Hannah Castle

A few months ago, like many, I was lured by a siren call. The spectacular ‘May Ball’, an event apparently known the world over, famous for its acts and marvels and seen by most as an essential ticket on the Cambridge calendar. So I leapt from the boat, bank card in hand because nobody had tied me to the sails.

I’d already begun to soothe my conscience, with interviews booked to work at other colleges during May Week. I calculated that the ticket price could be repatriated if I worked two or three events. But it was more than the cost that bothered me: it was the fear of missing out. One night, I thought, to resurrect a year of missing out on the ‘universal’ Cambridge experience because of the pandemic.

But it isn’t universal at all.

“Some are spending hundreds for a couple of hours while others struggle to survive”

The current May Ball is an outdated institution. Once upon a time, Cambridge’s May Balls were reserved for the elite, public schoolboys of its day. In this world that the writers of The Telegraph continue to pine for, the balls consisted of traditional dances, orchestras, and formal dinners. Tickets were purchased in pairs, so taking the arm of one of these toffs was the only opportunity for most women of the era to ever see inside of a college. Through the 60s, cultural shifts saw reduced ticket prices and rejuvenated entertainment — they haven’t changed since.

Cambridge has continued to diversify demographically but the May Ball has not responded. While SU-led initiatives like ‘Access-a-ball’ and ‘Sustain-a-ball’ and the expansion of ‘bursary tickets’ highlight important issues, they are testament to the inaccessibility of the events in the first place. Attempts to open up the May Ball have only illustrated their current inadequacies – and perhaps something more fundamental.

With events ranging from £95-£225, of course you’re getting your money’s worth as you wait for the announcement of such dazzling celebrity acts like Scouting For Girls and Professor Green… even more famous acts like Two Door Cinema Club would only cost £49 at a London-based festival this summer.

For your troubles, you’ll be kicked out of your college and made temporarily homeless for the evening. You’ll have the joy of listening to endless streams of Cambridge students looking for a personality as they hop between colleges throughout May Week. Those who genuinely think they can purchase a ticket to the world’s best parties perhaps prove the rule that Cambridge students have no common sense.

The perception of our university as out of touch isn’t helped when within the same institution, some are spending hundreds for a couple of hours while others struggle to survive. Of course, in life, people’s choices are limited financially. But in our precious bubble, we have every opportunity to equalise the cost and accessibility of these events.

So here I sit, with an Emma May ball poster already pinned to my wall, as a blistering hypocrite with a dwindling sum in my bank account, wondering whether there are some traditions we shouldn’t have resurrected post-pandemic.

- Meg Byrom

Much like other sources of fun in this university, May Balls have come under increasing scrutiny as another apparently problematic stain on this university. The price of the tickets? Extortionate. Dress codes? Too posh. Swingboats? Too energy intensive. And so on.

This criticism is nothing new. However, a two year hiatus has left the May Ball weakened and its critics smell blood. Criticism of prices is higher than it has ever been and regulations are more stringent than ever too. Despite this, we must not lose sight of the wood for the trees.

“May Balls tread a narrow path between hedonistic excess and the god-awful mediocrity of organised fun”

I can concede May Balls are certainly expensive and are all too often outside the reach of some students. A Kirstie Allsopp-esque “just save up” solution is not the right approach at all, but nor is getting rid of May Balls simply to avoid the possibility of someone being left out. Many colleges are now offering discounted tickets for bursary students. Jesus, for example, offers 50% off the price of normal tickets to bursary holders. £85 is quite steep to spend on one night, granted, but it is still eminently more affordable than the asking price. More May Balls should follow Jesus’ example, not least the expensive ones.

I think detractors have forgotten just how remarkable it is that colleges entrust students with hundreds of thousands of pounds to organise a piss up. And they do so because they know that only through devolving to those that know best will May Balls be any fun. Of course, the money spent has to be recouped somehow, but very little - if any - profit is made (Tit Hall lost £45,000 in 2016), guaranteeing value for money.


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Like any other centrally-organised event, May Balls tread a narrow path between hedonistic excess and the god-awful mediocrity of organised fun. It is absolutely fair for accessibility and sustainability schemes to regulate the worst excesses of the May Balls. I have absolutely no problem, for instance, with replacing plastic cutlery with compostable alternatives or ensuring there are quieter spaces for those who are afflicted with sensory issues. However these commonsense policies are overshadowed by ridiculous red tape like the scheme suggesting the use of solar generators during a mostly night-time event or campaigns to stop “energy intensive” forms of entertainment. These do very little for the environment but have a clear impact on the fun. Excessive austerity threatens to turn a celebration into an ascetic trial.

If we block out the puritanical nonsense espoused by certain sections of Cambridge, the truth is that the vast majority of people enjoy, or would enjoy, May Balls. And for those that don’t, I have a radical solution: simply don’t go.

- Sam Hudson