By Anne Scoular
I’ve been a bit shaky (sorry no pun intended but that word keeps coming out) about Christchurch since the February quake. The first big one (September 2010) didn’t affect me too much, I thought it a miracle no-one was killed, tragic that the beautiful city I loved as I grew up – so English, in places so exquisitely beautiful – was so damaged, but consoled myself thinking Christchurch, New Zealand’s most stylish city (the only one with style in my jaded view of NZ architecture – all beauty of line and form seems to be concentrated in that one elegant town) would eventually build something fresh and inspiring to replace it.
But the February 2011 one was shocking – brutal, cruel, the eastern half of the city uninhabitable, the central business district smashed to smithereens, and most horrific of all, 181 people killed – including many young foreign students whose inconsolable parents must have thought they had sent their child to the safest place on earth. Only a few days later here in London was the launch of my book, ‘The Financial Times Guide to Business Coaching’, which I had pushed myself right to the edge of exhaustion to write while also continuing to run the business, which is my ‘baby’ representing my distilled thinking after almost 20 years in the profession, and which, thanks to Claire and Debbie’s thoughtful organising, was launched at a fabulously glamorous party (for photos, see http://meylercampbell.com/pdfs/BookLaunch.pdf ).
But the smiling faces of the audience turned puzzled during my speech, then to compassionate understanding, when I said despite it all on that happiest of days I was also carrying deep sadness. Christchurch – everyone else had been horrified too.
But the point about an earthquake, as one survivor said bitterly in contrast to the ghastly Queensland floods of the same time, is it keeps happening. After a few days the floodwaters recede, and you can get on with trying to get your life back together again. Almost unbearable as you survey the destruction of your world – but at least the waves don’t keep crashing over, and over, and over you. In Christchurch, they do. Yesterday (14 June) alone there were 28 quakes in 24 hours. “Aftershocks” they’re called. But I was talking to my friend Glenda, who said in the latest big one two days ago, she ran outdoors, threw herself on the grass in the middle of the garden, but even there lying prone, kept being thrown from side to side. Every time she tried to stand the earth would buckle savagely and she would be thrown off her feet again. Eventually after several petrifying minutes, she went back indoors to look for the family pets. She put the bird in his cage on the centre of the lawn – but then she said, with resigned familiarity with a whole new world and vocabulary “the liquifaction started coming up” – bad quakes liquify the ground, water, sewage pipes and their contents and all, and the whole brown mess is forced up above the ground within minutes of the quake – so she ran to save the bird from drowning on the lawn, and put bird and cage in her car – the strongest steel container around, but also crushed all over the city this week, thankfully not Glenda’s this time, plus the dog, and drove around craters and fissures in the road, through instant gridlock, to her children’s school. She said when she got within half a mile of the school, it was the same sight all over again – abandoned cars, mothers just getting out and running desperately to the school gates. When she got the kids “home”, she took advantage of their father arriving the same minute (divorced parents – doubles and trebles the anxiety) and said brightly to the children, why don’t you go straight off with Daddy: she wanted to protect the kids from seeing what was inside. Then she went indoors on her own and started clearing up, for the twentieth or more time. Her daughter’s wardrobe had toppled over. The things that had been on the piano were behind the sofa on the other side of the room, the microwave had smashed on the floor halfway across the kitchen – “you wouldn’t have wanted to be in there when it was happening”.
So she spends the next day shovelling the stinking liquefaction off the driveway again, rights the furniture, cries over more broken possessions, adds the microwave to the insurance claim (“the insurance companies aren’t going to survive”) and carries on. On little sleep – the shakes happen every few hours during the night.
How is the city coping? If you Google “Christchurch Press” (the local newspaper – which is producing brilliant reporting – lucid, accurate, laconically unsensationalist, up-to-the minute – despite their own building having been destroyed somewhere back there in the series of quakes) you read, along with the dry facts, tear-making stories of pitching in and supporting neighbours and strangers, daily acts of unassuming heroism. Are New Zealanders exceptional? Is Christchurch peopled by stoics with exceptional psychological resilience? I have always been interested in the psychology of the ‘spirit of the Blitz’, in all its complexity. Right now it’s too raw, I can’t look on my dear friends and cousins and the myriad actions of brave strangers, as lab rats. But archaeologists, anthropologists and psychologists all pay keen attention to “natural experiments” – things which happen real time and where careful scientific observation can yield unexpected flashes of insight into hitherto unknown human capability. Not yet, but soon I’m going to be interested in the spirit of Christchurch.