• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

The Dunedin scarfie flats phenomenon

Scarfie Flats of Dunedin book cover.

A new book by Sarah Gallagher and Ian Chapman celebrates Dunedin's scarfie flats.

In 2000, a group project at Otago University changed Sarah Gallagher’s life. She was preparing a presentation on the theme of ephemera when it struck her she walked by an ephemeral print-cultural phenomenon every day in Dunedin - the signs adorning the city’s many famous and infamous named student flats.

Her realisation provided the impetus for her to start work on her new book Scarfie Flats of Dunedin, which catalogues 18 years of research into those flats’ rich histories, explaining the backstories of everything from ‘Toad Hall’ to the ‘Shrieking Shack’. She joined Radio NZ's Jim Mora to discuss the phenomenon:

Gallagher has collected more than 600 flat names which go back to the 1930s and says they give a good barometer of what students have been interested in over the decades.

“They’re things that the students themselves, in their flats, have connected with. It shows what’s of interest, or important, in society to them at the time. It might be literature or film or music, and sometimes it might be political references. Sometimes they’re sexual references or alcohol-related, but increasingly they tend to be more in the minority.”

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

She says a good example is references to the work of JRR Tolkien. In the 1970s, there were flats named “Hobbit’s Hovel” and “The Shire”, and the same thing happened again after Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films came out.

It’s difficult to know which flat first received a name, but ‘The Bach’ on Leith Street is one of the earliest known examples and even had a name plate.

One legendary flat, Toad Hall, had a coat of arms and the residents would dress up for dinner. “They’re a real hard case lot,” Gallagher says.

The ex-Selwyn College student’s dinners included menu items such as crayfish served on Number 8 wire and suckling pig. Gallagher says some of them were good cooks, but they were also enlisting the help of the Selwyn chef for their meals.

“They still get together all these years later, and this is one of the things that’s just been lovely about researching these flats – getting to see how these relationships have endured over time.”

Historical matters also thread their way through the book such as the controversy over gender mixing in flats in the late 1960s, immortalised by James K. Baxter in his 1967 poem 'Ode to Mixed Flatting'.

“I’ve had conversations with people who were around at the time and some have said his poem may have actually inflamed things.”

The incident at the centre of the controversy involved a group of girls flatting in a place which was managed by the University. A vacancy came up and the girls chose a male student they knew through family friends. Gallagher says the families were OK with the situation, but the University were not. The situation caused a huge amount of debate despite genders having mixed in flats prior to the incident.

Gallagher says students living in these named flats tend to appreciate it later.

“When they’re living in it, it’s just what it is. But when they’re looking back and reflecting, they’re thinking ‘people knew who we were’”.

She says some of the flats have a certain kudos or cache which attracts students to them.

“Because 80 percent of the students who come to Otago are from outside of Dunedin, a big part of this is about feeling like you fit in, feeling like you’re becoming part of the story, becoming part of the community.”

Finally, naming flats has proved to be helpful for new students unfamiliar with the area.

“They use names like wayfinding tools, they’ll say ‘there’s a party at The Nunnery.’”

Scarfie Flats of Dunedin was released on January 25 and is available at Paper Plus and independent booksellers.

This was first published on Radio NZ's Sunday Morning programme.