Gasps and moans at Newnham College. The ladies of Cambridge have rather let themselves down. I don’t want to seem old-fashioned or judgmental, but I do think the ladies of Newnham College have rather let themselves down. Students at the all-female Cambridge college – founded in 1871, and once a haven for bluestockings – have been sent an email asking them to tone down their nocturnal activities because of complaints about noise. “I’d just like to politely remind everyone that Newnham corridors funnel sound and walls are very thin in some places,” reads a memo from the college’s undergraduate president, Lizzy Cole. “Therefore, please remember to be discrete in your activities, especially during late/early hours of the day.” “It’s just so embarrassing,” an anonymous student told The Daily Telegraph. “I was blushing when I got the email.” As well she might have been. Cambridge is supposed to be one of the best universities in the world, yet its students – even the ones in presidential positions – do not know the difference between discrete and discreet. Never mind the sex noises; it’s the syntax that bothers me. Brainboxes, booze and sex – what a fascinating combination. The heady mix of posh, drunken romps in an all-female Cambridge college is just so irresistible. Two months ago, the smell of industrial bleach brought tears of nostalgia to my eyes. I was walking through Newnham, my old Cambridge college. Term had finished and the corridors were deserted but for the occasional conference-goer, deaf to the ghostly echoes of sodden female laughter I could hear coming from the empty bar, the inevitable sobbing from somewhere in the building, and the sound of someone throwing up in the Ladies. Those halls – dubbed “the halls of passion” by one newspaper yesterday – are to be silenced. Last week, Lizzy Cole, the president of the junior common room, sent an email begging her fellow students at the women-only college to “keep it down”. Only it wasn’t the giggling and sobbing Cole was alluding to. “I’d like to remind everyone that
Newnham corridors funnel sound, and walls are very thin in some buildings. Therefore, please remember to be discrete [sic] in your activities, especially during late/early hours of the day,” read the missive. What on earth could those activities be? There was, as I recall, an indoor croquet set available for hire, but even the most vigorous nocturnal games seem unlikely to have caused such a fuss. Which leaves parties, loud music or sex, possibly even drunken sex. There are few things as titillating as posh, drunken sex involving Oxbridge students: within hours, the story had made the local tabloid, then the national papers. Cole’s email might have been sent by any university apparatchik in the country. But something curious does happen when you get hundreds of women of a particular age under one roof. If you want to imagine the formal hall at Newnham, before the diners and their guests fill the nightclubs of Cambridge, then think of a 400-strong hen night. In the college’s febrile, competitive, female environment, the undercurrent of feminist defiance present in many of the students (though what was left to defy was anyone’s guess) assumed strange and distorted forms – witness the extraordinary episode when Germaine Greer, a Newnham alumna and then fellow, was imprisoned in her own home by a student who had become infatuated with her. Between the girls, the feeling was in part The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, in part Mary McCarthy’s The Group. As for the boys, there were more at Newnham than in any other college, as if a magnetic field surrounded the red-brick Edwardian building. And once they were in, it was near-impossible to get them out. With only one main entrance, every male guest would have to be checked in and out at the Porter’s Lodge. When, one night, my jazz musician brother came back to Newnham with six band members, I was informed that girls were only allowed “five men per room”. “A paltry five?” I quipped. “And I thought we were emancipated.” To keep an accurate tally, every male guest would be forced to present a note from his host on the way out – a source of constant
hilarity. Convinced that the porters never read them, “I’m done with him,” I’d scribble. “Send the next one in.” Or: “This one’s a dud – don’t ever let him darken my door again.” This continued until the day that one porter, his spectacles at half mast as he handed me a package, casually pointed out that “all notes were kept and filed for posterity”. This, then, was a closed-off world, mysterious to outsiders – hence the fascination whenever the provocative trinity of brainboxes, booze and sex became public. Last February, for example, a group of students from the “Newnham Nuns” drinking society hit the headlines after they were pictured in “sexual poses” during a drunken initiation ceremony. Several times a year, I witnessed a dozen of them, in red underwear, streaking from one end of the college to the other (down what happens to be the longest continuous indoor corridor in Europe), after drinking a pint made up of countless shots and a hefty dose of wasabi mustard. Drunk on their own sexual freedom well before imbibing that lurid cocktail, the Nuns were to out-lad not only the boys, but one another. Of course, every generation feels it has invented sex. When Iris Murdoch – a former Newnham girl, just like Greer, Joan Bakewell and Sylvia Plath – had boyfriends scaling the Newnham walls to see her, she might have believed it was something new, just as the following generation might when its members were allowed to have men spend the night. And our generation had invented both sex and booze – and I’m not sure that much of the first went on without the second in any Cambridge college. Yesterday, Lizzy Cole seemed annoyed – with due cause – that her email had been leaked and, as she saw it, misinterpreted. “We’re not all extreme feminists or sluts,” she insisted. “We’re just normal women trying to enjoy Cambridge life.” And these days, I’m afraid that normal women enjoying normal life is a raucous business. Amorous Cambridge students told to keep the noise down. Perhaps the complaints about late-night noise at an all-women Cambridge college related to the sound of papers rustling as undergraduates studied round-the-clock. But when an email went out to students at Newnham College asking them to be “discreet in your activities” after dark, most understood it to refer to noise of
a more amorous nature. Yesterday, young women at the college, which was founded in 1871, admitted to having blushed as they read the message, which followed claims that Newnham had gained a reputation for being “slutty”. Lizzy Cole, the college’s undergraduate president, sent the email to all 400 residents after the student union received 30 complaints about noise in the student halls.“I’d just like to politely remind everyone that Newnham corridors funnel sound and walls are very thin in some buildings,” it read. “Therefore, please remember to be discrete (sic) in your activities, especially during late/early hours of the day.” Some girls said they had been horrified to think that fellow students may have heard them with their boyfriends. One Newnham undergraduate, 20, said: “It’s just so embarrassing to think that people have been listening in. I was blushing when I got the email. You try to keep it down, but it’s easy to forget the walls are so thin if you get a bit carried away. “This sort of thing must happen at every university in the country. Only in Cambridge would your fellow students complain. They’ll be handing out ear plugs next.” Boyfriends are allowed to stay in student rooms at the college for two days before they have to register for a spare room. Miss Cole, 19, a second-year natural sciences student, claimed that while Newnham had a reputation for being “slutty”, the email did not just refer to “nookie”. “Sometimes people take it a bit far too far or make too much noise and disrupt neighbours which isn’t really fair,” she said. “I wanted people to keep night time noise down as it is an old building and the walls are thin. This includes turning down music at night, being quiet when they are coming back from clubs and making sure any night time nookie is not too loud.” Newnham – whose former students include Germaine Greer, the writer, Sylvia Plath, the poet, and Emma Thompson, the actress – last hit the headlines in February last year when several students from the Newnham Nuns drinking society were pictured in sexual poses during a drunken initiation ceremony. news from telegraph.co.uk
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