“We’ve all been through a lot” Chessie and Chris Henry: WORD Christchurch

I doubt there are many literary – or related – events where you have the author, one of their subjects and an audience made up of people who have been through many of the events described, to a greater or lesser extent, in the place where one of the events took place.

Cover of We can make a lifeThis was the setting for ‘Earthquakes and Family Ties’, a discussion about Chessie Henry’s new book We can make a life, which was also officially launched on Thursday night. Bronwyn Hayward was hosting and Chessie’s dad, Chris, was also part of a fascinating and moving conversation.

This was they first time that Chessie and Chris had talked about the book in public, [pause while I take a call from someone requesting this very book] a memoir of their family, their relationships, brushes with disasters, and a reflection on grief and loss in its many forms.

Chris is a GP and worked in Lyttelton a few years back before taking his family to Tokelau. Unfortunately Chessie and her brothers caught dengue fever and were very seriously ill – and Chris was pretty much the only doctor. Serious at the time, they now laugh about the experience, a powerful shared family memory.

The nucleus of the book is a conversation between Chessie and Chris that took place when they were driving down from Kaikōura in early 2017, where Chris is now based. In it Chris finally tells his story of the work he did as an early responder at the CTV building on 22nd February 2011, working to rescue those trapped. You can read an extract in The Spinoff, but tread carefully as it is a powerful story.

There are so many stories of that time, many that are still being uncovered and shared. It is so important to record these events, not just as history, but – as Chris says – as a practical response to disasters. We learned so many lessons and it’s crucial to record and share them.

Chris received a bravery award for his work at the CTV site. Yet doing so was confusing for him – he was glad to have this this difficult experience acknowledged, but he didn’t like being singled out and felt some kind of impostor syndrome. This huge event had, not surprisingly, a big effect on him. The conversation with Chessie forced him to open up and was like a dam bursting. Chris wasn’t okay. He was burnt out. But by acknowledging that and admitting vulnerability he was able to work through things.

I could easily write a lot more – about lost homes and Kaikōura, about advocating for rural GPs, and about the CTV families who spoke afterwards – reminding us that no one has been held responsible for the disaster. This was an incredible session. Kia ora Chessie, Chris and Bronwyn.

Chessie was interviewed on Radio New Zealand if you want to hear more.

Phone numbers to call for help:

Canterbury Support: 0800-777-846

General help: 1737

Find out more

Fiona Farrell: Writing big and the best in Decline and fall on Savage Street

“It had to be as beautiful as I could get it.”

These were the words Fiona Farrell used on Tuesday night at the launch of her new book Decline and fall on Savage Street in order to describe her challenge of writing something big. This “big” is here now. It is complete. And it is a rich and endlessly rewarding read.

It consists of two parts: the nonfiction masterpiece, Villa at the edge of the empire, which explores Christchurch’s initial build and after earthquake rebuild in a factual way and its twin fiction sister Decline and fall on Savage Street – the latter one just freshly released, still hot from the press, its cover beautifully alluring.

Alluring cover of Fiona Farrell’s new book.

Even more alluring that evening were words: Fiona in an electrifying conversation with Liz Grant, reading abstracts from both books, convincing, charged, punchy slices of masterly crafted writing, seasoned with a refined sprinkle of wit. Organised by Word Christchurch, the launch of the book was hosted in Christchurch Art Gallery and offered first glimpses in the imagined yet the entirely credible world, characters and events of a house on Savage Street.

But the house is more than just a setting, it grows into a structural device, it becomes the anchor of the novel – on narrative and formal level. It is the connecting point, a node, where stories of characters, who lived in the house, intersect. The idea for the form stems from the city and its shattering. The chapters work as separate stories and are like “little pieces of timber”, shattered disconnected pieces, “100 fragments of human condition”, as Liz described it. It is a salvage book.

It’s not the house alone which connects and binds all these pieces, all these different voices. It is the river, with its own time, rhythm and a creature, that runs through the novel and weaves in more balanced and assuring antipode, which belongs to the natural realm.

Beautifully designed details and typography contributes to pleasurable overall reading experience.

It takes a lot of discipline and masterful, intelligent mind to shape each single piece in such a concentrated and sublime way Fiona did – every single word has its own place and the magnificent is revealed in delicate nuances. Material for rich and powerful stories was sourced from real life stories, talks with friends and random strangers at the petrol stations, newspapers, books. “There was an amazing openness, everyone was ready to talk,” Fiona describes the post earthquake era, filled with stories.

Most often, the challenge of research and writing is rewarded with surprises: “Writing is constant discovery, it’s a constancy of surprises. One of the pleasures of writing is finding connections, where you don’t expect them.”

And such is the reading of this book as well – full of surprises and pleasure.

“I wanted to write something big. I wanted to make it the best I could,” concluded Fiona on Tuesday night. This book certainly is BIG and its greatness will grow with each single reading. Its sharp structure, complex characters, refined language and relevant political, social and environmental themes guarantee this work is destined to be a prize winner, but most of all, it deserves to be read over and over again by its readers.

Find out more:

Fiona Farrell and her healing gift to Christchurch

There is no greater gift a writer could give to their own people than a story. Fiona Farrell’s book  The villa at the edge of the empire was nominated as one of the best non-fiction books of the year (NZ Book Awards) – a nomination which is entirely and unquestionably deserved. But The Villa is much more than magnificently and subtly narrated story about the Christchurch earthquakes. It is a precious tribute to the Christchurch community, its individuals and every human being ever affected by an earthquake.

Talking to Fiona is as much a pleasure as reading her books. I was very lucky to spend a rainy afternoon with her, talking about earthquakes, writing and other things that make us human.

fiona farrell
“Trying to make something beautiful, coherent and logical … felt necessary.” Fiona Farrell about writing of her book The villa at the edge of the empire.


It will be 6 years on Sunday since the 2010 earthquake. The rebuilding of the city is still going on and it’s proving to be much longer process than anyone imagined. It is almost impossible to describe how long it takes to rebuild a city to anyone, who has not experienced the aftermath.

It wasn’t just one quake. It has been ongoing. We are about to 15,000 aftershocks, each one a minor earthquake. It is such a long drawn out process. It’s not like a war, which has an ending. It has its own timetable, its own agenda and that’s a very, very, long time, beyond human comprehension.

That reminds me of the ending of The Villa, which I find very beautiful. You end it from an assuring, wider, almost cosmic perspective, which works really calmingly after a read, that can possibly be unsettling for many.

Getting that angle on human behaviour is essential. At any one time, when you’re a human being, you have to believe that everything that you do, think and say is quite important, while on the other hand living with the certainty that everything you do, think and say in the great scheme of things is completely irrelevant. You have to hold both realities in your head. For me, this was a habit of thinking that I got into as a child. I had quite an unhappy family and one of the ways I used to cope with it when I was little, was to lie in my bed and think of myself just going up, through the ceiling, until it was all really really tiny. That’s how I handled it as a child. So it’s not some kind of adult philosophy, but an instinctive way. I think everyone has ways of handling unhappiness and finding techniques for survival.

The narrative in The Villa starts very wide, dives deep into the history, with comparisons between Berlin and Christchurch. After that, it nicely narrows and focuses on Christchurch and later on to Avon Loop. I really like the way narration flows from a wide perspective into something smaller.

When I’m writing I often think it’s like making a film, where you use close up and wide angle, and move between the two.

Avon Loop View, 11 August 2007
Avon Loop View, 11 August 2007, Kete Christchurch, by Cecil (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 NZ)

I think it also works very well for people who have experienced the earthquake in Christchurch and everything that followed, but also for people who haven’t had this experience because it gives a reader space to move. I was wondering when you realized while writing that you need to take an outside perspective of what’s happening in Christchurch and visit L’Aquila in Italy. Was that a conscious decision? Continue reading

12.51pm 22 February 2011 / 12.51pm 22 February 2015

Clock tower on Madras Street

12.51pm 22 February 2011. Our clocks stopped.

Our love goes out to people who lost whanau and friends, and suffer and grieve.
Our love to those struggling still.
Our love to everyone rebuilding, and good people busy revitalising their communities.

Arohanui Ōtautahi.


Feeling reconnected with heritage

Logo of Reconnect Heritage EventsLast week I attended the Heritage Forum which was one of the events kicking off the Reconnect Heritage events weekend. There were a number of presentation that brought us up to date with heritage buildings and projects in Christchurch and Waimakariri.

Attendees found out about the progress of the digital earthquake archive Ceismic. This is a great source for anyone looking for first-hand earthquake stories, images and recollections in a variety of formats and from many sources, including Christchurch City Libraries. One (of many) collection of note is the digitised copies of The Press from September 2010 to February 2011 inclusive, plus 14 June 2011 and 22 February 2012.

It was great to hear how work is progressing on the Arts Centre. The project to restore the complex is going very well – keep up to date on their Tumblr page. I was fascinated to hear Brendan and Victoria’s presentation about the restoration of their heritage home in Lyttelton. They had just finished restoring their house when the first earthquake struck and following February and June had to go through the whole process again with additional bureaucracy.

View of ChristChurch CathedralChristchurch now has a unique opportunity to explore its archaeology and Underground Overground Archaeology are making the most of this. Fascinating tales revealed from clues left behind by Christchurch residents can be found on their blog – find out about hotels, life for children and the Canterbury Club, as well as many more. Quake City is Canterbury Museum‘s earthquake attraction, telling the story of the quakes through objects including the cross from the top of the cathedral spire and the Godley statue.

Next we heard about the status of some heritage buildings in the Waimakariri district. Focusing on Kaiapoi and Rangiora, we heard how many heritage buildings have been lost, such as Blackwells and the Rangiora Masonic Lodge, or are likely to go, such as Kaiapoi’s Bank of New Zealand. However, Waimakariri District Council’s Landmarks scheme is being developed to research and celebrate surviving and lost heritage buildings.

Lyttelton MuseumAfter their building was severely damaged in the February earthquake Lyttelton Museum had to salvage their entire collection, in collaboration with the Lyttelton Volunteer Fire Brigade and the Air Force Museum of NZ. This collection, and many others made homeless by the earthquakes, is now being taken care of at the Canterbury Cultural Collections Recovery Centre based at the Air Force Museum.

I had to leave before I could hear the presentation about post-quake Akaroa, but I really enjoyed hearing about what is being done to preserve the region’s built heritage, remember the earthquakes and uncover more about Christchurch’s past.

Goodbye old friend

Librarians house has goneRecently I went into the central City and took a series of photographs of the Library Chambers which are now being demolished.  Many people will know the Library Chambers as the old Canterbury Public Library which closed in 1981 when the Central Library moved to its new building across the river on Gloucester Street.

As I walked around snapping pictures of the damaged building memories came flooding back. When I first came to Christchurch I ‘went native’. That is to say, I brought a bicycle to get around. I cycled round to the library and joined up. As well as books I was soon hauling away treasures like LPs  and prints to brighten up my inner city flat.

Then a bit later I worked there briefly in a very part-time capacity. It was the sort of city library I was used to from Wellington. Lots of dark polished wood, a cool refuge on a hot day, a magnificent bank of wooden catalogue drawers in the heart of the library, lots of nooks and crannies with their own special character – the newspaper reading room, the children’s library, the New Zealand room and so on.

We have photos of the old library in our digital collection.

For the library 150th celebrations in 2009 we collected a number of fond memories of the old library both as a physical place and as a lively institution adding much life and richness to our city. Read about the original art that could be borrowed, Mollie Tobeck’s memories of joining the library or Brian Gilberthorpe’s experience of his first job at the Canterbury Public Library.

So goodbye old friend – thanks for all the memories.

Christchurch: words can not explain

Sometimes silence says it all. Which is why, I suspect, Civil Defence added no commentary to this video. It is brilliantly shot, and quite moving.

Source: Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management (MCDEM) and licensed by MCDEM for re-use under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 New Zealand Licence.

Watch it, share it, and write us a comment if you feel inclined.

Say thank you, and pay it forward

Central Library : after the quakeStrangers from all over the world, volunteers, friends, family – what would we have done without them in the past weeks? And there’s no doubt that will we be needing their continued support in the weeks ahead.

The Star and nzherald.co.nz have come up with a nice initiative for people to express their thanks to all who have helped. They have set up a message board which allows people to post their messages online – these will then be published in The Star.

This has made me think of all the people who have helped me over the last fortnight, and especially the lovely Jenni and Sarah who “adopted” me for the first couple of hours after the quake when I was feeling lost and shell-shocked.   Thank you for your support, Jenni and Sarah – you made a horrible time bearable. And, notwithstanding the impression I may have given you that day, I really don’t usually swear!

So who would you like to thank?  We’d love you to hear from you.

And if you want to “pay it forward”, why not consider volunteering?

Here are some useful links:

Restoring order – it’s in a librarian’s DNA

London StreetUp until 22/2 (and yes, we have already named it that, officially, at least in our heads), I was a mild-mannered, middle-aged, cardy-and-glasses-wearing librarian, who spent her days messing about with books and computers.

Since 22/2, I have been:  a fluoro-vest-wearing, clipboard-carrying member of Operation Suburb; a shoveller of silt; a boiler of water; an obsessive watcher of television and user of Facebook and Twitter: a huggy, weepy, weak, strong, dazed and confused, proud and amazed Cantabrian.

Through it all, though, the thing I have still been is that librarian (with a bit less of the good grammar, though, it seems!). Librarians (you may not be surprised to know) like to organise things, to try to make sense of the universe.  I’m using the word ‘like’ here in the sense of ‘fish like to swim’.  Put us in the midst of chaos, and we will attempt to organise it.  Sometimes, it’s easy – place a reserve for someone, recommend a good book, write a blog post giving information about stuff.

Sometimes, though, the task seems overwhelming.  Sometimes, we can’t figure out where to start:  putting our houses and homes, our neighbourhood and city back together, heck, even putting our libraries back together.

We’re giving it a go, though.  Starting with the small stuff.  Picking up books and magazines and CDs and DVDs.  Dusting and cleaning, mending and sweeping.  Sharing with other people – both information and love.

Recently, I spent some time in one of our less damaged libraries, doing just that.  We may be still a day or two away from opening it again, but be assured that we won’t stop until it’s ready to go, and that we will let you know as soon as we can.  And when that library is open, and organised, we will be moving right on over to the next one, and the next one, and the one after that.  It’s not just what we do, it’s who we are.

In the meantime, read the blog, use the free music, newspaper and other resources on the website, or go help someone else organise something.

Here’s a few links to some things you can do to get our homes and houses, neighbourhoods and families back together:

Christchurch City Libraries – opening hours this week

Kia ora, Christchurch City Libraries have resumed normal opening hours EXCEPT Sumner Library. We will let you know as soon as we have information on Sumner’s re-opening. See our Customer Alerts page for more information.