'I'm sorry, love, you can't come in here,' Mr Eric Petheridge, a bowler-hatted Ascot steward, told the princess as she stepped towards Sovereign's Gate last Tuesday. It was surely the British doorkeeper's finest hour, especially for a breed of man whose eyesight is usually matched only by the sharpness of his creases, and whose condescension, loyalty and stubbornness are legendary.
Buoyed up, perhaps, by Mr Petheridge's performance, the gatekeepers of the upper class were at it with a vengeance last week. Elsewhere in John Major's classless society, they stood their ground and barred passage to persons not of the right sort - always with the kind of sinister grovelling charm that can only be learned while brushing lapels of the highest quality in the lavatories of the Drones' Club. The charm school for doormen must still exist in a basement somewhere under Brook Street.
At Ascot, attempts to follow in the footsteps of the princess (she got through after removing her dark glasses), met with the traditional response: a curiously restrained curl of the lip and a firmly extended arm from the decorated commissionaire at the entrance to the Royal Enclosure. 'Excuse me, sir, may I help you?' is the phrase that has long heralded a throwing-out from an event deemed to be in somebody else's social calendar.
Not even an urgent appointment with the Hon Jocelyn Deeds, an imaginary chum and a scion of the luncheonocracy, could get me past this Cerberus. 'I'm sorry, sir, you can't possibly come in looking like that. At the very least you need a tie and a hat. And a badge.' A badge? Couldn't I just buy a ticket? 'Oh dear no, sir. This is the Royal Enclosure.' (Look of pity at my ignorance.) 'It's a very complicated business getting in here, sir.'
So I set off in search of the Hon Jocelyn at some of the establishments I know he patronises. I never met him, but, on the other hand, I ran into some remarkable demonstrations of why I was never likely to.
Doormen are schooled in the art of calling you 'sir' and offering regrets while, at the same time, making you fully aware that you are as likely to be admitted as a vanload of Croats at a Serbian birthday party.
The doorman at White's was sitting inside a wooden booth like the porter at a minor public school and seemed mildly surprised when I asked if he could direct me to the bar. My imaginary friend the Hon Jocelyn did me no good here either. 'This is a private club. An exclusive club. He is not a member.' (A look of mild disdain.) 'You can't just come in here for a drink.'
'But I've been told this is one of the best bars in London.' A step towards the inner sanctum. The doorman rises with a look which suggests I am not merely scruffy, but mad. One false move and a phalanx of pin-striped toffs will emerge to block the way, so it seems safer to retire.
The class warriors are also hard at work at Harrods. The store, the sale, the dress code.
The uniformed Green Man on the pavement does not flinch when I arrive in above-the-knee cycling shorts and ask for the outdoor-sports department, but it is the security guard inside who gives me trouble. A fresh-faced and kindly youth, he says: 'It's on the fifth floor, but . . . er . . . I'm afraid I can't let you in. Not in shorts.
'No, not even if you've got a puncture. Oh dear. It's the chairman's personal ruling and it's more than my job's worth.' (Yes, he really said it).
Then he adopts a confidential matiness. 'I know. Just hang on here. I'll phone up and get them to bring you down a new inner tube.' And he does. Which makes me ponder if the barman at White's might have brought me out a gin sling.
The award for most imaginative doorman goes to the Ritz. Ordered to halt as I crossed the lobby in jeans, I was silkily informed that I would need a jacket, tie and proper trousers if I were to contemplate tea. In fact, to paraphrase, I might as well go home for an early bath.
'We can lend you a jacket and tie, sir. You may wait in the lobby for your friend.'
'Can you lend me a pair of trousers?'
A weary glance of patrician disbelief. 'Well, sir,' with scarcely hidden amusement, 'you might wish to buy some. There's a shop on the corner.'
So that is how one gains entry to the governing classes.
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