Tag Archives: ChCh Earthquake

In the Space of a Year

Space is elusive.  It’s slippery, difficult to pin down.  Space is at once personal and public, material and metaphorical.  It can cheer you up or get you down.   Space is political.  It can confine or liberate.  Space is contested and hierarchical.  Of the numerous permutations of space governing our lives, three defined 2015 for me.

  1. Interstitial Space

Accompanying me as I write, is the rough rapid beat of a hammer interspersed with the staccato rhythm of the nail gun.  The musicians responsible, not visible from my vantage point, are perched high in the scaffolding that surrounds our ill-fated chimney.  I am of course resigned to the intrusion, this background music has been playing in the personal and public spaces of post-earthquake Christchurch for nearly five years.  That I’m present at this unsolicited performance is rather more difficult to reconcile.  With an assuredly generous time-frame of nine weeks for requisite EQR (Earthquake Recovery) repairs, we moved out of our home and into rented accommodation at the end of February 2015.  Astonishingly nine weeks ballooned to eight months, necessitating a second move.  Ultimately, with our insurance accommodation allowance exhausted – although, squandered, is closer to the truth of it – on October 17, we returned to a partially repaired home.  Gradually we have reclaimed the garage and the dining-room has been divested of excess furniture, the outliers returned to their rightful rooms.  The lounge, however, remains divided territory, so disappointingly I have not been ‘unpacking my library’. No I haven’t!   Twenty-fifteen was a year of living-between spaces – a metaphoric fluid shift from the intracellular space that is home, to the interstitial space – where you and your stuff don’t really belong.  But it is, as Seneca observed, “the disaster of an earthquake stretches far and wide”[i] And so, as 2016 begins, we remain – like many other families in this city – in a state of disequilibrium, homeostasis not yet restored.


  1. Empty Space

“One day there is life…And then, suddenly, it happens there is death”,[ii] opens Paul Auster’s Portrait of an Invisible Man, written following the sudden death of his father.  Auster’s narrative, the first section of his book The Invention of Solitude, is part meditative, part forensic investigation, and it was this I reached for and reread in the days following my father’s death on April 2nd, casting aside Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk, – an equally affecting account of the impact of a father’s death – which ironically, I was half way through when Dad died.  That I relinquished MacDonald in favour of Auster, had nothing to do with literary merit and everything to do with utility.  I needed a mirror.  And on the Richter scale of grief, MacDonald’s seemed at a magnitude far greater than mine, while Auster, dry-eyed and accepting, came closer.  Auster’s father was in good health when he died, my dad had small cell lung cancer, with local spread into the mediastinal lymph nodes at the time of his diagnosis in June 2014.  But, like Auster’s father, dad also, had died suddenly.  Swiftly, confounding even the doctors and nurses at the hospice, to which he’d been admitted two days prior, for symptom management.  Abruptly, and without undue fuss, dad it seemed, had just disappeared.  In the days subsequent, bereft and struggling to assemble him again for the eulogy I must write, I wondered if dad had ever really been here.  And that’s not to say he shirked the responsibilities that came with marriage – he and mum were just shy of their 60th wedding anniversary when he died – and fatherhood.  But, to me at least, dad was always just out of reach; inscrutable.   I reread Portrait of an Invisible Man, to both absolve and console myself.  That it was alright to feel as if you’d never really known your father, because, as Auster wrote, “If it is true that we can ever come to know another human being, even to a small degree, it is only to the extent that he is willing to make himself known.”[iii]  I’d found Auster’s narrative more than twenty years ago.  It was revelatory.  Insofar as, in Auster’s portrayal, certain words, certain passages, were like windows through which I would catch glimpses of my father.  Even to the story Auster recounts, when his father – described as “always a man of habit”[iv] – in the week after shifting house, absentmindedly returned to their former home, made his way upstairs and lay down in the bedroom as he typically did before dinner, all the while blissfully unaware that anything had changed.  Remarkably, dad – also a man of habit – had done almost the exact same thing, but realising his mistake, somewhat sooner than Auster’s father, had stopped short of opening the front door.


Caroline Bay Carnival Christmas 1968

Although the trajectory of their lives differed – Auster’s father was divorced and, at the time of his death, had lived alone for fifteen years – as children, both had survived significant events.  And, as Auster speculated, “A boy cannot live through this kind of thing without being affected by it as a man.”[v] It was only after his father’s death, and quite by chance, that Auster discovered his grandmother had murdered his grandfather.  I, on the other hand, had grown up knowing something of dad’s story.  His mother died soon after his birth and his British born father returned to England.  So, effectively orphans, dad and his older brother, were taken into care.

I had reached for Portrait of an Invisible Man seeking absolution and consolation, but in rereading what I really found was some perspective.  Whether because of, or in spite of, the circumstances of those formative years, dad wore life with equanimity.  And perhaps, in the end that was all I needed to know.


  1. Breathing Space

Yes, it was a holiday, but it was also a means of escape from the diet of disinformation fed to us by EQR for the past seven months.  We sought refuge in Wellington for a week at the end of September.  And needless to say, I resolved to visit as many bookshops as time – and family patience – would allow.  I reasoned it would be an antidote to EQR-angst, a salve for the spirit.  Thankfully the capital is blessed with many fine bookshops and, as I discovered, book hunting adventures boosted by a new publication, Book Wellington: The Booklover’s Guide to the Capital, designed by Fitz Beck Creative.  Whimsically described, “like a pub crawl for books” by the Association of New Zealand Booksellers, the map offers the truly obsessed with directions to, and descriptions of, eighteen bookshops.  Familiar with many of them, I began my pilgrimage at a favourite, Pegasus Books, situated on the Left Bank of Cuba St.


Pegasus Books Left Bank Cuba St Wellington


Spread over a warren of rooms, John Hoskins bouquinerie offers a rich array of books, from antiquarian to nearly new.  I lingered contentedly amongst shelves that served a bouillabaisse of Poetry, Music, Art, Philosophy, Literature, Classics, Mythology and much more besides, before chatting briefly with John.  A bookseller for fourteen years – Pegasus first stamped its hoof in Newtown – John was upbeat about the book business, telling me he saw no sign of a downturn.


Pegasus Books Wellington



Pointing enthusiastically towards a stack of booklets atop a low shelf, just across from his desk, he asked if I’d be in town long enough to catch some of the events at the inaugural Featherston Booktown, of which he would be part.  Sadly, I would not.  Nonetheless, I popped one of the rather eye-catching black and white booklets into my bag as I was leaving, at least I could read about what I would miss.

I journeyed on further up Cuba St, bound for The Ferret Bookshop, where I would, as owner Terry encourages, poke my nose in.


The Ferret Bookshop Cuba St Wellington

Opening its doors in 1979, happily, The Ferret can boast of longevity not enjoyed by its mammalian namesake.  And although requisite earthquake strengthening over the past few years has twice seen The Ferret scurry further up the trouser leg of Cuba St, Terry’s eclectic collection of books remains constant.  Tucking my purchase, the first UK edition of James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, into my bag, I left The Ferret and headed back down Cuba St towards Manners St and Arty Bees Books.


The Ferret Bookshop Wellington

With acres of space in which to house more than 100,000 books, Arty Bees is, as it claims, the largest independent seller of new and used books in Wellington.  If you can’t find what you’re looking for in Arty Bees, never mind, because you’re bound to find other books you didn’t know you were looking for.


Arty Bees Books Wellington

But, if you find yourself truly out of your depth, as I did on a second visit with my teenage son Max, happily, help is never far away.  Matt Morris, Sci-Fi sage and Arty Bees manager – although alchemist better describes what it is that Matt does.  Let me illustrate.  We arrived at the counter and I asked Matt if he could suggest some Sci- Fi titles.  He turned to Max, smiled and asked with alacrity, “robots or magicians”, (it was magicians) “action or beautiful worlds”, (it was beautiful worlds).  Then he stepped from behind the counter, and with a wave of his arm, said “follow me, young man”.   And with that they were gone.   After much deliberation with Matt, Max settled on Magician by Raymond E. Feist, while I jotted down names of the other authors Matt recommended; Fritz Leiber, David Eddings, and Elizabeth Moon. 


Arty Bees Books Wellington

We left Arty Bees carrying books and wearing smiles.  “That guy was quite cool” Max ventured.  I nodded in wholehearted agreement, and told him he’d probably just experienced that wondrous phenomenon, bookshop alchemy.  Those serendipitous, magical moments that no algorithm can replicate because, they’re intrinsically human.  And why, often when you leave one of these sacred spaces you feel in possession of a gift rather than a purchase.


[i] Seneca. The terrors of earthquakes. From Natural Questions, in Dialogues and Letters, edited and translated by, C.D.N. Costa, 2005, Penguin Books, London, pp. 112-113.

[ii] Auster, Paul. Portrait of an invisible man, in The Invention of Solitude, Faber and Faber, London, 1989, p.5.

[iii] Ibid., pp.19-20.

[iv] Ibid., p.8.

[v] Ibid., p.36.


Fat and Fiction

Here’s how it started.  I’m on my way home from work, listening as I usually do, to Radio New Zealand National, when I’m confronted by news that although childhood obesity is predicted to surpass smoking as the foremost risk to health next year, the government yet again, is rejecting demands for a 20% tax on fizzy drinks.  The item went onto quote from a 2009 OECD report, that ranked us the third fattest among that group of industrialised nations, and the 2012/13 New Zealand Health Survey, which revealed one in three New Zealand adults were obese.   How depressing.  If I hadn’t been behind the wheel some serious slouching – think young Alvy Singer, worrying about the universe expanding, in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall – would have been in order.  Instead I made do with recasting and re-imagining one of my favourite scenes.  It went something like this.

 “Why are you depressed Kim?” Prime Minister Key asks.

“It’s something she heard on the radio” replies Health Minister Coleman.

“New Zealand’s tamariki (children) are expanding”, says Kim.

“New Zealand’s tamariki are expanding?” queries the Prime Minister.

“Well, in terms of importance, our tamariki are everything, and if they are expanding someday they will get sick and then everybody’s future will be pretty bleak”, warns Kim.

“What is that your business!”, says the visibly exasperated Health Minister who, turns to the Prime Minister, adding, “she’s even read the WHO Interim Report of the Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity!  

“Because, Minister Coleman”, answers Kim, “your unequivocal claim that further regulation is not required, seems somewhat disingenuous.  Both, the NZ Beverage Guidance Panel Policy Brief: Options to Reduce Sugar Sweetened Beverage (SSB) Consumption in NZ, June 2014 and Benchmarking Food Environments: Experts Assessments of Policy Gaps and Priorities for the New Zealand Government, July 2014, considered the introduction of an excise tax of at least 20% on sugar-sweetened beverages a priority and urged for immediate government action.   A year on and you are still dragging your feet.  This, despite Sir Peter Gluckman, the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, and, co-chair of the WHO Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity, noting that, attention on any one factor, or exclusively on the health sector, is unlikely to be effective[i], and consensus support, in the WHO Interim Report, for the application of fiscal measures to change food purchase behaviours.”

The Prime Minister interjects, “But Kim, taxes are problematic politically.  We mustn’t forget the New Zealand Food & Beverage Industry is part of the governments Business Growth Agenda.  Basically the decision comes down to a trade-off between human expansion and market expansion.  That’s why we need to ignore this while we’re here.”

Forget slouching, I needed a lie down after that imaginary conversation.  What’s to be done?   Apropos of the tax impasse, and in the spirit of every little bit counts, perhaps a novel – pun intended – intervention to make an environment less obesogenic might fly.  As I work in a hospital it seems a reasonable place, wherein to start dreaming.  Clearly, while we have our fair share of vending machines, whose products, will, without doubt, weigh you down, we lack a viable alternative, which instead, might lighten, and liven us up.  It occurred to me, there was a literary analogue to the snack vending machine – I’d come across it on-line a couple of years ago – a book vending machine, created for the Monkey’s Paw, a Toronto bookshop.  The brain child of animator Craig Small, the coin operated Biblio-Mat, discharges randomly chosen old  books.

Bibliomat 2, Monkey's Paw books, Dundas Street W, Toronto, ON, Canada

Perfect.  As well as the obvious health benefits of a zero sugar, zero fat, vending machine, a Biblio-Mat would sate the appetites of staff, patients and visitors to Christchurch Hospital, who have been bereft of books since the 2011 earthquake, when the University of Canterbury bookshop’s satellite store, a small literary oasis, amid the bustle that is hospital life, closed indefinitely.  Though, another conventional bookshop seems unlikely, perhaps there is room for a smaller scale, book dispensary.  Call it folly if you will, but I am quietly confident.  After all, Cantabrians young and old, have embraced the rather wonderful Gap Filler initiative, Dance-O-Mat, a coin operated former laundromat washing machine, powering four speakers, encircling a custom-built dance floor.

Dance o mat

It seems to me, common to both ‘Mat’s’ – besides quirkiness and coin operation – is possibility.  The Dance-O-Mat provides a place of possibility, the Biblio-Mat, books of possibility, and resultant action – dancing or reading – the vehicle to; lift spirits, invigorate body and mind, distract and delight.  And even though I do not possess an entrepreneurial bone in my body, today, strangely enough, I’ve been reading all about licensed production.

[i] Gkuckman, P., Nishtar, S., & Armstrong, T. (2015). Ending childhood obesity: a multidimensional challenge. The Lancet, Vol., 385, pp. 1048-1050.

Reading the Literary Fridge

Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider.  Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.

                                                                                 Francis Bacon, Of Studies (1625)



Christchurch Book Fridge

It has become a talisman of sorts as I navigate the mutable landscape that is post-earthquake Christchurch. Journeys down Barbadoes Street are punctuated, at the Kilmore Street intersection by a quick glance to my right just to check, ‘It’ is still there.  ‘It’, is the Book Fridge, officially known as the Think Differently Book Exchange, an early Gap Filler initiative.  This capacious commercial fridge is due to celebrate its third birthday in July and lately I’ve been pondering its longevity amid the many and varied Gap Filler projects that have come and gone since 2011.  Materialising on July 17 we were invited to fill it with books.  Not just any books but books of a certain stature, books that had “changed your life and made you think differently.”  An obsessive reader since childhood I imagined this book-filled fridge a literary Tardis.  Akin to a Tardis, interiors of wonderful books are invariably larger than their exteriors, capable of transporting you, the occupant, to any moment in time anywhere in the universe.  A shy and rather anxious child, books were a cocoon into which I could legitimately retreat from the social demands of everyday life.  I curled up in rather than with books, they kept and still keep me, psychologically warm.  Unfettered access to books was surely the elixir every Christchurch resident needed given the majority of the city’s libraries’ and better bookshops lay ruined, too risky or just inaccessible within the city cordon. 

We all know how reading has saved our lives”, Lydia Wevers writes in On Reading, “but usually only from the minor evils – boredom, weather, monotony, the beige death of thought, other kids.” But does it cut the mustard when faced with real misery Wevers asks, and people, as those in Christchurch did and many still do, “find themselves suddenly way beyond the borders of ordinary life.”   Clearly, Wevers considers reading can and has mitigated real misery offering both personal and more widely known examples.  Her mother read and re-read Jane Austen throughout the misery of WWII, crediting Austen’s books, her sanity saver.  And what, Wevers wonders of Janet Frame’s fate had she not read?  Her life seems to offer incontrovertible evidence of reading and writing salvaging and sustaining a life.  

Of course real misery, like an insistent tongue, is endlessly demanding and oddly enough so too is the reading we do that will, according to Harold Bloom, “prepare ourselves for change.” So not unexpectedly, three weeks following the official opening of the Book Fridge, a despondent Coralie Winn (Gap Filler Co-founder & Director) noted, “the calibre of the books has dropped with there being (sic) a great deal of romantic fiction in the fridge which is disappointing but not unexpected.” Even the impeccable Robertson Davies, who considered reading an art and in an essay, A Call to the Clerisy, advised readers to “approach reading in a less passive and more interpretative spirit” also conceded; “the best, as every true reader knows, is not always what one wants; there are times when one does not feel equal to the demands of the best….very often one wants no more than ‘a good read’, to shut out the world while those bruises heal which the world has given.”  But is the impulse to read enough or even summonable when wretched or wounded?  Indeed Janet Frame read very little during her periods of hospitalisation at Sunnyside, Seacliff and Avondale – the Maudsley Hospital in London was possibly the exception.  In Michael King’s vivid biography of Frame, Wrestling with the Angel, he describes her carrying, “like a precious talisman”, but seldom reading The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, just turning the pages was enough.  Perhaps in times of grown-up misery, it is not the actual reading that saves us but instead a memory of it.  Mesmeric page turning then is the liminal moment when you leave a confounding adult world and return to the simplicity of childhood and the promise of books. 

My mother read to me from an early age ignoring warnings from her mother-in-law that she would “turn that child’s head!”  We celebrated her eighty-first birthday recently and although she reads very little now I asked about her once proclivity for reading.  “Oh I loved reading and I read to you a lot” she enthused.  Pausing briefly and looking slightly abashed she added, “I kept reading in the hope you would fall asleep.”  So although my parents lived with nightly uncertainty – when a book failed to have the desired soporific effect my father would resort to pram pushing – my mother, was inculcating in me the certainty of books and the delights of reading.   

The books I recall requesting frequently while still a listener to, rather than a reader of books, were those written and illustrated, by Racey Helps; Barnaby in Search of a House, published in 1948, and Little Tommy Purr, in 1954. 


I still have Barnaby.  He clings to life, his boards held together by a rubber band which acts as a rudimentary splint for his long-ago broken spine. 


Although heavy with anthropomorphic sentimentality and written for, as Help’s said “the very young from four to about eight” the language is both rich and sophisticated – arguably difficult for the young listener or reader – for instance; ‘venerable’, ‘bole’, ‘predicament’, ‘doleful’, ‘stifled’.  Whether or not they recognise or understand these words is immaterial, early exposure – written and aural – to adventurous writing counts. Author and literary critic Clifton Fadiman was quite right.  In the introduction to Reading I’ve Liked he wrote, “long words tickle the fancy of children….they like the slight atmosphere of mystery distilled by a really bang-up polysyllable.”   Fadiman was pretty impressed with children’s abilities to, on the one hand “read reams of careless prose with great enjoyment”, while on the other remain “sensitive to beautiful writing”.  He wasn’t sure how they discerned the difference – maybe it’s that early exposure after all – but they did know and cited his son as a key example; 

“My own son is not over fond of books.  Rather than forgo an airplane flight he would willingly see the Forty-second Street library vanish in flames.  Two years ago I tried the young barbarian – he was about seven – on The Wind in the Willows, and he could make nothing of it.  I tried him again some few months ago.  He finished it with absorbed calm, clapped the book to, and said with finality, “Now that’s what I call well written!” He has never said this about any other books he’s read, many of which he has “enjoyed” more.  The fact is that The Wind in the Willows is the best-written book he has read so far, and somehow he knew it, though he had never been given any hint to affect his judgment.” (xvii-xviii)    

Although Fadiman wrote this passage over seventy years ago, the moment I read it those year’s concertinaed and we were both nodding in parental agreement.  I’d had a similar experience with my daughter.   Always a keen listener to stories she nevertheless struggled as a beginning reader.  Reading mileage, a lot of what they like and often – my partner’s a teacher – was prescribed.  She’d loved the formulaic Rainbow Fairies series usually read aloud at bedtime.  Interspersed with Rachel and Kirsty’s adventures were other tales; Dominic by William Steig, Russell Hoban’s The Mouse and his Child, The Improbable Cat by Allan Ahlberg and E.L. Konigsburg’s, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler.  But for now Rainbow Fairies it was, only this time with roles reversed – she would proudly read chapters to me.  During one of these, her-reading-me-listening sessions, she paused mid-sentence, sighed and said “this writing is quite boring Mama.”  It had never been suggested that these books were inferior to any others she’d heard, but somehow she just knew.  

I was born in 1961 so the childhood staple was writing by British authors; Beatrix Potter, A.A Milne, Lewis Carroll, Rudyard Kipling, Joyce Lankester Brisley, Kenneth Grahame, C.S Lewis and Malcom Saville among others.  According to my mother I read independently from age six, was reasonably adept and seemed to enjoy it.  The one nod to New Zealand on our family bookshelf – the connection decidedly tenuous as all the stories were set in Normandy! – was Long Ago in Rouen, a collection of eight children’s stories written in 1937 by my mother’s god-mother Ida Withers while she was working as a governess in France just prior to the Second World War.  Although a fledging reader I much preferred these quirky tales to be read aloud.  A particular favourite was Monsieur Corneille’s Crumple-Dumplet.  The crotchety Roger Corneille has demanded a crumple-dumplet for his lunch nothing less will keep him alive.  The successful and proud baker Jean-Pierre Tisserand can’t remember what a crumple-dumplet is – you can probably guess where this is headed – caught in the middle of this little French farce is Michel, the baker’s delivery boy.  Michel is hoping to earn a louis (a gold coin in circulation between 1640 and 1793) so he can buy his mother a pair of leather shoes.  Instead he earns the wrath of Roger Corneille and returns to the bakery day after day wearing the remnants of yet another pastry that is not a crumple-dumplet.  Whimsical illustrations by Maggie Salcedo enriched each of these stories. 

Long Ago in Rouen Monsieur Corneilles's Crumple-Dumplet

Long Ago in Rouen
Monsieur Corneilles’s Crumple-Dumplet

Books by American and Canadian authors came later – I adored Alcott and Coolidge but, much to my mother’s disappointment, disliked Montgomery – Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time I discovered, courtesy of the school library, at age twelve.  I didn’t give a hoot about where or from what century a writer came, whether well-known or unknown, it was the story that mattered.  An equal opportunity reader I happily read most of my brother’s books; Just William, Biggles, Tintin and a lot of Alfred Hitchcock & the Three Investigators – I rather fancied myself as Bob Andrews, “somewhat studious and an excellent researcher.”  

It seems to me I was given a good deal of latitude when it came to reading.  I can’t recall being urged to read any of the ‘Classics’ but eventually found the Bronte’s, Austen and Dickens.  During secondary school I developed a certain fondness for reading plays; Hedda Gabler, The Birthday Party, Waiting for Godot, The Miser, The Importance of Being Earnest, Accidental Death of an Anarchist, and Blood of the Lamb – I think this interest was largely due to an enlightened English teacher who took us to see these plays at the Court Theatre.   In retrospect, I read for readings sake; in other words I read because I wanted to not because I had to, my mission; enjoyment not enquiry.  Naturally as I got older the pendulum swung the other way and many books had to be read to pass a test, write an essay, or advance professionally.  As Somerset Maugham wrote, “such books we read with resignation rather than with alacrity”.  That we continue to read for enjoyment is the central thesis in Books and You.  There are, Maugham advises, books that “will help you to live more fully”, but firstly they must interest you and secondly, enjoyment should be derived from reading them otherwise they will be of little use to you.  

As I write I’m reminded of something I said to Ali during our trip to New York in 2011.  This particular morning we had gone separate ways – her still in search of that elusive New York dress, me to McNally Jackson Books.  When we met later she remained ‘dress-less’ while I had yet another bag of books.   Ostensibly to cheer her up – though possibly to assuage sudden pangs of guilt – I pointed out our endeavours were not comparable noting, “it’s much easier for me I don’t have to try a book on I just know it’s going to fit.”  Paradoxically, this is because I’ve been ‘trying-on’ books for years so I might read myself more fully alive.  I’ve donned a variety of styles, at times struggled with fit, hoped I’d grow into some and tried to avoid the lure of trends.  A great book is a microcosm of life; it demands your attention, presumes trust, can reward or disappoint.  Reading deliberately is at once personal and participatory – you recognise and remember, imagine and interpret, discover and develop.  Perhaps this is why a book-filled fridge, on the fringes of an inner city destroyed by earthquake, endures.

close up book fridge 2






Mulling over Melling

A Man’s life of any worth is a continual
allegory – and very few eyes can see the Mystery of his life – a life like the
scriptures, figurative.  John Keats

Architect Gerald Melling died in Wellington on December 22nd 2012.  News of his death reached me in a Kaikoura motel on January 5th by way of the Christchurch Press death notices.  An infrequent newspaper reader undoubtedly I had missed prominent earlier announcements.  This was a “Thoreau (more or less)” moment, described by writer Joe Bennett, as “if there is anything you need to know it will find you and the rest is fiddle-de-dee.”  Days and a different town later, clearly this was news I needed to know.  I read the notice aloud to Alison and felt as if I knew him, I didn’t.  What I knew and admired was a handful of Melling: Morse (he and Alan Morse had been in partnership since 1990) houses or “boxes” as Melling dubbed many of them; Music Box (1996), Skybox (2001),  Samuri (2004), Spilt Box (2006), Signal Box (2007).

Music Box

Music Box

Small (in footprint and budget) these are idiosyncratic rather than conformist little boxes made, not out of ticky-tacky, but from locally available sustainable materials[1].  To me they typify his long-held belief that architecture should serve many not just the well-heeled few.

Sky Box

Sky Box (2001)

I was also familiar with his journey to post-tsunami Sri Lanka fuelled by a desire to, in his words, do “more than merely rebuild”[2]. This culminated in the design of a village for a fishing community on Sri Lanka’s West Coast.  Melling wrote eloquently and honestly about this project in his 2010 book Tsunami Box[3] I live in post-earthquake Christchurch; is it fanciful to think we can and must do “more than merely rebuild?”  The adjective ‘strong’ has become part of the city’s lexicon over the last two years.   In the immediate aftermath ‘strong’ (Kia Kaha) was used to both describe Cantabrians and embolden the human spirit.  Places could not be characterised as ‘strong’, too many buildings had failed us.  But now, as our regenerative journey gathers momentum, attention has turned and description shifted to the creation of a ‘stronger’ place (Stronger Christchurch Infrastructure Rebuild).  It seems to me that Melling knew a thing or two about the ingredients required to create ‘strong’ places.  In a 1989 essay, The Mid-City Crisis, he bemoaned the dearth of new ‘strong places’ being created in the re-development of Wellington (and Auckland) saying;

“‘Strong places’, of course, make strong demands.  They require of town planning an intelligent strategy for urban strength; they ask of developers a strength of mind and moral purpose beyond the strength of the personal dollar; and – perhaps more significant than anything else – they need strong architects.  It is the latter who give the final stir to the urban porridge, and we must expect more than the odd flick of the wrist and a pinch of salt to titillate the palate.  We need architects with oats.”[4]

When asked in May 2011 for his thoughts on the Christchurch earthquakes, Melling, noting the considerable differences between the situation in Christchurch and that which he experienced in Sri Lanka, seemed prepared to wait and see given a local team, which included Ian Athfield, was involved.  Ironically some seven months after that interview our “architect with oats” had walked away[5].

Signal Box Night 1

Signal Box (2007)

But does any of this qualify as knowing the person I wonder; architecture as autobiography perhaps?  In 1929 Chapman-Taylor had this to say on the building of houses; “art cannot be commercialised nor come alive out of the mill of mass production.  Art is human and personal…..the man and his product must be taken together.”[6]  Some weeks later while perusing the shelves of poetry at our local library, my eye was drawn to a slender black volume protruding from the otherwise orderly row of books.  It almost seemed to be elbowing its way toward me.  Barely visible on its thin black spine was the title; Postcards from the Coast, by G J Melling.   While I had read some of Melling’s writing on architecture I didn’t know he was a poet; this find was as if I should know more about “the man and his product…” Encased between the black covers was construction of a different kind but nonetheless seemed intimately linked to the values and intentions expressed in his architecture.  What he is saying, I think, is that architecture cannot remain aloof isolated from everyday life; it needs to get out more.  Imagine a contagious architecture, anyone might catch it.

[1] Macrocarpa, an environmentally friendly timber grown in the Northland region was used extensively in the construction of The Music Box house.  See: Charleson, A. (1997). Case study. Timber Design Journal, Vol. 6, Issue 3, pp.10-11, and a 2010 paper by Neil Newman & Kerry Francis, Sustainable timber potential for Northland, New Zealand, presented at the 44th Annual Conference of the Architectural Science Association.

[2] McCall, C. (2011). Gerald Melling: building on a feeling. The New Zealand Herald, May, 12, Auckland, New-Zealand.

[3] Melling, G.J. (2010). Tsunami Box, Freerange Press, Wellington.

[4] Melling, G.J. (1989). The Mid City Crisis & Other Essays, Thumbprint Press, Wellington.

[5] Athfield (2011). The challenge of Christchurch. Architecture NZ, Nov/Dec, No.6, pp. 18-21. See also: Diana Witchel Interview: Architect Ian Athfield, The New Zealand Listener, June 23, 2012.

[6] Chapman-Taylor, J.W. (1929). Some thoughts on the building of houses. In, New Dreamland Writing New Zealand Architecture (Jenkins, D.L. ed.), Random House, Auckland, pp. 68-77.

Bookshop Alchemy

This morning I closed the last page of 18 Bookshops, author Anne Scott was closing the door on the Atlantis Bookshop in Museum St London. This slim volume is a paean to eighteen bookshops past and present all with literary or personal importance to the author. Reading these essays it occurs to me that Scott is also describing encounters with bookshop alchemy. Alchemy, according to Robertson Davies in his description of theatre alchemy is “something which has attained to such excellence, such nearness to perfection that it offers a glory, an expansion of life and understanding, to those who have been bought into contact with it.” Whether the late great Davies would countenance such comparison I’m uncertain. However, the following passage does indeed suggest a “glory, an expansion of life and understanding”, for Scott, who over the decades was “bought into contact with” Compendium Bookshop in Camden and importantly with bookseller Mike Hart.

“A fellow Scot named Mike Hart arrived to work at Compendium in 1982. On my visits across the next decade, he turned my reading to Tom Leonard, James Kelman, Alastair Gray’s Lanark, and a closer understanding of James Kennaway’s novels. These were all Scottish and easily bought at home: but at Compendium Mike would take a book in his hand, turn it over and think, then open it fast at a page, and read from it, so swift and clean and quiet that I heard the words straight from the writer’s mind, the pretences of paper and print exactly gone. A paragraph, a stanza, and he would finish, leave the book open at the place, and go away”.

The truly book obsessed will, I suspect, agree this happy alchemy is not experienced in every shop, new or used, claiming the status of ‘Bookshop’. Left to fossick to my heart’s content in a newly discovered bookshop my family is often bemused when I emerge moments later declaring miserably “It’s not a real bookshop!” Call me a literary snob if you must, I prefer idealist as I’m invariably on the lookout for the bookshop of my imagination. It is a mix of Brazenhead Books, Michael Seidenberg’s secret bookshop in New York City, and the long departed Marks & Co. in London.  Although I’ve yet to find this bookshop perhaps, as Seidenberg says, it is “hiding in plain sight”!

As one, among those described by Nicholas Basbanes as the Gently Mad, I unashamedly judge the merits of a particular location relative to whether there is a bookshop, preferably second-hand, within cooee. Pukerua Bay, at the southern end of the Kapiti Coast, is meritorious not because it’s the birthplace of Sir Peter Jackson but because it’s home to Archway Books. The shop sits unassumingly beside its vivacious neighbour; the ice-cream crowned Pukerua Bay Store. Archway’s books beckon quietly. Inside and you are beguiled with shelf after heaving shelf of used books. It also has a shelf marked ‘Books about Books’. Yes, a ‘real’ bookshop.
It seems fitting then that 18 Bookshops was purchased from another ‘real’ bookshop, Smith’s Books in Christchurch. The pop-up shop in the Tannery Emporium, on the corner of Garlands Road and Cumnor Terrace opened in November last year, twenty-one months after the February 22nd earthquake. I greeted owner Barry Hancox with a heartfelt “Thank God you’re back!”

Smiths Books Pop-up shop Woolston Christchurch

Smiths Books Pop-up shop Woolston Christchurch

Although Smiths continued to trade on-line following the quake, I confessed I found little joy clicking on a one dimensional shelf lined with untouchable books. Writing in 2001, publisher and editor Jason Epstein agreed that although Internet booksellers and e-books would fundamentally alter book distribution less certain was how they would change retail bookselling. He pointed out that “a civilisation without retail booksellers is unimaginable. Like shrines and other sacred meeting places, bookstores are essential artifacts of human nature.”  In quake-hit Christchurch the unimaginable happened. Suddenly, either by destruction or decree the city was without Smiths Books, Liberty Books, Fortuna Books, Pacific Books, Scorpio Books and the London St Bookshop in Lyttleton. Lamenting a few broken and inaccessible book-shops seemed trifling; this time death accompanied destruction. I remembered a 1992 London Review of Books cover photograph, it had mesmerised me at the time and I’d seen it again recently in Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading. It shows three men perusing the shelves of the Holland House library in West London, badly damaged by a fire bomb in 1940.  Manguel’s description of this image now seemed particularly poignant.

From: A History of ReadingAlberto Manguel

From: A History of Reading
Alberto Manguel

“Through the torn roof can be seen ghostly buildings outside, and in the centre of the store is a heap of beams and crippled furniture.  But the shelves on the walls have held fast, and the books lined up along them seem unharmed.  Three men are standing amidst the rubble; one, as if hesitant about which book to choose, is apparently reading the titles on the spines; another, wearing glasses, is reaching for a volume; the third is reading, holding an open book in his hands.  They are not turning their backs on the war, or ignoring the destruction.  They are not choosing the books over life outside.  They are trying to persist against the obvious odds; they are asserting a common right to ask; they are attempting to find once again – among the ruins, in the astonished recognition that reading sometimes grants – an understanding”.

Why did I feel the loss of these shops so acutely? If I needed a book surely Whitchoulls or Paper Plus would suffice? No. My book buying has always been more than just a market transaction, the book more than merchandise. It dawns on me that ‘real’ bookshops represent how I want to buy books. The atmosphere is different somehow; an egalitarian society of books where the long forgotten rub shoulders with today’s bright young things. I am not assailed by the latest publishing sensation or the ‘must read’ from this week’s celebrity book-club. I feel at home in these shops. A deliberate and pernickety book-selector I’m usually reading against the current as does the splendid Alan Bennett who, when asked about his preferred reading matter said; “If a book is all the rage I tend to wait until the heats gone off it before I read it. I don’t like to be in the forefront with books.” Here there are no remainder tables, no impression of beleaguered book-sellers hurrying unsold stock back to the publisher. The books wait quietly, (it’s they who choose you); their sellers’ patient, knowledgeable and generous. Many of them modern day alchemists pointing out paths to reading perfection.