A journey to the dark heart of banter culture.
More like this: A Big Night Out in... Chelsea!
The stereotype of the male student has shifted in recent years. No longer do cab drivers and grumpy newspaper columnists make jokes about spotty Adrian Mole-types sat around all day wanking their way to degrees in Countdown. In the public imagination, the male student is now someone who makes jokes about rape and tweets racist abuse at footballers who, in medical terms, have just died in public. All of which has alerted the world to the infiltration of British universities by a new breed of scholar: the anti-scholar, the beer-swilling, banter-puking cuckoo in the scholarly nest, The Lad.
In the eyes of the press, The Lad is far less cuddly than his predecessor. He's not selling a bit of hash on the side to finance the buying of yet more Che Guevara and Pulp Fiction posters. He's not a bloody poof! The modern male yooni-going dunderhead buys his drugs and his degree online, so most of his free time is spent charging drunkenly around whatever provincial British city he's been assigned to, as if it were his own personal adventure playground. You can't do that in a red star beret. Only birds with hairy legs rate communism and the doormen wouldn't let you in. All that has remained, really, is the wanking.
But is this a fair representation, or just an unhelpful cliche? It seemed to me that somebody needed to embed themselves in their world, rather than just tutting at it from a distance. And then this Gumtree ad dropped into my inbox (click it to enlarge):
I don't know if it was the list of the house's nine previous casualties ("Freshers week was too much for him... #SHITLAD"; "physically inferior"; "liked the taste of some very sloppy seconds #MUG"; "deported"; "nervous breakdown"), but something about the ad fascinated me. I'd never set eyes on such a banterific household, and decided instantly that these people should be my navigators into the heart of student darkness, for one night only I was about to become Joseph Con-LAD. So I got in touch, and it was agreed that I would come to Newcastle and go on a big night out with them.
A correspondence began not long after, and I was presented with brief snapshots and ominous allusions as to what might happen. I was instructed to bring bin bags, as it "could get messy". When I asked if they could recommend a pub to watch the football in beforehand, they directed me to two gay bars near the station. Were these threats or just more banter? I couldn't be sure, the only way to find out was to go in all guns blazing.
Prologue: A Guide to Recognising Your Lads
(from left to right):
Hywel: Looked like radio DJ and arch banter merchant Christian O'Connell. Biceps like concrete tumours.
Toby: Welcomed me by throwing beer at me and "playfully" punching me in the solar plexus. Had a fetching, gingery chinstrap beard, the kind usually seen on backyard wrestlers and stoner rock drummers. Played the role of henchmen to leading lad...
Ed: My fixer, tour guide, confidante and tormentor-in-chief for the evening. Liked to stick his tongue out a lot and possessed a face that didn't really match his body, like somebody you'd see on a "I went from this to this in just six weeks!" local gym advert.
Khan: Training to be a Marine and definitely the toughest of the lot. Didn't seem to have much to prove. Reminded me of one of those guys at school who's not only better at sports than you, he's also better at school than you. Also quite nice. In short, everything I'm not.
I can't remember the two on the far right, sorry guys. But you seemed OK. What can I say? It was a long night, as you'll see, and one that the lads had informed would be split into three parts.
Part One: The Pre-Lash
Walking into this environment was unsettling at first; the concept of the "pre-lash" is far more extreme outside of London. I suppose we're all too concerned with looking cool to pour alcohol into ourselves through a funnel every time we leave the house. But I wasn't in London any more, and it was made very clear as soon as I arrived that I was going to have to drop my booji metropolitan pretensions.
For some reason, they kept calling me "THUG", a reference to my Twitter handle, @thugclive. I tried to explain that it was an ironic play on "Thug Life", but they wouldn't stop chanting it over and over again. I felt like I'd been thrown into a maximum-security prison with a false reputation.
The beer funnel is an inherently disgusting experience, and one that's not improved by having the lads simultaneously scream banter into your face. I like alcohol, a lot, but it was like I'd just fallen into a vat of Foster's, gasping for air and finding only more "amber nectar".
The first of the night's many "tactical chunders". I've gotta say I was impressed by the perseverance he was showing, if I'd projectiled up my Meatball Marinara Subway at 10PM, the night would be over. I'd drink some water, go sit down and think about what I'd done. But Toby wore the puke in his beard like a badge of honour.
The lads were trying hard to live up to my idea of them being the biggest of their kind in the country. Their biceps were maxed, their T-shirts were tight and they had soaked themselves with the scent of Stella, presumably a territorial thing to ward off continental-types with their "demi pressions" and "sipping".
Their attitude towards me was interesting. I think they literally saw me as being from another world, and the feeling was mutual. I just couldn't seem to become one of them. They thought I dressed like a homeless golfer, I thought they looked like Eastenders tough guys with Hollyoaks faces. I tried to introduce them to a Russian Roulette-style drinking game called "The Beer Hunter", but after I'd put the blindfold on they just shook the first can up and exploded it in my face. I like beer, I like football and I like girls, yet I still felt like Quentin Crisp at a Millwall home game.
Eventually, we managed to find some kind of common ground in a shared plan to forget how to spell our own names. After a few more beers, and a brief spell of them calling me "shit shoes", it was time to call a ludicrously cheap cab and proceed to phase two of the operation.
Part Two: The Lash
This was the club. It might look like a police cafeteria or a train station coffee shop, but the Student Union bar was apparently a Mecca for some high-quality banter. This was the lash alright, but whether the rum and/or sodomy were going to appear, I wasn't so sure.
A few drinks deep and I was starting to feel more at home. Somebody funny looking would walk past, and we'd all let out an indecipherable jeer. I got the feeling they saw me as a younger brother down from some London art school, notably different, but accepted. It was time to take the drinking to the next level. And nothing says you're hardcore like a plastic thimble full of an unknown substance that's about 2 percent alcohol and 98 percent warm Appletiser.
This is a photo of Ed's arse. He has a tattoo of his own face on it. On his arse! #MayIDoffMyCapToTheArseBishopOfBanterbury?
Looking back at this photo, I'm trying to remember any of the music that was played that night. And I can't. Not because I was too far into the lash, but because music at places like this seems like a total afterthought, in the same way that your mum puts crisps out at a barbecue just in case one or two guests are into it. I'd like to think there was some Hard-Fi playing at this moment, but for all I know it could have been a dronecore mixtape.
Don't worry, they weren't projecting snuff movies in the basement. That's actually footage from a video booth stationed somewhere inside the club. I'm about 70 percent certain that what was happening in there was consensual.
Somebody doing research for a thesis about Third-Wave Feminist attitudes towards pornography and Laura Mulvey's theory of "the male gaze" must have left this in here, right?
OK, I know what you're thinking, but did you ever stop to think that this guy might not be a complete douchebag? The lads had momentarily disappeared at this point. I don't know why. He seemed to be somehow of them and apart from them at the same time: a roaring Bantersaurus Rex in a jungle full of Diplo-bro-cus.
Oh yeah, sorry, I got so wrapped up in trying to process this guy's douchey-ness that I completely forgot to mention there was a fucking BUCKING BRONCO in the Student Union, didn't I?
It was time for this hombre to have a shot. My gameplan was to try and tame the bronco by playing it cool, do it like Robert Redford in The Horse Whisperer rather than Frankie Dettori in the final length at Aintree...
Which proved to be easier said than done. I don't know if the lads were watching or not, but if they were, I'm sure they found my failure hilarious.
I felt sorry for this guy, who seemed to have turned up on some Doncaster warehouse rave circa '92 tip, but had to settle for a room full of kids dressed as Smurfs necking Red Bull. He'd probably leave if he could move his jaw to ask for directions.
At this point, I should mention that the man taking all these shots was VICE photographer and native Geordie boy Kieran Cudlip. If you're reading this Kieran, your photos stunk! Have you ever seen a picture that smells so pungently of Lynx Africa? Congrats, Hywel, you're the star of the world's first 4D photograph.
Yeah I know man, we are going to get really fucked tonight. You've told me, several times. Now can I enjoy my drink without looking like a kid who's being patronised by his over compensating divorcee father at a school football match?
What do you reckon, is our Mario on the left pulling a face? Or is that just his face?
Nope, looks like the wind's changed for good. Wait a minute, where did this dressing up thing come from? The lads from the house weren't feeling it tonight, but it was rife among everybody else. Is it a way of saying you can wear anything you want and still get laid? Like those super-hard guys who walk into fisherman's pubs in a blouse just because they can? Or have they all lost some kind of bet? Answers on a postcard, please.
Bouncers really are pricks, aren't they? This guy was just trying to do a bit of breakdancing, and they kicked him out for it. Where's a man supposed to do a triple head-spin if he can't do it on a smooth, shiny surface like this?
I guess it's back to the roll of lino outside Debenhams for him.
After countless casual headbuttings and a "joke" stabbing with an epipen, I decided to go and sulk at the back of the room. While I was standing around like a poor kid at a school disco, I met Paddy, the well turned-out man on the left. We eyed each other's ill thought-out sartorial decisions, turned to each other and said "What the fuck are we doing here?" And from then on, we knew we were going to have to face phase three together.
Part Three: The Post-Lash
Except there wasn't a phase three, not really, and not with the lads. The thing with modern students is that they peak too early. If you're puking at 10PM, chances are you aren't gonna see dawn and Ed, Toby and the other guys had already slunk off back to the bosom of some Black Americanos. But I wasn't gonna give up that easily. I'm from London, and in London the real party doesn't start until 5AM when everyone's sad and mute. I asked Paddy and Kieran where the roughest part of Newcastle City Centre was. The answer was spoken with trepidation but unanimous: We were off to the Bigg Market.
It was there where the story got a little bit libellous. What you have in front of you is an Olympic Gold Medallist trying to buy a man's pizza off him for a large sum of money. I won't name names, I'll let you do that in the comments box. I think this sporting hero was attempting to replicate some Mario LADotelli madness, but instead ended up looking like a medieval Lord of the Manor trying to purchase a cow off a peasant. You wouldn't catch Sir Matthew Pinsent doing this.
After our brush with celebrity, there wasn't really anywhere else to go. Not even Paddy revealing to us all that he pilots drones for a living could shatter the sense that the night was ending. The lads had been gone for God knows how long, and I don't think any of them were up for sitting around talking about movie moments and social theory with me until sunrise, so it looked like it was gonna have to be an early one. I got in another 30p a mile cab and headed home.
So, were the lads as extreme as I thought? Well, yes and no (mostly no). Sure, they were as brutish and as badly dressed as I'd expected, but like almost everyone else in 2012, they were also slightly knowing about it. I actually had a few interesting, serious conversations with some of them, but then they seemed to get self-conscious about it and suddenly revert to hyper-macho mode. It's quite disconcerting when you're discussing the role of higher education in modern Britain with someone, and then without warning, they try to Chinese burn you. I think they were definitely smarter than they looked. Can anybody really use a term like "banter bus" without irony?
If there's anything sincere about the lads and other students I hang out with on the regs, it's the palpable sense that this is probably the best time they're ever going to have in our fucked up socio-economic climate. So why not enjoy it? You could argue that these guys and girls are essentially very mundane nihilists, representative of a youth who've been ignored for so long that they're now only interested in "the absolute I".
Though I wouldn't personally argue that, at least not to their faces. It'd be poor banter. And who wants to be a #ShitLAD?
Follow Clive on Twitter: @thugclive
Photos: Kieran Cudlip
Other Big Nights Out: