It was clearly a mammoth operation. Over a hundred Dominoes-Shogunates in their blue rain jackets, paper back-banners flapping in the damp air, were occupying every street corner and road crossing for a mile square. The queue outside the pizza chain store went around the block, an endless chattering row of young faces corralled by promises of free food. Even the schoolkids wandering around at lunchtime and the hobos squatting on the curbs were munching on pizza. Dominoes had gone all-out on leading loss campaign, and their could be only one explanation. It was Edinburgh University’s freshers week.
Nobody really understands how big freshers week is – least of all the freshers themselves – until they attend the University’s societies fair. The Pleasance students complex is shoulder-to-shoulder mobbed by nigh-on ten thousand youths seeking out any one of over a hundred student societies, all with their own stalls, banners and fliers. Fencers rub shoulders with the hockey team, political activists with the Bulgarian society, the debater’s union alongside film soc and, yes, even a Harry Potter society. Every conceivable activity and more is represented. For two days the full might of the student community is on display, and the city is awash with new recruits from Princes Street to Marchmont. Arthur’s Seat is crawling like an anthill and even the Pollock Halls cat is plotting about how to steal the giant moose head in the student union.
There is a special pain for a 4th year like me, watching these freshers legions going about their nervous, frantic activity this week. I sometimes wonder whether I too was observed by a distant, silently judgmental band of old hands when I was struggling to remember which one was the Teviot union and which one was Potterow. The simple fact is that we all get older, and as our years of service lengthen so our attitude blossoms black blotches of cynicism. This year’s cut of fresh meat seems even more devoid of respect or common sense than that of 2012/13. They infest our bars and our clubs and our pubs, only travelling in vast packs, demanding to know “what house” we’re from, what we study, who we are, as though any of them will remember in the morning. None of them have the foresight to realise that the friendships they so desperately make this week won’t last a year. They act as though they know everything, they decry the best events and venues as poor simply to sound knowledgeable to their pack-mates. They call everyone “mate” because they can’t remember any names. They are desperate not to appear vulnerable. They don’t realise the Dominos they’ve just been hooked on will leave them vastly out of pocket. Worst of all they spread diseases, “fresher’s flu” which reliably decimates the student population and staff each and every year. And none of them seem to know what’s coming.
By November blessed reality will have asserted itself. “The grind” will have claimed many scalps. The sudden impact of a vast workload, essay stress followed by exam stress heaped upon the outrageous demands of University social interaction will thin the ranks. Dropouts will be numerous. People will disappear from their dorms overnight, kit evacuated, returned home with only horrid, stress-filled memories. University, people will say, is not for me. And they’re right. It takes a special breed. It’s a mindset, not just a box to be ticked when asked about your employment status.
Those who survive into 2nd year may think they’ve made it, seen it all, done it all. They can’t know the difficulties of flat wrangling, electricity bills, the chill that pervade Edinburgh apartments, the arguments with fellow flatmates, the broken heating and winter snows and ramped-up essay deadlines. More will drop out or simply not make the grade. This wasn’t what they signed on for. This wasn’t what society told them to expect when they went to Uni.
Where does that leave us, we few, we happy few, we band of final years? University is still easily the best thing to have ever happened to me. But I worry for the fresh meat, I really do. They don’t seem to understand the basics. When to go out and when to stay in, when to work and when to play. If they don’t learn fast they’ll do what I and most of my friends did in first year – tread a tenuous tightrope with both failed grades and mental breakdown yawning beneath. Sadly, they won’t be told.
Like every new cut, only their own experiences will provide any possibility of salvation.