Graham Reid | | 4 min read
Over the Christmas-New Year period of 2003-04 the controversial story of 14-year old Amber Riley-Thompson from Howick in Auckland - which ran in the New Zealand Herald -- captured the mood of the holidays in camp grounds around the country.
In her own way she became a symbol of a generation which is irresponsible, self-centred and sullen. We recognised her because she was one of us.
Writer Graham Reid was there to document her story -- and learned his lesson. (The lesson was that some people believed it.)
Here is the series which hit talkback radio in New Zealand and Australia, and what prompted it.
Graham writes: True story. One night in January 2003 three young high-school girls got dressed up and went to Mikano, an upmarket Auckland restaurant on the harbour’s edge. It has floor-to-ceiling windows and a cuisine which has had reviewers reaching for superlatives.
The girls guzzled expensive booze and then later in the night management realised they were underage and said they would be calling the police. The girls told them if they did then the restaurant would be in trouble, not them.
“We couldn’t allow them to walk out drunk,” said the owner John Gosney, whose restaurant was subsequently stung by having to pay a $30,000 fine for serving the underage girls. The girls walked away scot-free.
When the case against the restaurant came up in October that year the story hit headlines -- I wrote a piece for the Herald about it -- and people were outraged.
What interested me was just how canny and unrepentant the girls had been, at least publicly anyway. And the father of one of them came out swinging also.
They reminded me of the street-smart 4th formers I used to teach at Glenfield College, sort of sassy-mouthed (“I know my rights”), but they could outwit most teachers and you had a grudging admiration for them.
Sometimes I’d meet the parents of such kids. Most of them were lovely -- if despairing of their daughters’ attitude -- but occasionally I’d meet a mum or dad and saw where their kid got it from. They knew their rights too.
Late in 2003 Russell Baillie, the Herald’s entertainment editor, and I were talking about having something light-hearted in the paper over the holiday period and I came up with the idea of following a snotty, stroppy 14-year old like one of those who had been at Mikano. Just those sort of ungrateful, surly 14-year olds of the kind you see in shopping malls -- or worse, in the back bedroom of your house -- who snap “What?” when you look at them.
In November that year I went to England and Spain for a month and while sitting for a few hours in Singapore airport I wrote the whole of the Amber Riley-Thompson series in one of the school exercise books which I always carry.
In early December I came back to work, typed them up and passed them around. People laughed like drains and the Herald ran them daily over that Christmas/New Year period.
They were an instant success. There was hate mail about Amber within a day.
Talkback here (and in Australia according to my sister who heard some host there banging on about this ungrateful kid) climbed into her. Then, after a few episodes, people saw it was a joke. Most people. There was still the odd curmudgeon who would ring or e-mail me demanding to know why valuable news space was being wasted on such ne’er-do-wells as the Riley-Thompson family.
I loved telling those people it was a joke. That infuriated them even more.
However most people took Amber to heart, judging from unsolicited responses I got in restaurants, bars and at friends’ barbecues. Amber was mentioned in (favourable) letters to the editor at the Herald. People asked me if there was a book coming.
Anyway, here is the collected Amber Riley-Thompson stories.
By the way, I never met any of those girls who went to Mikano restaurant so this series should in no way be considered to be about them. These are complete works of fiction -- although one of the girls came from Howick.
Oh, and her name was Amber.
FOREVER AMBER: PART THE FIRST
New Zealand Herald, December 26 2003 - January 2 2004
A Howick family’s Christmas was almost ruined yesterday when the daughter not only suggested her presents were unacceptable, but that she did not want to go on a caravan holiday in the Far North next week with the family.
Fourteen-year-old Amber Riley-Thompson told her parents, grandparents and a gathering of family friends that her Christmas presents of a lilo and a beach towel from her parents, and a Harry Potter novel from her grandmother were “just stink useless things”.
To the surprise of her parents, she announced that what she really wanted was “that 50 Cent album where he swears and stuff, one of them T-shirts with ‘This bitch spits’ on it, and some money, like a hundred bucks or something”.
After Amber left the house to sulk under the family trampoline, her parents expressed disappointment at her reaction and her mother, Mrs Raylene Riley-Thompson, told guests “that this was such an surprise, she’s a lovely kid really”.
The lunch - which included glazed ham, asparagus rolls and pavlova - was being eaten in silence when other guests including Amber’s grandmother arrived in the late afternoon.
Late last night the Herald, which has been invited to accompany the family on its annual holiday, was present when Amber stormed back into the house and said she would prefer not to go on holiday to Kakamoana Caravan Park in the Far North tomorrow.
Her father, Bruce, made mention of some outstanding debts and offered mild parental discipline before locking her in her room and saying words to the effect that hell would be covered in ice before Amber would be allowed to stay at home by herself.
Mr Riley-Thompson also administered a quick but effective clip to the ear of Amber’s younger brother Jarred when he poked his tongue out at Amber and said, “Nyah nyah, ha ha” as she was brought out to apologise for her behaviour just before the family settled in to watch a DVD of Terminator 3.
It is expected Amber and her parents will leave for Kakamoana Beach today, joining the rush north. The Herald will report daily on the holiday of this average New Zealand family.
Fourteen-year-old Howick schoolgirl Amber Riley-Thompson said yesterday that this year’s family holiday at Kakamoana Bach in the Far North was going to the be the worst ever.
“I mean, like, it’s just going to be stink,” said Riley-Thompson, whose family arrived at the beach’s picturesque camping ground yesterday afternoon for a week-long holiday.
Riley-Thompson wasted little time telling others in the camp how bad she thought the week would be, according to other holidaymakers.
“They’d barely pulled in when she was over here saying what a useless place this was,” said neighbouring caravanner, Dave Raymond, also of Howick. “She seems a nice enough wee thing but a little sour. She perked up when she saw our dog, but when her mother called her to help unpack she became very sullen. That’s when she yelled out to everyone that this holiday was going to be ‘the most stink ever’ and that she wished she’d stayed at home or gone to Whangamata with her boyfriend’s family.
Riley-Thompson’s parents were reluctant to be interviewed as to whether they thought their holiday would be spoiled by their daughter’s attitude, but later Mrs Raylene Riley-Thompson offered that Amber had been “a right little madam all year so this outburst was no real surprise”.
Smoke from an unattended barbecue caused angry scenes at the camping ground near Northland’s Kakamoana Beach yesterday afternoon. It has left neighbouring families harbouring simmering resentments which threaten to spoil their holiday.
“We’d just turned on the television to watch the news,” said holidaymaker Dudley Tyler, of Pakuranga, “when this foul-smelling smoke came through the window of our caravan.
“I looked out and the neighbours had lit their barbie, which obviously hadn’t been cleaned since last season, and just buggered off. There was thick smoke and the smell of stale fat all through our caravan so I dumped a bucket of sand on it and put the bloody thing out.”
When the owner of the offending barbecue - Bruce Riley-Thompson, of Howick - returned from a swim there was an angry confrontation which was defused when others called the park management.
Rangi Hunter, for Kakamoana Caravan Park, offered new sites to each of the feuding parties but neither accepted.
“Buggered if I’m budging,” said Mr Riley-Thompson. “A little bit of smoke should have been no big deal to him. After all, we had to put up with him listening to Classic Hits radio yesterday afternoon.”
Riley-Thompson’s 14-year-old daughter Amber, who had earlier expressed doubts about how enjoyable their holiday would be, said last night she, too, thought the argument had been unnecessary.
“But at least it looks like this holiday might not be so stink after all.”
An apprentice panel beater from Pakuranga provoked a hostile response from a holidaymaker in the Far North when his car kicked up gravel in Kakamoana Caravan Park yesterday afternoon.
Seventeen-year-old Paul Ashton had been visiting friends in a tent at the quiet holiday camp but when leaving, his green Torana spun in gravel and stones were sprayed on to a nearby caravan.
“It was an accident, but when I got out to apologise this old guy just went spastic at me,” said Ashton last night.
“His eyes were popping out and he was swearing at me and everything. So I just gave him the fingers and drove off. That’s when he got really mad. Dickhead.”
Caravan-owner Bruce Riley-Thompson, of Howick, said the family had just settled down to watch the news when he heard the car start up and the sound of gravel hitting their caravan.
“I knew exactly who it was,” said Riley-Thompson. “I’d seen the little thug sitting near that tent with his mates earlier. They were laughing and reading magazines and one of them waved at me in a supercilious manner.
“But they’ve bitten off more than they can chew if they try to take me on.”
The caravan park owners refused to comment on the incident last night - the second in as many days involving the Riley-Thompson family - but daughter Amber said, “It was no big deal. Dad was just acting like a dickhead basically, and the boy was kinda nice. I hope he comes back.”
Angry parents Raylene and Bruce Riley-Thompson yesterday grounded their 14-year-old daughter, Amber, after discovering empty bottles of alcopop under her inflatable mattress at the Kakamoana Caravan Park in the Far North.
The incident was overheard by many other campers in the quiet beach camping ground.
It has spoiled the Riley-Thompsons’ holiday, according to locals.
Mrs Riley-Thompson expressed “bitter disappointment” at the chance discovery of the bottles, and Mr Riley-Thompson announced that his daughter was not going to be allowed phone calls or to go out for a year.
Amber, however, protested her innocence.
“This is pathetic. They weren’t mine and I don’t know how they got there. Someone must have hidden them there yesterday when I was at Steve and Peter’s tent.
“Anyway, they can’t be mine. I don’t drink and I don’t even like rum. It makes me puke.”
The grounding has also confirmed Amber’s fears - expressed to the Herald earlier - that the family holiday would be “stink”.
“I knew something like this would happen. Dad keeps saying he’s going to send me to stay with my Grandma in Orewa, but I’d rather be there than at this stupid beach with my stupid olds.
“At least at Grandma’s she goes to bed early so I get to stay up late or sneak out to hang around Burger King. Here we just have a barbecue, Dad drinks some beer, my little brother and I watch TV then we all go to bed about 8.30.
“It’s stink here, I hope it dies.”
A tragedy was narrowly averted at Kakamoana Beach in the Far North yesterday when quick-thinking locals rescued two children from a powerboat drifting towards rocks.
The incident began when Howick plasterer Bruce Riley-Thompson launched his new boat, then left to park his SUV and trailer.
During the twenty minutes it took him to find some shade in which to park the boat was being held by his wife, Raylene.
However, a light breeze meant the vessel, carrying their two children, slipped from her grasp and was swept towards rocks at the eastern end of the beach.
The screams from 10-year-old Jarred and 14-year-old Amber alerted locals, who quickly mounted a rescue in the knee-deep water.
“There wasn’t a problem,” Amber said later, “but when Jarred saw Mum didn’t have a hold of the boat he started to panic, so I started to freak him out by saying we were going to drown. I started screaming, then he started screaming and I screamed some more. It was really funny.
“Then these two Maori guys came up and dragged the boat on to the beach. That bit was pretty stink actually.”
Locals Mika Royal and Tiny Jacobs were collecting shellfish for the nearby marae but quickly brought the boat, the Amber-Jarr, to shore.
“It happens all the time,” said Mr Royal. “You get these city dudes up here with new boats and they haven’t a clue how to put them in the tide.
“Last year some guy came up and put his boat in, then drove off thinking it would stay there until he came back. When he did, 20 grand’s worth of boat was on the rocks with heaps of water going through a hole in the side.
“He was so embarrassed he just wanted to bugger off, so a couple of the boys offered him a grand for it. He took it and said he’d do an insurance thing, so we got the boat and it’s up at the marae now.
“We patched it up good as new for a couple of hundred bucks and use it to go to our aunties at Pipimoana.”
Mr Riley-Thompson was unavailable for comment last night. But his daughter, Amber, said the day had been “pretty stink as usual” and her father was “just being his usual dumb self”.
Seven broken badminton racquets, a dozen Dean Koontz novels, a cricket bat and a 4-year old boy are among items left behind by holidaymakers at Kakamoana Caravan Park, the park’s management said last night.
“Finding badminton racquets is not uncommon,” said park spokesman Rangi Hunter, “but I was genuinely surprised there were so many Koontz novels.
“We usually get a few -- and some Catherine Cookson’s -- but 12 was a real surprise.”
The bulk of holidaymakers left the site yesterday, but Hunter said he expected a few more novels and at least one more child to be left behind by those returning home to Auckland this weekend.
“People forgetting one of the kids is understandable. After all, [the children] disappear down to the beach all day, so most parents tend to forget about them completely.
“We’ve had a few calls today about the paperbacks but no one yet has claimed the kid. I expect we’ll hear from someone in a day or two once people get home and unpack.”
The boy -- described as fair-haired, freckle-faced and very sunburned -- is now being cared for by the park management.
Kakamoana Caravan park has been in the news this holiday season after a number of incidents involving a family from Howick.
However the past day has been quiet and police have had to investigate ony one incident, an outbreak of graffiti.
“It was most unusual,” said local constable Tahi Mahuta. “You expect a few fights and arguments when you get a bunch of city people relaxing by a nice beach in an attractive park, but graffiti is rarely an issue.”
Overnight, tents and caravans had the word “stink” scribbled on them in black felt-tipped pen.
Police are following a number of leads in Auckland.
AMBER: COMING CLEAN
New Zealand Herald January 2 2004
Those who have followed our saga of 14-year old Amber Riley-Thompson and her family will be pleased to learn they have arrived safely back in Howick after their holiday at Kakamoana Caravan Park in the Far North.
Actually they never left Howick, that bit was made up.
In fact the whole thing was made up. Check your telephone directory and atlas: neither the Riley-Thompsons nor Kakamoana Beach exist. (Howick does, but that’s another story.)
We just thought you might be amused by ordinary life during this season when “real news” (about politicians, that Charlene Dawson person off the telly, the former rugby league player and his woman) is in short supply.
Some people got the joke -- okay, nothing much happens at this time of year, but surely we wouldn’t be reduced to publishing that much of nothing? -- but others took it very seriously.
A reader in Paris (as in France) was disappointed we’d publish a story about “a little [expletive] of a child with no appreciation of the fact that she is even able to go on a family holiday“.
“I certainly hope this is not the average New Zealand family today as I know it wasn’t when I lived there, only a matter of a couple of years ago.
“At the risk of sounding old school, I think children like that are ignorant and sheltered of the world around them and will eventually grow up to be [another expletive].”
True. And they’ll also be potty-mouthed and have their humour gland removed too.
Amber’s story has been the subject of talkback discussion, and the Herald has received a number of letters berating the girl for her ingratitude. No one mentioned her dad needed to control his filthy temper. But teenagers are always an easier target, huh?
Other readers fortunately saw the ironic side and episodes now appear on touringandtenting.com, a British-based discussion forum for those of the outdoor persuasion. (Let’s hope our Prime Minister doesn’t think we are damaging the nation’s reputation internationally and give us a ticking off.)
Anyway the Riley-Thompsons are home so there’s really nothing more to tell. Amber has been grounded for being rude to her grandma, her brother Jarred broke his wrist yesterday when he fell off his new skateboard, and father Bruce is spending the weekend mowing lawns and cleaning the car before he heads back to work on Monday. Mum Raylene,a long-suffering woman, told the Herald late last night, “I’ll be bloody glad when the holidays are over and I can send the kids back to school“.
Amber’s teachers were unavailable for comment.
Footnote: We laid Amber to rest in the paper in early January, although a few weeks later I couldn’t resist putting something in the Herald’s light-hearted Sideswipe column and said it had come from Bruce Riley-Thompson. Some people recognised the name and got the joke. One man didn’t see anything funny in what I wrote and that resulted in what I consider a hilarious correspondence, as you will see later in this collection when I recount that particularly odd series of e-mail encounters.
Late in 2004 Russell and I were bored in the office and decided to resurrect Amber and her family for the Christmas season. Again people enjoyed it and this time, as far as I know, no one rang talkback. I am told one host however nutted off at length about why the Herald would run a boring story about a boy who got his head stuck in some railings. There’s one born every minute.
But that's another story told here