Monday, July 24, 2017

The Groove Book Report: Teenagers: The Rise Of Youth Culture in New Zealand, Chris Brickell, AUP, $49.99

From mashers to milk bars, flappers to factory girls, larrikins to louts – this intimate and evocative look at youth culture offers insights into the true lives of teenagers and the history of New Zealand.

Teenagers is a ground-breaking history of young people in New Zealand from the nineteenth century to the 1960s. Through the diaries and letters, photographs and drawings that teenagers left behind, we meet New Zealanders as they transition from children to adults: sealers and bushfellers, factory girls and newspaper boys, the male ‘mashers’ of the 1880s and the female  ‘flappers’ of the 1910s and ’20s, schoolgirls and rock’n’rollers, larrikins and louts.

By taking us inside the lives of young New Zealanders, the book illuminates from a new angle large-scale changes in our society: the rise and fall of domestic service, the impact of compulsory education, the movement of Pākehā and then Māori from country to city, the rise of consumer culture and popular psychology. Teenagers shows us how young people made sense of their personal and social transformations: in language and song and dress, at dances and picnics and social clubs, in talking and playing and reading.

Teenagers provides an intimate and evocative insight into the lives of young people and the history of New Zealand.


According to popular myth "In the 19th century, the American world consisted of children and adults. ... adolescents were displaying traits unknown among children and adults. Although the word teenager did not come into use until decades later, the teenage mindset dawned in the 1920s."  And we tend to think of teenagers as an invention of America, of the rising automobile culture and the post war era, especially after the dawn of rock'n'roll. Not so, says Chris Brickell, author of a new book on the subject: Teenagers: The Rise Of Youth Culture in New Zealand.  His narrative chooses to follows the development of distinctive tribal subcultures of the youth in this country, proving that 'teenhood' started much earlier, as far back as the mid 1800s, in fact, when that period of adolescence didn't even have a name, lest an identity.  Yet it existed.

Associate Professor of Gender Studies at the University of Otago, Chris Brickell knows his stuff but unlike  many other academics he's resisted the temptation to cloak his findings and research in complicated extrapolations and dull, structured prose.  Instead he's peppers his snappy words with plenty of photographic evidence and informative and effective asides.  In fact half the book is photos, so it makes for a helpful browsing book but is also really informative and educational when you choose to dig deeper.

Of course, it's not an an exclusive club.  we've all been card carriers at some stage.  Brickell was once a teenager himself.  He writes a little about his teen years, but doesn't focus too heavily.  That'd be an autobiography.  He does acknowledge that every teenager's experience will be different.  "When you're a teenager, you can only see one little part of the elephant," he says,  Essentially he reckons that every experience is very much down to social class, family context, friends, sexuality, personality.  And I would add historical setting.  The world of pre-war teens, war and post war adolescences and then the 70's, etc, and now are all different.  Teens today have social media and digital devices.  Teens then had telephones and letters, telegrams home.  Technology was important and essential to keeping social relationships alive - more so than adults.  More intense, perhaps.  That is different in every era but really, similar.  And yet still, no two experiences were exactly the same.  Confused?

Brickell looks at it this way: There are some major shifts in our society from the 1800s and he follows through fashion, music, slang, courting rituals and social gatherings like dances and the all present 'coming out balls' and of course, weddings.  He also looks at the opportunities for jobs and the freedom our youth had, within the social confines and rules of the day.
Brickell's images show the very same people decades before hanging out together, as distinct groups - cliche's even (pre-1950's Heathers).  One example is of three likely lads photographed in the 1930's with their bikes, in a the 1940's.  Mostly these photos were of sports events, youth clubs, Scouts, Boy's and Girls Brigade''s and dances but they definitely show what the cool kids were up to back then.  One classic is some teenagers at a dance at Upper Hutt Youth Club during the 1960s.  Don't they look hip?  Observe below:

Revelle Jackson
The teen terms are even more important.  You've got "Straights" and "Rebels", "Bushfellers" and "City Slickers", "Factory Boys" and servant girls. "Mashers", "Larrikins", "Flappers", "Bodgies", "Widgies", and "Cissies", "Jazz Boys" and, my favourite, "Milk-bar Cowboys".  Brickell gives us insights into all these gangs.  But, somehow he misses the really big one.  The army.  Half of our teens were duped into joining the biggest gang of all.  the biggest bullshit gang.  Their still telling the same lie to teens in the USA. Hell, half the the country are 'serving' it seems.  But here we choose Peace and self obsession over oblivion.  Thank God for that.  Rant aside, it seems that it's the one thing Brickell has missed.  Yet Military service really did have a big part in the shaping of the Kiwi teen.  Male, and even females, to.

Apparently Brickell spent more than eight years collecting photographs and recording plenty of key local youth styles.  He snuck away their diaries (slightly creepy) and snatched choice lines from outraged editorials in newspapers like The Truth and our or upstanding Evening Post.  He couldn't resist.

But, he argues, this is a book about changes in New Zealand society - with a youth lens.  True even Michael king's journalist eye ignores the youth history of our country and focuses on the big events.  there's an exhibition at Te Papa, in Wellington called Golden Days.  it may well be the only time you actually see youth of any age in NZ history and their regular pastimes.

Naturally, Brickell focused on the look, poses, attitude, the rebellion. He says that even in the earliest photos you get a 'dandy' emerging.  A style, particularly with the young men who are trying to establish their own uniqueness, a separation from the old fogeys.  Take a look at rugby players or even warriors - they a youthful rebelliousness and masculinity.  An attempt within the confines to show their own burgeoning power in spite of their parents and their peers.  "Gesture, pose and attitude - the larrikin's slouch, the masher's smirk, the flapper's swearing, the bodgie's sneer - all reflected a desire to dissemble and transgress".  Check these two out:
Auckland University Press
However, it wasn't just men.  In the late 1800s, a large number of girls spent their teenage years working as domestic servants, under the thumb of their wealthy employers, both morally and financially, and, of course, that influenced how they behaved and expressed themselves.  By contrast, many young men had financial power, working in factories.  there was a very specific working class youth style called the "Larrikin", and a more middle class style called the "Masher".  They were still miniature adults but they grew up fast.  Women, teen women didn't get that independence until they became factory workers and 'Land Girls" in the years of WWII.  Or did they.  Brickell shows a few incidents where they have some freedoms.  In church groups, in social settings and universality life.

He also notes the development of youth interests, the slow but steady development of teenagers' own tastes like in 1920s, a lot of young Kiwis were interested in of jazz, way before their parents.  And, of course there was finally the Brando entrance.  "But by the 1950s, there was a much more visible and distinct youth culture. You had rock'n'roll music, teen-focused films like Rebel Without A Cause and Blackboard Jungle, and certain clothes young people were adopting that their parents would never wear."  Of course.  Somehow, that was when teen hood got boring - predictable McDonald s and Walmart  cloned styles and culture.  The strength in this book is the undercurrent.  Before the introduction of the Teddy Boys, and the Motops.  There is a brilliant blurry pic of some punters from Lower Hutt's Stokes Valley doing their best to outraged the 'Olds' with their shaggy Beatles' mop-tops.

Naomi Highfield, Glenys Taylor and Beverley Nicholson near the skating rink in Paraparaumu, early 1965.
Auckland University Press

The Beatles made it here in 1964, and you had local young-un's with mop-top hairstyles and the whole she-bang showing up New Zealand as a really backward and boring place.  I had noted that just about every photo prior to that was an old grey haired bloke in tweed or a woman with a turban hat and cats eye glasses (always over 50 and nearly always some Mayor's wife).  Squaresville, man!

Although his book finishes abruptly in the 1970's, before my own teen hood really got going, he notes that there is no more a "typical teenager" today than there was in the 1880s.  Obviously he chose to ignore 'Punk' and "Goth' and New Romantic'.  I could have argued these were far more influential than the Teddy Boys and the Widgies.  He'd just say it was history repeating itself.

Teenagers: The Rise Of Youth Culture in New Zealand, Chris Brickell, AUP, $49.99, is on sale on July 24.

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