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Digs, drinking and, degrees... what we learned at university

As Freshers’ Week starts four writers, Una Brankin, Lee Henry, Fionola Meredith and Alex Kane, recall those first heady days of student life.

Una Brankin: ‘Once my jitters wore off I felt I’d landed in Heaven’

For a country girl from Sandy Bay, starting university was a slightly intimidating but stimulating experience, a bit like being harnessed into a zip-line 30ft above the ground for the first time.

I’d arrived at the Stranmillis halls of residence the night before the start of term at Queen’s, knowing no-one, but had met another frightened yokel on the corridor. As Roberta and I were both in the Arts faculty, we arranged to walk down to the university the following morning to enrol — or matriculate, to give the process its exotic Latin term.

We were separated after that, to head to different departments; mine, Political Science, hers, Social Sciences, and I remember sitting alone on a lawn in the quad, an open space within the Queens’ gothic walls, watching the teeming squads of undergraduates pass through, so comfortable in their numbers.

“Aw, are you a wee fresher all on your own?” enquired one of them, spotting me wide-eyed on a bench, to the amusement of her posse. If I’d stood up, they’d have seen I was in no way wee in stature, although I was indeed a skinny slip of a thing at the time.

“We’ll be in the Speakeasy in the union for lunch if you’re lonely.”

To avoid them, my new friend from the halls and I went instead to the enormous snack bar, on the top floor of the Students’ Union, for greasy sausage rolls and dishwater tea out of flimsy polystyrene cups. If it was now, the clatter and screeching from the assembled throng would have sent me straight out the door. Back then, the atmosphere was electric and full of anticipation. It was even more exciting at night-time, with people dancing on tables to the retro swing bands that were all the rage at the time.

The snack bar also doubled as a makeshift cinema some nights, showing student classics such as Midnight Express. The Speakeasy ran the best discos and the McMordie Hall downstairs, later re-named the Mandela hall, had the likes of Thin Lizzy and The Stranglers playing the big wide stage there.

Once the first-term jitters had worn off, I thought I’d landed in Heaven. Unlike my A-level subjects, I enjoyed my university courses and colourful learned lecturers from day one. The drama of the sweeping lecture theatres; the intimacy of the tutorials in those romantic, book-lined Georgian rooms of the old, main building.

The youthful exuberance of bawdy Rag Day; the glamour and thrill of the formal May Ball in the Great Hall.

And no money worries — I was one of the lucky ones to have got a grant to study at Queen’s, before Margaret Thatcher swung her scythe through education, and I was even more fortunate to be awarded a scholarship for a Master’s degree thereafter.

After that first callow day, first term at Queen’s flew by thrillingly, just like a zip-wire ride. Now, my nephew, who seems to have jumped from babyhood to his teens just as quickly, is about to start Law and tread the same pastures as I did all those years ago. How I envy him.”

Lee Henry: ‘I quickly maxed out my credit card’

The headline read ‘Moss Side Turf War Hots Up As Death Toll Rises Overnight’, or words to that effect. I stashed the paper out of sight and gave my poor mother a hug, sobbing as her second-born left for university. She was worried enough as it was.

Seconds later I waved goodbye from the Belfast International Airport terminal on my way to Manchester, gangland capital of the UK, and I couldn't have been more excited.

At 19, I was a late bloomer, but after two or three years of playing silly sods with my friends and reading voraciously morning, noon and night, I was ready to follow my dream of becoming the next Jack Kerouac.

Queen’s wasn’t impressed with my grades, so I was forced to look elsewhere, and didn’t hesitate for a second when Manchester Metropolitan University offered me a place to study English Literature and History.

While the majority of students spend their fresher’s year living in halls, I was too late in applying to find a room, and so a house-share lay ahead. Thankfully, two friends from back home in Newcastle were entering their second year at Manchester University, so we clubbed together on a red brick tenement.

The headlines were true. In 1999, the year previous, there were more shots fired by gang members in the Moss Side, Longsight and Hulme areas of Manchester than ever before. Gun crime there was on the rise — US-style drive-by shootings were en vogue.

I didn’t see or experience any of it. In fact, I loved Moss Side: the multiculturalism, the graffiti, the curry houses, the corner shops, the hip hop blaring out of every passing car, the fact that no one understood a word that I said. All of it. It was a world away from the peaceful beaches and mountains of Mourne, and that’s exactly what I was after.

Living away from home, studying among students from all around the UK, was exhilarating. It also taught me a thing or two about finance; within two months of living and shopping in Manchester I had maxed out a credit card, landing myself in debt for the remainder of my university years.

But that is what university is all about — making mistakes, learning from them, finding our way in the world. I may have ultimately failed first year, to my poor mother’s obvious anguish, but if I could go back, I wouldn’t change a thing. At the very least, it was character-building.”

Fionola Meredith: ‘I remember the sense that adult life was starting’

Going to university for the first time felt like coming home. I was studying English and Scholastic Philosophy at Queen’s and I knew this was exactly where I wanted to be. Not for me the floods of tears at leaving school — I couldn’t wait to walk out the door and leave all those petty rules and restrictions behind. I was ready for a new beginning.

It was incredibly exciting, and although I was a bit nervous to meet new people — both teachers and students — Queen’s was already pretty familiar to me, and that helped. I’d known and loved the university area since childhood, with trips to the Ulster Museum and Botanic Gardens.

And because my boyfriend had started at Queen’s a year ahead of me, I knew something about what to expect. When I was still in my last year at school, I used to skive off classes and take the bus to Belfast — getting changed out of my uniform in the back seat — to meet him in the Great Hall.

That’s another sweet memory: in those days, the Great Hall was open every day for lunch and morning coffee. The lightest scones emerged hot from the ovens at about 10 o’clock, and then at lunch you queued up with your tray to get glorious old-fashioned dishes like pork stroganoff, beef in red wine, apple crumble and custard. I’m surprised I was able to stay awake for afternoon lectures.

The first few days at Queen’s were a bit of a blur. I remember forcing myself to speak in tutorials, despite my shyness, because I realised that if I didn’t, it would only get harder as time went on.

I had a small grant, which still existed in those days, and I think I spent most of it on books. And apple crumble, of course. It didn’t occur to me to blow it on drink. Books were my drug of choice, and they still are. To be able to spend my days reading, discovering all sorts of new ideas for my brain to grapple with, devouring page after page as the hours flew by: that was more than enough for me. It was a luxury. Later, I joined the English Society and got a bit more sociable.

I remember bright autumn mornings in University Square under the horse-chestnut trees, and going up the mews to the Queen’s Film Theatre on a frosty moonlit night.

Most of all I remember the sense of possibility that was alive in it all, the sense that my adult life was just starting.”

Alex Kane: ‘I met a circle of people who helped to change my life’

I arrived at Queen’s University on the first Sunday of October 1974, with nowhere to stay. That’s how I ended up at the Church of Ireland chaplaincy on Elmwood Avenue, because they had a vacancy — even for an atheist. One of my fellow residents was John Mann, now Dean of Belfast, and I shared a room with a guy who later went to work in Conservative Central Office when Thatcher was Prime Minister. He introduced me to her.

I got drunk that first evening — a Student Union bar serving pints of Hirondelle wine on a Sunday was a novelty for me — and returned at 1am and threw up, loudly and widely, in the hallway. The Rev John Dinnen (whose son, Carl, is now ITV’s political correspondent) talked to me later that day: ‘Drunkenness is not something we encourage here, Alex, even for atheists.’

I managed to spend £75 during that first week: which was an awful lot back then. I phoned my dad for more money: ‘Did you buy any text books?’ ‘I bought some Sherlock Holmes.’ ‘Hmm. I’ll put some money in the account for you, but I want it back when your grant comes through.’ I spent his next £50 on booze, Holmes, a copy of Playboy (excellent articles), posters of Raquel Welch and David Bowie and a wheelbarrow full of Pot Noodles—which had just arrived on the market.

In the next few months I discovered the Bot, the Egg, the Club Bar, girls (I was an only child who went to a boys school), republicans (I’d never met one before), the 16 Club (a film society which I became president of two years later) and Gown (the student newspaper, for which I wrote politics and film reviews). Most important of all I met a circle of people who changed my life, my thinking and my confidence. Some of them are now well-known politicians and journalists. We’ve come a long way together and learned a lot from each other.

I loved my four years at university. They were happy days. There were fewer students than there are now and I believe that made it much easier to learn and think-through issues, particularly in tutorials. We also knew that most of us would walk straight from the graduation ceremony into a job: something that many students can’t take for granted today. And there were no fees.

But the most valuable lesson I learned — and I learned it in the first year — is that there is never an occasion on which velvet flairs are acceptable.”

Belfast Telegraph


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