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Why the Tabloid Obsession With Nightclub Fights is So Damaging to UK Club Culture | US | Translation

If the last thing you read about a club was "MASSIVE BRAWL", you probably wouldn't care about fabric closing either.

It's a Thursday night in November. You are half-cut and smoking a cigarette for warmth. Or at least, you're trying to smoke a cigarette. Your fingers won't quite click the lighter hard enough. So you give up and slink back inside the nightclub you just slunk out of. Things don't feel right in there. Things are a little off. Above the high-street blare barging out of the speakers, above the metallic stomp of low-end reverberations shaking the sheet-metal floor of the bar, you pick up on the kind of noise that can only be accurately referred to as a "commotion." There's a charged energy snaking through the space too. Something's definitely amiss here.

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Then, in the most split of seconds, you clock exactly what's going on. Two men, big, burly bastards, are performing a fist-heavy tango, pirouetting around one another. Gloveless boxers hellbent on the kind of facial re-arrangement that only seems to make sense after six pints and a Slippery Nipple. They're stumbling towards you, a whirling dervish of screamed FUCK YOU's. You feel both nauseated and perversely excited.

This isn't a piece about how you or I feel about fights in nightclubs or fights outside nightclubs or fights near nightclubs, though it'll touch on that. This is about the way our country's press write about them, and how a tabloid obsession with violence fosters an environment in which violence is given the space to flourish.

At the start of the year, we ran an article here on THUMP that looked at how nightclubs, and nightclubbing, are reported in the mainstream press. The result was, as you'd expect, utterly bleak:

"If news websites are to be trusted, and if we can't trust them, who can we trust—then nothing positive has ever happened in any club ever. Nightclubs, we're told, are the sole preserve of pissheads, perverts and pratfalls. Nightclubs are where you go to get stabbed, or robbed, or generally fucked about. Nightclubs are wicked, evil places that deserve our eternal condemnation and damnation."

And it's fights that seem to be the main thing that happen in, around, and outside them. It might be celebrities scrapping next to whatever flash West End spot's en vogue that week, or it might be two provincial unknowns who gain the notoriety that comes with a few column inches after one of them forcibly rips the lungs out of the other's throat in an altercation in Altrincham. To understand why the tabloids love a nightclub fight so much, we've got to think (briefly) about fights, and violence, in more general terms.

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When you were at school and the rumours of a lunchtime bust-up between two hormonally-charged head-honchos began to surface and circulate, how did you feel deep inside? Was it an otherwise un-experienced blend of rancidly macho anticipation and deep-rooted dread? Probably. Or something like that anyway. Because the prospect of violence—in some environments, in some contexts, in some situations—can be unpleasantly exciting. It can be disquietingly thrilling. It can provide some unattractively primal kind of conclusion.

The actual act of violence is, in most instances, less appealing. It's a let down, a series of dull thuds and nosebleeds. The build-up—the whispers, the scurries to secure a front row seat, the side-taking and social-realignment pacts—is inherently more interesting than any punch, kick or headbutt could ever be.

And it's that disparity, between the imagined and the real, that has us hooked on violence as a means of deriving both entertainment and pleasure. When we watch a boxing match, or sit down with a bag of crisps and Die Hard, we're using violence in a fantastical, escapist way. And so are the tabloids.

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The tabloid press, obviously, is fuelled by the kind of self-serving sensationalism that sees it mine the depths of depravity for money. In an environment in which hacking the voicemail of a murdered teenager is considered fair game, it shouldn't be surprising that the sight of soap stars or reality TV remnants rolling about in the gutter causes so much excitement for the red top word-wranglers. Fights of any kind, like sex of any shade, are guaranteed unit-shifters. Being pathetic, puerile, and prurient beings we're predisposed to spend our cash and give our clicks to that which titillates. And, like it or not, the nightclub fight is a titillating thing.

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What's truly fascinating about this kind of coverage—coverage which, by its very nature is doomed to content itself with a few formulaic narratives—and tabloid reportage at large, is the incredibly precise, incredibly idiosyncratic use of language. This is a world in which celebrities are labelled "love rats" and get caught "bonking" their way through "seedy trysts" with "buxom babes". It is a simple place, and one where fights have lexically transmuted into "scraps" or "brawls". Sometimes those scraps get upgraded and notated as a "fracas"—a word you'll rarely come across in the rest of the written world, which is a shame because "fracas" lends your average Saturday night knockabout between two rugby players from Leigh over a spilt Sambuca an air of sophistication and dignity that it'd usually be denied.

The average story—as seen here, or here, or here, or here—involves boozed-up flare-ups or drug-fuelled moments of madness, usually caught on camera by distressed punters. Reality starlets come to blows with jealous ex-lovers over hunky new beaus, and worse for wear footy aces find themselves enjoying crafty cigarettes during a night on the tiles. This is language as nothing but cliche, and as funny as that can be—denying the linguistic excellence of beautifully blunt headlines like "Michelle Keegan in club brawl terror: TV beauty saved from 3am birthday bust-up" or "SHOCK VID: Vicious club brawl erupts with dozens of boozed-up lads throwing punches" would be churlish beyond belief—it comes at a price. And that price is making violent incidents in nightclubs seem funny. Which, obviously, they aren't. Because outside of Hans Moleman getting hit by a football in the groin or the fight John Prescott had with the egg-throwing, mullet-sporting Welshman all those years ago, violence is never funny.

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The idea of a nightclub as a space of unity and social cohesion, a site of acceptance and communality, is one that's both incredibly seductive and somewhat…well, mythical. You know this, I know this, we all know this. And it's things like the fact that fights, brawls, and scraps take place with an alarming regularity that means it's difficult to swallow the PLUR pill without being a bit sick in your own mouth. And it's that that makes this tabloid fixation on TOWIE stars scratching each other's eyes out in the back room of the Sugar Hut more than just page-filling and click-generating.

What it says, over and over again, is that nightclubs are horrible, depraved, violent spaces—that they are debauched, debased and downright dangerous. What it says, is that in a time in which the threat to nightlife's greater than ever—sorry to bring it up again, everyone—nightclubs aren't worth saving. Because all that goes on inside them is drug taking, extra-marital fucking, and at the end of the night, a massive ruck.

And if that's the narrative you're being sold, the one you're consuming alongside your breakfast tea or late-afternoon coffee, then you're probably not going to be too upset when the UK's last club shuts its doors for the final time. After all, who wants to risk getting stuck in the middle of a boozy 3 AM bundle with a bouncer?

In fact, it's a reason to boycott The Sun. Not that you needed another.

Josh is on Twitter