The best exams are the last exams. Obviously. That goes for invigilation, too. Hitherto, there's the loneliness of the long paper paper-provider and pariah-like exhortations to leave quietly so as not to disturb those still sweating. Pens down on the final paper, however, and the deafening cheering and popping of cava corks is no longer my problem.
At least the candidates have some silent, cerebral camaraderie. Save the requisite, fleeting visit from a University Proctor during each University examination, I invigilated alone this year. It's a solitary experience, and I often wished for a fellow jailer with whom to play silent tag as I dished out the treasury tags or, better still, the seasoned invigilator’s other favourite game: Guess Who! Which candidate will 'need' most visits to the toilet? Who will spill their bottle of water? Which one will exhaust the single, parched-looking biro which they hoped would survive a three-hour essay paper and need to borrow one of mine? How many will I spot, black-tied but horizontal, in a gutter but a few mornings later? (These just a few of this year's successful predictions, though I awarded myself multiple points for the last one and have only just closed the book on it.) As to which ones will become Prime Minister or go to prison? Only time will tell.
I did, of course, read through every examination paper and was humbled. Natural Sciences, Modern and Medieval German, and Economics were, predictably, challenging. But I regret not having been on duty for one of this year's causes célèbres: a Law paper on the possible criminal offences involved in the (fictional) initiation rites of a (fictional) Cambridge college's (fictional) drinking society. The lurid details are easy to read elsewhere, could just as easily transpose to Oxford – as dramatised in Laura Wade's successful play POSH, which premiered at The Royal Court during the 2010 election campaign – and, lest anyone think the paper was drafted entirely tongue-in-cheek, there were, last week, the manifest extravagances of May Week.
Though Oxford does a good line in celebratory balls, bops and events at various times of the year, May Week here in Cambridge is a shared experience, heightened for it's compression into just a few days, post-exams. Oxford's Commemoration Balls, traditionally held during 9th Week to coincide with Encaenia and commemoration of benefactors, now occur on a rolling, triennial cycle and are, to a large extent, hidden behind impregnable walls – whereas in Cambridge, the colleges and their gardens form the cityscape, and vice versa. True, not everyone enjoys the increase in volume and tempo in this otherwise calm and well-modulated place, but for just these few days in June, Cambridge claims its place among the social froth of The Season. Double tickets costing up to £450 are hard to square with equality of opportunity, and that's before you've found something to wear. But most of the May Balls sold out in March.
Exams finished, one might be forgiven for thinking that the University is all out for the summer when, of course, the revels of the moment are but a short diversion from the ongoing, rather more serious face of study. But until Tripos results are posted outside the Senate House, Cambridge feels demob happy and is celebrating in style. It's as if the reversion to handwriting necessitated by the exams demands a comparably retrograde form of social interaction. Let them eat cake! And oysters, burritos, hog-roast, pastries, ice-cream, chocolate and more. All night. And all washed down with a deluge of champagne. Call me tricoteuse, but it's impossible not to see that many of the tottering peacocks of the night before will be queasily prostrate by morning and, sadly, hazy on the detail of one of the best nights of their lives. Jealous, moi?
Cambridge's May Balls give a good impression of being impervious to fashion, fiscal anxiety and, even, this year's weather. Those who can't afford a ticket have the edge over their impecunious Oxford contemporaries where gatecrashing is a finer art. Here in Cambridge, the Backs are the legitimate back door to participation. Punts pave the river, creating an audibly gasping pontoon, perilous for dancing, not that it's a disincentive, and well-stocked as any bar, from which to watch the pyrotechnics and listen to the evening as it unfolds. Bats and birds form an airborne chaperone, as surprised as any of us to find out, finally, what the big secrets are. For the so-called 'headliners' are often only revealed, even in this information-leaky age, a matter of days, even hours, before coming onstage. So it was that this year's Queens' May Ball, a white-tie festivity, produced an alternative rock band called Bastille to make the river shiver. What a perfect choice for this most ancien of régimes!