Back during the Christmas holidays it occurred to me how irritating it must be for people who hate the season to be surrounded by this mass-celebration of it. I love Christmas but loathe enough other popular activities that I can appreciate their alienation. One of the great things about being 29 and not 19 anymore is that I am finally free from the utter ugliness of, for example, night clubs.
In my teens and early twenties I joined friends in going to crowded pubs and night clubs but very unusually I didn't drink alcohol at this time at all. When I went, I remained cold sober and watched civilisation degrade around me with clear eyes and a grim total recall the next morning.
Horrible times! Queuing in the rain for thirty minutes, drunken jackasses jammed up against me and trying to elbow ahead. Surveyed finally by stone-faced bouncers who would glance at my ID before a curt nod indicated that I was allowed the privilege of paying to enter. Passing down a gloomy chilled corridor, lit inexplicably with dim ultraviolet blue that made tiny particles on everyone's clothes glow white, and then into a baking hot cavernous room, crammed to the door with people. The music: deafening and dismal.
For all that my friends talked about these nights as being wild and unpredictable, there seemed to be deep ritual constraints. Everyone who wasn't dancing absolutely had to be holding a glass of liquid, even if were water; friends would pester me in bewilderment if I challenged this taboo by not having a drink before me at all times. It seemed to bother them! Among those buying alcohol there was a strange machismo that saw the boys buy only masculine drinks like beer or spirits, often in rounds that forced everyone to drink at the same uncomfortable rate. I remember once in my late teens I poked at the condensation on the side of a friend's glass of Guinness. He sternly declared: 'You never touch another man's pint!' God! More rules and etiquette I didn't understand.
There was dancing. I am pretty reserved but attracted enough by good throbbing music that I would sometimes dance, and sometimes enjoy it. But the crowds, the constant jostling and claustrophobia, the battle of elbows and shoulders to squeeze from one part of the jammed building to the other, all wore me down. The music, too, was loud and fast enough to wake some dance spirit in me, but not powerful enough to satisfy it - only the rough pounding beat of metal could do that, but none of my friends wanted to go to metal clubs.
All around me in those boiling, sweat-drenched places were beautiful girls but neither I nor, I think, most of my male friends had any idea what to do about it. The music was far, far too loud to communicate verbally and, damn it, verbal was all I had! To spend the night in deafening muteness, watching attractive people but not able to engage, bumped and shouldered by red-faced drunks blundering for the toilets, tugging my shoes up from the suction of booze-soaked floors, was to have a bad time. Yet at some point a friend would inevitably sidle up, put their mouth next to my ear, and bellow: 'Arrru rarrig aa rudd raaa?'
Friend: 'ARRRU RARRRIG AA RUDD RAAAAAA?'
Friend: 'ARE. YOU. HAVING. A. GOOD. NIGGGHHHHHHTTTT?'
Thumbs up! Odd that people would never ask me this when I really was having a good time: there was no need to lean over to me in the cinema or interrupt a chat with friends to check if I was alright! Just another inexplicable part of the night club etiquette and I never knew how to respond.
Hours ticked by and whatever pleasure I'd taken from the laughter earlier in the evening would be long gone by the end. I was not alone; I often looked around and saw others, standing in exhaustion with drink in hand, gazing morose and unmoving at the swaying crowd. By 3am I was sleepy, irritated and deeply reserved, closed inwards and rendered defensive while the world around me floundered about in pawing drunken messiness. We moved out finally to the streets, hit by a wall of freezing air after the heat of the club, to a scene of unhappy chaos. Drunk young men roaring and pissing against walls and shrieking with laughter, girls in high heels tottering around, falling and shouting bitter arguments, staggering into the street in front of taxis.
My friends would be disorganised and some demanding we visit a takeaway. Here we faced another hell crammed with obnoxious drunks, screaming orders at the handful of sober Chinese or Poles working behind the counter. Outside the street would be littered with half-eaten burgers, split bags of chips squashed into the concrete, a treat for the morning birds. I can remember nights when several of us sat and ate in near-silence in these places, drained while other gangs were still hyper and screaming laughter or obscenities. On the very worst nights we struggled to find a taxi as the streets were dotted with thousands of drunks desperate for bed, and stood in sombre queues to wait and wait in the cold just to get home.
And the next day my friends would declare the night an excellent success and promise to do it all again! I couldn't believe it, sometimes I wondered if they had somehow forgotten the discomfort and the waiting in the cold and the fear of the drunken mobs sprawling across the city. Others, though, I presume really had enjoyed it in ways I never understood. Perhaps it was the effect of the alcohol I wasn't touching, though years later I would finally get drunk and find it a mild impediment to my sense of balance and nothing more.
There were good nights of course, but many bad times too and in time I would realise that it just didn't suit me. And that's fine. It can rumble on every weekend but I want nothing to do with it and, thanks to the glory of adulthood, can now largely avoid them. Thank God! Does anyone else have a much-loved popular activity which they absolutely hate having anything to do with? Feel free to share in the comments.