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Bops, BBQs, and Berocca: reflections on student drinking culture

CW: Mentions of alcoholism 

In many respects, Britain and excessive alcohol consumption have become synonymous. Our ‘drinking culture’ is something that is regularly brought up abroad; American friends of mine are shocked at the thought of 16-year-olds downing bottles of Smirnoff Ice or pints of the cheapest beer in a field at the weekend. Europeans scoff at lads’ or gals’ holidays in Maga on the razz. In my experience, drinking is an activity inseparable from many aspects of life. To go to a BBQ and not have a beer or glass of rosé would be wrong. To arrive at a dinner party without a customary bottle of wine would just be rude. Even to go to a carol service and finish a rendition of ‘Good King Wenceslas’ without a warm, sickly glass of mulled wine would be sacrilegious.

As a student, it often seems as if our own impression of our ‘drinking culture’ has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. We take pride in being ‘heavy-weights’ because we’ve been sipping the foam of our dad’s beers since we could walk. We laugh at those who can’t down their drinks or do a tequila shot. Drinking is as much about competition as it is about enjoyment, and ‘competitive’ is certainly a way of describing student drinking culture. Everything about a crew-date is set up to be a contest: pennying, shoes, and sconces all conclude with the spectacle of consuming excessive alcohol. On reflection though, perhaps the people who get slaughtered on a crew-date are also the people who smuggled bottles of wine in water bottles into a casual post-GCSE summer party.

I am condemning neither choice. Before Covid, it could feel as if there was nothing wrong with drinking so much you have to sleep on the bathroom floor, or with asking your friends to account for your actions between 11 pm and 1 am. Now that one night’s antics in Bridge cannot be immediately followed by the next night’s frivolity at Park End, this way of getting from week to week seems a little much.

This isn’t to say that we have all become Buddhist monks in our incarceration. On the contrary, I don’t think my drinking habits have changed at all. If anything, the hangovers have been far worse. Instead of going out and drinking five vodka cokes and three VKs, not to mention however much we drank at pre’s, I have spent lockdown in a student house drinking with my housemates. We swapped spirits for wine and bops for ‘Chill House’ playlists. Rather than diluting our consumption with a mixer, we’ve been going straight to the source. You may think me weak, that “wine is far less alcoholic”, and a wine hangover “not as bad”, but let me tell you, a wine hangover caused by your allocated bottle of wine and two Gin and Tonics is not a fun way to spend a library slot. I realised the importance of a good mixer in these moments of turmoil. Coke is good but can be filling. Ginger ale is a new favourite of mine, although it doesn’t work with everything. The ultimate has to be squash. A student favourite: affordable, efficient and depending on strength can cover up even a double Nikita. Mixers can provide the antidote to all your hangover problems. I have woken up feeling fresh after a night in Fever. But, I have also woken up wanting to be placed in a Berocca-induced coma after a recent Sunday night roast. So, while studies suggest that 1/3 of young people do not drink at all anymore, I have not found myself hampered by the weight of this statistical peer pressure.

“What would you like to drink?” This is a question I find difficult to answer. There are so many factors that have to be considered: the time of day, my mood, my locale. You can normally tell the time with my responding order. Before noon, it would have to be a mimosa; I can’t stand a bloody mary. Whoever said they were the best hangover cure must have still been too drunk for coherent thought. Lunch and a glass of wine is the way forward. Before supper, a cold cosmopolitan is a go-to. Gin and tonics are great but often overplayed. Then at supper, I would most likely return to the wine. However, wine is a difficult one as it is entirely dependent on the food you are eating. I would never dream of drinking white with a steak. In case you were concerned for my liver – or my mental state – I must add that this drinking habit is not an everyday occurrence; I do not consume my weekly allowance of fourteen units in a day, on a daily basis. My work and body would severely suffer if this was the case. While I might think I write a great essay still drunk, my tutors would probably disagree.

Yet, I can understand why this shift in student drinking habits has occurred. On the one hand, this practice of casual but consistent inebriation has not been universally detrimental – people regularly have a great time with friends having drinks. But on the other, families can be ruined by alcohol abuse, money squandered in bars and pubs, and alcohol-induced tragedy. Objectively, alcohol is a poison that can and will destroy lives. It is therefore something that people need to be made fully aware of. It is also something that needs to be respected.

I was always taught to approach alcohol as something to enhance a moment, not to create a moment. You should not be drinking if you are only doing it to provide entertainment. My parents have always shared, and probably always will share, a bottle of wine between them every night with supper. This might be supplemented by a Gin and Tonic or a beer, and at the weekend or for a special occasion they will drink with lunch. As a result, wine and beer were just another drink option growing up, like water or juice. It was nothing special and completely normal in our day-to-day lives. Normality, I think, is key. I have never felt the need to get smashed or overindulge because I have never had the feeling that I needed to drink as much or as quickly as possible. I think that, in many ways, our culture of drinking protects us from the frenzy that comes from finally being unleashed and allowed to do something which for so long was prohibited in our youth. And to be honest, if one of our most notable traits as a nation is that we are at our most comfortable in a beer garden, I am not that sad about it.

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