All shook down

Inner-city Christchurch feels like the set of a 1980s apocalyptic action film. Walking down Barbadoes Street, there was so much rubble and so few people, it felt like the only person I’d be likely to encounter was a Bruno Lawrence type, who’d show up in a ute, holler “Get in”, and we’d drive off into the hills to have last-people-on-earth erotic adventures.

Instead my lone encounter was with an old man who yelled at me not to graffiti a colourful wall that I was only photographing. There were no erotic adventures; just the realisation that the Christchurch I had known was gone. Post-earthquake Christchurch is a different city.


After the destructive quake in February, I’d vowed to return to the shaky town. I expected things would be different, but wasn’t sure how different they would be.

My worst fears were realised when I arrived at my motel in early December and discovered a construction site, swarming with diggers and trucks. I panicked – what if after I booked the room, the motel had been condemned? Where would I sleep? Maybe I could squat in the plywood-boarded house next door, or join the Occupy Christchurch camp in Hagley Park. But it turned out that the motel car park was just being resealed. “You get used to things looking like this,” said my taxi driver.

If Christchurch isn’t looking like a construction site or a futuristic action film, it’s looking like a 1980s music video, complete with mangled cars, giant fields of rubble, and frayed curtains miserably flapping out of broken windows. And like a music video shoot, there’s always a food truck around the corner, catering to the masses amongst the broken bricks.

I was surprised at how quickly I got used to it all. Walking down the road, I became adept at avoiding potholes, cracks and giant gaps. Everything felt a little bit broken, but yet somehow normal.

But there were signs of civilisation returning to the CBD. Cashel Mall had finally reopened. Most of the shops have been demolished, replaced by clever configurations of fancied-up shipping containers. It’s all high-end retail to draw in the tourists, but if you need some “Keep Calm and Carry On” merchandise, there is plenty.


At the end of Cashel Mall is the Red Zone walkway, a fenced off area taking visitors along Colombo Street to Cathedral Square. Many of the buildings on Colombo Street have been or will be demolished, but a sign informed visitors that the very ordinary McDonald’s building is ok. This makes me wonder if, in years to come, the McDonald’s will get a historic listing and people will take their grandchildren along to see a beautifully restored antique McNugget fryer.

Cathedral Square is a bit freaky. It seems that every building around the square has something wrong with it. But no one’s looking at the cracked pavers outside the Starbucks. They’re looking at the cathedral.

Perhaps World War II photography has prepared me for the sight of a smashed, collapsed broken cathedral. But while it’s awful, there is also something strangely poetic about the cathedral. Even though ChristChurch Cathedral has been deconsecrated, the building is still doing its job as a icon of the city.

I also took the Red Zone bus tour, the only way for civilians to experience most of the out-of-bounds areas. Passengers were warned that due to the instability of the buildings along the tour route, in the event of another major earthquake “you might not survive”. This sounded alarming, but then I realised that this caveat can pretty much apply to life in general. Onwards!

I was expecting the Red Zone bus tour to be a sombre, emotional journey but it was much more ordinary than that. As the bus passed the military cordon and toodled along Oxford Terrace, I saw a battered mannequin lying by the side of the road. It had a target painted on its bottom. Moments later the bus stopped across the river from the site of the PGC building collapse. It was a scheduled moment of reflection, but all I could think about was the mannequin. How did it get there? Who painted the target on its bottom? Oh, what does it all mean?

And that’s what the bus tour was like. One moment it’s the site of the tragic CTV building collapse, the next moment I’m feeling sad that the Japanese/Korean restaurant where I twice had disappointing vegetable tempura was being demolished.

I realised that most of my previous Christchurch experiences involve places that don’t exist any more. My favourite hotel sits dormant and doomed, cursed by its neighbour the Grand Chancellor. The cafe that did the really amazing scrambled eggs is now rubble. I even found myself missing the incredibly annoying bad classical music played to stop youth loitering at the High Street pedestrian mall.


But beyond the rubble, there were new things to do, new places to explore. A random tweet threw me in the direction of Black Betty cafe, a new tenant of a strong old building. They do good eggs, and I even saw a staffer take a photo of some eggs he was particularly proud of.

I found the new home of C4 Coffee, nestled in the corner of their coffee warehouse, across the road from a giant field of rubble. And across that rubble – past felled power poles, a spectacularly smashed car and a sleepy guard dog – was The National, a gallery forced to turn its back door into a front door. Its exhibition of the grungy, grotesque rings by jeweller Karl Fritsch seemed a perfect match for their new surroundings. It left me wondering if I could make my own jewellery using Red Zone rubble.

Being in an earthquake town colours every experience in some way. I stopped by the Book Fridge and picked up a Mills and Boon. I figured it would be a light and amusing read. Except the heroine – on an archeological dig with her estranged husband who she still secretly loved – encountered an earthquake, which came complete with one (1) aftershock. It all seemed a little loathsome after that. I didn’t have time to return the book before I left, but I figured it might be better to take it out of circulation, or at least put a warning on the cover: “CONTAINS BADLY WRITTEN EARTHQUAKE SCENARIOS”.

There were no aftershocks during my three days in Christchurch. I was a little twitchy having just experienced an unusually strong quake in Wellington that had sent books flying off my shelves. But by the time I left Christchurch, it seemed quite reasonable to think that the worst of the aftershocks were history. Except that wasn’t the case, and a couple of weeks later, things have again been undone and shaken up a bit.

I’ve realised that the Christchurch I had known no longer exists. There’s a totally new city there, slowly figuring out its new identity. Part of Christchurch seems determined to to cling on to its England-of-the-South-Seas past, but there’s a new Christchurch coming through. This is a shaky, swampy city now.

Cures all ills

Secret Boyfriend II: The Return

In September last year, a few weeks after the earthquake, Air New Zealand had some $20 flights to Christchurch for January, so I took advantage of this sweet deal. “Yay,” I thought, “I can see the Ron Mueck exhibition and do a bit of earthquake tourism.”

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the city post-quake. I knew things were more or less back up and running, but I also knew that the Boxing Day aftershock had again munted things up a bit.

Hold up

I went for a wander and came across the ruins of Manchester Courts. It’s a historic multi-storey building that’s in the process of being demolished due to safety concerns.

A few months ago I tweeted that demolishing Manchester Courts would be “a loss not just for Christchurch, but for New Zealand”. I don’t actually know if that’s true. I just sort of made it up because I was annoyed about it. But surprisingly enough, the Herald quoted that in an article about historic Christchurch buildings facing demolition.

The building is now a pile of rubble, blocking off the corner of Manchester and Hereford Streets. It’s still annoying that such a handsome building couldn’t be saved, but it seems like it had been unloved for such a long time that perhaps it was better to have been put out of its misery.

If I didn’t pay too much attention, I could trick myself into thinking that everything was as it was pre-quake. But it’s one thing to see “Keep Calm and Carry One” merchandise in a gift shop (in fact, it seems pretty much mandatory at the moment for all New Zealand gift shops to stock such items), but it’s a different matter seeing a crude print-out of the familiar red poster taped up on an office window.

Keep calm

In Cashel Mall, the Whitcoulls store had its building declared unsafe from the Boxing Day aftershock. The store was been frozen in time, its front window still displaying a cheery Christmas tree and wreath, offering slightly unnerving season’s greetings.

There was the potential of aftershocks, which I was kind of looking forward to. GeoNet logged five significant aftershocks in the three days I was in town, with the largest being a 3.8, but I didn’t notice any of them. I can pinpoint where I was when each of them happened, but I can’t recall a whole lot of shaking, jolting or thudding going on.

I did a search on Twitter for #eqnz hashtags and found a few people tweeting about aftershocks that didn’t seem to match up with any recorded ones. Could it be that crowd-sourcing is more accurate than seismographs… or is it just jumpy resisdents tweeting at every passing truck or slammed door?

The Canterbury Museum has an area dedicated to the earthquake. It’s basic room, painted in a dark colour. On one wall, some statistics about the earthquake are displayed on the wall, including a frequently updated tally of the number of aftershocks – 4254, at last update. There’s also a projection of the Christchurch Quake Map.

It’s a really simple display, and it seems like a stop-gap measure to do something, while acknowledging that the story of the Canterbury earthquake is still being told.

Christchurch looks like this: normal, normal, normal, temporary fence, normal, normal, cracked bricks, normal, normal, normal, normal, normal, crumbling parapet, normal, canvas over hole in side of building, normal, normal, normal, church steeple on lawn in front of church, normal, normal, normal, broken glass, normal, normal, normal, dumpster full of rubble, normal, empty lot where building once stood, normal.

And slowly things are getting more and more normal.

What it says

I went to the Ron Mueck exhibtion twice. The first time I was straight off the plane, tired, emotional and the whole thing was a giant emo rollercoaster. So I paid another visit the next day to fully take it in.

Christchurch Art Gallery is really cool in that they allow non-flash photography for the Mueck exhibition. But this means that the gallery is full of people holding up camera phones or pocket digital cameras. They mostly take the same sort of photo – a front-on shot of the sculpture in its entirity.

Ron Mueck’s hyperreal sculptures give gallery visitors a rare opportunity – the ability to stare at someone for a long time. If you look at a real person, sooner or later your look turns into a stare and you have to engage with them or look away. If you’re looking at a film of a person, you’re not in control of what you’re looking at or for how long.

Ron Mueck’s sculptures give the viewer the chance to have a really good look at a number of people (and a chicken). You can stare at the massive belly of “Pregnant Woman” or the sleepy eye of the newborn “A Girl” or cop an eyeful of “Wild Man”‘s genitals. You can judgementally sneer back at “Two Women” or check out the toes of “Drift”.

There was something very special about the Ron Mueck exhibition. I’m not sure what it was, but I did notice this: in most art exhibitions that I go to, people seem to spend more time reading the information cards next to the art than looking at the art itself; in the Ron Mueck exhibition, hardly anyone looked at the info cards, and spent most of the time looking at the art and talking about it with their companions.

Go away

So, I’ve been to Christchurch four times since October 2009, which led to the notorious rumour that I had a secret boyfriend in Christchuch, and in turn led to my declaration that Christchurch itself was my secret boyfriend.

Well, I’ve decided to break up with my secret boyfriend. It’s not Christchurch, it’s me. It’s a lovely city, but I feel like I’ve gone as far as I can go with it as far as casual encounters go. I feel it is time for me to move on and get myself another secret boyfriend. And I know just the place.


Secret boyfriend gets smashed up real bad

This is what happens when you take too long to finish writing about your August holiday in Christchurch – a massive earthquake hits the city, bringing about damage, destruction and devastation and therefore requiring you do a rewrite. Man, what a hassle, etc.

I came to Christchurch on the TranzCoastal train, as part of my “Oh, I am so weary of flying” phase, in which I discovered that the ferry and train can be just as boring as air travel, only much much slower.

It was a stormy day in Picton, and I was forced to take refuge in the town’s cafes to fill the four-hour gap between the motel check-out and the train’s departure. So my happy memory of Picton is sitting in a cafe, drinking too many cups of tea and reading Nick Kent’s 1970s memoir of sex, drugs and rock journalism as the wind and rain battered the giant plate-glass window next to me.

Killing time in Picton town

Finally I was on board the train, where I spent five and a half hours in a carriage half-full with special needs adults and their tired and impatient caregivers. And the carriage’s toilet was out of order, necessitating a long wobbly walk along to the next carriage. And the only thing left to eat was a “ham” and “cheese” “croissant”, where the melted cheese gave me a first-degree burn when it dripped onto my finger.

But there were scenic delights, particularly the Lake Grassmere Saltworks. A few years ago I visited Blenheim for the day and sent my parents a postcard with an aerial photo of the saltworks, because who puts a photo of a giant pile of salt on a picture postcard?

But as the train passed through the salt fields, I was terribly impressed. Massive briny ponds! Giant piles of salt! I will ask the same question that I once asked after seeing a giant pile of salt at the Mt Maunganui salt refinery in the ’80s – how big would one chip have to be to use all that salt? Pretty big, yeah.

The sun was setting and the last hour of the journey was through a dark landscape. But soon the lights of Christchurch began to illuminate the cityscape and I felt glad, safe and comfortable.

When I finally alighted the train, I was tired and had a cold, but after a couple of days of travelling, I was just happy to be in a place of urbanness.

Cashel Street

One month later, the earthquake woke me up as I slept in Wellington. I lay in bed, annoyed at having my sleep disrupted and wondering what the weird rattling sound was. About an hour later I dozed off again.

In the morning when I discovered there’d been a massive earthquake in Christchurch, I first wondered if my friends were OK. When it became known that there were no casualties, my thoughts then turned to the cafes. Specially, was that place where I had the really amazing scrambled eggs OK? It was, as was the place that does the really smooth lattes that taste like honey.

In August, Megan and Anna had taken me on a tour of Canterbury University. In September the uni released photos showing the shelves in the library toppled over, thousands of books strewn all over the floor. I wanted to jump on a plane and put the books back in the right order.

I’d visited the Christchurch Art Gallery a couple of times, one of my favourite places. After the earthquake, its strong, modern building was repurposed as headquarters for civil defence work. I imagined a hiviz-vest-clad worker casually resting her coffee cup on an artwork, while nervous gallery staff swooped in to cheerfully reposition it.


I’ve been to Christchurch three times in the last year. So much so that there was a rumour that I had a secret boyfriend there. Well, perhaps the city itself is my secret boyfriend. So when he gets smashed up a bit, it’s sad for me.

But, of course, I didn’t know that the seismic reset button was going to be hit just a month after I left. I didn’t quite make the most of my time there and did spend a bit of time in bed, feeling a ill from the cold, watching episodes of UK Big Brother on my iPhone.

But I’m glad I was able to have that visit. I have good memories – seeing the Pixies live, hanging out with friends, yelling at films, experiencing good art and good coffee, and putting on an extravagant beauty mask treatment one night in my hotel as I listened to Lady Gaga on my iPhone. I have a nice pre-quake memory of the city.

I shall return to Christchurch in summer to form some new memories.


Epilogue: Oh, that’ll do

Things from my notebook that I couldn’t wrangle into any sort of narrative

Heroin capital of NZ

After I’d checked in at the hotel in Christchurch, I went up to my room, swiped my room card and opened what I thought was my hotel room. Instead I found myself in a small space, faced with three doors. I felt like a character in an adventure video game.
You are in a corridor. In front of you are three doors.
> Turn RIGHT.
> Use CARD on DOOR.
> Open DOOR.
> Walk into ROOM.
You are standing in your hotel room. It is quite nice.

Christchurch smells like cigarettes, like the late ’70s, like an small European city that’s on a budget airline route.

All the nighties in Ballantyne’s seemed to be those neck-to-ankle jobs. Not many people know this, but these nighties are actually classed as a contraceptive device under the Medicines Act (1981).


I was on the free bus, sitting on a seat that faced into the bus. A man across the aisle kept giving me the finger. I was about to flip him off back, when I realised he was doing it to his friend who was jogging alongside the bus, giving bus guy the finger. That’s true friendship.

At the museum, a group of schoolboys observed a mannequin representing a forefather of Christchurch with a hearty beard. “There’s George Bush,” one of them remarked.

George, bush, in happier times.

I had a really good latte at C1 Espresso. It tasted like honey – not sweet but mellifluous.

The central Christchurch bus exchange is right fancy. It’s like a domestic airport terminal, with waiting areas, seats, screens full of departure times, and sliding doors that open when a bus is ready to be boarded.

I went to the local Regent cinema and was greeted with, “Hi! Are you here for the Taste of Italy evening?!” No. “Oh. That’s all right.” The cinema I ended up in had its main entrance below the screen. Whoever designed it like that obviously hates movies.

Q. What would you do if you suddenly found $20,000 in your bank account?
A. Big OE! You can get to Sydney for, like, $100 and I’d go there and stay with my sister and have girls over all the time and heaps of parties and stuff.


“He owes me. He owes me $25.”

A half-arsed idea about the cone being a recurring shape in Canterbury – the Chalice sculpture, the airport control tower, souvlaki. And what is a cone but a rollled up plain?

Discussed with Pauline the concept of a “bad coffee town”.

I thought I saw a light on in an upstairs window at the old Post Office, but it turns out to be a window boarded up with plywood.

The old Post Office looks like it would have been the envy of New Zealand back in the day. At the annual Postmaster’s conference, did the Dunedin Postmaster General say, “Gosh, it’s so hard getting the windows cleaned all the way up on the sixth floor of the GPO.” And the Tauranga Postmaster would be like “Yeah, woteva.”

A lot of women in Southland have the same haircut. It’s short and very functional. Possibly a bit spiky on top, with some lady-burns down by the ears. Maybe gelled out the back like a gunshot exit wound. And usually with some sort of concession to femininity, like stripy ’90s-style DIY highlights.

The Otago Settlers Museum has a video reenacting what seasickness would have been like for the first European migrants. This was a popular viewing choice among the museum visitors. Yarrr! Oi be sick!

Three pears were arranged on a windowsill at the Dunedin Airport. Oh, sorry – the still-life fruit models convention was last week, etc.


Part 4: White rental car blues

I rented a car ($20, cheap) and was upgraded from a Corolla to a Camry. Not that it made any difference from the driver’s seat, but perhaps people would gaze at me and think, “Oh, she’s a driving Camry – a sensible family sedan. Good choice.”

My aim was to head for Akaroa, and I managed to get on the right road using both road signs and the knowledge that I was heading for the only non-flat land for miles around.

The landscape is somewhat startling. It’s flat, flat, flat, flat, then suddenly twisting, winding hills. And I drove along these roads, avoiding the tourist spots and enjoying not getting carsick. It had been about 18 months since I’d last driven, and it was fun.

Finally I turned a corner and there was the harbour. It was a brilliant blue, almost milky, and the bright sunshine bedazzled the landscape. And you know what? It was at that moment that my road trip mix CD played Rufus Wainwright’s “Oh What a World”. It’s hard not to feel in love with the world at a time like that.

I parked, and set off exploring New Zealand’s French village on foot.

O sleepy town of Akaroa

At Akaroa museum, it was strongly suggested that I start my experience by watching a short film about Akaroa. The film dated from the late ’90s and had a slightly dark tone. Recounting the geological history of Akaroa, the narrator almost sounded saddened that the original volcanic islands had eventually become joined to the mainland. But – sigh – I suppose you can’t fight progress, even if it takes thousands of years to happen.

The museum also had a small display on the changing attitudes towards sunbathing, from woolen bathers to skimpy bikinis and our modern use of sunscreen. This outraged a pink man who ranted, “It’s bullshit. Black people don’t get melanoma because they’re used to the sun. The same thing will happen to us – we’ll get used to the sun and stop getting skin cancer. And it doesn’t help when the government tells us to stay out of the sun.”

Akaroa prides itself on being a bit French, but its Frenchness is really only obvious in that some of the streets have French names. It’s hard to buy into the French thing when there are people playing cricket on the village green and the local fish ‘n’ chip shop is doing a roaring trade.

If you want French life in the South Pacific, go to New Caledonia or Tahiti. If you want a lovely volcanic harbourside village, go to Akaroa.


I jumped back in the Camry and journeyed over hilly Banks Peninsula to Lyttelton. Lyttelton exists as the port for Canterbury. The harbourside area is full of shipping containers and other side effects of modern life, which leaves town’s main street halfway up a steep hill.

I stopped for a coffee, but ended up cutting my visit short as I was forced to flee a drunken bachelor party making their way down the street. The sight of a cheap nylon Afro wig on a whitey is nature’s way of telling you to stay away. (See also: Wellington Sevens weekend).

My escape route was Sumner Road, a meandering hillside road that is but a barrier away from being the sort of road that buses plunge off. It was at this point that I threw caution to the wind and put on REM’s “Out of Time”, one of the four CDs I’d taken with me.

But a huge discrepancy between my memory of the opening track, “Radio Song”, and how it sounds today. Michael Stipe’s comedy complaints about bad radio became the unintended soundtrack as I undulated along Bus Plunge Boulevard. (Oh, why couldn’t it have been “Near Wild Heaven”?)

It was getting late. I had to return the car to the airport and go to the wedding reception (which I did, and it was lovely in all the best ways).

One of the easiest places to find in an unfamiliar city is the airport. You don’t even need to navigate – just follow the aeroplane symbols.

But sometimes it’s more satisfying to go somewhere you’ve never been before.

Part 3: B-Right-On

New Brighton, or Brighton, or B-Right-On is a seaside suburb. So is Sumner, but the difference is that while Sumner is quite nice, Brighton is a bit shit.


The trouble with New Brighton is that it used to be a boom town. For a couple of decades, it was the only place in New Zealand with Saturday morning trading. People would flock there, and it got to the point that the main street was pedestrianised to cope with the weekend swell.

But now it feels almost like a ghost town. The main street stretches out long with ’70s era retail buildings, but they are now occupied by discount shops, second-hand shops or just empty.

Though there is a glimmer of the new and the lively. At the end of the main street stands the new library building. (It has a bar attached, which is a nice consideration.) And jutting out from the library is the New Brighton pier, because if a place is called Brighton, then it must have a pier.

But this ain’t no English-style pleasure pier. It’s a fishing pier. It’s like a long pedestrian motorway out to the middle of the ocean, where all you can do is sit and admire the expanse of sea, or fish.

After walking the 300 metres to the end, I found a bogan fisherman giving some Chinese fishermen tips in a strange mock broken English. “I buy bucket from North Island,” he explained. “Cheap. Courier them. Only 25 dollar. Engineering shop. Hardened steel.”

Suddenly excitement erupted. One of the fishermen had caught a kawahai. It flipped and flopped and bled all over the pier. Fortunately clean-up hoses have been provided for dealing with such bloody messes.

Bay watch

The pier lead me back to the library, where I found myself just in time for a presentation on the history of the Edmonds Cookery Book. “Did you win a prize,” an old lady sitting next to me asked. Well, no, but it turns out she had won something for writing a short story about the Edmonds cookbook.

We watched a 1955 short Edmonds promotional film called “Cookery Nook”. It’s a pro-Edmonds propaganda comedy, showing a bumbling dad’s baking attempts being sorted out by his resourceful daughter and her home economics class school pals. You see, being a good cook is as much about planning and saving time as it is about making delicious food. But maybe this love of time-saving has mutated into our modern love of takeaway joints.

A guest chef revealed to the audience that a lot of cafes will use recipes from the Edmonds Cookery Book. Those Afghans, the ginger crunch, the Louise cake – it’s all Edmonds, baby.

So why bother baking ginger crunch at home when you can go to a cafe and get a nice slice of it made from exactly the same recipe as the Edmonds one? Oh, I suppose there’s the joy of cooking; the togetherness of eating.

But there was to be no togetherness with my lunch. I found a cafe and ordered a relatively harmless looking item of food called a “Mexi-bean burrito”. While this was doing a few ceremonial laps in the microwave, a staff member sprayed my table with something called Revive. It had the opposite effect on my spirits.

Is this the future that 1950s home economics teachers prepared us for?

Part 2: The house that wasn’t there

Simon and David were two businessmen in their mid 40s. David was visiting Christchurch and it was Simon’s job to give his colleague a tour of the city. Today they were visiting the Canterbury Museum and had stumbled across the Bluff Paua House exhibit around the same time I did.

But before we were allowed into the replica of Bluff couple Fred and Myrtle Flutey’s front room, we were first ushered into an anteroom and were required to watch a context-setting audio-visual presentation to help explain why there was half a seaside house filled with paua shells inside a museum in urban Canterbury.

“It’s Kiwiana, David,” Simon explained as the video started. “I thought it was just a house with a few pauas,” David said.

I’m suspicious of anything described as Kiwiana, because it all seems to just be things from the collective childhood of Baby Boomers. The video name-checked all the usual suspects – Jandals, pavlova, Buzzy Bee and, of course, paua shells. David was suspicious too, so Simon further explained, “It’s part of our heritage – Lemon & Paeroa, tomato sauce, fish and chips.”

The video over, we made our way into the replica house. It smelt clean, un-lived-in. “It’s quite a small lounge, isn’t it,” Simon observed. Well, it’s not like anyone actually lives there.

Simon and David didn’t take long to see the paua room and they soon headed for the exit. Taking one final look around, David said, “It’s ‘Fred’ and it’s ‘Myrtle’ but it’s just a bunch of paua shells.” And I realised this was true.

When the Fluteys were alive, to visit their crazy paua-shell house you had to travel all the way to the bottom of the country – the bottom of the world! – and then go inside this eccentric old couple’s actual house, with the knowledge that this wasn’t just a museum space; it was their real living room.

Reconstructed as a museum exhibit, it comes across more as a memorial to both the Fluteys and to Kiwiana. It’s a crazy frozen moment of something that doesn’t actually exist any more.

But in the absence of the Fluteys, has Canterbury Museum now taken on the role of the eccentric collector/hoarder?

Here’s this serious museum with its dioramas of pre-European Maori, collection of taxidermied birds and hall of Antarctic exploration, and yet there, lurking in a corner, is a pretend house filled with paua shells and other kitsch objects. (Even Te Papa at its most manic was never like this.)

And like the Fluteys, it almost seems that it’s something the museum hasn’t set out to do deliberately. It’s just found itself with a big collection of shells and done the museum world equivalent of opening your seaside home to busloads of tourists.

So let’s stop pretending that the paua house at Canterbury museum belongs to Fred and Myrtle. No, Canterbury Museum is your great-uncle who has built a replica house in his shed and is arranging shells on the wall for the tourists.


Part 1: Four days, maximum

Wellington is quite a nice place, Ron the taxi driver tells me. Well, at least it was the last time he went there – which was in the ’80s, when he was in the circus. Though, he says, he did have trouble finding a hotel that would serve him a drink.

The pressure of conversation is weighing on me. It’s a long way from Dunedin city to the airport. I know what I’m supposed to say – “The circus, Ron! You were in the circus? How does a bloke like you end up in the circus?”

But I couldn’t. I was too tired. It was too early in the morning and I was fighting off a cold that had emerged a couple of days earlier. All I wanted to do was get on the plane and fly back to Wellington, with all its bars and circuses.

The last time I’d been in the south of the South Island was on a family holiday in 1993, which I like to remember as being full of majestic scenery, with REM’s “Automatic For the People” playing on my Walkman, but yet my diary insists that it was the most boring holiday ever and that I listened to that new Nirvana “Incesticide” album.

So, the South Island held a strange allure. It was big, empty, full of tourists and I was going to go there on holiday some day. No. We were going to go there on holiday some day. No. I was going to go there on holiday some day.

Then Megan and Ned in Christchurch announced they were getting married on Labour weekend, so there was my motivation to finally get down to that part of the country – four days in Christchurch, four days in Dunedin.

I climbed to the top of the Christchurch Cathedral tower to orientate myself with the city. After being shamed out fitness-wise by an old lady, I discovered that Cathedral Square is essentially hemmed in by tall buildings, obscuring any panoramas that may have previously existed.

But maybe the cathedral itself would offer some sort of insight into the Christchurch character. In the sacred space of the cathedral, a talkative fellow observed, “People kept asking, ‘Who are you?’ And John Lennon said, ‘I am the walrus. I am the egg man.’ Yeah, well, what is the egg man?” Hey, maybe John Lennon was right about the whole “bigger than Jesus” thing.

I stumbled across a little area by a pedestrian mall. Loud classical music was being piped out into the space – youth repellant! Because classical music is so naff, drunken youths won’t loiter around that little area. They won’t sit around drinking cans of cheap beer and yelling “Are you drunk yet! Are you drunk yet! Oh, get some more inside you!” They won’t scare off the tourists.

I found the Whitcoulls that I’d last visited in 1993. Back then, I bought an issue of Film Threat magazine, which introduced me to the radical idea that there are good films that never make it to your local multiplex, and the even more radical idea that if you don’t like the films out there, you can make your own.

So I checked out the magazine rack, wondering if I’d have a similar inspirational experience. But the only magazine that caught my eye was “Ponies!” magazine, and that was for all the wrong reasons.

Back in the Square, some tourists were talking to a local (or was he talking to them?). “If you’re serious about seeing Christchurch, you need five, six days minimum. You can’t do it in four.”

But I only had a total four days to see Christchurch. What if I missed out on some vital Cantabrian experience because I was selfishly flying on to Dunedin? What if I never experienced the real Christchurch and was left with a false impression of the flat city?

Well, I had three more days to find out.