Postcard from Christchurch


This picture tells a surprising story. I took it a few days ago in Christchurch, NZ, just metres from North Beach, New Brighton, an ocean-side suburb not far from the epicentre of the second of the two earthquakes that hit the world news headlines temporarily (in late 2010 and almost immediately again in early 2011), but hit Christchurch city itself cruelly hard in prolonged agony, still largely unabated two years on from the first quake, whilst compensation schemes and urban planners collide.

Like most extraordinary experiences, their subtle consequences are known only to those who go through them and endure them. Who among us could predict that empty bulldozed spaces are as haunting in their way as were the draped hanging wrecks of landmark buildings that previously occupied those same spaces in the earlier aftermath of the second quake? What might it be like to fail to find your way around the centre of a city that you’d known all your life?

The picture shows an unlikely scene – an upright piano of uncertain vintage, sporting plenty of war-paint, in the most unpromising circumstances: exposed to the elements, to traffic, and to the depredations of those who pass by in the night on two legs or on four. The location is one of the aforementioned bulldozed spaces, on the corner of Marine Parade and one of its spurs, with the Pacific surf pounding away at North Beach, out of shot to the left. I think a pub used to be there. Two hundred metres to the east, wet-suited surfers are playing their own scales on the creamy white-notes of the easterly groundswell. The surf is, in fairness, a lot more mobile than are the jammed-up keys of the piano that you can see. But it’s not dried paint, or seagull guano, doing the damage – just overnight rain from a week ago, sun-baked in the meantime. Centre-stage, Marilyn Thomas, surfer and teacher (and mother of Daisy Thomas, still the only woman to win the NZ long-board and short-board national championships in the same season), is getting to grips with a thoroughly seized-up keyboard, the wooden keys swollen beyond easy repair.

The seizing-up might have been a blessing in disguise, because I’d just bowed to the inevitable and agreed to attempt an outdoor rendition of something implausible by Fats Waller. More to the point, though, a printed notice on the piano asks the would-be pianist to advise of any technical faults via email to an organisation called Gap Filler. And herein lies the tale.

Gap Filler is a street organisation with a very simple but inspiring mission. The gaps are the bulldozed spaces left after each wrecked building is finally demolished – and if the gaps are redolent in proportion to their former occupants, recall that two cathedrals will have been dismantled and pulverised before this show is over. Permanently filling them is ultimately the responsibility of the authority charged with rebuilding: but the (literally) seismic complications mean that’s no overnight affair. So, meantime, the spaces either stand sterile, or they are inhabited by more temporary tokens of humanity. Enter Gap Filler, dedicated to putting ready-to-hand human traces into the spaces left by longer-term destruction and demolition.

The Marine Parade piano is an example. Just out of shot to the right is a couch, an ordinary PVC-upholstered two-seater settee that might have been  the centrepiece of a suburban home just eighteen months ago, but is now a piece of post-earthquake jetsam being put to use serving the common good. Elsewhere you might find a hat-stand, an umbrella-stand, a coffee table, a sun-lounger, a ‘rods’-style table-football game; anything that reminds the passer-by that ordinary life was once carried on in this particular bit of occupied territory – and will be carried on again. Meantime, there’s a Gap to Fill.

For a Kiwi-phile like me who loves the indefatigable local combination of have-a-go enterprise and social commitment, the flourishing of an impromptu organisation like Gap Filler says it all: the resourcefulness of folk who love their living spaces but don’t take them for granted; who know something of their fragility, and for whom resilience is not only part of politics’ right-on vocabulary but also, daily, both a practical necessity and a requirement of self-respect. Hence the other part of the above-mentioned notice intended, like the whole, for whoever was passing by and wanted to reconnect with something human amid the traces of desolation: “Please enjoy playing me to your heart’s content.” Could there be a better reason for playing the piano? Or, to borrow from the estate-agent’s cliché, could there be a better way to embrace the space?

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