Recently I heard a contemporary update on the state of play in adolescent land in 2015. A friend has expressed concern about her early teenaged daughter’s being admired and clumsily wooed by boys. One unpleasant boy was particularly aggressive; he has been dealt with, satisfactorily consigned to the dustbin of history. Meanwhile, a more respectful boy is seeking the beautiful girl’s attention. Hopefully things will all go swimmingly; but as those of us well past adolescence know, that phase of life can be an exciting, fun-filled and, at the same time, often painful physical and emotional roller coaster.
Brisbane in the late Fifties and early Sixties was rockin’ and rollin’ with the rapidly burgeoning Western Capitalist phenomenon – the construction and the exploitation of the shiny new baby boomer product, the ‘teenager’. And we embraced it all. Well, most of it. My mother wouldn’t let me own an Elvis Presley record, nor would she allow me go and see the film Jailhouse Rock, which she thought was an outrageous, immoral step-too-far for her teenage girl, who was apparently in danger of screaming, fainting and ripping her clothes off in ecstasy.
Devils, God and Barbarism in early Teen Land
Between the ages of 13 and 15, my friends and I were each attempting to manoeuvre our own private roller coasters, at the same time communally attending random parties and school dances, all of variable quality, sometimes with dud blokes, at other times with seemingly gorgeous (if a bit pimply) crushes.
With other teens in the local neighbourhood, I also went to monthly Scout dances at the local hall in Yeronga Park, and the occasional Fellowship dances at the Yeronga Church of England Hall. These were all pretty innocent really, although there was the occasional outdoor assignation for a bit of a pash in the dark with someone called Kevin or Noel or Lennie….
My brother Pedro and cousin Godfrey did get into terrible trouble after decorating the church hall with dramatic posters they designed. These imaginative posters featured provocative quotes from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and other iconic sub-cultural sayings such as ‘Live fast, Die young and Be a good-looking corpse’, along with art works similarly confronting to conservative older people. The two were henceforth deemed to be Devils Incarnate and were summarily banished forever from church dances, a ban that certainly didn’t scar them for life.
Meanwhile, that same sanctimonious church minister who banished my devilish relatives, was rubbing himself up against my back whenever, at age 14, I practised alone on the church organ in readiness for Evensong. I found this creepy activity decidedly discomforting, and I always shrank from him, knowing it was wrong but not able to say anything. Then I had no words to name this unwelcome advance, and to articulate my outrage – sexual abuse, harassment etc are concepts from later in the 20th century.
And this was a man of intimidating stature and power, not one of the dirty old men who flashed occasionally at Pippa and me in Yeronga Park as we rode our bikes past them. When that same minister visited me in hospital at the age of 18, just after I had been critically injured in an accident, proclaiming that my injuries were all part of his God’s plan for me, I turned my back on him and his religion forever.
Let’s Dance: Endearing and Not-so-Endearing Mating Rituals
The scout master and his henchmen would try to block bodgies and widgies from coming along to those dances. There was a sprinkling of such disengaged young people in our neighbourhood, and I recall once getting a cigarette burn on my arm from one of the bodgies. I wasn’t sure why he did that – lashing out against the type of person I represented to him I suppose, or even some kind of weird mating ritual.
On Saturday mornings, Joan and I would go fairly regularly to O’Connor’s Boathouse at North Quay, ostensibly to learn how to dance with equally gormless and awkward partners, and, in reality, mutually sifting through the chaff hoping to find someone worthwhile for future assignations. Other dance classes were held around town, sometimes after school, also quite useful for meeting boys. As many of us were at single sex schools, meeting anyone of the opposite sex was tricky, given the tough school rules on consorting with boys after school hours. On such dancing afternoons, we were awkwardly and self-consciously grading the talent on display in their distinctive school uniforms, a glaring form of social labelling. We Grammar girls, for instance, were always competing for the boys’ attention with the snobby girls from St Mag’s (St. Margaret’s) and Somerville (Snobberville) House.
What School Did You go to? A Pertinent Aside..
At that time, and even today, the strong residue of such labelling still holds in some quarters. Brisbane was then an inward-looking white tribal culture, primarily built around the suburb you lived in, what family you came from, and very definitely what secondary school you attended. This narrow GPS culture of privilege and exclusion is (hopefully) gradually changing. However, when I was growing up and mixing in various social circles at school and at Uni, and even being interviewed for jobs, ‘What school did you go to?’ was a front-and-centre defining moment.
The ripple effect of such parochial assumption and identification is integral to the toxic phenomenon of homosocial reproduction, where ‘like picks like’ – historically, mostly white males from elite schools – for the top drawer, privileged career placements, scholarships, and advancement of many kinds. It becomes all about whom you know, whom you recognise that you would feel comfortable with; merit and equal opportunity tend to fly out of such elevated windows.
Party Central: let’s pash
While I found that some worthless boys from a more ‘upper class’ suburb and a posh school would turn up their noses, dropping me when they discovered where I lived, our modest home in Annerley was actually a very handy one for teenage parties. It had a large yard containing various secret nooks and crannies such as ferneries, rock walls, and even a leafy hill out the back for scrambling up and hiding behind the large tennis practice board which was centre stage. As well, there were convenient ‘hidey holes’ under the house, as long as you avoided the ping pong/billiard table, and also managed not to trip over my ever-optimistic, home handyman Dad’s gaggle of rusty motor mowers and swag of old washing machines scattered around in various states of disrepair.
I can only now recall two kissing games we played at such parties – I think there were more, but time has clouded my memory. We did of course dance to the latest rock and roll records, trying to be so groovy. We would also start with the rather tame game of ‘spin the bottle’. As the evening hotted up, we played Kissing in the Dark, which involved a boy and a girl separately going around and shining torches on couples to find out those who weren’t kissing someone. As you had to kiss someone for such a long time in this game, it was difficult to breathe, and you often suffered some form of lockjaw. If you were found coming up for air, and you were therefore not clenched in an endless passionate embrace with the person beside you in some dark place, the ‘springer’ would replace you, and the ‘springee’ would become the roaming torch person. The couplings were invariably heterosexual. Any variation on this theme was unthinkable back then, though Pippa and I would occasionally practise kissing so we could get better at it when we encountered the next boy we wanted to kiss.
Amongst the group of guys at these parties, you soon got to know which ones were the best kissers, and make a beeline for them at the start of the game. Joan and I also gloried in the ‘older brother syndrome’ – we were fortunate enough to have on hand a core swag of available blokes to select and invite, friends of either my brother Pedro or her brother Godfrey, who happened to be a couple of years older than the female peer group, a state of play which certainly suited us girls. Mostly we wouldn’t have been seen dead partying with boys our own age – so uncool.
Party Postmortem time: unveiling the sexual riddle
One important aspect of all this Sixties pashing was the underground cult of Numerical Sexual Activity. Long postmortem conversations always followed any social events. During these forensic examinations, my girlfriends and I would carve up and examine the entrails of, among other topics, how far anyone went with a particular boy. This truth or dare game became quite mathematical and technical.
The following is a rather illuminating sexual activity grid we employed, replete with euphemistic labelling. As far as I’m aware, several variations on this grid were prevalent at the time:
2 = kissing
4 = Upstairs outside
6 = Upstairs inside
8 = Downstairs outside
10 = Downstairs inside
12 = penetration with condom
14 = penetration without condom
This of course doesn’t really bear too close an examination. It was girl-centric, in a strange way, and, ironically, most of us had a very hazy idea what variations on 10: downstairs inside actually entailed in real life, for instance, or why 14: penetration without condom was the pinnacle sexual activity. I am not at all sure whether boys had a similar grid framing their own sexual wish list/variations. Theirs was probably more crude and more basic – just a hunch. Of course my research is purely speculative and conjectural here, and I know this adolescent arena deserves more serious empirical investigation…
More to follow (probably) in the next blog instalment…