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Before the Quakes

Remembering Christchurch: Voices from decades past
by Alison Parr, with Rosemary Baird (Penguin Random House, $45)
Reviewed by Ruth Brassington

Remebering_ChCh_WebThe Christchurch I lived in for my first 23 years was where four-year-olds walked alone to kindergarten, crossing roads empty of all but a couple of cars per hour. My primary school, Ilam, was newly built on a grassy paddock surrounded by rural land. We had regular earthquake drill, running out through the “open-air” doors onto the playing field to await futher instructions. I’d grown up knowing that the top of the cathedral was green because the copper top had replaced the original stone, lost in an earlier earthquake. So, unlike a more recent Christchurch population, I grew up aware that Christchurch could have earthquakes – and that a large area to the east of the city wasn’t inhabited because the land was sand and marsh.

Then Christchurch got its recent shocking events. A couple of years on, Alison Parr and Rosemary Baird gathered memories and responses from a cluster of Christchuch’s older inhabitants who remember “their” Christchurch – and as well as memories of place and times, they express their feelings, along with their thoughts, about the post-earthquake future of the city.

“Their memories are a legacy – the human heritage of Christchurch as it was for them.” Alison Parr hopes their memories will ensure what stood before will never be forgotten. These are people born in the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s, all unlikely to see the new Christchurch complete its transformation. This is social history at its best – told by those who were there, through thick and thin, many of them displaced by the vagaries of the dancing earth beneath them or their surroundings.

We’ve heard a lot about Christhcurch’s history as an early English settlement, most often in relation to those first four ships of “founding fathers”. But this oral history holds today’s stories of yesterday’s real lives, lived in the real Christchurch over a very long time, with no ships featuring in their stories unless their own life was touched by one. The people are from all over, including Lyttelton, Dallington, Addington, New Brighton, Woolston – and they have been watersiders, journalists, home-makers, shop assistants, engineers etc – and, much to my delight, my own art teacher from my earthquake-devastated high school. Whichever part of Christchurch was your own stamping-ground, or whatever interested you as a visitor to the city, these stories go beyond the stones and mortar you may have admired, or the quarter-acre you may have played on, and tell you what was really there for the people of the place for so very long.

Although it’s rather weighty for holding in bed, this is a beautifully presented book, a pleasing balance of words and pictures, with brief introductions to each person before they tell their story. They invariably express an approximation of Wordsworth’s words, which introduce the book: “The things which I have seen I now can see no more.”