We must not let Caesarian Sunday define us

Sam Rhodes 3 May 2014

The fascination that various prominent sections of the print media have with drinking culture at Cambridge is certainly an odd one. Having awoken from the traditional post-May Ball nap last year to find my slightly worse-for-wear face staring stupidly out at millions on the Mail Online, I naturally felt outraged. Just because I’m at a university where we occasionally wear silly clothes to dinner, it does not follow that ‘students go to party; drink’ suddenly transforms into anything resembling a legitimate (and apparently scandalous) story. Their fascination seemed a complete intrusion that painted us as toffs, as ‘wealthy scions’ who nonchalantly expected the ludicrous luxury of a May Ball as their due simply by right of birth rather than right of exam term (and the scrimping and saving for an exceptionally expensive ticket).

As Access Officer for my college, I am faced, more than most, with the horrendous damage done to us as an institution by this one-dimensional view of us and of our university. Time and time again I field questions from prospective students who believe that a place here is not for them, that they are ruled out either by class or by wealth. Each year we are reduced to a visual caricature, another barrier is erected between this notion of our culture and those talented and deserving individuals who do not come from a background that is ‘traditionally Oxbridge’.

There is a key difference, however, between being reduced to a caricature and reducing ourselves to one. The facts of a May Ball are simply that a large number of students go to a very well-organised student-run party with a dress code that, while unusual, is not unheard of at other universities. The upcoming Caesarian Sunday is a different matter entirely. Many defend the eccentricities of Cambridge by arguing that the whole place is founded on tradition, and so to pick and choose is a futile and hypocritical exercise. This is, of course, rubbish. We have an obligation to consider how we look to the world outside of the bubble, because like it or not we’re an example to young people across the nation of what aspiring to a place at Cambridge implies.

The print media does not need our help in reducing us to a one-dimensional stereotype. This is the sentiment that lies behind the ‘killjoy’ tutor emails. Nobody minds people drinking in a park on a sunny day – that’s what student do.  The drinking societies, the initiations, and the wrestling over a mythical eighty year-old bottle of Pimm’s, however, send a clear message to those same students from less privileged backgrounds – they’re not welcome, they wouldn’t fit in anyway, and they might as well not bother applying. Devoid of the context of one of the most brutal exam terms in the country, it looks as though we’ve decided to get up to our ‘usual antics’ in public once again. It looks as though a place at Cambridge comes with the expectation that students will engage in this kind of behaviour regularly, and will be expected to buy into this culture.

Drinking societies aren’t for me, but I have nothing against them in principle. It is, however, completely unreasonable to expect that their activities will go unnoticed by the world at large when placed in such a public context as Jesus Green on an infamous occasion frequented by tabloid journalists. We are not absolved of the responsibilities of representation by the ludicrous vendetta some writers have against us. We must remember that the work and principles behind access and diversity are rendered utterly useless whilst we continue to act in this way in public. The rather tamer Caesarian Sunday last year drew a very different response to the 2012’s notorious event. By all means go and have a good time, but remember that the world is watching.