May Balls: Overpriced fun since 1866
TERESA BARON on why May Balls are overrated.
Good – but not strictly speaking necessary.
Last year, I went to my first ever May Ball, the one and only ball I went to in my first May Week in Cambridge, setting me back £137 – a lot to ask for a girl who broke out in hives when Sainsbury’s increased their Basics Chocolate from 30 to 35p.
Jesus May Ball, though, was one of the best nights of my life. It was uninterrupted extravagance, with something different to do around every corner, unlimited drinks of all kinds wherever you looked (the green ones, amirite?) and so many different kinds of food that I was almost distraught at the idea that I might not be able to try it all. But was it a waste of money?
I did the maths, adding up the minimum it might have cost me to see the headliner, to indulge in the various ents – the Ceilidh, the fairground, silent disco, comedy acts and casino – plus the minimum cost of the drinks and food I remember having. Even after rounding down, I came to a total of just over £150.
So even if I’m a little bit out – and let’s be fair I probably made a gross error in calculation somewhere along the way – at least mathematically I didn’t waste any money.
That said, I definitely had to put some effort in. At least part of me binging on cupcakes and lurid green cocktails is that – obviously – I was going to get my money’s worth. And to be honest, I doubt I’m the only one who’s stumbled down Jesus Lane after a May Ball feeling more than a little queasy.
Here’s the thing, though. Just because you can squeeze enough out of the night to make sure you got your money’s worth, doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t a waste to spend that money in the first place. My grandmother, who has lived all her life in a small, rural Czech town, would probably have a heart attack if I told her I had spent £137 – well over half of her monthly pension – on one night of celebration.
Yeah, we all work hard, and yes, we deserve to let off some steam after exams. Yes, it was amazing. But, in the end, it wasn’t a fantastic night just because of all the food and drink, or because of the amazing entertainment, but because of the people. A bit cringe but you know it’s true.
The last time I enjoyed myself that much was an ill-fated attempt to create a blanket fort in college. And that, ladies and gents, was £132 less than what I paid for the Balls (sole expense: ice cream).
Of course, I’m not saying we should abolish balls and parties altogether and just eat ice-cream in our rooms instead. (Although we should definitely do that more often.)
My point is that while money can sometimes buy you a good time – it certainly bought me a fantastic night in May Week last year – it isn’t necessary to spend that much to have fun. Yes, we deserve to blow off steam after working hard during exams, but do we deserve to blow off steam through the medium of massive excess?
In the end, we have to acknowledge that not everyone can fork out £70 for one night of indulgence – the price of the cheapest event this May Week – and I imagine few of us can afford £370 for a double ticket to Peterhouse.
We might have to question the fairness of normalizing massive spending on glorified parties when they are divisive for our own community – not every Cambridge student comes from a wealthy background, and not everyone will be able to afford what is seen as ‘the Cambridge experience’ of May Week.
By making this kind of luxury the norm for post-exam celebration, we are (obviously unintentionally) upholding a certain standard: of wealth as a social norm in Cambridge. The idea that those students who can’t afford a ticket can attend balls by working at them just emphasizes the divide between one group of students and another.
The university has made huge pushes for equality in the past few decades in an effort to break down the idea of Cambridge as an institution for the wealthy elite. Promoting this idea – covered in the Daily Mail every year – that the proper, traditional ‘Cambridge way’ to celebrate hard work is to blow a massive amount of money for a night of sheer excess – is simply promoting the stereotype that our access teams are trying so hard to break down, while also marginalizing those students who simply cannot afford it.
So, let’s have a party – but knock it down a few notches, maybe?