Losing my virginity to Jesus and narrowly avoiding being possessed by a pig at a Voodoo ceremony in Cuba

Hello - 250px across resizedHavana Cuba Autumn 1993

“I thought this was a road,” I said to my Cuban companion as we were standing alongside one of the main streets in Havana, silent as a cemetery. “So where are all the cars?” In the half hour we’d been standing on the kerb, an elderly 1950’s Chevrolet was the only car that had chugged down the street. There were a lot of 1950’s American cars in Cuba in 1993, relics from before the revolution when Cuba and the United States became bitter ex-lovers and cut off trade. I believed I had seen a donkey, moseying down the street, but food was very scarce, I could have been hallucinating.

“Well,” said my Cuban companion, a nuclear scientist who was working as a toilet cleaner in my hotel to pay his way. “We are in “El periodo especial,” the special period, we haven’t got any petrol now.” “El periodo especial” was the wonderful euphemism coined by the Cuban government to describe the almost total collapse of their economy after the fall of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991. Generously subsidised Soviet oil was suddenly withdrawn, leaving the entire Cuban economy stranded on the side of the road. Even public transport was patchy, in fact the only way to get around was to hitch a lift from the occasional car passing by. This was impossible for me as, though in fact half Jamaican, I looked so Cuban that I had to practically sell my British passport to get into the tourist shops. Thus I would wave my arms, fruitlessly trying to hitch a lift, completely ignored by the drivers who assumed I was a local with no dollars only the worthless Cuban currency.

I was in hot demand at the hotel though. Foreign men kept knocking on my door, hysterical at being groped every time they left the hotel, begging me to pretend to be their “girlfriend.” I’m an incredibly good fake girlfriend, in fact even won and award, and was providing a body guard service, for an exceptionally reasonable price. Every time a foreign looking man left the hotel, hordes of Cuban senoritas would latch onto their arms. It seemed a large proportion of women under 35 had resorted to turning tricks. And the prices they asked for were heart breaking – they would have sex with a man for a tube of toothpaste or a small bar of soap. There were male prostitutes as well, jineteros, gorgeous young men with gym sculpted bodies and classic faces. But none of them approached me as they thought I was Cuban and penniless as well.

Before I came to Cuba, at the age of almost twenty four, something dramatic had changed in my life. I had lost my virginity to Jesus, which almost didn’t count. Jesus was, in fact, a non-English speaking Spaniard who was incredibly square and from whom I had to conceal my acid-taking dope smoking past. Alas, after so much anticipation, it was a bit of a let down. I wasn’t in love and didn’t fancy him that much. It was just something I had to get rid of, like a sheep-encrusted jumper a clueless relative had given me at Christmas time. So I was in a relationship, of sorts. But while in Cuba do as the Cubans, who were merrily banging everything in sight, so I also hooked up with the nuclear scientist. I do have a phobia about toilets so I did make him wash his hands.

Every street cleaner, waiter and cabbie in Cuba seemed to be a doctor, research scientist or an engineer. The population had degrees coming out of their arses and there weren’t enough jobs to go round. For those who did get a professional job, five dollars a month was simply not enough to go round. A year later the nuclear scientist phoned me from Miami saying he’d escaped on a raft.

Before I arrived, I’d been confused by reading in the guidebooks on Cuba, “Go to Cuba if you want to lose weight.” As someone who’d had a lifelong eating disorder this seemed absolutely great. Cuba would not only be an interesting professional trip, launching my career as a reporter, but a reasonably priced health spa as well. But after I’d been there for a few days I realised this was because the portions in the hotels were so small that I was dreaming of bangers and mash. There were no stalls selling food on the street as government still thought private enterprise was akin to paedophilia.

Walking round lost on one of Havana’s old streets, ignored by all the passing cars, I bumped into an elderly Cuban lady on the street and asked her the way. She said she just needed to pop up to her apartment to turn off the gas and would take me there. The apartment was stupendous, absolutely massive with elaborate mosaic floors and cornices. I told her an apartment like that in London would cost a million pounds. Havana is full of such architectural gems, all crumbling away, it would be one of the most beautiful cities in the world if someone spent 100 billion dollars refurbishing it. I was amazed by the apartment and wondered around gawping in delight. I was hungry at the hotel, I moaned plaintively, and wondered if I could stay. On my trainee BBC salary, the hotel seemed extremely expensive at 15 dollars at day. She offered me a room and two meals for 8 dollars a day. This had the slight disadvantage that electricity was only available between 4 and 5 am, and a bath, apart from a bucket, was completely impossible. But it had one major advantage – food. The lady was diabetic so got an extra ration from the government so the food was plentiful and absolutely yum. It was only when I was foraging for food in the day, limited to the hotels, that I starved.

Complaining about how little food there was, was a major preoccupation of Cubans at that time. I had arrived, fired up with socialist zeal, fervently pro-Castro and the Cuban experiment. This was somewhat dented by the story I was told by a Cuban I interviewed that the government had tried to save the Cuban economy, by cutting down a load of sugar cane and planting lettuces instead. The lettuces were a perfect cash crop, apart from the inconvenient fact that they’d all died in the heat. Fear of the government was also palpable, whenever I interviewed anyone they would never mention Fidel Castro by name, instead making the sign of a beard.

I was launching my reporting career with a story about the resurgence of voodoo in Cuba and the success of the Aids “hospitals.”  Despite multiple incursions into conflicts in Africa where AIDS was rife, Cuba had one of the lowest rates of infection in the Caribbean. This was because the government forcibly tested anyone over 15 and those who had HIV were locked up in prison hospitals. The patients were allowed to go out as long as were “responsible” enough. If they weren’t they were kept inside, a permanent section from the age of 15. I bumped into a big wig on the Cuban aids programme, at the international press centre. He said I was young and pretty and would cheer the patients up so took me to a hospital in the countryside. The facilities were good, Cuba had probably the best heath system in the developing world and exported more doctors than sugarcane. But people wouldn’t be so keen on the NHS if they weren’t allowed out of hospitals once they’d gone in.

As part of my research into Santeria or voodoo, which had exploded in Cuba since the collapse of the Soviet Union, I went to a Santeria ceremony. It was a practical religion, whose objectives were filling your kitchen rather than spiritual highs. Devotees would pray for a new washing machine, a banana peeler or a fridge. The comic element of Latin American Catholicism is present in Santeria in the matching up of unlikely Santeria gods with Catholic saints. Thus I was told that Chango, the Yoruba god of fire lighting and war, was “the same as” the Catholic Santa Barbara, who was beheaded by her father and whose historical existence is unclear. I went to the voodoo ceremony at the ile or house of a priest. It was absolutely wild. People were being possessed by the spirits of chickens, zebras and pigs, men by women, dancing around pretending to put their suspender belts on. Men were spinning around like tornadoes, eyes rolling and practically frothing at the mouth. A chicken had been sacrificed, its blood all over the altar. I’m sure I saw it move after it died. It was a perfect storm of activity and I was experiencing it without my rain hat on. I almost joined Santeria myself but initiates have to do what the priests tell them. I thought they might tell me I couldn’t run the story so I declined.

I arrived at the airport in Havana not wanting to leave at all. Luckily when I asked for the flight for London I was told it had left the day before. Yet another of my journalistic mishaps not checking the date for the flight. But instead of giving me a hard time, with Latin tolerance, they said anyone could get the dates mixed up and put me on the next flight completely free. Despite the fact that all the Cubans were constantly complaining about their lives, I loved Cuba and didn’t want to leave. I had finally found a place where everyone stopped asking me, “where are you from?”

Next week: Q: – how do you avoid being shot by the police in Jamaica? A: – be white, middle class or duck…

Stumbling down the wild side of the sexual street at the BBC

BBC PICTURE SUMMER

BBC 1992

My BBC career started, as it continued, with a mishap or two. “The train,” I puffed charging into my interview at World Service Radio, at least 45 minutes late, “got stuck in a tunnel, it might have been a bomb.” A roomful of BBC managers raised their collective eyebrows in disbelief. If there had been a bomb, they certainly would have heard.

Having been as well informed about news at Oxford as a lost Japanese soldier who thought the Second World War was still going in 1963, I had decided to sort out this vacuum in my knowledge with typical OCD flair. I was reading two newspapers a day, making notes about the bulletins of radio and TV news, knew every capital and President in the world, in short was a veritable encyclopaedia of what was going on. I sailed through the interview, although my ship was rather late, and was ecstatic to be told that I had got a place as a Radio Journalist Trust Trainee. This was a scheme designed to get ethnic minorities into the BBC.

The BBC had clearly dug down deep into the underprivileged masses to find its new recruits: four out of six were Oxbridge graduates from expensive private schools. It was obviously fine to be an ethnic minority, as long as you weren’t common as well. I started off my training at Broadcasting House in September 1992 and had moved into my first flat, a three bedroom flat in Central London for sixty eight thousand pounds. God we were lucky then. I was benefitting from the housing crash of the late 80s early 90s with its interest rates high enough to get banged up by the police and tidal wave of repossessions. With a gift from my mother, who’d abandoned me to go back to Jamaica, and my thirty thousand pound mortgage I could easily cover this. I was 22, had a mortgage and my own flat. But I was still a fucking virgin, of course.

I was the only trainee who hadn’t done a postgraduate in journalism studies and the differences soon became clear. I wouldn’t have hit a deadline if it slapped me in the face. I immediately took a shine to the only other smoker in the group, a half Asian man called Krishna who’d been to Cambridge and Westminster. I decided this was a match made in heaven, though tiringly he did have a girlfriend as well, who he was always complaining about. She doesn’t understand me, he would say. I didn’t realise that that was what men always say before they play away. So love lorn was I at my inability to tie down the relationship with Krishna that in all the pictures of the RJT trainees I look like I’m going to jump under a train. When I finally got him in bed, he said, “you’re not a virgin are you?” “N…No…I stuttered and proceeded to give him my first ever blow job. He loved me, he said. Then he didn’t. He was leaving his girlfriend. Then he wasn’t. It was a roller coaster of emotion I could scarcely hang on to. When he didn’t come to my birthday party I was bereft. When he told me he wasn’t leaving his girlfriend, my suicidal depression deepened and I ended up with a carving knife at my throat. Just as I was about to do something, I’m not quite sure what, my beloved best friend phoned from Spain. The moment was broken and I’ve never been that close to suicide again.

When I arrived at the newsroom at World Service Radio, in the  Art Deco splendour of Bush House, the problem the BBC was trying to counter became painfully obvious to me. I stared into a roomful of faces as white as a party of polar bears. There was clearly a confusion, in the minds of many there between the words “white” and “write.” As well as a belief, despite numerous literary masters to contradict, that people whose first language was not English could not be trusted to write.

“Oddbog Babak is coming for an attachment from the String-vestian service,” muttered the editor of the European desk.

“Oh dear,” frowned the Chief Sub, “well we’ll put him on something simple like copy tasting.”

A funereal air presided over the European desk when I arrived. I learnt, later that morning, that this was because their reporter in Lithuania had died of starvation with a BBC freelance contract in his hand. The payment had been delayed between the Assignments unit, News Process hub, accounts department, Four Men and their Dogs department and the actual payments desk. By the time it had reached its final destination at the Onward Movements desk, the poor reporter had expired.

Not that frugality was a watchword at the BBC – I noticed that several taxi drivers had set up tents on the pavement, meters running, as they’d been waiting outside for so long. And the staff would abandon profuse amounts of food, leading all the mice in central London to head there for a snack. I believe, while I was at Bush House, the mice outnumbered the staff 50:1.

I then moved down to the main current affairs programme, Newshour, where the egalitarian nature of the BBC was clear to see. Out of a department of 30 only two had not been to Oxbridge and they kept very quiet. Several of the managers had been at Oxford with Benazir Bhutto, they all had a story or two. And everyone had written authoritative books on at least one country by the age of 25.

It was at Newshour that I decided I would finally give in to temptation and start to experiment with girls. Part of the reason I’d been so obsessed with Krishna, was because I thought I was gay. I wanted to be normal and normal in 1993 didn’t equate to snogging girls. For a year after I left Oxford I had not fancied men at all. This was one of the main reasons I had clinical depression and wanted to kill myself. The psychiatrist at St Mary’s hospital didn’t help at all, eyeing me up in my cycling shorts and saying, I “couldn’t possibly” be a lesbian. But that’s what I thought I was, I told therapist after therapist. I could even sleep in the same bed as Alex, who I’d thought I was in love with at Oxford, and feel not the tiniest tingling at all. I decided to stop equivocating and put a bi-sexual advert looking for a girlfriend in Time Out. I referred to myself as an “exotic babe” and got stack loads of replies. I started leaving my shifts at Bush house to go on secret dates with sexy women instead. Indeed, horror of horrors, I bumped into someone I was working with at Newshour at a lesbian club, which led to many awkward moments over the photocopier. I went crashing around clubs in Soho with groups of lesbians, and did meet a TV producer I wanted to date. But I realised, when I was clubbing, that I would often be eyeing up the only man in the room. I did like women, but I realised I wasn’t gay. I’d just gone off men.

My father had told me I was ugly and too short and my head was too big. When I got into Oxford at the age of sixteen, he said “that’s all very well but why don’t you just grow.” He then carted me round to doctors who might make me grow. This precipitated a crisis where I became obsessed with having an operation to extend my legs, suitable only for dwarfs, that could have resulted in my legs being amputated. My father was prepared for me to go ahead, perhaps he wasn’t fully aware of the risks, but thank god I didn’t do it. He didn’t help my self-esteem by sitting around with his girlfriend taking the piss out of Jamaicans and saying that black people were “different” as they “had a different pelvis shape.” My father had a curious history. He’d married my black Jamaican mother in 1967, in defiance of his rich father who was a friend of Lord Lucan and supporter of apartheid South Africa. My grandfather, naturally, boycotted the wedding and didn’t speak to his son for five years afterwards. When I asked my father if he had married my mother to piss off his father, he was totally silent and went pale as a tub of Dulux Ultra White. My grandfather wasn’t the only member of my family who thought that black people were as equal as a wombat taking on a wildebeest in a war over turf. At my father’s hunting, shooting and racing family in Gloucestershire, I had to sit around as a child listening to black people being the butt of the joke. I consequently didn’t like hunting and tried to abscond and join the antis when I was dragged to the Boxing Day Meet at the age of eight. My (noisy) impersonation of the Fantastic Mr Fox went down like a lead balloon.

It wasn’t just my father who thought I was ugly. All the Sloane men in Chelsea I was hanging out with when I was a teenager, and all the boys on our inter-railing trips preferred my blonde best friend. Even Alex had rejected me.   I felt totally scorned by men and had turned to women instead. Though of course being me, only attracted to men who were unavailable or gay, and too scared to embrace being a lesbian, I was still a fucking virgin at 23.

But I soon learnt the advantages of being a young woman with a posh, sexy, voice. I could not only reel in the women on Time out with my profile recording but persuade men to do interviews as well. When I rang important men in hotel rooms late at night, they would fall over themselves to speak to the BBC telling me they “loved my voice.” If only I’d recognised my potential, I’d have set up a telephone sex line on the side. I realised I had a weapon in the interview wars, that there was a particular tone of voice, that would persuade most men to do an interview. But production was not for me. I wanted to be a reporter and that meant I had to go abroad.

Bi-lingual in Spanish and English, I decided I would go to Latin America and Spain. I set off for Cuba in 1993.

Next week: losing my virginity to Jesus, narrowly avoiding being possessed by a pig at a Voodoo ceremony in Cuba, and how lettuces failed to save the Cuban economy.

Dating yet another gay man at Oxford and hallucinating I was a fried egg and the Queen of Spain

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You would think I would have learned my lesson from Mr Clinique. But no, not at all, the next boyfriend I had at Oxford was a man’s man as well. No wonder I was still a virgin at twenty one, the only men who wanted to sleep with me were too gay for the Village People’s YMCA. It has to be said that Dennis presented a much more beguiling image than Peacock, gruff and muscular, not effeminate at all. The tiny hint when I asked him (while in bed) whether he preferred looking at men or women’s bodies and he said “men’s” drifted by the Grand Canyon of my naivete completely unnoticed at the time. I had still been playing with my teddies and running a toy hospital when I was sixteen, until busted by a boyfriend holding a hand-written prescription for Elephant’s broken trunk in my hand. The boyfriend was prospective, but after this incident, never actual.

Oxford had been a journey – I arrived fresh from Bolivia where I’d been living in a village with no electricity and alarmingly friendly tarantulas, unaccustomed to weeing indoors. The corridors of Magdalen College Oxford will I’m sure be unaffected by the farewell wee I had in a storage room. I was immediately struck by how white Oxford was and the large number of people who’d been to public schools. The days of Benazir Bhutto were long gone, replaced by a cohort of white Etonians and people who’d been to Winchester. An Etonian who I’d known since I was thirteen announced in week two of Oxford, in drawling contemptuous tones, that “98% of people here are complete nobs.” Of course a certain type of Etonian wouldn’t speak to people who’d been to more minor public schools, such as Haberdashers’ Aske’s or King’s College Wimbledon. In my fervently socialist state this provoked a massive row in which I accused him of being a snob and said he only spoke to people he’d known since he was twelve. In fact in my English group there was, I believe, only one person (out of eight) who might have been to a state school. And she was relegated to minor status as she was only part time.

Indeed, I quickly struck up a friendship with a Baroness, Ophelia van Clog-Hopper, a cousin of the Queen of Holland, whose father had a castle in the Netherlands. When she asked me “doesn’t everyone have a butler?” and said that her eighteenth birthday, replete with royals and celebrities, had been heavily featured in French Vogue, I realised I would have to do something drastic to compete. So I became, in my fantasy, a stunning talented and beautiful member of the British Royal family, who died a tragic death at the age of twenty five, causing national mourning in Spain where she’d married the King.

Death was frequently on my mind as I had been suicidal since my parents’ very acrimonious divorce when I was twelve. I thought about suicide every day; the only thing putting me off the not very rational thought that I might fail and be buried alive. Being the Queen of Spain, though the adoration was, of course, long overdue, was having a bad effect on my cleanliness and sanity. My room was a pigsty, cigarettes stubbed out in rotting pieces of fruit, not an inch of floor visible because of all the clothes. The door was left permanently open as no thief would be brave enough to enter such a mess. Coachloads of visitors would flock to see my room, amazed that anyone could live in such a filthy state. I felt like an eighteenth century lunatic, performing in front of a crowd. The in house cleaners at the college saw my room as a challenge and would periodically clean it to a splendid and shining state. But within a day of this, the deluge of mess would be back again. My tutor told me I needed to see a psychologist because I was obviously disturbed. I said I needed a live in cleaner. He said I was missing the point.

My father had always told me I was ugly, and the world had told me too. My teenage efforts to pull thwarted by my devastatingly pretty blonde best friend. I was better off with the teddies after all. However in my first year at Oxford this feeling of ugliness grew to a definite disorder. I decided I couldn’t go out in daylight as the sun was my enemy and would show everyone how ugly I was. I thought the Elephant Man was Helen of Troy compared to me. No ships would be setting sail because of my face, they’d stay in port until they fell apart and were scrapped.

I lived a nocturnal existence, turning up to tutorials in my pyjamas at 5pm, generally on the wrong day. At night, I would practice for the Olympics, sprinting up and down the library at 4am. I developed a close friendship with a bat. As my writing was poor I had a cumbersome word processor, archaic even for 1989. On one occasion where I couldn’t print I enlisted two friends to help me to carry the two tonne Amstrad into my tutor’s room.

But I spent the first year at Oxford reading, having intellectual conversations with people that lasted three days and falling in love with my old Etonian best friend, Alex, who said my eyes were boring and my legs were too short. Alas, he had short man syndrome, and only dated women over 6 foot 4.

As soon as I got there, I started smoking dope, causing the accelerator to be hit on my imagination. I once did a ten minute monologue from the point of view of a fried egg that was about to be hit by a train, another time a tarantula in Bolivia para-gliding in a bath. The first party I went to at Oxford, left my naïve eighteen year old self completely shocked. I walked in and they were handing round a massive tray of a white powder I had never seen before. What’s that? I gawped. “It’s heroin,” they said with a cunning smile. I rushed into the next door room. They’re snorting heroin in there, I said to my Etonian friend, Alex. Blasé as fuck he said it wouldn’t be heroin it must be cocaine.

In the second year I perhaps unwisely moved in with Alex in a flat in Botley Road. My beloved cat (still unkilled by my mother) came with us too. It was at this stage that I realised that giving blow backs from joints to a cat, then feeding him sweet and sour squid, was a bad idea. In fact would result in a nasty puddle of vomit on my bed. As the cat was not allowed in the flat, I had to shut him in the wardrobe every time the landlord or estate agent came round. I disguised the thumping noises with repeated striking of my foot on the floor and unexplained attempts to meow.

Unfortunately my messiness came between me and my best friend. And despite his futile efforts to teach me how to clean, the sounds of heated rows about the mess could be heard from the Mir space station. That I decided this was the ideal man for me to spend the rest of my life with (when we’d practically killed each other living in the same space) was perhaps a tiny sign that my judgement was off.

There was a nasty flare up of my eating disorder when I was living at Botley Road. I’d been bulimic since the age of 13, and there had been the odd episode of re-issuing a kebab in my first year. But it was when I had to appear in a see through body suit, playing Titania in “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” that it really took off. I started starving myself, running up and down on the spot for 10 hours a day, and doing 5,000 squats. This worked, I was tiny when I appeared in the play and received a card from a secret admirer (who alas never revealed himself). But afterwards I started stuffing myself with jacket potatoes and sour cream, adopting a strict Atkins diet and regurgitating them down the loo. Seeing as I hardly put on any weight, everyone kept asking me “where do you put all that food.” I replied that the cat had developed an addiction to potatoes and sour cream, as he was experiencing an identity crisis and thought he was a ten year old boy.

Although my interest in news was as weak as my grip on reality, I was nevertheless struck by the anti-Thatcher poll tax riots which erupted around the country, reaching their climax in a protest of hundreds of thousands in London in March 1990. I had always been against the Tories, thinking they were racist, in common with certain members of my arch-Conservative family. Indeed when Margaret Thatcher got in in 1979, at the age of 9, I composed an anti-Tory protest song talking about hurling lumps of mud and rotten apples at them. This was as popular as a gnome infested council house at my extremely posh school in Kensington. Although the solitary Jewish girl at the school did join in. I found the poll tax riots so dramatic, so un-English, I had to write to my friend in Bolivia, saying 2 million French bodysnatchers had invaded the British Isles. But in common with so many left wing young people I didn’t bother to vote.

In the Autumn of 1990, my third year, I moved back into college rooms, unfortunately with no cleaners on site. But a kindly friend took over the job of tidying up my room. Having done nothing but drama and smoke dope in my second year, I now decided it was time to buckle down and do some work. I spent endless hours in the library, (hardly running at all) and got it together with fellow intellectual Dennis. Of course it was late in this year that the final casualty of the Poll Tax riots came: Mrs Thatcher was given her P45. I had liked her as much as battered eels in a lumpy mustard sauce but she was the only Prime Minister I had ever known.

When finals came, I was ODing on pro-plus, taking ten packets a day. This had an alarming effect on my mental state, causing me to paint my face like the Joker in Batman before my exams. My patient friends instructed me to wash off my face and escorted me shaking to the exam. I still don’t believe that the examiners actually read my exams at Oxford as I scribbled one illegible word per line. But I still miraculously came out with a 2:1. I decided I was too ugly and short to be an actress but decided I wanted to do something that involved performance and travel so would join the BBC. The only problem was I had zero interest in news, and no real experience of journalism. But, in my typical determined way, decided that this was no barrier at all.

Next week: the dark days at the BBC when there was a strange confusion between the words “white” and “write,” where a tangle of bureaucracy caused the untimely demise of one of their reporters. And where, disappointed in love, I stumbled down the wild side of the sexual street.

Dropping acid with a bunch of Buddhist monks at a commune in California

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Enticed by my close friend, Peacock, I spent the summer of 1990 at the Happy Hippie Commune in Berkeley, California. Dipping my student toes into journalism at local newspaper: “A Slow News Day.”

After a (brief) lifetime of being abnormal I had finally found a home. In fact not only a home but a place where everyone was much weirder than me. As someone who’s had an eating disorder since the age of eight and been self-harming from eleven it was a relief to finally be walking (sanely) on the pavement rather than in the middle of the street.

A motley crue of characters inhabited the spacious Victorian commune: Helga, a tax lawyer turned tarot card reader, who’d grown up on a snail farm in Germany. Buttercup, a bearded hippie who’d lived for 7 years in parks before being discovered by Helga squatting in the loft. Buttercup – an MIT dropout circa 1979 – was the shit hot IT consultant and graphics designer of the newspaper where deadlines were always a mañana away. “Security” at the commune (I’m not sure for who) was provided by Kirk, who’d been in a nuclear test in the Pacific and said sayonara to his sanity shortly afterwards. Delicious meals were served by Dick, a gay stripper, who was moonlighting as the resident chef.   They all had very bad habits – Kirk kept leaving his gun on the kitchen table, and Dick would show off pornographic pictures of his various poses on stage and was very nasty to me about my spots. The other residents were small brown and had a disturbing proclivity to perch on your toothbrush just as you wanted to clean your teeth – a flotilla of cockroaches living it up as the Buddhist neighbour had banned bug-i-cide from the building.

We would go to Buddhist “happenings” populated by Japanese monks and very loud brass gongs. Inarticulate mumblings – no doubt highly spiritual Buddhist chants – would trail like farts through the room. Floating in and out of the apartment were another posse of oddly Aryan looking Buddhist monks, who would sit around in the dining room dropping acid while their girlfriends looked on in silent awe. Dropping acid was a hobby for the occupants of the commune and Henry, a mud wrestler who’d developed a phobia of dirt,  would do the hoovering surrounded by hallucinated washing up gloves. But unlike my naïve first days at Oxford where I’d phoned my parents giggling that “everyone was doing drugs” (necessitating drastic U-turns to falsely claim that I hadn’t started doing drugs) this time I kept schtum.

“So how’s it going in Berkeley?” said my extremely conservative mother.

“Oh,” I said, muffled sounds of people off their head on acid only 3 feet away, “I’m being very sensible, I don’t think I’ve ever felt as sensible as here. ”   A clanging was coming from outside as Kirk had chained himself to the railings after an attempt by Helga to throw him out had backfired. She’d threatened to call the police but he’d said he’d rather impale himself on the railings than be the only sane person in the nuthouse again.

It was the first time I’d tried acid, or anything more than dope. But as someone who had a tenuous grip on reality and lived in a fantasy world acid simply did not work. I was stuck to my chair for twelve hours, at one point forgetting how to breathe. My friend Peacock had a much more outlandish reaction. He saw old teachers of his with suicidal bents hanging from nooses in the sitting room, rushed up to policemen in the street tapping them on the shoulder and asking, “are you real?” and tried to copulate with a frozen chicken in the freezer at Food 4 Less. There was of course (to someone flying to Mars on acid) a “rational” reason for the chicken. It was to avoid being detected as, he said, there were wanted posters showing our names and faces blue tacked to the supermarket walls.

But here I was stuck on a chair, with nowhere to go as I couldn’t move, wondering why acid had worked so well on Hunter S Thompson and not on me. The answer was that I was too weird already and acid simply shut me down. The second time I took it I felt a mild tingling of something hallucinogenic before being dragged back to earth to rescue Peacock from arrest and the deep freeze.

The guru of the newspaper, a celebrated clown called Lumpy Custard, would frequently pop in to write his relationship column. A semi-permanent resident was Helga’s beau, a Native American called Stumbling Bull, who seemed to have decided he wanted to share a tepee with me. There was one normal person in the commune, though not of course full time, a ballerina called Claire who was dancing in Swan Lake. Kirk had decided she was just the swan for him and started appearing in a feathered head dress and a single wing.

I was used to a different type of madness at home. As my outwardly conservative, (though secretly psycho) mother had had a major meltdown when my father left when I was 12. Threats to put contracts out on my father and evict me from the house (because I’d left a glass in the sink) flew thick and fast over the Weetabix and curried goat. Not that my mother cooked curried goat, a posh Jamaican, she was more likely to serve steak tartare.

Meanwhile, back at the commune, the relationship between me and Peacock was blossoming like a summer rose. Naïve and a virgin I had never experienced the excitement of knowing a man who was as interested in foundation and mascara as me. I had a few beauty products – he had a whole cabinet. The discussions we had about the merits of Clinique v Prescriptives foundation were heated and intense. His closeness to a smoky eyed guitarist called Chuck struck me as entirely innocent. It was only when I was giddy with excitement about to have sex for the first time that he told me he wanted to sleep with men as well. In fact was already sleeping with a man. The things they got up to with outlandish names such as rimming and felching and, to me, even stranger realities put me off having a sex change for life.

But among all the humour there was disaster at the commune. In the year before I arrived in Berkeley, my second year at Oxford, I’d received a letter from my mother. It announced her intention to move to Jamaica, leaving me without a home. We had never had a good relationship and the fault, according to her, lay with me. “You have always been selfish,” she wrote. “When you were three I asked you to bring me a cup of tea and it was cold. You were selfish then and you’ve been selfish ever since, that’s why we don’t get on.” The fact that she’d spent six days a week out of the house, one at the hairdressers, didn’t register on her consciousness at all.

My mother, resentful at me disappearing when she’d rented a flat in London to spend the summer with me, phoned the commune one day. My beloved cat was vomiting diarrhoea and she wanted to know if she should take him to the vet. Of course I screeched, terrified that it was too late. It was too late and my dearest cat, the only member of my family I could rely on, was put down. I didn’t speak for a week. I have never forgiven my mother for this murder and never will.

But luckily I now have confirmation of an afterlife, as the desperation of my grief brought him back. I heard his shallow cat breathing next to my bed every night, a ball bounced across the floor of my room on its own. And when I got back to my rooms at Oxford, I could not only hear his breathing but feel him walking across my duvet and snuggling in to his preferred sleeping spot. Afterlife, it definitely exists, I have heard and felt a ghost. But the loss was so tragic I’ve never had a pet again. I am now my own pet and have been looking after myself, with notable hiccups on the way, ever since.

Next week: dating yet another gay man at Oxford, thinking I was the Queen of Spain, (or, unrelated to dope, a fried egg about to be hit by a train) and training for the Olympics in the library at 4am.