Saturday 28 April 2018

Conversation In The Public Square.

“And those conversations continued in the newspapers, on the local radio and television stations, on the stage of the playhouse, in the cinemas. It all merged into one grand public conversation: loud, uncoordinated and gloriously democratic!”

IT WAS A BRIGHT mid-autumn day and I was waiting for an important call. Turning a corner, I found myself in the city’s broad public square. Given the time of day, it was surprisingly empty. There were fewer trees than I remembered and the tall corporate towers that reared up on every side restricted the amount of sunlight. There was one patch of it, however, a few metres distant, and a bench upon which I could sit and soak it up.

So intent was I upon the screen of my cell-phone that I did not notice the old man’s arrival.

“Put it away, son,” he chided, “and take in the world of three dimensions.”

I laughed rather self-consciously and explained that I was waiting for an important call.

“It won’t come any quicker, for all of your rapt attention.”

“That’s true,” I said, slipping the phone into my pocket. “Not that there’s much to see in the square today.”

“Not compared to some of the days I’ve seen”, he sighed.

“I bet you’ve seen some sights in your time,” I replied. “Could tell some stories?”

“That, I could, son, that I could. This was such a vital place once – the centre of the whole city. Everybody came through here, one way or the other. And around the four sides of the square, were all the important buildings. The cathedral, the council chambers, the university – they were all here. Along with the playhouse, three or four cinemas, the public library and art gallery. I remember the newspaper offices – both of them – and the television studios.

“At lunchtime, and at the end of the working day, all the people who worked in those buildings would pour out into this public square. They would mix and mingle, argue and fight, fall in – and out – of love. This square was where the city came alive. It’s future shape and purpose were forged in a thousand – ten thousand – passionate conversations.”

I looked around. None of the buildings he’d described remained. In their place rose the headquarters of banks, insurance companies and accounting firms: glass and steel towers rising up, up, up above the public square. Some had preserved the facades of the older structures they’d replaced. They looked forlorn and out-of-place. As foreign to their new function as the corporations who had, so public spiritedly, preserved them.

“And those conversations continued in the newspapers, on the local radio and television stations, on the stage of the playhouse, in the cinemas. It all merged into one grand public conversation: loud, uncoordinated and gloriously democratic!”

“It makes me wonder how the city could afford it all”, I responded.

“It’s a question I ask myself, son. We were so much smaller then, and yet we were able to sustain so much more than we do today. Look at those buildings, son. Thousands of people work in them – many more than in the past. And yet, at lunchtime and at the end of the day they scurry across the square, eyes glued to their cellphones, talking to no one. The passion’s gone, son. It breaks my heart.”

“No, no, it hasn’t gone”, I replied hastily. “It’s just gone on-line. Checkout Facebook and Twitter – you find plenty of passion there!”

“Facebook! Twitter!” The old man practically spat out the words. “They’re eating the younger generation’s soul! And making Mark Zuckerberg millions of dollars every second! Listen, son, I remember standing in this square when it was full-to-bursting with young men and women. They carried banners and waved placards and shouted slogans. They came here to end a war; to sever all ties with Apartheid sport; to abolish nuclear weapons. And they weren’t brought here by Facebook or Twitter. They were brought here by pamphlets and posters; articles and columns; documentaries and current affairs shows on radio and television. Dear God, son! It’s what the public square is for!

From my pocket, my cellphone trilled insistently.

“Excuse me for a moment,” I said apologetically, “But I have to take this.”

I turned away, clamping the phone tight to my ear to hear more clearly what the person at the other end of the call was saying.

“Good news!”, I cried.

But the old man had gone.

The column you have just read is my last for The Press. I sign-off with an immense sense of gratitude at having been afforded the privilege of addressing its readers for the past eight years. Cantabrians have lived through a great many tragic and tumultuous events since 2010 and I wish to thank most sincerely all those who, in the midst of stress and strife, still found the time to read and respond to my words. In taking my leave, may I wish the brave and resilient citizens of Christchurch the very best of futures.

This short story was originally published in The Press of Tuesday 24 April 2018.


Gordon Findlay said...

Very sorry to see you are leaving the Press. You were one of the veryfew to bring a view informed by a historical perspective to the newspaper. And just about the only commentator in any newspaper worth reading. Thank you.

greywarbler said...

Sorry that Christchurch is losing the option of your opinions. It seems as if innovation and imaginative thought is losing space in the city's political garden. Was there a great idea for what to do with the east side recently turned down? I think I read that. i like reading about positive things happening for the people down there, all of them. It is a pity perhaps that the cathedral and sports pavilion couldn't be combined and the cold, isolated spiritual heart that will be re-erected like a defunct castle (Burdon's Folly?), could be instead be vitalised within a place where people go, where they feel drawn to life and activity through their sport.

But new ideas, innovative ones that break through the stale crust of morbidity of the Christchurch pompous middle class going through their ritual obeisance to conformity, class and cant, can't support such plebeian change or the thinking that tweaks their bourgeois superiority. If you have chosen to leave them, that is their loss, if The Press has chosen to leave you, then that is a cost to the city that can not be remediated.

Polly said...

Well said.
All the best for the future.

Nick J said...

My late father in law was an eminent architect, well known with loudly voiced opinions. He once said to me that architecture was a snapshot in time, a record and reflection of it's era.

You can see and feel colonial imperialism preserved with classical stone columns around Christchurch, you can hear the Charleston danced to in Napiers deco facades. Wherever you look you can if you try pick up the signs of time past, captured in built form.

On that note nothing expresses the current era's concentration on anonymous balance sheet commerce than steel and mirror glass boxes. They scream private, keep out, and don't ask us what we do. They encapsulate form efficiency in dollar terms, no frills, just the most simple geometry to minimise costs, mirroring todays spreadsheet corporate warriors inclinations. Not for them a villa or Californian bungalow, more likely something not dissimilar in appearance to the office.

I think the discouragement of the public space the hallmark of our current era, whether through the media or by built form. Good commentary Chris, we lament just recent times.

David Stone said...

One of my beloved stepdaughters is visiting with her family for the hols.
We were just discussing how language , written and spoken has probably interacted with human brains to contribute to the development of both. Other animals certainly communicate , but the scope is limited to the immediate and limited in complexity.
Babies before they learn to speak to my impression, have potential for developing other means of communication, facial expression, body language, and sensitivity to moods in the other people around the development of which is arrested when speech takes over, it is so profoundly more efficient. But I'm sure that without speech , we as animals do, would develop the other more primitive methods to a higher level than we do now.
It may be that our new toy devices are moving our race one step further away from the traditional means of communication, less emotional, less empathetic less human than is personal contact and conversation with all the unspoken nuances that our body language contributes to personal conversations like the one you had with elderly gentleman in the square.
Cheers D J S

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Er...... this doesn't mean the end of the blog though right? Hopefully?

Geoff Fischer said...

There must be a reason why this blog goes by the name of Bowalley Road rather than say "Public Square". Many of our generation feel nostalgia for the older simpler rural order in which we were raised, and that goes even deeper than our nostalgia for the time spent in urban communities which allowed us to believe that we could truly change our country and the world for the better.
I now sit on a hill overlooking the harbour, village and marae and enjoying the peace and love which we wanted to share with the world at large. Yesterday one of the young men came up the hill to reassure us that we should not be concerned by the sound of their guns during the night, and he checked to see that we had enough food to see us through the winter. Which we do. Far away from the city squares, in this country life can still be good and people are still good.