Sunday, February 27, 2011
Friends In Need
Hayley Westenra has one of the purest voices on the planet. I’d never heard her sing until this morning, when a friend posted a recording on Facebook. Ten minutes later Izzy toddled into my office and found me blubbering over my computer screen: she had to lend me her precious Peppa Pig to calm me down.
The friend who posted the link is a New Zealander, and the song was Hine e Hine, a Maori lullaby recorded when Hayley was just 16: the CD became the fastest selling debut classical album of all time. She comes from Christchurch and, at the age of 12, was discovered by CTV, the local television station. It’s the same station which, right now, is just a huge pile of rubble concealing the bodies of scores of victims. Among them is Donna Manning, one of the station’s presenters and producers. The world’s front pages pictured her distraught husband and two teenage children as they waited for news beside the debris until the police came and told them there was no hope. It’s one of many tragic images of that terrible catastrophe.
One can’t begin to imagine New Zealand’s pain: one of the gentlest places on earth, caught by a disaster sudden, horrific and unfair.
It’s one of the few countries where I could happily live. A few years ago I was invited to the country to give a speech. Fearing chronic jetlag from the journey, and because I doubted I would ever return, I arrived a week or two early and planned to spend some time exploring South Island on my own. No words could adequately describe the scenery – I’ve seen nowhere on earth to match it – but it was the beauty of the people that overwhelmed me. After a 13-hour flight from Los Angeles I arrived at my hotel in Queenstown to find an unsigned note on the bedside table: “Welcome, Tom, please come to Joe’s Garage at 9am tomorrow morning.”
I went out of curiosity and found a coffee shop where, sitting at a long table with one spare seat, were eight or nine complete strangers. They were local producers, who had heard I was in their country and simply wanted to welcome me. Outside was a Land Rover to take me into the mountains to see the locations they’d used for Lord of the Rings. They’d arranged parties and dinners in their homes: and yet they didn’t know me from Adam. New Zealand is a country where, if you stop to ask a stranger for directions, he’ll invite you into his house for lunch and remain your friend for life.
Kiwis are rightly proud of their homeland and fiercely protective of its history and traditions. There is no class structure: people don’t have large houses, because wealth and social status means nothing to them. Hospitality and good health, friendship and loyalty, imagination and creativity are paramount. I spent the most relaxing week – the empty roads and simple charm of an old-fashioned lifestyle reminded me of the best of Northumberland. At one point I actually rang Jo and suggested we up sticks from Los Angeles and move there. Instead we relocated to the North East: it’s not as beautiful but just as friendly.
Bordered in the West by the snowy peaks of the Southern Alps, and on the east by the ocean, Christchurch is a proud and historic city: green and fresh, sophisticated and lush.
Friends I’d met out there have sent me videos of the devastation. There are chaotic scenes inside apartments as the earthquake struck; footage taken moments later of rescuers rummaging through bricks. But through it all, a strange calm. These lovely people simply didn’t deserve this.
Our news reports have already moved onto the next big headline, but we mustn’t leave the Kiwis on their own. They need our friendship now.