Thursday, 12 November 2009

Whence came they?

Carnage UK is a company that organises pub crawls for students. These events can be huge, involving over a thousand participants; they have also become very controversial.

However, I think this development should be welcomed by the concerned. It's a sign of binge-drinking becoming more controlled, more organised, more respectable, more middle-class, and shorn of its brawling. Testament to this is the company's name: 'carnage' - with a strong, snorting stress on the first syllable - was a description used solely by public school boys and girls when I used to be a binge-drinker. Usually preceded by 'absolute!'.

This was inevitable, really, as binge drinking only became an issue once it began to be noticed by the more respectable sort. On the back of a couple of random incidents of violence, the media decided to make it a spectacle, along with its companion activity, fighting. But it's now being sanitised and soon the craze will abate.

Craze is probably the right word. The binge-drinking craze has been rather like the witch-craze. Following the Reformation, young men for the first time became literate, read the Bible, began to understand it for themselves and sought to apply its literal truths. When they then turned around to look at their villages, wearing their new educated spectacles, what did they see? They saw all the old superstitious practices, holdovers from paganism, that had always been there. But they saw them differently - as a bit suspect and even, well, actually a bit satanic. Before long, witches were being 'discovered' and faggots were being stacked.

Similarly, in our own society more and more people have become middle-class and have adopted middle-class attitudes to things like public drunkenness and street fighting. These things, once accepted as part of the rough and tumble to be expected from young males, now look alien and even shocking to the middle-class majority.

They also seem closer to home as greater social equality, the idea of our living in a democracy of equals, suggests that middle-class attitudes and rough plebeian practices should share a common space. Rather than dismissing this sort of bad behaviour as simply what the lower sort get up to, the middle-class now interprets it as 'our' problem, that of society as a whole (which actually means, the middle-class).

So there's more sensitivity to bad behaviour and more chance that it will be taken as a challenge to social norms. All it takes to make these attitudes flare up into shock and moral panic is for TV and the newspapers to relate what's been going on. And when I say 'going on' I mean, pretty much, 'going on for ever'.

There's lots of evidence that those market places, town squares, village greens, and city plazas where young people congregate late on weekend nights have always been arenas for drunkenness and fighting. Certainly, in my youth, Saturday nights wouldn't have been Saturday nights without a massive drunken punch-up in the town's market place. In the youth of my parents, there'd similarly always be a punch-up to round off the evening in the dance hall of their Valleys village.

There's plenty of evidence from literature that binge drinking and binge fighting have been around at least as long as literature itself. Examples are legion: just to take a couple of books I've read in the course of this year, both of which report on what the lower orders were up to.

In Jack London's People of the Abyss, the poor of the East End get drunk whenever they can afford to. The women he sees on a nighttime walk down Commercial Street
...held carouse in every boozing ken, slatternly, unkempt, bleary-eyed, and tousled, leering and gibbering, overspilling with foulness and corruption, and, gone in debauch, sprawling across benches and bars, unspeakably repulsive, fearful to look upon.

The men are described as terrifyingly threatening 'gorillas'. George Borrow in Wild Wales is warned off walking after dark on a Saturday night because of the dangers presented by drunken, fighting miners. I know I could dig up many more additional examples.

Interestingly, in looking up the quotation above from People of the Abyss, I came across this observation:
The dear soft people of the golden theatres and wonder-mansions of the West End do not see these [dissolute] creatures, do not dream that they exist. But they are here, alive, very much alive in their jungle. And woe the day, when England is fighting in her last trench, and her able-bodied men are on the firing-line! For on that day they will crawl out of their dens and lairs, and the people of the West End will see them, as the dear soft aristocrats of Feudal France saw them and asked one another, `Whence came they?' `Are they men?'

Of course, there was no British Revolution which brought these two worlds together (a lack that would have almost certainly disappointed Jack London). But come together they nevertheless did, through the narrowing of the gap between classes produced by rising living standards and the accompanying dissemination of middle class values. Now, our predominantly bourgeois society asks, in the words of London's 'dear soft people': "Whence came they?" "Are they men?"

And now the practice of binge-drinking is being co-opted, it's being gentrified, the violence marginalised. It's now all going to be good naughty fun. Yes, it may encourage some coarsening in our middle-class young. But isn't this a small price to pay to make binge drinking as non-violent as that other former working-class excuse for a great punch-up, the football match?


worm said...

love the photo of the two cliched public school kids having a wrestle. They look like the kind of people I have spent my whole life trying to avoid.

How times have changed - even 'well educated' people just want to get pissed in the local Ritzy - when I was a teenager we wouldn't have been seen dead in a place like that, it was all about being 'underground' and going to the most obscure clubs as possible.

Anyway, lets hope they all choke to death on their own vomit.

Sophie King said...

People actually pay Carnage to organise a pub crawl? How utterly bizarre. Is this the ultimate manifestation of 'dumbing down' - students so thick they can't work out how to get pissed for themselves?

Gaw said...

Worm and Sophie: There's something a bit peculiar going on here. I've had a stab at explaining it but there could be better explanations. Tyler Cowen's blog Marginal Revolution has a regular feature Markets in Everything and that could be a good one.

It is pretty pathetic.

Anonymous said...

Nothing peculiar at all. Just look around and you will see we are demanding more and more organization and expertise for both work and pleasure. Life is becoming one big package tour. In fact, I'm thinking of giving up the day job to offer my services as a life coach specializing in excess and dissoluteness.

Gaw said...

But Peter, would you make it through the regulation and the vetting? At the very least you'd be databased.

Susan said...

Suggestion - compulsory national service - involving lots of combat training. Could be the solution to youth unemployment, satisfy the desire for a good punch up and they'll be in bed by 10 o'clock, too tired to go out to the pub...

Gaw said...

Susan, did you see Bad Boys Army on ITV a few years ago? The results were on balance very good. But I'm sure it would be ruinously expensive outside the bounds of reality tv.