Overthinking Sockburn

Suburbs

Wikipedia says so.

1. Holla Hoon Hay

In my first year of thesis writing, I sat in on a new undergraduate paper in the field, new-to-me, of cultural studies. I hoped for some ideas as to how I might position my thesis in the wider discipline, since I had a writer with a great big corpus of published and unpublished work, but no clear sense of what I wanted to do beyond that. I was also aware that, unlike a number of my postgraduate peers, I had not taken literary theory in my undergraduate studies, and thought cultural studies might give me some concepts with which to fill certain conversational gaps.

The lectures were interesting but for someone who came up with poems, letters and plays felt a little like analysis in search of a subject. Within a few years I would be of necessity rather more grounded in the circulating, competing contexts that were the discipline’s stock and trade, but in that short semester it seemed pleasant but puzzling. Why were we talking about these things? Perhaps the trick was to listen to the asides in what was being said as well as the main points. Cultural theory itself seemed like conversations held in a series of smaller salons, the party-within-a-party that springs up as the main event slows down and one starts to look for other reasons to explain having left home.

Through a general drift of content the lecturer raised successive questions. They sounded like jokes but I knew him as a teacher and the importance – this was what made him beloved of his students – of paying attention to his deadpan asides. He spoke, on one occasion, of notions that inform our sense of civic culture, the cities and suburbs.

“We talk about the importance of preserving the heritage of Fendalton, but no-one talks about the importance of preserving Hoon Hay.”

Those of us locals fell about laughing – Hoon Hay, with its brick bungalows, underground streams and through roads! Hoon Hay with its joke name, its flatness below the hills! – but the thought stayed with me, and has now a different meaning again. With heritage shaken down and carved out from under us in days we would struggle to have imagined, we might want to think again about where heritage, where history lies. Underground stream do not care too much for the housing directly above, and swamps shake for the lower- as for the upper-middle classes.

2. No Fixed Abode

What was my attitude to where I grew up? A kind of sliding irony, a contrarian affection. As Wikipedia notes of a different neighbourhood in a different kind of deadpan, the suburbs of Christchurch have no explicit boundaries and therefore their existence depends on a kind of community consensus. To the immediate south and west of where I lived were things from which aspirational arrivées might want to distinguish themselves: the abattoir, the racecourse, the major routes for trucks and transport, while to the north and east were blocks of streets subdivided from stables and grazing and named for notable racehorses. These streets were where we walked home from school, where most of the families lived, and for which people consistently took a different name from the roads five minutes over. Sockburn was the racecourse, the abattoir and the roundabout. The homes were surely Upper Riccarton of the churches, the shops, the parks and the children.

My mother was a lover of all kinds of local histories (she had, for example, all the works of Herries Beattie) and a contrarian in her own right when it came to suburban sensibilities. She did not impose on others but, for our household purposes, a spade was a polite Sockburn spade. I liked this. We were near to the southern and western roads out of the city and our home felt to me like the edge of the world, with only Hornby to stand between us and the wild vagaries of colonial history: the ghosts, the namings, the drownings. With these stories and the fact my mother’s parents had come up poor, we who were not tangata whenua knew a little of the tenuousness of claiming home. Nonetheless, Sockburn, though not a place to stand, might be a place to stop, a place to teeter, a waiting place for the detail of our lives to write itself.

3. East of the Sun and West of the Moon

From the air, 1962. Abattoir, Sockburn, Christchurch City. Whites Aviation Ltd :Photographs. Ref: WA-57414-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23212007

From the air, 1962.
Abattoir, Sockburn, Christchurch City. Whites Aviation Ltd : Photographs. Ref: WA-57414-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23212007

I came back to live. It was a standing joke among my friends that I would, that I would ultimately never leave. It was funny because it was true.

The character of the place revealed itself in different ways now that I was working, and especially on the days that I was working from home. The residents got on the buses and in their cars and left for the working day; the children walked to the two schools separated by the overbridge; the owner-operators drove off in their trucks and vans to a day or a week of business. The workers came in off the buses and out of their customised cars and utes, to the panel beaters, to the service centre, to the small distribution warehouses and the automotive centres. Only the people who leased the shops – one block at the roundabout, the other at the racecourse – lived and worked locally.

As students, my friends and I had parodied the norms of the city and made much of the suburbs in which we were flatting and the schools to which we had gone. As a working adult, it was hard at times to accept that these things were not merely idle customs but social criteria by which to judge others. It was a surprise to find that there were professional situations in which the fact of my unburnished origins – the corridor suburb, the suburban public high school – would facilitate not a merry ironising of the whole notion of location but a polite consigning of me to unsophisticated circles.

The whole point, it turned out, of upgrading one’s neighbourhood to a near site of increased gentility, was to make those humbler locations disappear. The joke that I had shared with friends – that everyone west of Hagley Park lived in a cardinal direction from Fendalton or Avonhead – was not so funny in the many situations where this was a professed reality. The business as usual of middle New Zealand, in which Anika Moa’s refusing to apologise to a radio host for the fact of coming from Hornby, was a minor radical act.

And yet my mother was right: the fact of the neighbourhood, its physicality, its history, remains. To one thing binds another: the abattoir and the SPCA, the ironist and the fact of her origins. Writing Sockburn is a way of believing that it exists, against the narratives of estate agents and the upwardly mobile and the whole leafy-green weight of the western suburbs. Our fortunes, as I have said before, were written in the shingle of our dead bed of the Waimakariri, that absorbed the ground acceleration of recent years but may yet take receipt of that river again, should the Alpine Fault give way. The civic suffering diverted around us into softer ground, but that is no elevator of status.

4. The Sockburn Burger

The internet, that no-place, is well-made for flattening out suburban introspection. These #eqnz days upon social media have done much to build a zig-zag fabric, a weaving of bonds that extend beyond the immediately walkable. One must ruminate, but one must also eat.

in which @beckeleven, @kebabette and @harvestbird live-tweet a jaunt to a neighbourhood eatery, the Cameron Family Restaurant.

For a long time this has been a one-woman story, but now others are in it too. Stories reflected back to us, jokes traded, memories made. These days are not as we thought they’d be, but we are in them. This place is not wholly what one might expect.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Jane July 21, 2013 at 10:31 pm

    As one who grew up by the railway line, in what could have been Woolston (beyond the pale) but was resolutely Opawa (clinging to a much-faded gentility), I so get this. Hurrah for you, your mum and ‘unburnished origins’.

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