Sometimes people don’t want to hear about these things because they feel there’s no point, that natural disasters are unpredictable and there’s nothing you can do about them. But scientists and authorities aren’t trying to scare us, they’re trying to prepare us. Although we can’t avoid the natural disaster (except by moving somewhere where there are none), we can prepare for them. That’s what anchoring stuff to walls and emergency kits are all about: being prepared. If the worst doesn’t happen, that’s great, but if it does, isn’t it best to have what you and your family need right there, ready for you?
I have a relative whose house repair has been botched. Floors are uneven, doors have been shaved into non-rectangular shapes to make them fit into doorframes and there is still cracking in the brickwork. This is the family home, the one she raised her kids in. She’s a grandmother now, so that will give you some idea of how long she’s been in this house. She knows what it was like before the quakes and her repair hasn’t brought it even close to that pre-earthquake state, much less to the as new condition stipulated in her insurance policy. She has complained to EQC, but the response has been that her damage is all “historic”.
I’ve heard that word too much in the last 6+ years. The EQC and insurers are big fans of it. What’s historic and what’s not is difficult to determine in older houses, but too often the homeowner is left with earthquake damage that they can’t get repaired without getting a lawyer involved. EQC and insurers just dig their toes in, insisting that you, the homeowner, prove that it was quake damage. But how do you do that if your only evidence is your recall of how the house was? Dig through all the family photos and hope someone caught a shot of the living room door showing that it didn’t have a bowed lower edge?
My husband and I fell foul of this with the cracked slab of our garage. It was put down as historic in the report the insurer’s engineer submitted, but our own engineer said it was quake damage, going by floor level readings and continuity with an acknowledged quake damage crack outside the garage. We didn’t want to get into the battle of the engineers, but we had no evidence to show that this crack wasn’t there before the quakes. In the course of picking our battles, we decided to let this one go.
But we learned from that experience, and whenever we move into a new property, we’ll be doing a thorough photographic record of the state of the place, floor to ceiling, inside and out. When my in-laws moved into a new place a couple of years ago, we had them take photos, not just a photo per room, but detailed photos that showed the condition of the interior and exterior, the foundations, walls, skirting boards, ceilings. If I ever have to go through this post-earthquake claim process again, at least I’ll know I’ve done all I can do avoid hearing the dreaded “historic”.
The painting on the cover of Bleak City is called Cashel Street, and its by local artist Liam Dangerfield. It shows the Bridge of Remembrance on the Avon River, which lies at the end of Christchurch’s main shopping drag, Cashel Mall. The first time I saw the painting was the opening night of Liam’s first solo show in April 2016, while I was in the middle of writing the last half of Bleak City. The works in his show were all about Christchurch, the ruins of its buildings and its changing cityscape.
My husband and I were both overwhelmed by the multiple meanings we saw in Liam’s works. I couldn’t make up my mind over which one I liked best and kept bouncing between ones that kept prompting memories from my thirty years living in Christchurch. But my husband kept going back to Cashel Street. We purchased the painting and hung it in our lounge, and during the revision stage, I kept coming back to it, asking myself why it had such strong appeal. I folded the answers to that question back into the story. Liam’s art fed the revision process.
The heart of the reason I started writing Bleak City was because of the incredible sadness I felt over what had happened to the people of Christchurch in the quakes and following. People died and that, first and foremost, should never be forgotten. The people who loved them have been changed, and that there has been no justice for those deaths that resulted because of bureaucratic error and neglect says something unpleasant about how our little country at the bottom of the Pacific works. Tens of thousands more have been changed by the insurance process. Many of these people are the walking dead.
I am not a reader of horror or supernatural fiction and related TV shows don’t appeal to me, but yes, I do know there is a TV show called The Walking Dead. My disinterest in that particular stream of fiction is that I find far more terrifying what people actually do to one another, and by that I don’t mean the criminal predators who are the fodder for other fiction genres. Who needs monsters when profit-driven, uncaring, inept bureaucracies are perfectly capable of killing people and destroying their lives?
Bleak City is the story of a family living through the Canterbury earthquakes. The main character is Alice Moorhouse, who is 18 and most of the way through her first year at university when the quakes disrupt her life.
The Canterbury earthquake sequence is at the heart of Bleak City. There wasn’t just one quake, the 7.1 quake on the 4th of September 2010 triggered a years-long series of aftershocks, including three magnitude 6+ quakes that were closer to the city than the 7.1. The shallow, violent 6.3 on the 22nd of February 2011 was centred under the hills south of the city. This quake left the city devastated, killed 185 people and injured thousands. Tens of thousands embarked on a long, painful journey to recovery, which continues today.
The novel’s title is Bleak City not to paint a bleak future for Christchurch, but to recognise that post-quake life is a struggle for many people. It was this post-quake struggle rather than the earthquakes themselves that prompted me to write fictionalised accounts of the stories I saw taking place around me. The slow, painful progress of the rebuild and the bureaucratic hurdles people are forced to navigate are having a toll on the city. This is the manmade disaster. The stories of people living in, especially, the south and east of the city contrast with those being told by authorities, who spin the recovery as nearly done, almost there. It’s not, and it won’t be for many years. Some people will never recover, emotionally or financially, and some have died while waiting for their homes to be repaired or rebuilt.