November 01, 2012

Chaff Years

Filed under: Archive,Commentary

I have been asked to provide some reminiscences and perspectives on Massey University’s student paper Chaff during the editorship of Arthur Ranford and Stuart Loudon. For me this was mostly 1969 and 1970. Before that time I had contributed the occasional (woeful) poem or perhaps a book review, but my connection with the paper was through Arthur.

I had known Arthur when we were both at separate high schools in Palmerston North. Arthur was at Freyberg and I was at PN Boys’ High (where Stuart was enrolled also; he and I went back to Intermediate days) At sixteen Arthur was exceptional. I had never met anyone seriously interested in classical music. Or who owned a record player that had two separate speakers.

Arthur sat me down and played me his World Record Club LP – Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto – inviting me to pay attention to the interplay between orchestra and soloist. He shared the family house with his brother Frank while the rest of the family lived in the South Island where their father moved the railway circuit as a station master. Later the house, out on Te Matai Rd, became a venue for some famous Massey parties, several featuring Arthur near the top of a tall pine tree staging flying fox pyrotechnics to synchronise a bonfire with the deafening blast from his stereo system of Brunnhilde’s final immolation aria from Wagner’s Gotterdammerung .

Arthur was a true original then, and doubtless, still is. His curiosity, his eccentricity, his boundless enthusiasm drew us along with him. So, when he secured the job of literary editor of Chaff sometime in 1968 he had no trouble finding fellow travellers. The actual workings of the paper itself were largely foreign to us- especially the political in-fighting and factional wranglings. Arts students weren’t much part of that. Politics, we thought, were nothing to do with anything local or the strivings of student candidature. Instead, we, or at least I, had a full arsenal of New Left and Hippie radical shibboleths. I was reading the LA Free Press and Oracle (sent by a friend living in California) and, from the UK, the International Times (full of reports of Pink Floyd and the psychedelics of the Round House) sent from London to my friend Denis Morrison by his older brother, Robin, yet to become one of NZ’s most distinguished and distinctive photographers.

It is quaint and more than a little comic, but, as I saw it, I was in Palmerston North only by some cosmic accident – I was vicariously in the various groovy scenes in London, Haight Ashbury, Greenwich Village, Paris, Woodstock or wherever the drumbeats were coming from at any given moment. I was not alone. Others were listening also to the acid sounds of Country Joe and the Fish, The Doors, Cream and Hendrix – all of whom emerged in the cultural tsunami of 1967.

The new music invaded the literary world as well. The Massey literary society – Lit Soc – was devoted as much to lengthy panegyrics to the newly released Blonde on Blonde double album as our own self-conscious verses. It was at the Lit Soc I met other Chaff comrades – Huw Patterson, David Long and, most importantly for me , Judy and Roger MacBean. Roger was from Melbourne , a food technologist and a dedicated photographer, Jude was an ethereal spirit from a Pohangina farming family and a talented illustrator and graphic designer. I spent hours at Roger and Jude’s place in Linton Street (with their delightful baby boy Toby). We pored over magazines from Nova to Ramparts and the Evergreen Review , IT and Oz, as well as the burgeoning student papers from Australia – Lot’s Wife, Farrago, On Dit, and others.

It was there we marvelled at Robert Crumb and the Furry Freaks and the cornucopia of visual styles that offset printing, colour screening and Letraset had unleashed. Looking over clippings of my reviews recently I saw how swift and radical the change from typeset page to paste up layout had been – in what seemed almost a matter of weeks from the end of the sixties to 1970.

The curly fonts and black pen decorations that appeared at the corners of the arts pages like little Beardsley elves, were all by Judy – and the sooty photos with tonal drop-outs were the work of Roger and the talented Pierre Bonny. It was Roger who also figured out how to use photosensitive Kodak paper to make the mirror perfect reproductions which often became the pictorial covers of the paper. No more front page headlines and articles like a newspaper from the straight world – we had Gilray engravings (a John Muirhead favourite ) 18th century satire re-minted for the follies of unreconstructed New Zealand.

I find myself charting the Chaff world by the way it was being impinged on by a larger, closely monitored, international youth movement. Where we fitted was not clear, and in my own case I was slavishly impressed by everything that was Elsewhere.

It was Arthur and Stuart’s distinction that they were keenly interested in what was immediately at hand. Arthur’s editorial interests were only a small part of his creative aspirations. He played the violin, more enthusiastically than well perhaps, but with such conspicuous joy that I still marvel to think about it. He was also nuts about theatre – a calling he has followed through to the present day. And it was one production in particular, which he directed, and which captured the various elements of the Chaff vortex in almost perfect microcosm.

This is where Stuart Loudon also, literally, enters the stage. As I have said, Stuart and I had been friends since Form 1 at Intermediate and had shared classes all through high school. With his heavy framed glasses (now so treasured by hipsters these days) Stuart was a prodigious student. He got a perfect score in Geography in School Certificate, he had a formidable general knowledge and was never one to join the crowd.

His politics were eccentrically individualist, and he was untouched by cultural or philosophical fashion. I even remember back in school when we both won LPs guessing the number of beans in a jar. He won first prize and I won third. He got With the Beatles and, disappointingly to me, I won a Conway Twitty album. When I bemoaned my luck, he immediately suggested we swap. He was always a rocker, Stuart, for him there was no music better than Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, and the King of Graceland himself.

Ever the (Tory anarchist !) rebel spirit, Stuart left school after UE in the sixth form and went to Massey. He was barely sixteen. I was beside myself with envy, straining at the leash to get to university and grow my hair and wear a duffle coat and meet girls in green stockings and dazzle them with my wit, my esoteric knowledge of Bob Dylan and my whimsical poetry.

Instead, it was Stuart who was transformed. He bought prescription sunglasses with heavy Roy Orbison frames, he grew his hair down over his collar and in a wiry verandah over his forehead, and he persistently wore a burgundy coloured corduroy suit. Thinking about it now, he looked a lot like Phil Spector. He was certainly a challenging presence to the mix of aggies and science students who – among them, Lockwood Smith – jostled for pole position in student politics.

Looking recently at articles Stuart had written around that time, I am astonished at how precisely he outlined his conservative individualist politics. Maybe he had already read Atlas Shrugged. I do remember him championing Goldwater. But, really, I thought at the time, with a hint of patronising sadness, that it was a pity he’d backed the wrong side; that anyone could see that that battle was already over. No more private property by 1980, I thought. So much for my prescience. The fact was that Stuart was so outlandish that these distinctions of ideology seemed irrelevant. He smoked weed, munched amphetamines, and kept nocturnal hours. He never went to classes, despite the Geography professor’s chagrin at losing a protégé.

Instead, Stuart promoted a sort of punk-Wildean ambiguity. This was still a homophobic time at Massey and few ventured their plumage above the barricades. The extraordinary Bruce Bissett did; six foot four and fearless, this son of a Hawkes Bay clergyman was a true original – and he and Stuart kept platonic company, especially when the methedrine was plentiful. They used to wander round the student flats looking for a cup of tea and a meandering chat. Often, Stuart would go to the Friary by the Hokowhitu lagoon where, the university chaplain Jim Keble welcomed one and all – including the poet James K Baxter, taking time out from his mendicant community at Jerusalem, up the Wanganui River. Baxter and Stuart often played chess. Keen to uncover a glimpse – and write a scoop – of literary history, I later quizzed Stuart about what Baxter talked about. “We didn’t talk about anything,” Stuart insouciantly replied, “we just played chess. “

Back now to Arthur’s play. The Massey Drama Society had gained the rights to a new English play, the first by a young playwright called Christopher Hampton, who later became a celebrated playwright and translator, but at this time was just a notorious squirt who had written a play called When Did You last See My Mother ? Arthur had previously alarmed audiences (and Chaff reviewer Dorothy Cooper) with his production of The Madman and The Nun. Now here was another provocation – and starring Stuart Loudon in the lead, with fellow student Pieter de Jonge.

I never saw the play, but it is legend. It featured a male kiss between Stuart and Pieter in the opening scene, after which the mayor Gilbert Rennie and the Lady Mayoress promptly walked out. The Manawatu Evening Standard howled and, if there had been talk-back radio then , it would have shrieked. When Did You Last See My Mother ? was a dinkum scandal, a first-order tempest in the tea cup that was Palmerston North. Looking back, I still remember how unruffled Stuart was about it all. He relished the controversy. He may have voted National, but he was a Situationist by any reckoning, a Merry Prankster and a stirrer.

To describe Chaff at this time is to also remember these events. And there were other others – such as when Arthur hired the local cinema for a screening of Peter Brook’s Marat/Sade. We were meekly terrified no-one would turn up and he’d lose his shirt. Instead, it was a huge success. Amongst all this the paper was also a focus for all kinds of energy and experiment. For me, Chaff was a chance to be part of a cultural publication that took youth and pop culture seriously. I wanted to write about music (even the Incredible String Band !) like Rolling Stone did, to dissect Easy Rider as Pauline Kael would, to review the new Leonard Cohen novel like the New Yorker. The sheer effrontery of this ambition is beside the point – the fact is, Arthur and Stuart – and others who followed- gave many of us a chance to try it on.

The arts pages were something of an oasis – certainly for those of us in the English MA cohort of 1970 – Ray Miller, Mike Ritchie, Robert Ward, John Muirhead, of course, ( painstaking and elegant as the layout sub-editor) and, already making a mark at Victoria University in Wellington, Les Atkins. My dealings were with Arthur (but, when I think back, mostly via John ). Sometimes a review book was passed through – oddities like Musrum, or Flushed with Pride (the history of Thomas Crapper) and, happily for me, Richard Neville’s hippie manifesto, Play Power. Other times we made suggestions which were generously agreed to – or perhaps, in editorial stress, acceded to as representing one less empty space.

Arthur and Stuart gathered around them a gaggle of students – some I haven’t already mentioned include Greg Edwards, Linda Todd (now the well-known writer Linda Burgess) and Tom Scott (already brilliantly and infamously identified as editor, writer and cartoonist for the capping mag, Masskerade).

For all our differences and varying limitations we belonged to an enterprise that was reflective of great changes at Massey. No longer was Chaff, named with its self-deprecating agricultural whimsy, a plaything of pipe smoking, tweedy ag students. They, like the rest of us, had tasted the ambrosia of the late sixties, grown hair and beards (yes, I do notice how many of us were boys…) and were intoxicated with the possibility of running a paper.

I left Chaff in 1971 and lost track of its fortunes as teaching and parenthood beckoned. I know that Arthur went on to be a lifelong keeper of the theatre flame and I saw him perform several times, including in the Adelaide Fringe. I have since lost touch and keep googling him for a link somewhere.

Stuart, his copies of Chaff under his arm, walked up and down Fleet Street in London till someone gave him a job. My brother, Peter, a later Chaff conspirator and editor, did the same thing- in Sydney, and ended up editing a photography magazine. Stuart became editor of an air freight publication and, in no time, learned much about the business of live and fresh export. Soon, he had his own company, shipping live crayfish to Tokyo, race horses to Singapore, and fresh fish from the Auckland bays to the fresh market in Athens. He was modest about it all, but he turned out to be a business whizz as well. We stayed friends right up until his death three years ago. I think of him often – and those corduroy days when, for a time the world was, not so much an exported crayfish, but definitely our oyster.

November, 2012.

Notes forwarded for The Wheat From the Chaff, edited by William Muirhead, published 2013, The Massey University Foundation, Palmerston North, New Zealand.

No Comments »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment