Jack Barton: What does ‘The Real Ale Society’ say about us?

THERE is a good chance that some of you are regular readers of The Courier and so might have seen my previous column regarding the oft tedious drinking culture of our fair town. I mention this purely so I can establish that anti-alcoholism is not today’s theme – I really like the Real Ale Society – I think they epitomise a sensible approach to drinking. They also host some of the more genial society socials I have been too.

None of this is relates to my point.

I’m interested in societies. I didn’t really think of myself as a ‘society’ person before I came to University; I’m not a natural joiner; I’m not a creepy loner either, but I have traditionally been enough of a cynic to dislike the idea of forced interactions, hinging on the smallest of common interests. My belief, perhaps naïve, was that friendship of any meaningful level required a combination of shared interests and experiences beyond, say, a mutual enjoyment of bell ringing.

After a few years of being here I have become a society person, a joiner of groups, and you might think that this is because I have become less cynical. You would of course, be wrong. I have in fact become more cynical. Social interaction, it turns out, is always forced to some degree, and meeting a new person will forever hinge on establishing some tiny common interest.

Real Ale is a good example of this. It’s such a bizarrely small thing to have in common with other people that I became a paid member as a result of the shock of finding out that the society exists.

My previous assumption had been that societies need to cover pretty broad aspects of your life and interests in order for you to relate to the other members; my main society is the one that relates to my degree, so the thing I have in common with the other members is a relatively central aspect of my life. As far as I can tell, there are societies for every course, and not a single one of them is influenced by the content of the corresponding degree.

But Real Ale? I drink it, not quite exclusively, and sometimes, having ‘sampled’ a few, I explain to my lager friends where they’re going wrong; such is the extent of my relationship with that particular type of drink.  And yet, this is a very widespread society, active at dozens of universities around the country.

So, today’s observation is that you need just one topic in common with other people in order to initiate the conversations that lead to friendship. You’re dazzled by this insight, I’m sure.

What of other universities? I’ve often heard it said that Aber has an unusually society-driven student body, but it turns out that Swansea, Cardiff and Bangor all have more societies than we do, as do most other universities in Wales. What does it mean? Are we less active, or less socially inept, and thus less reliant on the framework provided by socials?

Well, probably neither.  It’s obviously more complicated than that, a balancing act between large universities that have enough students to support a wide array of activities, and small-town universities that need to find a way to kill time. Indeed, if I could answer this question, I might be in a better position to figure out why only Cardiff has been able to initiate and maintain a pole dancing society, something which would seem to have broad appeal.

At any university, or, in fact, at any point in life, these kind of hobbyist groups are a shortcut through the insecurities that tell us we need to find a really good reason to strike up a conversation with our peers. A little imaginary common ground goes a long way, and all anyone needs to start talking is that first line; of course, as the Real Ale society has learnt, getting a little drunk helps too.