Sunday, 3 July 2011

Fun-suckers and 'trashback' in the land of figs

This is generally a serious(ish) blog offering sound(ish) advice on writing. But I think Sundays should be a day off from serious(ish) professional stuff and so from now on Sunday posts will be more personal reflections on frivolous things. I might even try to make some tenuous link with writing, but I'm sure I won't always succeed.

So - who are the fun-suckers in the land of figs? They are proctors of Oxford University. I was in Oxford last weekend and wrote this post on the bus home. The pavements were littered with figs that have fallen from the trees. You didn't know there were figs in Oxford? Nor did I. But walk down Observatory Street or Woodstock Road, or countless other streets and you will find squished figs underfoot. They could do with an infestation of bushbabies to clear them up.

Instead, they have an infestation of fun-suckers.

When students at the university finish their exams, their friends meet them outside the exam halls and 'trash' them. Trashing involves the hurling of food, confetti, glitter, silly string, champagne (for the rich), beer (for the poor) and anything else that can be hurled over the exam-sitter who is, as the university demands, dressed in sub fusc and gown. (Sub fusc is a monochrome formal outfit with some arcane bits and pieces; a gown is a cut-down version of a real academic gown, with silly tatters in place of sleeves - except for scholars, who have better sleevelets.) You can see obvious objections to this - there's a lot of mess and someone has to clear it up, for a start. It disrupts the traffic (very briefly). But it is, basically, harmless fun.

I took part in the trashing of a certain chemistry student, who will remain nameless in case the fun-suckers want to pounce. I went with her student friends to wait for her. We had our bags searched (!) before being allowed to stand behind barriers and shout, wave balloons and throw confetti. A mixture of police and proctors (the university's own law-enforcers) told us not to open any bottles or cans of drink. Of course, officer, we just brought them along because bottles like an outing on a sunny day, we weren't going to open them. There was a lively trade between trashers in allowed items - biodegradable confetti, hats, garlands, balloons with strings that were not going to be released. Our serious trashing contingent had hidden in Magpie Lane; the vanguard was to offer immediate shouting and confetti and direct the trashee to the right place. The trashers used mobile phones to check the area for proctors and police before picking their venue.  

Once in Magpie Lane, the trashing began: icing sugar, baked beans, turmeric, Guinness, gone-off sauce of some kind. The trashee loves this, by the way - it is a welcome release of exam tension. Not to be trashed is a sign of having no friends. To have friends who give up their time, their spare food (it uses up the stuff you can't be bothered to lug home at the end of term) and scarce money to celebrate the end of your exams is a wonderful thing. It is an act of cameraderie, affection, delight - a happy moment for all except the proctors. Yes, there are some baked beans on the floor. I'm sure the urban foxes will lick them up. There is some confetti, but so is there after weddings, and it soon disintegrates. It looks nice, anyway. It is happy, summer mess. It's part of the Oxford scene that tourists flock to see. Why try to kill it?

Students are fined for trashing if caught. Fines this year that I heard of were £50, £80 and £100. How much do your friends love you if they will risk that? There were six of us trashing the chemistry student - a potential £600 in fines if we were caught. And the trashee can be fined, too! One friend was fined £50 last week for pushing a pie into a friend's face. There was not even any littering, the pie stuck to him. Why? Because, the excuse goes, using food like this is an insult to homeless people. WTF? Did the fine go to feeding homeless people? No. Would homeless people even want half the gone-off stuff used in trashing? No. How about this, proctors? If you catch someone using food for trashing, tot up the value of the food and fine the group that amount and spend it all on food for homeless people. Or sell trashing licences in advance, with the money going for food in a homeless shelter. Instead of fun-sucking, help others benefit from the fun. Oh - and those bottles of champagne you confiscated - where did they go?? Not on fun, I hope.

Yesterday Small Bint went to her school-leaving prom - the same state secondary school the trashing sister left four years ago. Swarms of pierced and tattooed parents cheered meringue dresses and sharp suits arriving in stretch limos, milk floats, buses and even a fire engine. They loved it, all of them. The police lurked around the corner. Later in the night, I drove Small Bint to an after-party, past the police arresting the sharp suits. Why? What had they done? They are good boys - I know many of them. They were probably making a noise. It was 11.30 on a Friday on their last day of formal education. Surely a bit of noise is justified? Why launch them into the world with a police warning instead of shaking their hands and wishing them good luck in what will be tough times?

Is this relevant to writing? Yes. The expunging of fun is one of the curses of modern childhood and of education ruled by the National Curriculum. Let wonder and fun thrive. Don't stifle it. Throw beans, wear meringue dresses, shout with joy that you're out of that stifling school, read Asterix and fuck the literacy strategy with its narrow focus on reading for improvement instead of pleasure. Books are fun. Life is fun. If you don't want the fun, at least let the kids have it.


  1. If that is your daughter's dress, she must have looked really gorgeous! We didn't have trashing in my day ( God I sound old!) but did open the odd bottle in a quad somewhere and splash it about a bit. No confetti etc and certainly no baked beans! The figs and beans combo sounds like a winner....

  2. Not my daughter, Adele! That's one of the meringue dresses. Small Bint wore a short, Jack Wills, meringue-free dress - strapless and stripy with a sticky-out skirt but no glitter or sequins.

  3. Hear! Hear! to the fun. Bugger the rules.