I’ve debated whether or not to write an editorial about Dunedin’s Hyde Street party. It’s at another university, most of you will never experience one, and as an Otago alum I’m wary of strafing Salient’s pages with a heap of Southern shit that you don’t care about. So if you think these reservations are sound, you might want to turn the page now.
Once a fairly mild younger cousin of other Scarfie mainstays like the Undie 500 and the Cookathon, Hyde Street’s status skyrocketed after the city’s more Bacchanalian social events were gradually shut down. Hyde Street became the number one event in the Dunedin social calendar, reaching a nadir of infamy in 2011-12 before becoming, in the last three years, a political football and a heavily staged-managed PR exercise for the local students’ association.
Dunedin has a complicated relationship with its students, as do its students with the media. Students’ relationship with alcohol is a bit more straightforward: they like it. The official start time for the Hyde Street party—the official start time—is 6am. Many get up earlier to complete the “six before six”, followed the “crate with a mate before eight” and “wine before nine”.
Obviously this is problematic, and not for nothing are Scarfies depicted as the symbol of New Zealand’s battle against alcohol abuse. I’ve never really agreed with this; to me, the real symbol is the middle-aged man with drink-driving convictions in the double figures and the odd slap on the wrist for beating his wife. That, or the Wellington Sevens. The reality of Scarfiedom is—well, it’s complicated.
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Scarfie culture prides itself on being insular and in-jokey, to the point of a siege mentality; and it prides itself on being quirky and irreverent, to the point of outright displays of nihilistic rebellion. It’s also too esoteric for many of its own practitioners to understand. With most Otago students knowing little else about the city, and staying for between three and four years before leaving again with their degrees, cultural emblems are rapidly appropriated and warped into meaningless rituals with every new cohort.
Ever wonder where the couch-burning thing came from? The old rugby stadium, Carisbrook, used to allow spectators to bring their own furniture to the terraces. Many students brought couches and toward the end of the game, when the temperature started to drop and the prospect of drunkenly lugging the couch home began to rear its thoroughly unappealing head, they would set the couches ablaze.
This was a bit startling, naturally, but at the time it wasn’t that big a deal. The ritual took place in a contained and supervised environment, it added to Carisbrook’s legend, and it was, let’s face it, kind of hilarious. The problems only started with the next cohort, who had heard about the couch-burning from afar, thought “I guess this is what goes on in Dunedin”, and took the practice into the streets. Now Otago, much to the chagrin of those (like me) who have never immolated so much as a cushion, is the couch burning university. My BA(Hons) is a degree in Burning All the Household Ornaments.
A lot of this is driven by perception, and there is one particular culprit. The Otago Daily Times, at least when it comes to its coverage of students, is a festering shitrag of anti-journalism. Knowing full well that perception is, or at least will be reality when it comes to these things (report that the Undie 500 is nothing more than a booze-soaked riot, only people who are down for that sort of thing will go, and lo, it shall come to pass), the ODT has long been on hand to whip up the rage amongst its ageing, conservative readership.
Many blame the ODT and national media outlets for sensationalising the Undie and the Hyde Street party in precisely the kind of way that attracts the meatheads who tend to ruin it for everybody else (and it’s worth repeating that the majority of those arrested at these events aren’t students). This ignores the legitimate problems that spurred the sensationalist stories in the first place. The open hostility of many Dunedin residents encourages the entitled rejoinder that Dunedin’s economy is built around the University and, therefore, around students—don’t shoot the golden goose. This makes the antagonism worse, and discourages self-reflection. Like I said, it’s complicated.
If I had to sum up Otago students’ attitude while also making a Community reference, it’s “Dunedin is a toilet but it’s our toilet—nobody gets to crap in it but us.” Most students love traditions like Hyde Street—around one in four of all Otago students eligible to attend did so—and it’s a tiny, intensely disliked and often non-Dunedin minority who cause the havoc that colours the popular perception. Most Scarfies just want outsiders to stop coming along and ruining all their shit.
So maybe it’s not that complicated. A couple of years ago Critic posted a Facebook report of a couch-burning on Castle Street (the former party street; now lame). The most-liked comment on the post read “fuck this shit, and fuck y’all who do this shit every year.”