Archive for February, 2011

Christchurch Earthquake

As I grieve the earthquake destruction in Christchurch, New Zealand, I have been remembering  my time as a reporter on The Press, Christchurch, New Zealand’s city newspaper. I worked afternoons and evenings. When no deadlines pressed, I would gaze out my window in the Press Building, which overlooks Cathedral Square. The Press Building is badly damaged, and the cathedral spire in the center of my view has toppled. Rummaging in old files, I found fragmentary notes typed on yellowed newsprint, the small sheets we used to turn in our stories. They are undated, but would have been written in 1960 or 1961.

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From here, with the afternoon sun through the window, people walking the square are mere silhouettes, with long shadows reaching out towards me. I can sometimes pick out what they are wearing, but they are mostly a pattern of shapes, against the curved lines of the square that isn’t a square at all, but the shape of a cross, with gently sweeping curves of the cathedral grounds in the center. A pleasant curve below me, with its little stone wall, a comfortable height for sitting on. There was a woman sitting there, by the entrance with the knobs on it. She was wearing a cream coat and a bright pink hat. It was a cheerful hat, and now her escort has arrived, and she has walked across the road with him.

Lots of people jump over the wall—it is much more fun than going through the entrance with the knobs in the proper manner.

A little choirboy runs to a bicycle parked against one of the buttresses of the cathedral. He has been to sing Evensong. Now he is joined by two others, three, four—they pour out, shouting and jostling. Neat little grey suits and red caps, schoolbags swinging in the dust. Singing is just part of their everyday living, as much as football and schoolwork.

The right of way by the cathedral is patterned with people coming to and fro. It is the back-lighting at this time of evening that makes the scene so attractive. Sunlight through the plane trees by the war memorial, a golden outline on each figure, long patterns of light and shade.

Silhouettes—the big cross on the memorial, the slender cross on the top of the cathedral spire, the stark criss-cross of the scaffolding round the spire, wrapping it in a blanket while it is cleaned and whitened. The sunlight through the green glass of the tower windows, tall narrow windows with diamond patterns.

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Delicate tracery of bare branches outlined with sunlight on a winter afternoon. Dew silently falling—streets slowly dampen, although the sky is cloudless. Towards the west, the setting sun fills the sky with smoky pink. Buildings are grey silhouettes, slowly darkening to black. Cheerful red of transport buses the only touch of color.

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To gather the texture of the square in the rain into a handful of feeling—dreaming out the window, with the rain spattering gently down, and the dazzling light reflected on the road, the long street lamps—white streaks, and the neon signs flashing on and off, endlessly—“Don’t be vague, ask for Haig,” and the white outline is filled up with a rush of red—“Be sure with Trufit,” hidden behind the “Choysa” oval. The “s” in Choysa is a bit wobbly—it won’t last long. The blue bird endlessly getting bigger, and then disappearing in the TEAL sign. “Fly to Australia” fades off into nothingness—it has had it too. The stars go round and round on the Monarch Shoes sign.

The colours of the neon signs are reflected in the pattern of puddles on the road—blue, purple, red, green, orange—vivid and glowing, shimmering in the circles of raindrops.

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The gentle curve of the street below, with cars swishing round it. Not many now. It is before picture time, and only those with business at this time will be out on a night like this. An occasional bus sweeps into the stop, or lumbers out, almost empty.

The spotlight on the cathedral is smoking, as the rain hits the warm glass. The cenotaph is a black silhouette against the misty light.

Sometimes a black figure scurries across the square to the bus stop, head down, umbrella leading the way. Even the Bodgies [a youth gang] are gone from their usual haunt by the Embassy Theatre.

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