Mingling with the aristos is something I am not usually allowed to do. Inevitably, they sniff me out by my high street collar and throw me back in the room labelled “Serfs / nouveau / Waifs / Middle Class Other”. But this has done nothing to stop my delusions of aristocratic grandeur. I was basically born to be noblesse oblige. The fact that I am not yet a Duchess is a woefully sad one, but when that funny chap from Debretts told me the way to be one was to marry that Duke with one eyebrow, half an immune system and a penchant for being whipped on a Tuesday while he whimpered “Oh Nanny! I shall be better – I shall be good!” I couldn’t be bothered. For a start, the nanny uniform chaffed horribly and our aristocrats are just going to have to be a bit more human, if they want to encourage us to dive into the murky depths of a gene pool where husband and wife have been first cousins since 1689.
The other difficulty is that the current aristocrats seem to lack grandeur and glamour. It was those feral, feckless lunatic aristos of the 18th century who really knew how to roll. The aristos of the Georgian era were basically out on the lash between 1760 and 1789, with only regular 15 minute breaks for peasant-drowning, chamber-pot-visiting and racing. By the time the early 1800s rolled into Regency splendour a party wasn’t a party without sessions of gambling in which wives and wigs would be burnt, estates would be lost and dowager Empresses were found weeping under St James’s card tables because they’d accidentally got preggers via the third underFootman.
For the Edwardians – just add actresses, Winston Churchill, ladies with fifteen inch waisted corsets and King Edward in the corner in a pair of belle epoque tights.
But I worry that the aristocracy of today know how to behave themselves.
They do, though. They’re all poor for a start – and high class ladies to “walk out with” do cost something these days, you know. I mean, at the rates I used to charge I’ve probably bankrupted several county seats. Now they open up their hallowed halls, befriend the ghastly National Trust, make jam and have gardening programmes. They’re basically just a load of poor people with good tailors. Their days of wine and roses are more cava and crysanthemums now. Occasionally though – and it is a rare and deluded thing – a chink of light shows through the dour greyness of economic necessity and the clock seems to turn back. It doesn’t actually turn back of course, but the illusions steadies itself for a moment and we are made to believe a system has remained unchanged for four hundred years. There are about five places in England where you can sit and pretend we still have an Empire. These are:
1 The entrance hall of Blenheim Palace
2. Anywhere else in Blenheim Palace
3. Centre Court at Wimbledon on a balmy Men’s Singles Final day
4. At Eton on June 4th.
5. At the Royal Enclosure at Royal Ascot
I am braving the Berkshire fields and going to Ascot today for Ladies Day. I’m not allowed in the Royal Enclosure, not since that time I knocked Prince Andrew out with a shuttlecock in the Windsor & Slough County Badminton Fair. But I am the next tier down with my friends, the Grandstand. Firstly, I have to drive to Berkshire and don’t know where that is, and secondly, I have to try to understand the betting odds system. Early, devout followers of this column may remember my ecstatic reaction to not losing £50 on a horse in the Grand National of 2010, and – in fact – gaining £60 fine English Sterling pounds. That’s money for nothing. I was astonished to make money on the horse, but am not naive enough to believe that it set a precedent. It was nothing more than a caffeine-riddled, manic examination of the Daily Mirror on the morning of the 4.15 at Aintree. Just like a stopped clock is right twice a day, so twice a year do my random betting habits win through. By the time you read this, I will have my shoe heels yielding to the Berkshire mire, whilst I holler at a thin chap from Cork riding on a steaming Dobbin with twenty pounds of mine on its back.
It’s another language, the odds, accumulators, evens, each-way, to win, on the nose, up the – yes, quite. I had a grandfather who sort of did this type of thing. He must have been very good at gambling and making squillions on doggies and horsies because he spent so much time on it that he never did anything else – like get a job or talk to his wife. He was at the White City dog track more than he was in his own home. But unfortunately, he can’t have been very canny at gambling after all because when he died all he left behind was a large collection of safety razors and plastic bags full of those little blue biros you get free at William Hill. And you can’t buy an Ascot hat with that. So, surely, through some dreadful sort of genetic osmosis, I ought to know things that have dripped down in some rancid way from my grandfather. Well, I don’t. I don’t think I could bear to throw money away on betting about something without knowing about it, so I have been cramming on firm ground and furlongs, two year olds and jockey names, fillies and accumulators.
I have been keeping a Word Doc, and it is a running view of the competitors due to race at the 1550 Gold Cup this afternoon. I don’t know what the bloody hell is going on, because the nags keep dropping out, the odds are like me trying to read Arabic, and the silly names drive me round the bend. Why are horses never called John, or Chris? Or Nigel? Why things like “Riverdrop my Ankle”, or “Crumpled Sheet”? I can’t follow my own word document, and the more odds get released, the more I think I want to cry. There are other things happening on Thursday which I was looking forward to, because I read there would be steaks. Apparently there won’t be – they are stakes. And they’re some kind of race named after the wettest counties in England – The Norfolk Stakes, the Northumberland Stakes – or they are named after unpleasant, dead people – George V Stakes.
The most confusing advice from the royal la la we are royal, don’t you know, Ascot.com, is that informal picnics are allowed in the carparks, but “formal entertaining will be stopped”. What do they propose to do? Run me over with a horse if I arrive with my own sommelier or six piece dining suite and pitch it up in the coach parking area? I am just going to turn up with my own Tijuana brass band, butler and just go for it. It’s dreadfully common not to travel without one’s butler. Also, must we negotiate the sheer horror of the “Traditional sing-a-long” that occurs after each day’s last race, and in which we are joined by the brass band? Doesn’t it all smack of school assembly (with added crowned heads and horses)? “Free song books are provided” the website tells me. However, I’m going to put a request in for “Smack My Bitch Up”. Is there any phrase in the English language more vomit-inducing than “traditional knees-up”? Why would I want to pull my knees up, sing “Land of Hope and Glory” and show my drawers to a load of Lords and Marquis’s like some Edwardian actress out on the pull? I don’t know what a “Traditional” sing-a-long means anyway. According to what tradition? One of this isle’s peculiar, outdated, French-hating, single mother damning, badly-dressed English traditions, no doubt. I don’t know the words to “We Don’t Trust the Foreigners, Audrey, No We Don’t”. Or “Roll Out the Barrel : We’re Old Etonians Having a Right Laugh”.
Sports attire is strictly forbidden in The Grandstand seating area, but those bastard jockeys still get in. Perhaps it’s because they are too small to be seen by the naked human eye – the Ascotoids who police the arena and not aware of them brazenly flaunting clothing rules. But I shall be there, throwing money towards the bookmakers (was there every a more dangerous combination than the items “race course” and “cashpoint” in close proximity? My survey tells me that Ascot has five cashpoints. I just hope they aren’t all for Coutts). No doubt after five hours under the crumbling, grumbling skies of Ascot I shall be feeling either woozily warm about the tradition of race meets, or I shall be riddled with indignation at the prospect of another heady dream of aristocratic longing destroyed. Shall I be victor or loser? Will I get to share a crumpet with the Duke of Devonshire? Shall I be imprisoned for brandishing a fish knife in the face of formal dining? I might come home with less money than I left the house with, all hidden under my enormous hat. But I wouldn’t bet money on it.
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