Philip Matthews reviews a brief history of cultural revolt in Auckland

I haven’t seen Allen Curnow’s play The Overseas Expert. You probably haven’t seen it either. Has anyone? It’s never been performed on stage although it nearly was back in 1962.

The story of this near-miss, this cancellation of Curnow, is one of many good stories told by poet, playwright and academic Murray Edmond in his spirited, entertaining and deeply opinionated social history Time to Make a Song and Dance, which charts a decade of cultural revolt in Auckland during the 1960s. It was a decade that went from poets lugging flagons into parties and pubs closing at 6pm to students making bombs and digging tunnels under Albert Park. Conformism was attacked, and was gradually eroded, but it put up a fight.

The Overseas Expert is a satirical comedy about middle-class Auckland, and its shallowness, its philistinism, in which wealthy tomato sauce magnate Bill Soper is conned by an Englishman named George Mandragora, who poses as an aristocrat and wants to gets his hands on Soper’s fortune as well as his daughter. You can imagine the comedic potential. As Edmond writes, “the majority of The Overseas Expert’s jokes were aimed at the Auckland bourgeoisie, exposing both its pretensions and its ignorant crudities”.

That was the second play Curnow wrote for Ronald Barker, a flamboyant and eccentric British theatre producer who arrived in New Zealand in 1957 and took charge of the university-run Community Arts Service (CAS) Theatre, which Edmond argues was Auckland’s first professional theatre two decades before the better-remembered Mercury. One of Barker’s first big ideas was to take Waiting for Godot on the road in 1950s New Zealand; complaints poured in from Raglan and Kaitaia. Barker and Curnow became friendly, and the great poet wrote the play Moon Section, which CAS performed. Reviews were mixed, theatre-goers were puzzled or turned off, and Curnow channelled his frustrations with dim Auckland audiences into The Overseas Expert.

Edmond quotes some great lines. Bill Soper’s son Bob seems to have functioned in the play as a social critic, or even the voice of the playwright, decrying Auckland as “this redundant slum of the far South Seas”, a dreary city where “nobody smiles in the street for fear of the police”, where the civic elite have “the biggest yachts, the most horses, the plushiest lodges at Taupo”, and “their pockets are always open, for Royalty to piss in”. But the same philistines that Curnow roasted in the play ran the Auckland City Council and the Auckland Festival, where Barker hoped to place the play. The festival’s chairman, Sir Julius Hogben, walked out of a read-through in disgust, and that was the end of The Overseas Expert. The line about pissing in pockets might have been the last straw.

Auckland, that unsmiling slum, is Edmond’s subject. When Barker arrived, he mocked 1950s Auckland as a “sleepy hollow”, where the arts were mediocre at best. Theatre audiences didn’t want to be woken from their peaceful slumbers, but he tried anyway. It wasn’t inevitable that he would fail; in another chapter, Edmond shows how Auckland Art Gallery director Peter Tomory, also an import from the more open cultural and political climate of post-war Britain, outmanoeuvred the same stolid layer of Auckland society. But Barker’s end was tragic. In March 1962, he was arrested after committing “an indecent act” with another man in a public toilet in Durham Street West, while a detective just happened to be in the next cubicle. Barker’s name was in the paper; he was promptly sacked by the University Council. But Curnow, to his everlasting credit, stood by Barker, “a man I am proud to call a friend”. There was even the unlikely image of Barker and Curnow walking arm in arm along Princes Street in defiance of the university’s conservative mandarins (remember that the university was Curnow’s employer as well). Barker died six years later. A Curnow play written after the arrest, Dr Pom, is seen as yet another satire of the same stifling culture.

The rise and fall of Ronald Barker is told across one of this book’s 10 chapters, but it has it all. It is the wider story in microcosm. Edmond opens the book with a stunning image of a society united in a collective delusion, drawn from a Janet Frame short story, “The Terrible Screaming”. The story describes a city in which a loud, constant screaming is heard. But even though everyone hears it, no one will admit to hearing it, for fear of being labelled insane. When a foreign stranger arrives and asks about the screaming, the townspeople persist in saying they can’t hear it. Once the stranger is safely hidden away in “a private rest home”, the screaming continues. Edmond thinks the story was written in London in 1961, but was about New Zealand. It’s impossible not to see it as a premonition of Ronald Barker and others like him.

Was there something about Auckland? The sprawling city grew quickly in those post-war decades, but culture didn’t grow with it. Wellington had the business of government, Christchurch had “a high provincial Anglophile culture” (Edmond refers to Peter Simpson’s excellent Bloomsbury South) and Dunedin had the life of the university, but Auckland? It was a city of suburbs, motorways and money — like everyone who lives in Auckland, Edmond seems to love it and hate it equally.

NZ Herald photo of the bombed Supreme Court in Waterloo Quadrant, 25 March, 1970. Photo from Time to Make a Song and Dance.

There are interesting ways in which the story is personal as well. Edmond arrived from Hamilton at the end of the decade to study at Auckland University, which made him a witness to some events and a participant in others. But most of the stories told here happened just before his time, and must have taken on a quality of myth or fable or allegory by the time he heard about them. The reader will also get the strong sense that this book has percolated for years, that Edmond has been eager to get it all down. It’s packed with links, connections and observations. It has confidence, intensity and energy, with some rough edges and repetitions, none of which detract from it. It is a highly subjective account of a society that was dominated by “a puzzling blend of violence and inertia”, and expresses the desperation of those who couldn’t stand it.

The 10 chapters roam across various art forms. The ones about popular music and film are the least convincing; the best cover theatre, art, fiction, poetry, the sad parallel lives of printer Bob Lowry and politician and war hero Arapeta Awatere, as told by their daughters Vanya Lowry and Donna Awatere-Huata, and the not entirely reliable story of Anna Hoffmann. Born Lorna Jenks, Hoffmann was a kind of bohemian it girl in early 60s Auckland with links to Sydney’s much more exciting and dangerous bohemian underbelly. She was known to police in both cities, and made a meal of her notoriety. Journalist and cultural historian Redmer Yska thought that Hoffmann was publicity-mad, and he didn’t believe anything she said, but the legend of Hoffmann as a young woman too out there and too unruly for the dull, patriarchal Auckland of the time suits the greater story Edmond is telling. And sometimes you must print the legend.

There are figures we always thought of as Aucklanders (Curnow, Frank Sargeson, Barry Crump) and some we didn’t (Hone Tuwhare, Carmen). Crump comes up in a superb close reading of A Good Keen Man that places it alongside Frame’s A State of Siege, Sargeson’s The Hangover, Jean Watson’s Stand in the Rain and Maurice Duggan’s O’Leary’s Orchard, and includes the brilliant line that “it might be possible to make a map of 1960s literary New Zealand by joining the dots of who fucked Barry Crump”. Duggan famously called Crump “an anecdotal ape”, but Edmond sees the appeal of Crump’s “sentimental and secure” novels, with their simplicity and uncomplicated nostalgia. It’s the same kind of thing the theatre-goers of Sleepy Hollow wanted: “40 years out of date, seen through rose-coloured spectacles, never disturbing its audience, avoiding the responsibility that goes with any production”.

We are still in a black and white world in the early part of this book. By the end, we are somewhere more contemporary. We are in full colour, spending decimal currency. Universities are full of young people performing stunts and pranks. It is generally remembered as a fun revolution. “I don’t agree with bombing,” charismatic student leader and professional nuisance Tim Shadbolt announced. “All you motherfuckers can breathe a sigh of relief.” But there was a small group out to disturb the peace in more serious ways. In the most dramatic attack, a bomb blew the doors off the Supreme Court in Waterloo Quadrant, exposing a foyer dominated by a sign that simply read “SILENCE”. The book reproduces the Herald’s photo of the scene and it is a perfect image, reminding Edmond of the Frame story about silence and screaming while also anticipating the bombing of the Whanganui Police Computer 12 years later, when the suicide bomber Neil Roberts spray-painted the words “We have maintained a silence closely resembling stupidity” on a nearby wall. But like Roberts himself, the activities of the Auckland bombers have also disappeared into a greater silence, as Edmond says: “The whole campaign, that stretched from the Waitangi Flagpole in 23 April 1969 through to July 1970, has been more or less forgotten. Almost as if it can no longer be fitted into the narrative of Auckland’s history we presently tell ourselves.” Auckland, careless about its past, keeps charging forward.

Time to Make a Song and Dance: Cultural Revolt in Auckland in the 1960s by Murray Edmond (Atuanui Press, $38) is available in selected bookstores nationwide.

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