• The Human Wrecking Ball

    Our Minister for Earthquake Recovery, Gerry Brownlee, has an unenviable reputation for putting his foot in his mouth.

    The latest instance is his intemperate attack on Finland, which has – not surprisingly – aroused the ire of the Finns, both because it was so outrageous and because it was also completely misdirected. He apparently had not realised that the Finns might be listening and could understand English.

    Mr Brownlee, of course, has what the crime writers describe as “form”. Even in his role as Earthquake Recovery Minister, he was roundly criticised for saying that the best thing to do with damaged heritage buildings was to bowl the lot of them – and more recently, he asserted confidently that “the market should decide” the future of those whose homes were damaged.

    But there is another side to Mr Brownlee – an untold story that would certainly show him in a better and more unaccustomed light. Winston Peters may have insulted all woodwork teachers by describing him as “an illiterate woodwork teacher”, but he has other qualities that have enabled him to make an extraordinary (and unsung) contribution to earthquake recovery.

    As most people will know, the Christchurch reconstruction cannot be started until a huge demolition task is completed. Demolition contractors have been working flat out against a tight timetable to get the job done.

    Mr Brownlee’s enthusiasm for demolition is well known. But what may not be known is that he has found a way of converting that enthusiasm into positive action.

    Whenever he can get to Christchurch, and once his working day is over, Gerry Brownlee meets in secret with the demolition contractors and spends several hours through the evening providing his services as a human wrecking ball.

    The demolition contractors are delighted with what Mr Brownlee is able to achieve. One said admiringly that it was a great example of how a community-minded citizen could turn his natural assets to the general advantage.

    “The Minister may be criticised at times for some of the things he does and says in his day job, but he has made up for any intellectual deficiency by his willingness to use his physical attributes to help achieve the huge task of knocking Christchurch down.”

    “He may or may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but he is certainly an improvement in that respect over your average wrecking-ball,” said another. “It is a huge advantage to be able to communicate, even while it is in mid-air, with your wrecking-ball – something that just isn’t possible with your average lump of metal.”

    Interviewed as he was about to don his crash helmet and have his ankles tied to together for attachment to the crane, Mr Brownlee was suitably modest about his contribution. “It’s no big deal,” he said. “I don’t want to receive plaudits for just doing what anyone would do. In any case, you could describe it as a labour of love – it’s something I enjoy doing and is the most useful thing I can do as Minister to get Christchurch back on its feet.”

    Mr Brownlee dismissed suggestions that the work was dangerous and that repeated blows to the head might mean that he would pay a heavy price for his public-spirited actions.

    “I can assure you that I have noticed no ill effects and my intellectual skills are as sharp as they ever were. I find it a kind of light relief from having to grapple with the difficult problems thrown up in my daytime work as Minister. And the skills required in my demolition work are just as intellectually demanding. I have to guide the crane driver as to where I should hit next.”

    The Prime Minister said, when asked to comment on Mr Brownlee’s unusual activity, that it was news to him but that what Ministers did in their spare time was up to them. “This is not a matter for the government – nothing ever is,” he said, “but I’m sure that the citizens of Christchurch will hugely appreciate the Minister’s take on how best to do his job.”

  • Hambledon

    Like most New Zealanders, I have at times found the television pictures of Christchurch’s earthquake disaster too much to bear. I find that I need to take a break, in a way that those directly involved cannot, from the scenes of personal tragedy and total devastation.

    But, as for others no doubt, there is from time to time a report that has a particular resonance and significance for me. Such a moment came at lunchtime on Saturday when it was reported that a historic mansion on Bealey Avenue had been demolished.

    No one can doubt, as Mayor Bob Parker has said, that the primary focus in the immediate aftermath of the disaster must be the people caught up in the tragedy – the loss of life, the rescue of those who were trapped and injured, and the suffering of families who have lost loved ones.

    But, in the fullness of time, we will have time to reflect on the loss of heritage as well – of so much that was part of Christchurch’s history, so much of its very heart and soul. We can already see the scale of that loss in the damage suffered by the Cathedral and other iconic buildings. The now demolished mansion in Bealey Avenue was one such.

    In 1850, my great great grandfather, George Gould, sailed to New Zealand with his young bride, Hannah. They arrived in Wellington on the 5th of November. The young couple spent a few weeks in the North Island before sailing again, this time for Christchurch, where they disembarked on the 11th of February 1851.

    While in the North Island, George Gould had built with his own hands the framework of the house he intended to erect. He had taken the “pre-fab” on board the “Camilla”, and – on disembarking at Lyttleton – he then had to transport the structure via Sumner and the Avon river to Christchurch.

    The house eventually reached its destination near the south-east corner of Armagh and Colombo streets and was erected before the month was out. It was the first completed wooden house in the Christchurch city area.

    The building became not only a home but was also the first site of a store and farming services and trading enterprise – what eventually developed into Pyne Gould Guinness and which gave its name to the Pyne Gould building in which so many died when the earthquake struck. The business prospered, and George Gould became one of the most successful and prominent of Christchurch citizens.

    By 1856, he had amassed enough money to move from the “pre-fab” to a house he had built on a 100-acre site he had purchased on the west side of Springfield Road. The new dwelling was best described as a Victorian gentleman’s residence, though built in the colonial style. It boasted, in addition to spacious living quarters and a large number of bedrooms, many other features ranging from a large butler’s pantry adjacent to the kitchen to a panelled ballroom. The house looked out onto extensive grounds, which included a large, formal garden.

    George Gould had been born and brought up in Hambleden, a small English village on the banks of the River Thames. His grandfather, Caleb Gould, had been a famous lock-keeper at Hambleden; visitors to the lock to this day will see displayed many references to Caleb Gould and an account of his exploits is to be found in most histories of the Thames. George Gould decided to name his splendid new house after the place of his birth.

    With his new house established as the family home, George than arranged for his parents, Joseph and Susan, to come out to New Zealand to join them. Joseph and Susan lived in a small house that George built for them in the grounds of Hambleden.

    When I returned to New Zealand from Britain in the mid-1990s, my sister, Ngaire, and I spent some time on a visit to Christchurch looking for the old family home. It was feared that it had been demolished. We could find nothing in Bealey Avenue that looked like the photographs of the original house. It took us some time to realise that the photographs were all taken from the front garden of the house, across the extensive grounds which had long since been filled in with small houses, and that what could be seen from Bealey Avenue was in fact the unphotographed back of the house.

    We discovered that the mansion had become the residence of the Bishop of Christchurch in the later part of the 19th century, and had eventually spent part of its more recent history as a private hotel – also known as “Hambleden”. I had the pleasure of staying there overnight on one of my visits to the city.

    The demolition of “Hambleden”, and the sad and unfortunate link through the Gould family to the fate of another building that – with its occupants – has been a tragic victim of the earthquake, means the loss of another small part of Christchurch’s history. In bringing it to the attention of a wider readership, I discharge an obligation I feel to the memory of George Gould.

    Bryan Gould

    26 January 2011

    This article was published in the NZ Herald on 1 March.