Cambridge & diversity

Alison Hennegan: speaking out

Alison HenneganIn 1967 Alison Hennegan joined Girton College as an undergraduate; she is now a Fellow of Trinity Hall, a lecturer and Director of Studies in English. A prominent campaigner for gay and lesbian rights, her career includes literary journalism, broadcasting and publishing.

What inspired you to come to Cambridge?

When I was about 15 or 16 I was summoned to my headmistress at school because I had done particularly well in a general knowledge test. She said ‘Now sit down, dear. We all think you should be applying to Oxford and Cambridge.’ This was a great surprise to me as we were streamed in the grammar school and I wasn't in the top stream.

We had a close family friend who had been an undergraduate at Girton in the early twentieth century. She went on to become a very eminent classicist, so I always knew about Girton from that. I was also passionate about nineteenth century literature and the names of Girton and Newnham kept cropping up all the time.

I should say, of course, that so too did Oxford, because at the time when I was applying, which was in 1966, you could apply to both Oxford and Cambridge simultaneously. I applied to both and got places at both, indeed I got awards at both. But when I actually came to Cambridge for interviews, I was particularly inspired by the woman who interviewed me—Anne Righter, now, as Anne Barton, a professorial Fellow of Trinity—and I thought this was someone I'd like to be taught by. I hadn't had, I'm afraid to say, the same sense of inspiration from the dons I'd encountered at Oxford.

Did you find obstacles in getting in to Cambridge?

The preparation for the entrance examinations was more rigorous than A-levels but once you had actually satisfied their requirements and convinced them that they wanted you, the matriculation required was minimal—two A-levels, grade unspecified. If I were applying now I would not get in. Without wishing to be arrogant, I think that would be wrong. Now that I am involved with admissions, one of my big anxieties is how we can make sure we do get the right people, when their profile isn't always what admissions tutors and central policy thinks it ought to be.

Did you come from a background of higher education?

No. My mother was a primary school teacher, having come via a working class entry through the state—the trade scholarships as they were called, available in the 1920s—and she was a south Londoner … Lambeth, Waterloo, Wandsworth. My father's education was very much disrupted by great illness during his childhood and early adolescence, and he lost month after month of schooling due to hospitalisation. So no, I wasn't from a background of higher education but there was an intense love and respect for learning in the house. My parents were very generous with pocket money and most of it went on books.

How did your experience at Cambridge change you?

It gave me the confidence to ‘come out’. I knew I was lesbian before I arrived. I had known that since my mid-teens, but as a grammar school girl in suburban Surrey in the early and mid sixties I found it difficult to find a way or space in which to say it.

After the first long vac at Cambridge I affected a rather dashing form of early twentieth century drag. I took Colette, the French novelist, as my model and I went into rather elegant black velvet jackets, cravats, pearl tie pins, and cufflinks. I made myself very noticeable—which is one way of coming out, but it's not everyone's chosen route! Cambridge gave me the space in which it was safe to do that. It was a space in which no one censored me, no one mocked me, no one was unpleasant to my face; there would have been the odd bit of snickering here and there, but there was never a hint of anything other than a certain sort of amused encouragement from my dons—or not even amused, just encouragement: go for it, girl!

Would you say it was a lonely experience?

A lot of the time I worked with it culturally—I would say that Plato was my saviour and had been from about 14 or 15. I was lucky that my Greek teacher at school, a splendid Scotswoman, got my number very early on and was charming and delightful about it. The place that male–male love occupies in Greek culture is an honoured place and I found that enormously helpful. I also made my way to Sappho, so I felt very reinforced by history; I felt very reinforced by most of the rest of the world, and it really was terrifically helpful.

I had close friendships—close female friendships—and that helped, but it was an ‘unpoliticised’ notion of identity; it was anecdotal; it was finding personal connections with people who'd had similar experiences. It wasn't yet within any sort of context of an identity; that notion of identity was only just coming into being.

Until my third year as an undergraduate I never knowingly met another lesbian, or at least I didn't meet anybody who was identifying as lesbian. Then in my third year, a young Varsity reporter, another Girtonian, asked if she could come and talk to me about an article on the emergent gay rights movement. I think I'm right in saying she was the first woman I encountered in Cambridge who was getting ready to embrace that title, that identity, of lesbian, and do something with it.

What did your time at Cambridge teach you?

One learnt networking; one learnt the interconnectedness of life. We used to play a game as undergraduates—if you needed to talk to the Prime Minister, for example, how many people would you need to ask to get there? Usually we could get there in two moves: I know ‘x’ who knows ‘y’ who will fix it. That's what one learnt. People, of course, with great bitterness, call this the Old Boy Network. But I was not an Old Boy.

One of the things that Cambridge taught me, and I still wrestle with it, is that there's often a very big gulf between the values attached to particular things—people, enterprises, ideas—and their actual value. Cambridge taught me that you have to try to do this very difficult balancing act between agreeing that there are such things as standards—that some things are better than others, some things are more worth aspiring to than others—but that the systems whereby we try to codify that may be desperately inadequate.

I am constantly aware that any system of bringing people in, or any system of rewarding people or deciding whether they can proceed from this stage of their working life to the next, must not be dependent just on supposedly safe and reliable methods of evaluation, because they keep letting in some wrong people and leaving out some good people—there's got to be wriggle room. Then you have a real problem, of course, because the use of that wriggle room gets called patronage, nepotism, cronyism, etc.

What did you do after your studies?

After I graduated I began a PhD, which I didn't complete. I was becoming increasingly involved with gay politics—initially through befriending, which was a counselling branch of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE). Since the 1950s CHE had been the main campaigning organisation to put pressure on the government to repeal the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act. I became the national organiser of Friend, and later the vice-chairwoman of CHE. I was then approached by Gay News to work for them as the literary editor and was also involved in their campaigning.

How long have you been back in Cambridge?

I never went away! I came up as an undergraduate in '67; a BA in '70; an MA later; the abandoned PhD. I was helped by my mother, after my father's death, to be able to buy a little house in Cambridge which is where I still live, and I've been in that house now for over 30 years. I kept the house even when my working life was in London, so in the sense of a town dweller I've never gone away.

In terms of my connection with the University, I've been doing some supervision as well as my ordinary working life since the mid '70s. Since the early '90s teaching has been the greater part of my life. But I've only been a fellow of a College for a very tiny amount of time; I was a Fellow Commoner for three years here at Trinity Hall and in 2009 I began my first year as a full Fellow.

I have ambivalent feelings about the University. I love a lot of it; I'm very grateful to it; and I'm very glad I came here and to Cambridge generally. I'm very grateful for all the things I feel it's given me; the opportunities it's given me and all the friendships; for the chance it's given me to be in the world in a certain way. For all these things I'm profoundly grateful.

But one's always caught up in this contradiction that one is the beneficiary of a very powerful institution and not all that power has been won and exercised justly or humanely. You find yourself endlessly torn, I think, about ways in which you want to support, ways in which you say, yes, I will stand up to collective responsibility for that, and ways in which you want to disassociate yourself. I feel that conflict very passionately and I don't think there is an easy answer to it. This is the dilemma one faces, and a dilemma I am no nearer to solving than I was when I first came here.