I’m sure I wasn’t the first gay student to have a remarkably unsexy time at Oxford. I arrived brimming with romantic expectation, head full of imagery from Brideshead Revisited and Maurice. This was 1980. The era of floppy hair, untucked big white shirts and posing. I even had Hugh (he was Hughie then) Grant reading English in the year above me. I was so ready for a great student love affair, all Plato and punts. I furnished my room with the self-consciousness of a bower bird on heat. I took care to give out all the right signals – growing a mop of hair, riding a chicly antique bicycle, enraging my rugger hearty neighbours by practising the cello all afternoon – but it simply didn’t happen. There was a vaguely ambiguous boy with a Spandau Ballet mullet who visited night after night to mope and eat the contents of my fruit bowl but otherwise nothing. Instead I threw myself into acting. I drew far too much of the wrong sort of attention, stiffening my hair with silver lacquer (in the name of preparing for a role), wearing bright red (home dyed) dungarees which might have made me look like a backing singer for Bananarama only they were far too short, hanging out with a noisy crowd who were the antithesis of my public school contemporaries. Still no great student love affair. Not even a little one. I did have fun, though. I was taken up by a gang of girls who dressed like lesbians and vaguely were, although only one of them has stayed true to the cause. I discovered the delights of Motown. I discovered the compensatory delights of dancing. In those days Oxford’s only gay club was The Coven. This was then a sort of Nissen hut in a vast area of post industrial car park on the Oxpens Road. Its inside had been thickly coated with a mixture of chickenwire and plaster of Paris to create a sequence of dimly lit caverns where one could nestle and gossip. At the back there was a tiny dance floor, little bigger than one of our student rooms. To one side was a sort of yard, decked out with lights to resemble a taverna, where one could gasp freshish air. There was something somehow irregular about the Coven. We sensed it wasn’t gay owned and that we were being exploited but we didn’t care. Rumour had it that it was a squat. The weird licensing laws meant that they had to serve all punters a nominal “meal”, usually in the shape of a baked potato. Being students we were, naturally, always hungry so we would often arrive early enough to get in at the cheaper early evening rate, then sit in the otherwise deserted club actually eating this symbolic sustenance while waiting the arrival of the tough girls from the air bases and the possibility of men, preferable both real and new but rarely either. I never got laid there – I was probably far too camp and studenty and I danced like a swivel hipped beanpole – but I did get the protection of a terrifying tattooed lesbian called Jock after standing her a drink. She showed me the little dagger in her white sock and said, “Anyone ever give you any trouble, you just say the word.” Such a thrill! When I did finally have student love affairs only one was with a student, a lovely history scholar my friends made me dump because, well, I never quite worked out why. Otherwise I took refuge in Londoners, men with flats and central heating and free food. One especially cold January, when I’d arrived to find ice in the loo in my cottage in Jericho, I arranged all my tutorials for the same day then spent the rest of each week up in Camberwell along with a friend who was then being a lesbian and conveniently had a lover in the same sordid house. We seemed to live on the coach. Such a missed opportunity!
Image: Patrick after finals, 1983 (photo courtesy of Patrick Gale).
Author Patrick Gale (b. 1962) read English at New College, graduating in 1983. His website says of him: ‘He has never had a grown-up job. For three years he lived at a succession of addresses, from a Notting Hill bedsit to a crumbling French chateau. While working on his first novels he eked out his slender income with odd jobs; as a typist, a singing waiter, a designer’s secretary, a ghost-writer for an encyclopedia of the musical and, increasingly, as a book reviewer.’ He now lives with his partner on a farm near Land’s End where they raise beef cattle and grow barley. Gale’s many published works include a biography of Tales of the City author Armistead Maupin (Outlines, 1999) and the brilliant novels Rough Music (2000), Notes from an Exhibition (2007), The Whole Day Through (2009), A Perfectly Good Man (2012), and A Place Called Winter (2015).