I’ve recently resuscitated my iTunes account, and I’ve been re-acquainting myself with the joys of the podcast. As a mad fan of Internet radio, having the most recent episodes of More or Less, the New York Times Book Review, the Guardian‘s Science Weekly, NPR’s Fresh Air, the Granta Podcast and, obviously, the Food Programme, arriving periodically is a glorious thing.
Relatively recently, I’ve become faintly obsessed with This American Life, and have relied on its extensive archive to keep me sane while writing lectures. I particularly enjoyed two, linked, episodes on Pennsylvania State University. The first, broadcast in December 2009, is an account of why Penn State has consistently been nominated as ‘America’s number one party school,’ and the second, from the end of last year, revisits the university’s reputation for heavy drinking in light of the recent scandal.
As you’d expect of This American Life, both episodes are thoughtful, intelligent accounts of life in State College, PA, where townsfolk have to put up with the antics of drunken students – from stealing traffic signs, to urinating in private gardens – and where the university’s various strategies for dealing with the campus’s drinking culture are impeded by a strong lobby from alumni and other donors.
A lot of what these episodes covered felt familiar. I grew up in a South African university town and now hold a fellowship at that university. The institution is based in the heart of the country’s wine-producing region, so alcohol is cheap and plentiful. As someone with a comically low tolerance of alcohol, I’ve never been a big drinker. I sailed through university as, usually, the only sober person at parties.
A while ago, I wrote a post about academia and the food at conferences, and one of the themes in the responses I received was that I needed to focus more on the booze. And that’s absolutely true: while we may be – justifiably – concerned about undergraduate binge drinking, there’s a stereotype that academics drink – in the same way that we dress badly, drive banged-up cars, and are chronically forgetful. As Malcolm Bradbury writes in The History Man (1975):
It has often been remarked, by Benita Pream, who services several such departmental meetings, that those in History are distinguished by their high rate of absenteeism, those in English by the amount of wine consumed afterwards, and those in Sociology by their contentiousness.
I think that many would suggest that Benita’s point about the wine could apply to all departmental meetings, regardless of the discipline involved.
Just about every decent campus novel contains at least one scene of drunken, academic embarrassment. Or, indeed, in Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954), of success. Jim Dixon spends most of the novel either pursuing the pretty-but-dim Christine in a fairly desultory way, or trying – in post-war, still rationed Britain – to scrape together enough money to buy cigarettes and drink. In the famous, final scene, he gets completely hammered, delivers a speech which should get him fired, but which, instead, gets him both the girl and his dream job.
My two favourite campus novels, The History Man and Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys (1995) – yes the one that was turned into the surprisingly fun movie – both feature heroes whose academic careers are linked to the – occasionally excessive – consumption of alcohol and various banned substances. Both novels have parties at key turning-points in the narrative. In The History Man the suave socialist sociologist Howard Kirk and his long-suffering wife, Barbara, host parties at the beginning and end of the novel – places where students and lecturers at a red brick, radical university mingle, discussing contraception, Hegel, revolution, and, of course, religion:
No sooner are the first arrivals in the living-room, with drinks, talking breastfeeding, when more guests arrive. The room fills. There are students in quantities; bearded Jesus youths in combat-wear, wet-look plastic, loon-pants, flared jeans, Afghan yak; girls, in caftans and big boots, with plum-coloured mouths. There are young faculty, serious, solemn examiners of matrimony and its radical alternatives…. Howard goes about, a big two-litre bottle hanging on the loop from his finger, the impresario of the event, feeling the buoyant pleasure of having these young people round him…. He poured wine, seeing the bubbles move inside the glass of the bottle in the changing lights of his rooms.
Howard maintains – and gains – his position of power within his department and on his campus by wielding wine at important moments.
The appropriately named Grady Tripp in Wonder Boys uses grass and a range of other drugs – legal and illegal – to cope with the collapse of his marriage, his career, and his reputation as a writer. He holds a position at a small liberal arts university in Pittsburgh, but can’t finish his novel, is having an affair with the Chancellor, and has been (deservedly) deserted by his wife. Over the course of the university’s annual Wordfest weekend, his life falls apart. As in The History Man, parties take place at pivotal moments – one of them in Grady’s house. He returns to discover
writers in the kitchen, making conversation that whip-sawed wildly between comely falsehood and foul-smelling truths, flicking their cigarette ash into the mouths of beer cans. There were half a dozen more of them stretched out on the floor of the television room, arranged in a worshipful manner around a small grocery bag filled with ragweed marijuana, watching Ghidorah take apart Tokyo.
But most academic drinking is done more decorously: over dinner, and after conferences and workshops. Some of the Oxford and Cambridge colleges have legendarily well-stocked cellars. Just about every seminar I attended in London ended with a trip to the pub. There’s even a Radio 4 series called The Philosopher’s Arms, where Matthew Sweet and a collection of philosophers discuss ideas and issues in a real pub:
Welcome to the Philosopher’s Arms, the only boozer in Britain where, if you ask the landlady whether there’s a happy hour, she’ll remind you of the words of John Stuart Mill: ‘Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you’ll cease to be so.’
The appeal of the pub is that it allows for the usually fairly byzantine rules which govern academic life to relax a little. Anxious postgrads get to talk to well-known, senior researchers, gossip is exchanged, and friendships and alliances formed. One very grand historian who used to convene a weekly seminar I attended, was transformed from an incisive and ruthless eviscerator of poorly-constructed arguments, to a jovial old cove as he nursed his half-pint of real ale.
It’s also true that pubs and drinking can be used to exclude those who don’t drink, for whatever reason, or those who don’t feel welcome in pubs or bars. As AS Byatt points out in an interview with the Paris Review, up until the mid-1960s, university departments could prevent their female staff from contributing to important decisions by conducting meetings in pubs, then an almost exclusively male preserve.
But I don’t think that it’s any coincidence that pubs, in particular, feature so strongly in a lot of the mythology surrounding significant moments in academia: in the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA, and in the meetings of the Inklings – the most famous members of which were CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien – at the Eagle and Child in Oxford, for instance. Pubs – and other, similarly festive occasions involving drinking – provide academics with a chance to talk and to think beyond the usual strictures of academia and, in doing so, to arrive at new and surprising ideas.
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
One of the oddest features of the transition from apartheid to democracy was the slew of beer advertisements, proclaiming the unity of the nation on the grounds of a shared enthusiasm for Castle Lager or Carling Black Label. There is a generation of South Africans who can chant South African Breweries’ slogan, ‘One Nation, One Soul, One Beer, One Goal,’ based entirely on having watched the 1998 Soccer World Cup on television.
This use of beer as a unifier which cut across boundaries of both race and class – although not, interestingly, gender (these advertisements celebrate a kind of hypermasculinity associated with the mining or construction industries) – was supremely ironic given the apartheid state’s attempts to control Africans’ consumption of alcohol, and particularly beer.
I’ve been thinking about the long, fraught politics of beer in South Africa as a furore has erupted over new attempts to limit alcohol sales, particularly in Gauteng and the Western Cape. Because municipalities and provinces control the terms according to which alcohol can be sold, rules around buying alcohol are complex. In the Western Cape, the new regulations will outlaw the sale of alcohol to be consumed offsite on Sundays and on all days after 18:00. No alcohol may be consumed at school functions, and in vehicles, and no person may buy or possess more than 150 litres of alcohol (that’s around 200 bottles of wine).
In Gauteng, draft legislation will make all sales of alcohol on Sundays illegal. Although these two provinces have received most attention from the media – partly because the country’s national newspapers and broadcasters are based in Cape Town and Johannesburg – there are attempts all over South Africa to limit how South Africans buy booze: the George municipality is considering outlawing the sale of all alcohol after 20:00 on Sundays; KwaZulu-Natal province may ban anyone under the age of eighteen from liquor aisles, and require supermarkets to devote a cashier specifically to alcohol sales. The Minister for Health, Aaron Motsoaledi, has even floated raising the legal age of drinking from eighteen to twenty-one.
This is all very confusing, and some shops have complained that this legislation hinders their business, and it’s doubtful that the police will be able to enforce these regulations. Many South Africans have questioned the efficacy of this legislation in reducing violent crime and road accidents – which is what these new regulations are intended to do. Although provincial governments and municipalities have cited studies which demonstrate the social and health benefits of limiting alcohol sales, there are, equally, others which suggest that higher liquor prices and taxes have little effect on the buying habits of heavy drinkers (meaning that they’re more likely to spend less on food or other essentials). Indeed, it’s probable that a black market may develop for illegal alcohol – causing drinkers inadvertently to consume poisonous liquor.
This impulse to control how much people drink in the name of preserving order and protecting the vulnerable is nothing new. The global temperance movement which emerged during the final decades of the nineteenth century, lobbied for limiting alcohol sales to men to reduce levels of domestic violence. The Cape Colony’s chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, established in Wellington, in the heart of the Cape winelands, in 1889, encouraged children, in particular, to take the temperance pledge, opened coffee shops to lure men away from canteens (or bars), and petitioned the colonial government to raise the price of liquor and reduce its availability. The WCTU distributed pamphlets, describing the apparently appalling consequences of the ‘demon drink’ for physical and mental health. People who drank had low morals, the ladies of the WCTU argued, and were at risk of falling into destitution. Members of the Myrtle branch, a temperance society for children in Wellington, were informed in 1896 ‘that strong drink leads to anger, debt, despair, destruction, and death’.
Although the WCTU encouraged middle-class men to become teetotal, its efforts were aimed overwhelmingly at men who were working-class and poor. These men – less ‘civilised’ then their middle-class betters – were characterised as uniquely prone to violence and, thus, in greater need of supervision.
Other than the fact that prohibition has never really stopped people from drinking, I think it’s worth thinking twice about limiting access to liquor because this has usually been the product of wider, social anxieties rather than of any real concern about the effects of alcohol on human bodies.
The 1928 Liquor Act was an attempt to shape how African men would consume alcohol. But, as Anne Mager explains, it was a nightmare to implement:
This was legislation driven by fear of ‘subjects perceived as immature and dangerously close to barbarism.’ However, they were also subjects from whom the state could profit. From 1937 onwards, a model of municipal beer production pioneered in Durban in 1908, was adopted around South Africa. Municipal beer halls, which had a monopoly on the sale of beer in these areas, with were established in townships and other informal settlements, providing intense competition for the existing shebeens. The profits raised by the halls went back to the municipality, and this was why so many towns and cities adopted this very lucrative scheme. It not only controlled African consumption of alcohol, but it made municipalities rather a lot of money. By the mid-1960s, more than sixty municipalities were operating beer halls.
These beer halls posed a significant threat to African brewers. CM Rogerson writes:
As Rogerson implies, the people who had the most to lose from the municipal beer halls were African women, who controlled much of the production of beer in the ‘locations’ on the edge of towns and cities. Women were at the centre of beer production and selling. They tended to be unmarried, and could become relatively powerful. The figure of the ‘shebeen queen’ recurs in many of the novels depicting life in South African cities during the first half of the twentieth century.
It was women, too, who controlled the flourishing illegal production of alcohol. At the end of 1960, there were 30,000 illegal brewers in the Western Cape, and more than 10,000 shebeens in Soweto. But this was a business carried out in constant threat: women bore the brunt of police crackdowns on the trade. Unsurprisingly, then, women brewers and shebeen owners were often on the forefront of anti-government protest too. Most famously, they had a key role in the Cato Manor Beer Hall riots in 1959. Not only did these women berate men for drinking at municipal beer halls, but they resisted police raids on their shebeens.
Illegal beer brewing became, then, for African women both an act of political resistance, as well as a means of supporting themselves in a heavily patriarchal society.
All of this changed in 1962 when the apartheid state agreed – partly as a result of intense lobbying from industry – to open up sales of alcohol to Africans. However, this sale was still tightly controlled by the state, as Mager writes:
African alcohol consumption helped to fund the apartheid state. It also swelled the profits of South African Breweries, which supplied both state-run outlets as well as the illegal shebeens.
The sale of alcohol in South Africa has, then, a complex and fraught history. It is intertwined with anxieties about the control of black people in ‘white’ cities: by bringing alcohol provision within the ambit of the state, Africans’ consumption of alcohol could (in theory) be regulated, but they were, unwittingly, contributing to their own continued subordination by the apartheid regime.
Trying to manage people – either as a result of fear or out of a desire to eradicate social ills – through limiting the control of alcohol will never be fully successful. In fact, trying to stop people from drinking on Sundays or in the evenings just prevents them from drinking on Sundays or in the evenings – it doesn’t actually address the problems which cause people to drink in excess, or which cause men to beat up their wives and children.
Iain Edwards, ‘Shebeen Queens: Illicit Liquor and the Social Structure of Drinking Dens in Cato Manor,’ Agenda, no. 3 (1988), pp. 75-97.
Anne Mager, ‘“One Beer, One Goal, One Nation, One Soul”: South African Breweries, Heritage, Masculinity and Nationalism 1960-1999,’ Past and Present, no. 188 (Aug. 2005), pp. 163-194.
Anne Mager, ‘The First Decade of “European Beer” in Apartheid South Africa: The State, Brewers, and the Drinking Public, 1962-1972,’ Journal of African History, vol. 40 (1999), pp. 367-388.
Gary Minkley, ‘“I Shall Die Married to the Beer”: Gender, “Family” and Space in the East London Locations, c.1923-1952,’ Kronos, no. 23 (Nov. 1996), pp. 135-157.
CM Rogerson, ‘A Strange Case of Beer: The State and Sorghum Beer Manufacture in South Africa,’ Area, vol. 18, no. 1 (1986), pp. 15-24.
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.