In Defence of Dunedin
Music boomed from the bottle shop; seas of half-cut students lurked in every corner, boxes of beer in one hand, $5 pizzas in the other. Dunedin, primarily a town home to law and med students, had made its dark turn to ravenous partying.
“No self-respecting rat would have tolerated the mess and filth,” claimed Karl Du Fresne of The Dominion Post.
My flatmates and I had travelled to the epicentre of student heaven. Side by side, houses fell apart at the seams, bursting with the liveliness of students and decorated by lit-up couches, crying girls and excessive chanting. We’d found our home for the weekend on the infamous Castle Street. The permanent, faint smell of alcohol and the abundance of bottles on the curb strangely added to the welcoming feeling of this bitterly cold town. Though they appeared to be missing shoes, windows and often shirts, the students took pride in their homes, each flat with its own name and reputation.
The start of the evening in The Courtyard Flat resembled sorority hazing: funnel on entry, a brutal game of never-have-I-ever and any chance for the girls to call one another out on sucking dick in a fresher’s club or passing out before 3am. As with many nights before, one by one they stumbled out the door and into the Thirsty Boy’s Flat. The house spilled out onto Castle Street like a wonderful piñata of drunken students.
I wandered the place in drunken awe at the incredible behavior. Dragged into the rave pit, I felt bodies pump either side of me. Being as short and naïve as I was, I found myself face to the ceiling, like a fish desperately gulping for air. Within minutes, I was navigated through the dry-humping, shot-taking madness and out to fresh air, where my six-foot savior yelled, “Keep safe! Be careful in there – you’re not drunk or tall enough.”
It suddenly occurred to me that there was a community within this madness.
The following night led me to a “red card”: an annual ritual where students make impossible drinking rules for one another and follow them into intoxicated oblivion. The red card came to a halt, with one boy vomiting into another’s mouth (a move otherwise known as a “pelican”), and I took to Castle Street again. My friends long lost to the vortex of intoxication, I stumbled into a flat, enticed by the poor remix of Beyonce’s ‘XO’. A shot was generously thrust into my hand, a joint in the other, and I became part of a disorderly but thoroughly joyful dance party led by a string of girls in crop tops and booty shorts. No questions asked, they’d taken me in as their own.
Eventually, after an hour in deep conversation on the rooftop and witnessing a troop of students in controversial costumes, I found my way, with help of the Castle Street residents, back to The Courtyard. In defence of Dunedin, while they did attempt to create a bonfire out of couches, they also walked the streets as a band, encouraging honesty in the form of 3am confessions and having each other’s back at all times.
The night ended in drunken elation: a short walk home past the Pussy Palace and a nightcap much like those our grandfathers would remember. As each student curled around another and sipped on the remainders of their cheap beers, they laughed themselves to sleep with only hope for tomorrow.
Karl Du Fresne is not alone in his criticism of Dunedin. The students are swimming in criticism from media coverage and narrow-minded residents.
Carol, a resident who turned to the TV program Sunday to voice her complaints, described the conduct as “carnage”, “anarchy” and “very poor behaviour by a small subgroup of the community.”
The streets looked like “a third world country”, a contractor told the New Zealand Herald. “Worse than anything [I’ve] seen before.”
The most ignorant and laughable of the quotes came from Karl Du Fresne, though: “Many students are pampered, narcissistic slobs.”
Such criticism can only go so far before one must remember that these students are the future lawyers and doctors of our generation. Dunedin is a city of academia, and while some might argue this doesn’t reflect in the student’s behavior, it is important to recognise why they act this way. Many older Dunedin residents, such as Carol, like to blame “the mighty booze buck”. But if we get down to it, we might just see in their glazed, hung-over eyes that they’re looking for some unity. While it differs to more traditional senses of the word, there’s no harm in the students using their university years to find themselves.
On Monday morning, the students of Dunedin will wake up and study sunrise to sunset, while the older generation will continue to write into newspapers to complain of their antisocial, explicit behavior. Those making assumptions must realise these students are indulging in having a place, literally a single street, where they can work their frustrations out and experiment with sexuality, drugs and the concept of acceptance. They’ve learned to look after one another, to come to rescue at early hours of the morning and to balance work and play. The students indulge, as is expected, but in their indulgence there is an absence of judgment and a growing praise for individuality.
On my last night, which I spent forging a stamp to get into a concert and trawling the streets with a bottle of vodka, I looked around at the scrambled togetherness of it all. Only one thing resonated. Was it the wildly exciting but mildly dangerous couch bonfire? Or the sexually-frustrated corner hook ups? No – it was the unison and sense of community these students have subconsciously created.