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Literature and the earthquake: an essay by Steve Braunias

Steve Braunias finally gets around to writing about the event he got sent to cover by Wellington Tourism – LitCrawl, which kind of got overshadowed by this thing that happened on a Sunday night.

I was all set to write about Wellington’s very lively and audaciously staged LitCrawl live-event literary extravaganza last Monday, but the earthquake ate my homework. Sunday night a week ago, when the earth moved and was recorded that night as 6.6, upgraded to 7.6, and finally as 7.8, I was in Wellington as a guest of LitCrawl, and intended to get up in the morning and write something that could be posted immediately at the Spinoff. But I was somewhat distracted. I had other things on my mind. LitWhat?

And so now when I think back to the venues and the chat and the applause, it’s with a kind of nostalgia. It seems distant, something that took place quite a long time ago in a Wellington that was yet to feel the threat of that underground disturbance. All was well, then it wasn’t. When it struck, I thought: Christchurch. There has always been an expectation that Wellington has had it coming and was going to get it even worse than Christchurch – all those houses pinned onto the side of hills, the grand, vulnerable canyon of Lambton Quay, the faultline running through like a nerve.

I was in a hotel in Cuba Street. There’s never ever been anything like Cuba St in Auckland; it’s a quintessence of Wellington, four shabby blocks of shops headed downtown, with the stupid bucket fountain in Cuba Mall which is actually a plaza – Cuba Plaza sounds much better. It’s a narrow little space and it dooms everyone to run into everyone else whether they like it or not. There’s no escape in Wellington. It’s the city that clings together.

Auckland is a motorway bordered by suburbs no one ever wants to visit, Wellington is a cul de sac with tracks leading into the woods. Or something like that; I’ve lived in both cities, they’re both variously charmed and cursed, beautiful and dismal – as for danger, Wellington has the fault and the Cook Strait and the wind, but all Auckland has is Rangitoto. It floats in the harbour like a buoy.

Auckland felt the earthquake tugging at its blanket, but then the city turned over and went back to sleep. It picked up Wellington and rattled it like a tin. I was one of those pieces. I got under a table. I was very afraid and figured the hotel couldn’t take the shaking for much longer, that it was going to come down in a screaming heap – even so, the anxiety felt kind of second-hand. Everything I was going through, Christchurch had gone through. Christchurch, always Christchurch; it wrote the books on earthquakes, there wasn’t anything you could tell Christchurch about earthquakes that it didn’t already know, it had the lousy t-shirt on earthquakes.

Carnage at a department store in Cuba Plaza (Image: Supplied)

Carnage at a department store in Cuba Plaza (Image: Steve Braunias)

I was an earthquake tourist. I was passing through, in town as a guest of LitCrawl – on the Saturday night, I joined the crowds as they roamed across the city to a range of literary events which were variously fun, fascinating, pretentious, boring, awesome. Cuba Street, Manners Street, Courtenay Place, in light rain, 2500 people on the move, travelling on foot to something like 20 different venues to see about 100 writers. You could afford to dilly but not also dally. You had to march it at a fair pace to catch the next event and queue at the bar. There was half an hour between performances. Claire Mabey and Andrew Laking, who conceived and staged LitCrawl, divided Saturday night into three parts – you could choose between six different events from 6pm-6.45pm, then shoot through to one of another six events from 7.15pm-8pm, then leg it to your choice of a further six events from 8.30pm-9pm. And then drinks and chat at the Paramount Theatre on Courtenay Place.

It was a fantastic event, kept crackling by the constant spectacle of brilliant minds reading their work, discussing things, acting the goat – yes, that’s right, Toby Manhire was there. As was Damien Wilkins, also Emily Perkins, Emily Writes, Hera Lindsay Bird, Fiona Kidman, Lloyd Jones, Paula Morris, Chris Tse, Ashleigh Young, others young and old. But the best thing about it was the thing that made it possible – Wellington. What a pleasure it was to traipse and trek across the city from one venue to the next, the ease of it, all of downtown appearing like a maze of cool little upstairs bars and bars in alleyways. Edwards Street, Victoria St, Taranaki St, Kent Terrace…The city flashed before your eyes. Gigantic fish in small aquariums in the windows of restaurants on Manners St; a homeless wretch busking by playing the drums, badly, on cardboard boxes in Cuba, um, Plaza; and more writers than you could poke fastfood at, such as novelist Danyl McLauchlan, who I found in Burger Fuel on Courtenay Place. “I’m covered in food,” he apologised, when I tried to shake his hand.

Wellington, in light rain; Wellington, shining and compact and happy – Wellington, that felt as though it was about to be razed to the ground on Sunday night’s earthquake. Everywhere on the LitCrawl map was at risk. I wrote in the Herald about how when the earthquake finished, I went to the window and “flung open the curtains to see if the city was in a smoking ruin.” The dark shapes of homes and offices were still in their rightful place. But the fear of destruction continued, with the aftershocks and the tsunami warnings – at about 4am, I looked out of the window and saw a row of headlights from cars arriving on the top of Mt Victoria. Higher ground, the best views in town. Was there still going to be a town? I stayed in Wellington one more night, and the whole time I wondered whether the city was on the point of collapse.

Emergency kit at the author's hotel room (Image: Supplied)

Emergency kit at the author’s hotel room (Image: Steve Braunias)

Most certainly a lot of what I was worried about was self-interest. In the worst aftershocks, my room on the seventh floor swayed, felt like it was coming loose, seemed to actually come loose and float. But I was more or less que sera, sera about my own prospects; the dread that I experienced was more to do with Wellington, and the terrible sense it was finished. I’d lived there on and off for 15 years, I knew it intimately and well, I loved it. LitCrawl had brought the city alive, illuminated it with its brilliant minds, and in fact the events I liked best was when writers talked about Wellington.

Nick Bollinger read from his new memoir Goneville (Awa Press, in shops soon), and described some of the city’s bohemian haunts – including, bizarrely, the American Embassy, which held a fabulous archive of rare jazz LPs that blew Nick’s teenage mind. By strange coincidence, Redmer Yska also talked about the US Embassy in his reading at the same event. It was from his new book, published next year by Otago University Press, about Katherine Mansfield’s Wellington; it seems as though he’s attempted a kind of psychogeography of the city, by revisiting and examining the homes and settings of our first and likely only true literary genius. It was a superb reading and it gave an absorbing, finely detailed tour of the city then and now.

The next day I saw for myself one of the places he talked about, when I attended a separate LitCrawl event held at the Katherine Mansfield Museum on Tinakori Rd in Thorndon. It’s a small, dark, typically depressing Victorian cottage, with its carpet runners on the stairs, its mean little fireplaces, its heavy wooden floors. Mansfield was born there. A panel of writers spoke about her, including Sarah Laing, the acclaimed author of Mansfield and Me. Strange to sit in Mansfield’s house and listen to people talk about her. I stared out the upstairs window at Tinakori Hill, darkened by low, thick clouds – that scene wouldn’t have been any different to her eyes. The Wellington I looked at was her Wellington.

Skipping town (Image: Supplied)

Skipping town (Image: Steve Braunias)

There was a garden party on the front lawn afterwards. That night, when the earthquake struck, a brick wall collapsed and smashed against the house, buckling the weatherboards and taking out a few low trees.

It could have been worse. It could have been the end. That’s what it felt like during and immediately after the 7.8 rupture. Disaster made concise, courtesy of GNS Science: “New Zealand’s capital city lies within the earthquake-generating collision zone between two of the Earth’s great tectonic plates, and sits on top of one of the zone’s most active geological faults – the Wellington Fault.” City on a collision course. But it was okay. No lives lost. Just a fright. It set off a kind of Earthquake Idol among hacks in town for LitCrawl, with competing speedy reports by myself, Aimie Cronin, and Naomi Arnold. We were writing our way out of it. We filed, then we skipped town. Wellington – more charmed than cursed, more beautiful than dismal – remained intact.

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