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.