Time to Make a Song and Dance: Cultural revolt in Auckland in the 1960s by Murray Edmond (Atuanui Press, 2021), 360pp, $38
My father, who served on the Hamilton City Council, told me Council had two rules: the first, ‘Spend No Money’ and the second, if you really had to spend money, ‘Give the Job to your Mates.’
Murray Edmond’s cultural history Time to Make a Song and Dance: Cultural revolt in Auckland in the 1960s, crammed full of anecdotes like the above, is really a story of two decades. It charts the seismic shift in New Zealand from the monoculturalism, conformism and emotional repression of the 1950s to the participatory happenings, internationalism and upbeat optimism of the late 1960s. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven.
This is a book about the outsiders and the rule-breakers. The title is taken from a memoir by Arapeta Awatere, but it served too as a common figure of speech at the time to rebuff those complaining or protesting about the status quo: especially women, children and colonised Indigenous people.
Awatere comes across in Edmond’s account as a complex, tragic figure. A decorated war hero and a commander of the Māori Battalion during the Italian campaign, and later a District Māori Welfare Officer and Auckland city councillor, he was convicted and jailed for murdering the lover of his mistress in 1969. Awatere died in prison of a heart attack. In resurrecting Awatere’s story, Edmond offers him as an example of hyper-masculinity, of virility on the skids, but also as someone who was as much a victim as an instigator of male violence. A Wagnerian wounded warrior who loved opera and could reel off in Italian stanzas from the first canto of Dante’s The Divine Comedy, Awatere continued to suffer the physical after-effects of his war wounds. He would now be diagnosed with long-term post-traumatic stress disorder.
Awatere is emblematic, too, of Māori treated as second-class citizens in their own country. On his return to New Zealand from the war, he was refused a bank loan to start his own business. When he moved his family to Auckland from Rotorua in 1959, they struggled to find accommodation because they were Māori. Awatere’s Auckland home became an urban marae for young Māori moving to the city. He helped organise a petition opposed to the 1959 All Black tour of South Africa because Māori players were excluded. The tour went ahead without Māori players.
Murray Edmond has rummaged freely through the scrapbooks of the era and the memorabilia, sampled from the accounts of those who were there, and from time to time he includes his own reminiscences. The result is almost as plotty as an epic novel with a cast of dozens if not hundreds who serve to highlight watershed moments, and who also act as survey pegs from which to hang a cat’s cradle of connections and intersections. It is not a matter of retailing 60-year-old gossip, but of teasing out the picaresque progress of his various protagonists who effect change at flax-roots level. Edmond entertainingly name-drops all sorts of extraordinary characters as the Shaky Isles emerges from cosy insular complacency and begins to vibrate to mass dissent unseen since the classic Marxist waterfront lockout of 1951, and before that the unemployment riots of the Great Depression of the 1930s.
This history begins with New Zealand in the early 1960s as a place where ‘a terrible screaming’, as a Janet Frame short story puts it, goes uncommented on, and a fawned-over ‘distinguished stranger’ from a foreign shore is declared mad after he dares to point this out. For Edmond, Janet Frame is our writer of the Sixties, acutely responsive to its psychological turbulence and malaise in her energetic outburst of prodigious and linguistically deft fables.
Edmond structures his analysis of the times a-changing as a sequence of ten baggy and capacious chapters, plus a polemical introduction, which circle round and dwell on certain key motifs. One of these motifs is the subversive spirit of the carnivalesque, confined at first, in the 1950s, to milk bars and sly-grog dens and bohemian ‘party’ homes, like that of the typographer and printer Bob Lowry and his family on the lower slopes of One Tree Hill. By the early 1960s the spirit of the carnivalesque is flourishing in coffee shops and the few nightclubs. A tea towel from 1959 in the Auckland War Memorial Museum collection lists 33 coffee shops in and around Auckland’s CBD. In these ‘exotic’ venues, musicians and theatrical ensembles performed.
The carnivalesque as street theatre could also be glimpsed in and around certain inner-city pubs about the hour of the six o’clock swill when hotel bars were required to close. A crowd of gawkers, for example, would gather in Vulcan Lane to see Auckland’s Queen of Bohemia, Anna Hoffman, merrily emerge with her entourage from the Queen’s Ferry or the Hotel Occidental before driving off in her red open-topped sports car. Hoffman, who disported herself like a flamboyant femme fatale from the pages of a Ngaio Marsh detective novel, and whose ‘exploits were in the Truth newspaper every second week’, even makes a drive-on, drive-off appearance in Frank Sargeson’s 1967 novel The Hangover, as a self-confident, regal young woman ‘whose eyebrows arched as high as skipping ropes’ as she waved to onlookers.
Anna Hoffman was originally Lorna Anne Jenks from working-class Papatoetoe. Edmond’s book positions her along with certain others, such as Janet Frame, sculptor Molly Macalister and writer Jean Watson, as one of the independent-minded women of the early Sixties. Hoffman slipped out from under the great wet blanket of ‘suburban neurosis’ to turn her life into a kind of burlesque cabaret, hob-nobbing with the intelligentsia as well as with underworld figures such as the ‘criminal mastermind’ Archie Banks, father of a future mayor of Auckland.
A fellow street-theatre diva was Carmen, another self-transformer, born Trevor Rupe in Taumarunui, who became possibly Australasia’s most celebrated drag queen, and in this book something of a guide to Auckland after dark in the days when homosexuality was outlawed and camp behaviour of any kind invited suspicion and derision—and sometimes a police sting leading to a criminal conviction, as happened to British-born community theatre director and drama tutor Ronald Barker. Barker, who was employed by Auckland University College as it then was, had riled some conservatives by staging Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett as well as plays by other playwrights of a provocative persuasion. Barker had an Oscar Wilde-like fall from grace and was even the target of a disapproving editorial in the New Zealand Herald. Though supported by a few colleagues, notably Allen Curnow, he was sacked by a cabal of sanctimonious university professors, essentially punished for bringing ‘the shock of the new’ to ‘Sleepy Hollow’. Edmond likens him to Frame’s ‘distinguished visitor’, revealing uncomfortable home truths.
Like the last cigarette butt of Empire left smouldering in a saloon bar ashtray, New Zealand remained in thrall to all things British. Cinema audiences still stood, or if resistant were hauled to their feet, for the Royal Anthem, ‘God Save the Queen’. But if the nation was a land of staunch Anglophilia, a Little Britain of the South Seas, it was also bulging like a pressure cooker with the strain of suppressing everything that did not fit this narrative.
Harbingers of cultural upheaval included the purchase by Auckland City Art Gallery in 1963 of Barbara Hepworth’s modernist abstract sculpture ‘Torso II’, which Auckland city councillor Tom Pearce infamously referred to, in an attempt to cancel the purchase, as looking ‘like the buttock of a dead cow washed up on a beach’. The implication was that crafty intellectual buggers were trying to put one over on the decent Kiwi joker and charge him for the privilege. The director of the gallery, Peter Tomory—a British migrant like Ronald Barker—stood his ground and gained popular support.
The Establishment caved in: Modernism had finally arrived.
‘The past is another country; they do things differently there.’ Edmond writes of this vanished realm at times in the meandering somewhat digressive style of a pub raconteur, or perhaps the buttonholing Ancient Mariner, or even the whakapapa-reciting Ancient of Days. Even so, his narrational arc, rainbow-like, undoubtedly gets across a psychedelic, patchouli-soaked sense of what Richard Neville termed ‘play power’: the ludic quality of the late Sixties—an anarchic atmosphere of pranksters and jesters and liberation movements galore. But more than just providing reportage, Edmond carefully disinters the tangled roots, the beginnings, and lays them out before us as a saga of cause and effect.
The 1950s invented the teenager as a lucrative consumer demographic, but it also brought moral panic about juvenile delinquency. This was largely controlled and managed in a society that deferred to a caste system in culture—highbrow, middlebrow, lowbrow—until the cultural hierarchy was overturned by the acceptance of mass culture in the 1960s: pop art allied to pop music and popular television programmes, a move largely led by the Welfare State generation born in the baby boom that followed World War II, who were now teenagers.
Early signs of the restlessness and alienation of youth making a song and dance out of discontent, as Edmond tells us, can be found in period pieces like the 1964 art-house movie Runaway, directed by John O’Shea—which urbanises the Man Alone theme—and in Jean Watson’s novel Stand in Rain, published in 1967, which provides a homegrown version of Jack Kerouac’s beatitudes of the beats. The female narrator, Sarah, in search of self-enlightenment, traipses around the North Island, on the road in the company of possum-trapper Abungus, a thinly disguised Barry Crump. Inevitably they are drawn to the Big Smoke, Auckland: ‘Because there was no money left to get another flat, we moved into an empty boat that was tied up to the sewer pipe in Hobson’s Bay …’
In the end, World War II and its legacies cast a long shadow. Returning soldiers often brought a bottled-up violence back with them from overseas to a conflicted, insecure settlement culture. Much was sublimated through mateship on the rugby paddock, but compulsory military training continued, and domestic violence was rife.
Edmond’s final chapter deals with the atmosphere around the so-called Auckland bombings of 1969–70. This was a series of thirteen bomb incidents, a violent response to the violence of the Vietnam War. Associated with the Bower Brothers, John and Kevin, the bombings were an extreme form of street theatre, capping stunts on steroids, which culminated in blowing the front doors off the Supreme Court in Waterloo Quadrant. The Bower Brothers were the products of a dysfunctional family, their father a returned serviceman and a violent alcoholic.
And so the wheel of Edmond’s argument turns full circle.
Authority figures were the damaged patriarchs, while their children were Dadaist provocateurs who took inspiration for their antics from Modernism: from the Theatre of the Absurd and from artist Jean Tinguely’s self-destroying machines that blew themselves up. The bombings were fantastical, almost phantasmagorical—they began with a failed attempt to blow up the flagpole at Waitangi—and they were conducted as a comedy of errors. But the instigators were radicals at the dangerous edge of things, part of a terrorist tradition that includes the Russian Nihilists whom the novelists Fyodor Dostoevsky and Joseph Conrad wrote about.
Despite the Bower Brothers’ swaggering bravado—Tim Shadbolt in his memoir Bullshit and Jellybeans describes the bombers going about their business in an old beat-up car, ‘yahooing, swigging bottles and singing the Marsellaise’—the actions were those of insecure male egos footing their place in a masculinist society. These children of the revolution with their iconoclastic attack on statue-based history sought to bring down the state and were jailed for it. Others recognised the self-defeatism and began instead the theatre of ‘the long march through the institutions of power’, becoming themselves politicians, academics, civic leaders and other officially licensed agents of change.
The cover of Time to Make a Song and Dance has a design based on a painting from Patrick Hanly’s 1964 Figures in Light series. Hanly memorably described these paintings as ‘about a whole condition. The nation sitting around on its bum doing nothing.’ Pushing his own barrow of philosophical enquiry about the meaning of an era that’s sometimes packaged as the decade that never dies, Murray Edmond shows us the whys and wherefores of reactionary fuddy-duddies rocked back on their heels as revolutionary tribunals of the young got up and did something.
DAVID EGGLETON is a poet, writer and reviewer based in Ōtepoti Dunedin.