Monday 28 February 2011

Thank goodness!

So relieved. My friend at The Press got back to me today: he'd just stepped out of the building a few minutes earlier to have lunch next door. "Chaos" he said, succinctly. Now he's down in Timaru, having to work from there till who knows when. I think it's wonderful that the paper hasn't missed an edition through all of this.

The death toll is now up to 147, but the names are trickling out very slowly. Today was the first funeral, of one of the two babies known so far to have died: a little boy, only 5 months old. So sad.

Another of the dead is one of our Travcom members, Rhys Brookbanks, who was only weeks into his first job at the CTV building, having just graduated, like my Firstborn, from journalism school. He was a poet, and is an entrant in our Awards, the New Writer category. The Gala Dinner evening is just over three weeks away. How will his people feel if he wins? The prize is money but even better, a travel assignment and a guarantee of publication in NZ's highest-circulation magazine. How bitter-sweet that would be.

But although there are still bits falling off the Port Hills, and the first 10 pages or so of the newspaper are still devoted to earthquake coverage, the radio is still interviewing people about quakes (not just ours - San Francisco is providing comfort and advice) and it's still big on TV, the rest of the world is creeping back into focus again. It's the start of the process of getting on with life, which must seem harsh to those in Christchurch holding vigils for bodies as yet unrecovered; but tomorrow at 12.51pm, one week after the disaster, there will be a two-minute silence across the country, and that will be a raw business.

Sunday 27 February 2011

What if...

The newspapers are hard reading this morning: full of images, personal accounts and overviews of the current situation in Christchurch and already predictions about the city's future. It's heavy going, though also of course morbidly fascinating, impossible to read without wondering "What if I'd been there? Is that cute little hotel I stayed in last time still standing? Did I even think then to check where the stairs were?"

They're required reading, though, if only because there are still so many unanswered questions, personal ones about people and places I know; so I'm seizing on snippets buried in the pages of type - a casual mention that my old school, Avonside Girls' High, was badly damaged; a reference to the person killed at The Press as "she", which makes me feel more comfortable about Ken.

Some of it's unbearably sad: trapped students phoning and texting their parents back home in Japan and the Philippines. Imagine being on the receiving end of that - and then the messages stopping. People who escaped, but went back inside to help someone, and then the building collapsed. Having to lift a dead woman to rescue the baby underneath who she'd protected. Awful, awful details.

One photo that was mentioned but not printed apparently showed a boy on a skateboard getting air after using the ruptured road as a ramp. That would have been good to see, as a bit of relief. And there have been lots of heart-warming accounts of community spirit out in the beleaguered suburbs. Even all those good-news stories are just blips, though: nowhere near enough to balance out the tragedy and the loss.

There was a mobile phone clip I've seen several times on TV that showed a red dome upside down on the road surrounded by broken bricks and concrete and glass and dust, and the man going past filming says "My God! Was there anyone inside?" It looked so familiar, but I couldn't place it. I've just found this photo from my visit in November:

Saturday 26 February 2011

Carpe diem

A hot sunny Saturday, all the now-scattered family free at once, so off together to Waiheke Island again to remind ourselves in one afternoon of what it used to be like for a week. The ferry was chokka: not just with locals but lots of tourists from today's cruise ship and elsewhere, so it was standing room only on the top deck with the views of harbour, bridge, skyscrapers, yachts big and little, volcanic cones, Devonport, Rangitoto, Bean Rock... all the usual much-loved elements of a trip out on the Waitemata.

There were Russians next to me on the bus to Palm Beach after our brunch at Wai, new to us with its fancy deck overlooking the turquoise water of the bay. "Tropical!" the gift shop lady and I agreed. "Who needs to go to Thailand?" we asked each other smugly.

Anyway, the Russians: their spoiled little boy sulkily gave me his seat on the crowded bus and I asked where they lived. "Central America," his mother said, and as I was thinking "Panama? Guatemala? Honduras?" she went on to clarify "Nebraska". That certainly explained their excitement at going to the beach. I didn't see them there, but I did wallow in the perfectly warm water and watched as a young man walked down the sand into the little waves, cool and confident right up to the moment he stepped into a hole and fell flat on his face, emerging spluttering and embarrassed, looking around to see if he'd been observed. "I saw," I called out cheerily, and he had the grace to grin.

It was a lovely day of simple summer pleasures, and when we took the ferry back again the water was sparkling pewter as we headed into the west, silhouetted yachts heeled over as they skimmed back to the marina. And beyond and behind them all, on top of the Harbour Bridge, the flags were flying at half-mast for the people dead in Christchurch, lying in the rubble, still waiting to be recovered.

Friday 25 February 2011

Taking heart

Would I live in Christchurch again? It's a good question. Before Tuesday the answer would have been yes: it's where my roots are, my father's house is still there (I hope), it's a pretty, neat, historic place where people have good manners and take pride in their gardens, it has the Avon and its ducks, the Court Theatre and the Cathedral, Hagley Park and the Botanic Gardens, the Port Hills and the Southern Alps, the Waimakariri and the patchwork plains.

Now I'm not so sure. So many of the buildings I love have been destroyed or badly damaged, the tidy suburbs are devastated, awash in silt, the roads are wrecked, there are cracks in everything. The thought of all the work that has to be done on unglamorous but essential things like sewage pipes and water mains is just exhausting; then there's the arguing to come over how to rebuild. That's all going to be so wearing.

But mainly there's the loss of trust. I don't blame the people leaving the city, saying they'll never return. They've been taught, the hardest way, that they can't rely on being safe anywhere in Christchurch any more. Who knows when the next earthquake will happen, and wreck everything again? This afternoon? Next month? In 300 years' time?

It will be an act of faith to rebuild the city; and defiance too. It will be hard. It's good to know that it's been done before.

Thursday 24 February 2011

Two degrees

The names of the dead are beginning to trickle out now. Amongst the first are presenters who worked in the Canterbury TV building that's little more now than a smoking pile of rubble, and where the search for survivors was abandoned yesterday. Many Cantabrians will think they know those TV people, because they've seen them on their screens so often; but the sad fact is that it's unlikely that there will be anybody who has no real connection with at least one of the deceased.

New Zealand is such a small country, 4-point something million, and though Christchurch is our second city, the population is only around 330,000, so here we have pretty much just two degrees of separation between any individuals. None of my family live in ChCh any more and I haven't lived there for 30 years, so I've lost touch with most of my old (first) friends - but I remember their names, they're still part of my personal history, and even if I don't see them in a list, I know that they won't be so lucky. I'm still waiting to hear who died at The Press.

Along with the names are the details of how they died, and the shocking thing is how banal it was. Sitting on a bus in Colombo Street, having a sandwich at their desk, standing waiting for the lift to arrive. We're used to reading about people dying in car crashes on equally mundane errands, but not this. It's so easy to imagine because it's so very, very ordinary: ten to one, waiting to go to lunch, swivelling on your chair with the wonky castor, chatting to a colleague and thinking it's time she got her roots done - and then wham! Everything jerks, the ceiling caves in and you're on the floor with the sharp corner of the filing cabinet gouging a hole in your thigh, choking in the dust, all the alarms are wailing, things are still thumping down on top of your desk but you can't hear any voices, just the crackle of electricity - and then you smell smoke.

It's the 9/11 scenario all over again, but this time it's not terrorism, which gives at least some sort of intelligibility - it's just random nature, balancing out the lakes and mountains, trees and flowers, sunsets and rainbows. We think we own this planet, but we're as vulnerable as the insects we tread on every day without even noticing. Earthquakes, landslides, floods, cyclones, bush fires, eruptions, tsunamis... They're in the news so often, you'd think we'd be more aware.

Wednesday 23 February 2011


This is the statue of John Robert Godley that stands opposite the front of Christchurch Cathedral. Stood. It's now on the ground, broken, covered in dust from the collapse of the cathedral spire which lies in pieces scattered over the steps in front of the building. The cross from the very top lies in the rubble, still attached to part of the tip of the spire, 8 metres of it that was rebuilt in 1888 after an earthquake. Though the copper-green of the replacement was in startling contrast to the grey of the rest of the spire, it was such a familiar sight that people forgot what it signified. They'll remember now.

Godley was the founder of Canterbury and oversaw the establishment of Christchurch in 1850, so it's symbolic that his statue has been toppled from its base. It's not destroyed, though, and it will be restored. It's too soon to think about what will happen to the Cathedral and all the other historic and beautiful buildings that have been wrecked, though it seems inevitable that many of them will have to be removed completely.

At the moment the focus is of course on rescuing the people who are still trapped inside collapsed buildings, and on identifying the dead - 75 so far with 300 reported missing. Then it will be important to shore up the nerves of Christchurch residents, which have been shattered by 4000 aftershocks in the last 6 months, and now this (officially also an aftershock). And of course no-one knows what else may be in store for the city.

It's kind of ironic, but also maybe helpful to think about, that last weekend was the annual Art Deco Weekend celebration in Napier. It was bigger than usual, the 80th anniversary: in 1931 the city was totally destroyed, with 256 deaths, in a 7.8 earthquake, but was rebuilt in the style of the day, Art Deco. Now it's a unique, beautiful and interesting place that tourists flock to and where the earthquake disaster has been turned around into a yearly commemoration that unites the city. One day, I hope that's how it will be for Christchurch.

Tuesday 22 February 2011

Such very, very bad news

There's just been another earthquake in Christchurch. This time 6.3, less powerful than September's 7.1, but closer to the city centre and shallower, so the damage is very much worse - also the buildings were weakened. This time it was the middle of the day, not the night, and people have been trapped in and under collapsing buildings, and there have been many deaths. They've run out of ambulances and the hospital has been evacuated.

The news and pictures are still coming through from pale reporters with wobbly voices: blood-soaked people are struggling to get out of the city, on grid-locked streets knee-deep in liquefaction and mains water, around avalanches of bricks and concrete, through clouds of dust and aftershocks. I'm horrified and shocked and fearful of the details that are going to emerge.

But already, to see the Cathedral, the heart of Christchurch, without its spire is utterly, utterly heart-breaking. This is my home town.

This lovely building, home to Christchurch's daily paper, has partially collapsed: the upper left-hand section is now missing, the roof has fallen inside and at this very moment there are people trapped under their desks, under the rubble, on the third floor. I do hope Ken isn't among them. He's a big man, he wouldn't have been able to move fast.
This is the Provincial Council Chambers building, clearly already badly damaged, and now the stone part is just rubble. It's just one of many, many heritage buildings, all old friends, that have reportedly suffered severe damage.

But what about the people? There are hundreds and hundreds still trapped in the rubble of so many buildings, old and new, locals and tourists and young foreign students. The news that's to come hardly bears thinking about.

Trying to look busy here while the painter does the window frames...

It seems rude to pick up my laptop and decamp when the light is suddenly blotted out by a man in overalls and baseball cap looming outside the window; but it's impossible to work while he's doing just that over my right shoulder. Also there's the smell. He's putting oil-based gloss on the joinery and it's pretty powerful. But he's getting on quickly, hoping to have the soffit (I'm down with all this jargon now - eaves? Pshaw! Amateur) done by the end of the week; so that means time is running out for choosing the colour of the walls.
I'm afraid that after interior flings with lolly pink, aubergine, orange and butter yellow, I'm going to come over all Anglo-Saxon and plump for something boringly sludge-like for the outside: calling it Tea or Quarter Biscotti or Half Haystack doesn't help to make me feel adventurous, Resene. I wish I could break free of this convention and give the painter, who is a lovely man but very depressed about having been in this job for 30 years, the excitement of applying something vivid. How his eyes would surely brighten, given the chance to slap on Blue Lagoon, Tamarillo or Bright Sun!
He should live in Valparaiso, or Quito, or Lima, or on Reunion Island, or in the Cooks: they paint their houses such fabulously gaudy colours there: lime green, lemon yellow, pink and orange. And turquoise: most popular of all, everywhere. I wonder why that is?
It's the hardest colour to describe in an original manner in a lagoon story, that's for sure. I once even took colour charts to Aitutaki to help me: "...the colour of the water is Mint Tulip deepening into Riptide with a band of Curious Blue under an Oxymoron sky..." Poetry!

Sunday 20 February 2011

Déjà vu - mais ne jamais mangé

It's a bit dislocating to discover a parallel universe so close to home. I've just read a story about Glasgow in the paper by an Auckland travel writer called Pam (whose daughter named A. is a reporter for the Herald) and the opening paragraph features the legendary deep-fried Mars bar - but it's not me and it isn't my story.

The main thrust of Other Pam's story is that Glasgow cuisine is much maligned and that you can eat there very well; however she does rather undermine her own message by citing examples such as macaroni cheese pie and chips, and haggis vindaloo, and quotes a primary school teacher who claims that takeaway Indian curries are the only vegetables her students get to eat.

Both our stories actually draw a blank as far as the battered Mars bar is concerned: I stopped at every takeaway I came to in Glasgow and scrutinised their menu boards and never saw it listed (the only time I've ever found it was here in NZ). I did though find a new and unsuspected horror: the deep-fried pizza. Apparently you can get it battered or bare; and the connoisseurs prefer cheap generic pizza because the thick base soaks up more fat. Augh.

Haggis, though. I felt obliged to try it while I was in Scotland despite, oddly, not being attracted by the idea of offal mixed with oats cooked inside a sheep's stomach. I put it off for a while, but eventually gritted my teeth and ordered it as a starter in a friendly restaurant in Pitlochry, an appealing little spa town in the Trossachs. Visions of a pale, steaming bag of minced heart, liver and lungs stabbed with a knife so the contents poured out like lava didn't get my mouth watering while I waited - but when it came, it was a delight.

It was served modern-fashion, as a small stack on a base of bashed neeps and tatties (mashed swede and potato), and was dark, tender and so very tasty that I honestly regretted not having ordered it as a main. I would gladly eat it again.

The other memorable thing about that evening was the lovely couple at the next table: from Ayrshire, in their 70s, married 55 years, he a retired coal-miner, she a retired nurse, both having fun on a touring holiday and thrilled to have a four-poster bed with tartan curtains in their B&B. "It's our very first time! What a shame we won't be putting it to its proper use..." Sweet.
(I haven't any photos of these places because I dropped my camera over a cliff on Skye, so this is the best I can do.)

Thursday 17 February 2011

Building bridges. No, really.

We've got the painter in: just one man in white overalls with a ladder, a trestle and a handful of brushes. He's scraping and sanding away as I write, a noise that will be background for the next month or so as he works his way around the outside of our long wooden house. It's hardly the Forth Bridge, but it's a big job, which is why it's been put off for so many years - during which, of course, it's become an even bigger job.

"Like painting the Forth Bridge" is shorthand for a never-ending job, but I recently discovered that modern paints have made that saying redundant: the latest coating is expected to last 20 years. And, given the famous vagaries of Scottish weather, apparently even with the old paints, there were never more than about 90 days in a year when the painters were actually able to work on the bridge. So as clichés go, it was a lot less true than most.

It's an impressive bit of engineering though: massively sturdy, carrying trains over the Forth River since 1890 on its three double cantilevers which hold hands across 2.5km. I'm forever impressed by the energy and confidence of the Victorians - they were not only incredibly busy, but they thought so BIG. The Forth Rail Bridge is made up of 54,000 tonnes of steel held together by 6.5 million rivets (the final one gold-plated and hammered home by Edward, Prince of Wales). It helped, of course, to have cheap labour and no OSH to worry about: at the peak of construction 4,000 men were working on the bridge and 98 of them died doing it.

Still, nothing like it had ever been built before, and they did such a good job that even today it's the main rail crossing of the river, and 200 trains rattle across it daily. It makes the nearby road bridge, built in 1964, look positively anorexic. It's a rather boring suspension bridge, which seems a wasted opportunity. I think engineers usually love the creative opportunity of building a bridge: there are certainly some beauties around, ancient and modern too. One day I'd love to go and see that wonderful one in France, the Millau Viaduct. Tells you all you need to know, that Googling 'France bridge' takes you straight to it.
(Copyleft photo from

Sunday 13 February 2011

Easy riding

How cool is this? Sitting behind Steve with Jo as he took us for a burn along Great Barrier Island's narrow and twisting roads on his trike: a three-wheeler motorbike. It was brilliant! And so great not to have to wear a helmet, which, as Steve says, "takes part of the experience away from you." So we could hear the cicadas in the bush, and each other talking, and the wind whipped through our hair and we waved to absolutely everybody.

What else today? Hot springs in the bush; a quirky little hobby museum (the very best kind); an art gallery where I actually bought something; a swim in the sea which was just the right temperature, if a little boisterous for my taste; and a flight home in a little plane right down low, so we could see the dolphins still hanging out in Okupu Bay where we saw them when we dropped in on the trike. Excellent day (though not for the stingray a fisherman caught just along the beach from us, which escaped at the last second with the hook and trace still attached, poor thing).

Saturday 12 February 2011


Sundancer could have caught something like this 32lb snapper for us this morning (mounted on the wall here at Tipi and Bob's motel) as we trolled our way to Fitzroy Harbour this morning, but we didn't get any bites. Shame. So we had to forgo the fresh sashimi that Chris would have whipped up for our lunch, and instead made do with scotch fillet and chicken kebabs on the boat's bbq with his special kaffir lime, chilli and garlic dressing.

It was a misty, moisty, moody morning, all subtle greys and greens: none of that gaudy blue nonsense today. The Broken Islands were still spectacularly, well, broken, and rocky, with determined pohutukawas hanging off them somehow.

Then Tony showed us his obsession: ridding a peninsula of rats and rabbits so the birds would come back. It's working, but it's a major mission with traps and bait stations, constant monitoring and an electrified barrier fence that wouldn't be amiss at Paremoremo. Good for him.

Then Steve showed us his passion: an Indian teepee, where he and his wife sleep under his clever modified umbrella system. What fun! And good for him too, not to see why he shouldn't indulge such a whim.

He got quite poetical this afternoon, showing us over his island. "Not everyone can hear it, but if the Barrier speaks to you, you'll never gets its voice out of your ear." Beginning to understand how that works - even in the rain.

Friday 11 February 2011

Feeling the vibe.

No whales, alas - why am I not surprised? - but dolphins, three of them streaking over for a bit of a burl on the bow-wave, looking up at us as they rode the water.

It was a beautiful crossing, flat calm and sunny, and GBI looking rugged and bush-clad and interesting.

We've already met some artists, seen a kaka, heard lots of local gossip from guide Steve (the Becks Meets the Ex party sounded pretty lively), seen some fabulous beaches with clear-as, inviting water, and had a swim.

Getting a feel for the place already - and liking what I see.


Great Barrier Island, that is: today's destination, four hours away out in the Hauraki Gulf. Maybe there'll be whales!

But even if not, there'll be new territory to explore, somewhere that's always been just over there on the horizon, but always out of reach. Till today.

Monday 7 February 2011

The curse continues....

News from Western Australia that there are bush fires burning out of control on the outskirts of Perth, moving at 100m an hour, with 40 homes and a bridge destroyed and many more threatened in strong and unpredictable winds. I'm going there next month. Perhaps you're thinking this is just an Australian thing, hogging the headlines with the floods, the killer cyclone and all? I think not.

Meanwhile, no word of any sort of disaster from Malaysia, where I was going to be travelling in a couple of weeks' time, but backed out for various reasons. Case closed, I think.

Sunday 6 February 2011

Unkindest cut of all

Yesterday the Outward Bound cutter was mown down in Queen Charlotte Sound by a Dolphin Watch catamaran, destroying it and injuring most of those inside, some of them seriously. Bad news.

This is that cutter when I did my OB course in 2003: it was our first hands-on experience of our week there, as it probably was for the students yesterday. We'd all met at the ferry terminal, had the briefest of introductions and then changed into running gear to jog all the way round the bay, past amused tourists on Picton's waterfront, to a cove on the other side. There we were instructed to run right into the water and swim out to this cutter, scramble aboard, and row it to a small island in the Sound, where we manhandled the sails up the mast and by guess and by God navigated it to the little beach where we spent the night under the stars, taking turns at keeping watch over the boat. And where a possum ran over my stomach while I was asleep.

It was a typically full-on introduction to OB, and we found that they're not the least bit interested in teaching outdoor skills, but fully focused on pushing people out of their comfort zones, literally and figuratively, to discover what they're capable of. None of us was particularly experienced in any of this nautical stuff, but we muddled through ok and once we'd got over the shock, were quite proud of what we did, even though it had no style at all.
This is one of the group of 14, Norm Hewitt, who in a former life was an All Black, but on the cutter was most useful as a dead weight for controlling the jib. Possibly gib.
And this is a man whose name I forget, because when we arrived at Anakiwa the next day and were shown the high ropes course that we were to negotiate that evening under spotlights, he scarpered after dinner and was never seen again.

Shame. Other people were scared of things too, like swimming under the cutter, or abseiling down a cliff, but they did it and were proud of themselves. I bet he's still sorry he didn't go through with it. None of that stuff worried me - not because I'm brave, more that I have a lack of imagination for possible consequences; but I did learn some things about myself, good and bad. The bad was that I was too obedient: when we did our solo two nights in the bush, I took only what was allowed and spent most of the time dutifully alone in this Spartan shelter with only passing possums for company. Believe me, when viewed from flat on the ground, in moonlight, with nothing between the two of you but a thin nylon sleeping bag, a possum looks much bigger than you remember.
The others, meanwhile, had not only taken lots more equipment from the storeroom, but had been visiting each other's camps very sociably all day. On the second night they decided I must have had enough time to write up all the notes I'd said I needed to do, and invited me to Norm's pad, where he'd erected a huge tent and been cooking up tins of corned beef over a fire. It made a nice change from the regulation flapjacks and water, I must say.

And the good thing I learned is what brought me here, to do this travel-writing lark: that it's no good thinking "one day I might try that". You have to commit. And look how that's worked out!

Friday 4 February 2011


And they did, the Queenslanders, and escaped Yasi's fury, for the most part: so that's all right. Pretty good result, considering how differently it could have gone; though the thought of the clean up in places like Tully makes me go fuzzy at the edges.

My hens are laying AWOL again, and scouting around their run this evening, I heard birdy mutterings, and discovered in the creek bed just over the fence, an astonishingly large family of mallard ducks - Mum, Dad and at least 14 teenagers (another thought that makes me feel weak) - happily puddling in the mud and the tradescantia that grows there luxuriantly much to the hens' frustration, as they consider it a gourmet snack.

They were too busy guzzling to bother much about me so I watched them for a bit before resuming my egg-hunt. I like ducks - why, I ate one in Tasmania just last week, at Quamby Estate, as part of a delicious meal - and was pleased when I went to Brickendon Farm Village to find lots of them there fussing around the grounds. It was a poultry-lover's paradise: hens with chicks, all sorts of breeds, all over the place; and geese and turkeys too. Also two laid-back dogs, a friendly cat, a pig, goats, horses and cows: Louise, who farms the property with her husband, did mention in passing that she was "an animal person". Oh, really?!

The farm has been in the family for seven generations now, and has just been declared a World Heritage site because of its place in the convict management scheme. I spent ages poking around through the buildings that are very much as they were in the days when convicts worked there: the smithy cluttered with heavy metal, the cookhouse ceiling black with soot, the cute little chapel peaceful, its pews made from iconic huon pine.

The rather grand homestead across the road is surrounded by beautiful gardens, a striped lawn and a highly-regarded arboretum: but I was most taken by the sweet little coachman's cottage, which can be rented, furnished with patchwork quilts and old china. And this wooden settle, with these charming tapestry cushions.

Wednesday 2 February 2011

Heads down

Good grief, Queensland is copping it again. Cyclone Yasi, category 5, is about to reach the coast, and the meteorologists are using words like catastrophic, severe, dramatic, incredible, devastating, atrocious and deadly plus predicting 300kmh winds and a 2m coastal surge.

They're comparing it with Cyclone Tracy in Darwin on Christmas Eve, 1974: I've seen the photos of that in the museum there, and stood in the dark in a little room and listened to the recording of the wind made by Father Ted Collins as his church service was swept aside by the storm. There was a warning on the door: 'The sounds you are about to hear may upset people who can remember Cyclone Tracy' and I saw some people turn away, still traumatised thirty years later. The airport anemometer broke at 217kmh, but the wind speeds were estimated to have reached 260kmh - so it's chilling to imagine what Yasi is going to do in places like Cairns.

I've been there too, and sat in the dusk by the Esplanade swimming beach (an artificial one, because the sea alongside the real one is full of marauding crocs) watching people using the free barbecues, lolling in the water under the fountain and the metal fish, being relaxed and sociable as an astonishing cloud of fruit bats came from behind the city and flew overhead out across the bay to a headland where the mango trees were in fruit.

It's a cheerful place, full of young people and tourists, neat and well-kept along the waterfront where people jog and watch the birds, its marina full of swanky boats. Hard to imagine how it's going to look in just a few hours' time. Hold tight, people.


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