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As the science reporter for The Press during the Christchurch earthquakes, Paul Gorman was in a unique position to report and observe on this cataclysmic event in Canterbury’s history. Not only was he equipped with the scientific knowledge to understand why the earthquakes were happening, his journalistic instincts also enabled him to ask the right questions of expert scientists and notice (and include) the right details when reporting.
Both strengths are brought to bear on his book Portacom City: Reporting on the Christchurch and Kaikoura Earthquakes, another in Bridget Williams Books’ excellent series of short, highly readable volumes of non-fiction. Portacom City is not just a collection of Gorman’s articles, and doesn’t read as journalism or reporting, though the book benefits form his journalistic efforts. Instead it is an overview of the geological reasons behind the earthquakes; an account of the human impact of the earthquakes; and a finely drawn sketch of what it was like to work for The Press then, trying to report objectively on vitally important stories while also dealing with the emotional and practical upheavals of that time (the book is so named because the newspaper’s staff had to set up office in a network of smelly, cramped portacoms near the airport, their work periodically interrupted by both airplanes and aftershocks).
Certain special details stick in your mind when reading Portacom City. Gorman stands in his kitchen minutes after the September earthquake, shakily jotting down notes on the earthquake on the back of an Ilam School newsletter, the closest piece of paper around. The Press’s social committee is dubbed The Smile Factory—clearly they played a big part in boosting morale. These certain specific details anchor his story and make his experiences somehow more concrete, rather than allowing his account to melt into the morass of earthquake stories we’ve heard many a time since the earthquakes happened. It stops this book from being merely “disaster porn” and makes it real, and engaging.
This is also helped by the scientific lens through which Gorman writes. I found the descriptions of the earthquake history of Canterbury fascinating, proving Gorman’s own point that after the earthquakes, people were hungry for more scientific information about them. It was also highly interesting to read about the stonewalling Gorman experienced from certain expert scientists, and the frustration that ensued. To be fair, Gorman acknowledges the political pressure these scientists were under to not divulge information, for fear of spooking an already edgy Canterbury public. It hadn’t occurred to me that such stonewalling had happened at the time. Fascinating, and disturbing.
Gorman’s writing is punchy and he has a gift for describing concepts in succinct, engaging ways. This, and the unique science communication angle of this book, makes Portacom City fresh and compulsively readable. An eye-opening and compelling read.
Reviewed by Feby Idrus
Portacom City: Reporting on the Christchurch and Kaikoura Earthquakes
by Paul Gorman
Published by Bridget Williams Books