Southern Capital Christchurch: Towards a City Biography 1850-2000
ed John Cookson & Graeme Dunstall
Canterbury University Press, $39.95,
Canterbury University Press, $29.95,
Christchurch is my home city. My heart and my brain have been seeded and weeded, manured and manicured, by the green-fingered goblins who garden the imagination of Christchurch. My forbears on all sides were families whose colonising generation came to the city in the 19th century. My mother was a factory machinist and charwoman who grew up in the poorest streets of Christchurch; her story and the story of her sisters is the basis of my novel Oracles and Miracles. My own childhood and adolescence were formed by Christchurch. I lived in a new suburban cul-de-sac called Olivine Street. Not a lovely place, Olivine Street. A flat street, a pavement of grey tarmac. The story of those years has been spelled out in some detail in my novels The Shining City and Mum.
My adult career began when I studied academic history at the University of Canterbury. I wrote a thesis about wealthy colonial landowners. My thesis supervisor was James Gardner.
“The thing to grasp about our history,” he spelled out, “is that it’s not colourful, it’s all just shades of grey.”
I stared back at him, stumped.
“How do you mean, Jim?” I asked. “How do you mean – grey?”
Jim Gardner was a short, dry, sandy, wiry sort of coot.
“Grey,” he said, “by which I mean careful attention to detail, and fine shading, and low tones – no place for the flamboyant.”
“Rich landowners were often flamboyant.”
“All the more reason for a historian to keep a cool head.”
What a lot of crap, I was thinking, my mind crammed with visions of squatters riding to hounds, dinner guests shimmering with diamonds, yellow plains, turquoise lakes, tawny tussocks tossing in a nor’wester, women wearing crinolines, wide white houses swimming through a sienna twilight.
After my years at the University of Canterbury came more years at the Australian National University, from which I emerged with my doctorate and an uncertain mind and an urge to write about Christchurch. I’ve now written more novels and histories about Christchurch and Canterbury than any other writer of my generation; more than any other writer of any generation.
Not a lot to claim, to be a big fish in this particular pond. A “dank pond … diluted and slightly stagnant” in the words of critics like A R D Fairburn. A pretty little pond planted with weeping willow, according to admirers, its clipped banks gracefully ornamented by aristocracy. A city which has been a byword at various times for its fads, its conservatism, its floriculture gone crazy, its underclass of white racists and most recently for turning itself into what the Business Roundtable has called the “People’s Republic of Christchurch”.
A colourful place, surely, to provoke such intense opinions? Yet according to my old supervisor, a grey place.
A grey place, too, in the two new histories now under review.
John Cookson and Graeme Dunstall have taught history at the University of Canterbury for the past quarter of a century and are the editors of Southern Capital Christchurch, a collection of essays written by twelve writers. Let’s start positively and look at the best bits.
Katie Pickles gets the gold. Only two of the essays in the book have been written by women, by the way – which seems extraordinary at the start of the new century! Her chapter about industry and modernity between the wars is the only part of the entire book where the reader can hear large numbers of real people talking about their lives, with directness and warmth. Nobody else in the book says anything so interesting, so interestingly, as Pickles. John Cookson gets the silver for writing a nicely balanced, sometimes nicely phrased, couple of essays about cultural identity. Bronze? Jonathan Mane-Wheoki gives us a good survey of high culture, though he has to skimp on literature in order to fit in the other arts. Literature isn’t his speciality. A pity, since my home city is a reading city, a wordy city. Eric Pawson writes a useful account of ecological history, though I think he’s mistaken in some details. He defines the species planted in gardens of the past as “non-native”. Yet what garden of any style in colonial Christchurch – ironically in order to look “exotic” – didn’t sport at least one proudly rustling “cabbage palm”?
Some parts of the book are startlingly slack. Te Maire Tau writes at weary length and very pretentiously – supposedly about Ngai Tahu and the landscape of Canterbury, but at times we find ourselves wading on the banks of the Euphrates in the fourth millennium BC and wallowing through the Middle Ages, briefly nodding on our way at Pope Benedict XII.
Twenty percent of the book deals with Maori. Yet my home town has never been inhabited by very large numbers of tangata whenua – even now only seven percent of people identify as Maori. Asians have been more numerous than Maori at certain points in the history of the city but are scarcely mentioned. “Maori”, by the way, is defined almost entirely as Ngai Tahu. Yet those who belong to that iwi are a minority among Christchurch Maori. Why three wordy chapters about Ngai Tahu?
A queer like me always checks out the visibility of bent people in a book. Queers during the first century of my city were much more numerous than Maori. Many were conspicuous “achievers”. Samuel Butler. D’Arcy Cresswell. Ursula Bethell. Nurse Maude. Rewi Alley. Yet dykes and poofs get no chapter of their own. Not only do they not get a chapter, they don’t even get a look-in on any of the other chapters.
Hardly anywhere in these two books can I find portraits of my own Christchurch. The feckless, shiftless lot, for example, who were the unskilled working folk of my mother’s family in Sydenham. Pickles comes closest, but has no brief to catch the tram home from the factory to take us inside the kitchens, the bedrooms, the minds and hearts of those workers. Nor can I find anywhere a detailed portrait of the routines and the minds and hearts of those hundreds of thousands of people who live or have lived lives more or less in the mould of the dormitory suburbanites of my adolescence in Shirley.
And so on – wide swathes of social, and emotional, life are left out of this story.
Selectivity is by no means a bad thing in a general history, but here it serves the reader poorly. Southern Capital Christchurch has some of the usual strengths and most of the usual weaknesses of a collection of essays. The strengths: multiple viewpoints, multiple voices, capacity to look at particular issues closely. The weaknesses: bitty, specialised, discordant. David McIntyre, writing about “building the city”, whacks down a series of scraps of ideas and afterwards pretends the scrapwork makes up an essay – and then pretends that he tends to a conclusion. A conclusion dealing with the theme of “Englishness”. Other writers in the work also deal with the same theme, but no attempt is made either by writers or editors to engage with one another and thus debate a controversial question in a sustained, subtle and complex way. The whole work lacks a broadly synthesising imaginative energy.
The other book under review, Geoffrey Rice’s Christchurch Changing, by contrast, could have afforded a wonderful opportunity for one historian working alone to turn out a memorable book. Sadly, it’s more a book to make you lie down and snooze. A stifling book, of interest only to the most parochial. Luckily for the author, lots of folk in Christchurch are parochial. Photographs are numerous in this “illustrated history” yet yield a loosely connected accretion of pix rather than a photo-essay. Weighted, too, by long, dull captions telling you what to find inside the image – in other words, not trusting you to look. And both books, by the way, are ugly. Ugly covers, ugly layout inside the covers.
How about what the two books have to say? A writer like me who has taken strong stances and hammered the keyboard hard to try to make sense of the city, anticipates encouraging endorsements or – more likely! – stimulating rebuttals. Nobody who takes a strong stance has any right to moan when getting pounded or sliced by robust or witty rebuttal. A central problem with both these books is that we are not treated to rebuttal – witty and robust or otherwise. Confronted by intense dissent about the meanings of the city, what do these essayists do? Mostly they hit the “delete” key. Ranks close tightly in my home town, not only among the tweedy establishment of old families but also among the terylene establishment of tame academics. Silence instead of discourse.
Two books almost always careful, almost always literal, almost always as grey, as flat and featureless – as unreadable – as the tarmac of Olivine Street.
Stevan Eldred-Grigg has recently published a new novel, Kaput!, which will be reviewed in our August issue.