The lives and loves of teenagers

Photos: supplied.
Photos: supplied.

In Teenagers: The Rise of Youth Culture in New Zealand, Chris Brickell provides a window into age-old motivations. 

TEENAGERS: The Rise of Youth Culture in New Zealand
Chris Brickell
Auckland University Press

The word teenager appears not to have emerged until the 1920s and was not widely used until the 1950s, but the species has always been with us.

And Chris Brickell has succeeded in telling a multifaceted story within the compass of just one book.

The story of 19th-century New Zealand youths and maidens is full of surprises and worth a volume on its own. Flirtations and high-spirited misdemeanours occupied the young adults on the immigrant ships and, while for many the new country often offered only hard yakka on remote farms or day-long drudgery as domestic servants, the diaries reveal that leisure time with people of their own age was a universal, but often thwarted, goal.

"When on the poop the girls are not to look over at the young men," wrote Bessie Prouten, who noted the anger of a father whose daughter had "kissed a young man on the poop".

Once ashore, some teenage immigrants revelled in the freedom of the wide open spaces or, more usually, found their activities constrained by constant supervision or the demands of work. Gradual urbanisation brought the opportunity to mix with their own kind, sometimes in organised clubs or within groups of larrikins and "mashers" (dandies).

Victorian outrage accompanied revelations of young people roaming the streets unsupervised and parents devised rules to control these peculiar offspring who were neither children nor adults.

Over time, the official view re-defined "adulthood". For example, the age of consent changed in 1889 from 12 to 14 and then to 16 in 1896. A legal drinking age of 16 was first imposed in 1881; it became 21 in 1910. Pre-war militarism reinforced control as school boys learned to drill and obey orders. Much of the story is, of course, about the young people who openly rebelled or who at least kicked over the traces from time to time.

The 20th-century teenagers, also worth a book of their own, became a recognised group as advertisers realised that here was an untapped market. The young people led the way in the Americanisation of New Zealand society. Comics, films, radio to an extent, and then television, presented a lifestyle that seemed enviable and by the time the US Marines arrived in 1942, older teenagers had embraced Hollywood wholeheartedly.

In Teenagers the post-World War 2 years have had be condensed a little and while the sex, drugs, rock and roll and the protests will be pure nostalgia for many, others will be fascinated by what they seem to have missed out on. The 1950s teenagers have been well-described in Redmer Yska’s 1993 book All Shook Up and it would be satisfying to see someone like Chris Bricknell given an entire volume to explore the 1960s.

The book achieves that tricky balance between meeting the needs of the scholar and the general reader. The author has read widely, visiting more than 50 archives to seek out diaries. Oral histories have provided information not found elsewhere, but the hundreds of life story interviews held at the Alexander Turnbull Library Oral History Centre appear to have been by-passed.

The layout and text are easy on the eye but photo credits are listed at the end of the book, which means flipping frustratingly from the main text to the back pages to learn the provenance of the photographs. Can that be me in the 1962 Caroline Bay photo on the cover? I know I was there!

Teenagers is an achievement and a must-read for anyone who has been a New Zealand teenager. A vast potential audience.

- Jim Sullivan is a Patearoa writer.


Win a copy

The ODT has five copies of The Teenagers, by Chris Brickell, to give away courtesy of Auckland University Press. For your chance to win a copy, email books editor with your name and postal address in the body of the email, and "Teenagers" in the subject line, by 5pm on Tuesday, August 8.


Winners of last week’s giveaway, Killers of the Flower Moon, by David Grann, courtesy of Simon & Schuster: Ildi Campbell, of Dunedin, Deirdre Coughlan, of Millers Flat, Helen Cottle, of Outram.

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