The 2009 Oriel Commemoration Ball was last night, and it was fabulous – so fabulous I’m having to hold one eye shut as I squint to check whether ‘Commemoration’ is spelt correctly. It looks wrong. But then everything looks wrong right now, including sunlight and my poor haggard face. Well, less haggard than scarlet and bleary, since my default response to such nights is puffy horror rather than interesting pallour.
It was a wonderful and impeccably-organised evening. One of our party was with-wheelchair, and inside the venue access was mostly quite good (despite a raised lawn in first quad). Outside, things were trickier; a lack of ramps made the dropped kerb outside Oriel Lodge rather hard to navigate, and I do think the Committee might have thought of that (we were the only wheelchair users, though). Oriel must be one of the least access-friendly colleges and I’m sorry to say I don’t think a wheelchair user could be there full-time as things currently stand. But the night was a great success – and unlike the St John’s Ball last year, security/committee/general personnel actually addressed Chloe and not whoever was pushing her.
The ball theme was tenuously La Belle Epoque, which translated as ‘vaguely mostly Paris’ in reality. College looked wonderful – there’s not much you can do about the ugliness of marquees, and although decorations were less in evidence than the last ball, three years ago, the three quads looked fabulous. Lighting in particular (a lot of pink and green) was very impressive. There was also a bloody terrifying mime (ancient, haggard, one of those horrible old men who can probably put his foot behind his head and doesn’t wear socks), an authentically skeevy-looking accordionist, a caricaturist, a hypnotist, a snooty tarot card reader, and, er, a midget. As Toulouse-Lautrec.
This was a bit odd, to say the least – not because of any personal objection (midget actors, like all performers, need all the gigs they can get), but because I can imagine the copy filed by any journalists in tow: “as the future leaders of great Britain slumped onto beanbags (many in a state of undress), quaffing cocktails with names like ‘Dead Man’s Mule’ and ‘Le Pigalle’ and debating whether to take Pro Plus, a midget, hired for the occasion, was brought forth to entertain the guests” Food & drink didn’t seem to run out – the chocolate fondue, impressively, was still going at dawn. A bit after midnight, I spoke to my friend (and sometime fellow MCR committee member) David, who was organising drinks (apparently more stressful than a thesis…), who was a little bit flustered over the potential dearth of champagne: guests having knocked back the reception, a stash of five emergency cases was apparently in hiding, and college had agreed to sell the Committee more drink if the worst happened. Orpheas (also MCR, also Ball Treasurer) was standing around writing cheques from the largest and most ludicrous chequebook you’ve ever seen.
My friend Will Green’s band, Feldspar (winners of the 2008 Indy Award) played at 11 in Third Quad. I think a later slot would have served them better but the set was amazing. Buy their album, or better still see them live. Will dedicated a song to me (Waterfall Lane), possibly in memory of the week we spent in Cornwall, crying, boozing and alternating Feldspar’s bitter back catalogue with Tom Waits’s Martha and Dire Straits. It’s a great song. Will’s a great singer. And on an entirely narcissistic note, it was in third quad that three strangers came up to me and complimented me on Love’s Labour’s Lost and my performance therein. Sidenote: I am really missing the LLL cast. They are awesome. Plays are just better than anything else in the world, and it was really good to see Eleanor (Nathaniel), Phil (Costard) and Rebecca (Jacquenetta) last night. Rebecca was singing two sets in First Quad – jazz standards through the small hours.
Everybody flagged a bit around four, lying in tumbled piles on the aforementioned beanbags, while a cool and misty morning hazed up out of the stones to replace the spectacularly balmy night. The fog over Oriel Square was quite amazing – grey and damp and almost wintry. Seeing the frozen skyline behind the Survivors’ Photo, future generations will probably wonder why the hell Oriel Ball 2009 was held in Winter. Four of us had the bright idea of getting into the MCR and failing to make the coffee machine work, before clambering out onto the balcony and sniffing the exquisite morning air. Fresh and cool and much more savoury than any of us. By this point the geraniums were beginning to hurt my eyes, and eventually (at 6.18, a bloody unwholesome hour) I staggered home carrying heels and clutch bag, and with enormous jumper over ball dress. Several others (including many boys stripped of all but fragments of evening dress, and with wet hair – surely not swimming?) were doing the same thing, cringing our way over Magdalen Bridge and acknowledging that yes, we are scum with our mussed hair and dishevelled frocks, and the Cowley Road denizens looking at us with amusement (or hatred) from bus and work and other wholesome pursuits are entirely right to do so.
It was a wonderful evening. I hate that I have to leave this city soon. Any place has a trick of looking beautiful when you have to leave it, but this morning Oxford looked particularly pale and smooth, grey and clear like a stone. So much better than East Oxford ever looks at other times, even though I love the Cowley Road with its noise and madness and constant promise of life-life-life.
Although this purple prose is inspired entirely by a lachrymose, late-afternoon hangover, I wish there were more nights like this still to come, rather than four years left behind. College looked like a big untidy beach this morning, the stones gold and the debris staggering. I am lucky to have been here, and when even I can get caught up in the drowsy chanting of Oriel, Oriel after ten hours’ partying it’s an indication of just how much I’ll hate to say goodbye.
Also, the Provost was there, disco-dancing with his wife. In restrained white tie. Rarely have I seen anything so seemly or so incredibly endearing.
Dr Sophie Duncan is Fellow in English at Christ Church, University of Oxford. She works regularly as a historical advisor and as a dramaturg for theatre, TV, radio and film. She likes theatre, detective fiction and cocktails.