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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton  

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        The politics of drinking

06 October,  2011



We need a Fresher look at student drinking

The students are back. There’s a definite shift in mood and in tempo here in Brighton as some 30,000 young people arrive at the city’s two univerisities to study – and to drink. Even with Freshers Week now out of the way, when I’m coming home from the pub at some reasonable hour the students are just heading out, satisfactorily preloaded, to take advantage of the NUS discounts in the bars and clubs.

I like it. I’m not going to join them, they’ll be going on way past my bedtime. But it’s one of the reasons I like living in a university city. It’s comforting to know there’s some wildness going on out there as the World Service lulls me to sleep.

Of course, for some this is a worry. For some, young people as a whole are a worry what with their drinking, their unruliness and their – heaven forfend – drug-taking.

If you want people to be grown-up there’s no getting around it. Youth is compulsory. And for watchers of the drink question the young, like the poor, are always with us. Always doing things they didn’t ought.

It was with Freshers in mind that the Daily Mail ramped up its binge-drinking coverage with scenes from the late night streets of Warrington and Cardiff, reprising Warrington at the weekend.

This is easy, set-piece copy for publications like the Mail. All you have to do is turn up with a camera, get some tittilating shots of young women, legs akimbo, pants on parade, display them to millions of gawping readers and then write something around them about how awful it is. Teasingly, you could even mention there are some pictures “too disgusting to print”.

In fact, it didn’t even have to take the Cardiff pictures. They come from a set by a Polish photographer, resident in the Welsh capital, called Maciej Dakowicz. The Mail is familiar the Dakowicz ouvre. They ran most of the same pictures two years ago.

Work has gone into the captions, however. I particularly like the one about the woman “sprawled on filthy cobbles” … “ignored as her friend plays on her phone”. The Mail must have psychic powers. How does it know this callous woman is only interested in getting to the next level on tetris and not calling an ambulance?

What the selection of pictures and the captions do, of course, is tear the pictures from their full context. You can see the full set, 290 of them dating back to 2006 (and not all taken on the same night), caption-free on Flickr (thanks to @jamesqnicholls on Twitter for finding these).

They are rather good, and together do what Dakowicz was setting out to do, to celebrate the fun-loving people of Cardiff. As he tells a scoffing Mail: “The atmosphere is very cheerful and everyone is having a good time… The pictures tell stories of drinking, of love, of violence, of lots of things.”

I’ve been asked to review a book for the Social History of Alcohol & Drugs journal called Getting Wasted: Why College Students Drink too Much and Party So Hard.

In it sociologist Thomas Vander Ven uncovers the true complexities of American student drinking, the positives of getting drunk as well as the negatives. That will be scandalous to some but it takes us closer to reality than the Daily Mail could ever do. (At least I expect it will. I’ve only just started reading it.)

It might also lay the basis for an approach that, rather than trying vainly to curb an enjoyable, and to an extent socially valuable, behaviour, will set a much more achievable goal: to make the world safe for young people out drinking.

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