Where the Phoenix dances

“Oh, you mean the Aurora Coriolis,” said Oats, trying to make his voice sound matter of fact. “But actually that’s caused by magic particles hitting the…” “Dunno what it’s caused by,” said Granny sharply, “but what it is is the Phoenix dancin’.”                      Terry Pratchett, Carpe Jugulum.

Eight years ago, a city grown over 160 years was shattered, in a mere 60 seconds. 35,000 residents were displaced, vast swathes of infrastructure were wrecked, 170,000 buildings were destroyed or damaged and 185 lives were lost.IMG_6361 2

As a visitor looking back at the Christchurch earthquake of 22nd February 2011, it is all too easy to regurgitate the numbers before even thinking about the NZ$, stretching to billions, as the courageous rebuild continues. Meanwhile, emerging from the rubble, are unquantifiable assets, pragmatic, human and cultural.


“There is no point rebuilding the five-star hotels until we’ve built a world-class conference centre” one resident explained to me. The plan seemed ambitious but later in the day, as if to re-emphasise this ‘no-brainer’, I met a local politician who unwittingly readjusted my central-London-centric mind as to why ‘free of charge’ car parks might also be high on the building agenda.  While New Zealand has strong green credentials and ‘income’ from parking fees might support the crucial funding requirements, when regenerating city centre retail the strategy must be to win back those, who for 8-years have had no choice but to form shopping habits at the land-abundant, free parking, ring-road multiplexes.

Rebuilding for all it has to gain

Excuse any insensitivity in suggesting that central Christchurch today is not short of parking space but this is not a city replacing what it’s lost, it is rebuilding for all it has to gain

The historic Cathedral looks desperate in its ruined form, but it is no less of a ‘visitor attraction’ and a shrinking number of worshippers –accountable not to another quake-related figure but to the global growth of secular ‘gods’ – are realistically accommodated by the transitional ‘cardboard’ cathedral.  Neither Christchurch Cathedral, nor its Catholic Basilica are too high on the pragmatic rebuild agenda.

It feels appropriate, at this point, to note that my trip to Christchurch was shortly before the horrific events at the Al Noor and Linwood Mosques where tragedy struck again – on 15th March in a 6-minute shooting spree.


Iconic restoration of Cathedral and Basilica have their place on a morale agenda but, for now, in Christchurch bottle-worthy humanity supports morale in swathes.  It is tangible as I walk around this city with the unanimity of a village or tight-knit alumnus.  From shared horror grows shared determination for a shared future, bigger, brighter and brave as before.

On the corner of Cashel and Madras Streets 185 empty white chairs of all shapes and sizes, including a baby car seat and a wheelchair, are laid out in rows.  They appeared on the morning of the earthquake’s first anniversary as a temporary memorial to those who lost their lives.  Now the community is voting on a permanent site for this beautifully poignant monument by art curator Pete Majendie.


‘Kia Ora, how’s your day going’ say these kinsfolks to each other.  Does everyone actually know everyone here? I wonder.  No, they just know each other as human beings and that’s not to be understated.

The point needs no enforcement but while heading out to the seaside suburb of Sumner, I was informed how ‘some rooster’ (until now I’d assumed a negative connotation to this term of endearment) had decided many years ago to dig an empty moat between a rock face and the Red Cliffs Primary School as a cautionary measure should the ‘red cliffs’ above the ‘primary school’ ever shift.

Your children are safe

At 12.50 on that fateful day, the rocks collapsed into the heaven/rooster-sent ditch.  Scores of agonised parents fled the crumbled Central Business District for the rock face but the bridge, the coast road and the esplanade were all impassable. The infrastructure left with just enough strength to support large placards, created by teachers and locals, spelling out “Your children are safe”.


The architecture lost in the Christchurch earthquake was that of an attractive colonial city.  A bronzed “Empress of India” stands erect in Victoria Square, adjacent to Latimer and Cranmer Squares in reverence to British bishops who were burned by another British Queen over 400 years ago.  A strange reference to an event 200 years before Captain James Cook (immortalised alongside the monarchial bust) ever claimed these Dutch-discovered, Maori-inhabited territories for the Empire.

Be kind to your people

Emerging from the rubble today is a spectacular renaissance of the Maori voice sewn seamlessly into a previously dominant British theme. An (arguably overdue) intertwining of culture is rising Phoenix-like from the ruins.

The central square, home to indestructible Queen and Explorer, now shares expression in three of the 13 Whariki Manaaki (welcome mats) woven into paved pathways along the river.  The designs outline the values guiding the rebuild for the Ngāi Tahu (principal tribe of the South Island) which essentially come down to “be kind to your people”.

At the NE entrance of the square is mat number eight which represents the unsettled grievances regarding the land purchase covenants between the Crown and the Ngāi Tahu.  Crucially, the loss of the nine primary food sourcing sites represented by nine tall trees in the lower section while higher up the artwork refers to everyone being of ‘one heart and one mind’.

www.cktours.nzI am driven around Christchurch in Judy – one of Caroline’s Kombi tours V-dub vans. The transport is super-cool and we’re admired by all we pass, what’s more Caroline’s historical and cultural knowledge is up-to-the-minute.

Judy carries us down the smallest lanes and across the largest intersections festooned with extensive street art which further validates this racially interwoven community. Owen Dippie’s majestic mural of elephants on Manchester Street and striking Ballerina behind the Theatre Royal – both spanning more than 100 sqm – are an apt reminder of Christchurch’s strength within fragility.

The potency of a young woman, proud of her identity and saddened by environmental disaster speaks volumes on the wall of a small car park in Allen Street.  A 30m x 5m portrait of Harlem-Cruz Atarangi Ihaia, Miss Universe New Zealand wearing a crown of kawakawa fern symbolic of sorrow for the extinct Hula bird in her hand.  On her chin is her ta moko controversial in the international beauty contest in which racial distinction is discouraged – a seeming regression since James Cook in 1769 noted these face and body markings as

“spirals drawn with great nicety and even elegance. One side corresponds with the other. The marks on the body resemble foliage in old chased ornaments, convolutions of filigree work, but in these they have such a luxury of forms that of a hundred which at first appeared exactly the same no two were formed alike on close examination.”

Passing the River Avon which runs centrally through the city I take in one of Sir Antony Gormley’s two identical cast iron sculptures entitled ‘Stay’.  Representing the continuity of life – the sun comes up every day and the river continues to run – they were provided in 2014 as part of the ‘healing process’.

“Please help me, I can’t do it on my own please”

At the Dyslexia Foundation on Worcester Boulevard we stop. An unassuming colonial townhouse, today dedicated to the alleviation of dyslexia, and I’m moved by the power of the pain expressed in the statue outside.

Across the road is the Arts Centre of Christchurch, location of the second Gormley statue.

These buildings, dating from the 1870s, were styled on old English colleges and are among the most significant in New Zealand.  Canterbury college – now the university of Canterbury – was founded here and the site has a rich history in arts and science and, in establishing New Zealand’s education system was ahead of its time in cross-culturalism.

Alumni of these buildings include Lord (Ernest) Rutherford, the father of nuclear physics, Sir Apirana Turupa Ngata, Maori politician and advocate and guardian of indigenous culture and language.

Nearly a decade on, post-earthquake repairs to the tune of NZ$290m have just reached Picture9the half-way point.  It’s slow, expensive and painstaking work and at additional cost two individuals worked meticulously for a year to restore the 4,000-piece memorial stained-glass window.  This was rededicated to the memory of all staff and student alumni of all the educational establishments based on site who served in the First World War.  The 235 killed are now honoured with dedication plaques beneath the window as well.

In February 2019 the integral spirit and solidarity I witnessed as this city continues its long regeneration of the built environment, most significantly builds cultural collaboration repairing historic schisms caused by invasion nearly two centuries earlier – through solidarity, art and expression.

Three weeks on an extremist shooting attack took 51 more lives from this community (one who died of injuries later). Amidst the shock and grief 50 pairs of shoes painted white appeared on the grass outside All Souls Anglican Church in the city.

If there is anywhere on earth where cultural divides of the present can be healed– it is Christchurch, New Zealand.

“The Phoenix ‘Hope’ can wing her way through desert skies and still defying fortune’s spite revive from ashes and rise” – Miguel Cervantes




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