Over the last year or so, I've developed a morbid fascination with the plight of the modern British student. They're a troubled bunch: the lack of any real youth culture in this country means that onesies have become this era's mohican or platform heel, and the dismal job prospects that await upon graduation render them a kind of lost generation. There's plenty of room for discussion about what went wrong, it's just that no qualified cultural theorists seem willing to write about a tribe whose anthem is "Sexy And I Know It", and whose Salinger is the moderator of The Premier League Banter Facebook page.
We all know about the hardened Uni Lad types, those who deliberately fail entire years just so that they can remain in their communal kitchen purgatory, and the weird Oxbridge relics whose lives are still pretty If... while the rest of the country turns Clockwork Orange, but what about the wide-eyed innocents? The ones who don't quite know what they're letting themselves in for, the "freshers", as that gross, Americanised phrase would have it? I decided to infiltrate this year's new recruits like Matt Damon in The Departed, to find out what makes them tick and what makes them sick.
Choosing the right location wasn't easy. I shopped around the idea to pretty much every middling university in the country that I wouldn't need to take a ferry to get to, but for some reason, not many of them seemed comfortable with the idea of some strangers turning up to immortalise their freshers' first forays into student life in words and pictures.
Which is how I ended up at The University Of West England, a place that has a reputation for being the slightly slow cousin of the more handsome and athletic Bristol University. As someone who spent the best part of two years at a very shitty university, I wondered if these might be my people.
Despite their rep, they had booked a bill that could probably pack a major stage at a minor festival: Tinchy Stryder (an artist who had all his best work behind him at 17), Tempa T, Sam & The Womp (the dubstep game Black Lace) and cross-generational student staples Shy FX. Unfortunately, I somehow missed all of them, so I have no idea who was whipping the crowd up into the frenzy you can see above.
Despite most people being new to the university thing, it was quickly apparent that all the student stereotypes of the last few years wouldn't be going out of fashion any time soon. It was like being in a historical re-enactment of a British freshers party, the cliches were too abundant for this to feel real.
Was this party or was this parody? Were this guy and about 30 others like him dressed as The Hulk because they were drunk students, or because they were trying to look like drunk students? The lines were blurring and I hadn't even got to the bar yet.
These were the guys I really admired. It doesn't take much imagination to come as The Incredible Hulk or a drunk lion, but when I've stared at you for ten minutes and still can't figure out what you're supposed to be, you deserve all the tin foil and mini Jarvis Cocker stalkers you can get.
This guy, meanwhile, seemed to have gone for a "head of state in Hawaii" look. Which is a pretty non-committal costume idea, that kinda says: "I know I'm supposed to dress up, but I don't want to go home alone tonight, nor do I want to get my head kicked in by the locals." But who the fuck am I to criticise? At this stage, it seemed to be working very well.
Despite the fact that Kanye is more likely to wear a PVC tunic than a pair of these in 2012, people were flashing their shutter shades like it was the days when you could still play French dance music at a house party and not get attacked. I'm beginning to think that, even more so than the onesie, these glasses are the accessory that defines our time. Lurid yet homogenous, both futuristic and horribly outdated simultaneously.
Apparently "acclaimed Parisian designer" Alain Mikli first came up with the idea for these. He probably had visions of the beautiful people wearing them as they leapt between yachts at Cannes, rather than guys who have "Your Name" tattooed on their arse cheeks. Maybe it's a fine example of proletariat appropriation? Maybe they were always just really shit? I'm not sure I'm the man to answer that question.
Wandering further into the bowels of the venue, I was met with this troubling sight. The hydraulic salutes and unblinking stares of appreciation towards the booth made it clear that these people had been hypnotised by the sub-woofer, blinded by the strobes. They now seemed totally at the mercy of the man behind the wheels of steel, but I had no idea who this demi-god was. Jamie XX? Flux Pavilion? Reggie Yates? Or just some second year with a cracked copy of Serato?
If I was going to understand the strange rituals that were unfolding all around me, it became clear that I was going to have to drink what the drunk were drinking. Obviously, this turned out to be Jägerbombs: the choice of shot for people who prefer the taste of Calpol to Calvados.
As the booze started to flow, so did the saliva. I was surrounded by the kind of hook-ups that experience tells me can only result in botched, single bed fucks and al fresco handjobs, a genesis of either: months of awkward glances across the lecture hall, or pointless, degree-spanning relationships of convenience. Love was in the air, and its breath reeked of booze.
Because this was an ex-polytechnic campus on the outskirts of Bristol rather than the Berlin Love Parade, there wasn't much of a drug culture going on. The dearth of dry mouths and cokehead metabolisms meant that serving hot food was a viable option. It sort of made the rave smell like an old person's kitchen, but I guess it meant there was less chance of me having to wipe someone else's stomach acid off my shoes.
Alongside the food, the university seemed to be running a pretty good racket of selling the basic means of survival to students as an intoxicant. Believe it or not, these two aren't huffing on hippie crack or trying to drink a piña colada through their nose, but rather getting high at an "Oxygen Bar". Sorry, what? Oxygen? What next, people sitting round their houses trying to get their "shelter buzz" on?
With the debauchery building to a climax, somebody was going to have to take a fall eventually, and it turned out to be this girl. At least in places like this the security understand that losing your balance is an occupational hazard. Fall over in a club in London and you'll be bundled out of the door by a man who's wanted on Balkan war crimes charges like you'd been casually assembling a handgun on the dancefloor.
Ladies and gentleman, this is Shad Ellis, a professional Will Smith impersonator who apparently appeared on one of the series of Britain's Got Talent that aired long after I stopped being faintly amused by it. Shad spoke to me entirely in character; he informed me that he and Jazzy Jeff were still on good terms, but that he wasn't quite sure who Jeff Goldblum was. I thought better of asking him about the Scientology rumours, the last thing I need is blacked out Jeeps following me to work in the morning or a prolonged conversation with a Will Smith impersonator.
Also imitating that Hollywood style were these two, who had shot for Beverly Hills but came out with Suicide At A Travelodge.
After hearing one girl in the seating area boasting about how this was her 17th night out in a row, I began to wonder how a person could do that and not end up with a face like a smashed up bag of strawberries and eyes like two wells with kids trapped down them.
Well, this chap in the Bloodhound Gang style monkey suit was his lad-parallel. I can imagine the two meeting in an exploitative Channel 4 freak-umentary, "the boy whose cheekbones tried to kill him" and "the man who got so drunk his face stopped working", together at last and silently trying to communicate their respective struggles over a Sigur Ros soundtrack.
Yet two seconds later, the spell broke and he wandered off looking fine. What had happened to his contorted "drunk face"? Something wasn't making adding up here.
As these guys passionately declared war on other halls and tried to indoctrinate me into their church with chants of "U, W, E! U, W, E!", I wasn't sure where I stood. Part of me wanted to join in the fun, but I couldn't help but feel like Morrissey in Ayia Napa, Leonard Cohen on a Lanzarote stag do.
Then, it hit me: none of these people were actually that drunk.
All the pieces had fallen into place – the stupid faces, the terrible music, the pointless outfits. The girls on a 17-day bender, the guy with the broken face, all the Hulks, they all seemed to be doing an impression of people that were drunk rather than actually, y'know, being drunk. These guys aren't wearing tutus because they left the house shitfaced and they don't give a fuck, they're wearing them because they think that's what drunk people do.
This makes me wonder if there is a lie at the heart of British student life. Are they really drinking and drugging themselves into oblivion, or are they just keen to make it look as if they are, like some updated, watered-down, mass appeal version of heroin chic? Maybe the rugby player in a ballet dress is today's equivalent of the teenage girl in the 90s with bags under her eyes and a dirty, oversized shirt that looked like it'd just been torn from the still-warm corpse of her drug casualty boyfriend?
By 3AM, these hardy souls were all that remained. The men dressed as bananas had gone home to bed. The girls huffing oxygen were, I assume, still huffing oxygen, or at least breathing it in in that way that you tend to when you're alive. For all the boozy bravado, the only things that seemed truly wrecked were the shutter shades strewn around everywhere.
I'm not saying I wanted everyone here to go home in an ambulance, but is our culture now so bankrupt that even our hedonism is insincere? You're supposed to get wasted and embarrass people with your own sincerity when you're young and partying. That's what happens. If you never cry-fight your friends in the street, or humiliate yourself in front of the opposite sex, you don't learn what dignity is, and then you end up like these guys: going to parties dressed like a giant monkey, pretending to be drunk, paying money to inhale oxygen.
Follow Clive on Twitter: @thugclive
Photos: Jake Lewis
More big days and nights out: