The photograph on the cover of Chris Brickell’s Teenagers, which we learn inside is a New Year’s Eve party at Caroline Bay in 1962, is typical of the way many of us still see the quintessential New Zealand teenager: lanky, big-eared white baby boomer lads and soft-featured white baby boomer sheilas, living it up and looking cheeky. Because the ‘teenager’ as a phenomenon was first recognised in the post-war era, and the generation on whom the term was bestowed started celebrating their youth even before the war had ended, the image of what it is to be a young person in New Zealand seems as frozen in time as these cheeky faces: a 50s/60s mash-up of marching girls, milk bars and the Mazengarb report.
All of that is in Brickell’s book, along with a pretty comprehensive and never dry guide to the time’s socio-political factors, pressures and new freedoms. Given the ease with which baby boomers will talk about this sort of stuff, and their appetite for hearing it repeated back to them, it must have been tempting to give this sliver of time even more space. Key to Brickell’s success here, as in his excellent Mates & Lovers: A History of Gay New Zealand, is the balance he strikes between representing a plurality of experience while recognising common themes and behaviours over time.
It’s not untrue to say the book proves again that youth is youth and always will be, but that isn’t the only lesson here. It is the differences, not the similarities, which make Teenagers so engrossing. Brickell’s attention to those groups which fall outside of our received image of the past (see cover photograph) allows him to reveal a messier, more class-conscious New Zealand. Yes, there are stories of individuals revelling in teenage joy and discovery, but the various troubles of New Zealand’s teenagers often reflect all too neatly wider tensions around national security and identity.
The book is laid out chronologically, and the reader is drawn in to individual lives through diary excerpts, letters and oral accounts. Brickell only covers that time up until the 1960s, but it’s clear through the book’s closing chapter that the period of his own youth is just as fraught and storied as any which precede it. The book is rich with stories and diversions chosen with percipience, but there will always be more to say.
Reviewed by Jonny Potts
Teenagers: The Rise of Youth Culture in New Zealand
by Chris Brickell
Published by Auckland University Press