Not the Swinging Sixties

In the big picture New Zealand prospered in the 1960s. Materialism boomed, the economy flourished, brand-new houses dotted the suburbs and pop music and miniskirts and thumbing noses at conventions, gave spice to the day.

But on the edge of the lupins and the sand hills east of Christchurch, Cheryl Nicol’s childhood memory of 60s life, was one of make-do. In her memoir, A Parallel Universe, as the title suggests, a different world existed.  Life was hard. The picture, is grim.

Dad is wedded to his shed. He’s the can-do anything hero, has Kiwi Joker ingenuity and as such is always dealt with firm affection. Many words are devoted to his inventions; his piece de resistance was the machine he made for Uncle Gordona bizarre mechanical contraption devised for chopping off multiple chooks’ heads. Many other of his more conventional projects would lighten up the eyes of blokes.

Mum’s a different story. Cheryl soon learned that her mother was a complicated woman with Jekyll and Hyde tendencies. It was the pills she took for her “nerves”, a euphemism for recurring bouts of depression but she said her mother took the pills to stop her ending up like her brother, Uncle Ned, who’d turn up on the doorstep on leave from the mental institute where he was a full-time resident.

Of her mother.  No-one ever said the D-word. We didn’t know. When she was good she was good. Witty, creative, fun. When she was bad she shouted a lot and it was best to keep out her way. But she furiously kept her dignity…

Here’s a mid-twentieth century New Zealand every-woman stuck in the suburbs, tied to the kitchen and often cross and hassled with five kids.

Yet this is not a book about Cheryl Nicol’s mum. A Parallel Universe is a collection of twenty-five small chapters brimming with anecdotes, about Cheryl growing up in Christchurch’s sixties. We join her racing from church services followed by roast lamb and vegies and a Sunday drive, to caravan camping, and to the milkman delivering milk in the dead of night. The pennies are pensioned off, and a black and white television features Selwyn Toogood’s Money or the Bag.

Then of course there’s food. Pinky bars are a favourite, custard made from preserved eggs comes up often, as does all edible parts of an animal, including those from the pet lamb…

A Parallel Universe is a great resource for 1960s social researchers.  The sayings of the day are aplenty: the flicks, the idiot box. “Ya clumsy clot!”  And the attitudes of the day, especially towards mental health and thrift are well recorded.

As a break from the goings-on at home, I liked the chapters near the end of the book where the family holidayed around Lyttelton Harbour. Here Cheryl Nicol names specific places which brings the area and their yachting escapades to life.  Copy on the front and back covers suggests that this is an amusing read yet I found it a sobering reflection of a segment of New Zealand life in the 1960s, albeit one in which the author  covers the good the bad and the difficult with honesty, sensitivity and a light-hearted touch throughout.

A Parallel Universe 

A Quirky Memoir of Growing Up in 1960s New Zealand  by Cheryl Nicol

Mary Egan Publishing  2017

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Janet Hart

Janet Hart lives in Nelson, where she taught English in secondary schools for nearly 30 years, before dabbling in a little historical New Zealand Art. In 2012 she took up Magazine Journalism, which now consumes her.