Friday, 25 January 2013

Earthquakes and Rural Churches

For the last year we have been dominated, in the Diocese of Dunedin by the fallout from the Canterbury earthquakes and the consequent need to seismically strengthen our buildings. We are the smallest diocese in the country, the least resourced and we have the largest number of  unreinforced masonry churches. Small parishes from one end of our diocese to the other have struggled with an impossible dilemma. Small congregations are faced with having to get their church, parish hall, and in some instances vicarage assessed by a structural engineer at a cost of, usually, $2-3000 per building. Then, once inspections have been made, there is the prospect that the buildings will have to be brought up to an acceptable level of strength, that is, 33.333% of the current building code. This is likely to cost a large sum of money, probably several hundred thousand dollars. The alternatives to fixing the buildings are 1) sell them; but this is problematic because obviously any new owner would also have to do the required strengthening work, and the sale price is therefore reduced almost to nil or 2) demolish them; this is problematic because demolition is itself costly, and would mean the loss of heritage buildings valued by church members and also by the wider community. Our small country congregations have been quite understandably worried by the seemingly impossible position they found themselves in.

As a diocese we are currently enacting a process of inspection for those buildings in local authority areas which have required us to do so, and for those other buildings which have volunteered to be inspected.

Local district authorities have been very slow in legislating for this strengthening work as they have been waiting for the Government to tell them what to do. The government has in turn been waiting on the release of the report of the Canterbury Earthquakes Royal Commission. The report was released just before Christmas, and can be viewed or downloaded here. The report runs to seven (count 'em, 7) fat volumes but the one which concerns us in Dunedin is Volume 4 Earthquake Prone Buildings. It is 240 pages long, but a useful summary is found in the Building Seismic Performance document, found here.

It must be noted that this report is just that, a report. While it probably gives a pretty fair indication of how the government may act, it is the government who will eventually make the laws which will affect us. The report has good news and bad news for churches. It proposes that all NRM (non reinforced masonry) buildings be inspected within 5 years of the new legislation . If the buildings are less than 1/3 of the current building code owners will then have 10 years (that is a total of 15 from the time of the legislation being passed) to either bring them up to standard or demolish them. There are no other options proposed. This is a fairly sobering prospect for some of our churches, St. John's Invercargill and St. Paul's Cathedral, for instance. The good news for us is in proposal 8.

I will put the entire text of proposal 8 into another blog post, but basically it recognises that small country churches are not used very often, and then by quite small groups of people. Further, if they fall over they are not likely to fall onto anything or anybody or block major roads, pipelines or other infrastructure. Proposal 8 suggests that local authorities be given the discretion to either exempt rural churches from strengthening requirements or extend the period in which they must do it.

The government has invited feedback on the report and in the Building Seismic  Performance document there is a helpful form to enable people to do just that. Alternatively people can make online submissions at this address. or by email to .It would be EXTREMELY HELPFUL if people made submissions, supporting the inclusion of proposal 8 into any future legislation.

Following the submission process there will be a series of public meetings throughout the country, and attendance at these to learn, to question and to make views known will also be useful.

There is no doubting the importance of this legislation to the health and safety of future generations of New Zealanders. But unless we want to denude the south of its heritage buildings, there must be a realistic assessment of the low level of risk posed by small, stand alone country churches, and sensible measures enacted for their retention. 

Proposal 8

Exemptions and time extensions

Proposal 8: Certain buildings could be exempted or be given longer time to strengthen, e.g., low-use rural churches or farm buildings with little passing traffic.
Some earthquake-prone buildings are used infrequently by small numbers of people and are located well away from passers-by. In these cases, the costs of strengthening might be unreasonable in relation to the risks to life and safety they present. Examples might include farm sheds, small rural community halls or rural churches.
It is proposed that owners of some specified types of buildings will be able to apply to local authorities for exemptions or extensions to the time required to strengthen or demolish them if they are assessed as being earthquake-prone.
Criteria to allow local authority decide on exemptions or extensions would be set in law. Possible criteria are:
• The building is used only by the owner, or by persons directly employed by the owner, on an occasional or infrequent basis
• The building is used only occasionally (less than eight hours per week), and by less than 50 people at any one time
AND in each circumstance above:
  • All users are notified that the building is likely to collapse in a moderate earthquake; and
  • The building is not a dwelling
  • The building is not a school or hospital and does not have a post-disaster recovery function
  • There is no risk of the building partially or fully collapsing onto a public walkway, transport route or a neighbouring building or public amenity
  • Effective mitigation measures have been put in place to protect building users from the risk of collapse in a moderate earthquake.
The Royal Commission recommends that the legislation should exempt seldom-used buildings located where their failure in an earthquake would be most unlikely to cause loss of life or serious injury to passers-by. (Recommendation 90, Vol.4, Final Report)


18. Should the owners of certain specified types of earthquake-prone buildings be able to apply to local authorities for exemptions or time extensions to the requirement to strengthen or demolish?
19. If yes, what are your views on the following possible criteria:
  • he building is used only by the owner, or by persons directly employed by the owner, on an occasional or infrequent basis
  • The building is used only occasionally (less than eight hours per week) and by less than 50 people at any one time
AND in each circumstance above:
  • All users are notified that the building is likely to collapse in a moderate earthquake
  • The building is not a dwelling
  • The building is not a school or hospital and does not have a post-disaster recovery function
  • There is no risk of the building partially or fully collapsing onto a public walkway, transport route or a neighbouring building or public amenity
  • Effective mitigation measures have been put in place to protect building users from the risk of collapse in a moderate earthquake?

Tuesday, 15 January 2013


Over the past few years a small group of guys has periodically chartered a boat in Moeraki and headed out about 10 km offshore to fish for blue cod. I have sometimes gone with them. We each pay $100, leave the Moeraki wharf at about 7 am and return at lunchtime with a total of about 40 kg of fillets. Rods and reels and bait are supplied, help is given removing fish from hooks and the fish are filleted on board. It's a food gathering exercise, pure and simple, but the fishing is not the only reason I tag along. That far from shore, the bird life is astonishing.

There are the usual red billed and black backed gulls, of course and also terns, petrels and prions. But what I go to see are the albatrosses. As we head out from shore they begin to follow in their ones and twos. There are the little albatrosses, the New Zealand White Capped Mollymawks, with a wingspan of a mere 2 metres. We chug out to sea doing perhaps 12 knots, and these glide past a twice that speed, rest on the water, wait for us to get a kilometre or so in front, then glide past again in a game akin to leapfrog.

 When the fish begin to arrive, numbers increase until it is not uncommon to have 40 or 50 of them around the boat. The fish are filleted on board and the skeleton complete with  head and guts is tossed overboard where it is swallowed whole by one of the birds after a keen contest to reach it and take it.

As numbers gather the mollymawks get bolder. They sit at the end of the lines and will try and snatch fish from the hooks before they can be landed.

Soon the big girls and boys arrive; the Royal Albatrosses with their 3 metre wingspans

They glide in with a mastery of skill that amounts to genius. With barely a flap they sweep past at 3 or 4 times the windspeed using their great feet as rudders and aerilons.

They sit quietly with the mollymawks, waiting for the fish carcases

They are fearless in approaching the boat and seem to have procedures well sussed. They leave hooks well alone, seeming to know that the tidbit of bait on offer is nothing compared to the prize that awaits. Then, when the real bounty is on offer they show no respect for man or machine.

We return when we have filled our quota, and as we near shore the numbers begin to decline, so that the last kilometre or two back to land is in the company of the (seemingly) tiny gulls.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Life of Pi

I've read Life of Pi by Yann Martel 3 times, the last time being about a year ago. It easily makes it into my top ten list of all time favourite books. Well, top 5 actually. I didn't think it could ever be filmed successfully, so when Ang Lee's movie was released, of course I had to go and take a look just for curiosity's sake.

The film, as it turns out, is a triumph. Not only does it accomplish the difficult task of presenting the fantasy adventure of Pi's unlikely ocean voyage in an open lifeboat with an adult Bengal tiger for company but it manages to present the philosophical undergirding which gives the novel such unsettling power.

Life of Pi is primarily about religion. Note: it is not a religious book but a book about religion.  A young boy who shares his name with a mathematical symbol survives a shipwreck and a long period alone in a lifeboat. At the end of the book the reader is presented with two different versions of his survival and invited not so much to choose which version is "true" but to judge which version is the better story. This is a metaphor, or perhaps better, an illustration of the way religious narrative works. A religion, suggests Martel, is a narrative which explains the universe and the human condition. It is a story which not only explains the existence of the universe but gives clues as to the universe's ultimate purpose and of our part in it. To ask of a religious narrative questions of mere facticity is to ask the wrong questions. To reduce the story of the universe to lists of facts and dates is not just unhelpful; it does injury to us by excluding, as a matter of course, all considerations of meaning.  So, at the start of the book Pi is portrayed as being simultaneously a Hindu, a Christian and a Muslim. In much the same way that the book gives two stories to account for Pi's survival, Pi is able to draw on 3 stories to explain the Universe.

The theme of story runs all the way through the book. There is the fanciful story of Pi's naming for example. There is a story of how Pi came to be interviewed and the book to be written. Stories interweave and nest inside each other like a Shakespearean play within a play. So the reader reads a story of a man writing a story in which he is told a story.... and who is reading ours, the reader's story? And who is writing it?

All of this philosophical complexity is contained in the book by the use of appendices and by editorial comment from the (fictional) 'author'. In the film it is handled by presenting quite lengthy conversations between the adult Pi and his interviewer. It's a technique which is potentially clumsy and intrusive but Ang Lee has pulled it off.

This is another movie to see in 3D if you have the option. The computer graphics are stunning: shots of sea and sky where the lighting and composition are perfect because they have been manufactured to be perfect; where weather and stars and sea and creatures can be manipulated as elements in a great work of art for their aesthetic and their metaphorical value. And despite this being such a profound and intelligent piece, both as book and film, it works very well also as an adventure story, nicely paced and visually pleasing.

Having seen The Hobbit only a few days before, this is a deeper, richer, better film; a work of art as opposed to an amusement. I will probably buy the DVD when it comes out as I suspect I will want to watch the film at least as often as I have read the book. 

Friday, 4 January 2013


One the basis of one picture, a thousand words etc etc, I hope the following makes up for the lack of posts in December.

A Slight Change of Plans

We had planned to dawdle up the South Island towing a caravan, see my whanau in Nelson and then dawdle back again. But two nights ago I developed a dull ache in one of my molars which turned into a very bright ache indeed and within a very short time went on to qualify as a fully certified genius of an ache. Luckily my dentist started back from his holidays the following day and could see me first thing in the morning. One root canal later I am able to sleep without mainlining codeine, but will need to see him again in a week to get part two done: 90 minutes of staring at his ceiling and trying to reply to his chat with several thousand dollars worth of ironmongery in my mouth. So, we will be belting up the country, seeing some of the best and wisest people I know and belting home again. I'll try and keep you posted

Thursday, 3 January 2013

The Hobbit

Since Christmas I have been rereading the Hobbit for the first time in, oh I'd say, about 40 years. It's an engaging little book but not really a demanding read. The plot is inventive but not very complex. The characters aren't very well developed, and are not meant to be, for, as the constant asides from the author to the reader remind you, this is a children's book.

So I was intrigued to go to the Rialto last night and watch the Peter Jackson movie in glorious 3-D. To be frank, I wasn't expecting much, as the reviews have been muted and I couldn't see how the 315 pages recounting the doings of a small band of adventurers could possibly be spun out to cover the 9 hours or so of the projected 3 Hobbit films. I was pleasantly surprised. Very pleasantly indeed.

We plonked down our $43(!) for tickets, coffee and glasses and sat in the fairly full theatre. The credits rolled and within a minute or two my eyes had adjusted to the technology. I found the 3-D just a little disconcerting: it looks like the pictures you see in a Viewmaster. The people in the action are all magnificently delineated in 3 glorious and convincing dimensions, but the backgrounds all looked flat. Things pop out of the screen in a most satisfactory manner (check out the scene where Gandalf speaks to a moth) but even when the rivers are flowing and the birds are flying the scenery looks like paintings. I suppose this isn't helped by the New Zealand scenery, some of which I know well, being ever so slightly (and sometimes hugely) computer enhanced.

The film did start slowly. Dwarves arrive, and then more dwarves arrive, and then more dwarves arrive, and then there's a knock on the door and guess who it is? But then the action gathers its momentum and the two and three quarter hours whizzed by. Which is no small feat on Peter Jackson's part. In the Lord Of The Rings, the central plot takes place in several locations simultaneously. There are myriad subplots which all have a huge, cosmic setting in Tolkien's invented mythology. There are dozens of characters, many of them subtly and skillfully drawn. There are invented languages, poems, songs, myths, spells and magical objects which all play their roles and need to be fitted in somehow. In Lord Of The Rings, the problem was paring the material down to fit into the time available. In the Hobbit, Peter Jackson had the opposite problem: how to pad things out to make a trilogy that would sit as a companion piece to LOTR, equal in grandeur and scope.

He has done it by setting the fairly basic, linear plotline into some of the mythic stuff pilfered from the Silmarillion and LOTR. He has developed the characters of the dwarves, although their somewhat cartoonish costuming does tend to make them into caricatures. In the opening scene he has tied the film to LOTR so that knowledge of the earlier film brings depth and recognition to the later one. The cosmic stuff has been played up: so that whereas the book was really just a jolly ramble from adventure to adventure as the little band of  hobbit, wizard and dwarves pursued their limited aims, the film portrays the early days of the rise of Sauron and the setting is an archetypal battle of good and evil. So far so good. With its rollicking Indiana Jones type underground shenanigans and wargs and giant eagles and Gollum and the promise of things to come it's a great film and I look forward to the other two.

One particular bouquet is the CG. Gollum is a tour de force. The pivotal scene of the riddling in the dark has not got a lot of action. it is a couple of blokes swapping Christmas cracker jokes by a barren pool, but it is riveting. The scene depends for its great power on the facial reactions of  Bilbo and Gollum as the battle of wits develops. Neither lets us down, due in part to the astonishing acting ability of  Martin Freeman, and the astonishing programming ability of Weta Workshops.

One particular brickbat is the almost complete lack of women in the film. There is one, Galadriel, who is more goddess than real woman anyway. I know that this is a Tolkien legacy: there are NO women in the book, but given the other liberties Peter Jackson has taken with the script you think he might have worked in a few more. There is an orc city, for instance, seemingly populated only by male orcs. Well, I know that according to a scene in LOTR orcs reproduce asexually, but couldn't Weta have amused themselves mightily (and us too) by equalling out the genders a little?  A gender invisibility which may well have worked in the aftermath of World War 1 seems, in 2013, simply bizarre.