Diamond-studded skies and carriages at 5am

Susannah Goldsbrough eulogises on the wonder of balls

Last Saturday night, I think I went to heaven. Gothic towers smudged in cold blue light sliced the skyline, plates of food appeared as if by magic, and the thrum of dancing feet spread across the city. While some of the more traditionally advertised features of paradise may have been lacking (I’m talking golden gates, soft beds of clouds, and harp-strumming heavenly hosts), their places were adequately filled by slightly more modern incarnations of the divine. Puffs of steam from freshly sizzled gyoza fi lled the air, while a display of giant inflatable jellyfish glowed and swirled their tentacles in the breeze. We tend to think of heaven as an inaccessible kind of place, to be reached only through a combination of faith, good deeds, and death, but last Saturday night, all you needed to do was turn right off St Giles. It was Keble College’s Trinity Ball, and it was completely magical.

I recognise my tendency to romanticize ‘The Oxford Ball’. Many find the experience far from divine. Balls can be cold, underwhelming overpriced, and even dull, and so much of your enjoyment of the evening hinges on random and subjective factors, like how many of your friends are there, or how comfortable your shoes are. And yet, I do maintain that they are special. As a dedicated literature student, I will take this opportunity to carry out some rigorous Freudian analysis of my strange viewpoint. From the fairytale-fueled imaginings of child-hood, through the pretentious Jane Austen obsessions of my teenage years, to the Gossip Girl binge sessions of my hung-over univer-sity weekends, it feels like every phase of my life has been just so slightly touched by the dreamy vision of a ball. One of my favourite stories of all is The Twelve Dancing Princesses, a rather unorthodox fairytale in which twelve princesses sneak away from their beds to dance through the night with their lovers in magical, moonlit ballrooms. And so I think there is an intrinsic whiff of danger, or perhaps simply of thrill, about a ball. It’s the fairy lights strung through dark branches, it’s the walk home through dusky medieval streets at 5am, and it’s the moment of flinging your head back on the dance floor, and catching a glimpse of the diamond-studded sky. While the rest of the world sleeps, you move through a bubble of champagne and of rustling silk. It’s strange, it’s exotic, and it is alien.

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One bit of magic I enjoyed at Keble was the illusion of ‘the free lunch’. The idea that ‘there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch’ is a central tenet to theories of free market economics (or so Wikipedia tells me—I do English, what do I know?). At £99 a pop for a ticket, Keble Ball was certainly no exception. But the time lapse between payment and consumption, the sense of distance from the bank transfer of last term, to the reality of the evening, created the powerful impression that, well, everything was free. As I swanned from food van to food van, graciously allowing the staff to fill my greedy arms with paper bags of cinnamon donuts, with plates of halloumi and pork burgers, and with tubs of G&D’s ice-cream, it seemed as though the rules of economics had been suspended for the night. How strange to demand six strawberry daiquiri shots, and an elderflower cocktail, from the barman, and be asked for nothing in return. How we eat is so defined by processes of transaction, of give and take, that for the entire night I retained a Christmas morning feeling—as though I was being given a series of gifts. Oh yes, an illusion it most certainly was, but, then, illusion is just another word for magic, right?

And of course, there’s the dressing up. In my day-to-day life, I am a firm believer in the power of casual. Faded and over-worn jeans, cable-knit sweaters, and baggy t-shirts are the staples of my Oxford wardrobe. I enjoy the simplicity, the ease and the style of my clothes. I never feel more me than when I catch sight of my skinny-legged, baggy torso-ed silhouette in a shop window. But it is not despite my normal attire, but rather because of it, that I find so much pleasure in donning a ball gown. I love the soft rushing sound the silk makes as it wraps around my hips, the sudden and delightful thrill of transformation as I catch my refl ection, the confi dence (and the blisters) that high heels give me. The me that smiles out of my Saturday night photos looks little like my ordinary self—perhaps I should start brushing my hair more than twice a week?—but that’s exactly what crystallizes the evening in my memory as something quite apart from the ordinary. I box away the night as a Cinderella moment, and return to my daily routine.

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So yes, I am syrupy and sentimental. Yes, my account of Keble is not just tinted, but thickly painted, with roses. And yes, I should probably widen my reading material a little, if only for the sake of my degree. But I think, as students, we are at a cynical age, in a cynical time. Our default is sarcasm, our go-to humour, satire. And I have absolutely no problem with that. But I cannot help the delight of escaping it, even just for the night. Princess dresses and ice-cream tubs are the most refreshing antidotes to my usual student sarkiness. Whilst 21st century Britain is extraordinary in so many ways, it does not bear much resemblance to fairyland. So I am grateful for Oxford’s bizarreness, for those moonlit hours in May, and for the power of illusion.