There and back again: The big OE

Jude Wilson poses under a personal embellishment on the signpost at John O'Groats, Scotland, in...
Jude Wilson poses under a personal embellishment on the signpost at John O'Groats, Scotland, in 1982. Photo supplied.
In Flying Kiwis: a history of the O.E., author Jude Wilson examines what has become a rite of passage for so many New Zealanders. Shane Gilchrist reports.

It was an August evening in London, 1990. The fact Mick Jagger sounded a little murky had nothing to do with either the Rolling Stones singer's vocal delivery or the sound system that sent tremors through the framework of Wembley Stadium.

No, the evidence for the aural opacity lay squarely at my own feet, where a pool was steadily widening.

The effort to which Jagger and his band-mates had gone in digging out a rarely performed chestnut, 2000 Light Years from Home, added to the chagrin.

And what a mocking refrain: I might have left dear Dunedin for the promise of London-based adventure a few months earlier but, in behavioural terms, my 21-year-old soul was still back there. Another venue, another vomit, eh.

A quarter of a century has passed, yet many other aspects of the OE remain vivid: a picture-postcard Christmas scene in which the lights of Harrod's glowed as snow fell; remnants of a Sunday roast dribbling down the chin of an obese publican (my boss), who had fallen asleep while he ate; armoured vehicles and sentries outside Heathrow Airport circa Operation Desert Storm in early 1991; listening to The Chills' album Submarine Bells as a ferry bumped towards the Greek island of Hydra ...

The collision of the good, the bad and the ugly that comprises the Overseas Experience has been fodder for various plays (Roger Hall's Taking Off), films (Grant Lahood's Kombi Nation) and novels (Craig Marriner's Southern Style) over the years.

However, author Jude Wilson's Flying Kiwis: a history of the O. E. is no fictional account; instead, it's a rigorous examination of what has become a rite of passage for so many New Zealanders.

The Lincoln University researcher is no stranger to airports. Last month she left for a conference in India, where she will present a paper on cruise ship tourism in Akaroa. After that, she heads to the Maldives, which will bring to 105 the number of countries she has visited.

At more than two decades long, Wilson's overseas jaunt was heftier than most. She left New Zealand in 1979, returning in 2000, a stranger in her own country with little idea about what she wanted to do.

The result? A PhD thesis, then a 300-page book on the OE.

''It started when I came back with no useful job skills,'' Wilson explains.

''I went to Lincoln to study recreation, tourism and stuff and worked out I knew quite a lot about tourism, which makes sense given I have dedicated a large part of my life to travelling.''

On finishing her PhD at the end of 2006, she began reworking much of the material into a book.

Helped by a social history grant from the Ministry of Culture and Heritage, she paid herself a wage as she wrote while also doing research work at Lincoln, which appointed her as a writer in residence; although the position was unpaid, it gave Wilson access to an office and full staff privileges.

''At the time, there was a lot of media interest in the OE. A lot of it wasn't exactly wrong, but there seemed to be a continuous stereotype. When I looked into it, I realised no-one had actually studied the OE.

''Compared to what had been published - which was anecdotal stories, newspaper reports, that sort of stuff - I think I brought some more facts behind the OE.''

Much of Wilson's book has to do with the OE phenomenon from the 1950s, in particular its expansion and change in the 1970s and consolidation and commodification in the 1980s and 1990s, as well as its commercialisation in the 2000s and its survival into the new millennium. Yet she delves back further.

Wilson maintains a key tenet of an OE is the concept of great distance, which is founded in trade and settlement between two of Earth's most distant points: Britain and its antipodes.

While a wealth of published impressions and experiences of early travellers to New Zealand exists in archives, the population movement was never one way, she points out.

Traditionally, New Zealanders have taken advantage of available outbound transport: numerous Maori worked and travelled on whaling ships heading to Europe and Britain in the early 1800s, and many people travelled on returning migrant ships during the late 1800s and early 1900s.

After World War 2, the development of aircraft technology and, in particular, the advent of jet services enabled more people to see the world.

Declining prices helped to enable travel and, in effect, reduced the distance between New Zealand and Britain. Bigger planes brought economies of scale to a different level.

According to Wilson's research, the average weeks' earnings required to fly from Sydney to London fell from just over 90 in 1950 to 32 in 1960, 14 in 1970, six in 1980, under four in 1990, and just over two weeks in 2000.

''Time became more important; those going on an OE could leave a job in New Zealand, organise a job in London, and be there within a week,'' Wilson notes, adding that access to some form of ''working holiday permit'' was - and remains - fundamental to the OE.

During the 1950s and 1960s, New Zealanders were able to travel, work and live in Britain for as long as they liked.

This situation continues today for those born there, or with at least one British-born parent, but since the Working Holiday Permit and the Grandparent Entry Visa (now known as the Ancestry Visa) were introduced in the 1970s, all other New Zealanders have faced limitations on both conditions of entry and length of stay.

The introduction in 1981 of a two-year restriction on a working holiday generated considerable media response in New Zealand, many articles highlighting the contribution to the British economy made by working holidaymakers, Wilson says.

However, the change that had the most impact came in 1993, when the two-year working holiday permit was altered so it was no longer possible to add time out of the UK on to the total length of a stay.

Three key changes took effect in August 2003, Wilson points out: the upper age limit was extended to 30 years; all existing work restrictions were removed; and, after one year, working holidaymakers could switch to work-permit employment provided they qualified.

In 2005, work in the UK was restricted to only one year of the two-year term of the visa, and in 2008 the British Government scrapped the working holidaymaker scheme in favour of a points-based youth mobility visa, with points awarded for having a sponsorship certificate from one's home country, for being in the correct age band and for having sufficient funds in the bank.

(Australians and New Zealanders were exempt from the first of these requirements.)

Under the new rules, it was also possible to work in any lawful job other than professional sportsperson, doctor in training, or business start-up. In 2012 a quota system restricted the number of places available on this scheme, Wilson notes.

''This quota - of 10,000 places for the 2012 year - illustrates the continuing popularity with New Zealanders of a UK working holiday, particularly in relation to total population (4.5 million). Australia, for example, was allocated 32,500 places (23 million population), and Canada 5000 places (35 million population).''

By August of last year, New Zealand had 40 reciprocal working holiday schemes (in addition to that with Britain) in place, including Mexico, Poland, Brazil, Peru, Slovenia, Spain, Turkey, Israel and Hungary.

Altogether, there are schemes in place with 21 European, nine Asian, six Latin American, two North American and two Middle Eastern countries.

Despite all the destinations now available to those contemplating an OE, there remains a stereotype based on Kiwis living and working in London and travelling extensively in Europe.

''Add work in a pub, life in a shared flat in Earls Court with 15 other Kiwis, a VW van tour around Europe, trips to Oktoberfest and the Running of the Bulls at Pamplona, and you get a commonly employed, but rather stereotypical and dated (circa 1980s) description of what constitutes the OE,'' Wilson states.

The stereotype does have its use: it condenses a complicated and varied range of experiences into something easily understood by others.

''Many people use it as a measure of their own experiences,'' Wilson says.

''They may have done an OE, but 'not a very good one'; they may describe their experiences as being `pretty stereotypical, really', or as `not stereotypical', and so on.

"An examination of the stereotype might reveal common core values, including independence, competence, survival and a celebration of New Zealand culture, yet the stereotype itself also changed over time.

"Those going on an OE in the boom days of the early 1980s, for example, had already missed the ship voyage and/or the Hippie Trail and were too early for the massed Anzac Day gathering at Gallipoli and the Waitangi Day Circle Line pub crawl in London.

"Nowadays, Wilson says, the OE is exemplified by diversity: of destinations; in the length of time spent away; and the types of work undertaken.

''I think people will go to all sorts of destinations and for different reasons. I don't think we need it as much as we once did.

''And the world has challenged the OE so much. The global recession really put the screws on. And the high New Zealand dollar has made it easier to stay here and go travelling.''

The age of travellers has also changed.

The late 1990s and 2000s witnessed an increase in the number of older people (in their late 40s, 50s and 60s) departing New Zealand on a long-term basis.

Some of this increase was directly related to baby-boomers.

With children off their hands (and sometimes, handily, based in London) and their own parents still in reasonably good health, this group was young enough to enjoy working and living overseas for a few years.

''Many of these older travellers were taking the opportunity to do an OE they had missed out on when they were young, having chosen marriage and child-rearing in the 1970s.

"The difference was rather eloquently described by one older OE traveller thus: 'The young go to see what life offers, while we were going to see what we had missed'.''

Technology - specifically, the ways in which we now communicate - has also changed the dynamic of the OE.

''It used to be about going it alone, putting yourself out there, but now communication is so much more open. It is a different thing; you aren't so far away.''

Still, things can - and sometimes do - go wrong.

''Sometimes travellers simply find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time,'' Wilson notes.

''The normality of the OE makes it easy to forget that the world can be a dangerous place, and that life does not always go according to plan.''

The reality of the OE can be a shock for many, even if the internet provides an immediate window into various social events, other people's travel adventures and the Waitangi Day London Circle Line pub crawl, for example.

Still, it is difficult to appreciate what it is like to actually be there.

''Modern communications allow friends to text, email and make phone calls cheaply; they are much more likely to say 'get over here - the social life is great' than to admit to having a really bad day at the office, or on the Tube, or to communicate their misery when they are midway through a depressing British winter, unable to afford a holiday.''

Being an expatriate is difficult, Wilson warns.

''The OE almost always comes loaded with the promise of more travel and adventures than one can afford.

''Life on the OE is often reduced to a matter of doing one's laundry, joining the local library and spending time with friends from home.''

Flying Kiwis: a history of the O. E. is published by Otago University Press

The great NZ OE
Although those who set off from New Zealand in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s now recognise what they did as an OE, back then it was variously described as ''going home'', a ''working holiday'', or as the more generic ''overseas trip''. Jude Wilson says the first use of the term OE is attributed to New Zealand satirist Tom Scott in the mid-1970s, but exactly when it was universally adopted is difficult to establish. Common by the early 1980s, it was used in an article on working holidays published in the Christchurch Star in 1983 and, between 1982 and 1984, Chris Slane's ''OE'' cartoons were published in London-based New Zealand News UK.

 

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