Monday, December 21, 2015

A year of Wellington

Wellington is a city shaped by earthquakes both past and future. Even distant events affect it: it was the Christchurch earthquakes of 2010-11, and then the Seddon swarm of 2013, that caused many local buildings to be re-assessed on the basis of new engineering knowledge or the damage suffered. Most notably, the Town Hall has been out of commission for two years and labelled ‘earthquake prone’, that curious misnomer affixed by law outside many places of business that nonetheless remain open. Not our main civic building, however. That will remain closed for an as yet unspecified number of years.

It’s the land that is earthquake-prone, not our built environment, yet that ‘proneness’ frequently manifests itself as buildings disappearing because they are too costly to repair or bring up to the amended code. Some of them are immortalised in framed pictures on the top floor of the central library,

but any photographic catalogue of the life of the city will feature some of those sudden departures. This is how we lost St Cuthbert’s church in Berhampore, or the bridge that connected the library to the rest of the council.

A building adjacent to the newly built Pukehau Park had to go. I can’t remember what it looked like already.

While the GHQ Building across the road – a listed historical site – is slated for demolition. In February, it was visited by pigeons.

(They’ve been a thing of late, these pigeons. A somewhat lazier street artist provided a variation on the theme in Newtown this month.)

Of course, like in any other city, there are buildings and structures that are demolished or replaced for reasons other than calamity, creating new sight lines and temporary empty spaces. The state housing flats up the road are gone, replaced by a field.

So is the wind turbine in Brooklyn.

And this is the bit of sky where Neil Dawson’s fern globe sculpture used to be.

Some things are being preserved and restored to a previous function, like the community centre in the Centennial Flats.

Gratuitous link to the Berhampore Book post

And then there are the Kate Sheppard lights, that were never in danger of disappearing except a Mayoral hopeful thought it might help her cause to pretend that they were. Kate says: don’t vote for Nicola Young next year.

Some other pictures I took in Wellington in 2015. The city’s emblem (‘suprema a situ’), versus a new coffee shop.

In the Civic Square, whose architect – Ian Athfield – died this year.

Hibernian House, Willis Street.

House with buckets, Houghton Valley.

This year’s Artsplash at the Michael Fowler Centre, featuring hundreds of children (and my daughter).

A section of my partner’s suffrage-themed art installation in Central Park.


On Victoria Street.

Weetbix Nation.

Wright Ltd.

The pōhutukawa were especially beautiful last summer.

That seems a suitably seasonal image on which to finish. If you visited this blog in 2015, thank you for making the enterprise worthwhile. And if you’re running out of reading material, you can browse the Aotearoa Issue of Overland, which is now fully online. Or my latest on the Hager case over at The Pantograph Punch. Or that paper on disability in education that Hilary Stace and I wrote. Or if you're looking for a Christmas present for the discerning reader, you can buy this year's Tell You What. It was good to be involved in those things.

I’ll see you in the new year.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Our day at Parliament

Last week Justine and I gave our oral submission in front of the Science and Education Committee of the House of Representatives.

Over the last few months, thanks to the initiative of Green MP Catherine Delahunty, the Committee has been conducting an official inquiry into school supports for dyslexia, dyspraxia and autism. As always in these matters – this is far from the first inquiry in the area of inclusive education – it is difficult to be very optimistic about the policy outcomes. In this particular instance the Ministry of Education has been busy conducting its own separate mini-inquiry, by means of a woefully poor round of consultation. I can’t imagine it will change course without putting up a big fight, labouring as it does under the illusion that things are basically fine and that tinkering is all that is required. Yet this is precisely the value of these exercises: to provide our political and administrative bodies with evidence to the contrary. Evidence that can be tremendously helpful when campaigning. Evidence that you can use the next time an official tries to tell you that everything is fine.

The inquiry received 440 submissions, most of whom are archived and can be viewed on Parliament’s website. In whichever order you choose to read them, they are a harrowing catalogue of systemic failures to look after our children. And that’s the other thing: taking part in these exercises can be quite distressing, but also cathartic. For many, it’s the first opportunity to be heard outside the small world of struggle and need that is often created around a disability in the family. You can go on living in that world for years without anyone ever asking not just ‘how are you?’, but much more importantly: ‘What is it like?’ This I suspect was the reason why as many as 174 people asked to be able to appear in front of the committee.

The inquiry was all those things even for us, who are luckier than most, as we live in a supportive community and have been able to share our experiences in other forums before. So we sat at the our table in the committee room in front of eight MPs, who sat in front of some men in suits (likely Ministry of Education officials) that nobody bothered to introduce to us, and prepared to say our piece.

Our written submission – which you can read here – included a discussion of the differences we encountered in the care of our diabetic son and the lack of care for our autistic daughter, and that’s the aspect we decided we would speak about. This, in the interest of documenting the process, is the short speech Justine gave.

You will have read our submission. We'd like to talk to you a bit more about the comparison between autism and diabetes, because our lived experience with each of these conditions allows us to see on a daily basis just how thoroughly the current system fails those with autism. We can also see how problems with this system could be resolved.

From the moment I carried Ambrose into the After Hours Clinic in 2011, the care we have received for our diabetic son has revolved around early intervention and support. We have always been made to feel we were partners with the medical team in helping him have a good quality of life. It was explained to us the day after we got his diagnosis that our goal should be to enable him to participate in society fully, and not deny him any experience because of his chronic disease. More importantly, we have been constantly supported in achieving this goal, and in fact the impression we have is that no other outcome is acceptable for the professionals we deal with.

Conversely, the lack of support for autism is the result of a completely dysfunctional system. There are the issues of the lack of early intervention and the lack of trust in parents and teachers, but the main issue is a lack of resourcing. When our daughter was diagnosed, we waited a year before getting any help at kindergarten and had to pay for our own teacher aide. Since then, we’ve always felt like we have to prove that she is disabled enough to get whatever scraps of assistance the Ministry feels they can provide. In spite of having dealings with some really wonderful staff, it is an ongoing lottery, which is very unsettling. We regularly get letters containing bad news that are disrespectful and uncaring in tone. Whenever our daughter's already inadequate support is reviewed, we know it’s likely she’ll get her funding cut, not kept the same – even though her learning needs become more complex as she grows up. This is our everyday life experience and it is very tiring.

You probably think that diabetes and autism are different conditions that require different types of intervention. But they are not in fact so very different. A diabetic child who is denied insulin and medical checks will die. An autistic child who is denied psychological and developmental support will suffer so much that many may as well be dead. If the objective of public education is not simply to allow children to go to school, but also to include them as equals, with strengths and weaknesses like everybody else, the two systems should operate in broadly similar ways: which is to say, by empowering families, schools and communities to care for and include both the boy with diabetes and the girl with autism.

We have an example of the state getting it right for our son. There is no reason why our daughter shouldn’t be able to have the same expectations in life.

After that, we were asked some questions: one designed to get us to say that it was all a matter of attitudes, and not of policy or resourcing, and two that engaged with what we had to say. The whole thing took ten minutes, and it was good to leave it behind us: it had been a nervous two-month wait for the day to come. At the same time we felt hollow, as one does when there is no prospect of a resolution.

While I’m on this topic, Hilary Stace and I wrote a long piece for the current issue of Policy Quarterly on inclusive education and the historical failures I have just described. You can read it here and I would really appreciate it if you took the time to do it. As in the case of the inquiry itself, it’s about making people aware of realities that are otherwise hidden to them – a task necessary to our politics.

Monday, December 7, 2015

This modenist house, this feminist house

Every house, every parcel of land has a story. Sometimes that story is geological in nature, and goes back to a time long preceding human settlement. In other cases, it traverses colonialism and dispossession. But this one is a little different. It involves a woman, reportedly the first in Wellington to have signed a mortgage for the purpose of building a house without being in a relationship, and a Jewish architect who emigrated to New Zealand to escape Nazism.

And also an artist, and a writer, and another woman – the last one imaginary.

The mortgage papers are dated 1957 and identify Nancy Martin as a ‘spinster’. She was in fact a musician, and if you go to the National Library you will find a book she wrote in 1956 on learning to play the recorder, last reprinted for use in schools in 1989, as well as an audio documentary on music education in England: extant traces of a professional life that precede the building of the house, when Martin was in her early forties.

It is at this point that her story intersects with that of Frederick Ost, a Jewish architect and artist who fled Czechoslovakia in 1940, and whom Martin chose to design her house, in the modernist style: a decision that suggests in turn a wider, deeper intellectual engagement than the norm – as reflected in the fact that Ost didn’t build many private residences. Here, above what is now the Otari-Wilton Bush, Martin created not just a room, but a house of her own, where she lived until her death at ninety years of age.

We took off from the bottom car park of the Bush, a small group of twelve, and made our way up to the house in a matter of minutes. There we were ushered into an L-shaped lounge emptied of its furniture save for as many stools as the host expected people. We explored quietly, peering out of the large window looking back across the bush-clad hills to the West, and the smaller ones opposite overlooking the largely native garden. Then the story started, and we sat down, of perhaps we sat down first, as if knowing that it was about to happen. But in any case a female voice from a source hidden inside the lounge cabinet started to recite: ‘Abigail was out walking because she was fat…’

This, I knew in advance, was the beginning of a story by Pip Adam, but I like to think that I would have recognised it anyway, as it was a thoroughly Pip-like story, full of compassion yet at the same time so seemingly dispassionate, so unflinchingly precise. Abigail was the imaginary character: driving past the house and making her way inside, like we had; finding it empty, like we had. Learning from a laptop found on a bench-top something about the past of the house, at the same time as we learned about hers. The two stories, real and imagined, were deftly juxtaposed, so that you weren’t sure which was which. Except for the snippets of stories she read aloud bout Syrian refugees – you knew those were real.

The moment the story ended, the house cat came into the room, with consummate timing. And then a woman in the audience turned out to have known Nancy Martin, and so the two stories – Nancy’s and Abigail’s, real and imagined – got separated again.

A picture by Shaun Waugh (full size) from the session I attended. Although I'm hiding pretty well.

This... I’m not really sure what to call it. Art performance? Installation? Project? This thing I went to was created by artist Ann Shelton, who now lives in the house, and who first unraveled the story of Nancy Martin, then approached Pip Adam to have it reimagined. I knew of some of Shelton’s past works – the re-gilding of Charles MacKay’s name on the stone outside the Sarjeant Gallery in Whanganui; her ‘Library to Scale’ for the Gover-Brewster Gallery in New Plymouth – and I saw her Neil Roberts roadside project while we drove through Taranaki: all things that are very much close to my interests So I made sure I went to House Work, a one-off event held over this past weekend (although there’s a book). And I wasn’t disappointed.

I am fascinated by attempts to re-activate and make visible local social histories, be it by means of visual architecture as in the case of Foxton, through books that document the lives of communities like Berhampore’s, or in art projects such as my partner’s. Shelton’s House Work was akin to a civic re-enactment in its theatrical form, with the house serving as both the topic and the stage. Adam’s story wove presents and pasts together, including the possible alternative present of an imagined guest. But invention would have been an implicit theme anyway: for the second half of Nancy Martin’s life in a house built for her had to plotted first. It was a thing not done before, in a place that wouldn’t have existed if not for that act of creativity and daring.

There are countless such pasts in the places we inhabit. The best stories, the ones most worth unearthing and retelling, are the ones that suggest not just continuity but possibility: a sense that things weren’t always so, and can be made different again. In a year of war commemorations shot through with the most reactionary forms of nostalgia, these stories are nothing short of vital.

Ann Shelton’s House Work is part of the Feminisms exhibition currently showing at Enjoy. At the gallery you can also purchase the book based on the project, A Spoonful of Sugar.

The title for this posts comes from a line in Pip's story: 'A radical house. A modernist house. A feminist house.'