Lyttleton is one of the world’s most southernmost English-speaking ports. Coal and timber ships depart for China, Taiwan and Japan, while Arctic factory-fishing ships re-provision after a southern summer spent tearing the heart out of the Southern Ocean.
Before the hard men onboard these stinking juggernauts of rust, diesel and death head north to Vladivostok, Kalingrad or Murmansk they – like their predecessors in Lyttleton for more than a century before them - seize a final opportunity for liquor and women. Those bound only for Taipei or Yokohama join them – they might not be fishermen, and they may not spend 11 months of each year at sea in the world’s cruelest waters, but they’re still sailors.
Yet gentrification is coming to Lyttleton, much as it has come to other ports around the world. Places once housing the desperate and drunken are now dedicated to the modern cults of home improvement and property investment. Just as the ghosts of Dicken’s London no longer whisper in the Docklands’ laneways, so also are Lyttelton’s undead now being exorcised by corporate consultants with artistic pretensions.
Maybe this isn’t an entirely bad thing: history is rarely preserved by those who lack money and time. Yet there’s something sad about seeing the old ways disappear: a fashionably restored wine-bar filled with professionals might be safer than a linoleum tiled pub worked by down-at-heel hookers fleeing a childhood in Shanghai or Stalingrad; but you’ll never hear the memories of an old Union man who stood loyal throughout the 1951 stevedore’s strike – to the point of near starvation - in a boutique selling Beaujolais Nouveau.
Fortunately the British Hotel has resisted prevailing trends, the bright paint recently pasted onto the frontage notwithstanding. I first came here with a friend about 8 years ago, and while drinking dark south-island ale we noticed an unmistakable spray of dried arterial blood across the low ceiling, directly above where we sat.
Chuckling at our nervous glances upward, the barman called over “Hey Aussies!” (to Kiwis the Sydney accent is as subtle as a New Yorker’s in rural Georgia) “How’d you like our décor? Couple of Russian long-liners started fighting, and we’ve left the result as a reminder.”
Sometimes there’s nothing, absolutely nothing you can say in reply. Raising our glasses we ordered another pint each, and made mental notes to never, ever say anything that might even remotely upset a Russian seaman. And then we left the barman a hefty tip. Just incase he knew where we were staying
Lest anyone think this blog has entirely abandoned it’s vaguely religious raison d’être to become a B-grade travelogue, relax (or don’t relax, if you’re one of the people who keep sending me angry anonymous emails). There really is a point to this story, and I promise to keep it brief:
Some of the disciples were fishermen, and the job wasn’t any easier, safer, or more prestigious then than it is today. Fish smelled exactly the same, if not worse, since there was no refrigeration. Jesus was friends with people who worked, drank, and lived in bars like the British Hotel – he even frequented such venues himself from time to time. And the whole messy business of the incarnation was as much an act of Supreme Love for the patrons, staff and “freelancers” of the British Hotel as it was for anyone else who’s ever walked, crawled, gurgled or belched on the face of this planet.
Which includes Southern Coneheads, Matthians, and all the rest of us. I doubt I’ll ever understand why, but the whole bunch of us have been thrown together into the same boat. My instinct says to kick them out, and theirs is to throw me overboard. All while the folks at the British Hotel just want to have a few beers, experience something as close to intimacy as is possible, and then get back to catching fish. My guess is that the Church has more to learn from them than they have to learn from the Church. but it doesn't have to always be this way.