In The Crowd: The Union Freshers Ball 2019

Molly Bolding 22 October 2019
Image Credit: Freddie Poser

TCS’ Editor in Chief Molly Bolding gained exclusive access to report on the Cambridge Union’s 2019 Freshers Ball – read on to find out how the night went…

Image Credit: Ralph Jordan, Molly Bolding. The author, in her diamante, ‘ice’-themed dress.

The Union Freshers Ball is the piéce de resistance of the Society’s social events calendar: a chance to demonstrate the impressive entertainment capabilities of the largest society in Cambridge to a random ballot of freshers with new memberships.

I was lucky enough to secure a press review ticket to this exclusive event, so on that chilly Saturday night I headed down to the Union to find out what the night is really all about.

When I first arrived, I was greeted by a huge white marquee hosting array of picnic benches, and tables laden with a variety of edible offerings: burgers, hotdogs, salad, unlimited Prosecco and even a crépe bar! I chatted with President-Elect Gabriel Barton-Singer and Executive Officer Luke Hallam while they manned the outdoor bar, and grabbed a photo with the current President – Rachel Tustin.

Image Credit: Freddie Poser. L-R: The author, President Rachel Tustin.

While I was there, I also spoke to some friends from my term on committee last year, who explained that they were working an exhausting 8:30pm-4am that night – split into one-hour-on, one-hour-off shifts. They weren’t complaining though, since their Soc-Ents committee wristbands got them queue-jump privileges to all the food and drink! With their help, I tried the crepes and the themed cocktails, both of which were delicious.

This year’s event was organised by Daniel Mackinnon, previously Head of Audiovisual, and his committee who between them managed an impressive array of food, drinks, music and more.

I sat down with Dan at the start of the night, complimentary Prosecco in hand, to find out what went into the immense task of organising this event.

First, I had to ask – what was the idea behind this year’s theme? “The thought was – this ball is obviously free – so we wanted to reduce decor costs, and if you’ve seen the [1815] Bar, [it’s] all red, the Chamber is quite light, we’re getting a white marquee, so we thought, red and white, what goes with that? We thought ‘Heaven and Hell’, but we thought ‘Fire and Ice’ works well, and…it also works with ‘Game of Thrones’!”

“Ents is the reason people come back, to see your ‘Union friends’, as it were. So that’s why we’re doing a lot of low-key events this term…it’s a good way to meet people from other colleges…”

Daniel Mackinnon, President of the Freshers’ Ball 2019

When we talked about how Soc-Ents fits into the purpose of the Union, Dan told an amusing anecdote of his own. “My first impression of the Union, I came to a bunch of debates and I liked it, but I came by myself all the time so it wasn’t that much of an experience really, it was more like going to a lecture. A good lecture to go to. Then I came to the Freshers’ Ball, and I met some amazing people, had some great conversations – everyone has that moment, of when they fit in in Cambridge, and for me it was discussing the Tang Dynasty with someone in the Old Mountbatten Room [one of the rooms at the Union], and we were just having this 45-minute discussion about who the best Emperor was,” here he laughed in spite of himself, “in the ultimate Cambridge fashion, who could be the biggest nerd. But it was that moment of, ‘I really fit in'”…I met some people at the Freshers Ball and I kept seeing them around the Union, and I had a reason to come to the Union…I wanted to give that experience to more people.”

For many of the committee whom I spoke with over the course of the night, that’s what the Union’s social calendar was for: finding their people.

Image Credit: Freddie Poser. Vice President Alycia Leach, mid-interview.

One who firmly believes that she has done just that is Vice President Alycia Leach, so I sat down with her outside the silent disco to find out how she felt the night was going.

“It’s been a difficult one, because we’ve only got half the space, so we’ve really done this on a shoestring…so we haven’t got as much space to offer but hopefully they’ll take away that the Union can be such a fun place. We all take ourselves seriously on Thursdays, we all dress up in black-tie, but we still know how to throw a party. Given the space limits, the budget limits, all the limitations, it’s a fantastic night, and I just want people to enjoy it – then they think the Union is the place they want to get involved in,” she says breathlessly and at break-neck speed, “which would make my entire life!”

“I think Ents is really important for keeping people engaged with the Union on a regular basis, because obviously our speakers, when a speaker comes you go into the Chamber for like an hour, you listen then you leave. With an event, you can be here for an hour, two hours, three hours, and meet some new people and have a great time! I just think Ents is crucial to really build a community around Union members and really engage them.”

“Ents is really crucial because it keeps people wanting to come [back]…to make sure that they have a good time, they don’t just come to learn something, but they come to have a laugh, make new friends, and have good times with their old friends!”

Alycia Leach, Vice President

Image Credit: Freddie Poser. A mid-interview hug with Vice President Alycia Leach.

For the most part, the freshers I spoke to seemed very keen – for Cambridge and the Union alike.

Amusingly, the strains of university life were already beginning to show for some: when asked if he was enjoying himself, one guy replied, “I would be if I didn’t have so much work to do”.

What was also interesting was that many of those I spoke with were not actually freshers, but were instead second or third years who had changed their mind about buying membership and were therefore eligible for the ticket ballot this year. When I asked what had changed their minds, several suggested that it had taken them a while to realise what their money could buy them, but that this term card had seemed promising.

In fact, one topic that came up regularly in my chats with freshers was cost. Thinking ahead to May week, one student noted his joy that this ball was free, “an opportunity to be made the most of”. Certainly, in terms of its Ents offerings this term the Union seems worth its hefty price tag. The recent Speed Friending event was an unlikely favourite, and the promise of regular quizzes and Mario Kart tournaments provides ample opportunities for freshers looking to make new inter-college and -subject friends.

Image Credit: Freddie Poser. Themed cocktails in the 1815 Bar.

As the night wore on, I made the rounds of the entertainments and had to admit that the music was eclectic – strange electro funk played in the 1815 Bar for the first hour, with interjections from an Amy Winehouse tribute and some acoustic accompaniments. However, the silent disco was, as always, exceptionally popular, and the sounds of shouted Estelle lyrics filtered through the building to add to the soundtrack of constant chatter.

I caught up with the President, Rachel Tustin, again towards the middle of the Ball. When I asked how her night was going, she breathed a sigh of relief as she sat down: “it’s gone really well! It’s gone a lot better than I was expecting it to. It’s kind of like that fear of an event that you’ve been planning going badly…but it looks like all the freshers are having fun…I think they all find it quite novel…”

I asked her what she was hoping the freshers would be thinking after the night. “I want people to come away and think ‘oh, the Union is cool and fun’, and I also want people to come away and think ‘wow, there’s a really diverse committee, with lots of people who aren’t the traditional target market’.”

“I think a lot of people think we’re quite an academic society, so if they don’t do politics [or history] they’re not at home here…whereas the Ents I think really brings people together. We try to make our debates and speakers diverse…you can have fun no matter what you study, no matter who you are.”

Rachel Tustin, President

As I made my way upstairs in the building, I discovered that the Kennedy Room had been turned into a first aid station, while the Snooker Room played host to a PlayStation and a game of Giant Jenga. The hallway outside the upstairs gallery was set with comfy chairs and a cloakroom, where I sat towards the end of the night with some friends and watched amusedly as someone in a tweed suit tried tipsily to coat-check his trilby hat.

All in all, it was a fun night. The Union might have some work to do, and this term it certainly has its work cut out for it, but events like these seem to welcome new members to get a taste of what its Soc-Ents can be like at its best.

Were you at the Ball? What did you think? Let us know at editor@tcs.cam.ac.uk with the subject ‘Letter to the Editor’!

All photo credit to Freddie Poser (2019, https://portfolio.freddieposer.com/)