Menu Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

Smiling in Christchurch [March 1]

I know we love to sentimentalise victims. When bad stuff happens to people, we assume they’re saints. Journalists are the worst offenders. Even tax-dodging, cartel-concocting captains of industry become national heroes when they get ill or die, according to the newspapers. But I refuse to let my embarrassment about the worst narrative clichés of my profession prevent me from stating what I believe to be true: the residents of Christchurch are the nicest people I ever met.

Two years ago I spent a week in this geographically-displaced English regional town, performing in the Christchurch Arts Festival. The niceness began even before I arrived. Boarding the plane from Melbourne, I observed a couple of young New Zealanders helping a hunched elderly lady to put her hand luggage in the compartment above her head. A couple of moments earlier I’d overheard one of them saying quietly to the other ‘Gosh it’s a bit funky round here, isn’t it?’ Perhaps they didn’t realize that the faint smell of faeces was coming from the old woman they were about to help. Perhaps they did, and it didn’t matter. Either way, they smiled benignly at her and made sure the door of the compartment was firmly shut on her scuffed bag.

Smiling was quite a thing in Christchurch. Strangers walking past you in the street all seemed to nod and smile, and many of them said hello. Each hello felt like a personal welcome, as if they were surprised and delighted that you actually chose to visit their town. It was mid-winter and most days the temperature didn’t go above single digits, so I bought some possum socks and felt at one with the other possum-sock, possum-hat and possum-scarf-wearing pedestrians as I walked to the Festival venue each day from my hotel.

The hotel was across the road from Hagley Park, a vast clean green space bounded by a shallow stream optimistically called the Avon River. The park was swarming with ducks, all busy with their complicated social lives. Handsome emerald-necked drakes bullied each other out of the way of Plain Jane ducks, oblivious to the joggers and dog-walkers and hand-holding lovers who criss-crossed the park all day long. I got lost in the Botanical Gardens that adjoin Hagley Park one day and had to be talked out of there by a friend on a mobile phone. There are worse places to get lost.

The Avon River is fed by an underground spring, a taxi driver proudly informed me. It hasn’t flooded in 150 years. Children learn to fish in it, and every five years it’s re-stocked with salmon and trout, just so that every child has a good chance of catching something. Best not to drink from it, he advised me, but it’s pretty damn clear, isn’t it!

Coming from the dry flatlands of bayside Melbourne, it was extraordinary for me to walk out of the hotel each day to the sight of the snow-covered mountains that line both sides of the Canterbury Valley, like luscious slices of lemon meringue pie. One day we caught a bus to the foot of the Port Hills and hiked up to Evans Pass where we stood sucking in that clean cold air and taking photos of each other in front of faraway Lyttelton Harbour. Seasoned trampers passed us on the trail with their nobbly sticks and their nobbly knees and their ever-smiling wind-chapped faces.

By the time we made it to the bottom of the hill our legs were shaking, but we found a café in London Street, Lyttelton with old typewriters and children’s bicycles hanging from the walls beside pictures of Che Guevara and a vinyl-spinning DJ playing hits of the 80’s. The coffee was so good I had to have three cups. Then we ordered fish and chips across the road and ate them sitting on the window ledge of a pub down by the port, enjoying the afternoon sun and licking our salty fingers clean.

Back in Christchurch the Festival people looked after us as if we were their long lost cousins. There was friendly Wendy on the lights, and M the muscley sound guy who’d spent four years living in Melbourne, hoping to make it big as a musician. He and his band mates had been ‘kingpins’ in Christchurch, he said, but they wanted to find a bigger pond, and the word on the street was that Melbourne was the ‘coolest city in the southern hemisphere’ for rock’n’roll.

But the big pond wasn’t so welcoming and he ended up working in JB Hifi selling guitar strings and missing his family. Eventually he came back home to Christchurch and found a doe-eyed girlfriend who was an equestrian star. ‘She doesn’t know much about music but she knows a shitload more about horses than I ever will’, he said.

‘What was it I was trying to get the horse to do? The one after a trot?’ he asked her one night when we were having after-show drinks in the bar. ‘That’d be a canter’ she replied with a patient smile.

When our shows were all finished I didn’t want to go home. I fantasized about coming back in summer and bringing a big lilo and floating all the way down the Avon River to the sea (is that where it goes?) one warm day, lying on my back watching the sun trickling through the fronds of the weeping willows, salmon nibbling at my fingers.

I’d never even heard of the word ‘liquefaction’ back then.

I’ve been watching the TV news this week and I haven’t seen anyone in Christchurch smiling.