I have an old journalist mate (well we are both old now) who lives in New Zealand – well Christchurch actually. He wrote to me recently (Bob has given computers away and prefers Her Majesty’s post and hand-written missives) to say that he and his missus were still living in their quake damaged house, and that earthquakes have just become part of their lives. He sent me some clippings about it.

Would you believe 9500 quakes in the last 500 days? And not insubstantial ones either, many are from 3 to 5 on the Richter Scale, and they are movers and shakers all right.

On 2 January this year, there were 24 earthquakes from midnight to 8 am.  The first was a 5.11, immediately followed by a 4.31. The biggest was at 5.50 am (one is never at one’s best at that time of the morning I feel) at 5.48 on the Richter Sale, enough to make headlines in any city in the world except quake-weary Christchurch.

Bob was born and grew up in the Land of the Short Flat Vowell, but worked for quite a few years in Hobart, where we met some forty years ago now.

We laboured on the same newspaper, briefly, in Hobart in 1960 and then shared a small house (with some other Australian journalists) in London shortly after that. I hadn’t seen much of him since, actually, as he lives Christchurch and until recently I had never been to NZ other than an hour or so at Auckland International Airport while heading somewhere else. But we’ve kept in touch over the years, and I called in to Christchurch on my way back from Antarctica a few years ago, mercifully before the big earthquake struck.

A decade ago, I was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes – doubtless due to my unspeakable drinking eating habits as a journalist. I decided to write a book about it, This Can’t Happen To Me (oh yes it can!) and when Bob heard about this he admitted that he too was a member of the club, and was already insulin dependant. I had a few years at least controlling mine with diet and exercise. I asked him to contribute to my book (see details under Books on this website, I still have some copies available for a modest fee) and he did so with his customary self-deprecating humour. At the time I was aware that Bob’s wife Sarah had just died. She also had diabetes, was obese and had undergone serious cardiac surgery. Here is the letter he wrote me then:

Dear Tim,

 I’m very sorry to hear about the diabetes. But it’s good to hear you can control it with diet.  I’m not trying to lead you astray but I’ve had it for six years and whilefollowing a reasonably good diet (but using sugar extenders like Splenda). I’ve also been told to limit drinking to two glasses a day. I tell the diabetes clinic with a straight face that by and large I stick to that (but the glass is a big one – about two wine glasses capacity – and when I’m out I sometimes stray to a bottle for me and whatever for the other folk).

 This has only given me the small stroke I had in March last year, high blood pressure, and a sore foot, so I figure I’m ahead so far. But even if it sort of works for me everyone is different and I don’t necessarily recommend it to you. I shoot up with insulin and, like you, don’t particularly enjoy the daily blood glucose tests.

 My late wife Sarah used to challenge her diabetes head-on, which was unwise  given that previously she had had a heart bypass operation. She used to whack 40 units of insulin in (a good dose) and then ‘pig out’ on chocolate, chocolate cake, chocolate biscuits, boiled sweets and, did I mention chocolate? She figured  she must be in credit a lot with the insulin before balancing the books, as it were. It didn’t work too well.

 Tonight’s menu will include lemon chicken, a particular potato dish, asparagus, tomatoes, mushrooms, a fairly standard sort of dessert (possibly low-fat ice cream and low-sugar fruit) and plenty of wine.Enough of health. It’s boring. Anyway, all you need to know for New Zealand is that the main danger to health in this country are (a) our health system and (b) our doctors.

 Yesterday I collected from the airport for my mother-in-law Sarah’s slightly younger sister. On delivery, my mother-in-law said this was not her daughter but a balloon I’d found. Her daughter didn’t mind, and said this was not her mother but her grandmother. Sarah’s sister weighs 200lb [90kg], is 5ft 4in [162cm] tall, has a big stomach and enormous breasts. While travelling in my little old car with her I couldn’t help thinking – now this Honda is fitted with twin air bags.

 Well, must go. If it’s any comfort, you’ll probably live for 20 more years  and I hope the diabetes doesn’t wholly run your life for that time.



Well a few years have rolled by since then, and I’ve managed a visit to Christchurch not so long ago, as I mentioned. Bob is still is old cheerful self, jabbing himself with insulin twice a day and while not quite as burning-the-candle-at-both ends ad did his late wife Sarah, manages to enjoy a drink or three at the end of the day.

I thought I might share his latest letter{

Dear Tim,

 I recently had another heart attack and a short spell in hospital while they shoved in another stent and cleaned out some arteries. I had only a small part in this medical comedy drama. The three stars were the intellectual Wayne who had no do-it-yourself in his DNA. He arrived in hospital after electrocuting himself while trying to tart up his caravan for sale. He used three extension cords to provide power for a drill, but got them tangled up in the rain and made his caravan live and he suffered burns and concern about the number of volts to his heart. He was discharged the following day and kept well away from anything electrical.

Another in my ward was Bazza, mega obese, who had a similar heart procedure to mine. It was his first and I assured him it would be a piece of cake and he wouldn’t even feel at. Afterwards he called me an effing liar. He liked Christchurch Hospital for its food – which was quite good and ample. His eyes lit up when the waitress asked if he wanted small, medium or large. The nurses said he should keep an eye on his eating. He did and always ordered large portions. We had a quake of just over 5 on the Richter scale at 1.30 am the next day and Bazza was on the phone to his partner to get him out first thing. She had a six-hour drive to Christchurch and after two big lunches and the doctors clearance they headed home via the bottle store for a six pack for Bazza. The doc said there was no one to do the ultrasound on Bazza’s heart, so did it and  analysed it.

 The same doctor also did some tests on Sven a Swedish tourist, repaired his cellphone, and released him. The hospital had arranged for him to catch up with his tour party in Queenstown. I was much more impressed with the hospital this time in.

 I managed to get into the bathroom to have a shave, but my hand was shaking so much – almost certainly withdrawl symptoms because the hospital rather unsportingly wouldn’t allow me to drink while in their care – that I kept cutting myself badly and came out looking like a victim of the Texas chain saw massacre. One of the nurses was basically unsympathetic, saying: ‘We don’t want you to leave the ward looking like that, or people will think that we’ve tried to kill you.’ For the next few days I looked like Norman Gunston, with bits of toilet paper sticking to my nicks and cuts.

 One incentive for me to leave as fast as possible was that one of the charge nurses said the wing we were in was shaking much more and more noisily than in previous shakes. This was very similar to words of people who had been in the CTV building in the weeks before it collapsed killing 116 people.

 Last Saturday I went to the funeral of former schoolmate – who died of natural causes – and the clergyman started by urging is to carefully note the exits to the church ‘in the event of an emergency’, and to leave in an orderly manner. As there were about 800 of us there, that was unlikely. Yesterday half of a supermarket-mall complex near us was closed instantly until further notice because of the earthquake risk.  Two apartment blocks are due for demolition from today to head off their collapse.



 PS about a month ago five painters, plasterers, paper hangers and carpenters repaired every room of my house, put in three new ceilings and the rest was mainly cosmetic. I was banished to the garage with the furniture which I helped move (a precursor to my heart-attack). We were able to retain one bedroom which had the fewest repairs. The earthquake commission is paying for this work and I paid for the roof and a new wood burner which cost a total of about $20,000. When the painter was saying goodbye a 5 on the Richter scale earthquake glued him into a doorway.  He reckons new wallpaper is holding Christchurch together these days.

Well looking past my friend’s somewhat black humour and irreverence, I thought this a revealling description of what a bloody awful business it must be trying to maintain a semblance of normal life in Christchurch.

I may not be visiting Bob again very soon.




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