Hard News by Russell Brown



Tomorrow, I will be 60 years old. It’s the impossibly distant age at which people used to retire with a pension and a mortgage-free house. It's okay. I've been thinking of myself as basically there for a while now – and the same thing appears to be happening to some of my dearest friends.

Technically, you could make a case for us as both boomers and Gen Xers, but we're not quite either. We’re a generation that grew up with the state providing. I still have a faint mental image of crates of school milk arriving to sit warming in the sun – the last year of the scheme, 1967, was my first year at school.

But we’re also the generation that saw the guarantee of national prosperity dissolved – I turned 11 in 1973, the year of the first oil crisis and of Britain joining the EU. Carless days followed in 1979, then in 1982 the government imposed a freeze on every wage and price in the national economy. The wheels had well and truly fallen off by time we saw it all dismantled in 1984, when I turned 22.

I have always been grateful to have received a great New Zealand liberal education, albeit one in which te ao Māori was all but invisible. John Key, who sat in the same classrooms and jogged across the same rugby fields I did, might feel the same. We did social studies with our groovy boomer teachers. The school found room for Robin Duff, New Zealand’s first out gay teacher, and the acerbic lesbian activist Jude Rankin, and was among the first to abandon corporal punishment. Blowhards would doubtless deem it “woke” these days, but it really wasn’t. It was just sensible.

The school is also where I met Fiona, who turned 60 herself in May. And now here we are, two punk rock kids in their sixties, with a house and an ongoing conversation. We never did get married and I expect we won’t. We were a generation that often didn’t – some of our oldest friends are still together, unwed. Forgive us if we were a little shocked when our children got married at 24 and women took their husbands’ names again.

Our parenthood, mine and Fiona’s, has gone on longer that most people’s. Our two autistic sons still live with us. I hope that won’t be the case forever, but it makes us a tight crew. It’s been extremely challenging at times, but I’ve been changed in profound and positive ways by the experience. My sons have helped me to understand how we’re all different. They’ve made me more tolerant, a better person and a better journalist. I love and admire them.

The journalism, the job of my life, has changed a bit. In 1981, the year I began as a cadet at the Christchurch Star, the old hot metal print process had just given way to a new computerised system, whose fridge-sized beige boxes supplanted the linotype machines. We still used typewriters in the newsroom and the print workers were trained to retype our words from the copy sheets.

It was only three years later that I was using a computer to typeset a magazine. I’ve written for AudioCulture about becoming deputy editor of Rip It Up at the beginning of 1983, and how in the journey north to the new job, “I went from being bored, frustrated and not entirely fitting in with the newsroom, to a life right in the middle of the culture I was defining myself by.” I was never quite normal after that.

What Rip It Up also did was give me a huge space to work out who I was and to teach me how to interview. Charisma is a real  thing. And I was exposed to people – Malcolm McLaren, Nico, Nick Cave – who had it in spades. My education was completed over five years in Britain, where I lived in squats, worked in record shops, wrote for the music papers and generally had a whole lot of fun on my own cognisance. There’s a photograph of me at Glastonbury in 1987 – happy, high, scouting for mischief – that I like to think captures something that’s still there.

Fiona and I will be dining at Cazador tomorrow, where I’ll ask them to open the bottle of Stonyridge Larose 2006 I started keeping 14 years ago, when 60 seemed an impossibly long way away. I’ve put off the big party until September, when the air might be a bit clearer and when my broken shoulder has healed (I was knocked off my bike last month – it’s been a year). But we’ll do it.

I still like a party and, even if I don’t get out quite as much as I used to, I have gone on liking a party and a dance well beyond the age at which some folk believe that sort of thing should be put away. When a noise control officer turned up (with four police officers!) to remove the sound system from another 60th birthday party earlier this year, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of munted, greying satisfaction.

I feel tired lately, but that’s hard to disentangle from the things that are making us all tired in this moment in history. I can’t see how I’ll ever return to the mad productivity of the heyday of Public Address, or of the original radio version of this blog, which began on 95bFM in 1991. I don’t really want to, to be honest. It wouldn’t be good for my blood pressure. Some days I think I should go and get that ADHD diagnosis, other days I think I already have an understanding of my own difference.

I have other duties now, too – Mum and I are the only survivors from the household I grew up in and it’s time to pay back on the security I grew up with, the security that let me feel able to take risks when I got older. I’ve been doing a job recently that has impressed on me the toll that childhood trauma takes on many of us and I’m deeply grateful to have been safe, warm and well fed. The fact that Mum is only 22 years older than me makes me ponder mortality.

So it’s back to work next week – or at least an end to politely declining offers of it. The ACC support since my injury is expiring soon and I’ll need to scale up again. One day I’ll stop working, or at least not have to work so much. I have an idea of being the venerable sort who contributes a lyrical weekly column somewhere, if only to demonstrate that it's possible to do so without being a scared old fool.

I don't want to be like those fools you'll read in the paper tomorrow. I'd strive to be Monte Holcroft or Des Dubbelt or Rangi Walker. Liberal, philosophical and kind – especially to people younger than me who are just beginning their journey.

When I first washed up in Auckland all those years ago, people who were a little older than me showed me the ropes, took me places and were interested in what I was about. I’ve never forgotten that. I’ve had my turn as a cool kid – I think I got more than one bite, to be honest – and I’ll never resent someone bright and interesting having their turn.

Who knows? Perhaps I'll get another bite, draw a crowd again, and speak for whoever we've all become. Party at mine, you might say.

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