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Inside Cambridge: Fizz, Fellows and Formal Hall

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The food was rich, the alcohol was copious, the Miniature Heroes seemingly bottomless, and now you're feeling sluggish, overindulged, fat. But spare a thought for the students of Cambridge University, who not only started the Christmas period a full three weeks before anyone else, but whom, come next week, will start wining, dining, and praying in Latin all over again.

Formal hall is a year-round feature of Cantab life. It's a fancy, smartly-attired meal at least once a week in a college's main hall. But come the end of Michaelmas (Winter) term, formal gets ramped up a notch. Each of the 31 Cambridge colleges host two or three seasonal extravaganzas, seating up to 300 students at a time, resulting in upwards of 80 formal but festive feasts - all, due to our ridiculously short terms, in late November. At the top of this prematurely Epicurean heap is the St John's College undergraduate Christmas banquet. And this year, I was invited.

On asking the porter for directions to our pre-drinks, I was amused to discover it was not Sainsbury's Basics wine in someone's room, but St John's own Champagne served by a French waiter in a waistcoat in some sort of drawing room. John's is one of the richest colleges, and has a reputation for doing things the expensive way. This doesn't always win its members friends: "I'd rather be at Oxford than St John's" is a favourite rugby chant, although it rings slightly hollow since most of those singing would have, only a few years earlier, been delighted with a place at either.

Bubbly duly consumed, and academic gowns pulled over suits or dresses, we were ushered across the cobbles of the grand First Court into a magnificent wood-panelled hall, buzzing with hundreds of students. More waistcoated servers lined the entrance, trays of drinks in hands, as we took our seats. As guests of the Junior Combination Room (Undergraduate) President, we sat front and centre in the shade of a towering, tinsel-strewn Christmas tree, all the better to look out on the three long tables that stretched the length of the hall, filled with sober black gowns which belied the slight drunkenness of their wearers.

What followed I recognise from formal hall at my own college. A gong, we all stand in silence, the Fellows (senior Professors) file in and fill the top table with their corduroy, bad hair and world-class minds, and grace is read in Latin by a scholar. An awkward silence follows where we all tacitly agree we have no idea what it meant, we sit, and the meal begins.

While 'normal' formals comprise three courses and coffee, special occasions such as this call for aperitifs, starters, mains by means of silver-service, pudding or cheese course, mince pies, truffles and tea or coffee, and alternatives for everyone from the Kosher to the teetotal. Comparisons to feast scenes in Harry Potter are common. It is so far removed from many students' pre-Cambridge lives that at my college year's inaugural 'matriculation' formal the girl next to me burst into tears.

While the Fellows remain, no one can leave their seat, not even when nature calls. As with pandas in the zoo, there is to be no flash photography, no loud noises. And absolutely no drinking games. But as students are involved, the final point is optimistic.

The classic drinking game, played at universities across the country, but apparently nowhere else as obsessively (Oxford included) is pennying. Foolhardy is he or she who believes it as simple as dropping a penny in someone's wine glass and ordering them to 'Save the Queen' (i.e. down the contents of their glass). Geeks that we are, there are rules, lots of them. No double pennying, no revenge pennying; if you penny while someone is touching their glass, or the glass is empty, you down your glass. Even messier is pudding pennying. Get a 5p in someone's tarte tatin, and they have 30 seconds to eat it, without using their hands.

It is at this point in the evening I remember that these people with pie all over their faces are supposed to be the future leaders of our country. If only that were as bad as it gets. Let's just say all sorts of things go on under those tables, beneath the cloak (gown?) of candlelight. And it all starts again when term commences next week.

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