Who’s afraid of the big, bad club?

“Oxford, home of lost causes, and forsaken beliefs and unpopular names and impossible loyalties.” Thus surmised Victorian social theorist Matthew Arnold. For Arnold, just as red is to the rose and water is to the sea, drinking clubs are to Oxford. This week, C+ investigates the clandestine world of the Oxford society scene. Whole forests have been felled for this subject, but few accounts actually capture just how pervasive these organisations are at our university. Often, these organisations are depicted as the retreat of a handful of over-privileged, public school hedonists. You’d have to be living in a pig’s head not to have heard the Ashcroft/ Oakeshott allegations concerning the Prime Minister’s time at Oxford. Is it time we recognised that these organisations are not only widespread, but enjoy membership from a substantial minority of the student body? Let’s re-evaluate the mixed bag that is club land.

We actually know relatively little about these dining societies. A January 2014 Freedom of Information Request sent to all colleges and PPHs suggested general ignorance of the behalf of many colleges towards drinking societies. Of the sixteen responses received from colleges and PPHs, all stated that from information available no disciplinary action had been taken against drinking societies or their activities. Estimates range for the total number; Tatler reckoned there were 48 back in September 2014, but in the past Cherwell has put the tally at 28. The likelihood is that the number far exceeds both estimates, most colleges boasting two or three active organisations for men and women. Onewell informed member of the Gridiron Club suggests there are at least a thousand students across the university involved in similar organisations, probably more.

But as one drinking club president told Cherwell, “Those that are reported on probably deserve the bad press they receive, but as with anything, there are numerous societies that don’t behave appallingly, but of course this isn’t newsworthy, so isn’t reported. People tend to be mainly aware of raucous, infamous men-only societies, and take this to represent drinking societies as a whole.” 

Unfortunately for these clubs, when controversy comes calling it tends to hit hard. The Abbotts, an all male, black tie establishment at the innocuous Corpus Christi, allegedly tore down LGBT flags from their JCR a year ago, whilst the Black Cygnets of St Hugh’s played with fi re in Michaelmas 2013 by planning a ‘fox hunt’ event culminating at Wahoo. Eight national and international papers picked up the story, including the Telegraph and the Huffi ngton Post

Unpopular names are characteristic of these organisations. From the Sir Henry Pelham Gentleman’s Sporting Society to the Viceroys (as in, colonial viceroys) to L’Ancien Regime at Merton. The monikers of these groups seem to have tumbled out of a tasteless Victorian novel.

Broadly, drinking clubs fall into two categories; university and college. At the university level there are three main organisations; the Bullingdon, Piers Gaveston and the Assassins. Perhaps the most infamous university dining club in the world, the Bullingdon now faces something of a membership crisis. The former headmaster of Eton is known to have personally instructed Old Etonians not to join, depriving the Buller of its most fertile recruiting ground. On the other hand Piers Gaveston, seems to be fl ourishing. Founded in 1977, much like the Merton time ceremony, it seems to have hoodwinked its way into Oxford antiquity.

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Certainly the least well known of three, but undoubtedly the most fun, is the Assassins. These would-be killers are tasked with ‘murdering’ certain targets in bizarre and imaginative ways. Giant squishy fridges, rubber ducks and snuff boxes have all been accessories

But to find the ugly underbelly of Oxford dining life you have to move down to the college level. Christ Church perhaps leads the herd. They not only boast the Cardinals (see right), but also the Loder, which collectively refuses to drink out of anything but 18th-century silverware. How these people expect to survive in the real world is anyone’s guess. If shiny receptacles are not for you, House bar still hosts the ‘Beer Verge’ where members must down five pints of beer then five shots of tequila. Then again, if athletic endeavouris more your thing Christ Church’s Flowers and Fairies ties prospectivecandidates to an existing member for a drinking session. Failure to keep up brings retribution: more drinking. Anyone still slightly sober by this stage has to run laps aroundthe House’s first quad, removing a garment at each corner. For good measure there’s also the Mercurials,a club whose purpose seems to be retrieving bottles from a pond. And this is without even mentioning the Alices, Christ Church’s notoriously sophisticated women’s fine dining society.

Go down Broad Street and you’ll find the headquarters of the Claret Club at Trinity. Not one to shy away from notoriety, the club organised a dinner last term in college with their biological (as opposed to college) fathers. This supposedly culminated with the fathers and sons heading out to PT where one generous parent allegedely placed their credit card behind the bar, and announced, like a scene from The Riot Club, “We are going to spend a fuck load of money.”

Of briefer infamy were the Penguins of Hertford. Set up in 2009, their elaborate initiation ceremonies reputedly involved swimming in the Cherwell, dancing around Oxford in the nude smeared with goose fat, and finally, eating raw squid. The Penguins truly was a home of lost causes; Hertford College swiftly shut it down. 

Celebrity involvement is never far afield either. Strip club owner Peter Stringfellow supposedly fronted the King Charles Club, an allmale drinking society now banned from St John’s; Ed Balls founded the Steamers of Keble and a photo of the former Labour MP surfaced of him in Nazi uniform whilst attending one the club’s 1987 soirées. And it is curious that in the press furore surrounding the Prime Minister and Piers Gaveston, it has yet to come to light that a certain Cameron, D. was president of the Gridiron Club in 1987 as well.

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The reality is that Oxford fine dining covers an enormous spectrum of the good, the bad and the very, very ugly. Far from the retreat of a tiny student elite they remain a mainstay of the Oxford social scene. Their names may be dated, but forsaken they are not, at least yet, despite Arnold’s gloomy prediction.

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Case Study: The Gridiron Club

It’s not all bestiality, criminal damage and drug orgies

You will probably not have heard of the Gridiron Club, or even the Grid as it is more commonly called. The main reason for this is that the Grid is unlike the infamous Bullingdon or the abruptly well-known Piers Gaveston. It doesn’t make good Daily Mail headlines because it isn’t outrageous or misogynistic (beyond its all-male membership requirement, that is). Its main claim to current fame is that David Cameron was President of the club in 1987-8.The club was founded in 1884 as a beefsteak club, open to male members of the University of Oxford. Initially, membership was limited to those who had come up from public schools but that is no longer the case. Beefsteak clubs became popular in the 18th century, with the fi rst opening its doors around 1705. However, this club didn’t last long and the first successful example was The Sublime Society of Beef Steaks which was founded three decades later.

Oxford’s Gridiron is not atypical in using the traditional meat grilling gridiron as their symbol and namesake. The beefsteak was seized upon as a motif, as it conveyed Whiggish ideas of liberty, prosperity and patriotism. Today’s Grid has its headquarters above the Pizza Express in the Golden Cross, in an elegant Grade II-listed building first recorded   in 1187.

It is a modernising society that is quick to dismiss rumours of red-trouser dress codes and misogynistic practices. The fact that the principal rumour concerned coloured trousers in itself telling; the Grid is a world far removed from pigs and drugs.

In December 2014, the society considered a motion to admit female members. The motion was supported, with 22 voting for it. However, since 13 voted against, the motion failed to pass the two-thirds majority threshold. Thus, the Grid is an example of the less offensive end of the drinking society scale, where the intention is primarily not to shock or disturb.