A chance to observe: my experience working at May Balls

A whole lot of people-watching


I never tire of telling people that I basically got my Downing May Ball ticket for free. I worked two balls (Trinity and KA) which just about covered my ticket; except 'worked' is probably a bit of a generous term to describe what I did. Most of it consisted of standing around marvelling at what people were wearing and yawning.

Image may contain: Footwear, Shoe, Woman, Female, Person, Human, Apparel, Clothing

Only at Trinity…

On balance, I would say that working at the balls is entirely worth it. Although I admittedly had somewhat low expectations to start with…

For both balls, I had to submit nearly £200 in cheque form as a guarantee that I would fulfil the terms of my contract. For KA, this was four times the amount I was being paid! In my opinion, this is a ridiculously outdated policy to have in place. Most banks (including mine) do not even issue chequebooks, meaning the cheques had to actually be debited from my account – and if I didn't get them back, that would have been two hundred quid down the drain. So not a great start.

Then to make matters worse, at the training session for Trinity, I discovered that 'General Hospitality Worker' was a nice euphemism for fire steward. I was informed my job was to stand in the same place for eleven hours and look out for broken glass.

But as it transpired, working at Trinity was a lot of fun. I did indeed have my moment of glory when I spotted some broken glass. But I also had the chance to take several ganders around the ball with a good friend (shout out to Giselle Overy) who was working there. We were dancing with more gusto to the live jazz than some of the guests there.

Trinity were generous with breaks, and we took this opportunity to enjoy the ball. A 4am jaunt to the fairground rides was certainly a highlight (see fantastic quality pic below), although it was a traumatic moment when we realised our much-needed polystyrene cups of tea had been thrown away by a fellow boredom-wracked worker during our ride. We also had unlimited access to the food stalls, one of the best perks – this was probably the only thing which kept me going until 7am.

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It was exhilarating

But I have to say, Trinity was ridiculously overstaffed. I'm sure they could have saved a lot of money by employing less people. There must have been close to fifty workers assigned just to collect empty glasses; and then there were those like me with even less to do, who joined in out of sheer boredom.

This meant I ended up spending a lot of time just watching the guests and admiring their attire. Perhaps one of the most daring outfits I saw was a short, hot pink, tutu-style dress. Respect to that gal. I complimented everyone whose dress/tux/shoes/makeup/hair I liked and was rewarded with some pleased smiles.

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Plenty of time to take atmospheric photos

People-watching proved a fun pastime at Kings' Affair as well. As an amateur to May Week, I wasn't quite prepared for the outrageousness of the dress code, but I thought it was brilliant. People dressed the way they did to turn heads, and certainly succeeded. I found myself mentally putting together my outfit for next year and wondering whether it would measure up.

Like at Trinity, I spent much of my shift not doing a whole lot. When I was behind the bar at the silent disco, I spent far more time with a pair of headphones on than actually serving drinks. But unlike Trinity, the whole thing was a something of a shitshow. Trinity went a bit overboard with protocol and regulations, but KA took it too far the other way.

I was put on the bar outside to begin with, not having been briefed. Well, I say "bar", but that might be a stretch. It was really a couple of sticky tressle tables, a load of cheap bottles of coke and lemonade, and whatever spirits were available, which was – to say the least – a paucity. By one a.m., all we had to offer was gin mixed with fake Red Bull. Yum.

But overall, I would certainly recommend all of you to give it a go next year. May Week is expensive, so it can take some of the weight off your shoulders, and if you make the most of it, it can be a really enjoyable experience.