Monday, September 26, 2022

Something New

 We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.    

“THE LAST LETTER OF GODFREY CHEATHEM” by Luke Elworthy (The Wairau Diversion, $NZ35) ; “BY THE GREEN OF THE SPRING” (Quentin Wilson Publishing, $NZ37:99) 

Here are two essential things I have to say about Luke Elworthy’s novel The Last Letter of Godfrey Cheathem. First, I thoroughly enjoyed it, laughed along with it and admired the author’s slow-burn narrative. But second, and just as important, it is a novel for a specialist audience. In spite of its real wit and perception, it is not designed for mass readership. Is this a snobbish verdict on my part? I hope not, and maybe what follows here will support my case.

            The Last Letter of Godfrey Cheathem is what would once have been called a “sport”. It is presented as the edited, scholarly version of the eponymous character’s confessions. Written in academic-speak, there is a cod Foreword by “Professor Brian Bode” of the University of Auckland, expert in the works of Vladimir Nabokov. (Transparently a spoof of Professor Brian Boyd, but don’t worry folks – the Acknowledgements at the end say that the real Brian Boyd was happy to go along with the gag.) This is followed by an equally pompous Introduction by Dr Luke Elworthy. Footnotes abound in the main text, as if this fiction is a work of literary scholarship. They are pedantic, often explaining for non-New Zealanders things that are dead obvious to Kiwis, and often filled with literary quibbles, in-jokes and gibes. The text itself consists largely of letters Godfrey Cheathem writes to his youngest sibling Rosemary (or “Ro” or “Ropu” or a number of other pet names he gives her). He is writing from jail, although we do not know what crime he has committed until near the closing pages of the novel. His letters and narratives are counterpointed by the comments of Rosemary, which are designated “Ruataniwha Notes”. Godfrey Cheathem (yes, his narrative is designed to “cheat them”) is of course an unreliable narrator. In literary novels, isn’t every first-person narrator now unreliable?

Godfrey Cheathem comes from a family tradition of money and snobbery. He is a descendant of one of those Anglo-Victorian Anglican families who, since the 19th century, aspired to be provincial aristocracy, especially in Canterbury. The ancestral Cheathems had an estate and a mansion called Big Bush, which is still treated by the Cheathem clan as their home base when it comes to family reunions. One such reunion becomes the novel’s comic climax.

As he tells it in his letters to Rosemary, Godfrey’s career has been an erratic one. His parents and siblings all aspired to be “artistic” and his mother wanted him to be a maker of pottery, which bored him silly. He was forced into writing advertising for a local small-town newspaper. Bit by bit, he got into the publishing business in Britain. In London he got to be a senior salesman for “Stoughton-Harcourt” publishers and almost succeeded in promoting as the “next big thing” from New Zealand (after the success of the bone people) a populist novelist who turned out to be a proselytiser for neo-liberalism, which completely alienated the literary types who go to book festivals. He was moved into selling technical books in Europe. Finally he found a partner (and wife) in a food guru called Tracy Mellon, who wrote cookery books and then moved into writing food-based novels. Commercial success seemed guaranteed. His downfall (one of the funniest sequences in the book) came when he backed, promoted, and had the publishing company invest huge amounts of money in a book which turned out to be a fraudulent piece of a plagiarism.

In all of this, as he tells to Rosemary, he is (or at least he says he is) intermittently writing a generational family novel. In the footnotes and asides we often hear of this purported novel Chasing the Fading Light, but even to the very end there is ambiguity about whether Godfrey actually wrote it.

Now what is this sad-funny book getting at?

Godfrey Cheathem is the eldest of five siblings, nearly all of whom are achieving great things in the arts (except for Rosemary who becomes a lawyer and later specialises in Tangata Whenua causes). Damon is a composer and musician. Sonja is a successful movie-maker (though her films all sound awfully like the dreariest “worthy” films that are watched dutifully in some film festivals). Madeleine is a painter. But Godfrey is seen by his parents and siblings as the underachiever, the one who is in no way an “artistic” person, the failure (even if, for a time, he has been a big-wig in publishing). Godfrey Cheathem resents all this.   At a family gathering in Barcelona, designed to charge the family’s creative juices, Godfrey sabotages it by telling his parents and siblings “Fuck the arts. They’re dead. Fuck you all, my family, and fuck the creative arts.” (p.167)

On one level, the novel is about the pain of being the one non-“artistic” person from an “artistic” family. Yet The Last Letter of Godfrey Cheathem is also a satire aimed at the pretentions of people (such as Godfrey’s parents) who assume that because they live a certain (generally bohemian and/or affluent) life that they are therefore “artistic”. For the hard fact is that engaging in the arts (music, film-making, painting, novel-writing) is often the way of the well-to-do. Much of the novel is a comic indictment of the bogus nature of much “culture”. Godfrey’s parents fall for modish fads in their social behaviour. Mother joins ClearSight (which appears to be a version of Bert Potter’s notorious Centrepoint).  Godfrey remarks tartly  It was difficult to work out exactly what she’d found when she got there, as difficult as it was to work out if the process of becoming found she hadn’t just become a little more lost” (p.108). Mother later goes in for Californian gurus who promise her immortality. Father resides in a “creative” shared flat in Auckland. Yet his creativity is very limited. He makes a fortune publishing, for New Zealanders, books about rugby [clearly coffee-table stuff] and popular manuals on tax avoidance, property investment and other matters that clearly appeal to an affluent readership.

Luke Elworthy also nails passing fads in publishing. In Britain and elsewhere there is interest in “ethnic books” such as South American magical realism. For a very short time New Zealand is embraced by British readers, but then trends turn elsewhere.  Then there are the pretentious foodie books of the sort that Godfrey’s wife produces. Says Godfrey  Remember, the food and wine world had moved on, the days long gone when chefs simply cooked. They were drawing audiences that would have pleased rock-concert promoters, and moving people as writers at literary festivals once did. It wasn’t uncommon to hear some of the new provedores speaking at length about their importance: nutritionally, culturally, spiritually.” (p.189)


There is nothing salacious in this novel, but there is much pungent naughtiness. Himself an alumnus of a creative writing course, the author has Godfrey Cheathem say  I was sure my Father shared my suspicion that creative writing courses were ineffective, the very last place one would suspect you of writing creatively, and no use at all if you wanted to write something as important as I knew would come.” (pp.55-56). This is double-edged wit, given that many people have suspected the same thing – but then Godfrey is an unreliable narrator who may be over-estimating his literary talents.

How much does this novel reflect the author’s own life? It would be wrong for me to speculate, but the blurb suggests that he has had at least some experiences similar to the fictitious Godfrey’s – and he does have at least one relative still immersed in the publishing business.

I hope you can now see why I laughed, giggled and sniggered at much of this novel. But given its in-jokes and literary asides, it’s still likely to be caviar to the general, right?

 *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *

Five years ago I reviewed on this blog Paddy Richardson’s novel Through the Lonesome Dark which concerned three young people, the children of coalminers, living in the South Island mining town of Blackball in the years just before the First World War. They were Pansy Williams, Clem Bright and the son of German parents Otto Bader. I was impressed by Paddy Richardson’s accurate period detail, but I was nonplussed by the way the novel seemed to be split in two, first focusing on Pansy and then dropping her and focusing on Clem. As I said in concluding the review “I would be completely misrepresenting this novel if I failed to note that it is well-written, that Paddy Richardson has clearly done her research and knows the historical period well, and that the premise is a credible one. A pity about that split.”


The cover calls By the Green of the Spring the sequel to Through the Lonesome Dark, but I would call it a continuation, because in this new novel we now understand why Paddy Richardson has divided her narrative between two main characters. She is setting the scene for two other characters to take over the narrative. They are Otto Bader and Pansy’s young daughter Lena. Pansy has married Clem who, despite being a socialist with internationalist sympathies, has gone away to fight in the war. Pansy is pregnant and gives birth to Lena. As the son of German parents, Otto is classed as an enemy alien soon after war is declared in 1914. He is bundled off to Somes Island in Wellington Harbour, which was used in both world wars as an internment camp (i.e. prison) for enemy aliens. He knows nothing about Pansy’s marriage.

The first third of the novel is Otto Bader’s first-person narrative. On Somes Island the guards are brutal (many of them rejects from the army now seeing their chance to bully people). Conditions are Spartan, food is rationed and the internees are not allowed to get news of the wider world. Letters are censored or not allowed to be sent and attempts at escape are severely punished (a few prisoners attempt to swim or raft their way across to Petone). Given that the inmates are civilians who regard themselves as New Zealand citizens, despite their parentage, anger seethes. Otto’s narrative is often addressed to Pansy Williams whom he regards as his one true love but, to his great sorrow, he learns (less than a third of the way through the novel) that Pansy has married Clem.

The next long section of the novel in told in the third-person, but is nevertheless giving the viewpoint of the little girl Lena in all her naivete. Her father Clem has returned home from the war having lost one leg. At first Lena has to adjust to this strange man but she gets used to her papa, even if she cannot understand why he sometimes screams in the night. Hers is a child’s-eye-view of adult doings and she understands only vaguely the trials of Clem trying to find work and no longer fitting into Blackball. We also get a child’s-eye-view of going to school and being shifted to another school. The style here is designed to indicate to the reader what is really going on in this household.

All this is very readable and in terms of the era in which it is set, it is mainly credible. There are one or two moments when an early 21st century sensibility seems to intrude. There are brief episodes about a homosexual prisoner who has to hide his orientation, including one unlikely conversation about Oscar Wilde. Given the novel’s generally anti-war tone, there’s also a rather too-neat encounter Otto has with the pacifist Archibald Baxter (on Baxter look up the review of We Will Not Cease  on this blog). Even so, as in the novel that preceded it, the feel for a given period is strong and credible. One final detail about family relationships is not as much of a surprise as the author probably meant it to be, but By the Green of the Spring shapes up well as a narrative. I may be wrong, but given the way things turn out, I wonder if Paddy Richardson is planning another account of Pansy, Lena, Clem and Otto as they negotiate the post-war world. We are, after all, given intimations that Lena will develop into an accomplished artist.

For the record, the title By the Green of the Spring is a quotation from Siegfried Sassoon’s poem Aftermath, written after the First World War and begging people to swear that they will never forget what it was like to live through a war.

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.    

“THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING” by Henry Fielding (First published in 1749)

            A number of years ago, when this blog was young, I made it my business to read all the readable works of Henry Fielding (1707-1754), meaning everything he wrote apart from his journalism (which was prolific). Thus you will find on this blog accounts of two of his three novels Joseph Andrews (still my favourite Fielding novel) and Amelia ; his satire Jonathan Wild ; his travel book The Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon ; his fantasy story A Journey From This World to the Next  and his burlesque play The Tragedy of Tragedies (also known as The Life and Death of Tom Thumb the Great). But the one work by Fielding that I did not cover was his most famous, Tom Jones or if you wish to be pedantic The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling. Why did I not cover it, even if I wrote screeds of notes about it? Because I found the sheer length of it (800-odd pages in the Penguin edition that sits on my shelf) often working against the humour and wit, not helped by the admonitory (if often ironic) personal editorials with which Fielding opens each of the many “books” that make up this quite long novel.

            Easing myself back into Tom Jones after all these years, I’ve decided to take another look at it, so first one of my notoriously simplified synopses – and I’m afraid it’s full of “spoilers” if you haven’t read the novel.

            In the west of England an infant child is discovered in the bed of the benevolent Squire Allworthy. He is believed to be the illegitimate son of the village woman Jenny Jones and the schoolteacher Partridge, who are both run out of town for their immorality. The infant is christened Tom and is brought up by Squire Allworthy in his own household. The squire’s spinster sister Bridget Allworthy marries late in life, but soon dies, leaving her son Blifil, also brought up in Squire Allworthy’s household. Tom and Blifil are both tutored by the sadistic parson Thwackum and the smug rationalist philosopher Square. As a boy and young man, Tom gets into many scrapes, including a brief affair with Molly Seagrim, the daughter of the gamekeeper Black George Seagrim. Tom cools on Molly when he discovers that she sleeps with many men, including the hypocritical Square. But he comes to love, and be loved by, Sophia Western, the daughter of the neighbouring Squire Western. However the self-righteous sneak Blifil hates Tom and contrives to have him banished and sent away by Squire Allworthy.

            The central section of the novel then takes place on the road to London, being a very mixed set of picaresque events. After almost being persuaded to go off and fight against the Jacobites (the centre of the novel takes place during the Jacobite rising of 1745), and having at one point been badly beaten and left for dead, Tom falls in with the banished Partridge, who has become a barber-surgeon and who is virtually Tom’s Sancho Panza (very like the Reverend Abraham Adams to Joseph Andrews in Joseph Andrews). Tom also has a brief affair with Mrs Waters, whom he has saved from being raped by a soldier. And he encounters the very choleric Irish gentleman Fitzpatrick, who is chasing his runaway wife and who happens to be a cousin of Sophia Western.

            Once in London, Tom searches for Sophia, but is snared by the fashionable nymphomaniac Lady Bellaston, who makes him her kept man. Tom discovers Sophia’s whereabouts, and extricates himself from Lady Bellaston. But then many misfortunes fall upon him – he has a fight with the choleric Fitzpatrick and is hauled off to prison after having apparently killed the man. And he discover that Mrs Waters is in fact Jenny Jones. He may have slept with his own mother!

            The happy ending comes (after many, many events that aren’t in this synopsis) thanks to the agency of many people who have reason to be grateful to Tom. Blifil’s treachery and hypocrisy are revealed when Squire Allworthy discovers that Tom is really the son of Bridget Allworthy, and that Blifil (who of course stood to be heir to the squire’s estate) knew the truth all along but suppressed the evidence. The beaten Fitzpatrick recovers from his wounds and forgives Tom for the thrashing Tom gave him, so Tom is guilty of neither incest nor murder. Squire Western of course drops all objections to Tom marrying Sophia now that Tom is heir to the Allworthy estate. And Sophia, once she is persuaded that Tom was not to blame for his affair with Lady Bellaston, forgives Tom for all his scrapes and the couple are happily married.

            For the record, the plot-point of incest being averted was also used in Fielding’s Joseph Andrews (published seven years before Tom Jones) when, for a time, Joseph was led to believe that his beloved Fanny was actually his sister (she wasn’t, so happy ending). In fact this gag was pulled in many novels of the 18th century. Further point – my favourite moment of repartee in Tom Jones comes in Book 13, Chapter 11, where Tom at last catches up with Sophia in London and declares “Oh! My Sophia, did you know the thousand torments I have suffered in this long, fruitless pursuit” to which Sophia replies dryly “Pursuit of whom?” Would that the lady were made of sterner stuff with regard to Tom’s promiscuous shagging when it comes to the unlikely happy ending!

Tom Jones was written in the early decades of the development of the English novel and it is impossible to comment on as we would comment on novels of more recent vintage. First, consider the specific historical setting. Fielding wrote this long novel between 1745 and 1748, letting friends read and comment on sections of it before it was published in 1749 (in six volumes). Being set in the year of the Jacobite rebellion, it is clearly on the side of the Hanoverian dynasty. Fielding wrote anti-Jacobite propaganda and, as a Protestant, excoriated the Catholic Young Pretender. So in Tom Jones there is the (very occasional) anti-Jacobite and anti-Catholic comment, and there is also the stand-alone “Man of the Hill” episode (Book 8) which gives a very Protestant account of the Monmouth Rebellion in the late 17th century. Yet at the same time, Squire Western is a Jacobite sympathiser and there are some scenes in Tom’s journeys where it is clear that sections of the population expect the Young Pretender to win and are making plans to accommodate themselves to him. In other words, intentionally or otherwise, Fielding shows that there was much support for the Jacobite cause in England.

So much for the historical context, which will be of little concern to most readers of Tom Jones. What intrigues me is the question of how “conscious” or “unconscious” a novel it is – are the many coincidences, unlikely surprises, rambling picaresque events and long authorial comments simply the stock-in-trade of early novels; or are they artful and intentional on Fielding’s part? Every one of the novel’s 18 Books begins with a discourse by Fielding on the nature of fiction, especially on his favourite theme that he is drawing his characters from nature. He certainly saturates the tale with irony and shows awareness of the conventions of more fantastic fiction, which he frequently mocks. He addresses his readers directly, telling us, for example, when he is getting bored with a certain chapter and how he is going to end it, reminding us that this is, after all, a made-up story and that it has to observe certain rules and so on. And yet, of course, it is pre-modern, which may show us how nineteenth-century conventions of verisimilitude and author-invisibility have got in the way of more straightforward story-telling The (post-)modern self-conscious authorial voice may in fact be a reversion to the novel’s infancy.

Some of Fielding’s style does take some getting-used-to though, regardless of the novel’s place in literary history. Sometimes, with deliberately ironic effect,  he renders most dialogue in noble, elevated phraseology (except among the obviously low-life characters) – and yet this seems to be his habitual mode when he can’t be bothered rendering dialogue more colloquially. Squire Western veers between such artificial language, befitting a philosophical discourse, and broad West Country dialect. I can accept this as an amusing convention, but did find it irritating when it comes to Tom’s own language. True, he has been brought up in a gentleman’s household – albeit with the horrible Thwackum as his tutor – but by behaviour and external description Tom is essentially a naïve and trusting country chap, handsome enough for women to be fawning over him and really just one step up from the super-naïve Joseph Andrews. Yet Fielding gives Tom powers of expressing himself at need in a style that would have dazzled the best barrister. Classic example of this is in Book 14 where Tom persuades Nightingale (who is on the point of deserting the girl he has impregnated) to embrace duty, morality and true love… and of course Nightingale changes his mind and honourably marries the girl. Such scenes, where Tom improbably steps out of character, make Tom too much the puppet of the author.

Let’s consider Tom a bit more. The novel is very much an apologia for the likeable rascal with a healthy sexual appetite. Fielding is of course careful to show us that Tom is not a complete rascal. Tom has a strong sense of morality, as witnessed in the improbable Nightingale episode, which seems designed to tell us that Tom himself would not abandon a pregnant girl in need. Tom would no more think of not trusting Blifil than Squire Allworthy would until the last moments when Blifil’s treachery is revealed. On a number of occasions Tom is anxious to pay back money he has borrowed, he does not exploit people and he believes the best of them. Yet Tom, all the while protesting his fidelity to Sophia, does in the course of the novel find his way into the beds of Molly Seagrim, Mrs Waters and Lady Belleston. I suspect Fielding wanted to show us that a slightly-disordered sex-life is not necessarily as corrupting or evil a thing as, say, hypocrisy, venality and the type of ambitions that deform Blifil. Fair enough, I suppose, but there is still enough ammunition here to suggest that the novel really offers a defence of what would now be called the “double standard”. Sophia’s virginity is something to be celebrated and is one of her main attractions. Tom’s virginity is something to be cheerfully lost. In case I should seem to be imposing our present scale of values on a book written over 250 years ago, I note in fairness that Fielding does also stress the need for love and commitment in marriage; and another element of the plot is that Sophia is sturdy enough to refuse to marry men (Blifil; Lord Fellamar) whom she has not chosen herself but whom her father has at different times tried to impose upon her.

Of course there could be different ways of looking at Sophia. Is she Dulcinea to Tom’s Don Quixote? In other words, is she an unreal image of a woman who keeps the well-intentioned wandering adventurer going? (Remember Fielding was a devotee of Cervantes, as Joseph Andrews states overtly.) Perhaps not. Unlike the simple peasant girl Dulcinea, Sophia is seen and admired (and perhaps lusted after) by people other than Tom, and Fielding, speaking in his direct authorial voice, insists on Sophia’s goodness and purity to the very end. But the Cervantes comparison is still fruitful. After all, Tom’s moments of high rhetoric about true love are as easily punctured by Fielding’s irony as Quixote’s vision of Dulcinea is by the reality of the simple peasant girl.

Which brings me to the other major Cervantes influence in this novel. Partridge is almost Tom’s Sancho Panza – or at least his travelling companion for approximately half the length of the novel. But he is not a good Sancho Panza – unlike the Spanish original, he does not have a shrewd fund of peasant wisdom to call upon, but is a village pedant with a small stock of favourite Latin quotations, which he keeps repeating. As a comic character, I do not think he comes off. Having said this, though, I have to admit that Fielding was able to speak much more frankly about human nature – and especially sexual behaviour – than another great admirer of Cervantes one century later. This was William Makepeace Thackeray who, in his The Newcomes (reviewed on this blog) created a character (Colonel Newcome) specifically based on Don Quixote; but who, in the Victorian century, had to use euphemism when it came to sex. (The same was true of his Vanity Fair , where the real activities of the sexual adventuress Becky Sharp are cloaked in insinuation and nudge-and-wink language.) Fielding is far more forthright than Makepeace had to be. Just as a matter of interest, the other Victorian novelist who looked back to Fielding with admiration was Charles Dickens, and there are scenes in Tom Jones which inspired Dickens. There is an episode in Tom Jones where the literal-minded Partridge watches a performance of Hamlet and mistakes it for actual events. This is very much like Wopsle’s reaction to Hamlet in Dickens’ Great Expectations.

Thus far my own ideas on Tom Jones, but of course after reading a classic like this, I usually take a look at what other critics have to say. I learn the interesting fact that, when first published, Tom Jones was what we would now call a bestseller. It went through four printings in the first year it was published and 10,000 copies were sold – a huge number for 1749. In comparison, at the same time Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa took four years to sell 3,000 copies. Of course Richardson hated Tom Jones (look up on this blog an account of Richardson’s Pamela, which Fielding parodied mercilessly). Richardson thought Fielding’s characters were “low” and, like Dr. Johnson, thought Tom Jones was simply an apology for rakes. Stripped of class prejudices, the moral debate over the novel was that Fielding assumed morality consisted of instinctive human nature, and hence deprived morality of any guiding principles. Tom is “good” because he was born that way, not because he has reasoned anything out or has had to struggle through any moral dilemmas. And he is saved from the consequences of his actions by sheer plot contrivance. Thus, having been involved in a fierce fight, he avoids killing Fitzpatrick only because the man has such a strong constitution. Having slept with Mrs Waters, he is saved from incest only because, at the last moment, Fielding reveals that Mrs Waters is not his mother after all. [Fielding’s critics assume, rightly enough, that the chances of unwittingly committing incest are greatly increased if one is used to having sex promiscuously.] In effect, said Fielding’s critics, the novel reduces an apparently admirable man to an amiable, unreasoning animal. And it makes Squire Allworthy, supposedly the epitome of reasoned benevolence, a complete dupe until his eyes are opened not by his own insight, but by having other people reveal Blifil’s villainy to him. In passing, we might wonder how Allworthy has spent all these years living with Blifil, Thwackum and Square without once guessing their true characters. Is a man really “all worthy” to be so blind? Fielding may have had a good case in objecting to the prudential morality in Richardson’s Pamela, but Fielding’s critics score in pointing out the unthinking nature of morality as presented by Fielding, and the way Tom Jones misses out the complex of impulse, principle, rational thought and prudence that is in fact involved in all morality. Arguing “good nature” is avoiding the issue.

Or is all this being far to solemn about what is essentially a comic novel? We could argue that Fielding’s critics are missing out on the novel’s deliberate comic conventions – caricature and slapstick and a lack of ratiocination are part of the comic game. Tom Jones may be best read as something like the fable of Chaunticleer in which the boaster and dandy gets off scot-free, even if it wouldn’t happen that way in real life. The novel, then, is a sort of wish-fulfilment cloud-cuckoo land. We laugh because we know that, in fact, this is NOT the way things would turn out in reality, just as the novel’s dialogue conventions (of elevated vocabulary) are not meant to be taken literally. But if we adopt this line – which I think most readers probably do – we cannot also argue that Tom Jones is to be taken seriously in its moral perspective.

Speaking of taking this comic novel too seriously, I read what the cold, analytical bore F.R.Leavis had to say about it. This was the man who wanted every great novel to be as serious and moral as Middlemarch. Leavis thought all the characters in Tom Jones were mere caricatures with no inwardness of soul. Once it is established that Blifil is a hypocritical sneak and Tom is a good-hearted, sensuous young man, there is nothing more to be said about them. They simply act out their assigned roles without in any way growing and developing as real characters. Ingenuity of plot, says Leavis, is all that holds this picaresque novel together. In this Leavis might well be right, but he is still missing out on the nature of comedy.

Enough. By this stage you are bored – if you have read this far – with my extensive comments on a book which is, after all, intended to make us laugh. My chief quarrel with Tom Jones is simply that it is too damned long. For me, its 800 pages become repetitive and wearying. I kept thinking of Bill Shakespeare’s (probably unoriginal) remark that brevity is the soul of wit. For this reason, I favour the more modest length of Joseph Andrews over the rambling Tom Jones, even if both play upon the same sort of humour.


Inevitable Filmic Footnote: In 1963 Tony Richardson’s lively film version of Tom Jones was released to great applause, winning four Academy Awards,  giving a huge boost to Albert Finney’s career, being good box-office and persuading a Welsh crooner called Thomas John Woodward to change his stage name to Tom Jones. I have a vivid memory of this film. It was released in New Zealand in 1964, when I was all of thirteen years old. The censor had given it a restricted certificate, R16, meaning you had to be at least 16 if you wanted to see it. I went to see it with a classmate who was the same age as me but rather more sophisticated than me in negotiating adult prohibitions. He managed to bullshit the two of us into the theatre by claiming that we were 16, and though the usher gave us a sceptical look she let us in. We thought we were very naughty and daring and enjoyed the film as a straight comedy. It was lively and invigorating. Years later I saw this film again on television, but for some reason it had lost its lustre. Maybe it looked too much like film-making in the flashy swinging-London sixties. Ah well.

            Back in 1997 there was a BBC television serial adaptation of Tom Jones, starring the distinctly un-charismatic Max Beesley as Tom. It was a little plodding and stuck closely to the novel. I watched it with one of my daughters, who was then a teenager. When it finished I asked her what she thought of it. “Boys will be boys, I suppose” she said, which does more-or-less sum up the novel.


Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.  


Recently, I had the pleasure of reading and reviewing on this blog Nick Bollinger’s Jumping Sundays, his entertaining, comprehensive and detailed account of the “counterculture” in New Zealand in the 1960s and early 1970s. As I pointed out in my review, as well as sharing the same familiar name (I’m Nick to many friends), Nick Bollinger and I are “baby-boomers” as we were both born in the same decade, the 1950s. But I am six years older than he. This means that I was already leaving high-school and going to university when the “counterculture” was in full swing, while he was still going through the junior classes of high-school. So (dare I say it?), even allowing for differences in temperament and upbringing, my memories of those times are inevitably different from his.

But before I get into the autobiographical part of this posting, I have to make some general points about the old “counterculture”.

First is the obvious fact that every generation tends to think it is creating the world anew. In my last years at high-school, in the late 1960s, the music that was being created (Beatles, Stones etc.), the relaxation of censorship and the type of films that were being made (The Graduate, Zeffirelli’s version of Romeo and Juliet, Bonnie and Clyde) persuaded us schoolboys that we were in a new age, unique and different from, and more open than, our parents. But looking back, and comparing 1960s music and films with earlier music and films, what I now see is continuity with just some modifications. If each young generation thinks it has unique and new insights, then each young generation is often sorely deluded.

Second issue is the meaning of this term “counterculture”. In Jumping Sundays, Nick Bollinger’s foreword states: “By the late sixties, counterculture was in common use and remained so for much of the following decade, after which … it began to slip into the past tense.” (p.21) But I believe this freezes the meaning of the word as it is now used, and implies that the “counterculture” applies only to the decade that Bollinger examines. When it is now used by sociologists and other commentators (who frequently present the term in hyphenated form as “counter-culture”), a counterculture is a sub-culture that runs against current norms or the mainstream culture of a given society. Thus, for example, in New Zealand now, where pop and rock music dominate the airwaves and podcasts, and where religious observation has declined drastically, it is truly countercultural to listen to classical music and go to operas and it is truly countercultural to regularly attend church. Radical, man! The term is not reserved for the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s. Of course there are also destructive movements which could legitimately be called countercultural, such as anti-vaxxers, idiots who call themselves “sovereign citizens” (i.e. people who think they are above the law), gangs etc. but the point still stands.

Third issue is that many of the ideas embraced by the 1960s / ‘70s counterculture have now been largely reversed by a younger generation. For example, in the 1960s, at Berkeley University in the USA, there was the radical “free speech” movement, and gradually throughout the Western world, university students began to take it for granted that platform speakers could now say whatever they liked in a university environment. Now we live in a world of “cancel culture”, which is a reality despite some pundits denying that there is such a thing. The smallest statement a speaker or writer may utter can cause that speaker to be “de-platformed” from a campus, or for petitions to be spread condemning that speaker and asking for some sort of sanction or punishment in the name of (self-)righteousness. The notion that there might be legitimate statements at odds with current norms is incomprehensible to some organised campus groups. This is an age in which “trigger warnings” have to be given if fragile university student ears are likely to be told harsh truths. In the USA, comedians are first vetted lest that say anything offensive to a campus audience. “I am offended” becomes the catch-cry of de-platformers, and anyone who promotes free speech is labelled a “free speech absolutist”. Of course free speech has never been absolute, and rightly so. Laws against slander and libel, laws against inciting violence, and sanctions against genuinely extremist groups have been with us for many centuries. But when many of the present era label people as “free speech absolutists”, they are most often condemning speakers and writers who simply express views they dislike.

I could say other things about the 1960s/70s counterculture, including my great scepticism of those who purported to be seeking “spirituality”, which as often as not meant hedonism and zonking out on drugs. But with regard to New Zealand, what I would emphasise is how much in the 1960s/70s, younger people were more likely to take their cultural cues from the USA rather than from Britain, which had been the model for their parents. Sure there were influential British bands and musicians (Beatles, Stones, Kinks et al, with me being a heretic and preferring Alan Price). But the quality of protests in the USA, the type of anti-war rhetoric in the USA, the psychedelic drug buzzy-ness in the USA, the Eastern mysticism embraced in the USA, the dropping-out-into-communes in the USA  - all became the pattern for protests, anti-war rhetoric, drugginess, mystic aspirations and communes in New Zealand. If I were to sum up New Zealand’s counterculture in the 1960s/70s, I would say it was the decade when New Zealand acknowledged  that its cultural pattern was woven in (love it or hate it) the USA rather than in Britain. (See on this blog a related posting on this reality called Imported Protests.)

Okay, that’s it, apart from my own teenage-and-young-adult memories, so here comes the autobiography.

A book like Jumping Sundays, very detailed though it is, might lead some to believe that every young person on the 1960s/70s was attached to the counterculture, dying to live in a flat or on a commune, smoking weed and rebelling against their parents. And of course this simply was not the case.  Most young people might like new-style rock music and attend rock concerts; but after leaving school, the majority were still busy trying to get a job and earn an income or even (an aspiration virtually inconceivable now) trying to begin the long process of paying off a mortgage on a house. University tuition was free (so long as one had passed the University Entrance exam or Bursary or Scholarship), but even so, the majority of young people were not university students.

I was, beginning in 1970, a university student, but I never went flatting. For most of my student years I lived, rent-free, at my parents’ home. Being the youngest of a large family, I shared the house with only my parents as all my siblings had already left home; and then, when my father died prematurely, I was with only my mother for two years. Most students found it easy to get jobs during university breaks and vacations; and at one time or another, I worked at nearly every factory on the Mount Wellington Highway in Auckland – Fisher and Paykel, Alex Harvey’s, Sunshine Foods etc. Amazing to think now how ready personnel staff were to sign students on for such casual labour, especially as students often found there was little real work for students to do in factories. Sure, I remember bottling fruit, controlling a gantry and working on an assembly line. But I also remember hours of hiding out with others in backrooms, or walking up and down with a clip-board pretending I was checking stock, because there was really nothing to do. It was almost as if casual labour then was a sort of accepted charity for students. Still, the pay enabled me to buy a (second-hand) motor scooter and buzz around freely in the evening chasing girlfriends or catching up with movies and live-performances at university.

You see, I was essentially a conformist, though I did grow my hair to shoulder-length, hippie-style. I remember once going into a barber shop in central Auckland looking for a haircut, but the grumpy barber took one look at me and said “Nah. I don’t do that hippie-stuff! and told me to get out. Obviously he was a short-back-and-sides man.

But, being a student, I couldn’t exactly avoid the counterculture. There were rants and orations nearly every day in the quad at the Students’ Union, just across the road from Albert Park, and of course I heard many speakers expounding on the war in Vietnam, apartheid and women’s rights. I can remember students acting out the shooting of protesting students at Kent State University in the USA. Feminist speeches were rarer but impassioned. There was also anger if speakers seemed frivolous or conservative. Near capping days, there was the disgusting tradition of some students “drinking a pub dry”, often announced with the charming chant “Eat more, root more, sink more piss”. There were loud boos and the threat of violence once when a half-drunk engineering student butted into an earnest oration and exhorted students to invade a popular pub and drink themselves silly.

Things were very earnest then. But Tim Shadbolt wasn’t. I heard many of his improvised speeches – usually vague, generalised, more entertaining than serious, peppered with silly jokes and catch-phrases and much fun when he decided to trap his audience. I paraphrase from memory one of his traps. “The government’s pouring twenty million dollars every month into the war. Twenty million dollars!!!” At this, the student throng gasped with horrified disbelief. Whereupon Shadbolt would say “See. I just made that up. It’s all bullshit. People will believe any bullshit. Newspapers, television. It’s all bullshit.” He flashed his toothy grin at me once when I passed him on the street, which seemed a big deal at the time.

I joined in a number of marches against apartheid, but I steered clear of demos against the war in Vietnam. The fact was, I was compromised. One of my elder brothers, whom I admired very much, was a career soldier and was then a young officer in charge of an artillery battery in Vietnam. (See posting on this blog Goodbye Soldier)

What I noticed, too, is that some voices, regarded as very "countercultural", were actually endorsed and approved of by some thinking older people. It wasn't necessarily a battle between the generations. When Germaine Greer made her controversial visit to Auckland, she was interviewed on television. I remember my parents at first watching with a degree of scepticism. But as she got to talking, they found themselves more and more agreeing with her. When she discussed the way society was being atomised, families were isolated from their neighbours, and old people were shoved into retirement homes, I remember my father saying "She's right you know" which was my parents' judgement on nearly all her comments.

One thing about the “counterculture” was how performative its more fervent adherents were. Everybody seemed to be playing a role which I couldn’t take seriously. I remember, in my naivete, going to a poetry reading, innocent enough to believe that I was going to hear real poetry. Silly me. The headliners were Alan Brunton and some of his mates. Brunton seemed to be either pissed or stoned. At any rate he stumbled onto the stage, appeared to be disoriented and fumbled and mumbled before delivering a few lines. There followed a long, embarrassing silence, until Brunton asked his audience “What do you think of it so far?” or words to that effect. “Inertia! ” I shouted with all my 20-year-old wit. Whereupon he shouted back “You, sir, have vertigo!” You see back then, in the counterculture, totally meaningless statements could be taken to be either surreal or profound. Then of course there were the inevitable encounters with the very performative James K. Baxter. (See The Baxter Problem on this blog.)

Defining moment for me, however, was a year or so after I’d graduated. I bumped into a fellow former-student who’d been in the same Eng. Lit. tutorial group as I. He was a guy who would always turn up wearing a tasselled soft-leather jacket and a leather cowboy hat, with shaggy beard and wild hair. “Reid,” he said, “we never could figure out what you were trying to say. One day you’d turn up in jeans and sleeves and the next day it’d be collar and tie.” I thought about this for a moment and then it dawned on me. As a student, I’d wear whatever happened to be available and clean. I wasn’t trying the “say” anything. Clothes were just clothes. But the expectation of that counterculture time was that everything was an act, a public declaration of self, a performance. In that respect among many others, I never was a part of the counterculture and never took it seriously. It took a long time for some people to discover how destructive and bogus so much of it was. And of course the tasselled cowboy himself went on to become a sober, be-suited member of the professions.


Monday, September 12, 2022

Something New

 We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.   


“JUMPING SUNDAYS – The Rise and Fall of the Counterculture in Aotearoa New Zealand” by Nick Bollinger (Auckland University Press, $NZ49:99)


Sometimes it’s best to give a succinct verdict on a book at the beginning of a review rather than working slowly towards a verdict, so here I go. Nick Bollinger’s Jumping Sundays is a thoroughly-researched, always interesting and very engaging work – a mine of information about a time and a place. Nobody will agree with absolutely every judgement Bollinger makes in the course of his narrative, but everybody will note the care with which he negotiates a decade now receding into the distant past. For baby-boomers such as Bollinger and I (we were both born in the 1950s) much of Jumping Sundays is an exercise in nostalgia, a reminder of things that are largely forgotten and basically unknown by younger people. But while he celebrates much, Bollinger does not endorse everything that belonged to the old “counterculture” and in the end he delivers a very nuanced verdict on his chosen decade, weighing up the good and the bad that came with a period of change and often confusion.

There now. You have my verdict on this very good book and if that was all you wanted you have to read no more. But I’m one of those picky people who actually reads in detail the books he reviews, and I’m now going to plunge into the specific details that support my verdict. This will mean clopping through Jumping Sundays chapter by chapter, quoting book and verse.

Bollinger’s opening gambit is a vignette of the “jumping Sundays” in Auckland’s Albert Park, just across from the university. These events were initiated in 1969 when thousands of (mainly) young people invaded the park, against the regulations of the city council, and turned it into a place of dancing, picnicking, speechifying, singing, listening to bands and maybe smoking pot (though not too conspicuously). This was seen as “liberating” the park and for Bollinger it typifies a new mindset of the times.

Bollinger shifts then, in Chapter One, into the oft-told story of New Zealand’s precursors to the 1960s counterculture. (I say “oft-told” because you can read about the Kiwi 1950s in Redmer Yska’s  All Shook Up and about Auckland’s cultural 1950s and 1960s in Murray Edmond’s Time to Make a Song and Dance.) There were those few bohemians and rebels in the 1950s  and early 1960s who hung out in coffee bars, knew about American beatniks, tried to emulate them, and generally showed  discontent with the way things were. Some such people were genuine thinkers and writers, but others were simply performative narcissists like Lorna Jenks (self-styled “Anna Hoffmann”), an exhibitionist who specialised in posing and making scenes. Of course much of this chapter assumes that New Zealand in the 1950s was a dour, puritanical, tightly-controlled society where controversial books and films were regularly banned and the RSA still held sway in the shadow of the Second World War. Some people who lived at that time might question such a characterisation, but right or wrong it has become the standard caricature of the New Zealand 1950s.

Then we get (Chapter 2) the first whiff of the counterculture in the early 1960s. Awareness of the threat of nuclear weapons sets more New Zealanders to thinking about banning the bomb, protesting and often taking their cue from the British CND. The Vietnam War is heating up and becoming a matter for protest. The jazz musician Thelonious Monk visits New Zealand to the applause of jazz aficionados. In 1963, the Beatles visit New Zealand. Girls scream. Some boys scream. It’s the harbinger of something, but critical mass has not yet formed a real New Zealand counterculture. New Zealand is, as always, behind the beat of what is going on overseas in Europe and especially in the USA. Whereupon (Chapter 3) there is the beginning of a drug culture, which rapidly becomes big in the USA. New Zealanders begin to smoke marijuana. Some New Zealanders take LSD (which is banned in NZ only in 1967) and claim to be finding enlightenment in their altered states. Others of course crash and have their brains fried. Bollinger, balancing things up carefully in these matters, gives the example of an overseas musician, Syd Barrett, founder of the band Pink Floyd, whose “experiments with LSD inspired some of his most adventurous music, though may also have been a catalyst for the mental illness that would ultimately curtail his career.” (pp.82-83)

As mores begin to loosen up (Chapter 4) adolescents and younger adults begins to clothe themselves differently. Dare I use such antiquated terms as “funky” and “groovy” to describe their kaftans and tie-dyed skirts and bandannas and soft-leather jackets with tassels? For young men, the real sign of your hipness is long hair. They are, as Bollinger correctly notes, in a way emulating those nineteenth-century French poets who set out to epater la bourgeoisie (“flabbergast the middle classes”). One problem is, however, that it takes a lot to really epater la bourgeoisie, because in no time la bourgeoisie has monetised and commercialised the counterculture’s fashions and is selling them in expensive boutiques and using their imagery in their advertising. Far more important, especially after the introduction of The Pill (as it was then called), sexual mores were changing, sex outside marriage was less criticised, unmarried mothers were more accepted (although their lot was still often a difficult one). So we were into the era of “free love” with no barriers. But again there was a big problem here. Often, in this new sexual environment, “free love” meant men shaming or coercing women into having sex. Bollinger notes “A new vocabulary, imported from psychotherapy, developed around sex and could be used for coercion. Not wanting to have sex, for whatever reason, indicated that the woman was ‘uptight’ or had ‘hang-ups’. Despite the counterculture’s do-what-you-like ethos, social pressure could be powerful.” (p.116) The result was that men often gained more freedom than women did in the era of “sexual revolution” and it was understandable that women were soon to adopt what one academic miscalled “sexual puritanism”. [On this matter it’s interesting to look at Milo Bilbrough’s memoir of her time as a teenager in a hippie commune In the Time of the Manaroans, reviewed on this blog, where she notes the opportunism of males in the commune seeking sex.]

Meanwhile, a new sort of publication was growing (Chapter 5) among university students and in “alternative” bookshops such as the preciously titled Resistance Bookshop. Poets were (they thought) “freeing the word”, though often writing in an opaque way understood by few. Often the term “revolution” was bandied about, but it was never made quite clear exactly what sort of revolution was being considered. Some publications were simply high-spirited provocation, such as Christ’s College old boy Chris Wheeler’s Cock, which was published between 1967 and 1973. Some of its contents were amusing political satire but, as Bollinger freely admits, much of it was schoolboyish smut and potty jokes. Understandably it was a great hit with schoolboys. A similar, but not quite as scurrilous, publication was Earwig. Then there were the university papers such as Craccum and Salient, also now increasingly including satire and protest. In all this there was a greater tendency for teenagers and university students to identify with “anti-establishment” American movies such as Easy Rider. There was also the greater influence of young public speakers only loosely connected with the universities. The best known was Tim Shadbolt. As Nick Bollinger notes, Shadbolt’s soap-box orations were often so nebulous that they meant little when analysed: “Wherever he went, he never shut up. It helped that he was extremely entertaining. His speeches, always recounted with humour, combined revolutionary rhetoric with ripping yarns of masculine derring-do.” (p.153) Later (in Chapter 7) Bollinger examines a violent Mick Jagger song and notes that it “amplifies the casual misogyny of many a countercultural male” (p.214). Like it or not, macho posturing and bullshit, even if wrapped in revolutionary language, was a strong component of the counterculture.

Relentlessly (Chapter 6) , the Vietnam War became a focus of protest, with marches, demonstrations, sit-ins and petitions, at their height when US vice-president Spiro Agnew visited New Zealand, facing protests around the Auckland hotel where he was staying. Though some critics of the protests (such as Robert Muldoon) saw this as the work of Communists, the fact is that the old and largely insignificant New Zealand Communist Party had split in two and was a very minor component of such demonstrations. Nevertheless, a Marxist-inspired group, the Progressive Youth Movement (PYM), became prominent for a short time in this era. A small minority of protesters turned to violence of a sort, such as John Bower who blew up a few things to little effect. More important than this was the other great cause of protest, to wit, apartheid South Africa and New Zealand’s sporting contacts therewith. This inspired the foundation of HART (Halt All Racist Tours) in 1969, although the biggest protests against racist tours came in 1981, when the “counterculture” was largely over.

Forms of art were changed in New Zealand’s 1960s and 1970s (Chapter 7). Some silly things happened, such as the trial for obscenity of the American rock-musical Hair when it was staged in Auckland. The producers of the show were acquitted and the show went ahead, which shows how much censorship had been relaxed. More important than this imported side-show, however, was the interesting musical work of Jenny McLeod, who moved from classical music to grandiose compositions involving orchestra, huge choruses and large settings. Her presentation Earth and Sky was widely praised and appreciated with its telling of Maori origin myths; but her later Under the Sun did not gain such applause. Later she moved into rock music, said goodbye to academic teaching, moved into Eastern Mysticism by way of drugs, and basically faded from the scene. Other music was making more impact on young people. Prominently there was acid rock music and the influence of Jimi Hendrix who, apparently, had a great influence on Maori bands. And there were travelling shows, “festivals” and theatre, playing mainly to student audiences, such as Ken Rae’s Living Theatre and  Bruno Lawrence’s BLERTA and the attempts to emulate Woodstock with rock festivals staged in rural fields (often very popular but most of which lost money for their promoters).

And of course (Chapter 8) there was a proliferation of communes and different ways of using a house. There was, for a very short time, the “scandal” of “mixed flatting”, meaning male and female students inhabiting the same house; but soon such arrangements were accepted without comment. For some people, the poet James K. Baxter was a guru of the counterculture, though his adopted Catholicism was often at war with his propensity for having affairs with (sometimes young) women. Baxter was undoubtedly one of New Zealand’s greatest and best poets, but his advocacy for younger people and their point of view was often muddled. Nick Bollinger gives an amusing, sceptical and somewhat jaded view of James K. Baxter’s interaction with young urban lost souls in Auckland (pp.224-225). Famously Baxter later moved into a sort of commune at Jerusalem on the Whanganui. Again, Bollinger gives a very mixed report on it. But then communes in general, and the urge of some to separate from cities and go “back to the land”, also get a mixed review. Some communes functioned well and survived, especially those that were run by people who really did know how to use the land and raise crops. But far more failed or faded away after just a few years, frequently because the town-bred aspiring communards didn’t know what hard work was required to be self-sufficient. Also, in the general counterculture, there was an ongoing debate about their worth. Bollinger writes: “There were those who believed that dropping out was copping out; that to change the system or to bring about the revolution you had to be in the thick of it, not on a remote hilltop smoking grass, nursing a child or talking to God. An educated elite seeking self-sufficiency in a commune or other closed, minority community was betraying its social role, Russian-British architect Serge Chernayeff told students at the Warkworth congress in early 1971. Others insisted that dropping out was itself a political act.” (pp. 237-238).

This was the age (Chapter 9) when gurus flourished and people who claimed to be seeking spirituality and enlightenment became their disciples. Some took what became known colloquially as “the hippie trail” and headed for Asia, especially India. Some took to Transcendental Meditation or to chanting Hare Krishna. There were followers of the Mahjara Ji’s cult. Perhaps the ultimate countercultural seekers of truth were the Jesus Freaks. Most of these groups were benign and peaceful. But there were other groups that were either authoritarian or extremely manipulative, such as Ananda Marga, the Moonies and Scientologists. And there were gurus who, when they turned up in New Zealand, proved to be less impressive than their supporters though they would be. Bollinger gives a scathing account (p. 267) of Scottish psychiatrist R. D. Laing, who visited in 1973 and underwhelmed his audience with a rambling, semi-coherent speech filled with long pauses as he kept losing the order of his pages. It surely can be no accident that Bollinger’s publishers have chosen an accompanying photo of Laing looking as if he is half-asleep or otherwise zonked-out. [From the perspective of 2022, I wonder why anyone ever took Laing’s crank theories seriously, but let us move on…]. Some gurus proved to be totally malign. In America, the notorious Esalen Institute bent people’s minds and were perpetuators of the idea that women were “uptight” or had “hang-ups” if they said no to sex. And, with a shudder, there was Bert Potter’s Centrepoint, north of Auckland, which claimed to be curing people's inhibitions but which ended with criminality, wide practice of paedophilia and legal suits filed (successfully) by survivors.

Less controversial than all this, and still much admired by many, was (Chapter 10) the growing environmental movement. There had long been such a movement since the 1930s, but it had been embraced only by a few vegetarians and crusading naturalists. In the 1960s and 1970s it became mainstream, with big campaigns such as attempting to save Lake Manapouri from being flooded in the interests of generating power. This campaign failed and the lake was duly flooded; but the campaign to save South Island beech trees was more successful. Anthropogenic climate change hadn’t yet become a widely-known issue, but conservationist groups stepped up their interest in protecting threatened species. Nick Bollinger gives much credit to the short-lived Values Party, founded in 1972, and sees it as the precursor to the current Green Party.

But in the whole account of this era of “counterculture”, there was an element that many radicals and protesters took a long time to recognise. This (Chapter 11) was the presence of Maori and Pasifika people, and the fact that they had legitimate grievances that Pakeha protesters had ignored. Hence the formation of the Maori Nga Tamatoa and the Pasifika Polynesian Panthers, which were inspired by the American civil rights movement and the American Black Panthers. Increasingly Maori were asking questions about land that had been expropriated and reminding communards that the land they went to, with utopian plans, was Maori land. Samoans and Tongans were protesting against being deported. After  having discussed the different aspirations of young Pakeha and young Maori, Nick Bollinger says:  If Maori and Pasifika alliances with the counterculture were not stronger, it may be because Maori and Pasifika societies are essentially collective, while Pakeha society is… individualist. The counterculture sought in many ways to reject the tenets of mainstream society, but old habits die hard. Despite the aspirations espoused by certain communards, rabble rousers, hippie idealists and fallen priests, the counterculture, with its overriding notions of freedom, would increasingly show itself to be a group of loosely affiliated individuals doing their own things.” (p.299) To put it another way, the idea of a coherent  “revolution” was really a mirage. Within the counterculture there were simply too many conflicting priorities and ideas to stand together as a unified cause.

And, just as the presence of Maori and Pasifika voices blew apart some of the certainties of the counterculture, so did (Chapter 12) the feminist movement, or what was then called Women’s Liberation. Increasingly women critiqued the assumptions of male counterculture figures who took it for granted that women still had to do all the chores while happy pot-smoking men lazed around and theorised or strode about making barnstorming radical speeches. Thus the common-sense and critical comments of Rose Beauchamp, wife of Ian Wedde (p.305). And thus, much later in the book, the shrewd comments of Miriam Cameron, partner of Tim Shadbolt (pp.355-356). Communes were nirvana only for men. The visit of Germaine Greer in 1972 gave a big publicity boost to the women’s movement, but partly for the wrong reasons. Greer was caught up in a trial for having used obscene language (she had publicly used the words “fuck” and “bullshit”) and had to pay a fine. Much of the mainstream media was negative about her visit. Nick Bollinger notes that the student press was more open to women’s liberation than the mainstream press; but it still ran “sexist cartoons and pornographic imagery in the guise of rejecting bourgeois views of decency.” (p.309)

Thus, in a late chapter (Chapter 13) Bollinger begins to count the negatives of the counterculture as the whole general idea began to fall apart. The government of Norman Kirk (1972-1974) was liberal on some things, but conservative on others, perhaps truly reflecting the nature of the country. Among the more astute observers, there dawned the realisation that some apparently countercultural figures were more concerned with being entrepreneurs and making money. Thus a number of  “alternative” promoters of rock concerts. Thus the publisher Alister Taylor, about whom Bollinger writes very negatively (pp.337-338), depicting him as a man who started publishing anti-establishment stuff like The Little Red Schoolbook and Tim Shadbolt’s egotistical Bullshit and Jellybeans, but who (as Bollinger tells it) rarely paid his debts, deprived his authors of their royalties and enriched himself. Then there was the nagging suspicion that some prominent protesters had been plants put in place by New Zealand’s Security Intelligence Service (SIS). Oh dear.

So at last (Chapter 14) Nick Bollinger raises the question “Who Killed the Counterculture?” Wisely, he does not blame the government of Robert Muldoon (1975-84), even if Muldoon himself was a prickly conservative with little love for the counterculture. Rather, the counterculture died of its own contradictions. Merry takers of illicit drugs slowly understood that the stuff they consumed was being supplied by, in some cases murderous, gangs of criminals like Terry Clark. Overseas in America, some notable rock icons (Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin) had died of their addictions. Charles Manson’s gang had looked like a hippie commune. It was responsible for massacre. The glamour and lustre of taking drugs died.

And besides all this was the fact that the counterculture, laying so much emphasis on “doing your own thing” and individualism, led first to libertarianism and then ultimately (under the Lange government, 1984-89) to the neo-liberalism of “Rogernomics”. After all, what could be more individualist than selling state assets into private ownership?

Much of the counterculture in New Zealand was built on an illusion. In the 1960s and early 1970s, New Zealand was economically sound, there was little unemployment, university tuition was free and it was easy for young people to sustain themselves by taking up – and then dropping – seasonal work and casual labour. But the economy changed and so did the relatively easy life that made the counterculture possible. Having considered the hippie lifestyle and the “hippie trail” in Asia, Germaine Greer wrote with a breath of common sense “The hippie is the scion of surplus value. The drop-out can only claim sanctity in a society which offers something to be dropped out of.” (p.354). In other words, a counterculture could be sustained only as long as there was a generally prosperous and open society. In many cases, countercultural-ists were “dropping out of” comfortable middle-class suburbia to which, of course, they could eventually return… which many of them did. And “going back to the land” transmuted into buying a lifestyle block.

Nick Bollinger’s epilogue is therefore very ambiguous. As an experienced writer on rock and pop music, he praises many bands and individuals who made new music in New Zealand in the decade he surveys. He credits the old counterculture with raising awareness of environmental issues. He notes the greater public advancement of women’s rights and the status of women in the workplace. He believes the 1960s and early 1970s saw Maori and Pasifika asserting their rights more overtly. But he also sees the negative stuff. The trouble with drugs. The false messiahs and gurus. The continuing macho assumptions of countercultural men. The passing fads that now look either quaint or absurd. The advancement of individualism at the cost of the common good.

Ultimately, what does all this mean? I think in synopsising Jumping Sundays, I have reported accurately what Bollinger is saying, though perhaps emphasising the negative side of things a little more than Bollinger does. Even so, like every other decade, the years that Bollinger covers have made their own imprint, have left traces of things both good and bad, and are now fading off into history. I do not think they are more or less significant to us now than New Zealand’s decades of World Wars, the decade of the Great Depression or for that matter the (near) decade of John Key. Let us not idealise any decade of the past. All have their positives and negatives


Hasty Footnote: In writing this review, I have ignored one important matter. Jumping Sundays is amply illustrated with photos from the 1960s and 1970s  as well as reproductions of artwork from magazines of the era. They give us the style of the times – but not being an art critic I am not the person to comment on them.