Who says the age of Ulysses is dead?

How do we stop young people from killing themselves on our roads? Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
Since I bought my little second-hand car two years ago we’ve travelled 17,000km together — that’s here to Istanbul.

And of those 17,000 I’d estimate that 16,000 lay in my own wee suburb, a series of heroic odysseys from home to shops and back.

But now the car’s tyres were as bald as their driver and we had to venture to another suburb to find new ones.

"And wheel balancing?" said the tyre man, "wheel alignment?"

Were the wheels not aligned already? Were they not already balanced, two to a side?

But still, "Whatever you advise," I said.

The tyre man smiled and, to my astonishment, advised both. He said it would all take an hour or so.

"No problem," I said, because new tyres always take an hour or so, and I had come prepared.

I was in T-shirt, shorts and training shoes with soles the size of rowing boats. I would walk for an hour through someone else’s suburb.

The word urban has a gritty glamour. The word suburban doesn’t. It carries a note of disparagement, of narrow-mindedness, of a lack of courage and culture.

Suburbia is timid by definition. Suburbia doesn’t lift its head above the parapet. Suburbia is a way of slow dying. And most of us choose to live there.

It was 10 in the morning. Those who had a job had gone to it, which left the rest of us, with a day to fill.

An elderly man, head down, leaning hard on a six-wheel walker, took tiny toddler steps but was going well. Intent on his daily circuit he didn’t notice me.

Not so for an elderly woman in crimson track-pants with a pink umbrella for walking stick. "Hello hello," she trilled and waved the brolly in delight. Otherwise the hot streets were drenched in silence.

Christchurch claims to be the garden city, but it is no more gardeny than any other. Less gardeny, indeed, than Auckland where things with giant leaves go sprouting as you watch.

The front gardens I passed told me nothing about Christchurch but plenty about their owners.

For front gardens are like clothes. They show both who we are and how we want to seem.

Some were effectively suits and ties — rectilinear lawns mown close to death, rectilinear borders free of weeds.

Others were sagging jeans and soiled t-shirt, lank and rank with ivy and convolvulus locked in a struggle to the death.

I reached a parade of local shops that I last walked past the a new set of tyres ago. Some shops had changed hands. Several were vacant. None looked prosperous.

"Please prevent your dog from urinating on our window," said a handwritten notice. Two dairies vied for non-existent business across the road from each other.

I peered into one. Its fridge door was patched with cardboard. A sign spoke of fresh fruit and vegetables above a tray of coal-black bananas. Cars, malls and supermarkets have sucked commerce from suburban parades.

But the weed-streaming river was unchanged, and the ducks, paddling hard to stay where they were, were the same as ducks have always been. And in the park beside the river the dogs were as joyous as ever, sniffing earth and grass and other dogs, and dancing with their pleasure in the world. Their owners did not dance but greeted each other in passing like tweeting blackbirds.

Beyond the park I plunged back into more quiet streets. A man trimmed his hedge in gumboots despite the heat. An old woman watered her three roses behind a shin-high chain-link fence that marked the edge of her world. In the window of her sitting room a mantelpiece was crammed with little things, bits and bobs, too small to be called ornaments, but things that were special to her, that lent significance. We all have special things that lend significance, that distinguish one suburban life from another.

Unwonted noise hauled me round a corner to find a preschool at play time. Three dozen tots in an enclosure, like a tank of puppies, unrestrained, delirious with freedom and delighted with the world as it was. Tomorrow’s suburbanites, with so very much to learn.

I got back to find my little car aligned and balanced and with 80,000 new kilometres on its feet. To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

 - Joe Bennett is a Lyttelton writer.