Words for Christchurch: Brian Easton

Public Library, Christchurch, N.Z.Brian Easton, economist and Listener columnist, wrote these Words for Christchurch. He tells us of his reading life through books, the special place the old public library on Hereford street holds in his heart, and his hopes for that site post earthquake.

Dear Richard,

I could not write to anyone in the Christchurch public library about what is happening after the Christchurch earthquake. The library is too integral a part of me. Not the new one on Oxford Terrace but the old one – on the site since 1863 – on the corner of Hereford St and Cambridge Terrace, opposite the police station (it is still the site of the old YMCA for me) and with the Canterbury Club on its north (never been in it).

It is so central to my Canterbury and to my growing up there. Both the university and the Royal Society had their first meetings there. My grandfather would cycle all the way from St Albans with my mother on the bar to collect books. I biked there by myself the five kilometres from South Christchurch – those were days when it was safe for a kid, and pleasant enough too; I can still describe the precise route (including the variations, some designed to moderate a head wind).

I am not sure when I started. I must have been very young, for I recall taking Enid Blytons and Biggles from the spacious children’s library on the left of the entrance. I was dismayed when they disappeared from the shelves. My mother, who became a librarian – Hilmorton High School has named its library the Thelma Easton Library for her years of service, in which she paid particular attention to encouraging children to read  – told me they were removed because children kept rereading them and didnt move on. (Years later I found a copy of Up the Faraway Tree, but the magic I remembered had drained away.)

I moved on. Some librarian kindly gave me permission to go to the young adult section in the main library room near the stairs. It was without permission I climbed those stairs and found the huge non-fiction room, with its millions of magical books. I read so many of them, although not all were authoritative: Velikosky’s Worlds in Collision, a book that argued Shakespeare was really Marlowe (of course Shakespeare was Shakespeare but at least my preferred alterative had talent).

It was fortunate that such works were not censored, so I learned how to evaluate them myself. I was captured by a few books on codes; some librarian must have directed me to the Country Library Service (was it in the Press building?) to extend the selection. (Again the CLS librarian treated me as a little odd, but humoured me; another huge range of non-fiction books became available.)

I have no recall of reading economics books at this time. Perhaps the closest was an essay by a John Maynard Keynes on Newton as the last sorcerer – I knew about Newton – in a collection which changed my life. For it was in the Christchurch public library I stumbled upon J. R. Newman’s The World of Mathematics, a four-volume collection of essays, articles and extracts – each with an introduction – on matters mathematical. I was proving to be a strong mathematician, but the marvellous selection placed the purity of mathematics in a social and historical context, a path from which I have never strayed.

By then I must have been at Christchurch Boys’ High School. Except for its chemistry section, its library was small, dark and sad. (I applied to be a school librarian – I had been one at South Intermediate – but there was no call to arms.) I recall reading Poe and other detective and macabre writers, and the novels of Thomas Hardy. But my interests were in non-fiction and once or more a week I would divert from the direct southward bike ride home, and go east through Hagley Park to the public library. By then I was also taking out books for my younger sister. I recall Orlando the cat and Babar the elephant. There were also large colourful picture books – usually American and often with a moral; there was one about an immigrant who insisted on painting his house purple to the horror of his neighbours, but they – and I – learned tolerance of foreign diversity.

A big change in my choice of reading occurred after seeing a high-school production of Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man when in the Lower Sixth. I was captured; I read all of GBS, any other modern plays I could find, and went on to social philosophy and debate – at first Fabian, then what was near those books on the shelves. All from the public library, of course. (My English teacher must have wondered what hit me. Once I use to sit up front, but in order to read it all, I sat right at the back, the book hidden behind the boy in front. Desert Joe was too tired or too knowing to reprimand me.)

The University had its own library – it had once administered the public library too – so as an undergraduate I no longer visited the Cambridge Terrace one much, although it was just down the road from the campus. Any relationship lapsed when I left Christchurch for my second degree, research training and OE. In any case I was building a personal library.

Returning in the 1970s, I rarely visited the Christchurch public library for my own purposes, the occasional visit to the New Zealand room for research aside. But Jenny and I were regular visitors with the children for their books. Honest, I took them when they were still in the pram. The front steps were a bit of a challenge but I discovered the back entrance past the rubbish bins (pram pushing is a good reminder of how badly our public facilities treated the disabled in those days). It’s for the kids to talk about the impact of those books on them, but I was struck how there was an evolving New Zealand children’s literature which we never had. (Once a librarian asked Jenny what we thought of some books she was taking out. The usual platitudes were followed by a little later noticing that the picture of the author on a back cover was that librarian – Margaret Mahy.)

Anita ended up in hospital for a week when she just eight. I read to her every day. First were the books I had loved as a child; some still worked, even for the adult reader, some did not. Then on to new ones. A public librarian must have helped me choose them. Some remain memorable: as The Chronicles of Pyrdain and The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, the thought of which still sends shivers down the spine of this mildly claustrophobic.

I left Christchurch for parts wild again and, not long after, the Christchurch public library moved to its new premises in Oxford Terrace. I was appalled when visiting my beloved city, to discover the old buildings were now business offices. I have no objection to commerce, indeed much of my work has been explaining to people its contribution to social wellbeing. But it did not seem right that the intellectual heart of my turangawaewae was taken over by it. Alas it has been a precursor, for many other sites of intellectual activity have been similarly overwhelmed.

Some years later, the Wellington public library was deaccessioning stock (what an insulting phrase to a devotee of libraries). In my study is a print I bought from it: ‘Christchurch Public Library. W. B. Armson, architect., 1875′ showing the building at the north end of the complex, although I never used it – offices? Its back says the rental fee was $5.00 (overdue charges 10 cents, crossed out for 20 cents, a day); the rental slip shows it had been taken out twice. (I don’t think I paid a penny to the Christchurch public library, for I never borrowed the rental books, and I dont recall any fines. But paying local body rates, I always think of its public libraries.)

Stephen J Gould says he was set on his career by the cases of fossilised bones in a natural history museum in New York. I claim no such eminence, but one could say the Christchurch public library played a similar role in my life.

So, Richard, I don’t want you to tell me that the Oxford Terrace buildings are in ruins or have a demolition order on them (as nasty a form of architectural deaccessioning as there is). But tell the citizens of Christchurch that they must replace what has to be replaced with a building which celebrates the site’s earlier functions, and the contributions it made to the lives of those who used it.

Brian Easton.

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