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The age of banter

The long read: It used to be just a word now it is a way of life. But is it time to get off the banter bus?

Its the most fucking ridiculous story, isnt it? We went to watch fucking dolphins, and we ended up in fucking Syria. Last summer in the Mediterranean party resort of Ayia Napa, Lewis Ellis was working as a club rep. I mean, it was fucking 8am, he told an Australian website soon afterwards, and the last fucking club had closed, and we thought, We can still go dolphin watching. Well blag our way on to a fucking boat and go dolphin watching.

But when the boat sailed so far that Cyprus disappeared from view, Ellis explained, they started to worry. Why are we so far from land? they asked the crew. Were fucking miles away and weve got no fucking wifi. Something, Ellis said, had been lost in translation; his exuberant season as a shepherd for the resorts party pilgrims had gone terribly awry. The crew wasnt taking them to watch dolphins: they were going to a Russian naval base in the city of Tartus, on Syrias Mediterranean coast. Yeah, it is a little ridiculous.

It was, nonetheless, a story that had legs. Hungover lads boat trip boob lands them in Syria, wahey-ed the Mirror; British holidaymakers board party boat in Ayia Napa and end up in war-torn SYRIA, guffawed the Express. If you saw these headlines at the time, you may dimly remember the rest. A stubborn trawler captain, chugging doggedly onwards to Tartus, where he turfed the friends out upon landing; interrogation at the hands of Russian intelligence officers; mutual hilarity as the Russians realised what had happened; and, after a hot meal, a quick tour of the area, and a good nights sleep, spots on the next fishing vessel headed back to Cyprus. It was never made clear why the captain had let them on the boat in the first place, but whatever. Everyone lapped it up.

Reflecting on the whole thing five months later, Ellis, a 26-year-old with a business degree and a marketing masters, couldnt totally wrap his head around it. I think I found 35 stories about us, he told me. I read about myself in the Hawaiian Express, do you know what I mean? (Notwithstanding that there doesnt appear to be any such newspaper, yes, I definitely do.)

What made it really weird to see the media pile in with such unstinting enthusiasm was that the story was total cobblers. I could not believe how gullible they were, Ellis said, a top note of glee still in his voice. We were just having a laugh! It was banter!

Lads: this is the age of banter. Its long been somewhat about the banter, but over the last few years, it has come to seem that its all about the banter an unabashedly bumptious attitude that took up a position on the outskirts of the culture in the early 90s and has been larging its way towards the centre ever since. There are hundreds of banter groups on Facebook, from Banter Britain (no memes insinuating child abuse/dead babies!!!) to Wanker Banter 18+ (Have a laugh and keep it sick) to the Premier League Banter Page (The only rule: keep it banter). You can buy an I banter mug on Amazon for 9, or an Archbishop of Banterbury T-shirt for 9.99.

There are now four branches of a restaurant called Scoff & Banter. When things were going badly at Chelsea FC under Jos Mourinho, it was reported the team had banned all banter in an attempt to focus their minds, and that terminology appeared in the newspapers, as if you would know exactly what it meant. Someone has created a banter map of London using a keyword search on the flatshare website SpareRoom, showing exactly where people are looking for a roommate with good banter (Clapham tends to feature prominently). When a 26-year-old man from Leeds posed for a selfie with a bemused aeroplane hijacker, Vice declared it the high-water mark of banter.

Lewis
Lewis Ellis (left) and friends in Ayia Napa, pretending to be in Syria. Photograph: Lewis Ellis

If you are younger than about 35, you are likely to hear the term all the time. Either you have banter (if you are funny and can take a joke) or you dont (if you arent and cannot). The mainstream, in summary, is now drunk and asleep on the sofa, and banter is delightedly drawing a penis on its forehead.

As banter has risen, it has expanded. Long a word used to describe submerged expressions of fraternal love, it is now also a word used to excuse uninhibited displays of masculine bravado. Today, it is segregated by class, seized on by brands, picked over by psychologists, and deplored by cultural critics; it is dominant, hotly contested and only hazily understood.

And so, whether he intends it to or not, Ellis use of the term raises some questions. Is he throwing his lot in with the most pervasive branch of the blokeish mainstream, a sanitised and benevolent hilarity that stretches from lad-dad panel shows to your mates zinger about your terrible haircut? Or is he lining up with the misogynist imitators of the Bullingdon club, a sprinkling of racists, and, as we shall see, an actual murderer purveyors of a malicious and insidious masculinity that insists on its indivisible authority and calls you a slut if you object?

Ellis isnt preoccupied by these questions, but for what its worth, he does say that he and his friends never had the slightest intention of going to Syria. We werent really trying to fool anyone, he told me, although Im not sure thats entirely consistent with the facts. We were out for a stroll, and we came across this area that looked really run down, we thought it looked like Syria. So we put it on the club reps [Facebook] page that thats where we were. And everyone started liking it. And then one of the people who contacted us was from LADBible which is like the Bible, but for LADS so we said, well have a mess around here. Well tell a completely ridiculous story, see if the media believes it. See if we can become LADBible famous.

It did, they could. Eventually, the truth came out, not thanks to any especially determined investigative journalism, but because Ellis cheerily admitted on Facebook that his tale of magnificent idiocy was a fiction. Hahaha what a prank, he wrote, with some justification.

The confession only brought another cycle of attention. Publications that had picked up the story in the first place resurfaced it with new headlines to reflect the audacity of the invention; social media users adduced it as evidence for their views of young men, or the media, or both. The Russian embassys Twitter account called it a telling example of how many Syria (and Russia) stories are made up by UK papers, which was great geopolitical banter. The attention entertained Ellis, but he says it wasnt the point. We just thought it was funny, he said. People are too serious. I keep being told to grow up, but I still want to have a good time. Ive had the jobs, Ive got the education. But when Im off work, I want to escape.

Ellis is an enthusiast and an optimist. He is, he told me late last year, desperate to take every opportunity, just to say yes to everything I can. We were on a night out in Manchester with his friends Tyson, John and Chris. In the course of the evening, the following things found their way into my beer: fingers; salt; vinegar; mayonnaise; a chip; saliva; a 10 note; and, I hazily remember being told after the fact, at least two shots of vodka.

Everyones got a thing in the group, Ellis said, as we walked from one bar to the next. One guy, hes not even that ugly, we say he looks like a Peperami. Tysons got this mole on his face, its like a Coco Pop, so youve got a Coco Pop on your face. I looked like Harry Potter when I was a kid, so they call me Potter, thats my nickname. Every single one of us has something. So you youve got Chinese eyes. Youre Chinese.

For the record, I didnt think this was OK, but coming after such a harmless litany, it didnt seem malicious enough to confront. Of course, tacit endorsement is what makes such offensive epithets a commonplace, and so it troubles me that it made me feel mysteriously welcome, just as it had when John punched me lightly in the balls when I arrived. There was no doubting Elliss sincerity: as he spoke, the sheer daft beauty of male friendship seemed to amaze him, almost to the point of physical pain. We just take the piss out of each other, and thats how we show our love, he said. So many group chats on the phone, and you just take the piss until they cry. And its like, when youre really killing them, you go, Ill stop if you want, because you know they cant say yes, so you just keep going. Then we arrived at the next bar, where I was made to drink something called a Zombie.

Early in the evening, before any of this had undermined my ability to take useful notes, Ellis broke off from talking as we walked down the street and sidled into a window display at Next Home, where he Tracey Emined a carefully made bed by climbing into it and rolling around. Everyone cracked up. Give the world a laugh, Ellis tends to think, and the world will smile back at you. Jump on a boat, and youll end up somewhere great; make the boat up, and youll get there faster. Its all about having fun, its all about the banter, he said, after hed rejoined us outside. Banter is about making the world a more exciting place.


If nobody can agree on what banter is, thats hardly a new problem. The first usage of the word recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary comes from noted Restoration lad Thomas dUrfey, also known for his hit song The Fart, in a satirical 1677 play called Madam Fickle. Banter him, banter him, Toby, a character called Zechiel urges, which may be the first time that someone called Toby was so instructed, but certainly wasnt the last.

The OED also notes early attempts at a definition by Jonathan Swift and Samuel Johnson. (Swift mentions a banter upon transubstantiation, in which a cork is turned into a horse, and fair enough, turning a cork into a horse would be classic banter.) Both are a little disgusted by the word, and neither unearths much of an origin story: by their accounts, banter is so coarse that it emerged, fully formed and without antecedent, out of the mouths of oafs.

As it turns out, though, the OED is not at present fully able to handle the banter. According to Eleanor Maier, an associate editor on the dictionary, a search of earlier English texts reveals that a number of previous examples are missing from the dictionarys definition, which was first drafted in 1885 including a quote from a 1657 translation of Don Quixote. (After examining the history, Maier told me that she would be adding banter to the list of entries that are up for review.)

dougie stew (@DougieStew)

Welcome to London #BagelGate pic.twitter.com/KcJoz0ycZU

February 26, 2017

In recent years, banter has barged into our lives at a remarkable clip. Googles Ngram Viewer, a tool that assesses (with some limitations) the frequency with which a term appears in a large database of written sources, finds that banter popped up about twice as often in 2008, the most recent year covered, as it did in 1980.

But banter plugged away for a long time before it became an overnight success. In the 19th century, it often denoted a kind of formal sparring. Even as the term evolved over the 20th, it continued to seem a little prim. In the House of Commons in 1936, Ramsay MacDonald, the former Labour prime minister who had returned in a new seat after losing his old one, was subjected to a good deal of banter Dear old Granny MacDonald!, among other witticisms.In 1981, a Guardian report that chess champion Anatoly Karpov and his handlers had successfully protested at his challenger Viktor Korchnois constant cross-board talk ran under the unlikely headline: Chess banter banned.

Such stories do little to prepare us for what banter has become. Consider the viral video that became known as #bagelgate earlier this year. In the recording, a minor scuffle broke out on the 00.54 train from Kings Cross to Huntingdon, and then for no obviously related reason a woman who had a large bag of bagels decided to put one on the head of the guy sitting in front of her, and then another after he took it off and threw it out of the window, and another and another, and then everyone in the carriage started chanting hes got a bagel on his head, and eventually the slightly spoddy victim who is me when I was 13 and someone filled my pencil case with Mr Kipling apple pies (squashed, oozing) because I was fat lost it and screamed Get the fuck out of my face!, and then another fight broke out on the platform, and then the police got on to the train, and every single person fell into not-me-guv silence: this is not Granny MacDonalds banter any more.

If it is hard to understand how these activities can fall under the same umbrella, it should be noted that a phenomenon may predate our choice of term to describe it its just that the act of definition makes it more visible, and perhaps more likely to be imitated. At some point, though, banter became the name for what British men already regarded as their natural tone of voice. There is a very deeply embedded folk culture in the UK of public ribaldry, extreme sarcasm, facetiousness in other words, of laddishness, says Tony Thorne, a linguist and cultural historian. What you might think of as banter now is rooted in that tradition.

That tradition first lashed itself to banters mast in the early 1990s, and controversy soon followed. In June 1992, a Guardian story headlined Police fire sex banter officer, about the dismissal of a sergeant for sexual harassment, recorded an early skirmish in the modern banter wars, and an important new layer to its meaning in the wild: The move is seen as part of the Metropolitan polices desire to reassure women officers that what has previously been tolerated as banter is no longer acceptable. Two years later, the lads mags arrived.


The first edition of Loaded magazine appeared in May 1994, with a picture of Gary Oldman on the front smoking a dog-end, under a banner that declared him a super lad. What fresh lunacy is this? the editors note read. Loaded is a new magazine dedicated to life, liberty and the pursuit of sex, drink, football and less serious matters Loaded is for the man who believes he can do anything, if only he wasnt hungover.

If banter dismays you, James Brown, the magazines first editor, is quite an easy bogeyman. As he acknowledges himself, he created a title that defined a genre. Loaded was swiftly recognised as a foundational text for a resurgent and ebullient masculinity that had been searching for public expression. While it was always overtly horny, the magazine was initially more interested in a forlorn, slackjawed and self-ironising appreciation of A-listers (one reversible poster had Cindy Crawford on one side and a steam train on the other) than the grot-plus-football formula that successors and imitators like Maxim, Zoo and Nuts milked to destruction. But it also flirted with something murkier.

To its critics, Loaded and its imitators aimed to sanitise a certain hooliganistic worldview with a strategic disclaimer. Banter emerges as this relentless gloss of irony over everything, said Bethan Benwell, senior lecturer in language and linguistics at the University of Stirling and the author of several papers on mens magazines. The constant excusing of sexist or homophobic sentiments with this wink that says you dont really mean it. Benwell pointed to Loadeds emblematic strapline: For men who should know better.

Brown denies that his magazine invented banter. Instead, he says, it captured a zeitgeist that the media had previously failed to acknowledge; the folk culture that Tony Thorne refers to, brought out into the open. Before Browns intervention, GQ had run John Major and Michael Heseltine as cover stars, for Gods sake. I took the interests and the outlook of the young men that I knew, and I put them in a magazine, Brown said. Im not responsible for the tone of the later entrants to the market. We were criticised because we fancied women, not because we belittled them.

The thing about Loaded was that the way we wrote reflected the way we were with our mates, he went on. Theres definitely a thing that exists in the male outlook: you take the piss out of the people you like, and you ignore the people you dont.

Accept this as your starting point, and objections become exhausting to sustain: what youre objecting to is an act of affection. Of course, this is what makes it insidious. Because Browns account rests on the intention behind the magazine, and Benwells on the effect it had, they are impossible to reconcile. Its a very difficult thing to resist or challenge without looking like the stereotypical humourless feminist, said Benwell. But by laughing, you become complicit.

Loaded gave this new kind of banter escape velocity, and it began to colonise other worlds. On BBC2, for example, David Baddiel and Frank Skinner were staking out their own territory with Fantasy Football League, a mixture of sketches and celebrity chat that managed to be enthusiastic and satirical at the same time, and reached its peak when the pair became national icons, thanks to their Euro 96 anthem, Three Lions. While a long-running joke about the Nottingham Forest striker Jason Lees pineapple haircut seems flatly racist in retrospect Baddiel did an impression of him in blackface by and large, the tone was milder and more conventional than the magazines were: this was the sensibility of the university graduate slumming it before embarking on grown-up life.

Baddiel implied that laddism could easily occupy a spectrum from ogling to literature, drawing a line to Nick Hornbys memoir of life as an Arsenal fan, Fever Pitch. Hornby once said to me that all this stuff you know, fantasy football and his book is men talking about things that they like and for a while in the mid-80s they werent allowed to, he said in 1995. Ive always liked football and Ive always liked naked women, and its easier to talk about that now than it was eight years ago. Those comments reflect a kind of sneer at its critics that you could often detect in Fantasy Football League, even as its hosts protested that they were just having a laugh though Baddiel himself denies that view. Twenty years on, he, like Brown, is at pains to draw a line between the approach that he and Skinner popularised, and the forms that came later. I guess me and Frank did specialise in banter, he said in an email. In a time before it was known as bantz.

Over the next 10 years, two things happened that ushered in the age of banter. (You might call it mature banter, except that its also the opposite.) First, instead of just being a thing that happened, it became a thing that people talked about. Then, as it became a more tangible cultural product, everyone started trying to make money out of it. The watershed moment, the forms equivalent to Dylan going electric, was the invention of Dave.

Like most good ideas, it looks simple enough in retrospect. Before Dave was Dave, it was UKTV Gold 2. The predecessor channels audience share was 0.761%, and no one could tell who on earth it was supposed to be for. But we had the content, says Steve North, the channels brand manager in 2007 and content of a particular kind that the existing name did very little to communicate: Have I Got News for You, They Think Its All Over, Top Gear. Viewers said they loved the repartee, the humour. It reminded them of spending time with their funniest friends.

The
The first issue of Loaded magazine, from May 1994

The target audience was highly specific. It was men married or in relationships, maybe with young children, not going to the pub as much as they used to, says Andy Bryant, managing director of Red Bee, the agency brought in to work on the rebrand. And they missed that camaraderie.

Their purpose thus fixed, North started to run brainstorming sessions at which people would shout out suggestions for the name. One of the ones we collected was Dave, he says. We thought, great, but we cant call it that. But then we thought, Its a surrogate friend. If the audience really sees it as that, if they see it as genuinely providing the banter, maybe we can really give it a name.

They put their hunch through its paces. The market research company YouGov was commissioned to test Dave alongside a bunch of other names (Matthew and Kevin were also on the shortlist), but nothing else had the same everyman resonance. For us, Dave is a sensibility, a place, an emotion, a feeling, said North, his tone thoughtful, almost gnomic. Everyone has their own sense of who Dave is, thats the important thing. Its hard to find anyone who doesnt know someone called Dave.

Now the channel had a brand, it needed a slogan. Lots of people claim they played a part in the naming, says Bryant. But it was just as important to encapsulate what the channel was all about. And at some point someone, I dont know who, wrote it on a board: The home of witty banter. The rebrand added 8m new viewers in six months; Dave saw a 71% increase in its target audience of affluent young men.

Conceived by the first generation of senior professionals to have grown up with banter as an unremarkable part of their demographics cultural mix, the channel crystallised a change, and accelerated it. In 2006, The Ricky Gervais Show, in which Gervais and Stephen Merchant relentlessly poked fun at their in-house idiot savant Karl Pilkington, became the most popular podcast of all time. In 2007, the year of Daves rebrand, Top Gears ratings shot from below 5m to a record high of 8m. The following year, QI moved from BBC4 to BBC2. (A tie-in book published the same year, QI: Advanced Banter, sold more than 125,000 copies.)

North saw the kind of fraternal teasing that was being monetised by his channel, and the panel shows that were its lifeblood, as fundamentally benign. The key thing is that its two-way, he said. Its about two people riffing off each other.

But like his 20th-century forebears, he can see that something ugly has evolved, and he wants to keep his brand well away from it. Bants, he said with distaste. That thing of cover for dubious behaviour we hate and despise it massively. When we launched, it was about fun, being light-hearted, maybe pushing each other without being disrespectful. When people talk about Ive had a go at that person, great banter no, thats just nasty.


By the turn of the decade,as other branding agencies mimicked the success of Dave, banter was everywhere, a folk tradition that had acquired a peculiar sort of respectability. The men who celebrated it werent just lads in the pub any more: they had spending power and establishment allies on their side. But they were, by the same token, more visible to critics. Aggression from an underdog can be overlooked; aggression from the establishment is serious enough to become a matter of public concern.

Take Richard Keys and Andy Gray, Sky Sports brand-defining football presenters, who got themselves up to their necks in some extremely bad banter in 2011. Keys blamed dark forces, but everyone else blamed him and Gray for being misogynists. We knew this because there was footage.

The firestorm, as Keys called it, centred on claims that the two men had said and done heinously sexist things off-air. Most memorable, at least for its phrase-making, was the clip in which Keys eagerly asked his fellow pundit Jamie Redknapp if hed smashed it it being a woman and asserted that he could often be found hanging out the back of it.

Gray went quickly. In the days before he followed, Keys burned hot with injustice in a series of mea-sorta-culpas, particularly focused on the tape in which he expressed his derision at the idea that a woman, Sian Massey-Ellis, could be an assistant referee in the Premier League.

It was just banter, he said. Or, more exactly, just a bit of banter, as he said Massey-Ellis had assured him she understood in a later telephone conversation in which, he added, much banter passed between us. She and I enjoyed some banter, he protested. It was lads-mag banter, he insisted. It was stone-age banter, he admitted. We liked to have banter, he explained. Richard Keys was sorry if you were offended, but also, it wasnt his fault if you didnt get it. It was just banter, for goodness sake!

Andy
Up to their necks in some extremely bad banter Andy Gray and Richard Keys in 2011. Photograph: Richard Saker/Rex

Keys insistence that his mistake was simply a failure to move with the times was nothing new: banter has always seemed to carry a longing for the past, for an imagined era before male friendship was so cramped by the tiresome obligations of feminist scrutiny. But while his underlying views were painfully dated, his conception of banter was entirely modern: a sly expansion of the words meaning, and a self-conscious contention that it provided an impregnable defence.

The Keys variation understood banter, first, as a catch-all means of denying responsibility if anyone was hurt; and, second, as a means of reinforcing a bond between two people by being cruel about a third. The comparison wouldnt please a couple of alphas like Keys and Gray, but both strategies brought it closer to a style of communication with classically feminine associations: gossip. Deborah Cameron, the Rupert Murdoch (lol) Professor in Language and Communication at Oxford University, argues that the two modes of interaction follow basically the same structure. People gossip as a trust game, she said. You tell someone your unsayable private secret, and it bonds you closer together. Theyre supposed to reciprocate with a confidence of their own. Well, banter works in the same way now. You say something outrageous, and you see if the other person dares to top your remark.

The trust game in banter was traditionally supposed to be: do you trust me when I say were friends in spite of the mean things Im saying about you? But now theres a second version of the game: do I trust you not to tell anyone the mean things Im saying about other people? I think originally it was a harmless thing, said Cameron, whose analysis is rooted in an archive of male group conversation, mostly recorded by her students, that goes back to the 1980s. But then it started to be used as an excuse when men were caught out engaging in forms of it that werent so harmless.

It comes down to context and intent, says the comedian Bridget Christie. The gentler form of banter is still knocking around, she suggested, but now it exists alongside something darker: I found The Inbetweeners adolescent banter hilarious, because it was equal and unthreatening. But there is obviously a world of difference between a group of teenage boys benignly taking the piss out of each other, and a bigot being racist or misogynist and trying to pass it off as a joke.

Trace the rise of banter, and you will find that it corresponds to the rise of political correctness or, anyway, to the backlash against political correctness gone mad. That phrase and just banter mirror each other perfectly: one denoting a priggish culture that is deemed to have overreached, the other a laid-back culture that is deemed to have been unfairly reined in. Ironically enough, just banter does exactly what it accuses political correctness of, seeking to close down discussion by telling you that meaning is settled by category rather than content. Political correctness asserts that a racist joke is primarily racist, whereas banter asserts that a racist joke is primarily a joke. In the past, the men who used it rarely had to define it, or to explain themselves to anybody else. Today, in contrast, it is named all the time. The biggest change isnt the banter itself, says Bethan Benwell. Its the explicit use of the word as a disclaimer.

By sheer repetition and by its use as an unanswerable defence, banter has turned from an abstraction into a vast and calcified description of actions as well as words: gone from a way of talking to a way of life, a style that accidentally became a worldview. He bantered you, people sometimes say: you always used to banter with your mates, but now it often sounds like something you do to them. Once it was directionless, inconclusive chatter with wit as the engine that drove it, said the comedian Russell Kane. Now, if I trip you up, thats banter.

You might think the humiliation suffered by Keys and Gray would have made banter less appealing as a get-out, but not a bit of it. Banter, increasingly, seems like the first refuge of the inexcusable. In 2014, Malky Mackay, who had been fired as manager of Cardiff City Football Club a year earlier, was caught having sent texts that referred to Chinese people eating dogs, black people being criminals, Jewish people being avaricious, and gay people being snakes all of which were initially optimistically defended by the League Managers Association as letting off steam to a friend during some friendly text message banter. The comedian Dapper Laughs, whose real name is Daniel OReilly, established himself as banters rat king, with his very own ITV2 show, and then lost it after he suggested that an audience member at one of his gigs was gagging for a rape. A man was convicted of murder after he crushed his friend against a wall with a Jeep Cherokee after an argument over badger-baiting, a course of action that he said had been intended as banter. Another slashed the throat of someone he had met in a pub and described the incident as a moment of banter after 14 or 15 pints. Both are now in prison.


By any sane measure,banter was falling into disrepute, as often a disguise for malice as a word for the ribaldry of lads on the lash. Still it did not go away: instead, the worst of it has mutated again, asserting its authority in public and saving its creepiest tendencies for the shadows or, at least, for the company of five, or 10, or 20 of your closest mates.

At the London School of Economics, it started with a leaflet. Each year at the universitys freshers fair, LSE Rugby Football Club distributed a banterous primer on rugby culture. In October 2014, says the then-president of the student union, Nona Buckley-Irvine, a student came to her in tears with a copy in her hand. The leaflet talked about trollops, slags, crumpet, mingers, and the desirability of misogyny; there were passing references to the horrors of homosexual humiliation and outright homosexual debauchery. Anyone charmed by all this was invited to sign up for the club and join the banter list, entitling them to participate in the exchange of chappish email conversation.

To anyone with a passing knowledge of university laddism, it was hard to imagine a more ordinary iteration. Still, after the unreconstructed chappishness of the leaflet came to light, the club knew it had a problem. It issued a collective apology acknowledging that we have a lot to learn about the pernicious effects of banter, and promised to organise a workshop. But there was reason to be sceptical about the depth of that commitment.

When Buckley-Irvine and her colleagues published a report on the incident, they noted a string of others, including an antisemitic assault on a university ski trip to Val dIsere in 2011. And there were other indiscretions it didnt mention. According to two people who were present, one club dinner at an Indian restaurant on Brick Lane ended with a stripper having bottles thrown at her when, already intimidated, she refused to take her clothes off. She hid in the toilet, and had to be escorted out by a member of staff as the team vandalised the restaurant.

banter
Photograph: Alamy

According to five people who were either members of the rugby club or closely associated with it, one notorious senior member was widely thought to be responsible for the leaflet. (He did not respond to requests for comment.) But when they came to defend themselves to the student union, members of the club fell back on one of the most revered pillars of laddism: all for one, one for all. Theyd clearly worked out a line, says Nona Buckley-Irvine. No one individual was responsible. They were sorry. It was just banter. Thats what they all said.

The accountancy firm KPMG, which sponsored the universitys wider Athletics Union, decided that banter was not an especially helpful brand association, and withdrew funding worth 22,000. The students union decided to disband the club for the academic year. The decision moved some observers to disgust. It was a gross overreaction, a former team member told me. We were the best-behaved team when it came to actually playing rugby but they banned that bit and they couldnt ban any of the rest.

Others took a less measured tone. I had old members emailing me and calling me a fascist, says Buckley-Irvine. Asking me if I didnt understand that it was just banter. Rugby players chanted abuse at her on nights out, she told me. They shoulder-barged her, and called her a cunt.

These kinds of interactions would tend to take place on Wednesdays, also known as sports night, at a bar in Leicester Square. Sports night was the apotheosis of the rugby clubs bleak solidarity. In deference to what you might call the wingers-before-mingers code, for instance, members of the club who were expected to dress in suits werent allowed to speak to women before 9pm. So they would just shout abuse instead, one female former student, who Ill call Anna, remembered. One chant, she said, went, Nine nos and a yes is a yes. At the time, Anna thought that it was all a joke. People would say, Its just banter all the time. After everything. Absolutely everything, she said, sitting in a cafe in south London. If you were meeting someone new, saying they had good banter, that was a pretty high compliment. Whereas if you dont go along with that stuff, its seen as, you cant take the chat, you cant take the banter. And its not seen as having a stance against it. Its seen as not being able to keep up.

After the rugby club was disbanded, nothing much changed in sports night social life. Many members of the club still went on the same nights out; they just colonised other teams. They still addressed girls as Sarah 2 or Sarah 8 depending on how attractive they considered them out of 10; they still had shouted conversations about their sex lives in front of the women they had slept with but refused to acknowledge.

That culture was not confined to Wednesday nights. Anna remembers a guy who took her picture as she slept, naked, in the bed they were sharing, and circulated it to another non-university sports team via WhatsApp. She wasnt meant to see it on his phone.

Ask anyone well-informed where banter resides now, and theyll give the same answer: WhatsApp groups and email threads, the safe spaces of the lad class. What youd get out of those WhatsApp threads, its another world of drama, one former member of the football club said. The details of girls bodies that youd read, a few funny jibes, that was the limit for me. But when it moved on to, like, really, really bad stuff, always about sex it was too much. Those threads are the source of everything.

If the threads were an outlet, they were by no means the limit. Banter, by common consent, wasnt confined to mocking each other: it was about action. If you dressed up for a night out, one female student remembered, it was just kind of status quo that you could have your arse grabbed. It was just like, Oh, that was kind of weird, but OK, thatll happen. Like everyone else willing to speak about it, her view of that culture was perplexingly nuanced, sometimes contradictory. It sounds scary, she said, but that being said, some of my best nights were there, and like it was fun. But then she said: What was defined as serious just got so pushed. I think for someone to lodge a complaint they would have to be actually hurt.

Anna remembers lots of sketchy incidents. She recalls nights when her choices faded into a blur, and she wondered if she had really been in control. But at the time, I would never call it out, she said. And then, youre all living in halls together, and the next day, its like: What did you do last night? Thats hilarious. Thats banter.

When Anna thinks about the behaviour of some of the men she knew at university, she finds it hard to pin down exactly what she thinks of them. Theres one in particular who sticks in her mind. On a Wednesday night, he was a banter guy, she said. He was a Wednesday animal. But the rest of the time, he was my friend.

Controversial though all this was at the time, no one seems to think that it will have cost the perpetrators much. Ive tried so hard to leave all that behind, said the former member of the football team. But those guys theyre all going on to run banks, or the country, or whatever. The senior rugby man who many held responsible, by the way, has landed on his feet. Today, he has a job at KPMG.


In 2017, every new instance of banter is immediately spotted and put through the journalistic wringer. (Vices Joel Golby, who wrote the definitive text on the bagel thing, has made a career from his exquisite close readings of the form.) But when each new absolute legend emerges, we dont usually have the context to make the essential judgment: do the proponents tend towards the harmless warmth of Ellis and his mates, or the frank hostility of the LSE rugby boys? Is their love of irony straightforward, or a mask for something else?

As Richard Keys and Dapper Laughs and their cohorts have polluted the idea of banter, the commercial entities that endorsed its rise have become uneasy with the label. They wanted it to go viral; they hadnt expected it to go postal. Dave, for example, has dropped the home of witty banter slogan. Its not about classic male humour any more, its a little bit smarter, says UKTVs Steve North. We definitely say it less than we used to.

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/jun/30/the-age-of-banter

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