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No Swaps, please, we’re British

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Revealed: How Cambridge students go drinking

Two Cambridge graduates explain the tradition of ‘swaps’ and some of the more off-putting ‘drinking society’ initiations…

Caesarian Sunday this year on Jesus Green Cambridge. Picture: David Johnson

Drinking port out of a condom, vomit on shoes and passing out in a restaurant bathroom all feature in tales of Cambridge University’s drinking culture.

The News tracked down two graduates to give us the inside story on the ancient institution’s boozier traditions.

They explained the culture of college ‘drinking societies’, student clubs which organise heavy drinking sessions and have initiations similar to US fraternities’ ‘hazing’ rituals.

A Cambridge graduate who asked to remain anonymous said: “So the way it works is that each college has a college drinking society, and they all have different names, like the Girton Green Monsters and the Jesus Caesarians.

“When you’re a fresher, you go on lots of swaps, where girls from one college will go to a curry house with guys from another college and carnage ensues.”

Swaps and superswaps

Swaps are a Cambridge tradition where two societies or groups from different colleges meet in a restaurant and carry out wild drinking challenges.

She continued: “There are usually about 20 people at swaps – 10 a side, so 10 girls from one college, 10 guys from another. Unless it’s a ‘superswap’ involving 10 girls and 10 guys from both colleges.

“The girls and guys who go on lots of these usually get invited to join their college drinking society at the end of the year and have to take part in secret initiation ceremonies, which involve things like drinking port from condoms, licking squirty cream from belly buttons and the like.

“I did a few swaps as a fresher and then more as part of my college’s boat club, so I don’t know what goes on in hardcore drinking societies or initiations!

“The big event in the year is Caesarian Sunday on Jesus Green which the Daily Mail covers every year for some reason, where many societies’ initiations take place. Most college deans send emails out warning students not to go.

“Swaps were quite fun actually, though looking back it is pretty outrageous what went on!

“Everyone would bring their own bottle of wine, people would ‘penny’ each other aggressively, lots of never-have-I-ever-ing, and “5p-ing” – when someone puts a 5p on your plate and you then have to eat using just your face.”

Pennying and other games

“Pennying” is the tradition of dropping a coin in someone’s drink, meaning they must down it in one.

Some students create “engineer pennies”, which are folded in half so they can fit in the neck of a bottle of wine, forcing the student “pennied” to down the entire bottle.

And a five penny piece in a student’s food means they cannot use their cutlery – or even their hands – to eat it.

“Never-have-I-ever” is a drinking game in which players name embarrassing acts and anyone who has done the named act has to drink.

The graduate continued: “The Mahal, which has sadly closed now, was legendary for swaps.

“I believe Curry King is now the venue of choice, though I’ve heard of some swaps even taking place in Giraffe, which seems to me to be too nice a venue for it!”

When asked if the rumour of students vomiting on restaurant tables is true, she answered: “Oh without a doubt.

“I went on one swaps where a guy stood on a chair and his head ended up breaking a polysterene ceiling tile. I’m pretty sure he got his college banned from the Mahal, though memories are hazy.”

‘She passed out in a toilet’

What was the worst thing to happen at swaps?

“At my first swap in freshers’ week, we went to the Mahal, and [one student] went missing at the end when we were on our way to an “ent” [party in the bar] at the other side’s college.

“I couldn’t find her anywhere, and I had her bag and phone! Eventually we realised she was passed out (but OK!) in the Mahal bathroom… I got a cab back with her.

“She left her shoes (with vom on) in the cab though, but CamCab kindly delivered them back to her the following morning – for free I seem to remember!”

But for another anonymous Cambridge source, the experience was much tamer.

She said: “I didn’t really drink that much at Cambridge so I don’t have any first-hand experience of wild swaps and drinking societies.

“Swaps just involved going somewhere for food and drinking a lot through games such as ‘Never-have-I-ever’.

“They are probably a weekly occurrence, especially at the beginning of Michaelmas term [the first academic term, from October to December].

“I’ve been on swaps but I didn’t drink, so the experience was different for me.

“It was quite funny to watch everyone. Generally people got through a bottle of wine each.

“The restaurants that allow swaps tend to cordon off an area or put students in a separate room – they know what kind of thing is going to happen, there’s an understanding. It’s the raison d’etre for it to exist.

“Everyone pays a set fee per head and brings their own alcohol.

“The swaps I went to weren’t absolutely horrendous like all the rumours. I’ve heard they can be bad but I’d never seen that.

‘I’m not sure what Cindies is actually called’

“There’s also Caesarian Sunday, which is what people associate with Cambridge students and drinking.

“But there’s also just the normal pre-drinks and going out. How you drink at Cambridge does depend on the societies and clubs you’re part of.

“There’s Cindies on a Tuesday night… I’m not sure what Cindies is actually called, it’s just the name that Cambridge students call it.”

For the record, Cindies is Ballare in Lion Yard. Cambridge students also call Kuda in Sidney Street ‘Life’. You get the picture.

There is a calmer side to Cambridge’s varied drinking culture.

She continued: “It’s normal for people to go back to someone’s room after a formal dinner, have a drink and relax. It’s maybe more appealing to people who are not part of the sports clubs or drinking societies.

“You do get some students who have a liquor cabinet in their room and like cigars.

“Even in that culture there is a divide between the people who are just doing this because they think it looks cool, and the people who genuinely enjoy socialising that way.

“It can be performative or it can be an authentic experience.”

By Hank Nuwer

Hank Nuwer is the Indiana-based author of Broken Pledges: The Deadly Rite of Hazing, High School Hazing, Wrongs of Passage and The Hazing Reader. He has written articles or columns on hazing for the Sunday Times of India, Toronto Globe & Mail, Harper's Magazine, Orlando Sentinel, The Chronicle of Higher Education and the New York Times Sunday Magazine. His new book is Hazing: Destroying Young Lives from Indiana University Press.

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