Through all the riots and revolutions that Dunedin students have staged, Stuff reporter Hamish McNeilly has seen it all. Fortunately for us, he was sober the whole time, allowing him to recall every last detail.
Hamish is the sole Stuff reporter in Dunedin and a former Otago University student. He returned to the city in 2008, this time with his notepad, a camera and, in my mind, a fedora. Despite a decade and a half of covering the anarchic happenings of North Dunedin, he has lived to tell all the tales. From his front row seat, Hamish has borne witness to the evolution of student life over some pivotal years. 15 years of Castle Street escapades, 15 years of student protests, 15 St Patrick’s Days, and a constant stream of drunk and disorderly behaviour. Perhaps journalism is the perfect job for those sixth-year breathers who can’t seem to leave.
He started university in 1994 without a clear career path in mind. After consulting a career advisor who suggested nothing more than to "study what you're interested in", he decided to major in History. Hamish describes himself as “one of those middle-aged men who watches war documentaries and things about the Roman Empire,” so, naturally, I asked how often he thinks about the Roman Empire. Not so much, apparently, but he thinks “about Nazis all the fucking time.”
Hamish’s career in journalism started off at the Otago Daily Times and eventually led him to Stuff in 2015, and throughout his time he says student shenanigans have attracted global attention. With the yearly diaspora of Otago students, there are hundreds of thousands of ex-students who had their best years of life in Dunedin and are still connected with the city, now scattered about the globe. Hamish notes that even though this audience is often now overseas in places like London or New York, they remain captivated by some good ol’ student culture.
Many things have changed over the years. With the rise of cellphones, Hamish has seen a shift in attitudes towards his work. Students are much more “conscious of their image”, and the potential for something to impact it. Hamish said amongst the most prolifically conscious were law students, who he said are constantly telling him that he can’t take their photo in a public place. “Well, actually, we can,” says the professional journalist with 15 years’ experience. “If people are doing something sort of semi-private you ask their permission but if they’re throwing bottles and shit, absolutely you can.” Just FYI.
Hamish also feels that we, the students, have gotten tame. During his first year of reporting in Dunedin, the Undie 500 riots were still going strong. He recalls some of his early experiences, where he witnessed police equipped with riot gear and police dogs against a backdrop of mid-air hurled bottles: a sight he hasn't witnessed in a considerable while.
The fresher toga party also appears to have lost some savagery. Hamish reminisced about the barbaric “toga parade riot”, which once resembled a surge of white-clad students fucking up the streets. “I was in the Octagon and I looked down, it was like a fucking tsunami had gone out. I saw nothing in the street. Then I squinted and saw this tidal wave of white-clothed students throwing shit in the air [headed my way].” He reckoned that the ensuing hedonism stemmed from the bullying that first-year students endured from their second-year counterparts, mostly through the throwing of eggs. Hamish recalls a moment when a young, red-haired first-year approached him saying something along the lines of “we are going to fuck this city up.” Fortunately for George Street, no one can afford to throw eggs anymore.
As well as the apparent end of student rioting, Hamish has noticed a change to other areas of student life. “Loads of those orientation things are event controlled and ticketed, Hyde Street is completely different.”
There has also been a shift in student protest culture. In his own student days, the focus was primarily on protesting tuition fees and student loans. Today, the University’s budget cuts have taken centre stage. “I thought it was quite telling a few years ago when I broke a story about them introducing CCTV in the student quarter and students really didn’t give a fuck anymore. They’d go, ‘It's good that we don't get burgled’ so there was a political sort of change happening.”
When asked what his favourite thing to report on was, Hamish said anything spontaneous or funny: “I just like the light-hearted, funny jobs, to be honest.” His favourite story was back in 2016 about two girls who were trying to fundraise money (for themselves). They would hold sausage sizzles at their flat and sell combo deals. You could get a sausage, a drink, and a dart for $5. Dunedin just ain’t the same, I suppose. That would run you at least $15 today.
Hamish also recalled a time some students attempted to replicate the famous Spanish tomato-throwing festival known as 'La Tomatina' right on Leith Street. “A couple of kids turned up with cans of whole peeled tomatoes and threw it at each other and that was basically it,” he said.
He also enjoys writing about the squalor students live in. When asked which was the worst flat he had ever seen, his answer was, unsurprisingly, Death Star. “It was just fucking feral, it was the worst one I’ve ever seen.” Critic can confirm that yes, it was (and still is as far as we’re aware), feral.
Despite 15 years of seeing the best and worst of student life, Hamish seems to have a soft spot for students, the University, and its role in Dunedin life. “There’s a sector of the Dunedin population that doesn't realise that if we didn’t have students, we’d be Invercargill.”
While your time here may come and go, a few things will remain. Glass will litter the streets, Uni will increase your fees by the maximum allowable amount, and Hamish McNeilly will be there to cover it all.