A sixties summer idyll (Photo by H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images)
A sixties summer idyll (Photo by H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images)

SocietyDecember 27, 2019

We’re all going on a 1960s summer holiday

A sixties summer idyll (Photo by H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images)
A sixties summer idyll (Photo by H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images)

Linda Burgess looks back on the not-so-glamorous New Zealand holidays of her youth.

American girls, in their early teens, spent the summer holidays away at camps. Summer in the US isn’t ruined by Christmas. Parents took time off from being a man in a suit and a woman in an apron with frills around the edge to put their kids in a station wagon with inexplicably wooden sides, and discard them somewhere in the country. Anywhere that there were a few cabins, a lake, a bear or a snake to prove it was the wilderness and additionally useful for eliciting spontaneous displays of courage. In other cabins there were the sort of boys who spent hours setting up complicated bucket systems that were guaranteed to tip water on the girls when they came in from toasting marshmallows over the campfire. Sometimes a girl would find out quite by chance that she had a twin sister. Who’d’ve thought that they’d end up at the same camp? And there’d be stinging nettles to serve the bullies right. The parents would be alone and happy, left to the pleasures of their matching twin beds.

That was on the East Coast. On the West, boys in big convertible cars with fins stopped in front of two-storeyed houses with immaculate lawns and a basketball hoop above the garage door to pick up girls with blonde hair flicked up at the ends. Life was one long beach with 16 hours of daily sunshine and enviable golden sand, and the sea rolled in with perfectly coiffed towering waves on the crest of which the bronzed boys cruised, to the admiration of the girls in their gingham bikinis on the beach. The Beach Boys were on the portable record player. There were tall chairs on which lifeguards sat, searching for sharks, rips, and the prettiest girls, with eyes that never stopped scanning. Sometimes a person with a tray held round their neck with a strap, sold popcorn or donuts and the hardest decision was Coca Cola, or Pepsi?

There were never any grownups.

Over in England, things were just starting to swing. No one pretended you could surf on the beaches there, or get bronzed even, so the only thing to do was grab a bunch of your friends, get a double-decker bus, and take off for Greece. A handsome, unthreateningly androgynous boy who could sing, who had a surname to which the pig ignorant added an ‘s’, drove the bus, and the girls looked dressed by Mary Quant. There was no girl who didn’t have a fringe. There were adventures on the way South, and lots of singing, some choreographed dancing with slender hips swinging in unison, and you had to watch out on the motorways as the double decker careered wildly south, at the mercy of crazy French and Italian drivers, and trucks that wove in and out of the traffic in a madcap manner. Everyone was a bit of a madcap. The songs’ lyrics rhymed, so were easy to learn. No grownups, other than the odd loopy traffic cop.

They were role models. All of them. They exemplified how everybody else in the world was living their lives. Everyone else in the English-speaking world knew how to be a teenager, and did it without even looking as if they were trying. Even in Australia they were surfing. Everybody else in the world, come summer, took off and had fun. They were stereotypes, and here in New Zealand I longed to be one too.

But there seemed no one available to give me guidance.

My parents were clueless when it came to encouraging us to emulate worldly-wise role models. They were hopeless at it themselves, still sleeping in a double bed, driving a Morris Oxford, not a station wagon. They might just have known a stereotype if it were a dandy from a Georgette Heyer novel, a murderous vicar from St Mary Mead, a plucky chap in a spitfire. But other than paying for my Seventeen magazine and allowing me to plaster my bedroom wall with posters of popstars, they more or less left me to figure out how to be a teenager in summer for myself.

We lived in a seaside town but there was something about Patea Beach that discouraged running into the sea with a surf board under your arm. Even if you went down there in your gingham bikini there was nothing really to watch. We did go on holidays but their idea of a family holiday was to rent a bach in Foxton. While Patea Beach was a 2 out of 10, Foxton was really only a 4 and a half. One year my mother sewed us skating dresses, the skirt part niftily cut on the cross, and we clumped around the skating rink in Foxton with our crummy roller skates that we wore over our shoes; they expanded up a couple of sizes without warning when the screw came lose. We sprawled inelegantly, our knees bleeding on the uneven asphalt. English girls had roller skates attached to white boots. English girls glided.

One year they took us to Rotorua. We were stuck interminably in the back of the car, with me always in the middle because although I wasn’t the youngest I became, unfairly early, the shortest. Our thighs stuck to the plastic seat, it was searing agony to get out of the car. But Rotorua was exciting: we were tourists and Rotorua was what people from overseas thought New Zealand looked like. We commented on the smell, saw boiling mud pools, geysers, went to the buried village, had our photo taken in the pa, went on a boat on the lake. There were boys on the boat and the photos showed me looking pointedly diffident. I remember what I was thinking: here am I, again, with my parents.

A surfing beach party, circa 1965. In the United States, of course, not New Zealand. Photo: Getty Images

Once we went to Takapuna Beach for a week, yet again renting a house. Dad found mentioning that he was a bank manager in his modest advertisement for short term accommodation attracted sufficient attention to find us somewhere to stay. Television was still unavailable in Taranaki so he decided to hire one for the duration, assuming we’d be glued. I wanted to be Patti Duke, not just watch her, and my older sister and I retreated to the car so we could listen to The Lever Hit Parade and The Sunset Show. But each day we went to a beach that finally looked like a proper beach. We parked our car by the excessively glamorous Mon Desir Hotel and walked on to a beach which at least had golden sand, though insufficient waves for budging a surfboard. On the golden sand, there were North Shore teenagers in bikinis, squealing together parent-free, possibly burying each other for fun. I have no memory of life guards high above our heads. What’s that? I asked my sister as we swam in the warm northern water. I still wonder, where would a turd that size come from? Piped out to sea early one morning as Takapuna bowels moved in unison? From a passing boat?

End of first year, university. Sue’s mum drove us down to Paraparaumu Beach. And then she left. We had sleeping bags and rented a cabin; we were a short walk from the beach. Even though it was February, the height of summer, we froze the first night. The second night was so much better; by then a day spent in the sun, olive oil rubbed all over our young skin, had fried our skins to a crisp. All night my body thrummed, glowed with a deep, divine warmth.

We met two boys, both students. I think one of them lived nearby. They had a car, not a convertible, but it did the job. It had a radio; they turned it up loud. They had surfboards and knew the best surfing beach was Peka Peka. They gave us a go on their boards, and I finally stayed balanced and upright as the board grated against the sand. We mucked around with them for days. We had our racquets with us so we played tennis. When the sun went behind clouds we played mini-golf. At my request we revisited Foxton Beach’s skating rink, by then desolate and unused: the fashion for cheap roller skates for Christmas had passed. We walked on the beach at night and we lit a fire and smoked menthol cigarettes. No drugs, perhaps we drank beer. We vaguely divided into two pairs but none of us was really interested. You went to a beach in a car with its windows open. You met boys, you surfed, you smoked, you talked, you baked in the sun. It was what you did, pretty much, when you were a teenager.

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