I had to laugh when I heard about the student at my old university, SOAS (the School of Oriental and African Studies), being criticised for hosting an "English" party with "no bongos". He got into loads of trouble and had to apologise to everyone at the place by email. I know that it sounds a bit Alan Clark and that he's probably a bit of an idiot, but you have to have studied there to understand what he's on about. I went there to delay having to make any decisions in my life and to do as little work as possible. (I succeeded.)
The problem was, it wasn't your average university scene. SOAS has to be one of the most politically correct institutions in the world, and this was apparent from my first day there. As a lonely newcomer I went to the "Freshers' Fair" to see if I could join any groups and make some intellectual mates with whom I could spend the next three years punting and jumping off bridges (I think that's Oxford, actually, but I wasn't aware of the difference yet).
The first stall I spotted was "SLAGS"– the SOAS Lesbian and Gay Society. I was a desperately unsuccessful heterosexual but I moved on. The next stall was the "SOAS Feminist Society": a large woman in dungarees not too unlike Milly Tant from 'Viz' sat behind the table. On the wall behind her was a banner; it read "Combating sexism at SOAS". I asked the dungaree woman whether I could join.
"No, it's women only."
"Isn't that sexist?" I asked, perfectly reasonably.
"Fuck off," said Milly Tant.
I moved on – if it got physical, there'd only be one winner and it wasn't going to be this sad little public-school Goth.
The next stall was an offshoot of the PLO, next to the "Free Mandela" stall that, in turn, was a neighbour to the "Iraqi Socialist Worker Group".
I gave up and headed down to the bar. This was a buzzy place, wrapped around by a huge 3D mural of what looked like tadpoles. I later discovered it represented Aids. This was always something of a disconcerting backdrop to my futile attempts to chat up gorgeously exotic but earnest girls from all over the Third World. Attempts to get a drink were also curtailed by my lack of ability to speak obscure African dialects.
I spent most of my time hanging around with the drug dealers by the pool tables. One of the advantages of the school being so ethnically diverse was that we had the finest hash in all of London. You could get whatever you wanted: Lebanese black, Moroccan red, Afghan blue. There was even a Yemeni student who did a brisk trade in Qat, the bitter plant stimulant that is commonly chewed in Sana'a. When Princess Anne, who is the Chancellor of the school, came for a visit, her Special Branch advance team cleared the whole pool area. It seemed that the princess was "sorted for Es and whizz" and had no use for the school's special services.
I was even approached by a dodgy-looking man in a gabardine raincoat who took me aside and asked me whether I'd "thought about what I might do when I leave". It was very exciting – an offer from MI5. I turned him down as I had a hot date with a half-Lebanese-half-Australian girl. I often wish I'd gone for the chat instead. It would have been great fun. I could well have been the first Goth spy.
Nowadays, of course, with paranoia rife about the supposed evils of the Islamic world, I presume that half the students are moles and reporting on the other half. If anything, I'm pretty sure that the political correctness and the diplomatic tip-toeing around every contentious subject is even worse.
No wonder this student – a rugby player (and there aren't many of those at SOAS) – decided to have an "English" party. It wasn't racism or trying to be offensive: it was simply someone having a pop at the weirdness of this gloriously ethnic melting pot in the heart of Bloomsbury. I only hope that Milly Tant isn't still there now doing a PhD on diversity. If she had seen the notice he would have been in serious trouble. Such, such were the days.Reuse content