Rethinking Drinking

JACK RIVLIN and GEORGE MARANGOS-GILKS question our drinking culutre.

“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.” Look at your local Wetherspoons or taxi rank at 3 o’ clock on a Saturday morning, and you will see this Orwellian metaphor in action. You probably will see someone’s face being kicked in by a bald, right-wing soldier who wants nothing more than to give them a taste of the Helmund Province. But you will also see hundreds of Britons enjoying their Friday ‘freedom’ – splurging their wages on cheap drinks so they can get off their faces. And good luck to them, I say. Whether or not I get battered and wake up feeling like I’ve just had chemotherapy on a grey Sunday morning is my choice. The problem, though, is that it’s not really a choice any more.

Tell someone that they are an addict and you can expect the usual ‘it’s only an addiction when it’s stopping me living my life.’ Fine. But have you ever considered that this might be because alcohol is your life? I don’t mean that you wake up every evening and drink last night’s Glen Morangie like a redundant Father Christmas. Rather, we can’t socialise without alcohol. I’m not addicted to alcohol. The only problem is I can’t stop drinking it, and neither can you. We may not be physically dependent, but booze has become the way we interact, it is the social glue which binds us.

But who can blame Britain? Your average citizen works a 40 hour week in a soul-sapping job to earn enough money to live. And why not spend the rest on yourself, why not work so that for two nights a week, you can forget how devoid of meaning your life is? But Cambridge students aren’t average citizens. Cambridge students are among the brightest people in the world and yet our desire to put free time to useless ends is quite astounding. In our free time, we drink to escape the pressures of work. But drinking in Cambridge has been rationalized to the extent that it’s not even about escaping any more.

Don’t get me wrong, I love getting off my face. But in Cambridge, drinking is not a means of achieving escape; it is a symbol of sociability. Getting drunk is what we do when we go out, it’s the medium through which we socialize and enjoy ourselves. We can’t meet people unless we are drunk, we can’t shag people unless we are drunk, we can’t really be ourselves unless we are drunk. It follows that the more pissed we were, the more fun we had. Equally, the individual who can drink the most, must be the most fun and socially desirable.

But where is the fun when it’s every day, always the same? When you can’t remember what happened last night, and you don’t even know the people you vomit with every evening, are you really doing it for yourself anymore? Aldous Huxley got it right: “How desperately bored, in spite of their grim determination to have a Good Time, the majority of pleasure-seekers really are.” There is a false association between alcohol and having a good time. Although being drunk is often fun, it is not a guarantee of enjoyment. Boozing is a ritual that we complete in order to socialize. Alcohol lowers our inhibitions, making it easier to meet people and be the outrageous character that everyone loves. The problem is that booze has taken on a significance of its own so the very act of drinking in itself gives people licence to act in an outgoing and uninhibited way, above and beyond the actual physical effects of the drug. Alcohol is not only a way to enjoy yourself; it’s a way to tell others you’re enjoying yourself.

More obviously, drinking is becoming the main way of demonstrating social worth, and we are drinking because we have to. There is nothing intrinsically cool about drinking, anyone can do it, but everyone considers it a mark of social importance. We all love showing how quickly we can down a pint, and we all love talking about how much of a dick we were last night. But in reality, being able to drink a lot says more about your Body Mass Index than your social skills.

Drinking societies act as vehicles for swaps and parties with other societies and therefore are a useful way of meeting people, but also as a shortcut to indicate social worth. Drinking societies must rank as one of the least rebellious methods of juvenile organization since the Hitler youth. They wear uniform, they have strict rules and they never get in trouble. The social esteem of drinking societies is entirely dependent on the way they are perceived by other students, from their friends to people who probably don’t know who they are. That their image is derived from the opinions of others goes a long way to explaining why individuals feel the need to join.

While these societies serve many useful functions, the way in which they are revered, and the mixture of arse-licking and authoritarian interaction that occurs both within and between them, suggests that it’s the angry soldier at the taxi rank who should be getting the MA (cantab.). Try the following exercise when you next go home: propose to your friends that you now all wear a uniform when socializing, be punished for failing to drink, and adopt secret rules and nicknames. Or, more pointedly, try doing the same but the criterion for membership is not drinking, but how much you can eat, sleep, or perform any other biological function. Drinking societies are the zenith of Cambridge’s alcoholic social world.

But it’s not our fault. The world we live in is so devoid of meaning and identity, people have little else to do. And this is equally true of Cambridge. In the bubble of 8 week terms where achieving a 2:2 merits a disciplinary meeting, it’s hardly surprising that all Cantabrigians want to do is escape it all. Just as the state’s attempts to financially penalise us for choosing to drink arouse drunken responses, so too does the insistence of University and college authorities to restrict adult students’ means of exercising a legal right. Guidelines daily amounts and advertising campaigns miss the point that this culture runs far deeper than a lack of awareness.

“Drink but don’t get drunk” is a pointless contradiction. There’s no point in drinking if you’re not going to enjoy the effects. But alcohol isn’t freedom when it’s this systematic. We are a class of academic machines, and we have applied our ruthlessly rational working style to the way we relax and socialize. In pursuit of animalistic abandon, we have built a zoo. Booze allows us to escape the everyday monotony of social inhibitions and bank balances, but it also subdues and conceals our personality. Drinking should never be an end in itself, it should always be secondary to the actual social occasion. It can destroy sensations we don’t want to experience, but it can never create anything.