As a child of the baby-booming middle class, I like to spend some of my holidays in places like Stewart Island. This is what I did last week. I went there for a crash course in “things that white people like: NZ edition”, which included bush walks (especially in the rain, wind and or mud), looking for and appreciating rare native birds (saddleback, yellowhead, muttonbird), calling them by their Maori names (Tieke, Mohua, Titi). Another favourite holiday activity is sitting around reading books from the odd collection that are in the bookshelf of the overpriced holiday home you’re renting. After finishing Nigel Spivey’s “How Art Made the World” (light stuff) I found Bruce Ansley’s “Gods and Little Fishes”. I found it a very enjoyable read.

Ansley writes or wrote for the Listener, and wrote another book on spending a year on a canal boat in France, so definitely has the worried, aging boomer market down pat. This book is a memoir of his life growing up in the East Christchurch suburb of New Brighton, and it lovingly details his upbringing and relationship with the community there. I have only spent a small amount of time in Brighton myself, but even this limited experience was enough for me to see that the rows of unoccupied and dilapidated buildings told a story. This is that story, and it is well told and very prescient for our city right now.

While it does trace the rise and fall of some of the prominent buildings – including the pier – what makes Ansley’s story so vivid are the characters who live in and around them. He conveys a real sense of community, one that there was only gasps of when I was growing up in the 80’s, and that you would have a hard time tracking down anywhere in Christchurch now, especially in our newer exurbs. How many people nowadays could name their butcher, grocer, tailor. How many people could even access those sort of services without getting in a car or on a bus?

This memoir may be selective and nostalgic, but I don’t doubt that it is by and large, an accurate portrayal of a mid-20th century suburb with real community. And what has happened to that community now? People still live there, sure, but the state of the businesses around there shows that the community aspect has changed. Our city isn’t designed for community anymore – and we have a chance to change that. Once the streets have been cleaned and the houses put back together, New Brighton should offer some important lessons to the people who make the decisions about Christchurch. I am not suggesting that we necessarily throw away all we have learnt in the last 50 – 60 years about urban planning, but if someone can point me towards a better portrait of a better community in this country’s urban history, then I would like to see it.

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