A lady stands near tributes across the road from the Dean Avenue mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. (Photo: MARTY MELVILLE/AFP/Getty Images)

A plague has blown into Christchurch. Or was it here all along?

Christchurch seemed like a place where nothing happened, writes Guyon Espiner for RNZ. Now, an offshore horror has wormed its way in – or perhaps it was here all along. 

If you dug a hole from Paris and kept on digging right through to the other side of the world you would end up in Christchurch.

That’s what they reckoned anyway. Some character in a Douglas Coupland novel said so. Coupland was the guy who wrote the Generation X book about the lost, white middle-class slacker generation, trying to find a sense of meaning in a place where not much happened.

The book spoke to us. I’ve still got a copy that my friends gave me in 1993 when I left my home town of Christchurch to study journalism at Wellington Polytech. My mates wrote notes in felt pen on the inside page, like an office leaving card, except with genuine emotions.

I pulled the book out the other day. The messages are idealistic and overblown and they’re hopeful and clumsy. Like us at 23, going on 19.

The Coupland character was right. Geographically it nearly stacks up and yes Christchurch was the opposite of Paris in the early 1990s.

It was a pretty tough town then. It felt like a big town. The sky was long and wide and the sun shone low on the wet black road. The earth was flat. The sky pushed you down, sealing you in so that sometimes it was difficult to breathe.

But it was safe. From big stuff anyway. Because nothing happened in Christchurch. Big things happened for teenagers. But that’s different. Someone would yell from a car and you’d run. My mate got chased for a denim jacket, not even a leather one. I remember once, at 15, running from some guys carrying baseball bats. Our slowest guy got hit and their scariest guy wore a hockey mask.

I remember the skinheads too. We lived in a six-bedroom flat on Hagley Avenue in the early 1990s and they’d walk squat and ugly down to Addington. I have a vivid memory of them marching down Hagley Ave as I watched in silence from the top floor.

We were good kids. We did nothing.

Yes, Christchurch had a problem with racism even then. When I moved from the Hagley Ave flat to Armagh Street heading east, we got burgled twice and had a car knicked from right outside the house.

“Any suspects, or just any Māori or unemployed person?” asked the police officer who came to investigate. I didn’t say anything.

I looked for that flat last Christmas when we were down visiting family. It’s gone, of course. Most of my landmarks are gone after the earthquakes: The pub I got banned from and that place where our band played badly and for free, and that gig where I kissed a girl outside. All gone. They are still in the memory but they are not on the map. When I lived in Christchurch we thought the earth was flat and that nothing ever happened there.

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We’ve been staying in the central city the last few times we’ve come down from Auckland to spend Christmas with my family. It’s nice to watch my wife and my five-year-old daughter enjoy Christchurch flourish into a new city, springing to life again with a thousand different faces.

It seemed like the sky was lifting and that suffocating feeling that saw me flee the city seemed to be drifting away with the easterly.

And now this plague has blown in. As one scar heals another cuts deep. It’s a parasite which has burrowed underground. Guns and blood and flowers. Things that happen in Paris not Christchurch.

It has wormed its way through from the other side of the world. Or perhaps it was here all along. In the things that we knew were wrong as we watched silently from the window upstairs.


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