-monied majority, I love the rising diversity of my town.

The streets, the map, even the land beneath them have changed. When the ghostly figures who stride around the fantasy version of our future take flesh, they’ll be Kiwis with many lines of ancestry. And that’s a good thing.


How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb

Mommy, why does everybody have a…

I wasn’t a big fan of Prince. That’s not to say that I actively disliked him – I didn’t – or that I thought he was overrated – no way – or that I wasn’t blown away when I finally saw footage of him performing. Like most women my age I nursed a teeny, unfathomable crush in the 80s, and after his unexpected death last month I was watching the clips and reading the analyses along with everybody else. But unlike when other musical heroes have passed on – I devoured my just-left-home soundtrack Hunky Dory  again when David Bowie died –  I did not want to wallow in the music I knew best. Specifically, I didn’t want to listen to  1999. Of course, Facebook had other ideas and I was forced to confront it.

The song was released late in 1982, but it would have been later than that in New Zealand. I associate it with being 19 or so, maybe 20. I have a very clear memory of being at someone’s house when this album was being played, feeling strongly that something was wrong, but unable to articulate what. I now recognise this as a flare-up of the kind of depression I’m prone to, which had landed me in hospital four years earlier and continued to dog me till I discovered SSRIs in the mid-90s, which have kept me more or less well ever since. At the time all I knew was that I was unhappy and uneasy, unreasonably so.

But it’s 1999 specifically – not Little Red Corvette, say, which is on the same album – that sparks this feeling. And I can’t just put this down to my Henry James-level sensitivity to music.  Sure, Christopher Cross’s Sailing makes me feel agitated and cold, not because it is deeply uncool pop rock with a seasick-making noodly riff – when it was released in 1980 I, too, was deeply uncool – but because it was charting shortly before my psych admission that year and played constantly. To this day I cannot so much as think about Wayne Newton’s 1972 track Daddy Don’t You Walk So Fast without tearing up, and my dad didn’t even go anywhere. It was just the concept. 



Pitchfork’s Maura Johnston calls 1999 the greatest album ever made about partying as a way of staring down oblivion. Well, I was far too scared of oblivion to stare it down. The idea of people partying in the presence of small children while carrying bombs that they presumably intended to detonate soon was too horrifying to contemplate. It should feel far worse today in these times of suicide jackets but it doesn’t. It just seems low-grade hedonistic in the way the early 80s were, with our DIY fashions and limited access to serious luxury and drugs.

It’s been sixteen years since two thousand zero zero and we did not, after all, run out of time. Or if we did, I didn’t get the memo. The Millennium Bug proved to be nonexistent and microwaves everywhere continued to function. Subsequently lots of things happened – pseudo love, true love, heartbreak, London, more love, more heartbreak,  my  town falling  down,  and yet somehow I am  doing all right. Life is insecure and possibly short. Good music, good food and good company will not change that, but they surely ease the path.

I exited high school very literal. Like most A students I couldn’t bear the idea of anyone thinking I didn’t know something or that I was bad, so the idea that someone might deliberately create an unreliable narrator, write a first-person take on a challenging character or just explore something they didn’t actually believe in took a while to sit well with me. Combined with that always iffy mood and its close relative, obsessive thinking, it meant songs and artworks that I now appreciate sometimes scared me. I laugh at and feel sorry for Past Me now in equal measure. (In the sixth form I became very worried that I might get stigmata, which would mean I would have to be holy and therefore not have sex. You have no idea.) I’m glad that, unlike Prince’s mates, nobody I knew was predicting the end times when that album surfaced. Perhaps it was because we were nuclear-free, at the bottom of the world, or not particularly Protestant, or just never read any newspapers.

Today the obsessive thinking issue has largely subsided, remaining only as a susceptibility  to earworms. The more unsettled I am, the more earwormy I become. Visiting New York City I was beset by Famous Blue RaincoatTake The A-Train and  the theme music from The Nanny – horrifyingly,  in that order – because I took said train to meet someone in Clinton St and subsequently rode another line several times that ended in Flushing, Queens.

It’s a pretty good trade-off.