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Anthony Lock: Life in post-quake Christchurch

Anthony Lock: Life in post-quake Christchurch

by Anthony Lock

I live in Christchurch. As I write, the city awaits decisions on which parts of our city are going to be “abandoned” You never know quite what the next quake will be like, and your cranium still records the former city, the one that the earth has, in a way, reclaimed. The expression “no worries” now seems somewhat oxymoronic or even ironically nostalgic.

It is because of this, and being a citizen of Christchurch, that I have fallen in love again. With Orwell.

Lionel Trilling remarked that an importance of Orwell’s body of work is his obsession with survival. His style is characterized by simply expressing how a thing is, and limiting any abstractions in such an expression, aside from any the reader might wish to make. In Keep the Aspidistra Flying, “Orwell’s sad young man”, according to Trilling, “learns to cherish the small personal gear of life, his own bed and chairs…his own aspidistra, the ugly, stubborn, organic emblem of survival”. In being reduced to some form of survival, one begins to cherish the simplest things, because without them, one would not be here.

And so Orwell could have written Christchurch if he had had some godly powers. Reading Orwell again after the February quake and its lesser impersonators who visit us daily, is like reading a distorted roman à clef of current life. Those who have stayed in Christchurch, even those who live in the “lesser affected areas”, to use Christchurch newspeak, have come to appreciate three meals, a roof, a cell phone, the escape in a good book, family, and friendships. In more abstract words, safety and security.

I live in a lesser affected area, but every time there’s a substantial quake you worry about the other parts of the city and those you care about who live there. In those suburbs the people don’t jump like you do to a quake when you’re over there because they become hardier to those “smaller ones”. In a way, people on these sides of town learn to cherish that was one of the smaller ones. Just like you learn to cherish if you live in a certain part of the city, still have a job, even if it’s not what you want or is part of your intended or actual career, or, above all, still have all your loved ones with you. You cherish what remains in Christchurch and what has re-opened or begun again, even if you now dislike Christchurch after what has happened.

And in a similarly paradoxical way, in Christchurch you learn to appreciate your simplest material possessions and survival needs like food, water that does not need to be boiled and walls that can be lived within. But you also learn that these don’t matter. What you really appreciate is if your loved ones are safe. Friends and family are also part of your survival. In Nineteen-Eighty-Four, without Julia, Winston’s survival is in many ways jejune, but after meeting her, he can face every day with a kind of energy unknown before, and even enjoy it. You are, in many ways, the bonds you form with other people and those dearest to you, and you can’t be “okay” in Christchurch unless your loved ones are safe as well.

Like Orwell, I’m not attempting any major abstraction, just simply laying facts bare. But if there’s one abstraction to be made, it’s that the rebuilding of Christchurch is constituted of the need for this Orwellian strength to keep surviving, but also the need to evolve from it. Christchurch won’t be “back to normal” until we aren’t worrying about things we used to largely take for granted, and we’ve regained the things many other cities have.

So if you’re in Christchurch, and you can, read some Orwell. And if you’re not, come and see in person how the aspidistra is kept flying. We need people to come here, and for those in the rest of New Zealand, it is a rare opportunity to see something that you could read about in an Orwell, but could also only appreciate, in certain ways, in an Orwell if you’ve seen it first-hand. There are many paradoxical things in Christchurch, but that’s why you must visit. You may have fallen in love in the old Christchurch, but you can again in the new Christchurch. You can experience something here at the moment that you can’t get in many other places, and can last you a lifetime. Despite earthquakes, Christchurch still provides something unique. This, if anything, is the key to its rejuvenation.

*************

Anthony Lock is a freelance writer who is currently based in Christchurch; he has recently completed first-class honours at the University of Canterbury, and has since been writing for US publications. He is currently working on a piece for NZ Geographic, and his first non-fiction book.

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