I had just turned 18 when I started out as a first year student at Edinburgh University in 1993. Reading my diaries at the time, I thought I had it all figured out. It’s apparent now, that I really didn’t. And it was that potent cocktail of overconfidence and cluelessness that fueled most of the decisions I made that year.
The confidence came from Glasgow Academy I’m sure. In my final year at that high school, I had been House Captain, 2nd XI Cricket Captain, and CEO of the Young Enterprise project. I’d learned how to drink, and I’d even fallen in love. It didn’t matter to me that the love was unrequited, our cricket team was useless, and that I hadn’t learned how to drink in moderation. I was on top of the world.
I’d been accepted to study Law at Edinburgh University, one of the most prestigious courses in the country. I was invincible.
I applied to stay in University accommodation and was assigned to Fraser House within Pollock Halls, a huge complex of student housing built in the 1960s, near Arthur’s Seat. I had my own tiny room that was just big enough for a single bed, a small sink, and a desk. I shared a bathroom and a kitchen with about 20 other young men. We all shared one telephone at the end of the corridor, and it only took incoming calls.
Remember there were no cell phones, no text messages, no digital cameras, no laptops, no emails, and no Internet in 1993. If you wanted to get a message to a friend, you would write it down on a piece of paper and stick it on their door. If you wanted to keep in touch with a friend in another city or country, you would write them a proper letter. And if you arranged to meet someone in a pub, then you’d have to be there at the arranged time, otherwise you’d likely spend the whole night looking for them around town.
CD collections were a big deal too. I remember as I walked along my corridor on the first day that I moved into Fraser House, it seemed like every person was sitting alone in their room, blasting out their favorite CD. It was actually quite a good way to know who to talk to. The Prodigy? Probably a nutter. Bob Marley? Sorry, I don’t do drugs. Wait, do I hear Loaded by Various Artists? Hi there, my name’s P.J., can I borrow that?
That’s right – P.J. In my first year at University, I decided that I wanted to be known as ‘P.J.’ For no other reason than I thought that ‘Pete’ or ‘Peter’ was too boring and that ‘P.J.’ was cool. And actually it might have been slightly cool until PJ and Duncan came along with ‘Let’s Get Ready to Rhumble’ in 1994 and ruined everything. Whatever happened to them?
I only had about 5 CDs so I didn’t entice many people into my room to say hello, but I did find it pretty easy to meet people that first week. I had quite a few friends from Glasgow Academy that had also been assigned to Pollock Halls. My friends Myles and Len were in nearby halls, and two of my best mates, Nelly and Jonny, were in Fraser House with me.
Jonny’s room was across from Phil’s (Fonzy), and just down the corridor from Stef. Fonzy had been at school with Hammy, and Stef had been at school with Phil (Pyob), who had been assigned to a flat down the street with Jersey Jim and Pat. Doyley lived upstairs from them. Add in Jambo who grew up across the street from Nelly, and within a week we had the core of our friends and the soccer team that would become Forest Pump. To this day, those guys that I met in 1993 are still some of my best friends.
Life in Pollock Halls was pretty simple. Breakfast and dinner was provided for us, so all we had to do was find lunch during the week to survive. For me that meant a trip to Tesco on a Monday morning to buy a loaf of sliced bread, ten slices of cheese, and ten slices of ham. That’s two cheese and ham toasties a day, for five days, for less than three quid. And because slices of cheese and ham would often go missing from the one communal fridge, and because Edinburgh is pretty cold most of the time, we would just hang our food out of the windows to keep it cold. It seemed to work.
Saving money on food meant that we could go out drinking a lot. Although we tried to do that as cheaply as possible too. That meant buying 1 or 2 bottles of the cheapest wine in the off-license, something like ‘Blue Nun’ or maybe ‘Jacob’s Creek’, and downing it just before going out. That’s a skill right there. The goal would be to get as drunk as possible before leaving the Halls, but not drunk enough that you can’t get into the pubs. You’d want the drunkenness to kick in the moment you were in the pub. But you didn’t want to get so drunk that you couldn’t make it out the door. It was a fucking tightrope, but with practice, I think we mastered it.
Although I did have that over-confidence of youth, I still had massive insecurities. And I doubt I was the only one. For me that manifested itself in trying to impress people. I believed I could gain friends by showing everyone how amazing I thought I was. But at the time, I had no idea who I was.
So when it came to drinking, that meant that I wanted to show people that I could get drunker than anyone. That I could do the stupidest things. I frequently stumbled home with “borrowed” pint glasses, bar towels, and posters. Mind you, I wasn’t into taking traffic cones or anything. Quite a few lads made a hobby of acquiring all sorts of road signs. By the end of term there were some rooms that looked like construction sites.
Here’s another example of me doing something stupid. There was one night when my friend Len turned up with the letters ‘LEN’ shaved in the back of his head. He had really short hair at the back anyway, and he’d spent some time doing it, so it looked quite good. And of course I wanted to better it. So I had one of my drunken mates shave ‘PJ’ into my normal length hair. It didn’t look good.
That’s where the cluelessness comes in. How did I think that that would impress anyone? And I wasn’t doing it to just be one of the lads either. I actually thought that sort of wild behavior, especially the capacity to get really drunk, would impress girls. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t.
I did meet a lot of girls that first year of university, but I clearly had no idea what I was doing. In my defense, I’d been at an all-boys school for my entire teenage years, and aside from a couple of weeks in 1990, I was 18, and I’d never had a girlfriend.
Predictably I fell for virtually the first girl I met on the first day of University. She was called Katherine or Kat, and she was in my law class. We met at a wine reception, and I remember thinking she was the funniest girl I’d ever met. Then when it turned out that we had both cried during the movie ‘Dead Poets Society’, I was genuinely thinking ‘I’ve found my soul mate’. I mean what are the chances of that?
I got so drunk though that first night I met her that I had to run back to my bedroom to find a pen, and write down her name and room number on the first page of my diary so I wouldn’t forget it. I still have that page.
It reads: “The time is 1.26. Her name is Katherine. Lee House 336. The other girl’s name is Kirsty (Kirsten J.G. says) from Cowan House.”
I remember I went to the University Sports Fair with Katherine a couple of days later. I signed up for the soccer team trials, and she signed up for rowing. I remember thinking that was a bit weird. I mean rowing? You have to get up really early in the morning for that. Maybe we weren’t soul mates after all.
It didn’t work out. We had a few snogs, but we didn’t even last until the end of the week. I failed to make an impression at the football trials, whereas apparently she was quite good at rowing. She’s won five Olympic medals.
I had no idea how to talk with girls or what they were saying to me. There is even an entry in my diary, where a girl I really liked invited me up to her room for coffee, but I declined because I don’t drink coffee and I was making myself a late night toastie. It’s no surprise looking back that I was still a virgin after the first two years of college.
My 1993 diary is interesting. It’s clear my priorities for that year were playing and/or watching soccer, and going out drinking with the boys. Trying to meet girls was a distant third, whereas somewhere down the list below listening to new music and watching movies, was the study of law.
I skipped a lot of lectures that first term. In high school I’d always been able to get ‘A’s by breezing along for the most of the year, and then studying hard at the end. I found out the hard way that that didn’t work in college. I actually failed a couple of classes for the first time, and just about scraped enough grades to continue for another year.
To be fair, law school can be pretty uninspiring; especially the introductory courses about legal procedures and constitutional law. It wasn’t until I got to take Jurisprudence, the philosophy of law, that I actually found my degree slightly interesting. I didn’t enjoy much about first year studies. If nothing else though, I eventually learned how to learn.
Law wasn’t ever my first choice of degree. It was always a back up plan. I’d originally planned to study English, but there was also a part of me that would have loved to have gone to Film School. Once I’d been in Edinburgh a few months, I discovered the Filmhouse and the Cameo cinemas, and I remember sneaking off to watch films like The Piano and Dazed and Confused instead of going to classes.
One Saturday night in February 1994, I was out with the lads as usual, and then someone had the idea to catch a movie at midnight. It was Reservoir Dogs. At the time it was still a pretty underground film but the Odeon on Clerk Street would show it at midnight on Saturday nights. So a big group of us piled in to the movie theater see it after several hours in the pub. That movie blew my mind. All of us were in awe of it. I’d never seen anything like it.
Most of us went back to see it the next weekend, sober. And the soundtrack was so good too. I remember that some bars like Oddfellows started playing some of the songs, and we’d dance around pretending to cut each others’ ears off.
That movie was the motivation for me to buy a video camera a few weeks later. It was a really big decision considering that I had no money. But I was eligible for a student loan. I remember Nelly and Jonny both told me that it was a waste of money, but as soon as I got approved for the loan, I spent the whole thing on a small Panasonic camera, a microphone, and a small editing machine.
I loved that camera. I loved the possibilities it offered, and I loved that it would preserve my memories and those of my friends. For a while that camera went with me everywhere, and we even made some terrible short films. I took it to film our soccer matches and our dinners out. I filmed us playing video games, and I filmed us watching TV. I took it to Jersey and France and interviewed everyone. I took it to Texas and filmed Austin in 1996. I recorded memories in Australia and in London. I finally paid off the student loan about 5 years ago. Buying that camera was actually a great decision.
So when I started writing this chapter I thought it would mostly be about life as a first year student at Edinburgh University in 1993, but really I think it’s just a chapter about being 18 years old.
When I was 18 I made lot of mistakes. I was an idiot. But I think that’s ok. 18 year olds need time to find themselves. They need time to find their limits. To fail. To piss people off. To lose friends. To make new friends. To fall on their face. To get back up.
I don’t even know if I would characterize these decisions as mistakes. I certainly have no regrets about them. And I did learn from them. I mean, I never failed another class in law school. I never shaved my name into the back of my head again. And I learned that it takes more than drinking all night to impress nice girls.
But I’m fine with my 18-year-old self being so foolish. That’s what being 18 is all about. I hope I’ll be as forgiving with my daughter when she is the same age.