Description: Sophie isn’t exclusively gay, but when you’re voted Ms Lesbian Oxford in your first year at university, it does put you under a certain amount of pressure.
Her university life is characterised by passionate love affairs, liberal activism and boundary-pushing theatre.
Nine years later, Sophie returns to her hometown in Cornwall, where girls are friends with girls, boys are friends with boys, and queer is an experience felt when you drink too much cider.
Sophie falls for John, a sensible, conservative male man with a fondness for cardigans, but can they overcome their cultural differences?
Ellie did a wonderful job of fulfilling my aspirations for the rest of the year. It transpired that having a hot, highly successful, super-girlfriend was a good thing.
My girlfriend was an outstanding public speaker, had a superb deep and sexy singing voice, had mastered yoga positions I could only dream about, and was full of creative ideas. She also had type one diabetes and never let it hold her back, which just made her even easier to admire.
We wrote a play together, we raised money for The Terrance Higgins Trust together, we protested animal rights extremists together. There was no doubt, that Ellie Hart made me a better person.
Of course, there were a few drawbacks:
When we applied for a slot at The Burton Taylor Theatre to perform “Coming Out Stories” we were turned down because this year’s unusually conservative president of the drama society felt that full frontal male nudity would be off-putting in a gay play and Oxford was not ready for such things. Cherwell then portrayed us as two sex hungry heretics, then a drunken Balliol theology student flashed us in the street.
Whilst selling red ribbons for AIDS awareness day, a particularly anxious man in his forties thought that we were accusing him of having AIDS, took offence, and stabbed me with a pin.
Worst of all, was the feud that we got into with an unofficial animal rights group. I’m a vegetarian who was happily balancing on the fence regarding animal research, when a fanatical activist sent me tumbling into the pro-vivisection field. An activist threw mud in my face and, in defending me, Ellie earned herself a punch in the face.
Injuries aside, there was something greatly satisfying about standing up for what we believed in, whether it was writing lifestyle fiction, raising awareness, or protesting. When Ellie and I were together, there was a great energy between us, just waiting to blow up.
Fortunately, there was a context where explosive energy was entirely constructive – the bedroom! Our energy translated to sexual chemistry and our erotic life was mind blowing beyond belief.
Ellie was somewhat imaginative between the sheets and loved playing out different scenarios: Virginia and Vita, first female president and her wife, airhostess and the publisher who discovers her, and my personal favourite: Ellie Hart and Sophie Sweet.
We wrote our own game, “For fits”, a parody of some other game that I’d never heard of. Ellie assured me ours was a “hilarious mockery of a misogynistic calamity” – I took her word for it and found personal satisfaction from the fact that every round involved stripping.
We scripted, filmed and edited our own erotic movie. Ellie said it wasn’t porn, because we’d used light in an original way.
We made our own dildos using a kit purchased online. Ellie’s was modelled perfectly using scientific research into the female g-spot. Mine looked like a gherkin. Both led to mind-blowing, though dildo-free rumpy-pumpy.
Throughout the next two years, Ellie and I continued to plough our energy into the arts and other important causes. The most remarkable of which were our supporting roles in The Gregory Event.
Although I was no longer a member of St Cuthbert’s, my past success as Chair Mover Number Three in Amadeus had not gone unnoticed, and I was invited back to partake in this year’s Gregory event.
St Cuthbert’s held an annual arts festival to honour one of the founders of the college, Lord Gregory. It generally involved a bit of music, a bit of theatre and some form of arts and crafts exhibition. Given that Lord Greg was no spring chicken when the college was built forty-five years ago, he was somewhat elderly by the time a group of determined first years were allocated the task of organising The Gregory Event 2004.
Ellie explained the concept of the event to a bunch of enthusiastic English literature freshers.
“Ninety-five percent of the audience will be students and the rest would be fellows of the college and guests of honour.”
I do not know whether it was Ellie’s persuasive influence, or a collective death wish, but in 2004, the first years decided that they were more interested in being contemporary and moving, than pampering to the tastes of the “fuddy-duddy” guests of honour. Their choice of play was somewhat more risqué than the usual West End musical.
“The Crying Game” inquired The Dean of St Cuthberts. “I have never heard of this play. Is it modern?”
“Very modern,” the producer, a ginger lad with aspirations of a parliament, told him.
“Very well, leave the details with me and I’ll take a look in my own time.”
I can only imagine that Dr Bamford was very busy during the two days that he was given to look over the script of The Crying Game. We were stunned when he agreed that it was a suitable production to perform in the honour of our esteemed founder, Lord Greg.
“He can’t have read it!” I said to Ellie, that night.
“Well he approved it, didn’t he?”
“He probably only read the first third. The opening doesn’t even begin to cover just how controversial…”
“The beginning is gritty.”
“You know exactly what I’m talking about Ellie Hart.”
She smiled, that lovely Ellie Hart smile.
“I think someone should say something.”
“Letting the first years go ahead with this is like assisted suicide.”
“Don’t be such a spoil sport.”
Ellie was a persuasive soul, and not only did we not enlighten the dean about the true nature of the play, but we auditioned.
I ended up playing the role of Drinker in Bar and Ellie played the role of Kooky Hairdresser. My role was hardly the height of my theatrical career, but I would not have missed the chance to be part of this fiasco, for the world.
On the night, I felt a whole new species of butterfly in my stomach.
During the first act, the audience’s reactions were divided. There was the half who clearly hadn’t seen the film: they were sucked into the gritty IRA kidnapping and planned assassination, all the while thinking, “I preferred last year’s Return to the Forbidden Planet.” Then there were the rest, who’d seen the film, and knew exactly what was coming: they wriggled around in their seats, laughing at inappropriate moments, waiting for the moment of truth.
After the interval, the tone of the play changed entirely. Rather than being set in a lonely forest, it was set in a bustling city, and in contrast to the tense, suspense-based beginning, the second act began to take the form of a romantic drama.
To summarise the plot: in line with the dying wish of a British soldier, IRA man Fergus, seeks out the soldier’s girlfriend, Dil, to make sure that she is all right after his death. Of course, in line with true cinematic convention, Fergus begins to fall in love with her, and the course of the film begins to shift. In fact, things start to get a little steamy.
Lord Greg looked somewhat uncomfortable as a first year medic pretended to perform oral sex on a fourth year biochemist. However, you may be surprised to hear that that was not the most shocking moment. What followed almost knocked Lord Greg right off his seat.
If you haven’t seen The Crying Game and you plan to, then skip a page or two to avoid the spoiler. If you have seen the film, then you will know exactly what happened next and exactly why it was extraordinarily inappropriate for a prestigious Oxford occasion.
Fergus is just about to get jiggy with Dil – they’ve kissed, they’ve cuddled, they’re approaching the home straight – Dil opens her dressing gown…
…and she’s got a willy!
In the film itself, this moment is quite shocking. However, when performed in front of twenty or so, distinguished Oxford fellows, it is priceless.
The college male welfare rep entered stage right, wearing just a wig and a satin dressing gown, then untied the delicate rose belt, and flashed his cock at the entire audience.
I watched from the wings trying desperately to stifle my laughter. Ellie put her hand in my mouth to silence me.
For some moments, Lord Greg, Dr Bamford and various other college officials, were frozen in their seats.
Then, in unison, they tilted their heads slightly, to check that they had really seen what they thought they’d seen.
Five or six seconds later, they began shuffling awkwardly in their seats, but were too embarrassed to make eye contact with anybody else in the room.
I could swear that the strawberry-blonde maths teacher’s eyes popped out of his head, but fortunately he was able to reposition them without causing any lasting damage.
I wondered whether somebody would command us to stop the performance but the fellows seemed too embarrassed to speak.
The poor old dean, having previously approved the play, could hardly object, without appearing indecisive. The other fellows of the college could not object without undermining the dean.
Added to which, it would appear most uncultured if a fellow appeared not to be keeping up with the developments of modern theatre.
When twenty seconds of silence passed and none of the fellows interrupted, the actors continued with the scene.
The play ran to the end.
“See,” whispered Ellie, “Oxford was ready for full frontal male nudity.”