Thursday, April 20, 2006

Drunken excess

This is not the Monument to the Third International.

I’m busy and busy and stumbling through the beginning of term and all its associated academic traumas. There are lots of things to be happy about: seeing a hoopoe the other day; a nice review of my book in a big magazine; my delight in having found, so recently, some exceedingly wonderful new friends in this bad old town; the garden all rainy and full of new plants and vegetables, and so on. And there are other things less happy, of course, but manageable.

So many things to write about! A visit to the British Antarctic Survey recently, to an extraordinary meeting on climate change; and a long post on what sitting still in a landscape does; and some personal notes on hunting, and on being invisible. But these are all important, and what I’m going to write now isn’t.

Because I was asked about May Balls the other day, by an American friend. I understand the confusion. Here, in the UK, we’re mystified by this “Spring Break” business and the “High School Prom” and “Homecoming” things. What? Huh? When I was a child we had “school discos”’—theatres of pain to awkward, too-tall and terminally uncool kids like the young Pluvialis.

We don’t have discos at this university. We have May Balls. May Balls are why we will all, all of us here, be first against the wall when the Revolution comes.

Yes, of course every day in Cambridge is exactly like this

May Balls happen after the examinations, in the “drink until you die" stage of the undergraduate academic calendar, just after the exams. In June. Garb? Oh, Black tie, white tie, you know, ballgowns, uniforms, blah. Enormously popular they are too. I have been to a couple, both with much-loved friends: without them I'd probably have been terrified, and tried to escape by the river route.

Note: security at these events is serious. They don’t actually have armed guards patrolling the banks of the river Cam to shoot frogmen gatecrashers with suits and bow ties under their drysuits, a la Roger Moore. And I don’t remember razor wire or machine-gun emplacements. But almost. It’s still impossibly cool to gatecrash a May Ball, of course, and I’m still embarassingly proud that I got in free a couple of years ago as a guest of one of the bands. Bless you British Sea Power.

Often these balls have themes. This can be, and generally is, particularly excutiating. The big colleges don’t, of course. It’s generally the smaller colleges who need to Theme their balls. The organising committee does its very best to transform the College and its grounds into a wonderland, something heavenly and extraordinary and unrecognisable. Look! We’re in eighteenth-century Paris! Or New Orleans! Or (groan) Carnival! I wish there’d be some more creative thinking in this regard. I want to go to a ball themed around oceanography or Tolstoy or an 1950s agricultural show.

Note to Ball organisers. I know it might sound a good idea at the time to have mixed themes (e.g. Las Vegas meets the Arabian Nights) but it don’t work. And one of the most painful truths about these displays of conspicuous consumption is that they're a fast, accurate indicator of the financial and academic status of the College concerned. In terms of ‘transporting one to a different time and place’, stapling brown paper on the walls and sticking playing cards all over it it is not really in the same league as a wall of lasers playing through a fog bank of dry ice. One makes you feel you’re off the Grand Banks on acid; the other is embarrassing. Like watching someone else's child forget her lines at a school play. Actually, both of these experiences encourage drunken excess, so I guess there’s not much to choose between them.

The biggest balls are high-octane, faintly eighteenth-century creations: Fragonard, Pleasure Gardens, um, Great Gatsby. I've been to one of these. A breathlessly still summer evening, with a scraped wet silk sky, and fire-eaters in the courtyards. Amazing. Mind-numbing in its medieval largesse. Hot air balloons! Live Camels! As much alcohol as you can drink! Food, food, food! Fireworks!

The ghostly presence of an ancient bachelor don gazing upon revellers

In the cold light of day, however, a Puritan horror strikes. Tickets to these things cost a fortune. Your Local Education Authority isn't there to pay for a night of getting rat-arsed, breaking heels, eating free food, watching bands of a quality entirely dependent on the richness of your college (the larger ones tend to have chart-topping indie acts, the poorer ones chart-topping indie acts from five years ago)....

Crowds of drunken undergraduates with loosened bow-ties flapping in the wind ram each other in displays of repressed homosexuality on the dodgems. Punts filled with ice and champagne melt. A light shower of rain ruins all the bespoke ball-gowns at three in the morning. The Fire-eaters go home. Dawn pales the sky and the wreckage is revealed. Litter, glassware, small clumps of inconsolable drunken students who've been dumped or upstaged during the night hugging their knees under willow and plane trees. And everyone staggers home at 6AM after cheering for a 'survivor's photo' and watching a parachute drop.

Last year I went out early one June morning, binoculared and booted, on my way out of town for a birding trip. Across the causeways and paths, under willow trees and crossing roads, were long, straggling lines of exhausted people in evening dress, generally silent, often barefoot, making their way through the mist coming up from the river, wincing slightly in the breaking sunlight. It was the most surreal and beautiful vision; apocalyptic and calming all at once, like a beautifully-written science fiction novel. Which, come to think of it, is what Cambridge is like all the time.

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