Sue Wells – The New Canterbury Tales

May 15, 2011

Share an idea #eqnz #chch

A twitter friend of mine (they’re called “tweeps”) has a flash car. It has its own twitter account. It has its own personality. It’s not a lot like his personality at all. In fact, it gets away with saying things I don’t think any grown man would ever get away with. It even tweets about him but I suspect it’s all exaggeration.

My border collie Pepper and I have been discussing of late whether she should similarly have her own twitter account. I’m quite keen on the idea, but she doesn’t think she should. What she’s said to me on the matter is that we were to proceed down that path, her first tweet under her name would be “I have told Sue repeatedly – it is not right to anthropomorphise your dog.”

She’s a bit of fan of that word, is Pepper. It’s the Peterson gene pool coming through. If dogs are like their owners (and she certainly is) then her family tree would be like mine – resembling more an eighty year old wisteria than one of the Hagley Park oaks.

I was adopted shortly after my birth. I am a child of the village, and at various times, different bits of the gene pool float to the surface.

The anthropomorphic word is pure Peterson. The sire gifted me with a capacity for language and a love for how it dances that must have developed huddled in the lee of the nastiest breeze the Shetlands could produce. Also a love of single malt. And good red wine. And other things I shall not name.

The gene that doesn’t use that word but lives that word (you see it in its purest form on Susan Sells) is derived from the McLauchlan strain. That’s my maternal bloodline. The one with the Scots/Irish/Italian heritage and the propensity for laughter, flappy hands, and having a fine old time.

Nurture versus nature – from Mum and Dad, my values, my work ethic, and a long stretch in time in the span of just a couple of generations. Mum’s father, my grandfather, was born in 1893. Mum’s mother was born on Guy Fawkes Day in 1902. Dad’s family lost the farm in the Depression. He was just too young to fight in World War II. His brother was old enough. He came back. One of the lucky ones.

And then there is my other side, my Kingi side. The first man to bring flowers and the one who whangai’d me again when I found him at 21, my connection to the land, and the people, and the waka, Kia Ora Ray.

All of those rivers are braided in me. The party girl, the intellectual, the Canterbury farmer, the whangai.

And really, that’s the tapestry that I think of as Christchurch.

She was designed by people who’d never set foot on her soil. They knew nothing of her topography, of her geology – we know a little more.

If you look at the black maps of our city, and the paper roads that litter her hillsides and end in steep descents or traverse sacred sites where nobody should go, you understand that what we had may not have been the best that it can be.

We have the chance now, as pakeha people who have lived in this house of ours for not quite two centuries, and as maori people be we mana whenua or takata whenua to review what has worked and what has not. We are not on a path to rebuilding Christchurch. We are on a path to re-inventing her.

I call her she. While it might be wrong to anthropomorphise your dog (that by the way is a five dollar word for giving non-human things human characteristics, things like dogs and cars and electrical appliances) is it so wrong to do the same for your city?

What is a city? It’s not just buildings.

I went today, along with thousands of others this weekend, to the Share an Idea planning weekend at the CBS arena. You can find more about it on Some more of my photos for you here:

The keynote speeches should be up there on Wednesday.

I saw kids building a new Christchurch out of Lego. I had a discussion with one of the planning staff about why I thought it was a very bad idea for the councillors to do the same. It’s about shape and scale and how the brain works.

(apologies – I’d wrap the text if I knew how – as yet I don’t.) That picture is a north to south view of Christchurch. On the right is Hagley Park. The Avon meanders through. You can see the kids using Lego in different colours which in theory represents industry or housing or hospitality – it’s a fun game but I think not best played in that version by grown ups. Our brains are too literal, we get anchored into ideas too easily. Kids don’t have that same problem. They analogise, they imagine, they pretend, they move on, they reflect, they learn more, they reflect again. We experience and decide. That’s why I’d play with different pieces.

To me all buildings don’t have the same form. If I were playing with anything on that grid, it would be different slices of things. Tiny slices of slate, of fabric, of carrot, of chocolate, and something warm and snug that means home, cotton wool or music perhaps – find me a slice of that, will you?

And they would be slices, not big fat blocks, because the human scale of your city needs to shine through.

It was lovely seeing the kids involved today. It was great seeing the teens on the you-tube clips. I listened to just one of the keynote speakers, Therese Minehan, my old (really, very old) history teacher and submitter against virtually everything I do. I love that woman. She is the heart and soul of Christchurch past.

She made me think again today, as she always does. She spoke of her emotional connection to the Arts Centre. For her, it will always be Canterbury College. The Dux de Lux will always be the Student Union. The Academy Theatre will always have a connection to her time on the hockey team. And after what she said is rumoured to have happened at Rolleston House – all I can say is missed a hell of an opportunity.

Those connections are as real and vital to her as they are not so to me. To me, the Arts Centre is the Court Theatre. The Dux de Lux is the place where Nana asked for a ham sandwich on my 18th birthday (although great hosts, it was unambiguously a vegetarian restaurant and the answer was a polite no). The Academy Theatre is the place where fine movies were shown and I was never in one. Rolleston House – well, enough said.

We imbue buildings with our experiences in them. We give them status as repositories of our own personal experiences. When they are gone, we grieve. We feel the loss of a buildings as the loss of part of our own personal heritage. But is that the same as our cultural heritage? Or is just anthropomorphising another inanimate thing?

What is a city? Is it buildings or how they relate to each other? Is it the life that happens in between them or the people who are there when they stand? It may be both, it may all of those things. A city that works is a beautiful, vibrant, desirable thing. (I would draw her as a slender, intelligent, elegant woman in fabulous clothes with a lovely smile and open arms, her pockets jingling as if money still came in gold and not in the reality of wifi and electronic commerce.)

Who owns the city? We all do. All the businesses, all the people, the earth itself. We, the people who have gone before, we, the people who are here right now, we, the people who are yet to come. I greet you all.

We who are here right now are together designing a future city we may never see. Whether old or young, nobody knows what lies ahead. Nobody plans on going to work and not coming home.

And what makes it hard is that we who are here right now are at our lowest emotional ebb in this whole horrible event. There is a very good explanation of the stages of disaster recovery by the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Adviser, Dr Peter Gluckman. (Beck Eleven’s column in Saturday’s Press on the matter is very honest reading. Bravo Beck. I’ve pinched a bit from your column here. Just so you know.)

Dr Gluckman’s stages are these;

– the intial heroic stage in which people do not count the costs. (Yup – did that. So did you. I know you did.)

– the honeymoon phase in which people see some help arriving and feel the situation will improve. (I wave to you Rachel and Jonathan and all my international tweeps who are still helping – that’s where you came in.)

– a long-term rehabilitation phase in which people realise how long the recovery will take and may become angry and frustrated. (It’s here. It’s bloody awful. There are days when I wake up and wonder why the dream is still happening, moments in the day when I want to be an ostrich, big kicks in the guts when you hear of another friend or colleague gone or you run out of onions for the soup and realise you can’t just nip down to New World anymore and then you want to have a little weep and sometimes in fact you do)

– the phase in which people appreciate that things can never return to exactly what they were. (I’m there too, in between 3 and 4. Thing is I don’t know what 4 looks like yet, but I know I will never again live in the Christchurch in which I grew up.)

The Christchurch I grew up in has gone. The buildings that hold the memories – they are mostly gone. Hagley Park is still there. The Port Hills are still there – but at the moment, they are blocked off, they too feel gone. The Central Library, Centennial Pool, QEII, the beach, the Strip – we are left at the moment with so little and so much needing to be done.

Sometimes it feels insurmountable. It feels impossible to dream and mobilise and create from this awful bleakness that doesn’t seem to end. We deal with all of the chores of daily life which are now so many and so hard, and with all of that added pressure we have to find the inner strength to create the most beautiful piece of collective imagination that we ever will.

But that is how it always is.

In a time of peace and tranquility, why would you ever change? It is only in times of loss and crisis that we force ourselves to look really hard at our essence, and find the room for a transformation. Human beings do not like change. Change has been forced upon us. We need to grasp its painful opportunity with both hands, and be very brave, and very strong. Change comes with pain. Pain is here. So is the ending of the end, and the beginning of the beginning.

Every community that goes through a disaster faces this challenge. We look at communities around the world and they rise to the occasion. As you go down, so you come up. You really do go down. It’s part of it. Acknowledging that is part of it too.

We hurt, we cry, we laugh, we love. We are angry and sad and resentful – we grieve, we grieve, we grieve. There will be a better day, I know that as I know that the sun will come up tomorrow, but make no mistake – this is no easy place to be right now. It’s the biggest chance we will ever have, but perhaps not the biggest burden each of us will ever carry.

I spent all day at the expo today talking to people, listening to them. I Bumped into one old acquaintance who shared with me the fact that as well dealing with EQC battles as we all are, she’s had to cope with her teenager trying to commit suicide – not earthquake related, sexuality related. Building a city seems nothing compared to that. And there was, doing the post-it notes, having her say. That is a woman with courage and commitment. That is a woman I am proud to share a city with. I marvel at her strength. She wears her anger at what’s happening on her sleeve.

There were a lot of emotions there today. At times it felt almost like being at the Ellerslie Flower Show, or at Cup Day without the champagne. And then there was the sorrow as we watched the video of the buildings as they stand today. There was laughter, there was some fun but not much, there were tired kids and happy teens and a little sparkle of hope.

The mayor was there of course – he was in orange, I was in pink. Roger Sutton, who was CEO of Orion when I was on the board there and who is now CEO of CERA as I am the Chair of the Planning Committee at the Council, was there in flouro yellow. We had a big hug, and a long talk, and we swapped the status updates on our houses. Roger lives just up the hill from me. He’s a good boy. I told him so. He gave me another big hug, told me a story that brought tears to his eyes. He’s a great choice for the job and I’m proud I’ll be working alongside him again.

Towards the end of the day, a lovely Maori lady whom I have known a long time now introduced me to yet another of the inspirational people who is working so hard on making our new city a reality for us all – one where we will want to live, where the world will want to visit. She looked at me after a while, and said “something’s different about you. Your wairua is different. You’re a conduit now. You always were, but now that’s really what you are.”

I don’t know why, but since that exchange, I have felt a very welcome peace.

And just in case that’s all been a bit much for you, here’s the lightweight stuff, the rest of the gossip – at least all the news that’s fit to print.

I didn’t make it to St Clair. Time beat me, that and a bit of a cold and the fact I chose to be with friends I love rather than drive myself literally to distraction.

Nor am I going to San Francisco – I’m going to TEDxEQChCh instead and I can’t wait for Friday night to meet the peeps.

We shot another batch of Susan Sells at CTV. Week two is much improved. As well as screening here in Canterbury on CTV, it screens at 830 am on Maori TV, but  the listing refers to it as some music thing. That’s us. It’s getting silly again. I’m going to have to apologise to the mayor for what is going to screen nationally on Wednesday. It screens here locally on Tuesday. I’m pleased I’ll be out of cellphone range.

In between council duties I have a day or two in Wellington this week (shiver – place terrifies me, much rather be here on shaky ground I understand) and if it turns into two nights rather the one I’ve planned for – I hope there’s a spare bed for me somewhere :).

Telethon on Saturday, no idea what (if) I’m doing yet. At the moment, my little life feels a lot like being a duck bobbing along on top of a braided river, feeling pretty certain it’s heading where it wants to go but really you’re as much pushed along by a current you can’t perceive as you’re achieving with the paddling of your little webbed feet.

Pepper’s just remarked that she’s in two minds about whether or not I just anthropomorphised that duck. I’m a bit disappointed in her. Border collies are to meant to be smarter than that. I would have thought it was blindingly obvious.

And with the earth right now moving gently under my feet, I bid you a very fond good night. I’m off to discuss syntax with Pepper. It excites her enormously. I know it does. She says that sometimes having a conversation with me is better than …. well …. she’d finish that sentence, but she’s not that kind of girl.



  1. Absolutely Pepper should have her own Twitter account! Both our dog (sadly, left behind with my partner’s parents in Australia) and my car have Twitter accounts although both sadly neglected as neither our dog or my car can type for themselves. @Yelena_MINI and @MistyMoopies

    Comment by Nathanael Boehm — May 15, 2011 @ 9:28 pm | Reply

    • There should be a typing class for Border Collies. And a slightly different keyboard that adjusts for the dewclaw.

      Comment by Sue Wells — May 15, 2011 @ 9:47 pm | Reply

  2. This city of ours is in great hands, your blog is inspiraitional

    Comment by Dave — May 15, 2011 @ 9:55 pm | Reply

  3. Great piece of writing, had to flick a couple of tears away. It’s true, you are a conduit. I remember after I first met you thinking ‘sue wells is channeling the zietgeist’. Everything since confirms it especially the energy I felt run down my spine when I read that. See you at TEDx

    Comment by Danny Squires — May 15, 2011 @ 11:56 pm | Reply

  4. Hi Sue,

    Nature vs nurture really is fascinating. As you may remember I was also adopted as a baby, and when I finally met my birth mother an old friend of hers remarked how many mannerisms in speech and gesture we shared – these are things you would usually put down to nurture.
    I can beat you on generational span: My adoptive paternal Grandfather, a Dutch peasant, was born in 1876. My adoptive parents were basically a whole generation older than my birth ones (38 vs 22). I think I’ve aged closer to my nature than my nurture.

    Comment by Richard Grevers — May 16, 2011 @ 9:03 pm | Reply

    • Did you get the chance to meet your birth father or his side and do the compare and contrast thing? I found it incredibly helpful and moving. I wonder if in people who aren’t adopted the elements from both sides get blended as they grow up, because the parents live together and their personalities blend as well. I think for me they’re so distinct that feel them not as traits as much as different personas almost. As I’m getting older, they’re integrating more, and I think that’s to do with understanding oneself a little better, and also finding more self-acceptance.

      Comment by Sue Wells — May 17, 2011 @ 11:15 pm | Reply

      • No, Geoff died climbing in the Himalayas in 1967. A few years ago we tracked down his three younger brothers and sister and I’ve now met most of them plus assorted cousins. They were somewhat hurt that their brother had never told them that there had been a child, although we suspect that my grandmother found out – she burned some of his papers. Last year I visited India and met some of the people on whom he made such a great impression in the two years he knew them. I stood in his old apartment with his flatmate, and visited the office where he had worked as an architect. I think my creativity and intellect comes from him – it is showing up in our son, too, along with some of the physical adventurousness which I skipped 🙂

        Comment by Richard Grevers — May 21, 2011 @ 10:49 pm

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