Photos by Jake Lewis
The British "freshers" week experience is now such a well-defined ritual that it's almost impossible to talk about it without veering into cliche. Here's an explainer for Americans: You wear a shit T-shirt, drink yourself just shy of a stomach pump, and sleep with anyone. For those who enjoy loud noises and organized fun, it’s a hoot. For those who don’t, it’s not.
That said, my freshers week was five years ago now, and since then a lot has changed in the world of higher education. Fees have blown up to £9,000 ($15,000) per year from the £3,000 ($5,000) I’ve just started paying back and universities are taking advantage of this by squeezing in record numbers of students. Even if the rituals are the same, I wondered, are the students themselves any different?
I decided to go and take a look for myself, choosing as my case study a King’s College London event that I attended when I first started there half a decade ago. The event in question? A four-legged "pajama pub crawl." Nothing gets you ready for three years of reading Jacques Lacan like being publicly bound to another humiliated teenager as rugby players feed you Jägerbombs.
The crawl started at the uni halls (dorms, for Americans), which we couldn’t get into. So Jake the photographer and I sat around until we saw a fleet of drunken 18-year-olds come sailing down Borough High Street. We joined in at the back of the group, where a few eyebrows were raised at Jake’s presence until we managed to pass him off as a post-grad who just likes to document everything he does because he's a bit weird.
Accepted into the fold, and literally strapped to a group of strangers, I could start to judge the differences between freshers then and now.
The author making friends
When I was at uni, it was the medical students who always went the hardest. The arts and humanities crew might have been the ones with posters of famous heroin addicts on their walls, but most of their nights consisted of smoking bad weed and trying to shame each other with obscure techno YouTube rips. While that was going on, the medics were out inhaling pitchers of Woo Woo, smoking like chimneys, making life hell for traffic cones, and still managing to stroll into class on time the following day.
Most of the people on this pub crawl were medics, and it seems not much has changed in the boozing stakes. In fact, one girl I was with had to pretend to be drunk thanks her Herculean tolerance. The preferred drinks were also the same: anything sugary and guaranteed to make your 9 AM lecture on advanced physiology absolutely unbearable.
In terms of drinking games, my freshers week mostly consisted of “pennying,” where you have to chug your drink if someone dropped a penny in it. Universities cracked down on that wild pastime a few years back. At some point in the last half decade, the banter brigade’s chosen method of competitive drinking appears to have morphed into standing in a line while older students bark orders at you.
I wasn’t sure I was having fun, but apparently screaming is a good way to make me throw alcohol down my throat really fast. My nerve eventually broke when one fresher called me “fucking shit” for "not doing it properly." His new BFF agreed, telling me gravely that I should return to the dorms and stop slowing everyone down. Little did he know that I escaped dorm life long ago for the squalor that awaits them both upon graduation.
There were no drugs to be found at my original freshers week. Everyone knew "someone” back home in Colchester, or wherever, and pondered very audibly whether they’d deliver “if we ordered enough.” Unsurprisingly, though, we failed to lure a dealer into making a 120-mile round trip to central London.
This year was much the same, but instead of putting a safe amount of distance between them and their bullshit, a few claimed to have numbers for local dealers. I doubt they did, but I understood their motives: Before you've taken any drugs, the guy with the MDMA number is the Party. After you’ve taken drugs, the guy with the MDMA number is the one who has to walk around the party collecting cash before waiting in a parking lot for 45 minutes for someone to turn up with eight bags of aspirin and mephedrone.
The only thing I was offered was co-codamol. I’m allergic to codeine and I was there for work. I politely declined.
Being there reminded me of the needless stress I caused myself over freshers week by trying to reinvent my entire personality. Many of those present appeared to be playing a character they'd dreamt up for themselves over the summer—art girl, dorm drug dealer, a lad's lad (UK for "bro," basically)—despite not really knowing exactly how that character should behave.
Those who didn't seem to have a character in mind compensated by attempting to make others feel small. It’s simple division tactics: Have a go at someone for not downing three shots of tequila and it diverts attention from you. Give off signs of social awkwardness, however, and watch your downfall begin.
I declined a pint and a shot. My punishment? A thump on the back from a "rugby girl" who then pushed my nose into the ground and told me to lick up the beer I’d just spilled. Did I lick it up? I'm ashamed to say that I did.
As is custom for freshers events, “Mr. Brightside” seemed to be playing relentlessly, along with a load of sexy late-2000s radio pop. I quickly grew tired of the tunes, but that’s fine—it’s not like the pub crawl was really about the music. No one wanted to dance, as dancing would have distracted from the drinking. And during freshers week, drinking is how complete strangers find other complete strangers to live in apartments with them in second year. There's a lot you need to know about someone before you can trust them to be on the same lease as you.
After consulting my case study notes, it seems clear that pajamas and bits of rope are gonna be fucking huge this year.
During my original freshers week, the digital cameras came out at pre-drinks and didn't go away until they'd documented every girl-on-girl make-out session and instance of public vomiting. It didn't matter if you were actually having a good time just as long as there was plenty of evidence to suggest that you were.
Nowadays? There were still photos, of course, but everything on this particular night was carefully curated; people were swapping Instagram handles and carefully arranging each shot.
At one point—because of the whole being-tied-together thing—I was dragged into the boys' toilets. As I tried to divert my eyes to anywhere other than the wall of teenage penises—difficult, when you're strapped to three of them at a urinal—a girl eagerly jumped in for a group shot on her iPhone's dedicated selfie camera.
The author getting involved
When I arrived for my first year, lads were fucking everywhere. Thanks to a school career spent marauding their way up to the top of the social ladder, they naturally gravitated right back up there again at the beginning of freshers. To sleep with a rugby player would ensure you'd be treated like royalty at Walkabout Wednesdays for at least the next month.
With this new bunch, however, the lads were nowhere to be seen. The banter bus was empty, save for a few of the older guys (the ones enforcing the drinking), who were just as I remembered. And shutting down their come-ons had exactly the same effect: immediate alienation from the group.
But perhaps that's a good thing. Maybe this next university generation will pump out nice, friendly boys who can hang out with you without getting all weird and unresponsive when it becomes apparent you're not gonna have sex with them.
When I did this pub crawl five years ago, I spent most of my time texting a paranoid boyfriend, trying to stave off the inevitable demise of a distinctly average long-distance relationship. My friends, on the other hand, spent theirs getting fingerbanged and keeping tallies of how many freshers they'd swapped saliva with. If you didn't end the week with an STD test and a debilitating sense of guilt, you probably hadn't done it right.
Astonishingly, for drunk, terrified 18-year-olds, there was no sexual tension at all this time round. It was as if the desperation to make friends was completely distracting them from their own libidos.
But just as I’d given up hope—as Jake and I sat eating pizza next to the dorms, which is about as hopeless a pose as there is in life—girls and boys began awkwardly strolling past in pairs, the groups of singletons lagging behind shouting and laughing at their new friends, presumably distraught that they wouldn't be having any sloppy, subpar sexual experiences themselves.
In many ways, I had exactly the same freshers experience as I'd had before. Once again, I'd come out of it with no friends, mild tinnitus and a furry blue tongue. Once again, I managed to avoid some teenage penises. And once again, I had been humiliated.
However, not everyone is as bad at being a fresher as me. Some take to it naturally and enjoy it. And good for them. But from what I saw, the freshers experience is largely still just as strange and terrifying to many as it was five years ago.
Trends change and drinks vary, but for that one week virgin freshers will probably always be the same. Anxious, drunk and desperate to have the time of their lives.