Chaff regurgitated with all of its irreverence

CHRIS HYDE
Last updated 09:00 08/03/2014

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It was the year 1992 that nearly broke William Muirhead.

Having waded through 60 years of "dick" jokes, swearing, defamatory statements and typos in every issue in the irreverent and controversial Massey University student newspaper Chaff, its final editor had seen enough.

"I wanted to kill myself," he said with a laugh. "It was nothing on the writers of that particular year, they were great, I'd just had enough."

Commissioned by the library, Mr Muirhead put his head down and carried on with his project to chronicle the history of all 1200 issues of the paper, which vice-chancellor Steve Maharey described yesterday as "a huge part of the heritage of the university".

More than 100 people, from sardonic former Chaff cartoonist Tom Scott to the newspaper's oldest surviving editor Kevin O'Connor, were at Massey yesterday to see the fruits of Mr Muirhead's labour.

His book, The Wheat from the Chaff: Almost 80 Years as Seen Through the Pages of Massey's Student Newspaper, is now being sold through the alumni shop.

Proceeds will go to the Massey University Foundation, a university charity, and then into a heritage fund for the university's buildings and other memorabilia.

Mr Muirhead said he was overwhelmed by the response to his work.

A common theme throughout Chaff's existence, until it was made defunct in 2011, was its desire to punch above its weight. Faced with publication challenges, writers and editors often turned to humour to get through it, Mr Muirhead said.

"There was a balance of genuine intent mixed with gallows humour."

The exploits of Runny Babbit, whose column managed to get the whole of Chaff's paper staff fired in the late 1970s after a joke photo of students vomiting up dining hall fare created a food workers strike, was a highlight of the research, Mr Muirhead said.

"Another that really stands out is that back in 1977 there were five issues in the month and two of them were entirely dedicated to the proper preservation and placement of bicycle racks.

"Students were furious about it, they staged walkouts and occupied the vice-chancellor's office, the things you would expect to see over fee rises, not bike racks, but people were fired up."

Mr Scott said when he began drawing and writing for Chaff and Masskerade, the people involved made it feel like it was Massey's Left Bank.

Threatened with libel because of Mr Scott's musings, the newspaper always settled - against his wishes.

"I was threatened with blasphemous libel and had the court case gone ahead I would have been the first to have been sued on that since World War I."

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Concerns were raised by Massey University Students' Association (MUSA) this week that the book could breach copyright and intellectual property rights.

Addressing the crowd, MUSA president Linsey Higgins did not mention the claims and instead focused on the newspaper's history.

"Chaff was an amazing publication. It was full of dick jokes, but it was a brilliant, beautiful piece of literature."

- Manawatu Standard

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