(Title after Clive James). During Cambridge May Week (which takes place in June) I like to work at as many events as possible, to gather my rent for the whole month in the space of a few nights. Girls in impossible high heels wobble around the cobble-stones of Cambridge while I rush up and down in my comfy sneakers tracking down different band-members and generally enjoying some pretty good music.
Let me start with a little bit of history. So this week is called May week because it used to take place before exams started at the University of Cambridge. There would be the May bumps (rowing) and then there would be partying. Someone eventually figured it is better to have all the rowing and all the parties after exams, which is why it is now in June. Why it was not re-named… that can only be blamed on Cambridge being Cambridge.
In 1866 Trinity College hosted the First and Third Trinity Boat Club May Ball; which is still organised annually to this day. Balls typically centre around lavish consumption and concerts, which has not changed very much over the centuries. (See C. N. L. Brooke 1993: A History of the University of Cambridge.) On performing during May Week Clive James (1990) writes: “Twice with Buffery and once as a solo act I went through the gruelling experience of a May Ball cabaret. There was applause to be garnered but you had not to mind that it was mixed with the popping of champagne corks, the braying of imported Hooray Henriettas and the splintering sound of furniture being reduced to toothpicks by a scrum of Hearties.“
Here are a few things which I have witnessed myself. Punts full of alcohol. Wheelbarrows full of alcohol. Liquid nitrogen ice-cream. Kyla La Grange. Rudimental. Slush-puppy cocktails. Whiskey-tasting bars. Endless champagne. Gourmet cupcakes. Miracle berry fruit tablets. Latte art. Ostrich burgers. Dodgems. Oysters. An on-site seamstress. Foot-massages. Grand fireworks displays. Belgian waffles. Hand-made ice-cream. Sigma. The Fratellis. B*Witched. S Club 7. Cheese and port. A ferris wheel. Water ganache truffles. Ian McKellen. Simon Amstell. I can go on. Yes it is great, but I am one of those people who would much rather cancel the whole week and send some clothes to Syria.
The cheapest events during this week will range between 60-80 GBP, but most stretch up to 220-250 GBP for a ticket. You better have the best ever night of your life at that price. No pressure. Or, you could of course fly up and down to Amsterdam. Four times. While these events cause me to empathise with Cinderella (twice now, posh men have told me my clothing was not nice enough), I do not really have a burning desire to go attend any. Besides paying my rent, I am off to visit my friend in Toulouse in July. If you do want to buy a ticket, they go on sale as early as January and almost certainly require befriending a Cambridge student. Check the ‘Cambridge May Ball Marketplace’ page on Facebook.
So, about working during May Week. I try to aim for the jobs that allow me to move around (standing still all night during the chilly English summer is not at the top of my to-do list), and jobs that allow me to experience the bit of the Ball I like best (music; not clearing up glass or vomit). Since I can advertise myself as a music teacher, this work is easily obtained.
My favourites this week were James Houston (singer-songwriter), I am I am (musical comedy duo), and Eliza and the Bear (new indie rock band). I do not have a clue how well/little known any of the acts I worked with are. The comedians were all totally fine with my oblivion and generally great guys to chat with (only guys though); some of the band-members were less impressed with my ignorance.
Now, I am probably being overly critical about something which most people see as a cute student charity job, but if you make me sign a contract and promise I will extinguish fires, I take my work seriously. And as such, I think there is (ample) room for improvement. Here is some well-intended advice/unwanted rambling:
First things first. Ask for actual CVs and cover letters when you interview people. For all of these events I have basically just had to list which other Balls I worked at and why this one was the best one. All of which can easily be lied about if you do not check your facts. Are you not taking these jobs seriously? You are not? I thought so. Which real-life employer hires that way?! I had to have ‘fire training’ for at least two of these events (but not the others?). Yet only one College demonstrated how to use the fire extinguishers; and they only made two people actually try it. I do not think this means we can all safely and calmly assist in the event of a fire.
Moving on. The organisers will regularly claim that the artists are privileged to perform at the Ball, so they should not be surprised when they are cut off on stage, escorted back to the exit, and kicked off the grounds. All in all not terribly respectful towards the musicians. Anyway, this would be a lot easier if the committee members did not turn up randomly to have that one act they really love play five minutes longer; it would also be a lot easier if the committee members did not just take off with your microphones/instruments to bring to different stages; and if these committees want everyone to leave so efficiently and quickly then why, why, did none of these events have a sign-out list with the names of the individual performers?
Finally: authority issues. Most these events are organised by undergraduates who have little real-life work-experience with massive projects like this. Especially when it comes to entertainment this can be so frustrating. In nearly all cases the leading committee member will obsess over the headline act(s), forget about everything else, and become completely unreachable for the better part of the evening. The only event where the committee trusted me to do my work was Selwyn, and as a result I had a fantastic evening there; all my acts were there, all of them played on time, the stage technicians were amazing, and all was well.
In short: start asking for CVs, stop being star-struck, do not mess with my stage, and please introduce an individual sign-out sheet. That said, I am well aware that I am treated much better, and paid much better, than most of… the world. And if I wanted my work to be taken more seriously, I should go find a more serious job. This is this crazy thing I do once a year. It is kind of incredible, and kind of insane.
These events are created out of a lot of love and very hard work by people who are usually also very polite, very friendly and generally lovely. It is the highlight of the year for many Cambridge students, and I understand it can be difficult to think outside the Bubble. Lets’ try though. Just transpose this onto Amsterdam, where every student has a part-time job. I do not know anyone who would spend 300 EUR to go drink champagne in fancy dresses. It is rare you would spend that on going to Lowlands. Or transpose this onto Albania, where it is the average wage for a month’s work!
It is interesting that these Cambridge events grew in popularity at the same time as fairy-tales such as Cinderella. The first versions of this story stem from 17th century Italy and France, but it was really made popular by the Brothers Grimm in the 19th century. Disney made it into an animated movie in the 1950s, which is how much of us know it today. While literary analysts would say the moral of the story is graciousness versus vanity and jealousy, I have always considered it to be a reflection on treatment of rich versus poor. There is such a strong contrast between servants and elites; between those who work, and those who attend grand balls. Has this eluded Cambridge altogether? Does anyone realise that all this madness is emphasising conservative, ancient, class-based society? It is not always a good thing to bring fairy-tales to life.