Goronwy Maldwyn takes a look at the love and hate of alcohol on campus
Alcohol is necessary for both civilized and savage life. The Ancient Greeks and Persians saw in wine a means for transcendence, a slight intoxication recasting thought into new moulds for sublimation into philosophy and song: the barbarian Scythians, Teutons and Celts imbibed beer for religious ritual and war. Among later civilizations, progressive arrogance lead to the folly of prohibition in the United States, a mistake alien to the wisdom of all but one of humankind’s older civilizations.
Civilized or barbarous, all’s the same; alcohol finds itself lubricating the social lives of most human beings. And nowhere is that lubricant applied with more gusto than on the social lives of students; a trite observation perhaps, but none the less true for being so. British students in particular have a certain reputation as heavy drinkers, some of us more familiar with the stock behind the Union's bar than the contents of our undergraduate courses. Yet of late there seems to have been something of a sea change: an article in the Independent from March of last year and another by one David McGinley in the pages of Glasgow's own Qmunicate show there does exist a discontent among some students towards the boozier aspects of university life. As this may seem strange to the intransigent hedonists who make up the bulk of undergraduates at Glasgow University, it looks as if an analysis of this discontent is in order.
Perhaps we can explain it by taking a look at some of those archetypical student drinkers hunkered round the sodden tables at the Unions. An obvious starting point is the “lad”, whether we find him in his rugby incarnation or not. While the most omnivorous of the student drinkers, don’t be fooled into thinking he possesses any catholicity of taste: lager finds itself rushing down the same gullet as claret, alcopops and whisky, proving its hardiness to the other gullets in the room and thus bestowing on its owner some ill-defined and not at all attractive notion of macho-masculinity. Undiscriminating and seemingly insatiable, the “lad’s” appetite for the hard stuff can be safely depended upon to keep any student union’s finances in the black.
Not entirely disagreeable company, the “lad’s” barroom conversation is jovial and perhaps the freest on campus: seriousness is entirely anathema to him. But after a few Carlings have been necked, a half bottle of supermarket own-brand whisky polished off, and something blue and lurid insultingly called wine thrown in as well, the banter too often slips into a vulgar mire. Especially when women crop up in conversation, talk becomes a little less than gallant. McGinley et al perhaps have a point here, alcohol can fuel the kind vulgar laddishness that last week found an ugly manifestation in West End club Viper’s above-bar mock cinema board which read “Tits Out, Legs Open". That the boorish member of staff who put the sign up was presumably sober is besides the point; it was indicative of a troubling aspect of university drinking culture.
Another archetype is the seemingly ubiquitous “screecher”. Invariably female and the younger counterpart to the hen-do gorgons who can’t say “tequila” without shattering every glass in the pub, the screecher apparently believes joy isn’t joy unless it’s expressed at high volume. Though more constrained in her choice of poison than the lad, the screecher will have the same attitude to quantity; white wine (more often than not, Echo Falls), prosecco or something fruit based acting as amplifiers as well as intoxicants. Herd animals by nature, screechers will come to form a sort of centre of gravity in the bar by disturbing other groups with inexplicably frequent howls of laughter and the type of conversation we would perhaps rather they kept to themselves.
I fear the core of the screecher’s philosophy is the notion of “fun”: the notion that enjoyment must mean loud noises, loud colours and an intense insistence on being happy. We discover this idea not only in the shrieking but also in the above listed drink choices; evidence of a twisted sort of taste that sees the height of gastronomic pleasure in sugary sweetness and mistakes kitsch for elegance. For the discerning lady or gentleman drinker, fun must be dispensed with.
But yes, the above is written somewhat facetiously. “Screechers” and “lads” are generalisations that only broadly fit the reality of student night life. Despite this, they do correspond to a wider group of young drinkers (student or otherwise) who vomit, damage property, fight and are generally a bit of a nuisance for the police and health service most weekends. Enjoy binge drinking though we might (as I and most of my readers probably do), we no doubt recognise these facts as negatives; I wouldn’t begin to venture a remedial suggestion, but they at least lead us towards some sympathy with the teetotal position.
We might be right in understanding the reaction against student drinking culture as a reaction specifically to those more unpleasant aspects of binge drinking. When McGinley speaks as a “non-drinker” about an apparent alienation from student nightlife, we’d do well do keep that in mind. Even ignoring the unnerving language of politically correct “inclusivity” and victimisation he uses in conveying his argument, those uglier aspects of binge drinking still loom large whatever our own thoughts on the subject.
What we may see in the future is a straight wet/dry split, or rather a soaked/parched split between the binge drinkers and teetotallers. According to the Office for National Statistics in 2015, just as many 16 to 24 year olds identify as non-drinkers as are found in the 65+ category; anecdotal evidence would suggest a large portion of the rest of the 16-24ers are once or twice a week bingers. Drinking is a marvellous thing, as our betters in Ancient Greece and Persia discovered; I and others I know would testify to the wonderful influence of one or two drinks before a seminar on loosening the tongue. Wine is essential for the real enjoyment of good food - “A meal without wine is like a day without sunshine” as the French say - and without it, your efforts in the kitchen were all in vain. Many will testify to that after physical labour nothing will satisfy quite as much as a beer. But when our attitudes polarise around a tight-arsed teetotalism and an oblivion chasing intemperance, these truths start to be forgotten.