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Sunday, 31 October 2010

Pennying: A sociological defence

This article is available here, on the Varsity website.

Changes in government regulations mean that the customary game of Pennying is, generally speaking, a bit illegal now. This would bring only small benefits to us as students – coy penile jokes would no longer need to be made to explain that yes, indeed, that cylindrical pocket bulge really is a ‘roll of quarters’.

In any case, it is not as though something being illegal automatically prohibits you from doing it. We are selective about which laws we get uppity about. Whilst cycling, I jumped a red light and an old man, with alarming aggression, bellowed the Highway Code in my ear. Then, his feet neatly in the stirrups of his high horse, he proceeded immediately to cycle through pedestrians on the pavement to avoid the road traffic. A hideous hypocrisy that proves a point; laws are to be negotiated, not obeyed.

Like that decrepit velo-maniac Methuselah detouring onto the curb, we ought not surrender the tradition of Pennying for the sake of obedience: instead, we need to defend it from its detractors and recognise the symbolic virtues of social harmony that are borne of dropping the face of the Queen into the wineglass. There is more to pennying that the Senior Tutors acknowledge – it is not solely the prelude to tomorrow’s lingering staircase scent, nor only the tentative foreplay to a hangover and the loss of one’s dignity/phone/self-restraint.

Contained in that cheeky drip-drop of coinage are enshrined the values of our student community.

Despite the grandiose idealisations of Oxbridge elitism as unerring hedonism to the soundtrack of Received Pronunciation chatter and popping corks, the truth is generally more mediocre. The sight of students mindlessly trudging about the New Museums Site day after day with their two-strap backpacks loaded with essentially pointless facts is so grim it kills any pretensions of Cambridge being a bastion of high-IQ joy. We are generally depressed, knackered and overworked. Traditions like pennying, with the unspoken compulsion to comply to institutionalised drinking, provides a short-term solution to the building anxieties that bubble up throughout term. Without such opportunities for emotional release this highly strung atmosphere would destroy us. Pennying is a social safety valve.

The idea that people might be forced into drinking against their will isn’t quite grounded in social reality. Formal hall is not some egalitarian lottery where you could be seated with anyone – you sit with your social group and the pennying norms modify according to your allegiances. The chance of Henry the leery drinking-society bruiser emptying his wallet into the unwilling wine glass of Jane the shy socially-awkward member of RepressedSoc is slim. Generally, the piss-heads will incapacitate each other and the sensibles either don’t penny or do so in a tame and prim manner. Colleges all have strict social divides and pennying locates itself between their differences. It reinforces a sense of social solidarity which brings group members together.

Here it is worth remembering the wise words of Mary Douglas, that ‘dirt is matter out of place’. Formal dinners are the right location for drinking – the very notion of formal hall should evoke the Bacchanal spirit of the medieval banquet, not the respectful bread-breaking of a monastic friary. A certain red-faced sense of abandon is meretricious in its own right. It would be a different matter if some randomer from John’s unloaded his shrapnel into your Evian in the library or dropped a couple of Euros into your soup-flask in a lecture. But no, formal hall is the rightful home of Cantabrigian joie de vivre.

Pennying is more than just a physical act. Inside the interaction of pennying partnerships are contained the social ties which bind us together, so we should not let them be impinged. You have nothing to lose but your inhibitions!

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