Desperately Seeking a Narrative

Hello 2013, what stories do you have in store for us? And by ‘stories’, I mean that quite broadly. We live in stories all the time.

Toward the end of 2012, students from several universities took time out to pour drinks over themselves.

As you do.

Newcastle started it with milking. The process? Buy the milk, open the milk, pour the milk over your head.

That’s all well and good. However, Durham students argued, what would happen if you poured port over your head instead? Same situation, different drink.

The results weren’t much different, as it turns out, although the clothing stains were more difficult to get out in the wash.

First milking, then porting. Would it end with single malting, I wondered.

A bunch of freshers at St. Andrews quickly answered. And, no, it wasn’t fine whisky at all. It was Moet.

The results of a champagning experiment turned out to be very different to those from milking and porting. Why? Mainly because of the narratives chosen.

Stories are fantastic. Stories are useful for making a point. That’s why stories are used again and again. Narrative flow helps us all to understand what’s going on with minimum necessary effort.

Unfortunately, that narrative flow also helps to create stories that aren’t necessarily there in the first place.

Champagning at St. Andrews took on a much bigger story than Newcastle and Durham’s pouring attempts. From harmless joke to social commentary, from joining in to proving a point, from healthy rivalry to bitter competition, the story behind the video quickly grew much bigger than the video itself.

In fact, the video was taken down from YouTube and an apology was issued, yet the debate rumbled on. The milking and porting videos remain online.

Champagne apparently brings ideas of expense, snobbery, and special occasion. The concern, it seems, was that in associating St. Andrews with champagne and wastefulness would bring ideas of privilege, money, and further snobbery.

In this, baggage and associations enhanced the story further. This take on the narrative would give a negative spin on the university.

Both the Students’ Association and the university expressed unhappiness over the video. President, Freddie Fforde, said, “This video has undermined our image and undoes a lot of good we have done”. A representative from St. Andrews told student newspaper, The Stand, “In a time of austerity, this was at best insensitive, and at worst, lacking respect for the great many students, staff and townspeople in St Andrews who have for a long time been committed to tackling out of date stereotypes and raising more funds for bursaries and scholarships.”

Newcastle and Durham both had news coverage surrounding the pouring stunts. Yet St. Andrews gained more coverage after the subsequent response. And more opinion. It provided a new angle. And the more angles available, the easier it is to keep a story running.

The story is in the mind. It’s like asking whether or not you find the video funny. The choice is yours. The same goes for assessing the deeper meaning of its content.

We’ll never know exactly what motivated the champagning video and how it became what it did. Even the makers will look back differently to how things were in the beginning. It’s unavoidable; the true narrative is lost, because we aren’t documenting the story as it happens. That comes later and cannot be exact, even when we want it to be. And everyone involved will have had their own ideas.

What if St. Andrews students made exactly the same video with water instead of bubbly? Or whisky, as I’d suggested? Or a cocktail? Or an energy drink? Or something that wasn’t even a drink?

What if the champagne pouring video had been made by students from Oxford? Or Nottingham? Or Bath or Birkbeck or Birmingham? Or if the video hadn’t even been made by students at all?

What if the video was professionally produced for a TV audience instead? Or if the St. Andrews video had some sort of disclaimer attached to it? Or if students from different universities participated in the same prank together?

What if the St. Andrews students in the video had been from the most deprived backgrounds? Or they were people pretending to be St. Andrews students but were actually from another university?

There are no answers to any of these questions. The narratives would have changed, but there’s no way of telling how.

Taking down the champagning video and apologising for causing offense has added to the story. Subsequent responses also gave new breath.

My response to Milking was: ‘Meh,’ but I did mention it on Twitter.

My response to Porting was: ‘Oh dear. Let’s brace ourselves for loads of variations on this before it goes away.’ And I mentioned it again.

My response to Champagning was: ‘Right, the latest instalment. I can’t be bothered to point this out.’

This is my narrative to you, anyway. Those responses are not concrete and definitive facsimiles of my thoughts with no margin for error.

No matter what my responses were, here I am talking about everything in much greater detail now. And I wonder what stories will shape 2013.

I guess we won’t get to see any whisky-based antics, but do let me know if it happens. Not so much for the video, but so I can prepare for the narratives that arise from it.

One comment

  1. Hey, thanks for a great post. I think what you are saying is very true about the importance of narratives. But I think what people also need to realize is, that a single event can have multiple narratives. People tend to focus on different things due to the different experiences that they had. Thus, a single event can be interpreted in multiple ways leading to multiple narratives.

Comments are closed.