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What May Balls are really like (when you’re old and mean)

2013 June 19
by Zoe Strimpel
They may look chipper at 6AM, but see how they like it in ten years

They may look chipper at 6AM, but see how they like it in ten years

In 1633, someone in something called F. M. Pinto Voy. & Adventures by someone named named H Cogan noted of a social gathering: “All of them together..danced a Ball to the tune of two Harps and a Viol”. Balls are about the formal cutting of shapes and, as Wikipedia helpfully tells us, “may or may not involve ballroom dancing”. The OED describes balls as “a social gathering for dancing, esp. of people belonging to a common establishment, society, profession, etc., sometimes having an organized programme and special entertainment.” By this definition, the Cambridge Mayweek balls are truly balls. And balls are meant to be fun – Cinderella wants to go to the ball, after all; the sisters in Pride and Prejudice thought of little else. However, as May Week draws to an end, I find myself more of the sentiment expressed by Bp. J. Taylor in Great Exemplar (1649): “Avoid carnivals and balls..the perdition of precious houres.”

I don’t for a moment think that this reaction on my part is because the Cambridge balls are inherently wrong or evil. What they are inherently, though, is not that fun and really expensive, making them even less fun. OK ok, I put my hands up, my definition of “not that fun” clearly stems from the fact that I’m old (30!) and/or mean and/or dull. But also from the fact that I’m right.

My observations this week must be prefaced by this: when I was 19, 20 and 21, I thought the Cambridge balls were ingenious for precisely the reasons I think they’re the (admittedly outer) circles of hell now. First: I thought quantity was an awesome alternative to quality. Second: I thought the quantity over quality principle applied not just to food, drink and entertainment, but to time. If a ball went until 7AM, it had to be much better than one that stopped at 2AM. Third: I thought that not paying for food and drink at the point of taking it – along with having a constant supply of different types – was the pinnacle of goodness and fun-ness and truly suggested utopian cornicopian ingenuity and decadence. Fourth: I thought dressing up in formal wear was an awesomely exciting thing to do for an outdoor event lasting nine hours. Fifth…well, I liked fairground rides then and I like them to this day. But what appealed then and jars now is the combination of ball gowns and bouncy castles; fireworks and dodgems; Red Bull and merry go rounds. Sixth: I thought long queues, while annoying, were by definition worth it and that true value could only be attained by waiting in them. Especially when that true value concerned hog roast.

The balls also start with a long queue. I observed my fellow queuers – they looked fairly bored of each other by the time we got in (some people had been there an hour, or even two), but kept a good spirit about it and duly snapped photos of each other in their gowns and tuxes, some of them swigging their own supplies of drink. It was nearly 10:15 by the time we got into Clare ball and I was already thinking how my bed-time was in about two hours max, and at the same time how I would be prevented from going to bed for a very long time, making me all the more filled with bed-thoughts. It was at 11PM that I let out my first yawn.

A queue is bad enough – more festival Portapotty than black tie ball. But once in – a ticket is £135 after all – one expects one’s black tie-booty to be handed a glass of champagne. Champagne damnit. A glass or two (ok, or five) would have trumped the endless, and I mean truly infinite supply of room temperature cava coloured red, yellow and green in keeping with the theme of kaleidoscope. I grabbed one, noted its yellowness and gulped it down anyway, then grasped a red one thinking it might be rose, and found it was just slightly more bitter than the one before due to the food colouring, and tried to down this one too. Snob that I am, I sort of didn’t want to and anyway I felt a bit of rusty buzz coming through from the first one combined with my hunger. Undeterred by the cava, but slightly freezing now, we headed past the kaleidoscopic hammocks (quite cool but also an extremely poor substitute, given the 13 degree weather and drizzle, for bed), across Clare bridge, past the Cam chock full of punts and into the Fellows Garden where attainment of value for money was certainly to commence. It’s not that we thought £135 could begin to be accounted for by second helpings of chicken Thai curry over rice in paper plates. No, that’s why people started grabbing pulled pork in floury Warburton buns and neon blue cocktails, and queuing for boar hotdogs and camel burgers (springbok and kangaroo ran out fast), crepes and weirdly green (though tasty) deep fried hot donuts, interspersed with vodka jelly shots, cups of wine and more warm yellow cava.

The thing is, the body can only be stuffed so much with food and drink before its capacity to have fun stops functioning at the calibre demanded by a £135 ticket. This is why the two words seasoned ball goers tell newbies is: “pace yourself”. Food and drink seem like the way to mainline value – via the gullett – when really at these balls value lies in the entertainment. People realise this after a few hours. Just as they do so, around midnight, most groups have broken up and there are lone undergraduates or groups of two that have come detached. People are rushing between courts trying find their friends, trampling over discarded styrofoam bowls of curry and crepe and spilled Sex on the Beach. Many – instead of Diet Coke breaks – are taking phone breaks while they try to locate their homies.

But then people stop stuffing their faces quite so much; the food runs out or looks a bit wilted. Suddenly the action’s in the marquees; good and well-known bands strike up and girls jump on the shoulders of their boyfriends, dudes headbang their dreds and dorks in djs start to cavort. But for every head-banger and shoulder-dancer, there are rows of people looking glazedly but determinedly into the distance, the buzz of their initial booze-grab fading while the mercury drops further and friends splinter off. The women start to wish they had flat shoes and either go barefoot or change their footwear, or sit down waiting for it all to go away…..boom boom boom.

Which, of course, it won’t until 6AM because after all, the glory of the ball is its plenitude.

Unless, of course, you’re me, who is 30 and mean and dull. Who, having been curious to relive past pleasures and finding instead a series of bittersweet flashbacks, has been spoiled by champagne-swinged London life, is now a major snob and… totally tired. In which case you leave at 2:30, feeling a sense of devious pleasure at breaking free. Turns out the covert breakaway feels a million times better than infinite combinations of beer, curacao, Red bull and cava. Who’d have thought it?



One Response leave one →
  1. Hermione permalink
    June 21, 2013

    Did you have a nice dress on though?

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