Regular readers of Grubsheet will be aware of our continuing campaign to restore Suva to its former glory, and especially the so-called “Golden Half-Mile”, the area bounded by Government Buildings, the Grand Pacific Hotel, Government House, the Fiji Museum and Thurston Gardens. We derive a huge amount of satisfaction from the power of our pen, or keyboard in this instance, to produce concrete action to improve our capital and again make it a source of pride for all Fijians.
Last September, we pleaded with the relevant authorities to address a number of glaring deficiencies: Save the Baka trees on Queen Elizabeth Drive from the imminent threat of felling; get rid of the garish Crest Chicken advertisement on the roof of the Tennis Club that was marring every ceremonial event in Albert Park; fix the stationary clock on the top of Government Buildings and clean the entire complex in time for the opening of the GPH late this year or early 2014.
Conditioned to years of official inaction, we fully expected this plea to fall on deaf ears. So imagine the thrill for Grubsheet of seeing every single one of our suggestions not only accepted but acted upon. There’s a new bounce in our step, a new sense of pride as we cast our eyes across this treasured vista – the heart of Suva, our birthplace far too many moons ago, and the heart of the Fijian nation. Because allow us the indulgence to explain what has happened since:
The Baka trees, which were facing the chainsaws because one of them fell down and demolished the Piccadilly taxi stand, are still standing and have been placed in the care of a professional arborist. The Tennis Club has had the Crest Chicken ad plucked from its roof and has been painted a shade of “Fiji blue”. Government Buildings is being cleaned with pressure hoses and is starting to sparkle again through the years of grime. And perhaps most important of all, the clock on top of Government Buildings is working again. Yes, you can look up at it as you pass and it actually tells you the right time. A miracle!
It used to be said in Italy that Mussolini – for all his faults – had made the trains run on time. Not an issue in Suva when the nearest train is in the cane belt in the faraway West. But making that clock work again is nonetheless a feat worth celebrating, something of symbolic value way beyond its immediate importance. Because quite simply, it says that Fiji as a whole is working again. We are back in business as a country to be taken seriously. We’re present, correct and on time. No, not Fiji time. The real time as set by Suva’s equivalent of London’s Big Ben.
The man behind the project is the country’s erudite and amiable Chief Justice, Anthony Gates, who has been given official responsibility for Government Buildings and its famous clock. More importantly, he’s also been given some Government money to restore the 1930s rambling pile that was bequeathed to us by our British colonisers and happens to be the finest building of its type in the South Pacific.
Justice Gates is using a lot of that money for a program of internal refurbishment to make the business of dispensing justice more efficient. On top of the work already accomplished, two new appeal courts are in the pipeline, a new Law Library, a new holding cellblock for those unfortunates who find themselves before the bench and a crèche to cater for their even more unfortunate progeny. But our most senior Judge is also responsible for the dramatic transformation that is starting to take place outside the building – new window frames and the water pressure cleaning that is starting to show off Government Buildings in all its glory, including some fabulous art deco detailing that’s always been difficult to see behind the grime.
The façade of Government Buildings facing Victoria Parade has been largely completed and the difference is dramatic, almost breathtaking, for those of us who love the structure and treasure its place in our history. Grubsheet stood outside there one day in 1964 for the swearing in of one of our last British Governors, the urbane Sir Derek Jakeway. I was eleven years old, a kai colo from the provinces and I had never seen something of such grandeur and splendour – Sir Derek in brilliant colonial white topped by a plumed helmet with ostrich feathers and Anthony Gates’s predecessors in their horse-hair wigs and scarlet robes.
One year short of a half century, I now pass by the same spot every day. Government Buildings now literally sparkles in the midday sun and is also rapidly becoming a place worth visiting at night. Because for the first time, floodlights have been installed to highlight the building during the evening hours and show off the new restoration work.
The Chief Justice’s next project is not merely to get the famous Clock going again but also restore its chimes – that used to ring out every quarter hour over Suva and mark the rhythm of its day. In the old days, there was never any excuse not to know the time even when you didn’t have a watch. My parents –who later lived in Pender Street – would tell me to be home just after midnight when I’d go out roaming with my friends on a Saturday night. How did I know? When the clock struck twelve, of course.
It wasn’t a deep bong like Big Ben but a more hollow, feminine chime that I can still hear in my mind’s ear to this day. Justice Gates came to Fiji in 1977 and he too, still remembers how the clock sounded. Yet a whole generation of Suva residents have never heard its trill and it’s really quite thrilling to think that very soon, they will.
At the swearing in ceremony at the High Court yesterday for a gaggle of new Commissioners of Oaths and Justices of the Peace, the Chief Justice had Grubsheet spellbound as he told the story of our beloved clock to the assembled dignitaries. It was built and assembled in Northern England in 1939 – the year World War Two broke out – by the Cumbria Clock Company. No-one seems to know how it came to be commissioned or how it got to Fiji. But as fortune would have it, the company is still in business 74 years later. Can you believe it? You better. Because Justice Gates has got the excited folk at the Cumbria Clock Company to assist with the restoration of their brilliant creation, high atop a tower at the far ends of the earth in what used to be the British Crown Colony of Fiji.
As the CJ tells it, the company still has its small factory in a rural setting near Lake Ullswater in the Lake District. In one of life’s strange coincidences, the factory is no more than 20 kilometres from where Justice Gates’s father’s family originated and lived. So the clock came from Gates country three quarters of a century ago and now the young Gates – His Lordship, the Chief Justice of Fiji – has the happy task of presiding over its restoration and getting it going again. What a thrill that must be. As the CJ puts it: “Once again the inhabitants of Suva, the capital, will be able to set their clocks and order their days in obedience to its chimes”. And Grubsheet, for one, can’t wait.
Why all the fuss over a clock that few people remember working and even fewer remember hearing? Because when those chimes start ringing out again, all the decay, all the lost years in Fiji, will finally be rung out too. It’ll be the new Fiji, the better Fiji, that we are all being promised. The one that works again. The one moving forward across the face of time.
Call me a sentimental romantic, a relic of Viti Makawa, but this I believe: The restored clock atop a restored tower overlooking Albert Park – spotlighted at night -will again be the marker of the nation’s progress, a beacon shining out across our “Golden Half Mile”, a symbol of our glorious past and the promising future that finally beckons. Oh. And there’ll be no excuse for any Suva teenager within hearing distance to ever say again – “Sorry I’m late home, Dad, I didn’t know what time it was”.