June 16, 2004

May Week (Full Version)

This week in Cambride is May Week. As Vaughan pointed out earlier, it is now June. Not even early June either. Quite how a university which prides itself in being one of the best in the world manages not to spot that the highlight of its social calendar is mis-labelled is beyond me.

Even just as a resident in Cambridge, you can’t help but notice when it is May Week. For a week the city seems to be populated with a race of people in ball gowns and dinner jackets, who all throng together in snaking lines leading to the various colleges. It’s a bit like those cicadas in the US, only it happens yearly and no-one has written a recipe book on how to cook them*.

The students have two events to signal the beginning of May Week. First is the end of their exams, and the second is the end of the University Bumps – a strange week-long rowing competition.

So what is May Week? A panoply of parties and events to “help” the students to unwind after the academic year. The jewels in the crown are the balls. Tickets are only available to students, or friends of students; but with my extensive connections I was able to obtain a ticket to the Jesus College May Ball and in a selfless act of reportage, last night I took myself along to see what goes on.

After champagne alongside the Cam at a friends boat, we meander across Midsummer Common and join the queue of people dressed to the nines outside Jesus College. At the head of the queue a flash of ticket secures our “I’ve paid, don’t throw me out” wristband, and we filter through into the ball. Welcoming us into the ball are glasses of champagne and carefully arranged piles of Ferrero Rocher; maybe the Ambassador does present them to guests after all!

Where to first? The programme is consulted and we decide that the entertainments tents can wait awhile. Pimms is purloined, and we head to the orchard – the bouncy castle is first, followed by a brief stop for doughnuts and then onto the dodgems – a ride which will feature repeatedly during the night. Each time the cars stop there’s a mad dash to obtain a vehicle; like the drinks and food, all the entertainments are free after you’ve paid the £80 for your ticket.

Initial excitement over, we explore the event. Next to the dodgems is the dance tent, pretty empty this early on but the DJs will be filling the floor later on; towards where we came in is the cabaret; through in the First Court is the main tent, we’ve already missed The loveGods, but there are plenty of acts still to come, and a couple of punts to one side – filled with ice and bottled beers and alcopops; and finally through into the Fellows’ Garden – host to the casino, live jazz, G&Ts and chocolate fondue.

We flit from location to location, sampling all that is on offer… catch some of Lynden David Hall and MeOne in the main tent, back to the dodgems, and then we discover the Cloister Court with its classical recitals and gentlemen’s room. We tarry a while there to sample the selection of cheeses and enjoy a cigar and a glass of Laphroaig.

Luckily I decide to sample the cabaret just in time for a fantastic set by Nizlopi. Billing themselves as folk hip-hop, this duo produce some superb music and bring a whole new dimension and enjoyment to the music when performing live; they had the audience providing accompaniment and rearranging the layout of the cabaret tent in, for me, the highlight of the ball.

With so much on offer, the time flies by, and builds to a crescendo of energy at 4am with The Dampness in the main tent. Covering all The Darkness’ hits and a few other cheesy classic rock anthems, The Dampness have us moshing for the best part of an hour, completely at odds with how we’d expect our bodies to be feeling as the sun comes up.

Then things begin to wind down. A last blast on the dodgems, a muffin or pain au chocolat from the Cloister Court for breakfast. Bit by bit, everyone amasses for the survivors photo at 6 o’clock, the college looking glorious in the bright sunshine from the cloudless sky. We collect our copy of the Daily Telegraph, then sit and bask in the sun in the college garden.

Suitably chilled out, I make my excuses and wander into the middle of town, find a taxi and return home, for some much needed sleep.

* Not that I’m aware of


12 thoughts on “May Week (Full Version)

  1. See, at my plain, northern university, a ball meant some sort of roast chicken dinner, then a few couples showing off that they could waltz before the disco started.
    Maybe I should have tried harder at my A-levels. Let this be a lesson to all of you.

    Karen on June 16, 2004
  2. The image of a bouncy castle filled with people dressed in evening garb has been the cause of sudden outbreaks of giggles at odd times this morning. Thank you! Oh and the envy! I have always wanted to bounce on a bouncy castle.

  3. at my college, a “ball” meant half the student population was half-naked and on ectasy. i’m with karen on this – i definitely should have studied harder.

  4. I don’t remember any balls at that plain, northern university. Balls? Pah. I remember being given a slightly rounded lump of coal and told not to enjoy it too quickly.
    Them bleedin’ posh students don’t know they’re born. By ‘eck.

  5. And for anyone who can’t conjure up their own image of people in evening dress on a bouncy castle, there are a couple of photos amongst the ones I took during the ball.

  6. I love May week -particularly when I am able to ‘gatecrash’ a few of the balls. Trinity’s usually good.

  7. What depresses me about th’yoff of today is the dj tent and alcopops.
    In my days – at East Midlands’ top Finishing School, we had real class – triple vodkas at single prices.
    Now that’s what I call a ball

  8. “The jewels in the crown are the balls.”
    I love that sentence. 🙂
    Just goes to show that you Southerners have bigger and more impressive balls than us northern folk.

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