The PM, the pig, and student initiation rituals

Claims of a youthful dalliance between the PM and a dead pig are no less shocking for being unlikely to be true. But, says Simon Usborne, many student high jinks are little better

Simon Usborne
Tuesday 22 September 2015 08:09
A pig's head
A pig's head

After the early shock of the mental image of a Prime Minister inside a pig, the purported physical act itself, picked over on Monday like a hog roast for starved vultures, seems progressively less disturbing the deeper one sinks into the world of the university initiation ceremony.

David Cameron is not being accused of any romantic act, to be clear. Nor is he "prepared to dignify" the allegation, in axe-grinding Lord Ashcroft's unauthorised biography, that, during an initiation ceremony for an exclusive Oxford society, he reversed the traditional mouth-meat dynamic between man and pig.

Many doubted the account of posthumous porcine perversion yesterday, and a founder of the Gaveston Society, the exclusive club that supposedly facilitated the encounter, insisted that Cameron had not even been a member. But the colourful accusation has triggered an outpouring of legitimate tales of sordid student high jinks.

"I drank a litre of olive oil out of a prostitute's boot," says one former member of a university sports team. "I drank White Russians from a condom, sucked a Bloody Mary through a tampon and broke into Spearmint Rhinos," recalls a female former student rugby player. "My brother knows someone who ate pig intestines and curry powder from a fish carcass while wearing a nappy," another graduate reports.

Drugs and sex proliferate at ceremonies where guests have cash to burn. "At one drinking club's recent summer extravaganza, there was a drugs supermarket, from where MDMA, ketamine and coke were dispensed," Tatler reported last year. "'I've never seen so much gak in one place,' says an attendee. 'Imagine a Colombian branch of Superdrug, except where everyone is called Tarquin.'"

Alleged man-on-pig action notwithstanding, Piers Gaveston bashes are no tea parties. "For last summer's debauch, guests were given only 72 hours' notice with a stiffie (invitation) in their pidge (pigeonhole) and told to present themselves at a hired coach, which drove them deep into the countryside," the magazine continued. "Phones and cameras were confiscated and the location kept secret. Guests arrived to find a live sex show on a stage and a decadent dance tent."

Yet secrecy is relative. Toby Young, a contemporary of Cameron's at Oxford who has written about the "Piers Gav", says such societies, which can ultimately be traced to age-old tribal initiations, gained a new confidence with the rise of Thatcher. "They treated [her] triumph as an excuse to re-invent themselves," he wrote in Harper's Bazaar in 2009. "The modern, egalitarian Britain which successive post-war governments had laboured to create was self-consciously rejected in favour of a narcissistic fantasy based on the novels of PG Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh."

The former member of a committee of a Cambridge club responsible for recruiting freshers says that he designed an initiation ceremony to distance the club from the more sinister reputations of rarefied societies: "I deliberately invited masses of people, none of whom met the formal requirements, to join (playing multiple sports for the college) to try to change its image.

"Having said that, the standard initiation ceremony – which was essentially my doing – involved lying on the ground in the master's garden at the annual garden party on 'Suicide Sunday' [a tradition marking the end of exams] and, at 9am, having large amounts of neat vodka poured down your throat, before having to run the length of the garden blindfolded, stand on the narrow wall 20 feet above the River Cam, then taking your clothes off, tuck your [genitals] between your legs, and turn to face the 200-ish strong crowd to perform what we termed, for no real reason, 'a Marilyn' – but which is better known as a mangina."

In the age of social media and the more tabloid instincts of many student newspapers, some clubs and colleges are increasingly alert to scandal. One former student journalist at the Tab Cambridge website remembers being threatened by a rugby captain after she reported the legal fallout of a destructive dinner. "The college was also livid I'd exposed it, so I took my name off the article to avoid more hassle," she says.

Yet, judging by recent national newspaper archives, the risk of reputational damage remains a secondary consideration for many students. "People almost liked the idea that ceremonies were wild and there was proof," a recent graduate says. "Photos would always go on Facebook and everyone would pore over them and comment."

"Maybe social media has made people a bit smarter to it all but I'm not convinced," the mangina-man adds. "These are overgrown children you're talking about." Facebook carries photos of his old club's ceremonies dating back more than five years. The students in the pictures, who are not tagged, will be starting their careers by now, perhaps oblivious to the lasting evidence of their student excesses, and to the future circling of journalists – or indeed aggrieved peers.

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