Twelve or thirteen hours into the flight from Glasgow to Christchurch on New Zealand’s South Island the will to live starts to evaporate. It had taken seven hours to reach Dubai, through whose labyrinthine airport we marched to our gate as if to an appointment with an amateur dentist.
Where were all these people going? Was there room in the sky to accommodate all these humungous planes? I had already watched several movies, hoping that it would help time fly by. Time did pass but not, alas, as fast as one might have liked. Several hours later I woke up, stiff-necked, dry-mouthed and red-eyed, and studied the flight plan. We were now some fifteen hours into the journey. Below was the Indian Ocean, or so we were led to believe, for all we could see was cloud. There was at least another ten hours to go, including a brief stopover in Sydney, before we reached our final destination. I recalled reading Pico Iyer’s Falling Off the Map, a series of essays about “some lonely places of the world”. Iyer got as far as Australia at which point he must have felt he had gone far enough. And who could blame him? From Sydney to Christchurch it was another three hours and more during which I would have been happy to bale out had a parachute been one of the perks.
On arrival in New Zealand, however, what is so remarkable is the feeling of familiarity. Having travelled nearly 12,000 miles you might think that things would be distinctly different but they are not. The weather seemed similar to that which we’d left behind and the landscape, dotted with sheep and bright with yellow gorse, was a parody of our own borders hills. Meanwhile traffic kept to the left hand side of the road. Moreover, the towns we visited over the following days – Christchurch, Dunedin, Auckland – were redolent of the place we had just left. Dunedin in particular is Edinburgh writ small. One New Zealander told us how, after partaking of a few beers following an All Black triumph at Murrayfield, he had momentarily lost his bearings. Then he recalled that his home town had been laid out like Edinburgh’s New Town and thereafter had no trouble with orientation.
Christchurch is the most anglicized of Aortearoa’s cities. It was founded as recently as 1850 and, at least until the earthquakes of 2010 and 2011, had a number of fine buildings dating to the early years of its birth. In February 2011, 185 people lost their lives and 6,600 were seriously injured. As historian Katie Pickles notes in Christchurch Ruptures, ‘The earthquakes have taken lives and homes and assaulted and destroyed senses of belonging’. Seven years on, Christchurch is still trying to recover from the aftershocks. Much of its centre lies bare, cars are few and people even fewer. Like sabbaths of yore in the Western Isles, there was, even on weekday mornings, an unnatural hush. Everyone seemed to talk in whispers and the shops cried out for customers. Had we not known better, we might have assumed that the population had decided to pack their bags and seek their fortunes elsewhere. Yet, as several people said, even before the earthquakes struck Christchurch was not the most raucous of towns.
Dunedin, to which we travelled a few days later, wears its Scottish ancestry like a clansman does tartan. It was founded in 1846 by the Free Church of Scotland but its influence is now negligible. One of the city’s most famous landmarks is a statue of Robert Burns, erected in 1887. There are three others from the same cast in London, New York and Dundee. The Reverend Thomas Burns – his father was Gilbert Burns, the poet’s younger brother – was among the first Scottish settlers to arrive in Dunedin in 1848. He is revered still not only for his pioneering vigour and vision but for the value he put on education and reading. A legacy of this is the high number of students in the city, of whom there are around 20,000 in a total population of just over 120,000. Another is Dunedin’s status as a UNESCO City of Literature, which it was awarded in 2014. Yet another is the University of Otago’s Centre for Irish and Scottish Studies, which is run by the scholar and crime writer, Liam McIlvanney, and which regularly offers residencies to writers from the old country.
And so to Auckland where there is an impressive annual book festival. Auckland is in the North Island and is the most populous of New Zealand’s cities. Its growth in recent decades has been dizzying and the festival has likewise burgeoned, deservedly so. It was not unusual, for example, to see its venue, Aotea Centre, attracting a crowd of 2,000, which may be normal for opera divas but can be disconcerting to humble authors. We spent five days in and around the festival, and were much taken by its warm vibe, cultural diversity and the sophistication and savvy of the audiences. It is not easy to attract writers to such far-flung places but Auckland’s energetic organizers do because when at last you touch down you are made to feel – thanks in no small part to a Maori welcome – that you are part of an extended family, and that for however long you are their guest you can be assured that you will be made to feel at home.