It’s Monday night. My friends have invited me to go clubbing, my essay is overdue, and I can’t remember the last time I got a good night’s sleep. But I’m not in Atik, the library or bed. Instead, I’m in a room full of strangers, playing the most intense tiddlywinks game of my entire life.
Thus began my journey into the most unusual student societies Oxford has to offer. I had seen the usual suspects – the Union, the political clubs, even a few of Oxford’s many finance bro societies – but now I wanted to venture into the bizarre underbelly of student life, investigate some of the strangest, most niche cliques and subcultures around.
I confess I had expected the Oxford University Tiddlywinks Society (OUTS) to take itself completely unseriously, to be committed to irony and taking the mick –perhaps over a few drinks. Tiddlywinks, for those unaware, is a traditional British children’s game involving flicking plastic roundels, or winks, into a pot. It’s a true mind game. It didn’t take long to realise I was wrong; walking in, I was immediately introduced to Jon Mapley, four-time tiddlywinks world champion, currently ranked 10th best tiddlywinks player in the world, who was here to coach Oxfordians on the ways of the winks. His star power, combined with general enthusiasm for the game, had been enough to draw around twenty students from all across the university.
I spent a brief few minutes chatting to this legend of the game. Tiddlywinks, he explained, was a game of ‘90% skill’; when asked how many hours he had put into the game, he said he ‘couldn’t possibly count,’ that he ‘couldn’t remember a time he hadn’t played tiddlywinks.’
Indeed, the competitive sport of tiddlywinks is a rather different beast from the children’s game, complete with a timer, intricate scoring systems, and an elaborate set of strategies. After only a few minutes of practice, however, of warming up the winking muscles that had lay dormant since childhood, I was thrown into the deep end, into the rough and tumble of a game; the man I was paired up with, it seemed, had come better prepared, a bandana around his head as though he had ensured his dress sense would reflect his readiness for battle.
As the game began, the atmosphere was closer to an exam hall than a games night; what conversation occurred was almost entirely limited to discussion of strategy, my attempts at humour largely falling on deaf ears. Unfortunately, the learning curve of tiddlywinks is a harsh one; the winks completely refused to cooperate with me, leading to me spending most of my time picking them up from the sides of the room where I had accidentally launched them. The match ended with me and my partner losing a miserable 6-1, largely, I will admit, thanks to my own incompetence.
The entire event had an air of the surreal about it. I couldn’t help but think that it was probably the ridiculous, quaint sort of thing that Americans imagine Brits get up to in their spare time. It was as though many of the competitors were speaking an entirely different language to me. ‘This is a squidger designed for squopping,’ Jon Mapley patiently explained to me, and another student student extolled the skills with which Maples used his winks to ‘cracker’ and ‘boondock’ the opposing gamepieces as the match went on. Later research revealed that these were all real terms; no one was just pulling my leg.
Realising that perhaps my skills weren’t up to the intensity of competitive tiddlywinks, I drifted over to the man seeming to be the event’s organiser for a chat. ‘Are you the President?’ I asked William Roberts, a medicine student in his final year. He shook his head; OUTS has no President. Instead, their governance system is more of a ‘hereditary monarchy,’ as William described. His role isMaster of the Winks, top of a succession determined by length of time spent at the club. The only other way to ascend the hierarchy is to challenge someone above you to a game of tiddlywinks – something which William informed me had happened earlier this term, a dramatic episode seeing Dominic Seymour challenge and then beat Anthony Adamson.
Indeed, there are very few student societies that can lay claim to as much history and influence as OUTS. Founded in 1958, OUTS have not only played a central role in the development of competitive tiddlywinks, but are also largely responsible for the fact that anyone outside of Britain knows of the game; OUTS’ 1962 tour of North America – sponsored by Guinness, who gave them the equivalent of over $15,000 for the expedition – can take most of the credit for introducing the game to Yanks. The tour also saw OUTS steamroll virtually every American team they encountered. “Had the Empire been built on tiddlywinks, perhaps we would never have lost it,” Time magazine wrote afterwards.
I found Oxford University’s tiddlywinkers a generally affable bunch, but they clearly take tiddlywinks far more seriously than I am capable of. If you’re looking for a way to pass a dull Monday night, or are interested in an idiosyncratic but competitive new hobby, I’d recommend their weekly sessions; but I doubt I’ll be returning.
The next stop on my journey, at the Oxford University Quidditch Club (OUQC), was one I was far more worried about. I had proven ineffective at a sport of the mind; but my skills at sport are infinitely worse. A diet consisting largely of cigarettes and frozen pizza isn’t unheard of among students, but it’s hardly advisable for an athlete.
It didn’t take long after arrival for all the memories of my time in amateur youth football to come back – the mud, the stale bibs, the all-conquering aura of cold misery that we Brits call weather.
But I quickly realised that the atmosphere of quidditch is very different from that of football – or any other sport I’ve played, for that matter. It felt like all the people who had always been the last ones to be picked in PE had assembled to play a sport all of their own; the twenty or so people who had arrived looked more like the attendees of a Magic: The Gathering convention than sports club’s regulars.
That probably sounds cruel and condescending, however in reality it felt much more welcoming than I had anticipated. OUQC felt like a complete refutation of all the worst stereotypes of sports clubs at this university. Instead of any hazing rituals, we began by sharing our pronouns. Past socials, I learnt, hadn’t involved drunken crew dates or high octane club nights, but excessively wholesome activities like friendship bracelet making and Mario Kart tournaments. The website of quidditch’s governing body describes how they ‘greatly encourage anyone from any background to take part in our sport’ – this seemed like a truthful statement rather than a piece of empty propaganda, people of all genders, sizes and backgrounds having gathered together. Indeed, it didn’t surprise me to learn that the Oxford University Quidditch Club had gone along with a name change of the sport from quidditch to quadball, in an effort to distance themselves from JK Rowling’s toxic brand; “quadball is for everyone – including those from an LGBTQ+ background and who identify within the trans or non-binary community,” as QuadballUK’s website reads.
We began with a few training drills. Rather than broomsticks, quadball is played with a plastic pole held between the legs; a volleyball and three dodgeballs are the other pieces of crucial equipment; and the hoops are positioned not miles in the air, but held off the ground by plastic poles of around a metre’s height.
It only took a few minutes for my expression of nervous awkwardness to be replaced with a genuine smile; the embarrassment I felt as people walked by to gawk at the bizarre game being played in University Parks dissipated almost immediately. If I had been surprised by how competitive the Tiddlywinks Society was, I was surprised by how relaxed the Quidditch Club was – despite OUQC’s impressive record of success, having only recently come third in the regional championships.
During a break for water, I chatted with a few of the attendees. I was curious as to what drew people to the sport in the first place. ‘Pizza,’ explained the first player I asked. ‘I was really broke when I started at uni, and they were offering free pizza at an event – I went along for the food but stayed because I enjoyed it.’
Quidditch, I learned, is not a sport just for Harry Potter fans – one attendee confessed they had never finished the books or watched the films. The novelty of playing such a silly sport, explained the club Captain, was usually only what drew people in at first – genuine enjoyment for the game was what made people stick around.
Then, it was time for the real deal – a proper game.
In the Harry Potter world, quidditch is defined by high stakes and dramatic action. Though the real-life sport may be a direct replication of the rules (minus the magic),it is defined by complete pandemonium. Most sports only have a single ball in play at one time; quadball has four. Even some of the more experienced players seemed to spend much of their time engulfed in complete confusion, seeming to me to be running around and throwing balls almost aimlessly.
I had been dreading my visit to the quidditch club; but I ended up enjoying myself, finding the company extremely amiable. OUQC seems like the perfect place for non-sporty people who want to play a sport, who want to avoid the toxic, macho environments and fierce competition associated with other sports clubs at this university, while retaining the fun and exercise. Part of me even didn’t want to include my quidditch experience in this article; I felt almost like a traitor, revealing myself not as a friendly new club member but instead as a soulless student journalist.
Quidditch and tiddlywinks aren’t the strangest clubs at this university, though – I would argue that honour undoubtedly goes to the Oxford Psychedelic Society (OPS). While the university authorities proclaim to dogmatically retain a strict no-drugs policy – the proctors note that ‘the Colleges and the University are forbidden by law knowingly to allow drug misuse to take place’ – they are more than happy to sanction a society made for ‘all the people who appreciate psychedelics.’ The university allows OPS to host events in their buildings and to have a stall at the fresher’s fair – OPS even have a senior member, Professor Morten L. Kringelbach, a fellow at Linacre College focused on neuroscience, with a particular focus on the possibilities of using psychedelics as medicine.
Having been to more than a few bizarre talks in my time here at Oxford, none came close to reaching the depths of absurdity of the talk hosted by OPS. Joining us on Zoom all the way from Brazil was Gregory Puente, the first Westerner to become, after over a decade of training, a Master of the Bwiti tradition – a Gabonese ‘School of Divine Mystery,’ which emphasises the use of the psychedelic iboga shrub to connect oneself to the divine realm.
If you put ‘LSD as a person’ in an AI image generator, it would probably spit out a picture of Gregory; he had long, cascading hair, a dreadlocked beard, and a dreamy look. His colourful shirt was unbuttoned to reveal a variety of tribal necklaces. As I walked in, he was absent-mindedly strumming on a wooden harp. In person was one of Gregory’s students, a Scottish man named Stephen who had quit his high-flying advertising job following the 2008 crisis to pursue a life of psychedelic ritual.
The event consisted of over an hour of Gregory rambling in his thick French accent, expounding upon his theory of life, drugs and the universe. Occasionally, the President of OPS would interject to ask a question; Gregory would usually reply by saying that details of the iboga ceremony itself were secret, only allowed to be shared with those who had been initiated. This made the whole affair rather awkward. Perhaps I hadn’t encountered OPS on their best day; the event was well attended, around 30 people having coughed up the £3 entry fee, but along with the usual phone scrolling, two people left about five minutes in, while another fell asleep shortly afterwards.
I learnt an enormous amount during this talk. The Bwiti tradition had been pioneered, supposedly, by the pygmy peoples of Central Africa; this ancient tradition was in fact at the root of every other tradition developed by mankind. Taking the iboga plant is said to open your third eye, to connect you to the ‘Mother Father Divine,’ taking you to a spiritual realm where both time and space are meaningless. Most baffling of all was when Stephen claimed that after taking his mother to a iboga ritual, she had been cured of her schizophrenia – modern science, by contrast, has long noted the potential of psychedelic drugs to bring extreme episodes of psychosis to schizophrenics.
I couldn’t help wondering what it was that Gregory did for a day job; I struggled to imagine him in a suit and tie, working at a desk. My questions were answered after some later research; Iboga ceremonies like those hosted by Gregory often take several weeks, and can cost up to $20,000.
After the event, I joined some of the attendees in the pub. After chatting with some OPS members, my prejudices soon began to dissipate. These were not some drugged-up hippies, wasting their Oxford days away by shoving themselves full of substances. For most of them, psychedelics seemed as much of an academic interest as a hobby. I could understand why the university allowed OPS to exist; the authorities’ suspicions, the President explained, did not last long once it became clear that no drug consumption took place in any OPS events hosted inside university buildings.
Almost all of the members I spoke to had made psychedelic drugs the main focus of their research; most were neuroscience masters or PHDs, with a few also studying anthropology. These were people who had allowed their passion for drugs to define their lives, their courses of study. One had written their politics thesis entirely on the subject of psychedelics; another had synthesised numerous entirely new psychedelic drugs on his own while he was studying in the US – although only one of these compounds had been consumed by humans, having been independently discovered afterwards by another psychedelic scientist, who had then taken it himself and documented his experience on Reddit.
Chatting with the President, he informed me that he wanted the society to break people’s stereotypes of what psychedelic users are like. In person at least, this mission was one he was clearly successful at; I was struck not only by his fierce intelligence, but his passion for psychedelics not only as a fun pastime, but as a form of medicine with the potential to treat ailments from opioid addiction to PTSD. It baffled me, however, how the scientific rigour of so many OPS members could coexist with the pseudoscience and mysticism of some of their speaker events.
I left OPS feeling rather perplexed , but equally glad I had gone; I had come across a friendly group of eccentrics, bonding over their shared interest, even if that interest was one with little currency in most of society, or one I had little care for myself.
But that description would go for the Tiddlywinks and quadball clubs too. Many of the biggest societies at Oxford University have pretty awful reputations, from the hacks of the Union to the, well, everything of the OUCA.In investigating the subterranean network of clubs and societies, I not only failed to find these toxic stereotypes, but consistently came across the exact opposite – genuine passion instead of soulless careerism, real friendliness instead of hacking, welcoming kindness instead of exclusionary cliques.
My experiences at OUTS, OUQC, and OPS were all extremely strange; but they were also experiences I’m glad I had. I can genuinely say that I’d recommend attending all of them, regardless of whether you’re a seasoned veteran of the scene, or a curious newbie. If you’re looking for interesting people or a new hobby, I’d say there’s nothing better than to attend some of the weirdest societies you can find – I haven’t even touched on some of the other bizarre associations hosted by the university, from the Oxford Guild of Assassins to the Cheese Society. Perhaps I’ll even see you there one day.