Christchurch, 8 1/2 years after the earthquake

IMG_6315I hadn’t been to Christchurch in 10 years, and I’m not quite sure how that happened.

I’ve been out of the country nearly a dozen times in that span, but the South Island of New Zealand always seems further away. If you don’t have family or friends on ‘the mainland,’ it seems another country sometimes despite it just being an hour flight away. 

Christchurch is flatter and more British in feel than melting pot Auckland, with lots of gorgeous old stone churches and a sky full of billowing, demonstrative clouds far different than the ones up north. You can feel the cold blue influence of Antarctica, a mere few thousand kilometres south. 

Christchurch also has a regrettable reputation as New Zealand’s unluckiest place to live. The terrible events of March 15 are high in everyone’s memory, of course, but Christchurch has also had fires and earthquakes, including the deadly February 22, 2011 quake that killed 185 people. This was the first time we’d been down there since then. 

IMG_6317The signs of the 2011 earthquakes are everywhere, far more prevalent than I’d imagined they’d be almost a decade on. Downtown is dotted with vacant lots, cranes constructing new buildings, and the cracked and battered abandoned remains of those structures that haven’t been torn down yet. For every building that seems fine, there’s another that’s a dust-covered shell that looks like something from Chernobyl. The gorgeous old Christchurch Cathedral is a broken and gaping maw, like a dollhouse cross-section where you can see inside a building. Dozens of pigeons still nest in the rafters, visible to all.

Terribly movingly, there’s a humble memorial across the street from the site of the CTV building collapse which claimed 115 victims that February day. It’s a gathering of 115 white chairs, all various types and styles, across the street from the site of the collapsed building, bearing silent witness. There is a baby’s car seat there, spray-painted white, full of silent grief. There is a list of names of people of all ages and from all over the world (the building housed a language school where a lot of the victims were killed).  

You read a fair bit about all the delays that have plagued Christchurch’s recovery since 2011. It’s another thing to actually see a city, one of New Zealand’s largest, still battered and scarred from a catastrophe nearly a decade ago. 

It’s also a reminder that yesterday’s news isn’t forgotten by the people at the heart of the storm – that long after the world’s attention moves on from something, there’s building to do, homes to relocate and towers to rebuild. 

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Martin Phillipps and the endless cool of The Chills

The-Chills-For-WebsiteIt all started with a few mixtapes.

mens-black-nz-music-month-2019-teeMy first exposure to New Zealand music was a high school girlfriend, who put Crowded House’s Temple Of Low Men on a tape and hit me right in the feels. My second a few years later was another mix tape, by a Kiwi I’d been pen pals with in the pre-internet days, of “Noisyland Music” that included bands with weird names like The Chills, The Clean, JPSE and The Verlaines. (Dear reader, I married said Kiwi and we’re coming up on our 20th anniversary this year, good god.) 

The Chills were the ones that hooked me. They didn’t sound quite like anything else this Mississippi college student was listening to, spooky and atmospheric and achingly pretty. “Pink Frost” bubbled through the cassette player in my battered VW Rabbit and it sounded like transmissions from another world. 

Songs like “I Love My Leather Jacket,” “Kaleidoscope World” and “Heavenly Pop Hit” were clever and catchy, soaked in that peculiar sense of isolation and grey-skies mysticism that music coming from an island on the bottom of the world has. Pre-internet, NZ could be a lonely, alternately stifling and cozy place, and The Chills more than anything caught that zeitgeist in their music. And that voice – lead singer/songwriter Martin Phillipps really was The Chills, and the gorgeous ache of his voice the heart of their songs. 

Since I heard those crackly mix tapes decades ago, I’ve moved to New Zealand, become a citizen, listened to a couple hundred NZ bands, great to awful, watched our Lorde and saviour take over the music world for a little while, and through it all I’ve always had a soft spot for The Chills. 

Last night we watched a wonderful new documentary, The Chills: The Triumph And Tragedy Of Martin Phillipps, which told of the ups and downs of this seminal NZ band, and featured both a Q&A and acoustic set by Phillipps afterwards. It was a great night, a full house of people who grew up with the Chills since their Dunedin days and those like me who stumbled across them on the other side of the world. 

The Chills story is that of a million other bands – scrappy beginning, a few minor hits, hard yards of global touring, and then swept up by a record label that doesn’t quite know what to do with them. Cue drugs, drink, label stoushes and a revolving door of more than 30 (!) band members in Phillipps’ orbit over the years. Yet the low-key charm and honesty of Phillipps and the band members keeps the film’s sadly common tale fresh. 

A diagnosis of Hepatitis C might have spelled the end of Phillipps’ story, but the marvellously intimate documentary has some surprises in store. It breezily moves back and forth between the Chills’ rise and fall and Martin Phillipps today, in his cluttered Dunedin home, navigating dreadful hospital visits and still trying to give the band another go. 

Best of all, it was great to see Phillipps after the show chatting with the crowd, happy and healthy after the wilderness years, well into his third act and keeping the Chills as mind-bogglingly cool as ever. He played “Pink Frost,” of course, in a haunting acoustic version, and as the chords warbled throughout the theatre I could close my eyes and almost imagine them playing again on that mix tape, a million years ago and 6,000 miles away. 

The play that never ends: ‘Hamlet’

IMG_5196Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit, And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, I will be brief. — Polonious

I’ve been living in Hamlet-land for the past 8 weeks or so, a strange foggy kingdom full of ghosts and daggers and soliloquies that haunt the brain. 

As mentioned before, I’ve been volunteering at the Pop-Up Globe replica of Shakespeare’s famed theatre here in Auckland again this summer, for the third season in a row. The centrepiece of this season for me was what’s pretty much the most famous play in history, “Hamlet.”

There’s nothing like watching a play seven, eight, nine times or more to have it seep into your pores, and the Pop-Up Globe put on a marvellous version of Hamlet led by an excellent energetic Adrian Hooke in the title role (and Summer Millett as an outstanding, vivid Ophelia). Watching the show from all around the theatre, with crowds of uniform-clad school kids and groups of Shakspeare fans of all ages from 8 to 80, you can see how this enigmatic, blazing fire of a play has lasted more than 400 years. 

I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams. — Hamlet

IMG_5200As I’ve said before, I find Shakespeare bottomless – an infinity of meanings can be found in his works, and new twists reveal themselves in every new look. Hamlet is perhaps his crowning jewel as an artist, a play about a young man who asks the question every single one of us asks at some point in our lives: To be? Or not to be?

To sleep, perchance to dream: — ay, there’s the rub; For in that sleep of death what dreams may come? — Hamlet

During my month or so of Hamlet, I read books about the play – Harold Bloom’s erudite “Hamlet: Poem Unlimited” and Dominic Dromgoole’s very entertaining travelogue of the London Globe’s worldwide tour of the play and the meanings wrung out of it, “Hamlet: Globe By Globe.” I watched Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, based on his play which takes two minor characters and spins an entire side story out of them. On the bedside table awaiting a re-read is John Updike’s “Gertrude and Claudius,” a prequel. Hell, I even watched the unforgettable trailer for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Hamlet (from The Last Action Hero, it’s a movie that never really was, but geez how weirdly cool would that be?). Hamlet is impossible to avoid in life. 

We defy augury; there’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all. — Hamlet

I’d play a mental game of just how many turns of phrase, famous titles and sayings sprang from Hamlet. It’s long enough to span its own comprehensive Wikipedia page. Hamlet is everywhere. It’s in the crazy goofy McKenzie brothers comedy “Strange Brew” I watched 117 times in the mid-1980s. The Lion King. David Foster Wallace’s novel “Infinite Jest.” The popular NZ TV series Outrageous Fortune. Philip K. Dick’s “Time Out of Joint.” Nick Lowe’s “Cruel To Be Kind” song. Hell, even a “Star Trek” movie (Part 6: The Undiscovered Country, of course). 

IMG_5582What does it all mean? After hours and hours of Hamlet this season, I’m still not quite sure.

It’s about a young man facing up to his future. It’s about revenge. It’s about lost love and death and the impossibility of a human being ever truly knowing what’s out there beyond the veil. It’s about some terrible decision-making and some mighty low-down bloody actions. In short it’s a bottomless voyage into the human experience and somehow a guy from Stratford-Upon-Avon hit upon universal themes and truths that we’re all still grappling with centuries later. It’s Hamlet, and we never finish it, not really. 

We know what we are, but know not what we may be. — Ophelia

Christchurch: How we mourn

It’s been 12 days since New Zealand’s worst terrorist attack, and some things are slowly getting back to normal. The shock has worn off and we’re surrounded by an increasing flow of hot takes; vigils that some say turned too political and all the usual suspect columnists back on their pet peeves. Hard questions are going to be asked about how it happened, and what we could’ve done. Life, despite everything, goes on.

But the signs of an outpouring of national grief, of 50 deaths on a scale that feels a lot like our tiny island nation’s own 9/11, are still all around. We’re still having national memorials – Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam is playing at one this week.

Even in my little corner of Auckland, you see signs and tributes. Piles of flowers at mosques, chalked messages on the sidewalks, signs at the roundabouts. Even on a windswept beach about as far from our bustling downtown as you can get without going for a swim, a lovely handmade memorial of colourful flags fluttering in the black sand, seashells carefully shaped into the one symbol all the bloody terrorists in the world can’t wipe out – a human heart.

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They are us, New Zealand.

IMG_5346.jpgWhat do we do when the worst happens?

This isn’t New Zealand, they said when the news broke.

Of course, it is, because it happened here. 

It can happen anywhere. It’s happened in almost every town I’ve lived in at one point or another, now. But New Zealand is seen as a haven, a too-good-to-be-true Hobbiton in the eyes of the world, a fantasy which often ignores our very real problems.

But it shouldn’t happen here. Our country has never, ever had a mass shooting of the kind that claimed 49 lives so far in the Christchurch mosques, people who were born in New Zealand, people who came to New Zealand from all over the world to find better lives. Having lived here nearly 13 years now, I can say that this is a kind, open-hearted nation for the most part. “They are us,” said our Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, and they are.

IMG_5357.jpgA few thousand of us came together in Aotea Square in downtown Auckland today to mourn in the hot sun, to show these racist white supremacist shitheads out there that we are better than them. 

I fear that the internet has reached its final singularity as the world’s greatest propagator of hate speech, a never-stopping infernal engine that amplifies, accelerates and agitates all that is the very worst about the human spirit. I wish I knew what to do about it. 

What do we do when the worst happens? I haven’t a bloody clue, to be honest, but I know that gathering with a thousand or two other people who cheer New Zealand’s swirling, ever-changing diversity and who understand there’s room on this planet for all kinds of races and creeds made me feel a little better, if only for a moment or two. 

Flying away: New Zealand’s extinct birds

300px-Giant_Haasts_eagle_attacking_New_Zealand_moaIt’s not an insult to say that New Zealand is literally for the birds. 

Birds were the dominant species in New Zealand right up until the first Pacific Islander settlers arrived here a mere 800-900 years ago – a blink of the eye in evolutionary terms. We were the real-life Jurassic Park – an island ecosystem isolated from the rest of the world, busily doing its own thing filled with creatures strange and bold. 

While it’s been knocked about quite a lot by us disruptive humans in the centuries since, if you squint hard sometimes you can still imagine what NZ, this land of birds, once was like. 

I sit out on my deck on a calm evening and can hear the gorgeous hooting black-and-white tui, the massive kerurū pigeon with its distinctive whoosh-whoosh wingbeats, chittering flocks of colourful rosella parakeets originally from Australia, and more. 

New Zealand was a beautiful paradise floating off all by itself in the southern oceans for millions of years, but it didn’t take much for the bird-based ecosystem to be nearly destroyed after humans came along. 

I wish I could have seen some of New Zealand’s extinct giants in the wild – the massive moa, taller than a man, running across the Otago plains, or the Haast’s eagle, the largest eagle in history with a wingspan of nearly 10 feet (3 metres). These were the apex of New Zealand’s pre-mammal ecosystem, and would’ve been something to witness indeed. They were huge, probably terrifying birds, but they didn’t last long after the first people, ancestors of today’s Māori, arrived here. 

Huia_BullerOther species lasted longer. Another long-gone beauty is the huia, a gorgeous little thing that went extinct around 1907. The huia had one of the more striking differences between male and female birds in the world – the male had a standard-issue shortish beak, but the female had a dazzling, bizarre bill that was twice as long as the male’s, arcing downward like a rainbow. The huia were extremely sacred in the Māori culture, with feathers worn at the most sacred occasions. 

Then there’s the sad and wistful story of the Stephens Island wren, which by the time humans took notice of it was only found on one tiny island in the Cook Strait between North and South Island. The story is that the species was entirely wiped out by the local lighthouse keeper’s cat, which isn’t entirely the whole truth, but a good example of how easy it was to knock native NZ species off the map entirely. A few feral cats and an entire species is gone forever.

220px-XenicusInsularisKeulemansLittle battlers like the wren – which was apparently flightless – didn’t stand much of a chance when settlers came knocking with their cats and rats and the like. 

New Zealand still has many of the world’s unique birds – the kiwi, so strange and curious it’s like a living fossil, is our national icon and so famous it’s what most people around the world call us all. It’s nearly become extinct several times in the last few decades, saved only through the hard and innovative work of some very dedicated people.

But sometimes I wish I could still see the ones that aren’t here anymore and the wonders they must have been. 

The Pop-Up Globe: Keeping Shakespeare real

img_0696One of my highlights of the last three summers has been working at the remarkable Pop-Up Globe theatre in Auckland, a working replica of the famous second Globe Theatre of 1614 that Shakespeare and company used. 

Its design closely replicates the actual experience of the punters of 400 years ago, lords and ladies, groundlings and commoners. The Pop-Up Globe, created by Dr Miles Gregory, has been so successful it’s gone on to be replicated in Australia and is now in its fourth season here in New Zealand. 

I started volunteering there a couple years ago, and it’s been an amazing experience. You help the crowds, deal with any issues, and get to bask in the glow of some amazing actors performing the greatest plays in history. The Pop-Up Globe has done some smashing productions (A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the fairy dialogue done entirely in Māori and an all-female Henry V are among my favourites) and sold hundreds of thousands of tickets. 

img_1910I’ve loved Shakespeare since a superb high school teacher (thanks, Mr. Lehman) showed us how the Bard wasn’t all dusty words and impenetrable verse, but a living, breathing body of work that contains some of the greatest stories ever told. Shakespeare is meant to be seen, not merely read aloud in a halting adolescent voice in a dry classroom. 

The biggest appeal of Shakespeare to me is that he seems bottomless – you can spend a lifetime studying the plays and still come up with new angles, new turns of phrase and new spins on characters you’d never imagined. 

One of the great things about seeing a play multiple times is how it changes, in small and big ways, from show to show. The weather, the audience, the actors’ moods, a quirk of fate. Watching Richard III five or six times in a row and it’s never quite the same show. You get a heroic appreciation for the actors and crew who sweat and bleed for their art nightly.  It’s why theatre will always be there because it’s so cracklingly alive compared to staring at a screen.

img_4348A joy for me is seeing how into the plays the audience still are in 2019. This isn’t boring Shakespeare – trust me, when the stage blood starts gushing into the audience during the bloody close of Richard III, you wouldn’t call this stuffy. There’s a witty, relaxed vibe that’s perfect for a New Zealand summer. We get all kinds of crowds – young, old, repeat customers and those who’ve never seen a Shakespeare play in their life.

A big highlight has been working at a dozen or so school shows. You haven’t seen Shakespeare’s gender-studies comedy The Taming of the Shrew until you’ve seen it with a capacity crowd of 700 screaming high school girls. 

I’ve just been a tiny, tiny part of the Pop-Up Globe, working somewhere near 50 shows in the past three seasons. But it’s been an immense highlight of my summers and it’s a star performer of New Zealand’s theatre scene. Long live Shakespeare.