Sunday, 27 February 2011

The Earthquake: A Personal View

I, and those who know me well, know that I'm a rather emotional person and even though that may not be regarded as one of a man's most manly and desirable qualities I really don't give a damn.  That's just how I am.  So I am quite ready to say that when the TV or Radio News brings us interviews and comments and news from quake-stricken Christchurch I sometimes have difficulty holding back the tears.  After all I, like hundreds of thousands of others,  have walked down those streets, have been in that Cathedral, have been in that Mall.  My last visit was less than a year ago which, in geological terms, is a mere fraction of a second in time.  I could easily have been one of those who lies beneath the rubble.  As could many people I know and some I love.   It nearly was!

One of the problems with television, as I have commented before, is that it anaesthetises us.  We are taken right into war zones whilst the bullets and bombs are whizzing and falling.  We are taken into the 9/11s as the fires rage.  We are taken into the horrors of the genocide of Rwanda and the Congo.  We are in the midst of the horrors of Christchurch and, for once, for us in New Zealand it is personal.  Very personal.

But the television and radio views are brought to us by people we don't know personally.

The photos, the words and the emotions on Fiona's blog are, to me, personal because Fiona is a real person who is part of my Blog world and also part of my Facebook world.  So when I see her pictures and read her words I am seeing and reading things which are real and believable and which have no anaesthetic qualities.

Paul Holmes is a New Zealand broadcaster.  I have to admit that I have no liking for him.  He is, however, the consummate wordsmith.  Yesterday in the New Zealand Herald he published the following letter:
Dear Christchurch,
I'm writing to you as an Aucklander, to my Christchurch cousins and brother and sister Kiwis. And I just want you to know how much we're all thinking of you and how much we love you and how much we feel for you in these impossible days.
Your city is on its knees. Our eyes fill with tears at the sight of it. We watch the TV and listen to the radio all day and we hear your emptiness, your loss, your dismay, your shock, your disbelief. We see that ubiquitous bloody silt from the liquefaction, that weird up-thrust of clag that fills your back yards and covers your roads and buries your cars.
We look at you and we look at it all and we know what it means. When we hear that the CBD will be closed for weeks, we know what that means for business. We know what it means for your kids, for their state of mind, for their health, for their next pair of new shoes with winter coming.
We know.
So many of you are involved in the tourism business. We know what those pictures going round the world will do for tourism. We know what it's going to do for the insurance premiums. We know some of you, after this, won't be able to afford insurance.
And we know what your cathedral means to you. I heard someone say the other day on television that the cathedral is a Christchurch icon. No. It's a New Zealand icon. All our lives we've had the Christchurch Cathedral.
I know you think we Aucklanders are up ourselves. I know you bang on about bloody Aucklanders. But really, we're just the same as you. We're Kiwis, before we're anything else. We're strugglers, like you. We get up and go to work and do the best for our kids, just like you. We help our neighbours, just like you, and we've watched you helping each other this week and we've all been deeply moved. We just want to walk up to the television screen and hug you and hold you.
Of course, that is something in itself - we've been able to watch what's been going on. So many of you in Christchurch, lacking electricity, haven't been able to see television or listen to the radio or plug your computer in or charge your cellphones. And you may have loved ones missing as well and heaven knows how you're getting your information and how lonely and isolated you must feel. I hope you have someone to put an arm around you.
John Key was right this week. No act of kindness is too small. That was very homespun of him, wasn't it? That's why I suppose he's so good when this stuff happens.
And I know from September, when I went down for a look, that television might show the bricks lying in the street and the great crumpled buildings in their hideous forms. What it doesn't show is the minute damage, the cracked floors, the broken pipes, the destruction of so much of everything you've built and so much of what you hold dear.
Anyway, the TV coverage has been very compassionate, very graphic, very real and wall to wall. I must say how well I think TV3 did on the first day. Hillary Barry had just the right tone. Then I flicked on Sky News. There was Hillary across Australasia. Then I flicked on CNN. There was Hillary, right around the world.
The most vivid report, and one of the briefest on the first night, was from my former colleague John Sellwood in Lyttelton. He painted a brilliant word picture of the destruction down the main street of the town. It was a lesson in voice reporting. It was passionate but precise and you could hear all the shock of the day in his voice.
On Wednesday, at Hawkes Bay Airport on my way to Auckland, there was a flight due out to Christchurch. In the packed Koru Club every eye was on the television screen. I spoke with Stu, who just wanted to get home to Christchurch. He talked to his wife on Tuesday morning, an hour and a half before the earthquake. She was heading in to Cashel Mall to get her hair done. Cashel Mall was pummelled, of course.
Stu couldn't get hold of her all day. After the quake she and others were trapped in the mall. When they got out, it took Stu's wife three hours to walk home. Stu finally got through to her about 6 on Tuesday night. He said he'd just been through the worst day and night he'd ever had.
Then, just before I got on the plane, I spoke to a woman who works in Lyttelton. She told me that on Tuesday, about lunchtime, her staff ran her to the airport. By the time she landed in Napier, Christchurch was in ruins. She told me that if she hadn't taken that flight, she would have been killed. She has a desk right next to a great brick wall. The entire wall fell across the desk.
What we're seeing this week, Christchurch, is the way you carry on. That's one of the qualities we love about you. You keep going. Everything you rebuilt after last September has been ripped up and torn apart again and you keep going, and we cheer for you and we cry for your pain and heartbreak.
And as each day has gone by this week, we've seen more and more clearly the enormity of the human and infrastructural destruction.
You've got the right man as your mayor, though. Bob Parker is a face and a voice of competence and reassurance. On Wednesday night, I worried about him, so tired and careworn did he look, and I wished he'd simply head home and get some sleep. But there he was on Thursday, fresh as a daisy, the world's media hanging on his every word, talking up the city he loves, willing you to survive.
Anyway, I just wanted you to know how much we're all thinking of you and watching you and praying for you and hoping for the very best for you in your dark hour of worry, longing and sorrow.
Whatever views I may have of Paul, his words brought tears to my eyes.  If I had been born or brought up a New Zealander I would like to think that I had been blessed with the ability to craft those words and bring forth the emotions they evoke. 

As it is all I can do is feel helpless and realise just how lucky I am.


  1. Thank you GB :)
    I consider myself lucky beyond words to be with my family, warm, fed, hydrated, sheltered and alive. Fear and anxiety, short tempers, frustration and annoyance hover.
    We have no idea what faces us in the next weeks at all.... but will try to deal with it and the losses, rearrangements required with humour and resilience. We had dinner tonight with three people in their 80's. They endured the Blitz. They have seen it all before. Now it is our turn to cope.

  2. I suspect people are not as inured as you say. There have been none of the sick comments that usually accompany such disasters.
    I did see one T Shirt........... 'Armageddon Was Yesterday...Today The Real Problems Start'. Which about summed up the situation.
    My thoughts are with you. At least your politicians seem to be earning their keep. Unlike ours.

  3. Graham, I think we were not quite "built" to be able to take in all the problems of the whole world all at once. All this info continually flowing into our homes from the TV screen... I at least find myself unable to take it all in (so in fact I don't always even watch). As I've said elsewhere, I first learned about this earthquake in Chch through a blog comment. Being geographically far away from us, it obviously get less news time here than in NZ. Culturally however we are not so far apart, and that I think enables people in Europe too to identify with what we see. We may not have walked those exact streets and yet we can imagine (or at least imagine that we can imagine) what it might be like if this happened in one of our own cities. But yes, being able to take part of details through personal blogs brings it even closer. The most amazing thing that strikes me is the strength that also shines through, how people (like Fiona and her family) are actually, mentally and practically, coping with things step by step. That's probably one of the bits that easily gets lost in the "news" - especially across the world. And very important for the full understanding. So I hope that NZ bloggers will be able to continue to blog about that, even after the focus of the world-wide TV news have shifted to other events. I think there are lots of us bloggers in other countries who in our hearts also feel what Paul Holmes says in that letter - i.e. we're thinking, watching, praying and hoping for the very best for you all.

  4. Yes, what a beautiful letter. I especially loved the line about hoping they have someone to put an arm around them. It brought tears to my eyes as well.
    Disasters bring us to our human roots, our vulnerability, as well as our compassion for one another. It strips away all the foolishness of our lives and brings us back to the basics of human nature; love of one another and strength to carry on.
    A big hug to you, GB, especially for your last line.

  5. Being "manly" is not as important as having heart, wearing emotion and sharing feeling. You are a true Man, Graham...a sweet, adventurous, amazing one!

    I, too, am emotionally made, you know this to be true. I tear up over the silliest of things because they make me feel...and of the most serious of things, again, because they make me "feel".

    As this letter is, written with feeling, you cannot hide that...and it creates deep feeling to read it.

    {{hugs and love to you, my friend}}

  6. Thank you so much for your comments. Having Blogland and the blog to keep in touch with my friends is now such an important part of my life.

    Yes, Adrian, the politicians and officials here (a Mayor here is an executive politician rather like some of the UK cities now) have been absolutely brilliant. As I write this the Breakfast TV programme is showing the many hundreds of volunteers getting ready to go out into the suburbs to visit every house and check on people and property. The huge operation that has swung into being in such a short time is mindblowing.

    And as I write another 4.1 aftershock has occured. More cliff faces are falling. More properties are being lost. More lives are being adversely affected.

  7. I read that article, too and was just as impressed.

    I've just had to turn my back on the TV, the sight of the family carrying that tiny coffin from a church was too much. We are witnessing so many wonderful acts of love, sharing, thoughtfulness, kindness and bravery - and so much sadness.