Illustration: Cat Atkinson
Illustration: Cat Atkinson

The Sunday EssayOctober 2, 2022

The Sunday Essay: Dunedin made me

Illustration: Cat Atkinson
Illustration: Cat Atkinson

We conclude Rent Week with an essay by Britt Mann, whose personality was forged in rough, icy, shared accommodation near the bottom of the world.

The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand.

Illustrations by Cat Atkinson

No one has ever accused me of peaking in high school. Having alienated myself from my school friends early on with a headfirst dive into evangelical Christianity, my social life throughout most of my teens was concentrated on Sundays. The rest of the week was spent skipping school, self-harming and convincing myself I was being persecuted for Jesus.

The turning point came in the form of a long lunch at Christchurch’s pre-quake C1 cafe with a bestie who’d recently started studying at Otago University. Her account of hall life was nothing short of Narnian: a parallel universe where kids were in charge of their own destinies, jocks were friends with nerds, lions lay down with lambs and sometimes, it snowed.

I was sold; my parents kindly forked out the fees for my fresh start. And so began Year Zero of the me I am now.

I showed up at Carrington College knowing almost no one, but with a self-imposed mandate to socialise, I soon befriended posh pissheads and brainy God botherers and lots of people in between. We’d all come from somewhere else. Now, we had barely a degree of separation between us.

The bonds were cemented fairly swiftly: ours was the final cohort to suffer through many long-standing Scarfie traditions that were axed – for better or worse – for subsequent generations. I have never known a dread so incandescent as that which consumed me at Otago’s terminal toga parade: a kilometres-long gauntlet along which thousands of impractically dressed teenagers sprinted in various states of inebriation, while being pelted with home-made missiles by older, gleeful peers. By the end, some of us were drenched; others were bleeding. But together, we’d survived. And, electric with our own adrenalin, we were ready to take on the world. 

It is only at the age of 31 that I appreciate the rarified beauty of the Dunedin student experience. It was, as far as I’m concerned, an egalitarian utopia: on arrival, former statuses as head prefect or sporting champion faded into insignificance on this blank social canvas that stretched from the shadow of Signal Hill towards the sea. Come second year, it didn’t matter how rich your dad was, your inaugural flat was as freezing and shitty as everyone else’s. Everyone wore the same Kathmandu puffer jacket, drank the same fetid Double Browns, and ended up on the same sticky dance floor on Saturday nights.

This was a time and a place for drunken hijinks but we were under no illusions it would last forever. An illustration from the annual Hyde St Keg Party: I am in a gypsy costume and have consumed a bottle of cheap sav on an empty stomach before 11am. I set off, along with flatmates outfitted variously as “Pirate Batman”, “Jesus Batman”, and a giant tomato, down Cargill St towards the fray.

Hours later, I’ve pashed a severely platonic friend, blacked out in broad daylight on the Frederick St footpath, and arrived home at sunset in a backless hospital gown. A decade later, the same friend unfurled his yoga mat alongside mine before 8am on a recent Saturday morning. Where once we revelled in suburban decay, today, we perform self-care before sun-up.

As much as Dunedin was a playground, it was also a training ground. It was, for example, where I became a journalist, though I didn’t recognise this at the time. The stories I produced for the student mag remain some of my best work, notwithstanding an “exposé” of the city’s least popular property managers, one of whom stormed the office claiming – not without reason – that I had defamed him. I wrote about New Zealand’s refugee quota, restorative justice, abortion protestors and, apparently trying to exorcise some latent demon, a piece entitled: “The Strange Phenomenon of Christian Flatting.” A year later, this eclectic portfolio was enough to land me a job in a mainstream newsroom and launch a career I’d never planned.

Professionally, I was grateful to learn about the concept of “right of reply” in a low-risk context. On the home front, I routinely learned things the hard way. Turns out people don’t have to love you and they also don’t have to live with you. After my first semester of second-year flatting, a flatmate* rang to inform me he and the others would be renewing the lease the following year. I would not be on it. There was no way around this breakdown in relations but through: I had half a year in the house to go and there was no thought of skulking back to Mum and Dad’s. So I went on antidepressants, bucked up my attitude, and I wish I could say I only had to learn that lesson once: your actions have consequences. And karma is a bitch.

Amid the melodrama, there were practical lessons, too. Without any proper grown-ups on the scene, we raised each other: cooking shared dinners from Alison and Simon Holst’s Very Easy Vegetarian Cookbook Sunday to Thursday, weekly flat shopping at the South Dunedin Pak‘nSave, and trialing increasingly gruesome methods to annihilate the rat who kept eating our fruit and crapping on our couch. This was the time and place to learn these life skills. I know former Scarfies who, in their late 20s, found themselves housetraining flatmates who’d stayed at home to study but never learned to load a dishwasher.

In the hearts of many who’ve passed through, Dunedin can feel more akin to a worldview than a location. Since graduating, I have discovered that the common experience of forging one’s identity near the ends of the earth has been enough to sustain friendships, build new ones, and resurrect those I thought I’d left behind. In the past year, I’ve spoken at these dear ones’ weddings, held their hands at funerals and danced with them barefoot in a paddock in the rain. We’re still growing up together.

And, some of us are still flatting. Earlier in the year, I lived alone for the first time on a dodgy street in a drug-addled part of town, an empowering if disquieting experience where I levelled up my adulting even further by killing cockroaches and twiddling screwdrivers. But with a deposit on an off-the-plan apartment, I knew I’d have to apply for a mortgage, and felt it financially prudent to move back in with a flatmate.

In a sparkling twist of fate, the development fell through within days of giving my notice. However, I had no second thoughts about sharing a flat again; and the house hunt is on indefinite pause. There’s a lot to love about living in community; Dunedin showed me that. The key is finding the people – and the place – that bring out the best in you. It might be a gentrified street with a view of the Sky Tower. Or it might be somewhere between Signal Hill and the sea.

* Britt Mann’s erstwhile flat ouster has been her best friend ever since. At 31, she lists him as her emergency contact on various documents.

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