Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Royal Ascot: A Den of Vice and Debauchery

by Ben Schofield

Last Friday I awoke, as I normally do, and then did something I usually don’t. Rather than adhere to my usual study-leave schedule of staying prostrate in bed until half past three (before revising really hard), I rose early, slipped into a limp Marks and Spencer lounge suit and headed off to Royal Ascot. Thanks to the lax rules surrounding under-17 year olds with regards to dress and ticket cost when accompanied by a generous adult patron I slipped into the Royal Enclosure for a day at the races like no other.
Horses have always been a favourite pastime of the rich and powerful, gambling and drinking likewise. It was only sensible, therefore, that in 1711 all three of these powerful and enticing activities were combined into a short period of time at a location convenient for the richest and most powerful in all of England, i.e. six miles from the Royal Family’s figurehead abode of Windsor Castle. Three hundred and one years from its establishment, very little has changed. Lords, Ladies and the unnamed numerous upper class parade around, secure in the knowledge that they are in their element, that these are their people. There I was, a phantom from the middle classes, passing through like smoke, studying their habits.
It was a grey windy morning when I first arrived at the green fields and modernist architecture of Royal Ascot 2012. The car park was already clogged with mud and rear wheel sports cars unsuited to the terrain. A light aperitif of entertainment was dealt to those arriving as unhappy men in brightly coloured waistcoats struggled to push cars out of trouble, while the drivers apologetically lashed them with a spattering of mud. The wind started to pick up early on and wouldn’t die down for most of the day; in fact, I had more fun guessing which hat would fly off next than deliberating on the merits of each horse. The women’s hats were by far the most interesting thing about visiting Ascot. Each vied for attention in the crowd in as stupid and vitriolic a way as possible. Some had feathers dangling off them on long flexible stalks, which made them look like a flock of carrion birds waiting to plunge and peck the eyes out of various race-goers. My favourite had to be one worn by a horse owner's wife; it was comprised of what looked like a flying saucer as big as a frying pan balanced at a precarious angle on one side of her head, and, on the other side, sprouting from the rim of the saucer in a tumorous fashion was a fabric rose the size of a large ham.
Another thing that surprised me was the amount those people could drink. By the end of the day empty champagne bottles were strewn everywhere, like a thousand empty cases in the trenches of the war against Daddy’s pile of cash. For those arriving early there was very little to do to fill up the hours until the races actually began but drink, which is probably why scenes like this occurred:

(source: The Guardian)

While most of the country has kicked the smoking habit long ago, dozens appeared to have missed (or told their butlers to ignore) the memo about smoking being both cancerous and disgusting to be around. Small clouds of acrid smoke hung about the air in some marginal throwback to a time when ignorance was acceptable. There was a disappointing lack of pipes for the main part and only a few thin cigars to be seen, so maybe the double-dip recession is hitting the rich more than we think, although the “you scratch my back...” inferred agreement that the conservative government appears to have with many high earners (i.e. the 50p to 45p tax cut for top earners) would suggest otherwise.
Lords are well known to be ludomaniacs and nowhere is this more prevalent than the den of vice that is Royal Ascot; a younger member of the crowd, doubtless with the prefix ‘The Honourable’, earned disapproving looks at one point as he shouted to a friend less than four metres away about how he had “just put a couple of K” on one of the horses to win. The racing was entertaining although, as a minor, I found it  less exciting than it would have been if I had been staking my life’s earnings on it. At the last 100 metres of every race, it felt as though time slowed down, the whole crowd cheering on their hopes and dreams (or just micturating with fear that they might lose all their money at the last second). I’m sure however, the Queen was composedly sitting back happily as she watched her own horse, ‘Estimate’, romp to victory in the penultimate race of the day.
Overall, the experience was like walking into a bubble of society --- a sub-section so detached from normal life that it felt like a surreal Hunter. S. Thompson-esque acid-trip dream. And, to be honest, I can see why it’s so much fun. Gulping back bottles of champagne so large they’re named after figures from the Old Testament in a celebration of just how much money everyone seems to have doesn’t sound like an awful way to spend five days in the year.

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