Brian's diary

I've paraded at Ascot. I've made a splash at Henley. I've been seen in all the right places. But, my dear, the people... What on earth has happened to The Season?
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
On Sunday, about 25,000 people are expected to converge on Windsor Great Park for Cartier International Polo day, a dozen or so of whom will in fact be polo enthusiasts. I exaggerate, but only slightly. It is safe to say that most people there will not know whether a chukka is for playing, wearing or eating. Much the same applies to rowing at the Henley Regatta. Even at Glyndebourne, there are folk in the audience who plainly don't know their arias from their elbows. And this, according to Lady Celestria Noel - the erstwhile Jennifer of Harpers & Queen's celebrated Jennifer's Diary - is how the Season is now defined. "If people go to see and be seen, whether they are fans or not, then I think an event can be considered part of the Season," she says.

But the desire to be seen has diminished the Season, counters a bona fide Jennifer, the fashion editor of Country Life, Jennifer Guerrini-Maraldi. I have an image, when advised to speak to her, of a Two Fat Ladies type imperiously informing her readers that green corduroy has finally usurped brown corduroy. In fact, Guerrini-Maraldi, an Australian married to an Italian count, is stylish, charming and a perceptive observer of Britain's social oddities. In particular, she despairs of Royal Ascot.

"The excessive dressing has become ludicrous," she says. "Oh look. Here's another galleon in full sail on someone's head. Well, it's not practical, it's not pretty, it's not comfortable, it's idiotic." The irony of Royal Ascot, adds Guerrini-Maraldi, is that social climbers dress conspicuously hoping to be identified as toffs, while the toffs remain as inconspicuous as possible. Indeed, many have started staying away from events overrun by the oikish lower middle classes, and concentrate instead on the Season's equally traditional but less illustrious fixtures, thus restoring them to former glories.

"Twenty years ago a lot of the smaller events were dead on their feet," explains Lady Celestria, who is also the author of the forthcoming Debrett's Guide to the Season. "But they are becoming grand again. To get into the county stand at Chester Races, for instance, midweek in May, you now have to book by January. York Races, in mid-August, is the same. So the Season is flourishing. As for the big events, there is a two-year waiting list to get into Charity Preview Night at the Chelsea Flower Show. And for the Stella Artois tennis, you currently have to apply..." - Lady Celestria's voice rises an octave - "...just to be considered for a place on the waiting list."

The Season may be flourishing, but at what price? Enlightened nobs claim to welcome its democratisation, but must secretly be appalled to see wide boys at Royal Ascot with top hats tipped back, Artful Dodger fashion. I was appalled myself. I went to Royal Ascot last month expecting to mingle with the upper classes but, like a tourist in a foreign city disgruntled by the number of tourists, was disappointed to encounter mainly state- educated riff-raff like myself.

Sometimes, it's hard to tell. Boarding the Ascot train at Waterloo station, I paused to admire a woman in a red silk dress and understated black hat, with a fine aquiline nose and aristocratic legs. "Get a bleedin' move on!" she shouted at her friends further down the platform. It was Estuary English only insofar as she had a big, wide mouth. Otherwise, it was pure Dagenham. Eliza Doolittle could grace Ascot's opening day now without the slightest need of elocution lessons. In fact, there may soon be a call for de-elocution lessons as downward mobility gains momentum. In a recent issue of the inimitable Spectator magazine, a contributor bewailed the raucous behaviour of the crowd at Wimbledon - a crowd, moreover, "which does not belong to the lower depths of our society, from which uninhibited vulgarity might be expected, but rather to that portion of our society with a large disposable income and time on its hands".

In fact, uninhibited vulgarity, as The Spectator's correspondent termed it, is now a distinctive feature of the Season, no less than Pimm's and poached salmon. On a bench beside the rails at Royal Ascot, a couple of years back, a woman in a billowing dress sat squarely on the knee of a man in a morning suit. According to someone I know with reliable binoculars, there was no need for a stewards' inquiry to determine what they were up to. This year, I sat next to five attractive women having lunch. One had particularly shapely ankles, yet a pippin of an Adam's apple. She was a he. As, on closer inspection, were they all. Whether transsexuals, transvestites or simply City boys on a dare, I wasn't sure.

Whichever, Royal Ascot has become something of a freak show. But is it typical of the modern Season, or are there still unadulterated occasions where the spirit of past decades prevails? In search of the latter, I went last Sunday to the Veuve Clicquot Polo Gold Cup Final at Cowdray Park in West Sussex. It was frightfully pukka. And these were genuine fans, people who would not expect a mint if you shouted "polo, anyone?" At the Cartier International Polo Day tomorrow, celebrities will descend in their droves and maybe their helicopters, but at Cowdray they were fewer and classier. My children played merrily in the creche with the children of the elegant actress Patricia Hodge.

The creche was staffed by boisterous young Australian women, one of whom was deeply impressed with the lineage of her charges. Unforgettably, she pointed at a three-month-old baby and told me, "His mother says he's a marquess", only to be corrected by her colleague, who said, "Actually, I think his mother said he's called Marcus". In fairness, he was just as likely to be a marquess as a Marcus.

The creche was sponsored by Givenchy, who supplied tasteful goodie bags - it wasn't their fault that my four-year-old took an enthusiastic bite out of his rabbit-shaped bar of white chocolate before realising that it was soap. Corporate sponsorship, of course, keeps the Season alive, just as the patronage of the aristocracy once did. Henley is the only major event still unsullied by corporate money. Besides, sponsorship can lead to complications. The Veuve Clicquot Gold Cup was handed over, and congratulations offered through gritted teeth, to a team called Pommery, sponsored by the rival champagne house.

Champagne has always flowed liberally throughout the Season, although 40 years ago it was considered extremely poor form to get drunk. Times have changed dramatically. At Henley, it is now considered poor form not to get drunk. "Oh, it used to be frightfully unusual for anyone to drink too much," says a titled lady who is unwilling to be identified. In fact, all sorts of behaviour now considered normal was frowned upon then, leading to the immortal remark of Lady St John of Bletso who, at a Fifties ball, on seeing her young protegee Frances with a cigarette, shrieked "My Fanny is smoking!"

My anonymous aristocrat - we'll call her Lady Spiffington - well remembers Lady St John of Bletso. She lived in Knightsbridge and was a professional chaperone to debutantes whose mothers had died - or lived a long way from London, which in some circles was considered even more unfortunate. "She was at every coming-out party, wearing a sort of bridesmaid's dress and sitting on a gold chair keeping an eye on her charges," recalls Lady Spiffington.

Coming out, today, is what George Michael does, not the Hon Lavinia Twinset- and-Pearls. But the Season was once all about debutantes. Only in the Seventies, when debs became more or less defunct, did it acquire its current definition as a series of sporting and cultural events.

Lady Spiffington, who came out in 1955, remembers extraordinary parties, among them a do at Cliveden given by Douglas Fairbanks. Even then, celebrities got in on the act. "At the coming-out parties, all the men used to wear white tie, all the women wore tiaras, and the debs actually wore kid gloves," she adds. "And the lavishness of the entertaining was fantastic. One would go through for dinner and find lobster, crab souffle and chicken with jelly on it, then at 1am it would all be cleared away and in would come eggs and bacon, kedgeree and fresh orange juice, which was rare then. Everyone was frightfully spoilt. But one was very heavily chaperoned. There was no question of sneaking off and holding hands in the back row of the movies."

A decade later, by the mid-Sixties, moral standards had relaxed to the point where debs considered themselves duds if they hadn't lost their virginity by Glorious Goodwood. Now, a young couple can discreetly copulate on a bench at Royal Ascot, the same Royal Ascot where, in Lady Spiffington's day, divorcees were banned from the Royal Enclosure. The Season is truly not what it was. And that, I reckon, is a mixed blessing.

Comments