Oxfam 2016: Lee Gaskell- Messiah of sofa-burning in New Zealand.

The following was translated into Korean as an article for a charity fundraising event. The Korean version differs slightly so to touch on the oddness of cricket and the social disorder it gladly brings to some youth.


Larrikin: A boisterous, often badly behaved young man. Can be likable.

I have never met Mountain Kiwi team member Lee Gaskell, but both Rich and Andrew had spoken highly of him as being a perfect member for the Mountain Kiwi team.

A Larrikin.

Lee (37) was born in Christchurch, and graduated in 2001 with a degree in Physical Education from Otago University. He’s been based in Daegu since 2002. Otago University is New Zealand’s oldest (f.1871). It is famous for not only producing a long list of notable achievers, but also takes great pride in its lineage of political activists and its lovable mobs of drunken students.

Otago University is located in the city of Dunedin, rich with Scottish roots, one writer once described it as, “a small frigid settlement on the Pacific coast of New Zealand and home to 20,000 intoxicated students.” Maybe this has something to do with its Scottish background, or perhaps the universities graduation song.

Sung in Latin, it translates as ‘Let us rejoice while we are young,’ therefore drawing excitable and impressionable freshmen from all over the country to its stony Gaelic corridors. In New Zealand, we call these students ‘scarfies’ because that’s what they are forced to wear to save themselves from dying inside their bleak flats. They are our nation’s future.

Otago University

I had heard Lee was a bit of a character, so asked him on FB messenger, if when a scarfie at Otago, had he ever burnt a sofa? He said he had. He told me his story. It turned out to be a beauty.

Yep, you read that right, ‘burn a sofa,’ those comfy upholstered objects you watch TV from. What happens is a bunch of scarfie’s will drag a mangy sofa from their flat, and in full public view, torch it on the street – not to keep warm – but as a drunken act of youthful rebellion and testosterone charged rejoice. This rite of passage developed through the 2000’s and still continues today.

Sofa Burning

After Lee told me the details of his incredible sofa-burning episode, it made me curious about the origins of sofa-burning at Otago University. Then I found this in the Otago Times; “Couch burnings have been synonymous with Dunedin for a long time. The reckless behavior has even been seen on the terrace at Carisbrook stadium during an international sporting fixture.”

Ha! That’s where Lee told me he burnt his sofa. I searched some more.

It was March 8th, 1997, and New Zealand are playing Sri Lanka in the 1st cricket test match at the famous Carisbrook stadium, locally described then as the ‘house of pain,’ or as one international sports journalist wrote, ‘having the appeal of a rundown Polish shipyard.’

On that day, Lee and other cricket loving scarfies were on the terraces at the match. In the fine traditions of scarfie shenanigans, and perhaps as an ‘up yours’ gesture to the champagne sipping snobs seated in the wealthy corporate boxes located above the working class terraces, the scarfies had dragged with them their grotty student-flat sofas. They parked them on the terraces, forming their own corporate boxes, sipping cool beer form their Coleman ice boxes. This was a media hit with the sports commentators and national TV viewers. The match went on in the usual good spirit of cricket. The scarfies spent the day drinking, singing, chanting and cajoling any of the Sri Lankan and even New Zealand players, who were unfortunate enough to field on the boundary near them. As it’s a summer game, this kind of frolicking atmosphere even wills some spectators to streak. Although illegal, it is an act that can sometimes be enjoyed by the players and crowd, as seen in this fine photo.

A streaker

But unfortunately, as can sometimes be the case when keen young men mix too much sun with booze, things can get ugly. In this case, an umpires bizarre ruling sees the dismissal of one of the New Zealand players.

“We threw everything we could find onto the pitch, and started to burn a few sofas.” Lee told me.


He wasn’t wrong. They certainly did. I found the news clip on the internet. It had that same night, made the 6pm headline news on our TV ONE state broadcaster. Here’s the clip. Back then, it was read out by the Diva of New Zealand anchor reading, Angela D’Audney. Angela was New Zealand’s first woman news presenter (1973) and famous early on in her career, for bringing plunging necklines and ‘untidy’ hairstyles to what was then a male dominated, nicotine stained, news reading room.

Angela says, “Spectators set fires on the terraces that sent smoke billowing over the ground.”

Watching the fascinating news clip, I can see the scarfies burning their sofas in the half empty terraces. Lee must be in there somewhere. Black smoke, as Angela said, is billowing over the pitch. I listen carefully to the stern voice of the news reporter at the scene, “Police well versed in Dunedin student antics, ejected one terrace spectator.”

There was only one spectator ejected, I query? That means it must have been Lee. Earlier Lee had told me he was arrested at the ground. “I was given a Breach of Peace warning for ‘arson’! I had to stay in the Police station ‘drunk tank’ until 2am, and was released with no formal charges.”

“After being released I took the Breach of Peace notice to the ‘Bowler’ student bar and was shouted free drinks for the rest of the night.”

Dreadlocked Lee in 2007.

“Did you deserve to be taken away by the cops?” I asked him.

“Na! I had dreadlocks back then, and one of the pricks in the corporate boxes behind us, told the cops it was me, but all I was doing was pointing and laughing.”

How ironic, I thought.

“Is this you then? This fella looks like he has dreadlocks” I message him the below photo.

“Ha ha, that wasn’t me.”

Actually that photo was taken at the next five-day test match against Sri Lanka at Seddon Park in Hamilton, so it couldn’t be Lee. The mob in the photo are also larrikin students, this time from Waikato University. Because of Lee’s headline sofa-burning antics; sofa-burning had (like wildfire does) very quickly spread nationwide.

Because he went to Waikato University, I showed Mountain Kiwi member Andrew this same photo. Could it be him?

“Hey, I was at that test match!” Andrew replies. “Vettori got a bunch of wickets …but I wasn’t there on the sofa-burning day.”

It would’ve been great if Team Mountain Kiwi had two documented sofa-burners.

Shit! It dawns on me. Lee won’t know this, but based on what I’ve heard and read, I think Lee might well be the messiah of the current day cult of sofa-burning in New Zealand? I can’t find any earlier incident.

After the historic 1997 Lee Gaskell inspired sofa-burning cricket test series on the working man’s terraces of the now defunct Carisbrook  stadium, and then soon after, on the grassy banks of Hamilton’s Seddon Park, the art of sofa-burning ‘flared-up’, nationwide. Like a fire tornado it spiraled into the 2000s, mainly at Otago University. Its freshmen scarfies ignited the new tradition of burning sofas, starting in their O-weeks. The university hymns of ‘Let us rejoice while we are young,’ and Talking Heads, ‘burning down the house,’ (I bet they sing that!) echoing around the sofa bonfires.

Sofa Burning into the 2000’s

Perhaps a good example of this can be read in this passage from the Otago Daily, “In the minutes following the final whistle of the Rugby World Cup final (2007, which New Zealand won) more than a dozen couches were set alight in a vacant Castle St section. Students (scarfies) at the scene told the Otago Daily the torching had been an act of celebration, a continuing of tradition and a part of scarfie culture. What harm does it do?

Was it a tradition that Lee had set?

It appears to me that the rebellious yet harmless art of sofa-burning arrived purely by incident on that smoky day in Carisbrook back in 1997. The sofas were carried to the ground initially as an act of defiance against the wealthy corporate boxes – a kind of friendly ‘we can do this too’ mentality. Then with the ‘unjustified decision’ by an authority figure, in the shape of a cricket umpire, combined with a big day on the booze, this sparked the iconic sofa-burning, resulting with the dreadlocked Lee being pointed out, and becoming the only scarfie ejected from the stadium. This makes him the sofa-martyr, a kind of saint of sofa-burning.

In hindsight, although its origins appear rebellious and anti-social, for the scarfies, it was literally the beginnings of another way to celebrate a free will to rejoice and live. These days the tradition of sacrificial sofa-burning continues onwards; in a good natured and youthful way. These scarfies are not hooligans, they are the (believe it or not) educated youth of New Zealand from one of its finest universities. Although authorities now have a harder line on sofa-burning, and if you’re stupid about it you could get arrested, it is still tolerated because it is so deeply ingrained into the culture and psyche of the scarfies. Its intentions were then, and still are now, about having fun!

Proof of that can be heard from this inebriated scarfie on that unforgettable day back in 1997 where it all began. He slurred this on National News that night. “I mean, I mean, it’s inevitable isn’t it? For the lads to have a good time, you have to burn something!!”

We thank Lee Gaskell for being a founder of this fine tradition!

We welcome Lee Gaskell to Team Mountain Kiwi. We’re a likable bunch of larrikins, trekking 100 Jiri-san km’s to raise money to fight global poverty. Please sponsor us and buy one of our team shirts or sports bracelet. We promise not to set anything alight!


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