Jonny McCambridge: The joys of student life – one sink and no inside toilet

Having worked in the news media over several years, I have long observed that there are stories which come around with a particular frequency.

Wednesday, 22nd September 2021, 5:00 am
Updated Wednesday, 22nd September 2021, 9:39 pm
Many of the problems evident in the Holylands now were beginning to manifest themselves back in the early 1990s

This is not to suggest that there is no fresh news about, because there is always plenty, rather that there are certain occurrences which tend to appear as if on a cycle.

Recently I was struck by two separate reports which seemed to be thematically linked.

One was that a number of students hoping to go to university in Belfast had been unable to obtain a place in halls of residence.

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The other was that the PSNI had issued a warning about anti-social behaviour by youths in the Holylands area.

It made me cast my mind back to a time in the early 1990s when paramilitary ceasefires had not yet been declared and, having received my exam results, I was about to move to Belfast to begin student life.

I had a friend who was in the same position so, having been told that it was the certain way to ensure we were offered a place, we applied to share a self-catering room in the halls of residence.

A week-and-a-half before term was due to begin, we both received a letter to tell us that there was no place for us.

This caused some immediate panic, because a responsibility which we assumed would be taken care of by another, was now firmly thrust upon us. We had to find our own place to live.

And so, two country boys who didn’t know Ormeau from Ormiston, jumped on a train and travelled 60 miles to the city to try and secure accommodation.

We bought the local paper and our hopes were initially high.

There seemed to be scores, if not hundreds, of properties offering rooms to students.

We were confident that our search would be a short one.

It was not the case. We spent several days viewing red-bricked terraced houses only to be told the same thing over and over – we could not have the room.

At first, I was confused by this. Then a sympathetic landlord, who had declined our application, explained the situation.

Two first year male students from the country would always struggle to get accommodation, he informed us, because the assumption was that we would ‘wreck the house’.

This was a revelation to me. I had lived in a house all of my life and had no known track record of wrecking anything.

Eventually, with the beginning of term imminent, our desperate search took us to a mysteriously named set of streets known as The Holylands. My friend knew someone who had taken a house there but needed two more people to make up the numbers.

There would be five of us in the house, three of whom I had never met before. With no other viable option, we accepted the invitation.

The house, it is fair to say, had several issues. There was no inside toilet. What passed for a lavatory was housed in a leaking shed in the tiny back yard.

There was no shower or bath. There was only one sink, which was in the kitchen.

So, when I wanted to wash or brush my teeth in the morning, I first had to navigate around the dirty dishes which had been inevitably left from the night before.

There was no hot water. There was no heating other than a tiny open fireplace in the front room. We were offered the house for the extraordinary price of £37.50 each per month.

One of my new housemates explained to me that the owner was going to gut and renovate the property at the end of the academic year.

It was let to us apparently on the basis that it didn’t really matter what condition we left it in, as long as we didn’t knock it down.

There was a young couple with a baby who lived next door. Their house, in contrast to our substandard accommodation, seemed to be immaculately kept.

The father made it clear that he was less than enthusiastic about our arrival. Once, he called at the door and asked us to turn down the music.

Happily, by the end of the year, relations had thawed enough that he would say hello when he passed me on the street.

Many of the problems evident in the Holylands now, were beginning to manifest themselves back then. I could often hear a loud party taking place somewhere nearby and there was certainly on-street drinking. I remember there seemed to be a trend for students to steal shopping trollies, which would then be used at night as if they were bumper cars.

But the raucousness forms only part of my memory of the time I lived there.

In the days before mobiles, there were phone boxes at the end of streets and from about 5pm every night, there were long queues of students trying to call home.

While hardly a culinary master, I had a basic knowledge of how to feed myself. I was startled to observe that most of my flatmates were barely able to boil an egg and I took on the bulk of the cooking responsibilities.

Often, I would stay in the city at the weekends to try to catch up on some study. This bemused my flatmates who always had their bags stuffed with laundry ready to get the Friday train home.

Occasionally I would go for a walk on a Saturday evening and was struck by how quiet the streets were, compared with the febrile atmosphere during the week.

Looking back on that time, although I would not have said it out loud then, I was clearly miserable.

More than that, I was lost, utterly lost.

Ripped away from everything I knew and placed in dilapidated conditions, what should have been one of the most exciting times of my life instead became something that had to be endured.

Perhaps the others felt the same.

Of the five of us, two abandoned their courses and returned home before the end of their first year.

Young men thrown together will always adopt certain patterns of behaviour.

Knowing how to talk to each other about what we were going through was not one of them.

• Previous columns by Jonny McCambridge below, and beneath that information on how to subscribe to the News Letter

Jonny McCambridge Sep 1: Willy Loman and my antique dishwasher

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