The Real Oxbridge Riot Clubs

The Riot Club
Last night I headed to the cinema to watch the much anticipated ‘Riot Club’.  I loved and hated it in equal measure.  There were laugh out loud moments almost the entire way through – something I hadn’t expected from the violent trailer, and I also defy any straight girl to sit in the cinema for two hours watching Max Irons’ portrayal of Miles, and not fall in love with him!  I also hated it, because it’s not designed to be a film you love.  It’s violent and vulgar, and hateful.  And for that I applaud the writer, the actors and the director.

Over the past few weeks I can’t count how many related articles I’ve read, most by former Oxbridge students – many of whom were also members of drinking societies.

And whilst it is certainly not a novel topic this month, I wanted to add my own two cents to the discussion, because I too was once a Drinking Society President, and the experience taught me a number of lessons for adult life.

No, I didn’t go to Oxford, like the fictional Riot Club boys.  But I still went to the best University in the world.  Sorry … couldn’t resist that little light blue dig!

Obviously, I also didn’t go to Eton or Harrow.  But it’s interesting, because in my experience, all the boys who did were complete gents.  Bumbling, and often rather detached from mainstream University life … but gents.  One of the only Etonians in my year at my Cambridge college reads this blog religiously, and he’s one of the most genuine people I had the pleasure of meeting while I was there.  Perhaps because he had nothing to prove.

You see, in my experience of Cambridge, whilst there were obviously circles in which money was important, for the rest of us, like most spheres, it was looks which were the hardest currency.  Looks … and,  thanks to the Blues tradition, sporting prowess.  In my experience at Cambridge the nastiest people weren’t those who had everything … it those who felt they had something to prove.

I matriculated in October 2003.  Freshers Week began a few days after my 20th birthday, and so I decided to break the ice by bringing a birthday cake up with me.  My first day in College wasn’t at all how I’d imagined it.  My father had died on my Gap Year, and my grieving mother couldn’t cope with full parental duties.  She refused to drive me up, because she was worried about driving on the motorway, and so I drove the 2+ hours from Reading to Cambridge, in the small hours of morning, my Dad’s car crammed full of my possessions.  By 8am I had unpacked, and was on my return trip.  I dropped the car back at home, and returned to the college mid afternoon, having caught the train back across the country.

Matriculating in 2003

Matriculating in 2003

University was my escape from ‘real life’.  My Dad had been my world growing up, and his sudden death from an undiagnosed brain tumour had rocked our entire family to the core.  Home no longer felt like home any more.  I wasn’t to know it would get so much worse …

That evening, in the college bar, I put my birthday cake on a table, not realising it was occupied by the Blues’ Hockey team, as opposed to the rest of the bar which was filled with Freshers.  Seeing it was my birthday, they offered me a seat, and I unwittingly found myself at the table of the ‘Cambridge gods’ – surrounded by 3rd, 4th and 5th year students, whose duck egg blue blazers ensured they were treated like royalty across the town.

That one gesture – settling the cake on that one particular table – mapped out the rest of my first year … and was to teach me some valuable lessons for adult life in general.  I became inadvertent ‘Blue Tac’ – the name given to girls who hung around with Blues. (And a tag I only managed to shake off in third year, once I’d got my own Full Blue!) I got to know the President of the Hawk’s Committee (the men’s sporting society), and met several Rugby Blues on my first night.  Other freshers were making friends with first years, and I had fallen in with the crowd everyone in the Uni seemed to want to hang around with.

At the end of the first week, 12 first year girls received invitations in their pigeon holes from the College men’s Drinking Society.  We had been chosen from the Matriculation photo.  Identified as the ‘hottest girls’ in the year, and invited to a special dinner with the boys.  (Before you moan too much about the objectification, in my third year, I insisted we did the same to the first year boys!  Superficial and elite – yes.  But sexist – no.)  From my inadvertent Freshers’ Week connections, and because I had a tendency to organise things, I was selected as President of my year’s Drinking society.  A role which I later carried on as President of my College Drinking Society, and also Ospreys President (the University sportswomen’s society).

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In my fourth year, initiating Freshers into the College Drinking Society

Overnight I had been branded one of the ‘cool girls’.  And to be honest, I found it odd.  I’d actively never tried to hang out with the cool crowd.  In part because at school they’d all seemed rather fake.  And yet here at Cambridge, the real ‘cool crowd’ didn’t exist.  The all-A requirements of entry meant the most attractive jock types were excluded from entry, and so suddenly there was a new breed of social elite.  People who had never been particularly cool before, but who went out drinking … unlike the vast majority of the studious student population, who barely ever seemed to leave their rooms.  Suddenly people who had never got much attention from the opposite sex were being put on pedestals and worshiped according to the clubs they were in, or who they hung around with.

We were jammed together as a drinking society (a sorority for all intents and purposes), with only our supposedly shared good looks in common.  And soon the cracks began to show.

At the end of my first term, my mother’s stomach cancer returned, and she was given 2 weeks to live.  I spent my first holiday away from Cambridge watching my mother disappear, planning a funeral, arranging for my sister to be adopted and selling our family home.  My world had been turned upside down.  I had started 2003 with two healthy parents, and would end it with neither.  College told me I didn’t need to rush back, but I did.  I needed to be in a world where no one’s parents were around.  At the funeral, one of my new drinking society friends sat next to me, sobbing for my mother, who she’d never even seen.  I thought she was my new best friend.  I thought she was as genuine and loyal as the friends who I’d surrounded myself with back home.  Two weeks later, when I returned to college, I found out she’d been sleeping with the guy I’d recently started seeing, and the majority of the drinking society had known all about it.  They’d actively been helping her hide it from me.  It was the straw that broke the camel’s back.  I spent weeks avoiding lectures and sleeping all day, then going out and drinking each night – not myself at all.  Eventually I began to put my life back together.

Knowing what the girls had done to me, all but kicking me while I was down on the ground, I realised I had to make a decision – leave the drinking society – a club I’d worked so hard building up, and which allowed me to enjoy Cambridge to the fullest (we went on weekly swaps with boys’ societies and sports teams, sitting boy/girl around the table, and eating 3 course silver service dinners at different college Halls for £6 a time).  Or stay, and arrange the social lives of girls who had betrayed me, and who I all but hated now, for the rest of our stay in Cambridge.

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The College Girls’ Drinking Society, in my third year

I opted for the latter. I kept a stiff British upper lip, and endeavoured to make the Drinking Society the best I could.  Two nights each week I’d organise dinners and parties, with Blues sports teams, and some of the most well-reknowned (and attractive) mens’ societies around.   I kept a stiff upper lip, when my supposed ‘best friend’ then cheated on the guy I’d been seeing, and the guy she cheated with decided to confide in me, of all people.  I kept a stiff upper lip, when one of the other girls (who slept with 40 men in our first year), told other freshers, who I hadn’t even met yet, that I was shagging my way around the second year to deal with my parents’ deaths.  (The irony being I never slept with anyone in my entire time at Uni!).  And I kept a stiff upper lip, when as soon as they had graduated, the girls all but never spoke to me again.  I know a few of them still read the blog from time to time.  Last year when I returned to college for ten year dinner, until they’d got drunk, everyone pretended they knew nothing about 30 Dates and all the things I’d got up to in recent years … and then after a few drinks, someone let on that they’d all been emailing each other about it for months …. (I don’t doubt this very blog post will do the rounds!)

I have hundreds of tales from my 4 years at Cambridge.  Some will make you laugh, some will make you cry.

The men were by no means saints, and I saw some of the most incredible misogyny I’ve ever known at the hallowed University.  But in my experience, it wasn’t money which made people bad.  If anything, those without money seemed to assume they had to act a certain way, to pretend they had it.  And misogyny was one of the easiest ways to pretend they were ‘traditional’.  The people who made me feel that, as a woman, I should be seen be seen and not heard, weren’t old Etonians or Harrovians.  They were grammar school kids, or boys from less prolific public schools, who felt they had something to prove, and that there was an expected way to act.

I saw lovely boys in first year mutate to be awful caricatures of themselves by third year.  Caricatures which they’ve no doubt been allowed to continue in certain special pockets of the City.

No, I definitely had uncomfortable experiences with men in Cambridge … but the point I wanted to make was that the girls could be, and were, just as bad.  If not worse.  In typical ‘cool girl’ style, they would take it in turns to turn on a different member of the group.  Whether the motive was jealousy, rivalry, or just plain guilt.

Hollywood’s ‘Mean Girls’ … but with British accents and straight As.

In my first few weeks at Cambridge, my next-door neighbour on my corridor made an observation.  “There’s too many chiefs here, and not enough Indians!”  It was painfully accurate.  Most of us had been big fish in very small ponds.  Suddenly we were let loose in a world where everyone was incredible.  And so on top of the normal life lessons every university student has to learn, they were also having to deal with not being the best at everything any more.  And a number of people really struggled with that.

I don’t regret Cambridge, and I genuinely don’t regret my involvement with the drinking society.  We had some incredible times, and I have some very fond memories of running around the gorgeous city wearing a bin-bag, getting blind drunk in curry houses, and dressing up as an ironic packet of ‘Blu-Tac’ for a bop.

With my sister, at King's College, in Graduation Week

With my sister, at King’s College, in Graduation Week

When I went back to my college last year, it was with tears in my eyes – because it did truly felt like I was returning home.  At a time in my life when I needed an anchor – a fixed point which was unchanging – the seventieth century buildings provided that.  As did the incredible staff – the porters, the bedders, the tutors, the barmen (I discovered last year that there’s still actually a photo of me behind the college bar!).  When my Mum died, they all knew what had happened. They all watched me from afar, and stepped in whenever I needed help.

But my time at Cambridge taught me a lot about people.  That not everyone is a fan of their friends’ success.  Or perhaps simply, that not everyone is a friend.  I started Cambridge a naive little girl who wanted everyone to like me, and who only saw the good in those around me.  I left Cambridge a rather wise, and slightly bitter, orphan, who understood the world a whole lot better, and once bitten was twice shy around certain types of people.

And so … whilst I may have loved Max Irons in Riot Club for more subjective reasons … I also loved his character, because I understood the lessons Miles learned – even if they were served to me in a rather different way, and by very different people.

Don’t begrudge Oxbridge for its posh roots and misogyny.

The girls and the grammar school kids are just as bad as the rest – and that’s coming from a female grammar school girl! 😉

Miss Twenty-Nine xxx

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