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Shaking More Than the Earth

Christchurch Ruptures
by Katie Pickles (BWB Texts, paper $14.99; e-book $4.99)
Reviewed by Judith Morrell Nathan

BWB7760_Text_Cover_Christchurch Ruptures_High ResProfessor Pickles, head of history at Canterbury University, has written about the earthquakes from a new angle, arguing they have “fractured pathways to remembering the past”. Her approach to history is thematic and sociological, not chronological. The book looks at Christchurch’s history and the impact of the earthquakes through five themes: landscape, people, heritage, culture and politics. “The earthquakes have exposed major components in the history of Christchurch such as the dominant Anglican tradition and Englishness, the denial of a Maori past, and the environmental pitfalls of building on a swamp.”

The disruption to the landscape is all too obvious, with many buildings demolished by the earthquake and subsequently in the recovery phase. The break from the colonial past is symbolised in the destruction of statues of Canterbury’s founders. Pickles argues that traditions need to be looked at afresh and not just clung to or restored. While the earthquakes have brought the city’s colonial past back into focus, many heritage buildings had been knocked down before the earthquakes.

Pickles points out that in its early days, Christchurch was viewed as “ a blank canvas for Pakeha to write on”. It was only in 1994 that a monument to Maori was built in Victoria Square. And only in the 21st century, with its Treaty settlement, has Ngai Tahu become an economic power in the city. Pickles has an interesting analysis of the 12 Christchurch heroes whom the Local Heroes Trust included in its statue project shortly before the earthquakes (there was one Maori and three women). Now the earthquakes have caused a demographic rupture bringing a new wave of migrants (overwhelmingly male) impacting on the city’s ethnic mix.

Alongside Christchurch’s apparent conservatism, Pickles points out there was a strong radical tradition, for example Professor Bickerton and his commune, Kate Sheppard, Elsie Locke, Ettie Rout and others. The majority of Christchurch politicians have been on the left, like WP Reeves, Norm Kirk, David Caygill and long serving mayor Vicki Buck. But with the earthquakes came support for the right with the re-election of mayor Bob Parker (despite polls having previously predicted his defeat by Jim Anderton) and, following a long line of Labour MPs, the defeat of Labour’s Brendan Burns by National’s Nicky Wagner. Support for National in the seven city electorates jumped from 44.2% to 51.9%. With the creation of the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority, the earthquakes added to the suspension of democracy that began in March 2010 when the elected Canterbury Regional Councillors were sacked. The negative reputation of students was ruptured by the positive work of the Student Army.

In her chapter considering ruptured Gothic, Pickles covers both the 1954 Parker-Hulme murder case which she sees as illustrating Christchurch’s gothic underbelly and the history of the cathedral in the context of Gothic architecture. This juxtaposition does not work. I cannot accept the Parker-Hulme murder says anything about gothic culture though it does throw some light on class in post-war Christchurch. But that does not justify more than 12 pages being devoted to it.

Pickles points out the cathedral debate epitomises the rupture between those who want a return to the past and those who look to a new future. 27 heritage buildings were demolished under the powers created by the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Act, despite Heritage New Zealand (formerly the Historic Places Trust) recommending their preservation.

The east-west split of the city was exacerbated by the greater damage in the east which reinforced its lower socio-economic status. It is not widely realised that the potential for this large scale liquefaction was foreseen in geological reports in the late 20th century but in effect ignored.

This is a thought-provoking perspective on the impact of the earthquakes. The copious footnotes testify to the depth of Pickles’ scholarship but some readers may find the language at times too academic to fully engage their interest.

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