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Jumping Sundays: The Rise And Fall Of Counterculture In Aotearoa New Zealand

Jumping Sundays were a series of weekly “happenings” that took place in Auckland’s Albert Park in the late 1960s. In a kaleidoscope of guitars, bongos, ponchos, beads and kaftans swirling among wafts of joss sticks and marijuana, hippies – derogatively referred to as freaks, weirdies, radicals and dropouts – would come together to enjoy live music and dance, listen to anti-war speeches and find a sense of community in a shared rejection of the monochromatic conservative landscape of New Zealand at the time.

Armed with a desire to embrace longer-term utopias and alternative approaches to living situations, politics, culture and sexuality to their parents, they also gathered to protest against the Vietnam war.

These gatherings weren’t strictly legal but were tolerated by the city council on the proviso they were restricted to Sunday afternoons.

Born in 1958, Wellington-based writer Nick Bollinger was only a child when rumblings of New Zealand’s burgeoning counterculture began, but with his strong sense of curiosity he was in tune to a sense of cultural seachange.

“All this exciting stuff was happening around me,” he says. “Then when I was at secondary school, on Friday nights me and my friends would go to [counterculture bookshop] Resistance Books and just sit and read stuff off the shelves. It was a portal to a different world.”

Protesters against the right to abortion march along a Wellington street in 1973. Photograph: Keith StewartA lifelong inquisitiveness about New Zealand’s specific angle on the global counterculture movement forms the basis of Bollinger’s book Jumping Sundays: The Rise and Fall of the Counterculture in Aotearoa New Zealand. In this lively social and cultural history, Bollinger chronicles the music, radical politics, drugs, sex, religion, spirituality and communities that were at the centre of New Zealand’s countercultural awakening.

“People were beginning to think, ‘to hell with school, to hell with haircuts. There’s a new world and I’m gonna be a part of it,’” says Bollinger.

“Some had blown up buildings, some had blown their minds.”

Music had an important influence on New Zealand’s counterculture, with Bollinger likening the Jumping Sundays events to local cover versions of international songs heard on the radio in the 1960s, a wonky interpretation of sorts. Women made their own clothes, but instead of being influenced by fashion magazines they were studying what Jimi Hendrix was wearing on record sleeves.

Festivals created a strong sense of community, and Bollinger says the two most successful festivals were the Serenity festival in Pūtiki, Whanganui, in 1972 and the Great Ngāruawāhia music festival in 1973, while 1970s Redwood festival in West Auckland was a disaster.

An anti-war protest at Auckland Town Hall circa 1971. Photograph: Max Oettli“At Redwood there was a riot with a wall of police. Nobody knew how to run a festival,” ” says Bollinger. “This was only three months after Woodstock. The film of Woodstock hadn’t even come out so there wasn’t really an established model. It was a disaster, there were policemen grabbing the microphone.”

Alternatively, the Great Ngāruawāhia music festival used a Māori security firm who were community-minded.

“The Great Ngāruawāhia music festival was like the sun coming out. People were just left alone and there wasn’t really any trouble.”

Manaakitanga, or hospitality, was the key difference to Redwood. Significantly, Serenity’s organisers had partnered up with local iwi. “On the last day there were 500 people left so the marae put on a hangi for the hippies, they even had a vegetarian hangi. That wouldn’t be like a rock festival anywhere else in the world!”

Another remarkable specificity to New Zealand is the Ohu Scheme approved by Norman Kirk’s Labour government which enabled state sanctioned communes. The idea of the commune movement was imported. Americans came here trying to escape the draft or they were disillusioned politically. New Zealand had a romance about it. An optimistic promise of being able to start again.

“New Zealand had so much space and while it wasn’t terribly easy land, it was pretty easy to go off the grid here. Norman Kirk was like, ‘oh these kids want to live off the land, let’s see what we can do to help’,” Bollinger laughs.

A group sleeping in Herne Bay, Auckland, in the early 1970s. Photograph: Max Oettli“I don’t think there was anywhere else in the world where living off the land was seen as a positive thing by the government.”

Among a dizzying cast of bohemians and radicals, Jumping Sundays illuminates the compelling story of New Zealand man John Esam. A young poet from Gisborne, Esam eventually relocated to London, where he hung out with beat poet Allen Ginsberg and the poet and founder of San Francisco’s City Lights Bookstore and Publishers, Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

Esam also had the catastrophic role of being the doomed Syd Barret’s source of LSD and was the first person in London to be arrested (though eventually acquitted) for possession of LSD.

“He was a real homegrown bohemian from Hawkes Bay who was taught by nuns.”

Bollinger says that by the time the series of more mainstream Nambassa festivals rolled around between 1976 and 1981, the counterculture in New Zealand had already splintered off into different interest groups who had less in common.

“The women’s movement is an example of that. They realised ‘oh, these hippy men aren’t going to bloody help us! They’re just as sexist as our fathers.’

“And it was the same with Māori and Pasifika. The realisation that we have bigger things to fight for than the right to smoke marijuana in a park. It was more like, ‘we need to change the system!’”

Kiran Dass is a Whanganui-based writer and reviewer who covers books, music and culture

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