Yorkshire Times
Weekend Edition
Henry Mountford
Features Writer
3:00 AM 17th December 2022

Inside A Cambridge University Ball

Among all the wonders of Cambridge, with its chapels and courts, alleys, architraves, bikes, bridges, gables, gargoyles, gates, gowns, punts, spires, spokes, blokes, folks, cloaks, rowing-boats, river-views and church-pews, a favourite spot, where I spent many happy evenings during my undergraduate degree, is ‘The Eagle’, a pub on Bene’t Street. A pub has stood on this spot since the seventeenth century; the land is owned by Corpus Christi college. The Eagle is most well known for being the location where Francis Crick and James Watson announced the discovery of ‘the secret of life’, the double-helix structure of DNA. It was also a regular haunt of RAF and American airmen, who left a mad, spaghetti-like array of graffiti on the ceiling.

There is a mystique around these monied and decadent occasions, stoked by sensational headlines...
On December 1, 2022, I returned to The Eagle for the first time since my graduation. My girlfriend and I were in Cambridge for the St Catharine’s College Winter Ball. Where else to start the evening if not The Eagle, where the light creaked warmly on the wooden panels and beams, chatting merrily over two pints of ale?

Cambridge is well-known for its glamorous and extravagant May balls, which occur, oddly, in June. Term has ended, and the long summer-nights see students in ball gowns and black or white tie sweep in a big, glossy murmuration through the streets of Cambridge. Ferris Wheels, fireworks, champagne, chocolate fountains, dodgems, casinos, myriad cuisines, music, dancing – these are the kind of things one may expect to see at a May ball – and students will pay upward of two-hundred pounds for ‘one other gaudy night’ (to take Shakespeare’s Mark Anthony out of context).

Every inch of the car was in use. Rear-visibility: minimal. Leg-room: even less. Nevertheless, it was a marvellous car-ride bristling with excitement...
You may catch the students, in late June, tripping away back to their student-dorms in the fresh light of morning, perhaps taking a purifying black-tie dip in the river Cam, bubbles of Champagne still twinkling in their eyes, and you might wonder what happens at a Cambridge ball. There is a mystique around these monied and decadent occasions, stoked by sensational headlines in certain student or local papers and tabloids.

(Cambridgeshire Live)

(Daily Mirror)

I intend, here, to offer some jovial insight into the notion of a Cambridge ball, as I recount my experiences from the St Catharine’s College Winter Ball.

Every year, Yorkshire contributes scores of young people to Cambridge’s varied and lively student population, and should your son or daughter, niece or nephew, brother, sister, pal or POSSLQ, find themselves driving down to Cambridge, this article should offer an honest, enjoyable account of one of things they might experience.

The 1929 St Catharine's College Ball
The 1929 St Catharine's College Ball
I was in town, I repeat, not for a May ball, rather a Winter ball, although the essence is really the same. St Catharine’s has hosted balls for perhaps a century, (the date of the inaugural ball is unknown); however, the first documented ball was held in 1929. The attendees are pictured handsomely below, as well as the committee who organised the ball, who appear as dignified and English as the game of cricket itself.

The 1929 St Catharine's College Committee
The 1929 St Catharine's College Committee
Excited for our own ball-experience, Aura (my girlfriend) and I hot-footed it out of The Eagle. Soon we were whiffling through the streets of Cambridge in my car, en route to the station, where we were picking up my friend Matt, who was playing music at the ball. Matt was in a hurry to make his soundcheck. We found him, guitar-case at his side, stood outside the station, accompanied by another member of his band, a cool cat who went by ‘Dan’.

Shimmering dresses, one by one, caught the evening lamplight. Two hundred bow-ties danced jauntily in the air.
We had not expected the extra passenger, nevertheless we bundled into the car: four people, two guitars, circa ten bags, three black-tie suits, one ball gown, and mountains of overflowing excitement. Every inch of the car was in use. Rear-visibility: minimal. Leg-room: even less. Nevertheless, it was a marvellous car-ride bristling with excitement, as well as the sense that, rumbling along in a cramped car on the way to a ball with two guitar-brandishing musicians, we were somehow near to the mystical wild heart of life. Matt and Dan skidded electrically out of the car, guitars knocking on the curb-stones. Aura and I went to get ready.

It is exciting, I find, getting dressed-up: putting on a particular outfit that sparks an immediate sense of occasion. The ball being in winter, we wrapped up warm and donned large coats over our respective ball gown and black-tie suit, before gadding back towards the college.

A string of youthful glamour issued from the gates of St Catharine’s: students queuing to enter. Shimmering dresses, one by one, caught the evening lamplight. Two hundred bow-ties danced jauntily in the air. The college was lit with lively streams of lancing crimson light, and the night sky thrummed with the glow.

St Catharine's College Courtyard
Photo: Maria Victora Rodrigues Noci (@mvrn_photography)
St Catharine's College Courtyard Photo: Maria Victora Rodrigues Noci (@mvrn_photography)
A text came in from Matt. He was, of all places, in The Eagle, and of course, being unable, in any circumstance, to refuse such an offer, we gratefully, immediately, jollily, forsook the lengthy queue, and returned to the warm ambience of The Eagle.

It must be a thrill, surely, to be in a band. And as Aura and I sat in The Eagle, chatting with the four members of Matt’s band, Running Standard, we got to vicariously enjoy the thrill of band-life. The musicians went through their set list, energetically miming certain parts of certain songs, rehearsing particular transitions, fantasising about several big moments in the set. I was reminded, as conversation rattled around a table steadily amassing glasses, of William Blake’s pronouncement that ‘energy is eternal delight’, which goes some way to explaining the enduring appeal of rock music.

The scent was heady, almost unguent, luxuriously sulphurous. Wine flowed liberally into glasses.
Minutes later, Aura and I were walking through the gates into St Catharine’s college. The ball had begun in earnest. Passing through into the main court of the college, we met an ice sculpture designed to funnel Bailey’s coolly into drinkers’ glasses. We threaded a path through the college, warmed ourselves with hot chocolates bolstered by brandy or bourbon, wound our way past food-stalls selling pizza, bao-buns, macaroni cheese, apple crumble and custard, among other delights.

Continuing to drift with the tide of the ball-goers, we stumbled across a room that had been transformed into a casino. A roulette wheel whirred as it whirled. I restrained strong impulses to stroke every inch of the green baize poker tables.

Poker Tables
Photo: Maria Victora Rodrigues Noci (@mvrn_photography)
Poker Tables Photo: Maria Victora Rodrigues Noci (@mvrn_photography)
In the casino, we stumbled across a friend of mine, Ziggy, wowing the gamblers with magic tricks. A precious ring was made to disappear, only to reappear, dangling from the magician’s keyring. We tagged along with Ziggy for a while, casually, easily, naturally, effortlessly, pulling the magical wool over the eyes of those at the ball, forcing their jaws unfailingly to drop with his brilliant tricks.

We cut a path by a martini bar, past one live music set, past another. In the college bar we played on a retro Pacman arcade machine as others played table-tennis, pool and foosball around us. We floated past a jolly ceilidh (a traditional Scottish or Irish dance), drawn to the sumptuous seasonal odours of mulled wine.

As we moseyed through the knots and gullies of the college corridors, we found our way into a dimly lit, wooden-panelled room, from which an extraordinary odour was emanating. The odour in question: cheese, huge hunks of cheese, hacked to pieces by various hungry lactose-lovers. There was a grotesque, baroque tableaux set out on the table before us, which was bestrewed with a vortex of mauled cheeses. The scent was heady, almost unguent, luxuriously sulphurous. Wine flowed liberally into glasses. In a far corner of the room, immediately piercing the noxious atmosphere of the dim drawing room, a girl played a grand piano and sang. The music was smooth and lovely.

Catching wind of the fact that the headline act was about to start their set, we gleamed hastily through the college to the main stage, a many-pointed tent occupying the main court of the college. The headline act was Gentleman Dub Club, a ‘dub’ group – ‘dub’ refers to an electronic subgenre of reggae – from Leeds. The main-stage was lit by strobing lights while Aura and I joined the throngs of dancers.

Photo: Maria Victora Rodrigues Noci (@mvrn_photography)
Dancing Photo: Maria Victora Rodrigues Noci (@mvrn_photography)
A natural gravity, however, ended up taking us away from the main-stage, drawing us into the orbit of a smaller stage, where we found some more sing-a-long type popular music, which was more what we were looking for. The music at Cambridge balls will typically interknit sets by professional musicians, (sometimes famous, high-calibre artists such as Loyle Carner who played at Pembroke College in 2017, the same year he was nominated for the Mercury Prize), alongside student-bands who are also generally excellent in that special way that honest, amateur bands, doing it for the absolute love of it, may frequently outstrip more polished acts by virtue of their sheer verve.

Watching live music, I will often find myself thinking about the words of Thomas Pynchon, who wrote, in the liner notes to the album Nobody’s Cool, that ‘rock n roll remains one of the last honourable callings, and a working band is a miracle of everyday life’. It was this that I had in mind when I was watching my buddy Matt’s band, Running Standard. A group of people, good musicians, playing live music with energy and passion, is a truly great thing. It is honourable to do something with deep feeling, to go all out, to make music, write poetry, sing, dance, run up mountains, whatever it is that kindles the life-force in you.

Running Standard put on an incredible show: Matt would fall to his knees, flailing his hands in wicked harmony with the music, or lie on this back with his legs in the air, peddling an invisible musical bicycle. There were guitar solos, howled vocals, a bra was thrown on stage which Matt put on without a second thought, proceeding to swig lager hungrily between songs, at one point puffing ecstatically on his inhaler. In one moment, he was zealously swashbuckling with his guitar in a groovy maelstrom, the next, crooning quietly, cowering at the front of the stage.

Matt (kneeling) in front of Running Standard
Photo: Henry Mountforf
Matt (kneeling) in front of Running Standard Photo: Henry Mountforf
As per a previous arrangement, I was beckoned on stage to recite a hip retro-futurist poem I had written, and which appears in one of Running Standard’s songs. I removed my glasses to spare myself the vision of the crowd, climbed onto the stage, rose onto my tip-toes to meet the microphone, and spoke my lines.

The end of the performance sent Aura and I in search of refreshment and a midnight’s snack, before we tumbled on towards a silent disco, a typical finale for a Cambridge ball. It wasn’t long before we ambled home through the cold early morning dark, tired and happy.

Photo: Maria Victora Rodrigues Noci (@mvrn_photography)
Saxophonists Photo: Maria Victora Rodrigues Noci (@mvrn_photography)
The following night, Aura and I replaced the extravagance of a Cambridge ball with the hospitality of a budget hotel; catering was supplied in the form of a takeaway pizza, our entertainment: an animated film.

It is worthwhile, I think, to reflect on the happy fact that there are many different pleasures to be had in the world. I find it consoling and beautiful to know that there is as much joy – maybe more – in eating pizza in bed as there is in the gilded grandeur of a Winter Ball. There are gaudy, big, grand pleasures to be had in the world, and glitzy, golden delights, which are in their own way, marvellous, excellent to have experienced, but there are also littler joys, often intenser joys, to be found in the many humble nooks and corners of life.