Stateside: When The Seventies Were The New Sixties
When The Seventies Were The New Sixties
Q: Where did you wake up on New Years' Day, 1970?
A: On the golden sands of Tahuna Beach, Nelson. It was late in the morning and my face was sunburned all to heck. We'd been out seeing in the New Year too late to get back into the youth hostel so we just slept on the beach.
Q: Were you on holiday there?
A: Sort of. My friend Julie and I were in between fruit picking jobs in the summer holidays before starting university. You used to go in to the Labour Department and get assigned farms to work on. Or you went and worked in the freezing works.
Q: Did most people go on to university in those days?
A: No, it was just on the cusp of that becoming more common. It was still usual for people to leave school after getting their School Certificate and then work on the family farm or go into an apprenticeship, or work in an office or go nursing. I think you had to stay on one more year--6B--to get into teachers college. In a school of 600 in rural Taranaki, where I was in high school, 6A had fewer than a dozen students in it. That was the year you sat bursary or scholarship; I think it's called the seventh form now.
Q: Did it cost a lot to go to university?
A: It was doable even without much financial support from your family, by having a part-time job of some sort and working in the holidays. There was no such thing as a student loan. But nobody in my family had ever been to university before, so I didn't really know what to expect.
Q: How did you choose where to go?
A: Umm. Basically I went where Tim Shadbolt was. For a couple of years before, I'd subscribed to some free glossy American religious magazine that railed against how the youth of the world was going to pot and rebelling against authority, and I thought that sounded like the right thing to do rather than the wrong one! Shadbolt was the poster boy for that kind of anti-establishment attitude in New Zealand, and he was in Auckland.
Q: Was what was happening in the US a big influence in NZ?
A: Yeah. I think really the Seventies is the decade when NZ turned from being a British colony to being an American one.
Q: What do you mean by that?
A: Well, if you think of the Swinging Sixties, you think of London and the Beatles and Twiggy and Portobello Road. But if you think of the Sixties, you think of hippies and San Francisco and the Vietnam War and the Black Panthers. And I think the Seventies in New Zealand were to some extent an imitation of the Sixties in the US. So that's what I mean about the Seventies being the new Sixties.
There was a bit of a comeback for the British at the end of the Seventies with the punk movement, and there was even a conscious clash of cultures around that. In Auckland, for example, the punk nightclub Zwines was down a back alley in the same building as a discotheque, and there were often fights between the two groups of patrons. But by and large, the American world view began to prevail as the way Kiwis interpreted events.
Q: And their fascination with technology!
A: Oh, yeah, totally. It came either directly from the US, or indirectly from its experimental nation-building in post WW11 Japan. So it was soon goodbye slide rule and hullo calculator; farewell to watch-winding and second hands, and hullo to batteries and liquid crystal displays. Colour television and the use of videotape rather than film as a replay option became common then too. And then there was the format wars--Beta or VHS--for consumer video recording off TV, which was an extremely costly hobby in NZ because of the huge sales taxes and import duties on the equipment. Eventually the backers of VHS won out worldwide because they persuaded the movie industry to go with that format. Even though Beta was a better format and became the industry standard for analog video recording.
Q: Did anybody have home video cameras and stuff like that?
A: No. The Sony Portapak, which used half-inch reel-to-reel tapes, had been developed in 1968 for use as a surveillance tool from the air during the Vietnam War, but it wasn't a consumer item the way video cameras are today. In the States, the Portapak was co-opted by the counterculture to fight back at media coverage that seemed slanted or downright misleading.
Q: You've mentioned the Vietnam War a couple of times, was that a big influence?
A: For me it was. At the beginning of 1970 I was living in a university hostel where a number of daughters of well-off families in South Vietnam were staying. I remember having breakfast with one of these young women and asking her what she thought about the war. She said that if the Communists took over, they'd take away luxury foods and give everybody rice. I kind of thought that, for those people who didn't have rice or any basic necessities, that would be a good thing.
It brought home to me what had previously been maybe a naive sort of idea that if people who had luxuries would willingly give some of them up so that people who lacked even the basic necessities of life could have security and dignity, what a wonderful world we could live in! In many ways, NZ's social welfare structure was originally aimed at achieving exactly that outcome.
Another way in which the Vietnam War influenced me was that I went on an anti-war march--it might have been when Vice President Spiro Agnew was there--and afterwards went into some bars along Karangahape Road handing out anti-war leaflets and talking to people. A Samoan guy told me he was about to join the army and when I asked why, he said it was because he could learn a trade there, whereas he couldn't on the outside cos he'd failed School Certificate English.
Q: Okay. Well, we've gotten a little stuck at the beginning of the decade. What else happened in the Seventies?
A: The oil embargo is the first thing that comes to mind. When it occurred in October 1973, I was on board a Greek passenger ship on my way to England for my OE, because going by sea was much, much cheaper than flying. The oil embargo brought about a huge change in the way people travelled. On the world scene, the jumbo jet and its economies of scale had become a reality in 1970 with the Boeing 747, but it took that rise in the price of fuel for the airline industry to overcome people's hesitancy in using it, especially as there'd already been skyjackings. By 1977 there were cut-rate fares between London and New York, and the Concorde, which effectively drew off both the low- and high-end users of ocean travel. Cheap airline travel also killed passenger trains.
Not that it had a big effect, but colour xerox became feasible in the late 1970s. An artist friend of mine had a flatmate whose brother worked for Xerox, and the corporation encouraged artists to explore what the new technology could do. Yeah, I'd say, actually, that the Seventies in New Zealand saw a real blooming of the idea that arts and culture were a valid part of the national psyche. The "rugby, racing and beer" persona became a lot more complex. Aucklanders, for example, started getting into rugby league, sailing and wine.
It was a time when homegrown had a range of meanings, not the least of which was to do with music and films and how far we could go on the international scene.
Q: What about the women's movement?
A: Oh, yeah. I forgot about that. A lot of what was applicable to the women's movement in the United States didn't seem to me to be particularly applicable, largely because my mother had always worked for a living and I had no particular sense that she was downtrodden in any way. Nonetheless, the expectations of what girls could aspire to be in NZ were very limited in their scope.
However, where the women's movement did make a big impact was in sexuality and the way that was viewed. Suddenly, after The Female Eunuch, we were all keen to know where our clitoris was, and the Pill freed us up for experimentation without the fear of later having to "go up North for a while" to have your baby in a Salvation Army home and give it up for adoption, which was what had been happening for decades before.
Abortion became an issue in the Seventies, and the clinic that performed them in Auckland was sometimes broken into by anti-abortion groups I think. A change in the law made it possible for those women who couldn't afford to go to Australia for an abortion to have them in New Zealand safely. Legalizing the procedure and bringing it into the light made it a viable alternative to sitting in a scalding hot bath drinking a bottle of gin, or going to a back-street abortionist who used a wire coat hanger, or using a sterilised goose feather to do a D&C.
Q: Is that really what women did?
A: Well, that last one is an old Irish technique. Don't try this at home, folks!
Q: Are you Irish?
A: Not particularly. But that's part of my heritage. My great-grandfather's wife died early in the voyage from England to New Zealand, and a young Irish woman and her mother who were also on that ship helped him with the children. She eventually married him and it's from their marriage that my father's family derives.
Q: Any Maori in you?
Q: Did the Maori movements of the Seventies affect you in any way?
A: I'm sure they affected New Zealand society as a whole. I think they were presented to us in the media refracted through a lens of what was happening with "the Blacks" in the US and in South Africa. I'm not sure that was a valid comparison, and it took a while for an alternative view--looking at what was happening around indigenous people and land and culture issues on the entire American continent and in the Pacific--to come into focus.
In 1971, I studied Maori language at Waikato University and was very perplexed when the lecturer, Sam Karetu, who later became head of the Maori Language Commission, said in class that Pakehas who studied Maori were condescending. I didn't know if he meant individual Pakeha were condescending, or that the act of studying a language while being disengaged from the cultural milieu that created it couldn't be anything other than condescending.
Either way, I later figured he meant the kind of unconscious condescension that bleeding heart liberals visit upon the group whose cause they think they're furthering. That whole Peace Corps mindset from the States that enabled many academics to visit their superior knowledge upon the unwitting countries they ended up in is not that different from what transpired with the missionaries in the nineteenth century, really.
Q: I'm not sure I catch your drift.
A: Well, I think that New Zealand in the 1970s missed a very great opportunity to have Maori language and culture become a part of the natural fibre of our education system. And the process of its NOT becoming so was a two-edged sword that drove a wedge of anti-Maori feeling in one direction and a wedge of anti-Pakeha feeling in the other. Part of the frustration around that issue was fueled by having outside "experts" telling us what to do.
Things became difficult for people who wanted to see a unique identity for Aotearoa/New Zealand that encompassed both cultures in the spirit of partnership, not division. At the same time, the increasing diversity of the population as workers were brought in from the Pacific Islands to work in the multinational-owned factories like Nestle in Auckland and Ford in Wellington, added another layer of complexity to the mix.
Q: But weren't those workers brought in because there was a labour shortage?
A: Oh, totally. You really could walk out on one job and walk half a block down the road to another and start there immediately. I don't remember exactly, but I think at the time we still had interest rates capped at 3 percent, and there was a price and wage freeze in place. Anyway, some combination of factors kept production and demand roiling along, and we just surfed that wave till it ended up crashing on the rocks in the 1980s.
Q: Well, we're running out of time, but is there any one person you think epitomises the Seventies in New Zealand?
A: I don't know about epitomising, but I think there are a couple of people who had a very great effect on New Zealand society. A couple of couples actually. In 1972, an American couple started a news monitoring company in Wellington. They had both previously worked in the intelligence service, whatever it was called, that was set up to aid Japan at the end of WWII.
Their business was to supply transcripts of radio and television news and so on to politicians and government departments, and it was kind of the beginning of what I call the frying pan use of information. Once you capture information exactly, it's possible to hit someone over the head with it instead of using it as a tool in which you can mix a whole lot of different ingredients--opinions, solutions, interpretations--together and come up with something that everyone can gain succour from. It was the beginning of the sound bite and the he said-you said kind of dumbing down of issues.
The other couple who had a big influence in New Zealand in the 1970s started a video production house that had all the very latest equipment from the US. It was situated at the corner of Symonds St and Mt Eden Road, and they also owned the satellite station at Warkworth. TVNZ leased a lot of facilities and time from them. The combination of satellite and video recording meant we didn't have to wait for news film to be flown over from Australia before it aired.
And they even had a videodisc player, so that was the beginning of the action replay and the notion that there is a definitive version of what happened in the past and you can never move beyond it.