Tales of the City: Students dig deep for digs

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It's late August, and the papers are full of photos of teenage girls waving their A-level results and embracing each other with coltish shrieks at the thought of going to university.

It's late August, and the papers are full of photos of teenage girls waving their A-level results and embracing each other with coltish shrieks at the thought of going to university. Three notional years of blissful indolence stretch before them, shacked up in chick-lit domesticity with their madcap chums, doing tiny trace-elements of academic study on Virginia Woolf or the Diet of Worms, and staying up all night discussing aesthetic sublimity in their large, immaculately fashionable Friends-style kitchen-cum-living-room...

Well, good luck to the shrieking huggers in the UCAS supplements, but life will get a little more difficult than they think. Not the studying, but the finding halfway decent accommodation. I've just returned, reeling slightly, from a trip to Ireland, where the shops are full of "Back to School" sales of white blouses, name-tapes and protractors, and the streets are full of a shambling troupe of about-to-be-undergraduates, looking for somewhere to live.

Their problem is simple and tripartite. In County Galway (the fastest growing conurbation in Europe), all student-age teens want to go to Galway University because it's familiar territory, their own, home-grown Shangri-La. They don't suffer from that English compulsion to study as far away as possible from the family hearth.

So the families of several thousand new students are busily pulling strings with anyone they know in the building or landlord trades to find accommodation in the same few square miles. Lastly, Galway city has, in recent years, been built up at an alarming rate by property developers who know they can ask fancy prices for student flats: the students are a captive audience of innocents, whose only alternative prospect is living at home with their parents and not copping a shag until they graduate.

Hence the atmosphere of tension that hangs over Eyre Square. At 2pm on Wednesdays, the Galway Advertiser, a local freesheet, is published. It carries pages of crucial classified ads for flat rentals. Twenty minutes before the paper comes out, the canny management photocopies the accommodation classifieds and flogs them, at €2 a pop, to students who've been standing in a mile-long queue since 9am.

There follows a frenzied, city-wide race, involving bicycles and mobile phones, as the remaining apartments are snapped up. My nephew was one of the would-be renters; he looked on, dumbfounded, as a sharky landlord explained he was looking for €800 a month for each student in a shared bedroom (the two single beds shoved appetisingly side by side) in an apartment the size of a Connex Rail WC.

You think that's exploitative? Try this. One developer has almost finished constructing half-a-dozen new student flats in town, and is charging a deposit to people to inspect them. Honestly.

The teenager's parents have to fill in a booking form, provide a passport photo of their offspring, and hand over €680, simply for the joy of looking at the chap's incomplete building works. And if the kid is then offered a room, but turns it down, the builder can, and will, withhold €100 for "administrative charges". Even the Borgia family, at their poison-ring worst, never thought of charging 18-year-olds £66 for looking at a grotty, half-finished balsa-wood apartment and saying "No thanks".

The Galway experience is not one that will be shared by most British A-level undergraduates; but it's a nasty index of what will happen when huge numbers of students head for the same campus in a higher-education free market, and "canny" (if that's the word) landlords start turning into little Rachmans.

A Rose-tinted view of girls

I ran into the Roses of Tralee at dinner last week. You must know about the Rose of Tralee festival. It's been going since 1959, and is a kind of PC beauty contest, in which the girls aren't judged on looks alone, but on "charm", "personality", ability to sing, dance, make huge fry-ups and other Hibernian virtues. Girls from deracinated Irish families all over the world compete, so among the ladies wearing sashes at dinner could be found a Miss Darwin, a Miss New York and a blonde, brown-eyed Miss Dubai called Louise.

Every year, the 28 babes are ferried around Ireland, accompanied by a score of specially chosen, perspiring male "escorts" (who are supposed to act as minders rather than swains), and after a royal progress of dinners, photo-ops and sponsorial thrashes, they all end up in Co Kerry where the winner is chosen at the climax of a Mardi Gras-style parade.

Watching the girls being wined, dined and shown off at a swanky hotel in Portumna, you could detect traces of the classic, hair-tossing, irrepressible Irish colleen of popular mytho- logy among them; but, as a local lothario explained to me, what traditionally made the Roses special was the stipulation that the winner should have "good character and personal qualities" - that is, they should be virgins. I wasn't completely convinced that all the 28 young women bore much resemblance to the driven snow (Miss San Francisco, in partic-ular, could not easily be confused with Snow White), but there were lots of men at dinner who gazed at them as if inspecting some kind of unworldly woodland phenomenon, like a unicorn.

I watched one chap in the hotel bar, as he worked his way towards where the Rose of England, a pretty girl called Angela Crowley, was holding court with some beefy admirers. As she finished a story, to general laughter, the man did something extraordinary - perhaps under the impression it was how you are supposed to treat virgins, he patted her on the head three times, quite hard. " Don't do that," snapped the Rose of England, crossly. "I'm not a feckin' dog."

As the poor man discovered, even the pinkest and prettiest of Roses comes at the end of a long line of thorns.