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  • Published: 31 July 2017
  • ISBN: 9780143770626
  • Imprint: RHNZ Vintage
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 368
  • RRP: $32.99

Decline and Fall on Savage Street


. . . sand dune, left behind as the sea receded to the east. It wavers, a stretch of high, dry ground, across swampland. At its foot runs a river.


The Site

Spring 1906

Not one of the great rivers of the region, surging in a tangled bed from mountain to sea. Nor one of those rivers’ dark cousins, the aquifers that find their way to the coast through hidden channels below ground.

This river is small and shallow, running swiftly from its source a few miles inland where it bubbles up, clear water from cones of fine white silt, among tutu and flax, toetoe and fern. It forms an estuary behind a coastal bar, before pouring through a narrow opening into the wide blue waters of a bay. At one end of the bay, to the north, there’s a fretwork of mountains, white-tipped, even in summer. At the other end there are the truncated remains of two ancient volcanoes, leaning companionably back to back, their calderas long since flooded as indented harbours, their hills meeting the sea as a peninsula wheel of tiny bays cupped between jagged cliffs of ancient lava.

The sand dune curves along the river’s northern bank. It slopes gently down to its swift waters. The dune is made up of schist and granite, ground to dust, and shells and the fragments of monstrous creatures who once swam in warm oceans, all teeth and predatory purpose. It contains the bones of seabirds and seals and fish, the ash of fires, the remains of centuries of human feasting.

They lie beneath fern and tutu, shimmering from time to time when the earth jumps as it is wont to do. These are restless islands, forced to the surface by the collision of vast continental plates set in opposition, grinding endlessly against one another.

The surface shimmers at their meeting, and people on the surface have imagined restless things: a waka, rocking on a primeval sea. A giant fish dragging at the hook. They have imagined also a woman lying as the curve of hills and valleys and the sky leaning tenderly over her, filling her with life. They have imagined, when the earth shimmers, a baby god stirring, rolling within her great belly, kicking beneath her skin, making mountains fall, boulders rain down, wide chasms open. The little foetal earthquake god, forever in a state of gestation, forever about to be born.

All that, within the sand dune.

And now its surface is dotted with white pegs. A mile or so to the west, a city has been laid down on fern and tutu, devised by military men with a military precision at this outpost of empire. A city of right angles built about a central cruciform square. The swamp has been divided as neatly as pounds of butter into uniform blocks, for ease of sale and purchase. The original inhabitants have been consigned to their inevitable decline on a few reserves about the perimeter, while at the centre have risen a cathedral in the Gothic style for the Anglicans, another with a Roman cupola for the Catholics, banks and theatres, churches, places of commerce, offices, shops, factories, foundries, schools and parks for healthful recreation. And houses, of course, for the accommodation of those who will labour here. Whose hands and eyes and minds can be harnessed to that great cause which is the advancement of civilisation. The citizens.

Year by year, their houses have sprung up as the suburbs have stepped steadily from the centre across swamp and plain.

And here. To the sand dune by the . . .


The Floorplan

Spring 1908

. . . and rules a line. It’s a wall. A side wall. Four windows. One, perhaps, a bay.

A villa. Not too large. Not one of the twenty-seven-roomed fantasies that introduce his magnum opus: his catalogue of One Hundred Designs for New Zealand Residences. Not the two-storeyed extravagance of Smoking Room, Billiard Room, Fernery and the rest, but something more modest: ten rooms, perhaps. A substantial villa for the man who is on his way, and for his dependants. A villa combining tradition with modernity, the best of the past with contemporary comfort, for that is the style for this country, where public buildings favour imperial gravitas with columns and Roman porticoes, along with ample windows and modern plumbing.

And when they leave the public realm, the citizens whom luck and industry have favoured like to stroll home to one or two storeys of vaguely Gothic timber and gabling, or perhaps Georgian brick, with bathroom and kitchen in the contemporary American manner, ideally linked to the modern marvels of metropolitan sewerage systems, gas and electricity, all set behind the fences of a pleasantly private quarter-acre. A house like this, for example: the ten-roomed villa, taking shape beneath the architect’s busy pen.

Other men among his colleagues in the Institute of Architects might occupy themselves with theory, debating the relationship between art and architecture, fretting at the absence of a distinctive New Zealand style, lamenting that the nation’s cities are simply a palimpsest of architectural quotation, arguing over how to satisfy the airy ambitions of the government’s new Workers’ Dwellings Act to design the ideal hygienic home for the labourer. But he does not concern himself with theory and debate. He is a practical man. A New Zealander, born and bred. He simply wants to get on and do.

Once, he had other aspirations. There was a time when he hoped to be an artist. His sketch of his sister as the Lady of Shalott at her loom drew the admiration of his mother and her friends. They insisted he must travel, just as soon as he was old enough. He must view the great masters. He must be properly educated if he is to realise his talent. They offered money, tickets, a whole directory of relations and useful connections Back Home, and he accepted, though, in the event, travel had the opposite effect from the one his sponsors anticipated. Lonely in a strange city, standing before Rembrandt and the full-throated swagger of The Night Watch, he had been overwhelmed by the certainty of his total mediocrity. He was not an artist. He would never become an artist. He could never hope to create that glorious incandescence. He returned home, attended some classes at the School of Art where, surrounded by others infinitely more talented than himself, he was confirmed in his self-assessment. He was completely ordinary.

But an ordinary man has his place. He attached himself to the architectural practice of a family friend, completed his articles and now he sits at his desk in an office just off Cathedral Square, drawing a house.

Its rooms will be spacious. They will open from a central hallway. A broad breezeway permitting the circulation of fresh air, for the modern home must be properly ventilated if its inhabitants are to escape the diseases of enclosure and foetid air. Coughing, lethargy, pallor, death. Opening from the breezy hallway will be the proper sequence of rooms: a drawing room at the front, impressively proportioned and 14 feet from floor to ceiling, where a ceiling rose — he imagines white plaster, an ornamental wreath of lilies and acanthus — supports a gasolier or, better yet, for this is plan, this is dream — an electrical light. The city’s gas company has mounted a stout defence against their encroachment, but already wires are loping along the streets, strung from pole to pole, working their way out from the centre. Already electricity illuminates offices and shops and the city’s premier department store, casting its cool unwavering glow over dinner sets and bed linen, shirts and ladies’ millinery. Its supremacy was asserted in the summer of 1906 when it made a fantasy of the vast dome of the International Exhibition that rose overnight in the cool green acres of Hagley Park.

‘HAERE MAI’ beamed a thousand lightbulbs to the multitude come to view the triumph of empire. Forest, plain and swamp had been subdued, as the prime minister declared, and industry and thrift prevailed. ‘WELCOME’ to the halls crammed with machinery and the evidence of progress in science, art, industry and the general march of civilisation. ‘WELCOME’ from atop snowy towers of plaster and stuccoline.

The architect had joined the crowd, walking across the park toward the beckoning glow, along with his wife, who, upholstered in fox fur and feathered hat, had assisted the ladies arranging the display of Home Industries.

‘HAERE MAI!’ to the Prairie Province in the country that is showing the way to the Workers’ Paradise with minimum wage and old age pension, first in the world to grant women the vote, though the architect thought privately that might have been overdoing things, a thought he would never have voiced to his wife, who had grown somehow from the flower-like creature he had married to a redoubtable proponent of Domestic Engineering. She was forever quoting some Yankee female ranting in The Ladies’ Home Journal or a similar publication of high scientific purpose, and really something of a bore on the science of kitchen bench heights and the arrangement of kitchen appliances for maximum labour efficiency. An enthusiasm derived, the architect suspects, from her deep loathing of the whole business: managing a home, organising dinners, children and, in particular, the distasteful business of their conception. The sex act she regards as something to be got over with as quickly as possible before a quick rebuttoning. She is bored by it all: babies and family and the domestic round, however scientifically arranged. She wants something other: to do and make and earn her own money, to marshal whole battalions of workers, to govern a medium-sized country. She’d be good at that. In the meantime, she fusses over the placement of a kitchen sink.

The architect finds sinks a terrible bore. For him, the excitement lies here: in the drawing room, with its handsome side bay window and the cunning ceiling rose that doubles as frame to the marvels of illumination and also as concealed vent to draw warm air and contagion from the room beneath. Beside the drawing room, another as ample, as well lit, for dining, where glass-panelled doors open to a side verandah with — why not? — a conservatory. Vines and ferns, camellias and the scent of jasmine on a summer evening.

He sharpens his pencil, adjusts the set square, turns his attention from public rooms to private: the bedrooms across the hallway. The owners’, with its fireplace and wide bay and window seat, and next to it a room that might be office or library, calm retreat for the master, and beyond that the children’s rooms, one for boys, one for girls, and, to the rear, a bathroom with bath on clawed feet and handbasin, plumbed to a supply delivered by progress and ingenuity via pipes fed by tanks high on the peninsula hills. He allows himself also the fantasy of a water closet within the bathroom in the American manner, a closet that will quickly and hygienically deliver the owners’ waste to the municipal sewers that are in construction, the first waterborne sewerage system in the country. All that mess and stink will be carried off to the east unseen beneath the city’s streets to trickle into the sandhills of the estuary.

In the villa of ten rooms there will be no need for the scurry through the rain to the dunny by the back fence with its hovering flies, its little box of squares torn from the daily paper, its cloak of passionfruit vine framing the view of the distant back door beyond the damp ranks of silverbeet. No need for the nightsoil man in his noisome cart, creaking by at 2 a.m.

And finally the architect turns to the kitchen, doing his best to accommodate his redoubtable Efficiency Engineer with an arrangement of coal range and chimney, larder and scullery, meat safe on the southern wall as advised. And the two small adjoining rooms that will house the cook/housekeeper, one a bedroom, the other her sitting room, or perhaps a bedroom for her child. So many cook/housekeepers seem to have suffered an identical fate: widowed in a distant place, husband fallen victim to some unspecified accident, leaving a child who must be supported by her own endeavour. For her use, the architect adds a second water closet next to the washhouse and adjoining coal house by the back step: a desirable addition, according to the Engineer, if staff are not to intrude on the privacy of their employers.

And then it is as though all this efficiency, this modernity, has become too much for his pencil to bear any longer. It takes off on its own little fantasy, as it does occasionally when he finds himself designing houses of interlocking octagons or great turreted chateaux that will never conceivably find a place in this pragmatic country. He finds himself adding an inglenook to the drawing room, a massive thing, the kind of fireplace where whole Yule logs might be burned, whole pigs might be roasted, watched over by merry peasants clad in worsted who sit in highbacked settles, tankards of homebrewed ale in their merry hands. He momentarily regrets the absence of flagstones and blackened oak, but compromises with a pointed Gothic arch to each of the windows in the bay. And above it all — his pencil flying, the clock on the landing outside his door chiming midday, the prospect of lunch: pea soup, a cutlet, in the club across the river in the company of men as comfortable as himself — he adds a turret. In a moment he will walk out onto streets that were, within his own lifetime, only lines on a white page when all around was swamp and primeval wilderness, inhabited by savages. This city then was fantasy, and behold: here it stands, in timber and solid stone. The lines on a page have risen up. They have taken shape. Who knows what a line on a page might become?

He adds his turret. A little hexagonal fantasy with carved wooden walls open to the elements and a sharply pointed roof ending in a finial. A gazebo, accessed by an external staircase from the side verandah, where a young woman, the owner’s wife, might recline upon a cane chair on a warm spring afternoon. She is pale and fair, her long hair worn loose, her book drooping from her hand. Her mouth is sweet, her eyes dreamy, her breasts rise, uncorseted, beneath the fine fabric of her gown. A woman unconcerned with the science of kitchen sinks. She has kicked off one shoe and her slender ankle. Her slender ankle . . .

The architect rules a line. Tirra lirra, he thinks for no particular reason, as the knight rides, young and happy, toward the turret rising on the river’s flowery bank. How did the poem go again? Tirra lirra. Tirra . . .

Decline and Fall on Savage Street Fiona Farrell

A fictional companion to The Villa at the Edge of the Empire and winner of the 2017 NZ Heritage Novel Award.

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