By Insider – Jock Phillips
It was a message on my cellphone which inspired this post. Jackie Hay, a good friend and the inspired organiser of this blogging trip, asked if I could take a photo of the huge Webb Ellis Trophy which stands at the entrance to the Fanzone in Christchurch’s North Hagley Park. The cup had been used as the centrepiece for that magnificent opening ceremony, which seems so long ago. Now it beckons punters to the Fanzone and is used as a backdrop for innumerable family photos. I decided I would describe the scene in the park, which in the absence of games, is the centre of cup activity in Christchurch.
North Hagley Park has long been the site for such festivals. Hagley Park itself is huge, over 160 hectares, and the largest urban park in the country. It was set aside by the good people of Christchurch as a permanent place for recreation in 1855. The area over the Armagh Street bridge bordering the banks of the Avon river is where such events have traditionally been held. This was the home of the ambitious 1906-7 Christchurch International Exhibition. Richard Seddon‘s brainchild, the exhibition was designed to show off the success of the ‘social laboratory of the world’ and to display New Zealand’s industrial and agricultural progress to the world. The formal buildings were to the right of Armagh Street bridge where the Fanzone is today, but it was ‘Wonderland’ to the left, where the Events Village is, that attracted the crowds. Here you could be thrilled on the water chute, or be terrified in the Katzenhammer castle, or be awestruck by the 114-metre-long cyclorama of the battle of Gettysburg.
The 1950 Canterbury Centennial show was also held here. In fact my very first memory was riding the roller-coaster at the age of three – I have never quite recovered! More recently this was where the ‘Ellerslie flower show’ has been held, and where people were cared for in those first horrific days after 22 February.
There were only two major sets of buildings allowed in the area – Christ’s College, which was already there before 1855, and the Canterbury Museum. I began my visit at the museum. There you can see Peter Bush’s rugby photographs; but since I had seen them in Dunedin I made a beeline for the permanent dioramas. Developed initially in the 1920s in the United States, dioramas are painted scenes and the Canterbury Museum has the best in the country. As a child I used to press my nose up against the glass for hours looking at the details of the bird dioramas. Today I focused on the two large Māori dioramas. They are worth the visit alone. Then it was onto the Fred and Myrtle Flutey’s paua house, first made famous by Robin Morrison’s photograph, and subsequently moved from Bluff, controversially, to the Canterbury Museum. The introductory film is the perfect welcome to the house and the paua-studded main room is the summit of Kiwi kitsch.
Then it was a walk through the gardens looking dazzling in the spring sun. No sign of the earthquake here; and you realise that it is the trees which give a sense of permanence and tradition to Christchurch when so many of its old buildings lie in ruins.
The garden walk took me past the Kate Sheppard memorial walkway with its commemorative collection of white camellias (white camellias were the women’s suffrage campaign’s symbol). And then I entered the Real New Zealand Festival ‘Presenting Canterbury’ area. You enter past two topiary animals including a deer complete with antlers. Around a circle of grass there are a range of tents – some selling crafts, some offering tastings of Canterbury wines or beers. There is plenty of food on offer – whitebait fritters again prominent. New Zealand on Screen has a caravan parked showing short New Zealand films. I sat inside and laughed at a very funny skit about a radio announcer’s off-day. This caravan is a cut-down version of the Wellington and Auckland containers, and has been travelling the South Island during the cup.
There was also a stage; so I sat down with an excellent ‘Wigram’ beer in hand and enjoyed some improvisation by a group of five funny blokes called the ‘Court Jesters’. Dressed in rugby uniforms – of a sort – the skits began with a welcome haka from the teams. I particularly enjoyed the Australian haka which consisted of the actor drinking beer, vomiting, fighting and flaking to the tune of Waltzing Matilda. The improvised ballet telling the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears and the ballad of the two Snow Whites which involved extensive audience participation also greatly entertained the sizeable audience. All good fun on a sunny afternoon.
Then I was inevitably pulled by the Webb Ellis trophy over to the Fanzone. You pass the trophy, then the large inflatable dome which contains the nostalgia lounge, and enter onto a cut-down rugby field. It seems wholly appropriate that Christchurch’s virtual centre for the Rugby World Cup should be on a rugby field in Hagley Park. For Canterbury is arguably the real centre of rugby in New Zealand. The Crusaders have been by far our most successful team. And Hagley Park is arguably the birthplace of Canterbury rugby. When I was young the park was covered in rugby pitches. Today there are still 10 rugby pitches, although I noticed that there were no less than 15 soccer pitches – which may say something about recent social change. So the centre of the Fanzone is a rugby pitch and there were hordes of small boys kicking and running.
On either side of the footie pitch are large screens for broadcasting the games. At one end is a stage. The previous day I had heard a rock group called, ‘After Shock’ playing. Today I sat down and heard the ‘Christchurch Pops Choir’. They had been formed when locals were disappointed they were missing out on popular music acts because, you guessed it, of the quake. It’s simply impossible to avoid the quake and consequences in this place; but not all the effects are bad. The Pops Choir was one of these. It was their first public gig and they did a great job giving choir versions of contemporary songs with an admirable emphasis on local music by people like Hollie Smith, Don McGlashan and Goldenhorse. They were followed by the Black Velvet Band. The name I assume derived from the taste and feel of Guinness because the music was catchy Irish Rover type sound with plenty of energetic fiddle. All enjoyable.
But by now it was 7.15 p.m. The sun was going down, dark clouds were overhead and the wind was icy from the south-west. The guitarist in the Black Velvet Band stopped to shake his hands frantically to restore the circulation, and although I warmed myself temporarily with a delicious Stewart Island blue cod pie, the cold became too much. An outdoor event on a Christchurch spring evening is a risky venture; and as I left I counted no more than 100 hardy souls left to enjoy the Wales–France game on the big screens.
It is impressive the way Christchurch has set out to give a sense of celebration and fun to a community which does not have games. The Fanzone and the events village are well worth a visit. You will enjoy yourselves. But there are constant reminders of how it might have been. Down one corner of the Fanzone I came across a huge hording obviously prepared before 22 February and now hidden from prying eyes that showed an image of a World Cup quarter final – All Blacks versus England no less – at Jade Stadium. Very sad.
Vox populi: I talked to a volunteer at the Fanzone. She said they had had fun. ’There were plenty of French visitors. They were a laugh, and they loved it all. But it could have been so much better, if only we had had games…’