Vox pop


Christchurch is often held to be the most English of New Zealand’s cities but I have to say that I really can’t see it. I’ll freely admit the River Avon, which runs a curling course through the city, has a certain Oxbridge flavour, but I’d venture that most folks wouldn’t make the the connection were it not for the punts that ply the river. Laid out on a rough grid, Christchurch has more than a little of the North American town feel about it, helped in no small measure by the wide streets, diagonal crosswalks and shopping malls crowded with teenagers. However, for me, the very centre of the city clustered around Cathedral Square and the people I met there said more about Christchurch than the suburbs that lay beyond. Looking at a plan of the city, one can see that Cathedral Square is actually more of a Cathedral diamond, with the perimeter road on three of it’s sides offset from the surrounding network of streets by 45 degrees. The eastern side of the diamond is taken up with the cathedral itself, the two-tone stone work of the bell tower and nave standing out against the hotch-potch of building styles around the square. Elsewhere, trees offer shade to those who pause to listen to the local cod philosopher who takes centre stage with his soap box, whilst police officers watch from their mirror-glassed turret. However, it was on the southwest side of the square, amongst the cafe tables and market stalls, that I found what for me was Christchurch’s trump card – open, friendly people.

Take Diane. A Maori originally from the Wellington area, she moved to Christchurch and now makes a living selling pounamu or greenstone jewellery carved by Maori from raw materials collected from the West Coast. After I had browsed her stall for a while, she came over to tell me I was more than welcome to pick pieces up or try them on. From this inauspicious beginning, we struck up a half hour conversation that ranged from the relative merits of New Zealand cities to the politics of biculturalism. Needless to say, we parted with me a little poorer in the pocket department but a little wiser in knowledge and a lot happier in spirit. In need of a little refreshment, I wandered across to Steve’s Caffeine Machine coffee stand which, it turned out, is a micro-society all of it’s own. The eponymous owner, in a peaked cap and impenetrable shades, is a voluble, one-man marketing campaign for all things Kiwi and, seemingly, defender against what he sees as the gradual invasion of ‘American’ values and culture. Whilst holding forth on the need for continuing re-investment in the New Zealand economy, Steve doles out Seattle-style frappacinos and lattes without irony. He works amidst hand written signs ranging from innocuous observations like “Smiles – they cost nothing and are worth millions” to the more cryptic “Please ask questions – so we can help”. A constant flow of regulars engage him in conversation and it would seem that Steve takes care to retain and recall the little details in their lives in the same way a best friend would. In the space of an hour, I heard folks confess relationship problems to him, ask him for business advice and, in a scene that wouldn’t be out of place in a movie, a self-professed ex-bank robber complain about his bank – not the one he robbed, one presumes – retaining his cash card. Not wanting to miss out when I stopped by the next day but unable to conjure up a conversational gem, I lamely said “I really liked my coffee yesterday, so I came back”. “Great” says Steve with a dead pan expression “but did you tell 500 other people?”

Feeling the need for sea air, I headed out to New Brighton on the eastern fringe of the city the following day. With summer fading, New Brighton gave off that end-of-season seaside town vibe and walking down the esplanade felt like arriving at a party that was just finishing. The surf school was shut and the air temperature on the cool side of just warm enough, so those restaurants that were open were getting by on a handful of late season punters like me. In an effort to justify a decent lunch, I donned my wind-proof jacket and marched along the town’s pier, which I had last seen on TV when Billy Connolly had used it as a vantage point from which to view an enormous sand drawing. At the very end, I came upon what turned out to be a group of Korean fishermen and, through the universal language of hand gestures and smiles, I managed to gather that they were line-fishing for crab though I could see no sign that pointed to any success in their endeavours. Pausing on my return to read a sign dictating allowable quotas for such fishermen, I fell into conversation with a couple who turned out to be natives not only of my home country but also my home county. Janet and John (no,really), originally from Barnet and Welwyn Garden City but now resident in Hamilton after many years away from England, had flown down to Christchurch to see Neil Diamond in concert and were taking a few days to unwind before heading back to the North Island. We dawdled back along the pier, chatting about places we had in common and what New Zealand had to offer for those raising a family, with Janet and John passing on the wisdom of those who had been there and done that. At the pier car park, we parted with a firm handshake and I went in search of lunch.

Although I spent less time in Christchurch than I did in Auckland and Wellington, I warmed to its charm and its people. From the horse riding waitress at the Olive Tree cafe to the delightfully ditzy Japanese server in the sushi bar, the sophisticated film buff selling cinema tickets to the monosyllabic Chinese chef, Christchurch seems to be populated with people who have a lust for life and a genuine interest in the company of others.

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One Response to “Vox pop”

  1. Taniwha the Wally says:

    Did you meet the wizard??
    He’s a regular soap box-ite in Cathederal square


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