Flying Kiwis: A history of the OE, by Jude Wilson (Otago University Press, 2014), 295 pp., $45
I have a confession to make. It must colour my review of Jude Wilson’s Flying Kiwis, a generously illustrated history, in part based on oral interviews, of young New Zealanders going off on their ‘Overseas Experience’ from the 1950s to the present.
Unusually for a middle-class, university-bound New Zealander of my generation, I never took the OE. As an adult I have made five separate trips to Europe, but they were all after marrying and settling down to a job, so none of them really counts as an OE. But the OE was so pervasive in New Zealand that in reading through this book, I was startled to find photos of younger versions of people I know, boozing at the Oktoberfest or lounging about scruffily at London tourist spots. I read Flying Kiwis as somebody who heard all about the OE at second hand, from friends. And there’s another element of personal memory in my reading. When I was a child in the early 1960s, I travelled to Europe with my parents and a selection of siblings. I recognised much of the early1960s milieu that parts of this book evoke: sea-travel, the Overseas Visitors Club, Earl’s Court. But it was because I experienced these things as a child, not as an OE-er.
God, it makes me feel old to recognise instantly the names of long-scrapped ships, such as the Castel Felice and the Fairsky.
So what is this OE? It is a term unique to Kiwis. It was never used by Aussies, Jaapies or Canucks. Hence the book’s title and the iconic image of the Buzzy Bee on the cover. Strictly speaking, OE refers to long working holidays (two or three years, say), as taken by young New Zealanders, mainly in Britain and Europe, but sometimes in more exotic places. Australia isn’t far enough away to count as real OE. Overwhelmingly, as Jude Wilson says, ‘OE travellers were … young, middle class, well educated and Pakeha’ (p. 105). The OE was something you did before going to university or entering a profession. Jude Wilson dates the term OE itself to the 1970s, and speculates on how it might have arisen. But I’m surprised she misses one of the most obvious reasons for its being coined. I can remember a common joke made in the 1970s when students were comparing CVs: ‘Have you got a BCom?’ ‘No, but I’ve got my OE!’ The very acronym OE was a jocular way of giving it equivalent status to a starter academic degree, and a clear indicator of the middle-class provenance of the term.
Jude Wilson is fully aware that the OE existed de facto long before the term did. In the very early twentieth century, visitations to ‘Home’ were made by First World War diggers, escaping New Zealand intellectuals and a few children of the rich. As a minor criticism, I’m surprised that in covering this period, Wilson nowhere references Felicity Barnes’ excellent New Zealand’s London (Auckland University Press, 2012), which deals with visitors in this early period.
It was in the 1950s and 1960s, however, that the OE (still not yet called that) became more commonplace. Then, it involved young men and women taking weeks-long voyages on ships, settling in London, finding (usually low-paid) jobs and saving enough money to ‘do’ certain spots in Europe. Enter anecdotes, yarns and recollections about Earl’s Court – also known as ‘Kangaroo Valley’ – filled with drunken Australians. And working in pubs. And backyard barbecues outraging the Poms. And hiring Kombi vans. And getting plastered at the Oktoberfest in Munich. And running with the bulls at Pamplona. And that glorious time the van broke down and this nice European family took us in for a few days and it turned out to be the highlight of the whole OE.
Wilson suggests a touching innocence in young Kiwis of that earlier OE period:
Almost 50 years later, many still recall the novelty of eating Brussels sprouts, encountering bats, or – if they were from the South Island – seeing oranges growing on trees for the first time. Singapore was a shock to some, because there were few Chinese in New Zealand at the time; others recalled meeting homosexuals and Jewish people for the first time. While Susan fondly recalled the little pension where she stayed in the Greek islands, she also recalled that before leaving New Zealand she had never even heard of a pension. Passing through Amsterdam in 1963, Mary encountered the drug scene for the first time, although she did not personally partake: her most daring effort was a cigarillo. (pp. 91–92)
There are only passing references to sexual experiences in this book. There is also the maddening fact that back then, it was in some ways easier to access well-known tourist sites. Mass tourism, based on cheap air fares, was only beginning, so you could find yourself virtually alone in the Sistine Chapel or gazing at the Mona Lisa and not peering over the heads of thousands of other sardine-packed tourists.
But all that changed, because:
From the mid-1970s, flying became the only option for those going on OE (unless one went overland). Gone was the five- or six-week holiday en route afforded by sea travel. Time became more important; those going on OE could leave a job in New Zealand, organise a job in London, and be there within a week. (p. 56)
The whole nature of the OE altered, especially in 1993 when Britain, now a member of the EU, modified the conditions of working holiday permits. In holding their permits, young Kiwis could no longer subtract time spent in continental Europe from time spent in Britain (or ‘the UK’ as it was now more likely to be called). Working holidays perforce became shorter – unless one married an EU citizen.
By the 1990s and 2000s, as Wilson shows, the OE had become trimmer and more focused. You can fly from Auckland to London in less than two days, after all. Young New Zealanders now tend to work in shorter-term, more highly paid jobs in London and elsewhere. There’s also the matter of communication. Time was, families back in New Zealand could expect not to hear from their OE-ing young adults for weeks, and then only via snail-mailed letters or fuzzy phone calls. Now, parents who don’t receive an e-mail or Facebook nudge every couple of days, or even have a Skype chat, will assume that something is wrong.
As the development of an academic thesis, Flying Kiwis is always informative, always well researched and does benefit from the many anecdotes of OE-takers (like Jude Wilson herself) which the author has dug out. It does, however, sometimes have the air of methodically ticking off topics, in true thesis fashion. How OE-ers earned a living (Chapter 6) teaching English in Japan, working on Kibbutzim in Israel, volunteering to be paid in medical trials, or manning North Sea oil rigs – plus the common dodge of faking CVs to get work. How national identity fared (Chapter 7) as young New Zealanders found themselves beginning to speak with English accents or got used to a more crowded environment with more visible crime. The frequent anti-climax of returning home (Chapter 8), readjusting to New Zealand accents, smokeless pubs and the fact that not all that many people were really impressed by your OE stories because they were often so similar to the ones they had already heard. Wilson’s interviewees include a few brave souls who admit that actually they didn’t enjoy their OE very much and were glad to return home. One or two say they stayed away as long as they did only because they didn’t want to disappoint their families.
Wilson provides diagrams a couple of times to show how the nature of the OE has changed. The one on p. 255 identifies the 2000s as the time of ‘Commercialisation’. Once you get publications advertising ‘The Great OE’, you can be fairly sure that the earlier adventurous spirit in which OEs were undertaken is now long past. An ‘OE’ now is more in the nature of a brief pre-organised holiday, with not a Kombi van in sight.
Nice piece of book production – broad, double-columned pages, many ‘break-ins’ of text, huge variety of photos, cartoons, posters, tourist publicity material and facsimiles of documents. My favourite visual feature of Flying Kiwis? The frequent reproductions of the ‘O.E.’ cartoons Chris Slane did back in the 1980s, which say as much about the condition of young Kiwis adrift in Britain as some of the text does.
Nicholas Reid is an Auckland historian, poet, teacher and reviewer who holds a PhD from the University of Auckland. His works include three biographies, two general histories and the poetry collection The Little Enemy (Steele Roberts, 2011). He has four times guest-edited Poetry New Zealand, and he runs the weekly book blog Reid’s Reader.