Sue Limb: Balls are overrated

The Diverting History of John Gilpin by William Cowper

The Diverting History of John Gilpin by William Cowper - Credit: Archant

I’d much rather be in bed reading John Milton by candlelight than tripping the light fantastic

June encourages friskiness. In Cambridge, for example, the May Balls are held. No, they’re not called June Balls. That would be too logical.

Even when I was at university, way back in mediaeval times, a ticket to a May Ball cost the equivalent of a month’s wages for an undernourished urchin labouring in the liquorice mines of nearby Northamptonshire. But even socialists splashed out and bought a ticket anyway. Because carousing till dawn is somehow expected of you if you’re young –when having fun is a kind of unavoidable treadmill.

Even though I’d have been much happier reading John Milton by candlelight, I not only agreed to accompany my boyfriend, but invited my brother and his wife up from Edmonton. (This is beginning to sound like The Tale of John Gilpin by John Cowper – do read it if you can, preferably in the version illustrated by Ronald Searle. He has an absolute genius for sketching 18th century cleavages.)

Er… where was I? Oh yes, the May Ball. Well, I was looking forward to it, albeit in a grudging puritanical kind of way. I’d made myself a sea-green velvet dress of the sort John Milton would have worn if he’d been a transvestite. And, you know, I think nowadays he might have been. He was all lace and long curly hair, was Milton. But that’s puritans for you. They’re all secretly sinful and salacious. I know, because I was one, before my arthritis set in.

Where was I? Ah yes, the May Ball. Well, first we went to pick up my bro and his wife from their hotel. She looked ravishing as usual, and he was v. handsome in his tux. However, somehow he slipped going downstairs and ripped a huge hole in his trousers, revealing his undercroft. Finally, after a pause for emergency repairs, we arrived at The Backs. (The college gardens where Balls are held, guarded by Bulldogs.) (Not real dogs, but men in bowler hats).

Having gained entry, we commandeered a punt, but unfortunately my boyfriend missed his step and plunged into the river up to his neck, ruining the evening and also, I’m very sorry to say, his camera. Soon afterwards I heard he’d taken holy orders. Perhaps he felt it was A Sign.

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Champagne and canapés and music and dancing are all very well in their way, and a dress made of gold brocade or even sea-green velvet makes a nice change from jeans, but the moral of this story is that, instead of falling downstairs and ripping one’s expensive new trousers, or plunging into cold slimy water at a cost of £20 per minute, a rational man could have a great deal more fun just lying in bed at dawn – which, in June, is shortly after midnight – and listening to the ceiling cracking as the sun comes up.

But if you’re tempted to attend one of the glorious summer balls available in the Cotswolds, here’s my survival guide. Wear thermal undies. Drink a pint of Gaviscon to line your stomach before leaving home. Pack a small rucksack with a pair of comfortable shoes and some egg and cress sandwiches, in case the buffet is inedible. Take a flask of tea, a bottle of paracetamol, a sewing kit and some plasters.

Wear water wings if near a river, and one of those head torches to light your way (decking can be treacherous). And a hat shaped like an umbrella might be prudent. This is England, after all.

Have a Ball, if you must. I shall be in bed with John Milton.


This article by Sue Limb is from the June 2014 issue of Cotswold Life.

For more from Sue, follow her on Twitter: @Sue_Limb