As an alumna of St Anne’s in its all-women heyday (sorry, chaps) I had to laugh at the stories in the papers this week about the night-time goings on at Newnham College, Cambridge. It seems no tabloid can resist a story involving overprivileged, over-educated students getting pissed, throwing up at the Bullingdon Club or posing naked for good causes.
Last year’s TravelAid calendar was a case in point. I mean to say… Oxford girls minus their kit punting on the Cherwell with only a boater to preserve their modesty or posing nude in historic Oxford locations… enough to give the man in the street a heart attack. The week before we were treated, courtesy of the red tops, to the lovely Brittany, reading Social and Political Sciences at Cambridge, getting her boobs out for a student newspaper. Postmodern or what?
The basis of this week’s flimsy tale was that Lizzy Cole, the President of the Newnham JCR, sent an email to students requesting the girls keep down the nocturnal noise level as bedroom walls in Newnham are exceptionally thin. Particularly amusing as I have just been given the honour of becoming a ‘Visiting Member of High Table’ at Newnham. But mostly it made me laugh because it reminded me of my own time at St. Anne’s.
‘Far from engaging in liberated sexual activity, all men had to be out of your room by 11pm’
I read Law at St Anne’s from 1969-72 which was the era of the first ever Women’s Liberation conference, held in Oxford, the Paris student riots, and the high point of the Sixties sexual revolution. But not at St Anne’s.
Indeed there was a rule that far from engaging in liberated sexual activity, all men had to be out of your room by 11pm. This had various unintended consequences, including sexual marathons which had to finish at exactly 10.59 or sneaking men over the walls in the early hours. It also led to lengthy and passionate post -11pm farewells outside the porter’s lodge. Every night there were at least a dozen couples gathered there necking for Britain, to the amusement of the other students, and the intense irritation of the porter.
No one ever knew if or how this rule could actually be enforced, but there were tales of Fire Practices at dawn which revealed the presence of scores of freezing males assembled in the main quad minus their trousers. The John Radcliffe Hospital, we were also reliably told, recognized the syndrome of boyfriends with broken legs acquired falling off the college walls. You can imagine the scene. Junior doctor to Oxford boyfriend: ‘So, was the sex worth the fracture?’
Even more hilarious was the rule that while any member of the male gender was actually in your bedroom, one foot must be on the ground at all times. To the adventurous amongst us this was a clearly a challenge to engage in a game of Twister, the Kama Sutra version.
When I became a writer I discovered that this same rule was imposed in 1930’s Hollywood. According to the famous Hays Code, one foot must be kept firmly on the floor in all bedroom scenes. I love to think that the sex censors of Tinseltown drew their moral codes from the governing bodies of Oxford women’s colleges.
So when I next visit Newnham High Table I will explain to the women of the JCR that they can easily solve their night-time problem if they simply ban men and reinstate the practices of St Anne’s in the Sixties as interpreted by the legendary Cecil B. de Mille.
Maeve Haran is the author of ten novels. Her latest, The Lady and the Poet, dramatizes the forbidden affair between John Donne and Ann More.