Drinking the town dry


There’s no accounting for taste. People’s personal preferences are so random that finding another person with the same opinions as yourself is impossible. Marmite is deliberately advertised with the line “you either love it or hate and the same could be said of several other things – David Gray, for example, or perhaps Basingtoke. Alcohol, however, is one thing that tends to unite people’s opinions. All across the world, from the furthest stretches of Siberia to the most isolated villages of rural Swaziland, it’s a pretty safe bet that you’ll be able to some kind of alcoholic beverage strip away all those annoying inhibitions and enable yourself to dance a twat, crack crappy jokes, and pass out in gutters. Hurrah. It is precisely this inhibition-destroying quality makes alcohol so popular at universities, where from the first day of Fresher’s Week to the final post-finals fling people are encouraged to drink too much and behave like fools. Some people, however, take this to extremes. They positively worship booze, creating entire clubs and societies with the sole aim of getting shit-faced as severely and regularly as humanly possible. These people are pioneers, ladies and gentlemen, boldly going where no liver would be advised to go. They are also insane. As you might imagine, Oxford is not without its fair share of these societies. To gain entrance to the Christchurch-based “Flowers and Fairies” society, for example, candidates are tied to an existing member of the society and have to match their counterpart drink for drink all the way through a particularly heavy session. A penalty system applies with punishable offences for going to the toilet, making a phone call, or drinking too slowly. The penalty, of course, is more booze. After this, any recruits who are still standing dash round the quad, discarding a garment at each corner, and the rest is history. There are other, supposedly more up-market societies in Oxford, relics of the Victorian age, likely to behave just as badly, only in slightly pricier venues. The Phoenix, made up of Brasenose undergrads, wear brown tailcoats and throw riotous garden parties in the summer, while also enjoying a termly dinner with a silver phoenix, known as “Our Old Friend” sitting in the 13th seat at the table, hinting at former satanic practices perhaps. There is the Bullingdon Club, for Oxford’s wealthiest boys, who can occasionally be seen staggering down Broad Street in their royal blue and yellow tailcoats tailored personally at Ede & Ravenscroft, after a heavy session at the King’s Arms. In fact, photos of past members in their finery can be seen in the back room of that very pub. Another university-wide society, the Stoics, again wearing old-fashioned tailcoats, initiates new members by forcing them to down a revolting concoction of liqueur from a silver horn in the graveyard of St. Mary’s, the University Church, in Radcliffe Square. Presumably candidates are assessed on their ability to hold the vile mixture in their gut. Less showy but similarly messy are the Assassins, one of Oxford’s more mysterious clubs, who along with the infamous Piers Gaveston society, hold annual parties at unknown destinations, fuelled by more than just alcohol. None of these groups are likely to be registered with the University Proctors, and often the college based societies are actually banned from the premises, as in the case of the St. John’s King Charles Club, which along with the Phoenix claims to be Oxford University’s oldest dining club. The “Bugger Ruggers” society at Teddy Hall dispenses with such elaborate selection procedures, choosing instead to elect three (female) recruits from each fresher year and take them on a twice-yearly bender round Oxford’s various drinking establishments, clad – there had to be a catch – in fancy dress. So the next time you see a bunch of pissed birds dressed up as cartoon characters rolling down the High Street, you know who to blame. As grueling initiations go, though, it would be hard to beat that imposed by the “Nondescripts” society at Christchurch. Prospective members are first taken to the Bear, where they are “encouraged” to drink a minimum of five pints in an hour. The next stop is Ma Belle, where they enjoy a huge meal accompanied by a compulsory two bottles of wine each. For some quiet post-dining rest, candidates are then taken to the Tom quad for the infamous “Quad Dash” in which they all race round the (not inconsiderable) circumference of the quad, performing twenty exercises (press-ups, sit-ups etc) and downing a can of beer at each corner. To cap off an enjoyable and relaxing evening, each person then necks a football boot’s worth of port. A Blues rower actually turned up for training the morning after carrying out this particularly savage ritual, which demonstrates admirable dedication, if not good sense. The Nondescripts – described as a “sports, dining and drinking society” – were actually banned for five years in the late 1980s after someone in authority took issue with the dubious sounding “Raindance” ritual, the details of which, I understand, “might not look good in print”. The Oxford-based societies, then, seem to be in rude health, with several particularly hideous traditions being enthusiastically upheld year after year by some extremely dedicated and single- minded devotees. But – although it pains me slightly to praise a Cambridge society over its Oxford counterparts – an honourable mention must go to the Wyverns society of Magdalene College, Cambridge. To gain entrance to this prestigious society, fresh-faced recruits are force-fed enough alcohol to get them in the mood and then sit down to a 20 course dinner. This sounds innocuous enough, until you see the menu: one course, for example, is a tin of dog food, another is a live goldfish, and the candidates are asked to provide another course by vomiting into a bucket and then eating the results. So there you have it – by all means join one of these clubs or societies. But you would be well advised to take out health insurance first. And should you wake up next to some particularly ugly stranger, with a suspicious taste of Pedigree Chum at the back of your throat, don’t say you haven’t been warned…
ARCHIVE: 0th Week MT2003 


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