Italian poet Antonio Porchia once wrote “One lives in the hope of becoming a memory”, which given the fact that we’ve just quoted him forty five years after his death, should provide the recumbent Porchia with both a sense of achievement and a wry smile.
Perhaps we all hope to be a memory, even as we live. It’s unlikely that any of us spend a great deal of time considering this while wading through the mundane. It’s more likely that such thoughts occur when faced with the disastrous – an event so catastrophic that the fragility of life is lived in real time, and the memory of our existence becomes a shadow made solid.
What if all that we’ve done is not enough to be remembered?
Simon Grainger aka Graingerboy might, in another time and another space have set Porchia’s poems to a Balearic beat, and in between dance floor crescendos discussed the notion of living in a frozen moment, wondering what will be left behind. He survived the Christchurch earthquake in 2011 and was diagnosed with ME, which found him spending 20 hours a day in bed, the other 4 hours unable to bear stimulus of any sort.
There’s a t-shirt in here somewhere, and Grainger is wearing it. Having survived the earth ripping itself in two beneath him, it’s oddly reassuring that it’s matters of the heart that edge to the fore, even if they are darkened reflections from the ‘shattered mirror ball’ of disco-noir “Flying Solo”. Reflections of the traumatic sort are fleshed out in the angular electronica of ‘Three Crowns’, a song that’s crawled from the broken earth of Christchurch warning that all we perceive to be permanent can so easily be crushed and erased.
Grainger however manages to retain his optimism, and so as we sink into the luxuriant choruses and ricocheting hi-hats and hand-claps of ‘Summersend’, remixed by Saint Etienne collaborator Ian Catt, we find him ‘nearly done with this chapter’. It can’t have been easy, but in between surviving he’s been creating – music and memories. This is Graingerboy’s submission:
The Worst Year Of My Life (Part 1)
February 22nd 2011. 12.50pm. Christchurch. New Zealand.
My final day of a month exploring this beautiful country as part of a world trip. I’d taken a year out after being badly hit by a ‘mystery illness’ which nobody seemed able to diagnose. It had been suggested that I have some ‘time out’ to see how my body responded and fortunately i’d been making steady progress over the previous 6 months which allowed me the energy to do some travelling.
A month in Japan had sharpened and challenged my senses and New Zealand, by my 4th week, had totally relaxed me to a level I’d never before allowed. I had fallen in love with its blue skies, dramatic landscapes, glaciers and perfect beaches, to the point where I was seriously considering emigrating.
My partner and I had spent the final few days in the beautiful city of Christchurch exploring, relaxing and I was preparing myself for the next adventure of Hong Kong and then Vietnam.
“Top of the City’s going to bend, it’s going to shake” Three Crowns
At precisely 12.51 a terrifying jolt and then a wave, of what sounded like thunder, knocked me to my knees. After a few seconds, and on hearing the screams of the people around me I realised what was happening. An Earthquake. The building around me started shaking in the most violent and aggressive way. Windows smashed, masonry fell, electricity and the lights went out. It wasn’t just one jolt but a tremendous angry motion, like the earth was about to explode below.
I quickly crouched and took shelter under the counter of an indoor food court (typically I was hungry!) with my partner and waited. The enormity of what was happening below and around me took about 10 seconds to register, as did the fact I was in a building which at any point was probably going to land on me and kill me. People continued to scream, shout and sob for what felt like minutes.
The shaking of the room had caused the hot food on the counter to land on me, burning my back, which in some way distracted me from what was happening but then, I started to panic and weigh up the possible outcomes and I could feel my eyes welling up. I had never really expected to meet my end in this safe and beautiful country. People had warned me of dangers in other parts of the world but not for a second did I think it would be this picturesque NZ city. But when the earth below you shifts in such a violent way, cracking and damaging the most solid structures and pavements that you’ve always relied on, and the ground below you literally opens up, every reference point you’ve ever had is frighteningly and instantly turned on its head.
I think the first and most terrifying of what would go on to become 1000’s of shakes lasted just under a minute. That 50 something seconds was my ‘ staring in the face of death’ moment. I was sure we’d had it. The strangest thing about it was once I’d resigned myself to the fact we would probably not get out of the building I suddenly felt an overwhelming sense of calm. No great flashbacks, no visitations, no tunnel and no light. I was crouched with the person I wanted to spend my life with and I felt like I’d achieved enough in my life to leave a mark on a few people. A voice in my head said “It’s fine. It’s OK to go now”. This is it. I resigned myself to it, grabbed my partners hand, squeezed it, crouched and waited.
Then nothing. Silence. The smell of burning. Dust. Silence. The building somehow still intact.
For some reason. It wasn’t my time. The majority of the building was still standing. Although I knew there must have been tremendous damage outside. Once the violence and shaking had stopped, the deathly silence that occurs after something like that happens took over.
As fate would have it, we made the right decision to run and leave the building quickly, before the first massive devastating aftershock (which I spent lying on the floor in the middle of Cathedral Square). The city towering around my head. And huge spires and statues, tipped and ready to fall. Other people leaving the building were badly injured or crushed by the city. Somehow we weren’t.
“These Three Crowns are falling down, fast amongst our feet
Still we stare as burning bottle glass, brings us to our knees” Three Crowns
1000’s of other people in Christchurch had not been so fortunate and 185 lost their lives that day. Either crushed, damaged by falling masonry or shards of glass. I witnessed the enormity of what had happened from that square. People looking for loved ones, people being pulled from buildings, lone travellers looking dazed and confused. The realisation of what had happened began to kick in. Many of the casualties were trapped in the nearby Canterbury Television Building, which had been badly damaged. It was heartbreaking wondering what was happening in that building as we were so close, but unable to help.
After several more dreadful aftershocks we were ordered to leave the city on foot as quickly as possible to a nearby open space. It was hard not to run and remain calm. During that walk we got to see some of the damage, which was heartbreaking. The pavements had also opened up and were pouring out dust and liquefaction. Huge stone statues had fallen from plinths and were lying cracked, broken and face down.
We were stranded in the outskirts of the city for 5 days with no luggage, hotel and literally just the clothes we were wearing that day. Our hotel was about to fall and we had been staying in the red zone, so there was absolutely no chance of returning.
We were fortunate enough to meet a local lady (Victoria) in the square just after the second aftershock who became our saviour. She kept us calm and seemed to be very much in control. After a few hours we managed to escape the centre and she kindly fed us and gave us a bed for the night in her house in one of the suburbs. We had no power or water and sleeping was made impossible by the aftershocks which were happening intermittently. After leaving Victoria’s house by foot the next morning (naively expecting to get a flight!) we were eventually told we would have to make our way to a shelter. Once again, luck was on our side and strangers from a local guest house took us in for 4 nights. They fed us. Gave us spare bits of clothing and for those days we were all at the mercy of the ground below us as we cowered through thousands of aftershocks.
“No one tell’s you buildings can bend, they can break
You are falling as I fall” Three Crowns
We had suddenly found ourselves being a part of one of the New Zealand’s deadliest peacetime disasters and on the receiving end of a full-scale Civil Defence operation. As little of the city was functioning, we were left to watch the devastation and agonising aftermath unfold over those 5 days. Loved ones killed, people’s livelihoods and houses destroyed. A whole city in ruins. Every person we met in those wilderness days (often in a queue for water or food) shared a story, and in a way as these things do, people pulled together as a nation. At times I wondered whether we would have done the same in the UK.
Once flights had resumed, the relief on take-off from Christchurch was overwhelming. To be in the air, away from the danger of the violent earth and constant rumbling and shaking, felt safe. However, once the relief had kicked in another unexpected feeling overcame me. The dreadful feeling of guilt. The fact we were leaving this beautiful city and its people in such a terrible state. The rubble and mess became smaller and I should have felt excited about the next chapter in our trip but all I wanted to do was go back and help. It didn’t seem fair to me that we were able to ‘jet off’, when so many people’s lives had been ruined and were steeped in uncertainty. If I could have turned that plane around I would. I’ll never forget that awful feeling.
Several years on, that week still haunts me. I continue to have nightmares and loud noises and vibrations often result in a natural instinct to ‘run for cover’. We have kept in touch with Victoria and had regular updates on the city, which was further damaged by aftershocks and sadly, little of the central area remains.
People were without water and proper toilets for months and I’m guessing people were reluctant to fix up too much damage as there would have always been an underlying fear of another ‘Shake’. Keeping that contact is important, as that time in Christchurch had a profound effect on me. The way I see my life and every person and part of it. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. You’ll hear it in my music. In my lyrics. In my singing. In my song titles. In EVERYTHING.
“You just don’t know what’s coming next, so don’t take things lightly
You can have it all and in a second it could go” Summersend
Graingerboy ‘Silent Universe’ EP and album ‘Shadowformerself’ are available here