Larrikins past, Nick Bollinger

Teenagers: The Rise of Youth Culture in New Zealand
Chris Brickell
Auckland University Press, $50.00,
ISBN 9781869408688

 

In 1971, I became a teenager. It was the start of a complicated, confusing, exciting time. Over the next few years, I would immerse myself in music, experiment with sex and drugs, form lifelong friendships and explore various kinds of rebellion, as I tried to figure out what this adult world was that I was growing towards, and what my place in it might be.

If there’s a personal message I can take from Chris Brickell’s Teenagers: The Rise of Youth Culture in New Zealand, it is that my experience was far from unique. The adolescent’s quest to define him- or herself as they navigate the path from childhood to adulthood has been taking place in various forms since the earliest days of New Zealand society. Yet the teenage experience has had little written about it, at least by historians. When teenagers are acknowledged, Brickell notes, it is usually in terms of adults’ condemnation. 

This book goes some way towards redressing the balance. Drawing on letters and diaries, Brickell frees the voices of adolescents from the 19th century on, amplifying them with an excellent selection of photographs, which have their own stories to tell. His focus on written texts necessarily means he confines his study to New Zealand’s post-colonial, bi-cultural history.

The term “teenager” first appeared in America around 1930, and became a popular label there during the 1940s, as youth acquired buying power and the consumer culture adapted to their needs. In New Zealand, it arrived a little later, in the 1950s, coinciding with the rapid suburban growth of places such as Auckland and the Hutt Valley, and the explosion in the number of secondary school students, as children of the post-war “baby boom” reached adolescence.

This was a time of moral panic, centred on juvenile delinquency and adolescent sexuality. Yet, as Brickell shows, this was hardly anything new. As early as 1862, the opening of Dunedin’s Vauxhall Gardens – a youth-oriented “pleasure garden” offering dance bands, fireworks and other diversions – had “respectable New Zealanders worried about moral corruption”. The Presbyterian magazine The Evangelist warned that such focus on pleasure and sensation would breed a generation of “libertines”, “rakes” and “gross, degraded debauchees”.

The workplace, too, was seen as a potential den of vice. In an 1897 edition of The New Zealand Herald, the Reverend Vicesimus Lush – a name that could have been invented by Dickens – worried that factories might be breeding grounds for decadence and that “foul stories and jokes” circulated among boys and girls in crowded workrooms.

By this time, teenage subcultures were starting to emerge, with their own colourful names. There was the larrikin, a high-spirited type inclined to various kinds of mischief which included “heckling Chinamen”, interrupting public meetings, pushing over drunks and setting fire to women’s skirts. He had a female counterpart, the larrikiness.

Next came mashers and dudes: young men inclined to fancy clothing, averse to the “rough pioneer work ethic”, preferring “caramels, cigarettes and late hours”. And, by the early 20th century, there was the female equivalent: the flapper, who challenged adult conventions with her “stylish clothing, independence and late hours”.

Other teenagers enjoyed themselves and each other’s company in less flamboyant, if strikingly familiar, ways. “Mary and I went up to Margery’s,” wrote Dunedin teenager Dora de Beer in her 1906 diary. “We sat round a dear wee gas fire in her bedroom, ate chocolates, and talked scandal.”

Opportunities for boys and girls were far from equal. For boys, youth was a time of semi-independence as they took work as farmers, apprentices or scholars, while girls’ options on leaving home were essentially limited to marriage or domestic service. Discussing the 1859 arrest in Lyttelton of 14-year-old Eliza Lambert for prostitution, Brickell observes “while economic independence precipitated boys’ transition from childhood to adulthood, a girl matured when she learned to obey the rules of respectability.”

All along there were attempts by various institutions to “tame the young”. In the first days of European settlement, missionaries set up schools to ease the conversion of young Māori to Christianity. From the early 1900s, there were the Scouting, Girl Guide and Bible-class movements.

But youth continued to instigate its own movements, such as cinema-going, dancing, and jazz. If these sound innocent enough, they inevitably caused hand-wringing among the adults. Dunedin youths were taking part in “jazz orgies” in the Town Belt at midnight, reported the newspaper Truth.

By the 1930s, commercialised leisure was providing the context for the “scrapbook self”. Teenagers would cover their wall with pin-ups of movie stars, and sometimes attempt to dress or make themselves up in the manner of their heroes. They developed their own language – “gee”, “yeah”, “super”, “lousy” – much of it borrowed from Hollywood movies. As Brickell notes, “language as much as clothing styles, school routines and leisure time, encodes the meanings of youth.” With the establishment of the New Zealand Broadcasting Service in 1936, radio became another means by which youth could establish their identity, writing to stations to request hot tracks by such heroes of the day as jazz man Tommy Dorsey.

As the baby-boomers reached adolescence, the division between them and their parents was accentuated by the boomers’ identification with a new and different kind of music – rock’n’roll – and a liking for an imported and largely American pop culture. There were movies, comics, milk bars and amusement arcades: “Increasingly well-remunerated working class youths [now] had the means to participate in a consumer culture previously reserved for middle-class adolescents.” Some asserted their newfound independence with cars and motorbikes.

If such teenage pastimes occasionally spawned anti-social outcomes, it all fed into the popular picture of the teenager as a problem and a potential threat to society. This image was consolidated with two particular publications. One was The Bodgie (1958) by Arthur Manning. Somewhat sympathetic to the adolescent struggle against “post-war conformity and adult intrusions upon their ‘personal liberty’ ”, Manning “told of a restless generation in a changing world”. He noted that the atomic threat made teenagers feel they had nothing to look forward to, and that modern society “stifled self-development, crushed individuality and deprived teenagers of thrills”.

The other document was the so-called “Mazengarb Report”, the findings of a government committee set up in 1954 to investigate adolescent sexuality and juvenile immorality. Its concerned submitters described and expressed horror at “teenage orgies in picture theatres”, and “boys and girls buying condoms from pie carts.” (The latter seems a peculiarly New Zealand type of scandal.)

Brickell’s study continues through the teenage explosion of the 1950s and 1960s, his own teenage years in the 1980s, right up to the present. And what does he find today? That the millennial teenager is characterised in much the same derogatory way as ever. Recent cartoons portray “a witless, untidy, heavy-drinking, sex-obsessed, anti-social slacker.” And yet, as he points out, young people play important roles in recycling initiatives and climate change lobbying. I would add that they also lead much of the current discussion on gender diversity and lead the way when it comes to innovative uses of social media. And let’s not forget, it was a 16-year-old musician who in 2013 made the most internationally successful New Zealand recording ever.

While there are loud and powerful voices ready to express shock and concern in every era, it is hard to escape the irony that these judges were themselves once teenagers. As Brickell says in his concluding chapter:

Successive generations incorporate new values into their adult lives and superimpose their own styles over what has gone before – and later in life they perceive the next generation of teenagers to be more outrageous than they could possibly have been themselves.

Nick Bollinger is a Wellington-based writer, critic and broadcaster.

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