Coral Route: Tasman Empire Airways Ltd, flying boats and the South Pacific by Gerry Barton and Philip Heath (Steele Roberts, 2015) 209 pp., $45; Real Modern: Everyday New Zealand in the 1950s and 1960s by Bronwyn Labrum (Te Papa Press, 2015), 429 pp., $75
Skywatchers in Auckland in the early 1950s would have seen a remarkable sight on a regular basis: a giant winged boat flying low above the city. Mythic and portentous, an airborne waka swanning beneath the clouds before disappearing over the ocean horizon, the Solent flying boat – in various classes and makes – was New Zealand’s distinctive contribution to the romance of aviation in the South Pacific in the 1940s and 1950s. This flying boat apparition finally vanished from the skies in September 1960 with the discontinuation of the Coral Route.
Coral Route: Tasman Empire Airways Ltd, flying boats and the South Pacific, by historians Gerry Barton and Philip Heath, is a richly illustrated and absorbing account of the full story. The 1950s were the swansong years of the British Empire, when Pax Americana was gradually replacing Pax Britannica across the Pacific but with British colonial remnants and protocols lingering on. The establishment of TEAL (Tasman Empire Airways Ltd) partly grew out of the British government’s pre-World War II Imperial Airways scheme to provide an air-link to the most far-flung corners of the empire. The Coral Route – a an island-hopping, business, tourist and mail service which relied not on landing strips but on lagoon seadromes – was based on the Royal New Zealand Air Force’s war-time routes between New Zealand’s Pacific Island colonial territories.
The mystique of the tropics, the idea of the exotic frontier, the glamour of rapid air travel – all bound up in notions of Empire – were part of the legacy of the international giant flying-boat services conducted by the Germans and the French, as well as by the British and the Americans in the 1930s: Cairo to Johannesburg, Miami to Rio de Janeiro, Honolulu to Manila. The South Pacific was a kind of last redoubt of British Imperialism. In the 1950s, New Zealand remained happy to go on waving the flag. The coronation of Queen Elizabeth II occurred in June 1953; meanwhile in May 1953 New Zealander Edmund Hillary, as part of a British-led expedition, became the first person – along with Sherpa Tensing – to climb Mt Everest. The Queen was on her throne, God was in His heaven, and all was right with the world.
Flying in heavier-than-air powered machines – which began as a great twentieth-century myth of triumphalism, an enthralling aesthetic event – sustained its atmosphere of euphoria into the second half of the century, both as packaged in TEAL’s picturesque Coral Route poster campaign and also in the actuality. There was something genuinely heroic about the seat-of-the-pants voyaging of the flying boats, which were noisy and lumbering contraptions with creaky aluminium hulls and primitive heating and cooling systems. From this book we learn that flying-boat pilots often had to trust their instincts and intuitions – in storms, or even in times of bright sunlight: coasting over jagged coral reefs and deceptive sea depths. Those were the days, then, when flight was still a kind of poetic dream: slowly droning across the vast Pacific just two or three thousand metres above the waves in what was little more than a large rattling tin can with whirring propellers attached. Each leg of the journey lasted around four or five hours.
A flying boat could accommodate up to 44 passengers, and the passenger lists reveal an often raffish and curious cast of fellow-travellers, from the Crown Prince of Tonga, to novelist Graham Greene, to Hollywood actor Gary Cooper, to the Cardinal of Australia, to French politicians and film-makers, to big-band conductors, to the usual wealthy tourists, as well as a onetime shipment of six convicts being transferred to a bigger prison.
The service never made a profit; instead, subsidised by the government, it functioned as a kind of political and cultural statement, connecting Auckland by direct flight with Fiji, before an onward flight from Laucala Bay at Suva to Aitutaki’s lagoon in the Cook Islands group, and then a flight that skimmed to rest near Apia in Western Samoa, before the final leg touched down offshore from the port of Papeete in Tahiti. In fact, the Coral Route had most significance for French-controlled Tahiti, as it was the only direct air service to Papeete, which was otherwise only reachable by ship from New Caledonia, until France set up its own air connection – via the former military base of Bora Bora – in the late 1950s, thus foreshadowing the demise of this particular TEAL service.
Barton and Heath point out how in the 1950s the South Pacific was a remote backwater in every way: a collection of ‘tropical slums’ still very much in the grip of benign but neglectful colonialism, where a ‘colour bar’ operated, and where most islands were run as missionary theocracies and were often rife with diseases such as leprosy and TB – while the Coral Route passengers were put up at relatively luxurious hotels.
The sense of adventure involved is conveyed in the book through the large number of eyewitness accounts, anecdotes and reminiscences, as well as with informal snapshots and official photographs. Notably colourful is a 1954 incident originating from a collision with a floating coconut or log in Papeete’s lagoon. A wing pontoon, holed at take-off from Papeete, rapidly filled up with water following the descent onto Aitutaki lagoon, dragging the port wing into the water and causing the aircraft to heel over. To avoid it capsizing, the crew members had to promptly leap out and stabilise the listing flying boat by clambering to the end of the starboard wing, while the passengers in the cabin below donned lifejackets and crowded to that same side. Eventually transferred off the now-righted aircraft by launch, the passengers, after camping for a time on the beach, were taken to a neighbouring airstrip and flown back to Fiji on a Bristol Freighter transport plane, while the flying boat awaited temporary repairs.
In fact, the Coral Route was ever precarious, a slightly fanciful way of travelling that was soon superseded by faster, more efficient, land-based air transport. By 1957, of the five Solent flying boats originally purchased by TEAL between 1949 and 1951 to fly a variety of routes, including Wellington to Sydney, only one, the Aranui, remained. It serviced the Coral Route exclusively, on one of the world’s last, long-range, scheduled, passenger flying-boat journeys. Ultimately the Aranui ended up stored at Auckland’s Museum of Transport and Technology, where, left exposed to the weather, it sank into ruin. Barton and Heath include in their book a blow-by-blow account of its recent gradual restoration and refurbishment inside a new MOTAT display hangar.
For most New Zealanders, the Coral Route destinations – a kind of rich person’s sped-up version of an island cruise – were out of reach, and usually just glimpsed in the form of brightly coloured, screen-printed posters placed in the windows of travel agencies and airline offices. Many of these posters are included in Coral Route, and a section of one adorns the book’s cover. They were all designed by a small group of commercial artists who were mostly graduates from Auckland’s Elam School of Fine Art, and, as alluring invitations to a fantastic voyage, their work bids comparison with other fine examples of classic early Modernist graphic art commercial posters produced through the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.
A selection of these same Coral Route travel posters also appears in Real Modern: Everyday New Zealand in the 1950s and 1960s by Bronwyn Labrum. In Labrum’s book, though, they serve a slightly different purpose: as examples of the domesticated exotic. Labrum’s central concern is to show how the advertising industry in New Zealand helped create new appetites, new tastes. So her travel poster sampling stresses the wish-fulfillment nature of such advertising, with its idealising and abstracted graphics. Real Modern, as the title might suggest, uses a pick’n’mix aesthetic and an effervescent or droll tone to explore the ideology behind decorous Kiwiana.
Truffling among the treasures held at our national museum Te Papa, as well as bringing in items selected from other collections, Labrum provides a carefully curated book where the optimistic, sunny kaleidoscope of imagery is a trip down memory lane into the cradle-to-grave welfare state of the recent past: examining it through the mementos it has left behind. There’s a mixture of things, some individually crafted, but the emphasis is on the mass-produced object, provided for a mass audience and promoted using mass media. As such, it’s really a trip down a commercial memory lane to a time when ‘Let’s go shopping!’ was the uninflected catch-cry.
In Real Modern, the ephemeral has been immortalised, household administration valorised, and tastemaking emphasised. This is the way we lived then, given an ironic gloss by the passage of time. It’s a look back – with a certain wistfulness – to the collectivism of the post-war years when peer pressure, the need to be part of the crowd, was taken for granted. Here, it’s shown that all this served a larger purpose, though in a less-knowing way than might be the case now: that is, to promote brand loyalty, brand awareness and certain ideals of patriotism. Indeed, the imagery in this book is a way of smuggling discarded, if not discredited, images of national unity back into circulation.
Take the keynote cover image: when Ans Westra took the original black-and-white photograph in 1963 of a young Māori couple with their baby window-shopping down the main street of Rotorua, there was a kind of tentativeness, a delicacy of apprehension, and an implicit ambivalence, which the revamped colourised version replaces with the emphasis of a cheerful jingle extolling the choices possible as a result of material plentitude. This image, as remade, asserts that these two decades brought us the charisma of gleaming, ‘brand-new’, labour-saving devices, where acquisition was a form of self-improvement and shopping with the finesse of latter-day hunter-gatherers a compulsory ritual.
Mass production required not just the mass pay packets of a buying public, but also a mass docile acceptance, expressed as a homogenous universality. Thus, there was a uniformity not merely of dress codes but also of the mind. The officially approved aspirations extolled the nuclear family, the beachside holiday, the 40-hour week, the religiously observed Sunday, and so on. In return, there was carbonated fizzy drink, the motorised lawnmower, the magical transformations of cosmetics and fragrant smellum potions, new varieties of vacuum cleaner. The dominant ideology was not just materialistic: it was monocultural and monolithic. Ans Westra’s original photograph was taken with an outsider’s eye. She was a newly arrived Dutch migrant, alert to the ways Māori were responding to urbanisation.
What the copywriters and advertising agencies of that era didn’t mention – amidst their catalogues of must-have novelties, their cranked-up urgent invitations to be in the swim, to keep up with the neighbours, to engage in virtuous consumption – were society’s internalised tensions that occasionally boiled over in the form of the 1951 waterfront strike, or else in domestic violence, or else in drunk and disorderly conduct.
Exploring New Zealand’s rituals from marching-girl team competitions to the compulsory short-back-and-sides buzzcut for males, Labrum does necessarily include that evening high point – or possibly low point: the six o’clock swill. That is, the compulsory heavy drinking urgently undertaken in the sequestered if rowdy spaces of public bars ahead of the 6pm closing time. The big photograph of this ritual confirms the importance of the pent-up frustrations related to a conformist existence finding their safety valve, or else tipping point, at the bottom of a drained beer jug.
Then came the seismic social convulsions of the late sixties, in parallel with the mass arrival of the jet-set and attendant jet-lag, chic fashion boutiques, and pop music with varying messages of disaffection. Thus the contemporary folkloric was enlarged to include baby-boomer radicalism and, through mass university education paid for mainly by the welfare state, an acknowledgement of the life of the mind – leading on in turn to a measured reaction against the mass-produced and the industrialised in favour of the artisanal and a back-to-the-land environmentalism.
And this is where Labrum’s brisk survey stops: on the cusp of the 1970s, the decade that taste forgot and where material excess curdled. It was up to the disaffected youth tribes of the fifties and sixties – the bodgies and widgies, the juvenile delinquents, the surfies, the bikies – to turn their instinctive revolt against the fetishtic uniformity of their elders and betters into a tradition. The counter-culture, with its patchouli-saturated barefoot hairy hippies, seamed with dirt, was a logical reaction to the somewhat robotic fictions promulgated by the advertising agencies on display in Real Modern; nevertheless it is barely a footnote here.
What Real Modern needs is a companion volume or a sequel: one that’s a revisionist analysis of the particular social realism represented in this sanitised version of the ‘real modern’ as reflected in showcased design objects.
DAVID EGGLETON is the editor of Landfall Review Online. His books include Towards Aotearoa: A short history of twentieth century New Zealand art.