This is our truth, tell us yours
Scenario one; the second and third years stand around, in a semi circle, some drunk,others eager to see the freshers go through the ritual they went through. One by one,they come forward, and place their flaccid penises in the mouth of a pigs head.One of their number,drunkenly fearful that the pig’s mouth will close on his cock, has fled. Another, playing on the fact that his brother is one of the third years catcalling from the side, asserts a pre-eminent right to be excused. There are no rules, no membership, just a social selection process that lets all of them identify people like them.
Scenario two; eager to be accepted, to be one of the set, the young man takes his seat in an ornate chair. It’s only once he is seated, and the pig’s head placed on his lap, that he realises what the other candidates will be required to do. Is it an honour, that he is excused exposing himself, or a ritual humiliation,a metaphorical suggestion that he’s nothing more than the cocksucker of the group? Is he being tested,to see how he reacts? Despite, or maybe because of all the drink he’s taken, he closes his eyes and tries to imagine he is somewhere else. Only later,as the tale is retold in bars and over dinners will he know if he is accepted or rejected, one of them or one of the others.
Scenario three; it’s a game. like pass the parcel with a pig’s head. Except, when the music stops, someone has to drink a pint while holding the pigs head next to theirs, posing for a photograph. After the first few verses the game descends into chaos. One young candidate,eager to prove himself, mocks the first to fail, the tousle haired young man who is slumped over the table,drooling and fearing he’ll vomit in company. Each time he opens his eyes the pig’s head is there. in years to come he will have a curious aversion to Motorhead teeshirts. Then he opens his eyes and sees a boy he knows from school, almost a man, posing, his penis in the mouth of the pig’s head, next to his, an exquisitely framed photograph of his failings. Bile rising in his throat he flees.
I won’t labour the point any further. Initiation rituals can be about bonding or division. They can be about belonging or being excluded. They can be about solidarity or bullying. Sometimes, they’re not ritual at all, but spontaneity dressed up as tradition.
I’ve three times refused to join the Freemasons; each time I’ve felt slightly ashamed that anyone should think I was remotely interested. One of the features of Freemasonry is the existence of hierarchies within the hierarchy, or secret lodges and higher orders, mysterious and yet almost inevitable in the mafia of the mediocre.There seems, in the absence of love, to be a need for men to set themselves apart from others while seeking a small group of peers, to enable them to better know where they stand in the secret hierarchies that stalk their nightmares. One thing I know for sure is that the majority of Freemasons I have met don’t believe in, and don’t give a fig for the bollocks some masons talk about the great architect. Every secret society I have ever encountered has a minority of members whose job is making up the rules and embroidering the myths, while the majority get on with just belonging, with acting out the ritualized cock measuring that is the central narrative of their conversations and practices.
I’m a working class man; I understand the role secret societies and ritual played in our past, and the way folk ritual and natural justice combined in groups like the Scotch Cattle and the Luddites. The rituals of drunken young men trying to organize a hierarchy at university resemble, to me, the way the social justice traditions of the celtic ceffyl pren might decay into Padstow’s Obby Oss, a camp recreation of the mari lwyd without its brooding reverse face, the charivari or the ceffyl pren. (I suspect the different names of the two are because they were different rituals; the charivari dealt in humiliation, while the ceffyl pren was more physical and violent.) Rituals with a purpose can enable us to see the world more clearly, to undertake tasks we otherwise could not complete. Without those tasks, those challenges, the rituals become a corrupt representation of a misunderstood past put to use for the worst of purposes in the present. Want a really simple example? In a rugby club I once played for, the post match ritual included a song called I don’t Want to Join the Army. It was ritualized, with gestures and harmonies, and required of all the players, as a sign that the game was over, the drinking was begun, and we were all friends again. It took one of the older players, retired, to point out that when he did his national service it was a rebellious barracks song; when I discovered a portion of it in the footnotes of Orwell’s The Lion and the Unicorn, as an example of the drunken, foul mouthed culture of England’s army, it assumed a significance I had known nothing about when it was just a call to the bar.
Even if it’s true that our Prime Minister posed with his cock in the mouth of a dead pig, we don’t know why. The rituals of young men can tell us a lot about their character, if only the young men themselves tell us why they did what they did. As the scenarios illustrate, our imaginations can comfortably fill the gaps in the absence of explanations.