By Sandy Burgham
I am mopping up my degree this year with two papers taken for sheer enjoyment, one of them being the history of NZ popular music. By now, I am well used to being the oldest one in the class, but this particular paper has me considering my age. Aside from the fact that my classmate is one of my son’s best friends, (we sit together occasionally, much to their amusement), the music we are studying is the music of my youth. Yes, I was there first time around, and to be presented with Bunny Walters, Craig Scott, The Chicks, and even The Fourmyula as important turning points in NZ music, is really rather strange. I never thought of The Swingers and Split Enz as historic. I nailed the first listening test without even studying, but my lecturer tells me not to be too overconfident, as mature students usually fall apart once we hit the new millennium hip hop lectures.
We never think that perhaps right now we are in a moment in history that people, our descendants, might even study with curiosity in the not-so-distant future. It has made me reflect on the social shifts, some smaller than others, that I have lived through and that have changed who I am, and how I live my life. There are the obvious things of course: cellphones and the Apple Watch. I was raised lining up as if in prison to use the household landline, inconveniently located on the staircase landing. But I remember the first “test tube baby” being born in the 70s. It was sort of Frankenscience and I couldn’t envisage this catching on.
Social roles were very prescriptive. When I was about 10, I was fascinated by a family friend, a “women’s libber” who wore a badge that read “women make politics not tea”. What would she now think of our 37-year-old, unmarried new mother Prime Minister? What would she now think of aggrieved men, thinking they are discriminated against on the basis of gender? (Yeah, doesn’t feel so good, huh?). And what would she think if she, like myself recently, encountered a large march on Queen St featuring mainly white South Africans protesting against violence, genocide and minority rights in their homeland? (Yes, colonisation certainly leaves a long, messy trail).
Our family friend would have been around 50 at the time of her political awakening; how sexual politics were expressed was a little different to that of Madonna, who has recently turned 60. Talking of 60, I was brought up in the land of 60 million sheep. (Oh god, not roast lamb again). But we seem to have eaten through or exported 20 million of them, and sheep products are now a novelty. Proud carnivores, it was impossible to imagine veganism becoming increasingly mainstream and a political statement about the environment. I brought vegan cheese last week to give it a try — I remember when camembert was introduced locally and gagging at eating mould. Considering I had my first taco at 19 and my first avocado at 21, it’s hard to remember what I actually ate in those early years. Lamb, I guess. Certainly not kale.
I don’t remember in my ‘tomato sandwiches made with white bread youth’ being particularly healthy. We played sport but didn’t exercise as such, aside from a bit of jogging and Jazzercise for the extra keen. When I started work I smoked Pall Mall Menthols . . . at my desk! And speaking of smoking, we never imagined that New Zealand would consider decriminalising marijuana. Marijuana as medicinal? I am not sure Mum and Dad would have bought that line in my youth. Their lack of involvement in our school lives would look downright slack today — helicopter parenting was yet to be invented. And the thought of paying for a taxi to ferry me to and from parties would have been unheard of. You organised that under your own steam.
I trot out the lyrics of the music of my youth effortlessly. They are programmed in to my cellular memory, as is threading a sewing machine, which after 40 years of non-use, I recently discovered my brain and hands still knew how to do. But with some shame, I have embedded in my very earliest memories the knowledge that New Zealanders were prone to littering, before the government urged us to be a “tidy Kiwi” — we even needed reminders on rubbish bins. We of course don’t litter today but we do step over the homeless. We tolerate a society where we have a very visible underclass. What will our descendants think about that when they study us? Will we feel a sense of shame?
I never thought I’d see the day.
— Sandy Burgham
This article first appeared in The Hobson Magazine October 2018