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Book launch celebrates wit from the CHAFF years

A copy of The Wheat from the CHAFF signed by some of its editors.

Monday, March 10, 2014
Book launch celebrates wit from the CHAFF years

Unbridled hilarity and irreverence crackled through the launch of a retrospective of the almost 80-year history of the Manawawatü campus' well-loved and sometimes notorious student newspaper, CHAFF last Friday.

The book launch was one of the key events to celebrate 50 years since Massey became a university.

Compiled by its final editor, William Muirhead, The Wheat From the CHAFF is a history of social change through the eyes of young people, many of whom – like cartoonist Tom Scott – went on to have illustrious careers.

"CHAFF turned out to be an extraordinary record of the times, a prism through which you can see New Zealand becoming what it is today,” Mr Muirhead says.

The 100 or so guests at the launch held at the partially restored Tiritea House on the Manawatü campus included former editors – including the very first editor Professor Kevin O’Connor – and contributors to its more than 1200 issues.

One of the best known was renowned cartoonist and guest speaker Tom Scott. He brought the house down with his witty recollections, adding that the people he worked with on CHAFF and Masskerade made it feel like it was Massey's Left Bank.

Mr Scott was an occasional contributor to CHAFF from 1966 to 1973 of mainly illustrations and a few articles. The book features six of his cartoons and two of his articles.

CHAFF’s oldest surviving editor Emeritus Professor Kevin O’Connor travelled from Christchurch to attend the event.
Mr Muirhead, who interviewed him 18 months earlier for the book, says Professor O’Connor revived the publication in 1949 after it foundered during the war years and credits him with creating the template for the magazine’s next 50 years.

Other guests included John McKay, editor in 1967 and 1968, who flew from Australia for the launch.

Mr Muirhead said he was struck by the cross-generational comraderie at the event, as writers, editors, staff and students spanning nearly eight decades shared anecdotes, antics and a “genuine affection” for the publication.

He told the crowd at the launch that the strength of the publication stemmed from “the genuine belief” on Kevin O’Connor’s part that CHAFF, which became defunct in 2011, shouldn’t simply be a catalogue of hostel intrigues, but “a real journal that had the right – indeed, a responsibility – to report and comment on issues far beyond the Fitzherbert Bridge. I don’t believe any team over following 60 years ever believed differently”.

He said that during the course of interviewing dozens of former contributors he discovered they all – himself included – shared a kind of secret language; “a common tongue, much like the coded messages of prisoners of war. And for quite a lot of the time, a battle is what it felt like.”

CHAFF was, he pointed out, a weekly or fortnightly publication with a limited staff and resources. “So the great balancing factor, in the face of those realities, was humour, and a certain sardonic sense of CHAFF’s place in things”.

He described CHAFF’s consistent approach was to confront change and in a manner best described as “sometimes half-cocked, but almost always completely loaded.”

Tom Scott, he said, was the “grand master” of the approach. “In CHAFF’s sister publication Masskerade, he found the perfect balance for the tightrope walk between genuine political and philosophical enquiry – and the willingness to be sued every three pages”.

One of the highlights of his research for the book was discovering the exploits of Runny Babbit, whose column resulted in the whole of Chaff's paper staff being fired in the late 1970s after a joke photo of students vomiting up dining hall fare created a food workers strike.

The Wheat from the CHAFF is proudly published and sold by Massey University Alumni Relations. Proceeds from the sale of this book will be donated to the Massey University Foundation Heritage Fund and used to preserve some of Massey’s finest buildings and memorabilia.

Editors signed limited edition copies for sale at the launch. Massey’s Foundation funded the cost of printing 1000 copies of the book, which retails for $59 and is available online ( and from Massey campus stores (Albany, Manawatü and Wellington).

Read more on the book here:

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