Ruck on, Chris Knox

The Swinging Sixties: When New Zealand Changed Forever
Graham Hutchins
HarperCollins, $49.99,
ISBN 9781869506537

Missed opportunities – don’t you just hate them? I was a little apprehensive about The Swinging Sixties, given that Graham Hutchins was primarily known for his rugby books, but was heartened by the fact that he had also written Eight Days A Week, a well-assembled volume about the Beatles’ tour of New Zealand in 1964. This was clearly a man who had either lived through the era or, at the very least, immersed himself in research. I assumed the former to be true.

And so it appeared to be, as I glided through the early chapters covering pre-Beatles New Zealand. Hutchins captured the desperation of the six o’clock- swill years with a been-there, done-that wisdom. The drab and provincial aura of this land still immersed in a colonial 1950s lifestyle was described just as my youthful mind had captured it in memory’s amber. The overwhelming importance of rugby, racing and beer to the bloke and the stifling boredom of suburban housewifery endured by the missus. Nothing swung back then apart from the strap, the cane and the – very occasional – voter.

The book’s structure, however, had me confused for a while. Hutchins covers each year with a brief overview, then proceeds to an account of a particular aspect of Kiwi life in the following pages. After “1960”, for example, come three chapters considering “Prosperity”, “Religion” and “Politics”. The confusion derives from the overviews being of the whole decade rather than the year previously covered. Upon realising this, all puzzlement vanished but it would have been nice if Hutchins had clarified this approach in his introduction.

Ahhh, the introduction. It signed off with these retrospectively prescient words: “At least one thing remained a constant – the All Blacks kept winning, right up until the decade was done.” Both the All Blacks and rugby in general get their own chapters, which is fair enough considering their impact on this small country at the time. Unfortunately, they also keep cropping up with monotonous, dull and ultimately infuriating intervals throughout nearly all other chapters, regardless of putative subject matter. A rough count reveals 31 pages devoted to the sport and its heroes which, in a 254 page book, is roughly an eighth of the overall content. And this does not take into account the numerous references like:

school kids thanked their lucky stars if the dental nurse was built like an All Black forward, with the foot-pumping propensity to get the drilling done in the truncated time it took Colin Meads to ruck the ball back against the Springboks.

 

By the time I reached this passage on page 222, I was ready to throw the book across the room the next time our golden game merited a mention.

Mind you, maybe I am some kind of aberration for, 120 pages earlier, our author had insisted that “Young New Zealand boys had rugby in their bones, and every young bloke wanted to be an All Black.” No! Not true, not me.

Now, lest you begin to think that I have too large and ferocious a bee in my bonnet over this unseemly bias towards our national sport, let me assure you that I would not be moaning quite so much if such tedious attention to the minutiae of various games and sparkling careers were not at the expense of worthier subject matter. Consider: the book has 30 chapters – outside the yearly countdowns – which embrace everything from “Race relations”, through “Trains”, “Other sports”, “Humour”, “Shopping”, “The youth revolution” and “Smoking” to “Sex, drugs and gender roles” and “Television”. A vast arena of interests are covered.

But here’s a short list of some aspects of Kiwi life in the 1960s that not only have no chapter devoted to their pursuit but receive no mention at all in this book: art, craft, dance, theatre, literature.

That’s right. You will not find Colin McCahon, Len Castle, Rowena Jackson, Ian Mune or Janet Frame in these pages. Which, for a book subtitled “when New Zealand changed forever”, is nothing short of criminal. This was, after all, the decade in which New Zealand really found its feet in the world of the arts, shrugging off forever the cultural cringe that had so diminished our native creativity in the eyes of the Anglocentric masses until that time. I can accept that this was not the book that Hutchins wanted to write but to ignore all this extraordinary activity is hugely unfortunate, if not mindless, and something that his editors should never have allowed.

And there’s the rub. Had this book been called A Kiwi Bloke’s Sixties – When the All Blacks Strode the Globe it would be forgivable but with the present title and its psychedelic cover – albeit with a photo sourced from an international image bank that is transcendentally nonKiwi – it feels like a rip-off. There is no real sense of the author having rejoiced in the movements that helped unshackle this small country. His chapter on “New Zealand Music” – no, he does not ignore all areas of creativity – would have us believe that only Fourmyula and John Rowles (!) were writing original material. He also has no time for anything beyond pop; the slightly experimental leanings of the late 1960s groups are described as “drug-addled ramblings”. Douglas Lilburn and his classical cohorts, not to mention the practitioners of folk and country music, do not get a look-in.

It’s such a shame. Hutchins shows a good grasp of exactly how this country creaked away in the early part of the decade and has certainly done his homework on so much of the subject matter he has deigned to address, but the stultifying omnipresence of rugby plus the inexplicable absence of 90 per cent of the arts make this book, at best, a curiosity and, at worst, an exercise in complete and utter futility.

 

Chris Knox is an Auckland jack of all creative trades.

 

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Posted in History, Non-fiction and Review
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