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Oh to be young again…not

January 23, 2011

My friend Jo and I were sitting in a Japanese restaurant in the City on Thursday night – a hidden treasure called Soseki – when we came to a joint conclusion. “We’ve squandered our twenties!” We pounded the table tragically, sake flying everywhere, seeing with sudden clarity that only now, as 30 draws near, we are ready to be 23 and to DO IT RIGHT. To luxuriate in the distance of problems like ultimate career success, future fame, husbands and biology and instead to go about making them happen (the first two, I mean). If only we knew ourselves as well at 20-23 as we do now (sort of), we could have dispensed with all that binge-drinking, insecure and self-destructive behaviour and just been awesome. If only. Goodbye twenties, goodbye! Weep-weep.

On Friday night, however, I had cause to reflect on a different aspect of being old: relief. I was in Cambridge, reviewing its first proper hotel, the Varsity (I strongly recommend forking out the 450 odd for its wall-to-wall windowed penthouse suite, room 613, for proposal night or Valentine’s Day or whatever).

Anyway, the evening provided me with a chance to observe undergraduate life seven years on. Undergrads are better looking and better dressed these days. But they’re still obsessed with gross things, are perfectly happy to surrender all physical dignity and to dim their supposedly prime brains with a range of available and unavailable substances. I felt a sickly shiver more than once at the idea that I, too, used to be one of these intensely unhealthy-living dorm-dwellers never far from the raucous, puke-spattered world of the drinking society and the formal hall (I studiously avoided the puke part, thank you).

Anyway, after good French wine in the penthouse with my also-aged friend Tom, and dinner at the next-door riverside restaurant (swordfish, very nice too), we headed up to Churchill College to check out a Friday night party it holds called Pav. Churchill is the college of a youthful friend and associate of mine (hi Rhodri!) and so his job was to meet us and show us to Pav and generally give us a taste of how the youth live these days.

Up reels Rhoders, near to passing out at 10:55pm (how many times did I collapse before 10pm following a formal hall? Many), slurring his words and as he put it, utterly “mashed”. Through the brick edifice he led us to Pav where, unfortunately, there were only a few people dancing awkwardly. The DJ was dressed in a toga-thing; there were men wandering around as Romans. Evidently the night’s theme.

So off we go to Rhodri’s room – a bit more to drink and so on. Trance music is put on and we stare into space, paying homage to its awesome power with a deep look at the wall (heavy, man). A couple barge in – high on life, evidently – though quite grown-up and attractive and seeming a bit incongruous with the student surroundings.

Within minutes, news travels of a person who may or may not be slumped in the toilet. This is a source of great hilarity to the undergrads – the door won’t open and said person has probably passed out in it. Tom and I looked at each other with wry concern. Upstairs to the next WC then.

On our way out later, we meet another couple heading to a toilet in the belief that their friend is unconscious in it. More chuckling (from them).

Pav has filled up now. It’s heaving with toga’d men and girls in short skirts. Fat Boy Slim keeps playing and there’s a dense crowd dancing. The place is swimming in sweat; nobody has any bodily awareness. We linger on the outskirts, observing the scene: bright young things, wasted, dancing in an ugly brick room covered in sweat and drink; and us, trapped in our observational mode, with neither the interest nor ability to let loose.

Perhaps there was a time when I’d have judged myself harshly for being the observer, for not being able to engage in this scene of grim merriment. Now, I understand my reaction. Let them have fun, but vomit, togas and the furious, debauched exclusivity of drinking societies whose initiations involve applicants drinking their own sick and worse, is so far from being my kind of fun anymore. And I’m glad of it. Swordfish – and certainly the right amount of champagne – over sick any day. I just wish I knew this sooner.

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