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Ah, student bedsit land, where we dreamt in squalor

By Gail Walker

Published 23/02/2016

Comfortable living: student accommodation at John Bell House in Belfast city centre is a far cry from some of the properties that students inhabited in the past
Comfortable living: student accommodation at John Bell House in Belfast city centre is a far cry from some of the properties that students inhabited in the past

News that Belfast's city fathers have approved the redevelopment of Brunswick Street/Blackstaff Square (the old College of Knowledge to you and me) certainly shook up the old nostalgia cells.

The planned new student apartment block looks luxurious, with rental prices for the most expensive units reportedly more than £700 a month.

It certainly doesn't look like the type of place that will feature duct tape over light sockets ("Whatever you do, don't use that plug"), furniture straight from the set of an amateur production of Look Back In Anger and a cooker that simply doesn't cook anything.

No, we're talking WiFi and en suites. I bet the beds are Nasa-approved memory foam as opposed to a shudder-inducing "Who died there?" prison-style skimpy mattress.

And yet... student bedsit land represented a kind of freedom and rite of passage. Indeed, the outrageousness of your hovel was always a surefire conversational gambit.

Like Monty Python's Four Yorkshiremen sketch, students engaged in backdoor boasting. "Hole in the living room ceiling? That's luxury, that is - we don't have a floor..."

What will future occupants to these swish new student pads look back on? "Remember when the WiFi coverage was only three bars? That was mad! And the air-conditioning - we once left it off when it was really, really hot. Ah, crazy days."

Now, I must confess that I was a student in the late Eighies and early Nineties - the era of Thatcher, CND, miners and watching Neighbours, Going For Gold and, er, Rainbow instead of getting to grips with Tristram Shandy. For students it was probably a time where we never had it so good.

Perhaps because of this we were also a generation that needed a good slap up the bake from real life.

We were flush with grants (Yes, grants! The Government gave you money in those days. Each new term began with queueing in the admin block for a wee envelope with a cheque in it - a chance to see old familiar faces while moaning that it barely covered your overdraft. No loans then).

We were a generation that wore Choose Life and Make It Big T-shirts. Both sexes wore espadrilles (yes, Belfast men in espadrilles - I saw it with my own eyes) and puffed-up hair. Not to mention boilersuits, ludicrously high-waisted jeans and batwing sweaters.

We were also, of course, just like every other generation of students, so wanting to fit in by being a rebel and proclaiming our individuality by doing/reading/thinking what everybody else did/read/thought.

While we never actually wanted to read Kierkegaard's Sickness Unto Death, you understand, we wanted people to think it was the type of thing we were engrossed in (while hiding the latest Jackie Collins or Shirley Conran inside its covers).

We wanted to be fun, we wanted to be thought profound thinkers and, especially if you were a young woman, profoundly sensitive - all those minor Bronte novels and LPs/CDs by sensitive singer-songwriters. Tanita Tikaram. Suzanne Vega. Um, Brian Kennedy.

In other words, we wanted everything.

So, trawling the streets of bedsit land was both a short, sharp shock and an assertion of rebellion, our edginess (even if we fled home to the relative luxury of our parents' home every weekend).

Living in a house with a strange fungus growing up the kitchen wall and realising the full horror of Economy 7 storage heaters (you'd return home at 4pm to find the house freezing and have to hook up an electric fire) gave us street cred.

Hey, look at that, when the wind's blowing east it blows my essay off my desk (for which read card table) and look - the window's shut.

Not only were we thrown into the adult world (rent, buying groceries, queueing for public phones), we were also allowed to dream in picturesque squalor.

Look at me, all edgy in my bedsit with all my groovy novels stacked in my red metal Argos shelves. I don't need your pension plan and mortgage, thank you very much. I have my thoughts and my art.

Even if our thoughts and art could be easily fitted on the back of a 14p second-class postage stamp it was still a wonderful way to live - if only for a while before realising that really deep down you were a fully paid-up petite bourgeois yearning for all the soul-draining mod cons of consumer society - a working shower, doors that didn't stick and a living room which didn't contain a bed, for starters.

Between overdrafts, loans, badly paid temporary jobs in retail and having to write something vaguely coherent about Middlemarch without having read the book, students have a grim enough time of it.

They don't need the additional chore of having to live up to their accommodation.

You can't be a threat to society if you have a swipe card for your lift...

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