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Student Freshers Ain't What They Used to Be

Did they even have WKD and foam parties back in 1972?

by Clive Martin
12 September 2012, 3:50pm

So it's Freshers month, AKA that time of the year when broadsheet newspapers seem to think that anybody wants to hear their outdated advice on being a student. Obviously our student guides are super-contemporary and amazing, because when we crawl into our beds at night, we still imagine them to be the womb rather than the sweet cradle of death. But unless you've been kept in Fritzl-esque isolation by religious zealot parents who used to beat you for wearing brown on Sundays, you don't need to take advice from a has-been hack whose references don't extend beyond CND protests and The Young Ones. Get over it guys, your culture may have been infinitely superior, but we've got foam parties.

The good thing about The Daily Mail on the other hand, is that they're so beautifully out of touch with the modern world, that they don't even try to get involved. Which is something I can get with; I'd rather they stuck to what they're good at (sideboobs and xenophobia) than try to influence impressionable 17-year-olds with banal anecdotes about "smoking dope at the union before we went to see The Hacienda".

Instead, they offered up this interesting and amusing university guide from 1972. It was made by the University of Manchester as a light-hearted guide to campus life. They still make this kind of thing actually, except these days it's soundtracked by Flux Pavilion rather than the jaunty country and western porno theme that accompanies this:

Freshers Life at The University of Manchester, circa 1972

Refreshing, isn't it? There seemed to be a time when students really used to live up to the right-wing stereotype of themselves. With their beards, corduroy jackets and endless sips of ale, they look more like the employees of a Communist bookshop or a Pitchfork approved folk-rock band from Illinois than the blue-tongued banter merchants we all recognise as being the scholars of today.

This led me to think: What are the university's current Freshers videos like? Is Manchester some kind of hirsute black hole in a Lynx universe? Do they emit the same sense of educational optimism, or are they stuck in the same laddy quagmire that the rest of student culture seems to be mired in? I decided to fire up the YouTube search bar and see what kind of audio-visual guides the university had to its name. Not any of the official, sanitised stuff though, I thought I'd go underground to get the real deal.

Freshers Life at The University of Manchester, circa now

Now that we have our "then and now", where better to start analysing their differences than by hitting the mute button and looking at the student halls?

In the 1972 version, the communal kitchens are portrayed as domestic paradises, the perfect place for a young Rapunzel in her pottery smock to knock up a homemade cress stir fry before writing that extra-credit thesis on The Female Eunuch. Halls were places to cook, eat, have tame sex in the usual positions and, of course, grow homemade cress.

Sadly, the only thing the students of 2012 seem to be growing is genital warts. Nowadays halls seem to be Sodom and Gomorrahs for the Abercrombie & Fitch generation, but with a weirdly sterile atmosphere that brings to mind an experimental co-ed prison or a mutinous space colony.

The activities officers of 70s Manchester had a dream, a dream where every young man and young woman (and young gender neutral person) would participate in all sorts of constructive and thrilling activities. The idea was obviously that if you engage people with rock climbing, cricket and forming bad versions of Monty Python, they wouldn't turn to deeply unconstructive activities like beer pong and public fellatio.

Alas, once again the idealist's dream has become a realist nightmare, as this charming snippet from a Fellini-esque video filmed at a Manchester Freshers party shows us. Gone is the improvisational comedy, replaced by forced zaniness and indecent exposure. Outside of liberal Berlin, I doubt that the students of the 70s ever thought that public spanking would be a staple of student events. They left that all behind at primary school.

The earlier video introduces us to an unnamed local band, and although the bass player is rocking an Eagles Of Death Metal look and that pointing wizard guy behind him looks pretty hardcore, Slayer they ain't. In reality, they sound like the kind of band that would probably bang on about their "classical influences" if you ever had to interview them; you get the impression they were all big Gormenghast fans. Granted they suck, but it's nice to see that student musicians in the early 70s had some pretty lofty ambitions.

Now we've got this guy, some kind of twisted Juggalo bongo player tapping along to Tinie Tempah like he's in an am-dram production of Stomp. What is it with bongos in clubs, anyway? It just about makes sense with funky house, but that really doesn't seem to be what these people were listening to. Maybe it's the last outpost of beatnik culture in our homogenised youth scene, or maybe he's just a prick living out some kind of Dave Grohl goes cyber-punk fantasy? I don't really know.

Interestingly, it seems that the supremely lame practice of faux inter-halls rivalries was going on even back in the days of roll necks and Joni Mitchell. Except it was a little bit less venomous in 1972, with the rather tame "battle of the presidents" in which we are told that "of course UMIST always wins", in the same way we would have been told back in 2009 that "Boddington house are #truelads".

Are the students of today content with seeing their elected representatives throw cold soup at each other? Of course not. They've been raised on a diet of horrorcore, the SAW series and rare 9/11 footage. They've got a taste for violence, and their entertainment preferences reflect this. I'm not sure if this guy is a professional or a student rep, but either way, doing this in front of a herd of drunken idiots is a pretty shitty way to make a living.

Although it seems that dressing up in a stupid costume and making yourself look like a twat in the mistaken belief that this is what fun looks like has always been a staple of university life.

So what's changed? Well everything and nothing. Essentially British student life is just a far more extreme version of what we see in the 70s video. It's the same experience, just without the idealism and the dream. The facilities, activities and demographics all seem to be about the same (brutalist and largely white) but the striking difference is the attitude that people seemed to have towards their education.

Fair play to the students of today, they may look like morons, but what chance have they really got? As soon as they leave they've got a choice between not getting paid to do a job they want to do or getting paid very little to do a job they don't. Suck the life and prospects out of anything and you'll find that it soon degenerates into something as squalid and as tawdry as the equivalent you'll find in America. They're behaving as all people with no hope left tend to behave – exactly as they fucking want (within the limitations).

It's sort of the equivalent of the way people tend to shit their pants when they're being strangled.

Follow Clive on Twitter: @thugclive

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