When the Fawn saw the selfies Boy had taken in the aftermath of his college football club’s initiation ceremony, first she burst into tears, then she was spittingly furious, then she finally settled into a state of gnawing anxiety and despair.
‘There’s a lesson there, son,’ I told him. ‘And I hope you’ve marked it well. There are some things you simply do not share with your mother on the family WhatsApp group.’
I hated having to say this because we’re one of those families that likes to be open about stuff. If my kids are ever going to end up doing drugs, say, I’d rather they did so after some expert advice from their dad — not guiltily and in secret at some scuzzy dealer’s dive. But still there are occasions when discretion is the better course — and that photo was definitely one of them.
It showed Boy, eyes dull and skin all blotchy from the previous night’s excess, his once lovely blond hair looking as if it had been attacked by a drunken ape wielding a barber’s electric razor. (These haircuts are known as ‘shlids’ — short for ‘shit lids’.) ‘Look, it could have been so much worse…’ he pleaded.
‘I get that totally. Just don’t tell your mother or it’ll only upset her more,’ I replied.
The Fawn is not the only one. Right now across the land parents with boys who’ve just started at uni, mums especially, are agitating about the heartbreaking story of poor Ed Farmer, the sweet 20-year-old lad who died of a cardiac arrest from alcohol poisoning after an initiation ceremony bar crawl in his first term at Newcastle University.
‘There but for the grace of God goes my boy,’ many of them will be thinking. And up to a point they are right to be worried, because these drinking rituals are rife. I doubt there’s a university anywhere in Britain where it isn’t de rigueur for male undergraduates to spend their first weeks downing endless pints and shots, abasing themselves in humiliating rituals (Ed Farmer’s culminated in having to drink from a pig’s head), performing dangerous stunts — and concluding their evening in a pool of vomit.
My suspicion is that it has got considerably more widespread than it was in my day. But that could be just my memory playing tricks, because now I think about it, my own first-year excess was pretty epic. For the inaugural (and only) dinner of the Christ Church Slurred Speech Society, we drank the following per head: a half bottle of champagne, a bottle of red, a bottle of white, half a bottle of port. At the Beer Vedge, which met every Monday night, we had to down five pints in the college buttery, followed by five tequila slammers in George’s Wine Bar.
What we didn’t generally do, though, were these formal initiations. Also, back in the day, I think it was mainly rugger buggers, oarsmen and dissolute public schoolies pathetically trying to relive Brideshead Revisited who engaged in these vile antics, whereas now they have become ubiquitous.
Why oh why do our darling boys do these things? Partly, I think, it’s an excuse to get away from girls, who, as I mentioned last time, are becoming increasingly troublesome and censorious and politically correct. Mainly, though, it’s because they are male. When you’re of an age to go to university, your body is primed for war. Sure, these days you’re less likely to find yourself on a raid to steal the neighbouring tribe’s women and cattle, or to invade the rival baron’s castle,
or do your bit in the trenches. But regardless of how peaceful our culture becomes, those primal instincts will always remain there just beneath the surface.
At college these urges are usually channelled into drinking or sport, which is of course a playful form of combat. As with soldiers off to war, the team’s esprit de corps is key to their success. That’s why these bonding initiations are so important: they’re at once a shared rite of passage and a test of courage, endurance and self-sacrifice by which you demonstrate to your comrades that you are a reliable member of the brotherhood.
And it is, it should be stressed, a voluntary process. Many anxious mums, I’m sure, imagine that their sweet, innocent boys are corrupted and compelled to do these things by bullying second years. No. Boys do it because they desperately wish to belong and because they wish to live up to the standards set by previous generations.
‘But do you have any idea just what horrible things they’re expected to do?’ critics of these rituals are wont to ask in anguished newspaper articles. Duh. That’s the whole point. If there wasn’t a degree of apprehension beforehand and a considerable amount of suffering during and after, it wouldn’t be an ordeal, would it?
This is why I think attempts by universities to clamp down on these activities are doomed to flounder. Short of locking them up in cells at night, it’s hard to think how you can stop boys behaving like boys. You’d be fighting against hundreds of thousands of years of ingrained instinct. Whether it’s 11-year-old Papuan New Guinea boys scarring their skin so that they resemble crocodiles, or choristers at my old prep school having to leap off a high place into an ankle-twisting rockery, or Bullingdon boys ritually trashing a restaurant, or Durham undergrads diving headfirst through the fork in a tree trunk, it’s just chaps giving vent to their inner berserk warrior — and proving themselves worthy of the tribe.