I’m constantly encouraged to celebrate observing drunk people behaving boringly

Ed Smith's "Left Field" column.

We have to like public drunkenness. It is a moral imperative. Commentating on the Ashes over the next seven weeks, I will be encouraged to celebrate every intoxicated buffoon, probably dressed as a giant panda, who falls over in the stands, spilling his pint of lager over half a row of genuine fans who’ve paid £100 for the right to watch a cricket match and have ended up with an obscured view of the sport, replaced instead by the full panda experience. What japes, what larks, what good times had by all, so much to celebrate! This is the media’s default position: the more empty bottles on the terraces, the greater the occasion. “They’re having a great day out, eh?”

I am baffled by several elements of this narrative, which will be repeated throughout the Ashes. First, that pouring alcohol down your throat, scarcely a challenging athletic feat, is considered an achievement. Second, that it contributes majestically to the sense of sporting occasion and the gaiety of nations. Third, that the long-suffering, quiet majority don’t summon the courage to object – perhaps they are wary of being told to lighten up and have some fun. Finally, is anyone enjoying themselves anyway, including – indeed especially – the panda?

Attending a major sporting event is like boarding a plane. The same question looms, laden with frightening potential: who am I sitting next to? You anxiously scan both sides, assessing where problems might arise. Will the bottom belonging to the oversized American break the seat? Is the flip-flop wearing fake hippie en route to Goa going to rest his foot on your travel blanket indefinitely?

The difference is that taking a flight is a means to an end. The pleasure, in principle, will follow soon afterwards. A sports match, in contrast, is the final destination, the fun itself. So it is no small issue if the fans in front of you spend half the match standing up and shuffling along to buy and consume beer, and the other half standing up and shuffling along to release from their bodies the beer they have just consumed. The celebration of drunkenness fills the whole day, before and after play, so that no second is safe from invasion. Earlier this season, after a one-day international in Nottingham, I took the late train back to London. A group of spectators, well-dressed and articulate, clearly wealthy professional types, arranged themselves nearby in the same carriage. They swayed and swore, shouting as though silence might kill them, manfully keeping up the pretence that this was wonderfully enjoyable for them and for everyone else. The traveller in me began to shuffle away. The writer craned forward.

Their conversation, such as it was, began at a low level, from which point it lurched downwards. Cheerful descriptions of their own bodily functions gave way to self-congratulatory estimates of how much they’d drunk so far, then calculations of how much more they were about to drink, how much the whole thing had cost them, before settling finally and unconvincingly on mutual reinforcement about how “great it is to be completely free and away from the missus”. But the unsettling question hung over them: total freedom and this is the best we can manage?

Their grimly determined drinking was accompanied by even more effortful laughter, as though a joke had to come round the corner eventually. They half-heartedly proposed stag jaunts to exotic locations. But enthusiasm for another bout of drinking and canned laughter waned as soon as actual dates were suggested.

For everyone else in the carriage, the journey was excruciating. The more curious aspect was that the protagonists also seemed uncertain they were enjoying themselves. None of us can be sure where another finds pleasure. But there was the sense of dutifully acting out a part, falling into a script that had been written for them. And as they lost confidence, the whole performance became more of a struggle.

They ran out of spectators, too, and selfconscious “indulgence”, expensive and cheap at the same time, is partly fuelled by a sense of display. As everyone else nodded off, the energy drained from the act. By the time we reached London, hints of looming shame mingled with the prospect of relief – the act could soon be dropped and the “fun” replaced by just living.

No day has ever been damaged by the spectacle of genuine joyousness. It’s the fraudulent stuff that leaves a bad taste. Authentic fun is infectious, inauthentic fun the opposite. I am no puritan. I pursue pleasure wherever I can. I enjoy drinking alcohol almost every day. My objection is that these people are amateurs. They don’t know what they’re doing. It’s hard to know which is worse: that they’re damaging everyone else’s day, or that they’re failing even to enhance their own. Observing people drinking ineptly has the same desperate quality as overhearing ham-fisted attempts at seduction.

What does a pleasurable day at the cricket really look like? Breakfast (with serious coffee) near the ground, taking in the nervous excitement on the faces of both sets of fans; arrive before play, to hear the hum of the crowd slowly find its full voice; a glass of wine at lunch; the interweaving of cricket and conversation, one taking up the slack when the other wanes, with no pressure on either to fill all the space; a cold pale ale, the bottle frosted with condensation, in warm sunshine at 6pm; finally, over dinner, shared reflections on the match, memories deepening with friendship.

No one will single you out for eye-catching displays of “fun”. Your memories will be unique, but your contribution was anonymous. That is not to say you didn’t do anything special. You were part of a crowd and you played your part fully. The game and the day were better for you being there. Let’s celebrate that.

The celebration of drunkenness fills the whole day, so that no second is safe from invasion. Photograph: Getty Images

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Machiavelli

Photo: Getty
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Jeremy Corbyn's opponents are going down a blind alley on tuition fees

The electoral pool they are fishing in is shallow – perhaps even non-existent. 

The press and Labour’s political opponents are hammering Jeremy Corbyn over his party's pledge/ambition/cruel lie to win an election (delete depending on your preference) to not only abolish tuition fees for new students, but to write off the existing debts of those who have already graduated.

Labour has conceded (or restated, again, depending on your preference) that this is merely an “ambition” – that the party had not pledged to wipe out existing tuition fee debt but merely to scrap fees.

The party’s manifesto and the accompanying costings document only included a commitment to scrap the fees of students already in the system. What the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are claiming as a pledge is the following remark, made by Jeremy Corbyn in his Q&A with NME readers:

“First of all, we want to get rid of student fees altogether. We’ll do it as soon as we get in, and we’ll then introduce legislation to ensure that any student going from the 2017-18 academic year will not pay fees. They will pay them, but we’ll rebate them when we’ve got the legislation through – that’s fundamentally the principle behind it. Yes, there is a block of those that currently have a massive debt, and I’m looking at ways that we could reduce that, ameliorate that, lengthen the period of paying it off, or some other means of reducing that debt burden. I don’t have the simple answer for it at this stage – I don’t think anybody would expect me to, because this election was called unexpectedly; we had two weeks to prepare all of this – but I’m very well aware of that problem. And I don’t see why those that had the historical misfortune to be at university during the £9,000 period should be burdened excessively compared to those that went before or those that come after. I will deal with it.”

Is this a promise, an aspiration or a target? The answer probably depends on how you feel about Jeremy Corbyn or fees policy in general. (My reading, for what it’s worth, is that the full quote looks much more like an objective than a promise to my eyes but that the alternative explanation is fair enough, too.)

The more interesting question is whether or not there is an electoral prize to be had, whether from the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats, for hammering Labour on this topic. On that one the answer is open and shut: there really isn’t one.

Why not? Because the evidence is clear: that pledging to abolish tuition fees largely moves two groups of voters: students who have yet to graduate and actually start paying back the fees, and their parents and grandparents, who are worried about the debt burden.

There is not a large caucus of fee-paying graduates – that is, people who have graduated and are earning enough to start paying back their tuition fees – who are opposed to the system. (We don’t have enough evidence but my expectation is that the parents of people who have already graduated are also less fussed. They can see that their children are not crippled by tuition fee debt, which forms a negligible part of a graduate’s tax and living expenses, as opposed to parents who are expecting a worrying future for their children who have yet to graduate.)

Put simply, there isn’t a large group of people aged 21 or above voting for Corbyn who are that concerned about a debt write-off. Of those that are, they tend to have an ideological stance on the value of a higher education system paid for out of general taxation – a stance that makes it much harder for the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats to peel those votes off.

The whole thing is a bit of a blind alley for the parties of the centre and right. The Tory difficulty at this election wasn’t that they did badly among 18-21s, though they did do exceptionally badly. With the exception of the wave year of 1983, they have always tended to do badly with this group. Their problem is that they are doing badly with 30-45s, usually the time in life that some younger Labour voters begin to vote Conservative, largely but not exclusively because they have tended to get on the property ladder.

Nowadays of course, that cohort, particularly in the south of England, is not getting on the property ladder and as a result is not turning blue as it ages. And that’s both a bigger worry and a more lucrative electoral target for Labour’s opponents than litigating an NME interview.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.