The Weasel: No stopping Germaine and me at Henley

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The Independent Culture
I never previously thought I had that much in common with Germaine Greer, but now I realise that the feminist icon and I are birds of a feather. We were both excluded from the Stewards' Enclosure at Henley Royal Regatta for failing to comply with the stringent dress code - and we both managed to gain admission by clever improvisation.

Ms Greer got the bum's rush last weekend for wearing a skirt that not only ended above the knee (gasp!), but was also split to the thigh (pass the sal volatile!). By donning a T-shirt in an unorthodox manner, she created an undergarment that made her ensemble acceptable to the Victorian patriarchs who preside at Henley. As I have previously pointed out in this column, much the same happened to me a few years ago when I turned up at this snooty beanfeast wearing a collarless shirt and, ergo, no tie. The solution, you may recall, was a pair of bright yellow ladies' tights purchased from a nearby newsagents and worn as a cravat. (Any young shaver wishing to copy this fashion statement should remember to keep the gusset at the back.)

Despite this sartorial success, it remains a profound mystery to me why anyone would want to get into the Stewards' Enclosure. For the first time in years, I was prodded by Mrs W into going to the regatta last weekend. (No, I didn't wear ladies' tights this time.) Thanks to a ferocious snarl- up in west London, we were more than an hour late arriving in Henley. As soon as we'd met our party in the dread Stewards' Enclosure, we had to leave again for a hamper lunch in the car park.

Though it was perfectly pleasant to nibble a splendid poached salmon, irrigated by supermarket champagne, I couldn't help feeling that it would have been possible to have much the same experience in the car park next door to Weasel Villas, thereby saving my frazzled nerves, not to mention pounds 70 in entrance and parking fees. (Admittedly, Mrs W may have a point when she says that she would look a bit of a prune having lunch in a posh frock and fancy hat in Safeway's car park.)

My lunch-time companions, drawn from the ranks of the law and the Square Mile, displayed the boundless self-confidence instilled by our wonderful public school system. "Don't know anything about the arts, I'm afraid," one city slicker breezily informed the Weasel. "The only paper I ever read is pink." When I pointed out that the Financial Times prided itself on its arts coverage, this seemed to come as a complete surprise to him. To prove that the Henley crew are not entirely lacking in culture, a willowy stockbroker embarked on a spot of lit crit. "I can thoroughly recommend the new Hannibal Lecter book," he drooled. "Best thing I've read since American Psycho."

As he started to recount some of the juicier passages by Bret Easton Ellis, it seemed like a good time to make my way back to the Stewards' Enclosure, where the taxonomy of ex-public schoolboys was plain for all to see: floppy-haired Hugh Grants; horse-toothed Tim Nice-But-Dims; and ciggy-puffing Flashmans, equipped with quiffs, sideboards and foxy leers.

The womenfolk at Henley tend to be either hard-faced and brassy, or pale and twittery. Their whip-thin, sloe-eyed daughters cluster together like eels.

This year, I was determined to do something I hadn't managed on any of my previous four visits to the regatta: I wanted to see a race. Settling into a deckchair at the river's edge, I watched a white-clad minion (most of these servile characters bear a marked resemblance to the actor Pete Postlethwaite) slot the names of two teams into a board.

Following a few words from a colleague who had his ear glued to a mobile, he moved one of the names slightly ahead of the other. After a while, he moved the leading name still further ahead. It took me a while to realise that I was observing a virtual race. Eventually, a smattering of applause and few yells indicated that the oarsmen were in view. Five seconds later two miniature galleys surged past the winning-post, pursued by a launch full of stuffed shirts, and that was it. "Time for spot of 'poo," bellowed a rosy-cheeked scion of the gentry, as he waddled uncertainly towards the crowded champagne bar.

Fizz sold for a minimum of pounds 35 a bot, though most people seemed to drinking magnums or even larger torpedoes of the stuff. Oysters (pounds 20 for a dozen) were being scoffed by the score. The band of the Grenadier Guards played a selection from Phantom of the Opera, which almost, but not quite, drowned out the social arrangements that were constantly being planned on mobile phones. Cigars were flourished. Deals were cut. Discreet suggestions were planted in female ears. Souvenirs (you could buy a swizzle-stick in the shape of a silver oar, for pounds 95) were snapped up. And, somewhere in the braying throng, the author of The Female Eunuch relished her first Henley.

The starchy bunch of suits in charge at British Airways simply can't get it right. First, like a spinster aunt suddenly taking to body-piercing and rap music, our national carrier plunged headlong into the debacle of the "ethnic" air-fins. Then, discovering that Japanese calligraphy and Zulu rug designs didn't go down too well with its UK customer base, it screeched into reverse. As well as bunging the Union Flag back on to its planes, BA is currently screening a TV commercial that stresses the lovable quaintness of the British. Over an idyllic scene of village cricket, an American voice intones: "You invent a game that no one understands - but still the rest of the world beats you at it."

After a few more examples of such piquant ironies, the narrator, revealed as a wry-faced cove who looks as though he knows a thing or two, gives the pay-off: "But you must be doing something right because 17 million of us johnny foreigners would rather fly your airline than any of our own." God knows what it means, but it certainly sounds good. I doubt, however, whether one in 10 of putative BA customers will have the faintest inkling that the battered-looking yank is PJ O'Rourke, the satirist and humorous travel writer once described as "SJ Perelman on acid".

PJ is indeed a droll fellow, particularly in his pungent views concerning other nationalities. The only trouble with an airline using a satirist as a front-man is that, well, he is a satirist. It seems a little strange that BA, which always makes such a big deal about its safety record, should choose to be promoted by the author of a celebrated essay entitled "How to Drive Fast on Drugs While Getting Your Wing-Wang Squeezed and Not Spill Your Drink".

In this disquisition, PJ commends the experience of having "half a bottle of Chivas in the bag with a gram of coke up your nose and a teenage lovely pulling off her tube top in the next seat while you're doing 100mph down a suburban side street". Expanding on his theme, the great wit muses: "You'd have to watch the entire Mexican air force crash-land in a liquid petroleum gas storage facility to match this kind of thrill." Does BA share the opinion of its new mouthpiece? I think we should be told.

As we know from Nick Hornby's best-seller High Fidelity, pop fans just love drawing up lists. The rockaboogie monthly called Q seems to consist of little else. (I recall that it once even included a list of foods liked by old folks: crumpets, sandwich spread, barley sugar...)

Its latest issue is largely taken up with a survey of the 100 Greatest Stars of the 20th Century, as judged by its jive-infatuated readership. There are few surprises. John takes the No 1 slot, followed by Paul, Bob, Kurt, Elvis ("He was a big fat metaphor for everything," astutely opines Q), Bowie, Madonna... But there is a surprising entry at No 80. Squeezing in between Eric Clapton and Louis Armstrong is that unlikely groover, Igor Stravinsky. Maybe Q is pushing it a bit to say that the modernist master "invented modern jazz", but there can be few beat combos who would not be envious of the full-blown riot at the premiere of The Rite of Spring in Paris, 1913.

Ten places ahead of Igor is the great Syd Barrett, founder of Pink Floyd, who remains an enduring influence despite being musically active only between 1966 and 1970. Oddly enough, he was associated with another titan of modernism. One of Syd's solo waxings is a ditty called "Golden Hair", which happens to be part of a new compilation reviewed in the same issue of Q. The lyrics might easily be mistaken for fey hippie twaddle ("Lean out of the window Goldenhair, I heard you singing a merry air"), except that the author is one James Joyce (1882-1941). He included the verse in his lyric cycle "Chamber Music", little imagining that it would later make an appearance on Syd's album The Madcap Laughs. For what it's worth, Joyce would not have voted for Stravinsky in the Q poll: "Not even a canary could sing him."