Radio waves to new digital age

01:23, Jan 12 2013
Peter Snell, the dark horse at the Rome Olympics in 1960, captures gold.
Peter Snell, the dark horse at the Rome Olympics in 1960, captures gold.

We are the baby-boomers. We are the fallout from the post-war birth bomb. Raised between 1946 and 1964, we are the product of pent-up parentage, the legacy of thousands of young men returning from service in the 1939-1945 World War. We are the generation that swelled hospitals, schools, new suburbs and social statistics to bursting point. We are sometimes reviled as lucky for growing up in the embrace of the welfare state and selfish that we are now starting to receive National Superannuation.

But who are we? What trends affected us through our first three decades? What events shaped us? What ethos formed us? How did we see the world we grew up in and became aware of from the early 1950s?

Popular culture

"What should he take, customers - the money or the bag?"

Swayed by the audience's roar, the contestant takes the bag. Listeners all over New Zealand stiffen in anticipation. He has turned down cash - will his prize be worth it?

Selwyn Toogood's weekly radio show, It's in the Bag, was a premier exhibit in the Kiwi gallery of popular arts. He recorded it in remote halls where people turned out in droves to watch and perhaps take part.


The show later transferred to television but, with Toogood's passing, it slumped in the ratings and was canned.

For Toogood's "customers" - members of the audience and prospective buyers of the sponsor's product (Rinso washing powder) - popular culture meant the Howard Morrison Quartet's parodies on well-known songs.

Literature was Barry Crump's books. Painting was Peter McIntyre's landscapes. Music was Kiri Te Kanawa's renditions of Maori songs, before her departure for England and high- brow stuff.

Baby boomers enjoyed a radio in every home, although hit parades were dominated from abroad.

Many had gramophones, although records came mostly from overseas.

An increasingly urbanised New Zealand tried to develop a home-made culture from the 1950s. Baby boomers subscribed to the attempt in an unconscious search for national identity. We felt at home hearing My Old Man's An All Black, reading about hard-case deer cullers spinning yarns in backblocks huts, viewing oil paintings of battered farm gates and bent mailboxes backed by gloomy trees and mountain vistas.

Po Kare Kare Ana sung sensitively tenderised our tough exterior.

We tried to express our identity, too. But foreign influence was strong and it spawned a cultural cringe.

Baby boomers entered talent quests with guitars and new-fangled electronic amplification, flashy clothes and hairstyles. But it was Tommy Steele and Elvis Presley they mimicked. Even Kiwi rocker Johnny Devlin was an Elvis lookalike.

Some budding performers enjoyed the nurturing of a public television service committed to fostering local talent. C'Mon presenter Pete Sinclair became a household name. Under his promotion, a galaxy emerged.

We became familiar with Ray Columbus, Dinah Lee, The Chicks, and others. They were New Zealand stars but their principal influences were foreign.

Some of "our" stars even had, or assumed, foreign accents: Hogsnort Rupert, Ray Woolf, Tommy Adderley.

Baby boomers banned from pubs by the 21-years age restriction went to milk bars instead. We crowded around the jukebox and took turns to insert a coin and select a disc.

What did we choose?

Connie Francis, Bobby Darin, Marty Robbins, The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Cilla Black - not a Kiwi among them. We sought identity but we found commonality.

We were as much antipodean versions of Poms and Yankees as we were Kiwis. We poured into cinemas to see Elvis movies. We packed the street outside Christchurch's Clarendon Hotel to catch a glimpse of John, Paul, George and Ringo, although we would not have bothered for John Rowles or Patsy Riggir.

As we moved into our 20s and beyond, we hitched our star to the folksy protest music of Joan Baez, Tom Paxton, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell.

All the while, the bulk of us ignored our genuine New Zealand culture. Maori concert parties toured the world and performed at home for visitors. But indigenous baby boomers largely ignored them.

At high school we practised a haka but we had no idea or interest in what it meant. Our generation pre-dated pounamu pendants and Maori motif body tattoos. As for "real" art - it passed us by. We hardly heard of internationally acclaimed Wagnerian bass Donald McIntyre.

We shrugged shoulders at Bill Sutton and Toss Woollaston paintings, and gave up trying to see anything in Colin McCahon. We wrote off James K Baxter as a hippie. We couldn't name a single sculptor.

Yet, when news reports reached us of overseas rave reviews for Te Kanawa or McIntyre, Michael Houstoun or Malvina Major, we bathed in reflected glory at the standing our fellow Kiwis had achieved.

Rigoletto at Covent Garden is a long way from "It's in the Bag coming to you tonight from the Memorial Hall in Tuatapere". For baby boomers, it's about as far as Cliff Richard is from rap. But that's show-biz.

Baby boomers still hark back to the popular culture of their day. They will always lay out the welcome mat for Neil Diamond, Cher or Kenny Rogers, on their twilight tours. Because they stoked our fires.

Sporting heroes

A couple of biffs from former boxing champion Kevin Skinner sorted out the scrum problems and the All Blacks beat the Springboks in a test series for the first time.

It was 1956 and baby boomers bathed in the general elation.

We were too young to know that Maori players had been excluded from the All Blacks that toured South Africa in 1949. Rugby's propaganda broom swept that travesty under the carpet. We were indoctrinated to believe the All Blacks had been "robbed" by South African referees in 1949 but would get revenge at home in 1956.

Four Maori players contributed to the 1956 triumph. But the racial issue did not go away and, in 1960, baby boomers became aware of it. That year the All Blacks toured South Africa, again without Maori players.

We heard the infant cries of a protest movement that would grow louder each time the two countries met on the rugby field, reaching a crescendo in 1981.

Meanwhile, we played rugby on school grounds until our knees bled as we tried to scrub the mud off.

In summer we whacked cork cricket balls with chipped bats in frantic "tip-and-run" games.

New Zealanders were gaining a reputation overseas for "punching above their weight". Golfer Bob Charles and speedway riders Ivan Mauger and Barrie Briggs became household names. On one day in Rome, runners Peter Snell and Murray Halberg won Olympic gold medals. Snell won two more at Tokyo in 1964 and broke several world records. New Zealand dominated middle distance running for a decade.

The key was super-coach Arthur Lydiard, who developed a squad of top athletes. He visited our school in 1965 and led a bunch of us on a cross- country run.

Rowing coach "Rusty" Robertson spurred national crews to Olympic golds at Mexico (1968) and Munich (1972). Robertson and Lydiard suffered from petty jealousies among sports hierarchies, were jettisoned at their peak and left for overseas with suitcases of baby boomer sympathy.

Our sporting frenzy peaked with Dick Tayler's run for gold on the first day of track competition at the 1974 Christchurch Commonwealth Games.

I felt like the only baby boomer not at QEII Stadium that day.

I was stacking hay for the carriers, my battered Pye transistor blaring reports from the Games.

Such triumphs stirred pride in baby boomers. They broadened our sports interests, from boxing (Dion Murphy's pro-bouts at Canterbury Court) to motor racing (Bruce McLaren at Wigram).

We read Sports Digest and bought books about our heroes that writers like Terry McLean churned out.

Cricket gave us a roller-coaster ride. New Zealand were dismissed for 26 in a test innings against England but then scored their first test win, against the West Indies.

"Our" chaps fought hard but too often had to be saved by Bert Sutcliffe and John Reid. The Turner-Hadlee- Crowe era still lay ahead.

Before we got TV, we lost sleep listening to crackling wireless commentaries from overseas. We read detailed, full-page newspaper reports of cricket and rugby matches.

We gathered in smoky halls to see Caltex-sponsored film coverage of test matches flickering across white screens weeks after the events.

When Cardigan Bay carried New Zealand's banner in the United States, and became the first standardbred horse to win $1 million, even non- racing people became excited.

Baby boomers were keen spectators but no more active than other generations, until later years when they joined the creaky-muscle crews in veterans' grades.

No-one jogged on the roads in the 1950s. When I started, it was common to hear people jeering - "Do you think you're Peter Snell?"

But jogging caught on.

Every district had tennis courts where club competitions were thrashed out. Then rural populations declined and New Zealanders discovered golf (rising incomes making it affordable). Weeds sprouted in the cracks and the courts were broken up.

Immigrants from Britain and mainland Europe boosted soccer.

Scrum and tackle injuries and the apartheid row persuaded many baby boomer parents to steer their children to soccer, hockey, orienteering, archery - anything but rugby.

Our choices as kids were limited.

You could play any sport as long as it was rugby in winter and cricket or tennis in summer.

As for women, they played netball, though it was called basketball then, and hockey. Pony clubs prepared girls for showjumping. We still gloried in Yvette Williams' 1952 Olympic long jump victory. But other sports were still thought "unwomanly".

New technology

From the kitchen window I watched the daily train stamping down the line to Hawarden.

The Ab locomotive, clouded in smoke and steam, towed a rake of wagons and a faded red guardsvan.

Tiger Moth topdressing planes circled overhead, then landed in a paddock near our house.

Farmers buoyed by high wool prices drove flash Chevrolets and Humber Super Snipes. To a baby boom kid, these were exciting manifestations of modern technology.

After dinner, Dad would shovel coal on the fire and switch on the wireless in its polished wooden case, the size of today's microwave.

The valves would take 20 seconds to warm up, and then we would sit back to listen to - oh, no, please Dad, not Parliament again.

We had the telephone installed in 1953. You had to wind the handle to contact the exchange and request a number. We got our first fridge in 1955. It had a small ice-box so we badgered Mum to make icecream.

As the old song went - "Everything's up to date in Kansas City, they've gone about as far they can go".

Hawarden was Kansas City.

My early toys were of metal (Fun- Ho) and wood. Plastic was a new invention still to reach the toyshops.

I rode a bike made from bits of other bikes. When a traffic officer inspected bikes at school, I hid mine.

In my imagination, that bike was a Mt Cook and Southern Lakes tourist coach. Hawarden Creek was some substitute for the Milford Sound on the travel posters.

I gained a driver's licence in brother Pat's Vauxhall Victor, in 1963.

Four years later I bought a car.

It was a baby boomer too - a 1945 Morris 10. It cost $90. When the baby- boom era unofficially ended, in 1974, I had a near-new, 3-litre Zephyr V6, big enough for my family to cruise the open spaces of Central Otago.

The Zephyr had a heater. Its brakes and steering worked without wobbling. It was fast and powerful. It was a great leap forward from the Morrie, representing the technological advances of the in-between years.

Baby boomers witnessed steam locomotives giving way to diesel, trains becoming smaller and less frequent, branch lines closing. Trucks became bigger and drivers talked on two-way radios. Bi-planes made way for monoplanes. Portable transistors pushed the old wireless aside.

Computers, videos, photocopiers, electric typewriters and hand-held calculators began their intrusion as the baby boom era was petering out.

As a teacher, I joined in staff debates over investing school funds in such fripperies. When credit cards were mooted, a colleague, who was a member of a religious cult, warned they carried "the mark of the devil".

Our 1970 wedding photos were taken in black-and-white because it was clearer and cheaper. Digital was still a poison weed. We moved to colour in 1975 with a new Thorn Precision-20 TV, one of the first colour sets in the district.

My brother, Terry, sailed for England to seek his fortune in 1968.

Already air travel was taking over from ocean liners, and not just because of the Wahine disaster that year.

More and more seats were being crammed into increasingly powerful and economical passenger jets, so airline ticket prices fell.

More people were able to see the world. Thankfully, this put a stop to interminable slide evenings, when travellers returning from trips abroad gave rambling dissertations while fumbling with cranky projectors showing over-exposed images of Bernice at Buckingham Palace.

By the time baby boomers were left childless, and could afford their Great OE, technology had evolved even further - we could blitz the world with boredom, those of us who had figured out Skype and Twitter.

The Press