May Ball Review: Voyages of Discovery at St. John’s

Bradon Smith & Benjamin Morris 1 July 2009

There’s a time-honoured rule of thumb to follow when setting out on an expedition: take the road less travelled. If people are heading in one direction, pick another; if you see a crowd streaming down a path, seek out what they’ve just left behind and you may just find a hidden gem that their stampede has unearthed.

It’s a rule that has served explorers well over the centuries, and never was it more in evidence than at St John’s May Ball on Tuesday night, whose theme of ‘Voyages of Discovery’ invited just this kind of reflection from its guests. To be fair, much of what was to be found there—the culinary, musical, aesthetic, and pyrotechnic enticements—was known beforehand to rank among May Week’s finest, given the reputation and resources that John’s enjoys. Nor did they disappoint. But as with any voyage there were moments of serendipity and of setback, of revelry and revelation alike.

To begin at the beginning: after we were welcomed into the ball in the Scholar’s Garden, drinks showed up in plentiful supply. The majority of what was on offer – champagne, bottled and draught beer, vodka Red Bull, and various shooters – could all be had with little to no queuing.

Those who wished for a classier drink, however, endured longer waits: the cocktail bars provided by River Bar suffered queues as deep as the glasses were shallow, though the concoctions were worth the wait. Sadly lacking, unfortunately, were both whisky and brandy, those quintessential ball tipples—nary a drop to drink.

All that drinking proved hard work, requiring smaller side expeditions to the various food stalls in order to more fully flesh out our map of the evening. The food rarely departed from typical fare – the hog roast elevated into cliché, the barbecue and burritos – despite the welcome inclusion of paella and delicious fish and chips. The other exception were the canapés and locally-sourced cheeses from Origin8 in the main hall, which were lovely, and best enjoyed where conversation didn’t compete with the music – with the shisha, which was equally plentiful, and under the shadow of the incongruous giant tepee, a relaxed alternative to the bands. Of which there were many and mixed. Calvin Harris was a popular choice, but it seems fair to say that as a headliner he has neither the reputation nor the wide appeal that Dizzee Rascal did last year. Nor was there a DJ of the calibre of, say, High Contrast who played Homerton or Pendulum at Downing. But the trick, once again, was to swim against the tide: as half the guests (approximately 1000 people) streamed through the subtly lit archways to Calvin Harris, we lingered behind in Second Court, charmed by the haunting, ethereal music of Laura Hocking (not, as the programme had her, Hockling). Her complex, richly textured songs – both her originals and her inspired renditions of pop classics – held her audience not merely captive but rapt.

Wherever one chose to travel, though, the interior design of the ball was nonpareil – each of the seven continents creatively represented, including a charming ice penguin from Antarctica.

Whether the prevalence of tables and chairs on the courts and Backs suggested a budget reduction in food, drink, and Ents, as one Johnian suggested to us, hardly seemed to matter: the ball was spacious yet intimate, abundant yet tasteful. The fireworks were, undoubtedly, superb; the Trinity fireworks, seen from close quarters the previous night, were a penny sideshow by comparison. The Tricolour climax, set to the pleasing choice of Edith Piaf, bathed the Backs in ethereal light and drew the requisite gasps from the crowd.

As we were chatting with the Committee chairman at the end of the night – or more accurately put, the beginning of the morning – about whether his hopes for the ball were met, a young Johnian stumbled up, slurred her arms around his neck, and proclaimed that this had been without a doubt the best party she had ever been to, ‘the sickest night of her life.’ Whether or not this was true we couldn’t help but ask what exactly, in the end, the guests at John’s were being invited to discover. A garden of earthly delights? Check. A beautiful evening spent in the company of friends old and new? Check. The night to end all nights? Well, that depends.
For this was a fine ball, an excellent party, a wonderful night. On reflection we were less interested in where it fits on the league tables (of balls in Cambridge, of parties in the world, of nights in our lives) than in the expectations and the hype, the real baggage that every guest brings with them.

Come, enjoy yourself, but don’t expect it to be more than a ball can be. Forget the faults; remember the thrills. And keep in mind the challenge of any voyage of discovery: to find, as did Xavier de Maistre, what was always underneath our nose, what was already there to begin with.

Bradon Smith & Benjamin Morris