Trinity May Ball Debriefing


The capstone events of Cambridge’s end-of-year celebrations are the college May Balls. (Yes, they’re held in June… this is a historical misnomer.) Last week I attended Trinity’s May Ball (“The First and Third Trinity Boat Club May Ball”). Below is a brief photo-recap, though I doubt my American colleagues will believe me.

The Cambridge Varsity claims that the Trinity May Ball was rated the “third greatest party in the world” by Vanity Fair (pdf, see p. 14), though I couldn’t find the original citaiton. All the same, the Cambridge May Balls are black/white-tie events that are social capstone experiences. Tickets were only guaranteed to members of college, and there were people claiming that the £215 cost of a double ticket had apparently shot up to a `black market value’ of up to £600 for a single in the week preceeding the event. (How do students afford this?) More experienced Trinity students assured me that the event was so lavish that one could easily eat and drink the ticket’s value. (I believe they were correct.)

The ball had it’s share of long queues, including the parade of well-dressed students waiting for wrist bands to enter. The cheeky American in the photo below used this opportunity to test the hypothesis that on this special evening students could walk on the grass.

Along with a wrist band, we were given Disneyland-style pamphlets with a map of Trinity and food/entertainment highlights. There was an endless supply of champagne (see below), and an interesting juxtaposition of posh and plebian: oysters and burgers, chocolate fountains and chocolate doughnuts, portrait photography and bumper (“dodgem”) cars, etc. I hadn’t heard of the entertainment — but this is mostly because I’m not terribly well informed about the music industry. Apparently past Trinity Balls have featured Pink Floyd and the Beatles. People laughed when I thought Scootch would be a neat headliner.

My first impression upon entering the main venue was, “I’ve never seen Neville’s Court like this before.”

With a red carpet and dramatic lighting, everything took on an almost Art Deco austerity. (Even the porta-potties were posh and complete with 1930’s style art—they’re the little green boxes in the right background of the above photo.)

I had to agree that if I was going to dress up in a tuxedo (`dinner jacket’ here), Trinity dressed itself up just as well. Below is a photo across the river of the backs with the entertainment tents. That’s not the moon, it’s an illuminated balloon meant to provide some ambiance lighting.

And here’s a peek inside one of the tents where there was some music and dancing.

Just outside was a gin bar and chauffered punts. Cambridge May Balls are one of the few events where one is likely to find one’s self in black tie, sipping a glass of chapagne, and being slowly punted along the river by a mathematics wunderkind.

One of the evening’s great highlights was the fireworks display, with the pyrotechnics launched just across the river. Earlier that day’s hourly forecast had convinced me that it would rain all evening. I mused to myself that despite its tremendous wealth, Trinity still cannot buy guaranteed good weather. Apparently I was wrong — the skies cleared just as the event began, and by the time the fireworks started one could even see stars in the sky. Trinity’s college rivals, St. John’s, had their May Ball the following night — though they had a more spectacular fireworks display, they were unfortunately unable to bribe the rain away.

There was a fascinating (and very Oxbridge) phenomenon occuring during the earlier part of the evening preceeding the fireworks display. Several local punters/kayakers gathered along the river bank to watch the Trinity fireworks. Presumably they were also there to see the Trinity May Ballers. So you had a mass of tuxedos and ball gowns looking down on the river upon the `common folk’ sitting in the river, while those in punts would look back up and take photographs. Periodically one of the May Ballers would, in turn, take a photograph of the people in the river. The two sides were separated by a fence and hired security.

What most of the people did not realise, however, was that there was a third party involved — the Trinity fellows who had perched up on the roof of Wren Library for the best view of the fireworks. They looked down on everyone from their exclusive perch with a heated hand rail (on the roof of the library). And so you have the story of life at Cambridge: you you’re absolutely on top of the world until you realise how life is a little better for those just above you.

Below is a picture of the punt full of champagne. I can’t imagine how much champagne Trinity had — but when I left at 5:30 am it looked like there was still a full punt of the bubbly.

Upon finding his fingers sticky with chocolate, one student even grabbed a glass of champagne to rinse off his hands. Other venues offered a range of drinks, including the seasonal favourite, Pimms. I passed on most of the fancy stuff and found myself enchanted with the `Firely’ brand iced tea. (At Stanford these would be called EANABs: equally-attractive non-alcoholic beverages.)

There were plenty of activities to keep ball-goers busy: a small casino, a range of entertaintment (jazz/swing/rock/classical/comedy), and plenty of food (though those chocolate truffles sure went quickly). These tended to come with long queues (a British past-time) filled with snogging couples. In that light, I realised that the evening primarily catered to undergraduate couples as I found myself rather full and sleepy by midnight. Nothing makes you feel old as feeling like it’s time to go to bed when everyone else is still partying.

I’ll admit something else: I walked around the whole evening with a preprint tucked away in my tuxedo pocket. My friends even scolded me for trying to read it when I was sitting down by a curiously well-lit table.

Below is a photo of the `Great Hall’ during the Scottish ceilidh (“kay-lee” for the yanks out there) at sunrise. I used to have dinner in this hall. (Kudos to Yuan for trying to find someone to dance with me, but by this time I was a barely-walking zombie and was content to take photos from upstairs.)

There was a “survivor’s photograph” at the end of the May Ball at 6am, though I had chosen to retreat to my bed at 5:30.

By sunrise, the defining word of the evening was decadence. The following photo of a May Baller lying by the backs smoking a cigarette rather captures the sentiment:

I didn’t know what to expect before the ball other than extravagance. There were so many people there ebbing and flowing between the drinks, food, and entertainment that it was easy to lose track of friends. I was a bit disappointed that the ball was more of a `party’ party than a cocktail party. Unlike formal hall dinners with pre- and post-dinner drinks where people have proper conversations with one another, the May Ball was more of an all-out-bash at an amusement park with plenty of bustling noise. (In fact, it was reminiscent of my junior high “senior-night” at Disneyland.) There’s nothing wrong with this — it’s fantastic for what it was, but I suppose as a student who will soon be moving on, I was looking to be able to have long good-bye conversations with my friends. (Not to worry, there were post-exam parties where this was the norm.)

But all the same, it was certainly quite an evening.

Anyway, I’ll close with one final photo, a silhouette of a girl in a ball gown taking a picture at dawn. St. John’s college is in the background behind the bridge.

The entire ball was the result of tremendous planning by the May Ball committee — whose headquarters reminded me a little of a control room from FBI-dramas like 24. On-the-ground there were plenty of May Ball staff making sure things ran smoothly, including many students hired to work part time in exchange for a free ticket. Many thanks to all who had made this event possible — I’d never experienced anything like it and am rather unlikely to experience anything like it again. Special thanks to those I spent time with during the event; conventional May Ball wisdom dictates that it’s not the venue, but the company that makes the evening.


5 Responses to “Trinity May Ball Debriefing”

  1. No wonder the May Ball takes place in June. How could they possibly finish the preparations for an event like that by May? Thanks for the photos and description.

  2. 2 Paul

    I really enjoyed stumbling across your entry, and feel a captured essence as I remember, with a few words and some crisp photographs.


    1984, 85 and 86

  3. 3 Estelle

    I was on the roof of the Wren during the ball (there is no heated hand rail, but the views are fantastic!) My fiance proposed to me on a punt that night as well – amazing night!

  1. 1 Durham is in England « An American Physics Student in England
  2. 2 Watch out Cambridge: Princeton wants your balls « An American Physics Student in England

%d bloggers like this: