Happy days, Redmer Yska

I Live Here Now: Sarah Campion in 1950s New Zealand
ed Rachel Scott
Shoal Bay Press, $29.95,
ISBN 1877251054

Over the summer of 2000, National Radio was the unlikely backdrop for a rumble over New Zealand in the 1950s. The Fifties File, put together by Jack Perkins, argued that it was the liveliest of decades, strong in the arts and literature; a time of sunny prosperity and certainty after the years of war and depression.

An hour-long Sunday morning programme by lawyer and pundit Steven Price took an opposing view. He argued that our 1950s were far from happy days, where Maori, women and newly-minted teenagers wilted in a barracks-room atmosphere, where the icicles of the Cold War hovered over the new suburbs of Sandringham and the Hutt Valley.

I Live Here Now, Sarah Campion’s collection of monthly columns for Home and Building magazine in the 1950s, takes the Perkins route. In that sense it is a useful addition to the debate about what the decade was really like. Nicely crafted and always witty, Campion’s “Housewife’s Diary” conveys something of the period’s sleepiness and Stalinist uniformity. Rarely do external events intrude: many of these dispatches from suburbia on house renovations, tabby cats, and Auckland’s weather could have turned up in a 1980s Next editorial.

I myself subscribe to the darker view of the decade. My 1993 book on the period posits a repressive landscape, where young people struggled at home and at school against military discipline and authoritarianism.

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It is a shame that Campion shines so little light on the issues we now identify with the times. In a column from 1956, she mentions the reaction of her friends towards the household “labour-saving devices” that symbolised the new prosperity. She writes:

I have a friend who steadily refuses the gift of a vacuum-cleaner on the grounds that she can sweep her wooden floors far more easily with an old-fashioned broom, and far more peacefully without the racket which even the best and the newest of machines creates … I’ve another friend who won’t buy an electric polisher, on the grounds that she gets so worn out running around after it, and can go down on her hands and knees and polish far more satisfactorily to her own individual rhythm without over-heating herself.

 

Fifteen years of the self-denial and sacrifice associated with the First Labour Government saw a level of (brief) resistance to the liberation. A National Radio talk from 1953, entitled “Is the NZ housewife inefficient?”, suggested that many women felt it was “not quite the thing” to take advantage of home appliances:

Perhaps we’re too near our pioneering background, and tales of backbreaking washing and cooking orgies still ring in our ears. People who think it’s lazy to send your clothes out to the wash, or to use tinned foods, forget that life today is more complex than for our grand-parents.

 

The Holland Government bounded into power in 1949, its unlovely PM calling for a nation of little capitalists. “Our Sid” judged the mood right: materialism was on the minds of many after years of austerity and rationing, where a permit was still needed for a pint of cream. The worship of the new home appliances reached sickening proportions on quiz shows like It’s In the Bag.

Campion arrived here in 1952 as the decade began to brighten up following what seemed like decades of browns, greys and greens. The austerity, the years of cautious restraint were fading as the fabulous prices earned by wool farmers washed millions of quid through the economy. Refrigerators, washing machines and vacuum cleaners began to pour off local production lines in 1953 after years of shortages of raw materials, especially sheet metal and labour. Annual production of fridges in 1950 stood at 13,000; by 1955 the figure had leaped to well over 70,000. Washing machine production, too, quadrupled over this period. Politicians praised the appliances for their ability to heal the uncertainties and power shifts of the postwar years. For the 1954 election, National successfully campaigned under the theme “These Fortunate Isles” where “people are spending more on consumer goods – and there are more to buy.”

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But many young people felt less than fortunate to live in a land where adults, according to one US commentator, took “an unwarrantedly bitter, unfriendly and punitive attitude towards youth”. Adolescents in 1954 were still under the thumb of the adult world, expected to dress like Dad and Mum in the “new brown sportscoat” look that one wag described as “Moscow 1925”. As a booming economy gave them jobs and independence, many began to identify with the coming global “teenage” revolution embracing American fashions and musical taste. This desire for separation from the kitchen table, for a more glamorous role as a “consumer trainee”, set the scene for the youth explosion of the 1960s.

The behaviour of young people shocked the country during 1954, first the Parker-Hulme matricide in June, then the sex scandals in the Hutt Valley involving dozens of teenagers and a gang of “milkbar cowboys”. A media-fuelled public outcry over this “moral chaos” forced a government in election mode into action. A decision was made to hold a lightning inquiry. Distributed to every New Zealand household days before the 1954 election, the so-called Morals Report thundered (without evidence) that adolescent sexual behaviour was on the rise, that teenage girls were more precocious. Laws were passed banning sexy books and films. Condom sales to those under 16 were outlawed.

In the winter of 1955, as Campion began to pen her columns for Home and Building, government officials began purges of American pulp fiction novels from libraries, bookshops, milkbars and dairies. In a few cases, the seized books were burnt. Even a book of poems by Robert Graves was rounded up in a bookshop raid. It was the year the Holland Government hanged four men in Auckland prison, two of them British “teddy boy”-types guilty of crimes of passion. The Executive acted quickly to stamp out the “moral chaos” in its midst. The crimes of the young men were painted as the handiwork of juvenile delinquency; an example had to be made of them.

Ripples from this savagery even reached Campion’s suburban bunker. In November 1956, she tells how “little boys have dug deep holes and caverns … and, in a fit of fancy, have put up a hangman’s hill complete with gallows and corpse at one end.” She mentions a game called “Happy Hangman”, then expands on such tedious themes as Twiss the ginger tabby, thunderstorms, and the Kiwi Christmas: “Is 1956 going to go down in history as the year in which New Zealand first faced up to the necessarily antipodean nature of its Christmas?”

Sarah Campion could never be called a slouch. She arrived here aged 46, with 13 novels under her belt. Before marrying Antony Alpers, the Katherine Mansfield scholar,  and raising a child, she’d been a London broadcaster, South African housekeeper, Queensland rouseabout and English teacher to Jews trying to flee pre-war Berlin. Maybe she shared in that most powerful impulse of the decade: to find a deckchair after so many stormy years. This was the mission of the returning servicemen, keen to settle down and raise a family. But, as we saw, deeper forces were at work, forces that would drop the postwar world on its head.

 

Redmer Yska is the author of All Shook Up. The Flash Bodgie and the Rise of the New Zealand Teenager in the 1950s (Penguin, 1993). 

 

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Posted in Essays, History, Media, Non-fiction, Review and Sociology
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