Jumping Sundays: The rise and fall of the counterculture in Aotearoa New Zealand by Nick Bollinger (Auckland University Press, 2022), 408pp, $49.99
Nick Bollinger’s rich new history of New Zealand counterculture, Jumping Sundays, is named for the initially spontaneous weekly occupations or liberations of Albert Park in Auckland in the distant spring of 1969. Bollinger paints a picture and it is bucolic and innocent, like a scene from Tolkien: ‘A rock band played on the rotunda. Some people held hands, some danced alone, some sat under trees with guitars, flutes and bongos and made music of their own. They wore kaftans, ponchos and leather-fringed jerkins, floppy hats, headbands, beads and flowers’. It seems at first to be an unthreatening, inclusive and pleasant local imitation of similar scenes that unfolded a year or two earlier in less sedate countries, but there are police keeping watch on the edges of the park.
It’s a good title, even if it needs explaining to those who weren’t there or if those who were there—as the old joke about the 60s goes—can’t remember. Are there other implications of the title? I remember a phrase from my own 70s childhood, the one about a month of Sundays. No state of boredom was ever greater than that. These Jumping Sundays could therefore suggest an eruption of colour, life and ecstatic freedom into the grey tedium of post-war New Zealand. The cover photo, taken by John Miller at the Great Ngāruawāhia Music Festival in 1973, conveys the same kind of impression: a young woman appears to be dancing inside a rainbow. Like Dorothy in Oz, she has crossed over from a black and white world.
The Great Ngāruawāhia Music Festival brought around 18,000 people to Waikato farmland to see Black Sabbath, Fairport Convention and a host of local acts. Modelled on Woodstock, it was probably the peak of the New Zealand counterculture; but it was already close to the end of it, according to Bollinger’s account. His history spans a decade and a half, from the beginning of the 1960s to 1975, when the national comedown of the Robert Muldoon election victory and the meanness that followed (the dawn raids, the bigoted appeals to the ordinary New Zealander, the Springbok tour, and so on) coincided with a splintering of the movement into different political groupings and the mainstreaming of some of its more culturally visible features, such as drugs, sexual freedom and music.
Bollinger tells a story that is approximately 50 years old, but it has never been told quite so thoroughly and comprehensively before, even if its outlines are familiar. There is a strong sense of a generational movement that produced an entire counterculture, to use the word coined by Theodore Roszak in 1969, rather than just a subculture. The difference was that people could live within a world that was separate from or a rejection of the mainstream. Everything the counterculture did was different, from food to sex to housing to forms of intoxication.
After the prologue, in which the park is freed, 14 chapters take the reader through drugs, music, free love, anti-war and anti-nuclear protests, environmentalism, the underground press, radical politics, new spirituality, feminism, Māori activism, communes and other stories that add to a full picture of a movement. The research and organisation of the material is impressive, as is the telling. Bollinger finds just the right tone, which is informed and generally sympathetic but occasionally wry or ironic. Could you, for example, say or write the word ‘bongos’ with a straight face? There is an understanding that some words and ideas are inherently funny 50 years later (see also: kaftans). But while a lot of this might seem ancient, quaint or eccentric to us now, at other times we can see the clear origins of movements or notions that have come to seem entirely conventional. Biculturalism is one of those, and environmentalism is another. The desire to rethink, resist or challenge conventions remains massively inspiring. The mix of nostalgia and inspiration is reinforced by some remarkable documentary photography from the period by John Miller, Max Oettli, Ans Westra and others.
The book starts in the grey, post-war world. A chapter title tells us New Zealand was a backwater. A facing photo shows us a bleak, only partially-built new suburb, circa 1960. The Beatlemania that hit New Zealand in 1964 was such a pronounced break from quiet normality that a psychology professor from Victoria University was tasked with investigating whether a form of collective hysteria had suddenly taken hold of our teenagers. It hadn’t, he discovered. The image of screams breaking the silence is reminiscent of a section in Murray Edmond’s recent book Time to Make a Song and Dance, which covers some of the same ground as Jumping Sundays, and adapts the Janet Frame story ‘The Terrible Screaming’ to talk about the pressures of conformism and the threat of madness.
There were a handful of proto-Bohemians, poets and old communists in early 60s New Zealand, waiting for the counterculture to start. John Esam was one of the young poets, remembered for dressing in black, who later went to London and organised the International Poetry Incarnation at the Royal Albert Hall, starring Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gregory Corso. The huge venue was full and there was a rock concert ambience. That was in June 1965. Less than a year later, Esam had the distinction of being the first person in Britain to be arrested for possessing LSD (he was acquitted). Another New Zealand poet abroad, David Mitchell, had a close encounter with Bob Dylan in a house in London. Mitchell read his poetry to Dylan, who advised him to buy a harmonica.
These and other vivid personalities flit in and out of the text, sometimes too quickly. I wanted to know more about the lives of LSD pioneers Bryce Peterson and Mark Young, Cock magazine editor Chris Wheeler, festival organiser turned monk turned artist Hamish Horsley, the American hippie refugee Treefoot and Jesus freak Marcus Ardern, who was converted from atheism by the problematic guru James K. Baxter. Composer and mystic Jenny McLeod’s story is utterly fascinating and will probably be new to most readers. She staged musical theatre epics titled Earth and Sky and Under the Sun.
A handful of countercultural figures won wider and lasting name recognition. Baxter was one. Tim Shadbolt was another. You could also include Sam Hunt and Bruno Lawrence. And there was also the mercurial Alister Taylor, whose story offers a good illustration of the paradoxes of the wider movement, or the battle between ideological purism and capitalist pragmatism. Taylor was a student politician turned publisher who balanced opportunism with idealism, publishing the likes of Shadbolt (the notorious memoir/manifesto Bullshit and Jellybeans) and Hunt, along with an edition of The Little Red Schoolbook and a local version of The Whole Earth Catalogue. He also lived well and left a trail of debts behind him; some even wondered if he was a spy. Bollinger did well to get an interview with him only months before his death in 2019. As with many others here, Taylor was a contradictory figure.
Bollinger is aware of this and other contradictions. He writes: ‘Though driven by high ideals, this group could also be blind to its own shortcomings, and the search for a new consciousness was not without its casualties’. The passage of time helps in these assessments, especially when it comes to evaluating the male-dominated Kiwi counterculture’s attitudes to women. One of the most entertaining sections in the book concerns the famous 1972 visit by Germaine Greer, when she was arrested for using indecent language at the Auckland Town Hall, and male celebrities Shadbolt and Brian Edwards confessed to chauvinistic feelings about her (Edwards wrote that he fantasised about mastering ‘this feminist upstart intellectually, emotionally, or sexually’). As for Greer’s lasting impression of New Zealand? ‘I have never seen so much bullshit before’, she said. Meanwhile, beat poets Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti sent an urgent telegram to New Zealand Prime Minister Jack Marshall, accusing the police of ‘mind rape’. One can only wonder what the conservative, gentlemanly, 60-year-old Marshall made of that accusation.
At times like these, including when the musical Hair was charged with indecency in 1972, New Zealand does indeed look like a backwater, with an imitative counterculture that was a few years behind the times. But Bollinger locates specifically New Zealand strands, such as Baxter’s communal-religious experiment at Jerusalem, the Ohu Scheme to create state-sanctioned communes under the Norman Kirk government, and the way that the counterculture supported Māori and Polynesian activism. Inspired by the Black Panthers, Auckland’s Polynesian Panthers were pioneers in urban community engagement. The adoption of musician Jimi Hendrix as an indigenous hero was another intriguing local variation. There were a handful of Māori imitators such as Reno Tehei and Billy Te Kahika and an appealing but fanciful urban legend about whether Hendrix was himself part-Māori. As Bollinger writes, ‘The Māori Hendrix was a phenomenon that outlived Hendrix himself’. Later in the 70s, the attention would switch to Bob Marley.
Finally, is there something in the water now, five decades on? We seem to be in an era when the counterculture is being revisited and reappraised. Besides Jumping Sundays, there have been recent books by Martin Edmond (Bus Stops on the Moon), Murray Edmond (Time to Make a Song and Dance), Miro Bilbrough (In the Time of the Manaroans) and Jan Kemp (Raiment), as well as the increasing coverage of the horrific story of the Centrepoint commune, which could be understood as the dark side of the narrative about personal freedom and liberation that surfaced with such innocence in Albert Park in 1969. A gap of five decades allows for sober self-criticism, while memories still last.
PHILIP MATTHEWS is a Christchurch journalist with Stuff. He is the co-author of Funny As: The story of New Zealand comedy (Auckland University Press, 2019).
Barry Thomas says
A quite thorough and virtually cyclopedic view of a period with stains of the importance of music – the ‘sound tracks to our lives’ yet I wonder why the country’s most popular song – “Nature” didn’t rate a mention? and why the environmental movement – probably the planet’s and species most important – has also been virtually overlooked?
As a Wellington writer friend said the other day – “I can’t read it” – perhaps the book’s (fundable) aspiration to knit such a loose fitting cap as ‘counter culture’ means there is the tendency to fit too many disparate threads into a vastly more complex textile.
I would’ve rated “limits to growth” as one of the most important legacies of the ‘counter culture’ a little more considered than the view that we are somehow now in the throws of a “maturing relationship with the land” which smacks of glossing over/ myopia… I mean has Nick or you not heard about un-swimmable rivers? Climate change? Or perhaps that view is a little too punk? or “idiosyncratic”?
Artist and Film maker.