Christchurch is about the same size as Wellington, and it has its CBD precincts set out like Wellington does. It has High St to correspond to Lambton Quay for high tone shopping; the Strip on Oxford Tce to correspond to Courtney Place for eats and drinks; the South of Lichfield alleyway to correspond to Cuba St (or Auckland's Vulcan Lane) for self-conscious funkiness. Everything a little tamer here, But also, everything a little smaller than in Wellington—and a lot quirkier. (There are no bicycles riding up a wall in Cuba St. And Cuban Socialist Realism is no match for fake beer ads about Virgin Ale.)
There are reasons for all this: Christchurch has been behind the starting line in its quest for urban chic, and has had to go into overtime to catch up.
Christchurch, the guidebooks alert you, is the most English of cities in New Zealand, with New Zealand already an inordinately British place by New World standards. Christchurch was founded to bring Anglican and Yeoman order to the South Island, after the French gave up their colony an hour's drive away, in Akaroa. The South Island narrowly missed being annexed by the tribe of Marion, as the Maori termed the French—Marion du Fresne being the French explorer who was skulking around these parts, and the excuse for setting the Treaty of Waitangi in motion. And the British were anxious to stake their claim.
When Christchurch was founded in 1850, then, it was adamantly part of Victoria's Empire; and while most Victorian Empire streets are named after dignities and royalty, Christchurch's streets asseverate their imperial heritage. The East–West streets are named for the recesses of Britain's Green and Pleasant Land: Salisbury, Peterborough, Kilmore, Chester, Armagh, Gloucester, Worcester, Hereford. The North–South streets are the furthest reaches of red on the globe: Barbadoes St, Madras St, Colombo St.
Montreal St. Because in 1850, Montreal had no accent aigu, and was as proudly British as... well, as Madras and Colombo were.
There is a Britishness to be seen about the place still: more monumental stone (and less wood), more statues (including a prominent Queen Victoria and a just as prominent Scott of the Antarctic), more inscriptions commemorating patriotic duty. Quid Non Pro Patria, the Remembrance Bridge bellows: What Would You Not Do For Your Country?
That's a dangerous question to have inscribed on your bridges these days:
- Is My Country meant to be where I was born and live, or literally the other side of the world? (Most New Zealanders answered the latter for the greater part of their history.)
- What Wouldn't I Do? How long have you got? And do we start at paternalistic colonial policies, or move straight to genocide?
I won't single out the Kiwis for this modernist blame; it's the legacy of all nationalisms, and all colonialisms. But the memorialisations of the legacy are thicker on the ground here than I've been accustomed to.
Christchurch is also British in its river. The river, inevitably, was named Avon. With Oxford Terrace and Cambridge Terrace crossing the Avon, we get incongruity such as the Oxford-on-Avon tavern, across from the Bard-on-Avon pub. But situating Oxford on the Avon is not much more incongruous to begin with than situating an Avon on Aoraki's Canoe.
Christchurch is renowned for its British architecture, and (until recently) its British monoculture. But its British river is its glory, and I spent a half hour being punted around the river, in such bliss in the January sun and park greenery, that I was hard put to walk afterwards. I wouldn't necessarily confirm or deny that it was better than sex; but it glowed.
If you go digging, of course, you'll find the river is not as British as it looks.
- The Antigua St boatsheds may have been built in 1882, but the Punt On The Avon operators are Est. 1994: the jackets may be straight out of an episode of Morse, but this is cultural reinvention, not cultural continuity from the Thames Valley.
- The punters share the river with kayakers and pedal boats from the same boatshed: the Avon is not servicing only the nostalgic slow-motion past, but also the hyperactive action-man present tourist, marking time till they go bungie jumping in Queenstown.
- The Avon is lined with weeping willows, but they aren't Ophelia's. A plaque states they were brought with the French to Akaroa—from St Helens. Christchurch may have been bellowing its Brittanicity, but its willows were commemorating Napoleon.
- The river is thick with European mallard ducks; but the native Whio ducks, smaller and quicker, persist along them, and dive for food where the mallard just hang around for the river surface's bounty.
The whio can see what's at the bottom of the Avon, after all. Just as well. They wouldn't last five minutes on Melbourne's Beautiful Brown Yarra.
The Cathedral Square also is more layered than I expected. The Cathedral itself is stately enough, although I'm surprised it didn't go more gothic. The Old Post Office (now Tourist Centre and Starbucks—is there any GPO Building that's still a going concern?) is festively Italianate. And with the open spaces of the square, the modernist cone sculpture (a ferny chalice), the fast food carts, the milling backpackers, the buskers (some amplified), and the outdoor café tables, this did not look like an English village commons. This looked like a piazza.
A piazza with a bungee jump platform for infants; but for all I know that probably happens in Italy now too. A piazza with 19th century trams as well (tourist use only); but I hear they have trams in Europe as well.
I did not have a productive time of the Christchurch tourist tram service, I must say. But I enjoyed the punting too much to permit myself to vent here about a bomb scare grounding all trams for at least two hours. It would be unseemly to start grousing about who'd bother planting a bomb in Christchurch.
Nor will I say much about Christchurch's newspaper, the Press—other than to say that the New Zealand Herald, a newspaper of four million people, seemed to suffer from permanent Slow News Day malaise—and the Press has a tenth of the catchment of the Herald.
But what matters is, you can go punting here. And floating across the Avon, I can't say I missed the lack of news at all. Why, I wasn't even itching for internet connectivity...