Patched: the History of Gangs in New Zealand, by Jarrod Gilbert (AUP, Auckland, 2013), 360 pages, $49.99.
Over the years people from various gangs have been part of my life. I grew up in a big State Housing area in Auckland. In the mid 1960s, when my father was in prison and my mother had to go into hospital, all of us kids had to be farmed out to friends and others. My sisters were sent to the Home of Compassion while my brother and I stayed with different family friends. The woman I was put with had a son who was in one of Auckland’s first gangs, the Hell’s Angels. He was in his early twenties and he looked after me like a brother, so all the negative things I had heard about the ‘Angels’ did not match up with my experience.
In 1968 both our parents died and we went to live with relatives I first encountered some of the paranoia surrounding so-called gangs in New Zealand. Firstly, because we had grown up in a large State-housing area our new name was ‘Orakei Bastards’ as a put down because of our background. Then, for the first time I heard the term ‘milk-bar cowboy’ which was a name associated with near-do-wells and was used as a threat of what we could become because of our lives when we were growing up.
In the 1970s one of my friends, Harry Tam, was the liaison between the Mongrel Mob and Government agencies in Dunedin. I knew some of the members and went to some parties at their headquarters in Caversham. One party I remember made me realise how conservative and conventional they were. Except for the lack of ‘A real Kiwi haircut/And a new pair of grey strides’ it may as well have been ‘Down the hall on Saturday night’ with the women down one side of the hall and the men down the other. As Gilbert points out ‘in the era of growing feminist consciousness, the gangs were collectives designed to shore up a threatened sense of masculinity … women came to be seen as little more than sex objects or domestic chattels’, how old fashioned can you be? One of the gang members who looked after me that night would later become the subject of a poem I wrote based around perceptions of his full moko.
In the 1980s I worked in Auckland with several gang members on various labouring jobs, including drain-laying and putting in sewer pipes and laying the paving stones in Queen Street. I got on really well with many of them. It was at this time that I gave serious consideration to joining either the Mongrel Mob or Black Power, the former because of their ‘waddaya got?’ James-Dean-type rebelliousness, the latter for more political reasons. However, I did not like the violence and misogyny which was inherent in their lifestyle, nor did I like the idea of giving up my individuality necessary to be an artist, and finally I had always followed the Groucho-Marxist line of not wanting to belong to an organisation that would have me as a member. In more recent times I have been having an intimate relationship with a woman gang associate which has given me another insight into the culture which is the subject of Patched.
After giving a brief rundown of youth bad behaviour since the 1840s in New Zealand, which was a lot worse than our present-day youngsters by all accounts, Jarrod Gilbert’s book begins with a look at the ‘milk-bar cowboys’ of the 1950s in Auckland. He discusses how they originated out of a general feeling of youthful rebellion, which was encapsulated in the music of rock ’n roll and a freedom brought about after years of war and depression along the conformity that the fifties generation of adults sought: this atmosphere of ‘normality’, was stifling to the new ‘teenage’ generation, those whom Gilbert refers to as ‘a vibrant youth culture that shocked conservative 1950s New Zealand’.
The ‘Auckland Outcasts’ were the first group of youths to have a name, but with no structure and only a painted on, random ‘patch’ they were really no different to numerous other ‘bodgies’ and ‘widgies’ who paraded their youthful rebelliousness during the weekend, while probably working at ordinary, respectable jobs during the week. In 1960 a chance meeting between the Auckland Outcasts and a young biker from America named Jim Carrico who shared his stories of riding with his own bike group ‘on that California trip’, thus conjuring up fantasies for the thrill-starved locals based on images taken from U.S. films and music. Carrico was a member of the ‘Hells Angels’, and so from a mixture of excitement and pop culture the ‘Outcasts’ set up their own chapter of Angels: gang culture had arrived in New Zealand.
From this point Gilbert takes us on a chronological trip through Aotearoa/New Zealand Gangland history, a bit like a blackly kaleidoscopic, at-times-nightmarish, ‘trip’, in which our country is turned upside-down: a not-so-wonderful ‘Alice in Wonderland’ revelation of more sinister and threatening aspects of our ‘she’ll be right, pie in the sky, quarter acre, pavlova paradise’. By the end of the 1960s, the hippy version of the pavlova paradise, the flower power ‘make love, not war’ dream was over. This loss of innocence can be attributed to gang behaviour, not in New Zealand, but at a Rolling Stones concert at Altamont in California, where a Hell’s Angel stabbed an out-of-it, gun-toting ‘flower child’. I was surprised that Gilbert did not mention this incident, because while his focus is rightly on NZ gangs, the Altamont Concert and its aftermath determined the public’s view of gangs generally. It also lead to a split between the ‘gang culture’ and pop culture, and most significantly it brought together the darker side of the counter-culture and gangs with their increasing use of and dealings in drugs.
So, the emphasis on drugs and gang participation in organised crime became the main perception of gang culture over the following decades. The development of individual gangs such as Black Power and Mongrel Mob is detailed, their individual histories are sketched, along with some of the lesser known ones like Sinn Fein, the Magogs, The Devil’s Henchmen, The Epitaph Riders, Satan’s Slaves, through to the Polynesian gangs like King Cobras and more recently the Asian Triad organisations and those dealing in P.
The gangs, throughout their fifty years plus as part of New Zealand society, have been seen as a major social problem in our country, waxing and waning in significance and importance depending on what outrage they may have been involved in at any given time. Their deliberate provocation and ‘fuck you’ attitude towards polite society is often a symbol that things are not working for some members of our community. The issues are often as complex, multitudinous and deeply-misunderstood as the answers to the ‘problem’ are often simplistic and punitive. Sometimes the gangs themselves recognise that things are out of hand and try to institute measures to rectify wrongdoings.
The horrific rape at Ambury Park by Mongrel Mob members, for example, led directly to the Black Power gang’s ‘no rape’ policy. More recently, and ironically, a new phenomenon has arisen where members of older, more established gangs express dismay and sometimes outrage at the ill-disciplined behaviour of some of the younger gangs that they have no control over.
Gilbert’s book is a well-written, if at times too academic (it was written with PhD thesis in mind and funded accordingly) investigation into the New Zealand gangs. He assesses the roles of the Police, of politicians, social workers and Maori wardens and the various attempts to reign in the ‘outlaws’ who have refused to live by the mores of the decent society. His commitment to the project cannot be doubted; he has risked his reputation and, at times, even his life to bring out into the open what is often seen as a ‘closed shop’. Gangs, like the poor, he establishes, will always be with us.
Indeed it is often because of poverty that gangs exist in the first place; that is they are groups of people who band together to survive and help each other when they feel as though they don’t belong in the society that seems alien to them, whether that is caused by racial, economic or social conditions. Being marginalised, they in turn marginalise the rest of society from their world, the only world they feel they have any control over. Despite Gilbert’s somewhat dismissive summary (‘largely a photo essay’) of Bill Payne’s earlier book Staunch: Inside the Gangs there are affinities: several interesting photographs in Patched also reflect the almost pornographic nature of graphic gang culture, with its abundant swastika motifs, obscene gestures and gruesome moko caricatures. Staunch and Patched can be seen as brother volumes in the annals of NZ Gang Literature, eh, bro.
MICHAEL O’LEARY (Te Arawa) is a poet, writer and editor and small press publisher who lives on the Kapiti Coast. He holds a PhD from Victoria University of Wellington.