Willow has a certain reputation. For whatever reason, students are invariably told that Willow has to be experienced in the same state Charlie Sheen experiences life. Anything less than total mental catatonia is unacceptable, and anyone who has witnessed it with sober eyes will never be whole again. Undoubtedly if it were run in Old Testament times, it would have been the focal point of divine judgment in lieu of Sodom and Gomorrah. Lot’s wife would have been turned to a pillar of salt, yearning for the smell of tequila rather than the debauched city that was her home.
Now, many of us have been there sober but it’s safe to assume no sober student has voluntary stayed there alone from the moment it opens at 11pm to when the lights come on at 4.30, drinking nothing but water and never once leaving. As it happens, witnessing an entire night in Willow without £1 shots was far less dramatic and far more entertaining than its penchant for hyperbole would suggest.
The first to arrive was, unsurprisingly, a small group of very drunk students who had to promise Tommy they wouldn’t drink anymore and then proceeded to empty their wallets at the bar. They were confused by the emptiness, most likely having forgotten they were standing alone by a locked door less than five minutes before.
Most others who staggered in that first hour came and went immediately, but those who stayed for longer soon discovered that an empty room lends itself perfectly to interpretive dance. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen the potential that space creates in Willow. One man will stand in the middle, on his own, with no shame, and express his innermost desire to have the world watch him. Maybe his passion for dance was neglected as a child. Maybe he was kicked out of ballet class. Maybe he was drunk. Unfortunately, only five other people will see him, and none of them will remember.
Upstairs, people sit, talk, or chomp on each other’s lips from the very beginning. Two graduates there, Lee and Joanna, recounted their memories of York’s nightlife. According to Joanna, Willow is perpetually inhabited by “virgins and secret geeks,” has a DJ who does nothing but press play all night, and is generally the preserve of people who should be at home alone, crying into their pillows. The drunken bitterness was palpable. Nevertheless, going to Willow that night was her idea, Lee added, thus revealing the struggle within every student’s mind: How do I enjoy Willow while pretending that everyone else there is a lonely floozy and I’m the exception?
Her self-contradictory opinion of Willow aside, Joanna’s criticism of the music is not unfounded. Everyone knows you go there for awful songs that everyone can shamelessly enjoy as a group, nostalgically, drunkenly, perhaps “ironically” if you have too much pride to admit you really do have a soft spot for Ke$ha and know all the lyrics to Taylor Swift’s ‘I Knew You Were Trouble’ (but only when you’re drunk, you assure your friends, fearing their judgment). There are rumours about how many times the DJ gets away with replaying songs, hoping no one notices. As with everything else, these rumours are also sensationalized. ‘Year 3000’, for example, was played only once that Thursday night, 18 minutes after it opened. Meanwhile, Willow was subjected to Shakira’s ‘Hips Don’t Lie’ three times. Not even ‘Best Song Ever’ by One Direction was played that much (although the DJ decided playing the Rolling Stones’ ‘Brown Sugar’ right after it would be a sonic thrill – make of that what you will).
Willow is full of such details you wouldn’t notice drunk. Sober, the atmosphere is almost no different, but you become aware of how loud everything is. Sure, on a normal night you can’t hear anything from the person you’re chatting up like the suave model of excellence you believe you are, but everything is ultimately background noise. On top of the music, there is the all-powerful foam machine that acts as both an applause sign and a holiday-neutral mistletoe. Like Pavlov’s dog before them, frequent Willow-goers respond to the machine by instinct, their hands and mouths seeking out a potential mate at a flick of the DJ’s wrist.
This obviously happens downstairs, but you would be surprised by how much of an aphrodisiac the stairs are. Something about the smell of sweat and tequila with the subconscious knowledge that Tommy is only metres away must trigger a steady ooze of pheromones considering the number of successful chat up lines used there in the first few hours alone.
The thing about Willow is that there will always be people there you know. If you ever do end up there alone and sober, just wait until a few friends show up and join them. Once the realization hits that all your friends are plastered and could not care less about your dancing, getting into the spirit of the occasion takes no effort. It might be something in the air or just mass hysteria, but the moment you wander in, you will immediately know all the lyrics to ‘Gold Digger’ all over again.
In fact, that same lack of inhibition means that judging people in Willow tends to happen before and after, not so much on the night. While you’re there, everyone’s a potential friend. On this particular occasion, during Robbie Williams’ ‘Candy’ an impromptu conga line broke out that eventually included all but maybe ten people in Willow while it was almost at full capacity. It was a beautiful display of harmony not unlike an Olympic opening ceremony.
The one exception to Willow’s collective tolerance is the presence of BNOCs, particularly YUSU representatives. Their every move is scrutinized, as one student discovered. He sat down at a table with someone and within seconds a crowd formed next to him, discussing every detail of their rendezvous, which, by Willow standards, was as sexually-charged as a brick wall. The crowd was, appropriately, three or four times as loud as they must have thought they were, which would have been embarrassing had anyone else been sober enough to pay attention.
But you learn to forgive all that because people are so friendly after 2 or 3 am that you can strike up a conversation with anyone and become best friends for a few minutes. Of course, the depth and propriety of the conversation varies wildly from person to person. One will tell you about their lives, dreams in detail and another will rant at you that all the “wrong girls” are drunk tonight. It’s a rollercoaster of gaining and losing faith in humanity within seconds of each other. In some ways, Willow is an uncensored look into the human psyche, and what you find is heartwarming, morally ambiguous, and confusing. At least most people are friendly.
As the last songs come on and everyone forms a circle to sing together, you realize that Willow is what you make of it, whether you choose to enjoy it or spend the whole night preoccupied with thinking you’re not drunk enough. After all, everything about Willow is exaggerated. It’s neither the sordid armpit of the world nor a wardrobe that leads to drunken Narnia. After stripping away all the rumours, when you’re in Willow, it’s nothing more than a place where students drink and find entertainment in everything.