Having left a much-loved Borderland to live in one of the furthest-flung parts of the world, I am following in the footsteps of many Borderers before me.
The love of a Kiwi, a good man called Clive, brought me to New Zealand. If that had not happened, I would probably still be gazing at the Eildon Hills from Scotts View, strolling along the River Tweed, enjoying a cup of tea at The Hirsel Tearoom, watching Hawick beat Gala, or the other way round, and spending time with my friends. In my imagination, I still do those things and Caledonia calls me home quite regularly. It is not time to return ... yet.
New Zealand is a beautiful and enchanted land. It is also wild and temperamental. The earthquake in Christchurch showed us that.
In a matter of minutes, lives and landscapes were changed forever. The popular myth that lightning cannot strike in the same place twice became just that. The second quake in February devastated a city still reeling from the after-effects of the first quake last September. This time the Earth roared during the day rather than at night and a very different scene and story emerged. The footage of the aftermath on our television screens, the internet and in newspapers showed the world what happened. So many stories, so many bittersweet.
The disaster didn’t just affect Christchurch – it affected the whole of New Zealand.
It is a small country, like Scotland. It is a place where everyone knows everyone else or at least it seems that way. It is not rich in terms of industrial wealth and its people have had to be resilient. They are proud and passionate about their country. The legacy of the early settlers, the majority of whom were Scots, among them a large number of Borderers, still remains in the hearts and consciousness of many.
That sense of a shared Caledonian heritage is still strong. The government and civil defence here have always encouraged the people to have survival kits at the ready. It is a sensible precaution. There are regular advertisements on television and radio urging us to “get ready” so that we can “get through”.
In the wake of the Christchurch tragedy, the retail shelves emptied of generators, portable gas stoves, gas bottles, barbecues, plastic water bottles and tanks, sleeping bags, bottled water, sterilising tablets, dried and tinned foodstuffs ... even hot water bottles! Clive and I like so many others, now have our survival kit ... just in case.
The tremors and aftershocks continue in Christchurch and in the Canterbury area. Underground power cables were damaged and electricians and others have worked day and night to restore power.
Last week, nearly all power was restored. The sewerage system, similarly damaged has meant that many people still boil water and use portable loos or use “long drops” as they are called here – holes in the ground to you and me.
Some roads are impassable and the Central Business District is still cordoned off because many of the buildings are unsafe. Some suburbs of Christchurch have not been affected at all, others have been severely damaged.
There are those who have fled the city, taking refuge in other towns and villages. Many have stayed and will continue to stay. Some will never return. There will be others who, in time, will sell up and begin again somewhere else. The emotional cost has been great.
Prince William, representing his grandmother, visited two weeks ago and lifted our spirits with his humanity and sensitivity. In some of the local newspapers, he was called The People’s Prince. Thousands, including many from the international community and Borderers living in New Zealand, came to sit under a warm autumn sun in Hagley Park in Christchurch to remember the dead and take another step towards recovery. The skirl of the pipes could be heard, stirring our hearts.
Quoting his grandmother, the Prince said: “Grief is the price we pay for love. Today, we love and we grieve.”
We knew that he knew, from personal experience, what that meant. Resilience was also celebrated and thanks given for everyone helping with the relief effort – those from the local area and region, people in other parts of the country and those from abroad, including emergency response teams from across Scotland who helped with the rescue efforts.
Christchurch and the rest of New Zealand has become a landscape where compassion and love, courage and self-sacrifice have been shown in huge measure and will continue to be shown. In all kinds of ways, large and small, people have joined together to help. There was the large and organised “student army” – young people who left their studies for a time and worked hard to clear the streets of the silt caused by the liquefaction of the soil.
There was Lizzie from Christchurch and her friends in the North Island who baked and sent fruit cakes and snack packs to grateful residents and workers. No overbearing environmental health restrictions to get in the way!
Coroner Sue Johnson wrote: “I am ... currently working ... with the police and forensic experts trying to identify the bodies of people who died in the Christchurch earthquake. Thank you for your cake which tastes so delicious. I know it has been baked with love and it is with love we gratefully receive it. It is a wonderful gift for us all during this sad and difficult process.”
Nev, a support worker for the elderly, wrote: “Some elderly people still have no water or sewerage, they are so grateful for anything that gives them some comfort. Rita, who is 92 years old, lived on raw vegetables from her garden for a week as the supermarket was damaged beyond repair and there was no transport. When I took her to the supermarket to get some food she told everyone I was her new toy boy (I’m only 67 years old). This is just one of the stories which makes people laugh in the face of adversity.”
In times of tragedy and disaster, people are most often naturally generous and creative, self-forgetful, capable of doing what sometimes seem very small or ineffectual things, simply because they are worth doing for the sake of honouring fellow human beings.
The people of New Zealand, like the people of Japan who are now facing the truly dreadful consequences of the catastrophic tsunami, earthquake and nuclear meltdown, will, in time, find the strength to build a future where dignity and hope and love will continue to take root and flourish, and where they will be able to enjoy every sunrise once again. Of that, I have no doubt.
There is much to look forward to in this land of the long white cloud.
The Rugby World Cup will soon take place here and Kiwis are excited about that, eager to welcome international visitors. There will be no matches played in Christchurch, sadly, but all is well organised and rugby teams and fans can be assured of a truly fabulous experience. This country and its culture, its people and its humour will enchant rugby fans.
I am looking forward to a great rugby fest and meeting some of my Border friends who are going to make the long journey here, carrying Selkirk Bannocks in their suitcases for us Scots emigrants and perhaps even a bottle or two of the uisge beatha in their hand luggage. Duty free, of course. Can’t wait!