Mayday, Mayday: student rampage

It's the first of the month, the end of the ball and last night's revellers are drunk as skunks, drowning out the dawn choir with a few choice noises of their own.
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The White Horse pub in Broad Street, Oxford, is small, subterranean and cramped at the best of times. Right now it is packed to immovability beneath commemorative photographs of Trinity College's croquet team and stolid-looking oarsmen: a mle of 19- and 20-year-olds in distressed tuxedos are calling for pints of Guinness and Flowers bitter. Standing demurely at the bar, Laura Davis, a Somerville history student, is a dream in a blue satin ballgown and a muslin wrap. As she orders another pint of lager, a passing tuxedo mutters: "Better get Sarah a coffee." Sarah is indeed looking a bit crashed over in the corner, much like a stricken robin.

The time is 6.50am.

Like most of the people in this pub Laura and Sarah and the passing tuxedo have been up all night, attending the May Ball in nearby Otmoor. They are in the White Horse - which opened at 6.30am for just this one day - because the culmination of their celebrations has been the massing of thousands of revellers on Magdalen Bridge, half-way down the High Street, where they come at 6am on 1 May each year, to hear the choir of that college singing hymns to greet the summer.

Left to itself, it would be a simple sacramental business, like morning prayers in Parliament; but the proximity of the all-night ball, which fills the streets with young things in formal disarray, transforms it into something else. The eccentric ritual known as May Morning has hidden for years in local obscurity, but is becoming enshrined as part of the Season, as popular as Queen Charlotte's ball or Henley Regatta, though somewhat shorter than the former and invariably wetter than the latter.

Nobody is quite sure how or why this ritual started. Jan Morris, author of the Oxford Book of Oxford, notes that some people think it began as a housewarming party for the completion of Magdalen Tower in 1509. Its history comes in shards and tiny mentions. In the 17th century Anthony Wood explained that the custom was (by ancient precedent) to "salute flora ... with vocal music of several parts" but had been abandoned one year due to a lack of choral volunteers at 4am.

The occasion has always, for some reason, attracted unruly elements, even among the angelic performers. In the 19th century the choristers in the tower used to fling rotten eggs on the heads of the crowd. In 1905, HW Taunt reported "a discordant noise of horns" from the crowd, while mortar boards and gowns were hurled from the tower.

Latterly things went a bit quiet. Those of us who were at Oxford in the Seventies might remember scenes of wacky undergraduate behaviour on May Day. I recall prowling through the streets with a friend in our dressing- gowns, attempting to play the trumpet over the choir. But nothing that would get in the record books. Things changed with the release of Richard Attenborough's film Shadowlands, the Oxford-based weepie about the writer C S Lewis and his dying American bride.

In one scene, epic crowds line the banks of the Charwell, lights twinkle along Magdalen bridge and hoorayish young blades leap into the water. It may not have borne much relation to reality, but it was a potent image to link up with the rest of the Brideshead mythologising about Oxford. And in the past three years it has drawn thousands of sightseers (and a few score of jumpers) to the early-morning revelry. Last year two men suffered severe head and spine injuries diving 18 feet into the dangerously shallow Charwell. This year there are 30 of them, despite the presence of policemen on both banks uttering restraining pleas.

Just as the choirmaster intones the words "as we rejoice in the dawning of the day ..." a loud splash is heard, followed by cheering. The tower itself is shrouded in mist but the singers can be seen dimly, moving about in the ancient masonry like snipers. The singing subsides and the crowd - 20,000? 25,000? - moves up the high street. A motley band of townies and tourists and Morris dancers (one completely covered by a tree disguise making its owner resemble a bolted triffid), mystic travellers, solstice worshippers and students, and tuxedoed bucks who behave in time-honoured fashion, as if they owned the place and it was all their idea anyway.

"Catch you guys later, yeah?" they cry. "King's Arms, yeah? Oh, look, there's Charles, I must have a word with Charles." The smell of hot rolls fills the air. Beside me someone cracks open two cans of fizz. "Ah, first Pims of the morning," he breathes.

We are a giant breakfast party on the move. Passing the University Schools building a brace of burly silly Arthurs begins to mimic the not-very-strenuous leaps of the lady clog dancers, to the shrieks of their girlfriends. Everywhere you look, the female ball enthusiasts are being taken home, dressed in primary-colour silks or in stark black, as if on their way to take finals, their faces set. "No, I don't feel hung over at all," one says as she passes, slung like a big game trophy between two uniformed cadets in Tissot strides.

In Radcliffe Square, described by Pevsner as the most beautiful concentration of architecture anywhere in the country, the Morris dancers are going for it. Their top hats fantastically garlanded like King Lear's, their shin bells a-jingle, their rudimentary hoofing to "Oh dear Mother what a fool I be" absurdly grave. They look like wayward dons with their serious grey beards and DPhil spectacles. A knot of Japanese and French early risers watch and marvel. The man in the tree costume shifts his feet uncomfortably on the wet cobbles. A platoon of lady dancers in Tyrolean fig take their positions for Lord of the Dance. Patrick, from Linacre College, and his beautiful girlfriend Lorraine, her ball gown surmounted by a sensible Arran sweater, look at each other. What now? A few beers? A cooked breakfast at the King's Arms? "I think," says Patrick firmly, "some sleep."

But the rest of Oxford does not easily abandon its strenuously-won tradition for eccentricity. Not after last year's May Ball, held in Shotover, near the M40, when a goodly portion of the 4,000 ball guests discovered the joys of lying down, legless, in front of motorway traffic in the wee small hours of the morning. For the following hour, perhaps a dozen impromptu performances start up amid the honey-coloured stone of the colleges.

There are madrigals outside the gate of Trinity. Beside the Bodleian Library, two freezing young women in black tights and white T-shirts prance and emote balletically around a chair, leading one to suspect they Might Be On Something. A decommissioned Routemaster bus, carrying a private party to some unguessable rapture out of town, inches its way up Broad Street. Outside the Sheldonian Theatre, with its ferocious gargoyles, a family of crusties, complete with babies and dogs, amuse the baffled Japanese visitors by incinerating their nipples and drawing rubber bands through their nasal cavities.

Ah, Oxford. Can it have been these happy scenes that the poet T Herbert Warren had in mind when, in 1907, he wrote of May morning:

The College of the Lily leaves her sleep,

The grey tower rocks and trembles into sound,

Dawn-smitted Memnon of a happier hour;

Through faint-hued fields the silver waters creep;

Day grows, birds pipe, and robed anew and crown'd.

Green Spring trips forth to set the world aflower.

Perhaps not. What trips forth in 1995 is a hulking undergraduate, competely drenched from his Pontine plunge, carrying the last of the Krug in one brawny mit, and a teddy polar bear in the other. As I watch him disappear, leaving puddles behind on the cobbles, I notice that the Morris dancers' tree mascot has finally shed his costume. It lies awkwardly, drunkenly, against Trinity's noble wall, as if it, too, has had enough.