Up Front by Emma Hart



It’s not often I get a column mostly written in my head, and then have to tear it up and throw it away. Surely that should be even less likely to happen with a memorial column: isn’t the subject the past? But this will be a very different column from the one I would have written two weeks ago.

I have very dear people in my life who come to visit Christchurch once or twice a year. Because they don’t see it every day, they can be our best guides to how things are changing. All those I saw around Christmas remarked on how the city felt noticeably better this time.

Much of this is the central city. Finally, more is going up than coming down. My own feeling is that the impression is due not so much to the completion of any one project, like the bus exchange or the Margaret Mahy playground, as the way the dots are starting to join up. The shops on New Regent St are no longer isolated. They’re between the Isaac Theatre Royal and the playground. St Asaph St is turning into a lovely bank of bars and restaurants that should be really nice if they ever stop digging up that road. We could do with more functional footpaths and bike lanes, but there’s obvious progress. I spent Sunday at Hagley Oval, the prettiest test cricket ground in the country, and yes I will fight the Basin Reserve over that title. We have pavement cafes and by gods we will use them.

And then, things happened. Because this isn’t about the past, five years on. Things are still happening.

I was out in the garden when the Valentine’s Day quake hit. It was vast and rumbly and long and far stronger than anything we’ve had for years. I went inside, and I was right back to picking things up off the floor and cleaning nutmeg out of the pantry. A week later I’m still finding things that have shifted or fallen, and my bedside lamp will never be the same again. It’s not just one quake, either. It never is. Little aftershocks still rumble lazily on. We’d been so long without them, we let our defences down.

Almost immediately afterwards, we were told our mental health funding had been cut.

The babies born on the day of the quake start school today. Like the rest of our children, they’re more likely to show signs of anxiety and developmental delays. And I don’t know, you might be sick of us because of the way we voted (no we didn’t, but never mind), or our endless whining, or the way we want to keep complaining and yet won’t take your eminently sensible ‘just leave’ advice, but we’re a vulnerable population. When you neglect a vulnerable population, bad things happen. Bad, expensive things.

On a smaller but similar note, it turns out my kids’ old school has in fact not secured a rebuild site. This feels like yet another step backwards. Five years on, to have any school still in limbo, still in temporary premises, still subject to disruption, is not good enough.  

What’s also not good enough is our public library. The Central Library wasn’t badly damaged by the quakes, and could have been repaired on its site for very little more than its insurance payout. But no. Because the convention centre. So five years on, we have two tiny ‘temporary’ libraries instead, and no sign of any permanent replacement.

It’s fair to say, my optimism has taken a few knocks, and not just because of the Australian batting I sat through yesterday.

So today we will remember. The important thing is, today we will be allowed to remember. We will be given space to be sad, to reflect on the way our lives have been shaken up. It’s good for our mental health. And then we will get up and get on, because as my mother used to say, there’s no other choice.


Reading Murder Books

One of the great things – possibly the only great thing – about having a post-grad degree in English Literature is that I can now read whatever the fuck I want. I have earned my Book Cred. I will never read anything to impress anyone. After finishing my degree, it took me nearly a year to learn to read for pleasure again; not to analyse theme and form and subtext, not to look for good pull-quotes. To lose myself in a story.

Twice, as a child, I can remember being told off by teachers for reading something that wasn’t good enough for me. The first time, it was reading The Hardy Boys when I was nine. The second time, it was reading Agatha Christie when I was thirteen. That second time, my teacher gave me Jane Ayre instead. I read the first chapter, which weirded me out, and didn’t touch it again until I was nineteen, and fully capable of realising how dodgy that book is.

Hardy Boys. Agatha Christie. I once made friends with a strange woman twice my age because I was reading a Trixie Belden book, and she wanted to know if Trixie and Jim had hooked up yet. I still love detective fiction so much.

I know it’s genre, and formula, and to be sneered at nearly as much as romance. But a well-crafted mystery is a feat of the writer’s art. It’s a puzzle. Its solution should be both unforeseen by the reader, and make perfect sense in hindsight. It should be factually accurate and feel psychologically plausible.

So I never stopped reading Agatha Christie. After the earthquakes, I pillaged our much-diminished libraries of every book of hers I could find, even the later ‘drugs and spies’ books that maybe aren’t her best work. Then it was Ngaio Marsh and Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley mysteries. They were comforting amongst so much pain and disruption.

The book I most often claim as my favourite is Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, which is one of the contenders for the title of “first detective novel”. It’s a masterful piece of fiction, especially considering Collins was bombed out of his skull on laudanum and managing two mistresses. It’s a series of first-person narratives from a succession of characters, and each narrator’s voice is absolutely distinctive.

And if it’s okay for me to love Victorian detective fiction, it is also okay for me to love Raymond Chandler, whom I consider to be a massively under-rated writer. People understand his contribution to the archetype of the hard-drinking deeply unhappy overcoat-wearing detective, but the imagery of his prose is still, after all this time, startlingly original.

A check girl in peach-bloom Chinese pajamas came over to take my hat and disapprove of my clothes. She had eyes like strange sins.

I love murder mystery television too, though I tend to stick to adaptations of authors I haven’t read. There was some fearsome shouting at the telly when one P.D. James adaption removed the end plot-twist where it turned out the blackmailer wasn’t the killer after all, and replaced it with a chase across tidal flats and a fist-fight. I got through several seasons of Bones by pretending the show was nothing to do with Kathy Reichs’ books.

It’s not just old murder mysteries, books by women, and anything featuring Laurence Fox. I love Jim Butcher and Ben Aaronovitch, because yeah, why not mysteries featuring vampires and wizards and werewolves? It’s not like we have any kudos to protect. We were never really trying to stay hip.

So let’s take time out from pre-Christmas stress and bitching and Judith Collins’ smug face, and share stories of our favourite murder books. New finds, old favourites, guilty pleasures, sheer kitsch disasters. Grab a seat and a gin; the book club is in session.


How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Quotas for Women

When I was at uni and it came time to vote in student politics, there were a lot of people who would fill up their votes by just picking all the recognisably-female names on the ballot. I was pretty annoyed about it: surely we should be choosing candidates on merit, not gender. Sure, most of those elected were still male, but there was nothing stopping more women standing, right?

So it was with some bemusement, when Justin Trudeau announced his gender-balanced cabinet, that I found myself entirely in favour of Quotas for Women.

My views have changed in the last twenty years. Not so much about Ends, but I’ve got a whole lot less fussy and idealistic about Means. What I’ve come to realise is that the arguments against quotas for female representation simply don’t stack up.

The most important thing to realise was actually pretty simple: Our Defaults Are Not Neutral. The system selects in favour of men. It’s already clearly not a meritocracy, unless you believe that there’s something about men that makes them inherently better at politics than women.

The weird thing about that, though, is that in Gender-Essentialist Land, men are better at spatial things, at maths. Women are better at linguistic things, at talking, better with emotional intelligence. Which one of those skill sets sounds more useful in politics? It’s mostly talking and working with people. Even if men were somehow better leaders (being confident and decisive where women are shrill and pushy), you only need a couple of leaders. Others need to be persuasive, and good at building consensus. That sounds pretty girly to me.

What we’re battling against is a long tradition of politics being exclusively at Men’s Club. New Zealand women got the vote in 1893, but they couldn’t stand for election until 1919. (Rate-paying women could vote in and stand for local body elections from 1867. Elizabeth Yates became the British Empire’s first female mayor in 1893.) We didn’t get our first female MP until 1933. By the end of the 70s, women had never held more than 6.3% of seats in the House, and only four had ever served in Cabinet.

Things got better after the introduction of MMP, as you can see here. Most female members of Parliament came in from the lists, rather than as electorate MPs. Still, it seems we’ve reached a plateau, where women make up about a third of MPs. That’s serious under-representation for women, which simply isn’t getting any better.

And yes, a woman may not represent me any better than a man. Surely I’m no better represented by Paula Bennett than by Grant Robertson, who is LGBT and understands the long-term struggle of being a Black Caps supporter. But this isn’t about one individual woman representing another individual woman. It’s about having enough women to provide a representation of the diversity of women.

Then of course the argument becomes, well, if we have to represent women, why not other minorities? Why not quotas for gay MPs and disabled MPs, and every minority ethnic group? Where are our lesbian midget MPs, hm?

For a start, women are not a minority. This really is low-hanging fruit territory. Also, Maori and Pasifika people are currently represented in Parliament in roughly the same proportions as they are in the general population – 18% and 7% respectively. I can’t tell you if LGBT people are, because we don’t have the data. Disabled people are not, and work needs to be done on accessibility issues. But no “well why not that then” argument means that we should not do this.

The concern-trolling argument is that if we had quotas for women, people would think that women hadn’t achieved their positions through merit, but only to fill the quota. Because right now, it is of course never assumed that a woman holds her job because of who her husband is, or who she’s slept with, or how she looks. Or to put it another way, the Greens have a gender-balanced list. Please tell me which female Green MPs don’t merit their jobs.

What people should be doing, in fact, is looking at a system which ensures that men make up roughly 70% of both Parliament and Cabinet, and thinking that some of those men are there because they’re men, not because of merit. They don’t have to overcome the same barriers women do: nobody asks male candidates who’s looking after their children, after all. Nobody assumes they’re there to make the tea, or because they’re somebody’s spouse.

And then yesterday this happened, and kind of made my case for me.

Female MPs, from Labour and the Greens, co-ordinated a unified response and took a stand which was hugely effective in influencing the public discourse. They did this using their personal experiences. Because they were women, they could say, “What you have done is offensive and damaging to us, because we have been through this ourselves. We are not your punch-line.”

These women made me feel proud. I reckon we could do with some more of them. And the current system will not deliver. I reckon a quota can’t hurt.


Fringe of Darkness

Content Warning for child sexual abuse.

Last year wasn't an easy year for me. I was starting to come out of the worst, but still struggling, when I saw a message from my friend Anke Richter looking for someone to do some transcription work for her. Perfect. Not too intellectually demanding, but enough to make me feel occupied and useful. I offered, and she was happy to accept. 

I was introduced to Anke by David Haywood, whom I seem to remember quietly slinking off as the conversation took in sex work, pornography, and possibly female ejaculation. I'm not sure, it was a long time ago now. In any case, she had reason to believe that I could cope with the material she was about to give me. Anke was working on a book about Centrepoint. Metro is now hosting her article on the process. It's a long read and not an easy one, but worth the time. 

I was transcribing hours of interviews with people from Centrepoint: victims, abusers, people who'd been deeply scarred, people who'd been to prison, people who were just around. Anke was trying to get a broader picture of what had happened, a more nuanced one; 

As a reporter, I wanted to explore how a utopian dream could turn into a collective nightmare and normal people end up as convicted paedophiles. My aim was to help the reconciliation of former Centrepoint families by sharing their memories.

We weren't talking about a story of unreasoning evil suddenly springing out of nowhere. There was none of the insulation of self-righteousness, but a search for understanding that inevitably leads to empathy. 

The odd thing about transcription work is that it happens at such a pace you can't really take in what you're transcribing until you stop. Then your brain starts to process the words that just went in your ears and out your fingers. I'd be cooking dinner and think, "Wait a minute, did she really say that?" 

Some reactions were strong enough to cut through that insulation. I was dealing with unfiltered interviews, people were using real names who were intended to have the protection of anonymity. Someone in an interview used a name, and I realised that person was someone I knew of. I hadn't known they were connected to Centrepoint. It was a shock. There is much in the interviews that doesn’t come across in the transcripts: the sound of poured drinks and hospitality, cicadas and sunshine, tone of voice. 

One interview in particular had a very strong effect on me. From that point, I started to talk to Anke about my impressions of these people, my reactions to them. I started asking her how they came across in person. We started talking about the effect the material was having on both of us. 

I won't name the woman, or use any direct quotes from the interview. She was one of the senior women at Centrepoint. Talking about one of the victims who'd gone to court, her tone was scathing. The woman used her body to get power, she said. If she didn't want to sleep with Bert, or other men, why would she? No, she enjoyed the status it gave her. She was tough. 

Anke's gentle German accent on the recording. "She was twelve. She was a little girl." 

I had to stop the recording, and go outside. I was shaking with rage and pain. She was twelve. 

The next day, about half an hour of interview later, I was sitting at my keyboard with tears running down my face listening to the same woman cry as she talked about some of the other victims, as she expressed genuine remorse, as she said, I had no right to do that. As she talked about wanting to see those girls again, to apologise. The woman I had hated the day before was breaking my heart. She cried again, talking about her parents visiting her in prison. 

I got sucked into the story. I started working out the maze of connections. I stopped being just a transcriber and listened actively to the people telling these incredibly personal stories. I would hear someone recount something incredibly personal, and the next week hear someone else say, "That never happened. I don't remember that." The longer it went on, the less there was to be sure of. 

Then one day there was an email from Anke. Stop the transcriptions. We're not sure what's happening with the book. After a few weeks of uncertainty, it emerged. A threat of legal action has stopped publication. 

What I went through was simply brushing up against the edges of what Anke was living for years. She has shown extraordinary courage in writing not just about what she learned, but about the profound effect it had on her as a human being who was also a journalist. We send writers and journalists into these fraught situations, to come out with the story, and expect them to be unscathed. To bear witness, and be unaffected, neutral observers. It’s little wonder the occupation is famed for its drinking.


So Farewell Then, UCSA

When you move away from a place that's meant a lot to you, it stays unchanged in your head. You don't see the flow of life change it. Particularly for people who've left Christchurch, a memory of a building can be more permanent, more immutable, than the building itself. 

For those of us who've seen the University of Canterbury Student Union building standing empty and derelict, fencing leaning ineffectually on it the way so many of us have over the years, the news of its impending demolition was unsurprising. Like so much here, we only wonder why it's taken so long. When the building is still pristine in your memory, it's rather more of a shock. 

All right, 'pristine' is completely the wrong word. Intact. Concretey. Orange. Drear and blocky and completely impractical. Okay, I'm not a big fan of Brutalism. The easy-hose-down decor was at least understandable, but the rabbit-warren of little hallways and windowless (or far too windowed) rooms? Those orange couches with the sloping backs? I was there in the 90s. Why was everything so relentlessly 70s? 

Warren and Mahoney themselves describe the building as "a skeletal encrustation", and it's hard to argue. "The building’s predominant materials of robust fairface concrete, concrete block and timber have survived vigorous student use." 

To be fair, I'm sure there were thousands of UC students who only set foot in the Student Association building to have their ID photos taken. My social group lived there. We had, long before I arrived, somehow commandeered some of the best real estate in the building: the bit of the Lower Common Room that overhung the amphitheatre. It would have been beautifully sunny if not for those massive trees which also ensured the amphitheatre was always damp except in the height of summer, when no-one was there. It was easy slouching distance to toilets, the Upper Cafe and its lethal filter coffee, and a bar. Everyone had the number of the phone just outside. 

So for those of us for whom that building was home, or at least a second lounge, we should take a tip from our far-flung bretheren and take a moment to mourn the passing of that great concrete shithole. Those were the days of our lives, vomited all over its constantly slightly tacky carpet.


It's the tiny little things I remember. The time someone stuck a gherkin from a McDonalds cheeseburger onto the window, and we left it there to see what would happen. And left it, and left it... The spot in the stairwell where someone had tried to put their fist (I hope) through a pane of safety glass. The sea of bags outside Bentley's when they made us leave them in case we were smuggling in even cheaper booze. The eponymous cat himself, who once followed me and a Lovely Young Man through campus in the middle of the night when we were sneaking off for a quick shag because I still had the key to the English Department. The migration to the Upper Common Room on a Friday for Happy Hour, on account of cocktails and the LCR filling up with Normals. 

So many games of 500, played on those orange couches around those low coffee tables. Endless games of Scum that people would drift in and out of as they had lectures. Talking Shit and Playing Cards: those were our things. Those walls heard so much utter bollocks. 

KAOS had a relationship of beligerant affection with the cafe ladies. They would watch us dump a spoon of instant in a coffee cup and top it up with filter coffee without a flicker. There was only a slight hesitation before they gave us fifteen cups of cafe coffee with which to carry out a public execution. The crumbed fish was perfectly edible, the frozen yoghurt was lovely, and more than one of my friends ate at the cafes so much they got scurvy. 

Falling in the river. Well, "falling" in the river. Drying off on the sunny bit of concrete in the amphitheatre. Always being mildly curious about the Go club because their noticeboard was right next to ours. Never realising how English a phrase "common room" was. 

If you ever went there late at night, or in the holidays, the emptiness of the building was weird and wrong. It's been empty and silent for years now. I've found, oddly, that in all my photos of my time at uni, I have none of the UCSA building itself. If you do, please share them, and your stories too. Time to drag those plastic jugs back out of our cupboards, pour one of those tiny glasses, and maybe sing one last chorus of "Black Betty". Bam-ba-lam indeed.