BEING THERE; A day at the Regyeeatta with BMW man, Dave and Denise

Ten years ago, before boom became bust, Jonathan Rendall sold the pleasures of Henley a hundred times over. This year he went back
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The Independent Online
The line of traffic snarled out of Henley, at a complete standstill. The Regatta entrance was still two miles away. The BMW in front suddenly revved up and disappeared down the drive of a country house to the left with a frustrated swerve. I followed it. A hand-written sign on the drive said: "Regatta parking, pounds 5." But when we got down to the house there were no other cars there. The place seemed to be some sort of religious retreat. Everything was painted pale green.

The BMW and I drove into the middle of a vast empty lawn. The tinted window lowered: a man, early thirties, blond, blue blazer and cream trousers, either very posh or fake very posh. "Is this the parking?" he said. I said I didn't know. The thought seemed to simultaneously occur that maybe this lawn was not meant to be driven on. "We could always park back there," I offered, gesturing at a compound of pale-green Nissen huts by the side of the drive.

We parked on some loose gravel in front of a sign reading "Pilgrim House". The man from the BMW strode off saying: "We'll get a swift exit from the regyeeatta, eh?" I looked around for someone to pay the pounds 5 to, but there was no one about.

Further up the main road, the crowds were moving along the pavements. Dotted about were rowing followers, some quite elderly, in coloured, striped blazers and caps. They looked far more authentically like tubes of Refreshers than David Seaman does. But they were easily outnumbered by the corporate Johnnies, in panamas, and the blazer-and-flannel outfits, except they were more ill-fitting than BMW man's, either slightly too big or too small, so that they looked like overgrown schoolboys on their first day, wearing either hand-me-downs or uniforms their mothers said they would grow into.

Ah, Henley. How many times have I spoken that word? A thousand? 1,500? Not that I've ever spoken it, to my knowledge, at any time other than 10 weeks in 1986. That was the cowboy heyday of corporate hospitality. It had just taken off. The people who were buying it didn't know the boom was about to go bust. Fly-boys and spivs were setting up hospitality companies all over London. Then they hired graduates or resting actors with middle- class voices to sell it over the telephone, cold-calling. There were some ex-Sandhurst officers who did it as well. They sold a lot.

I can still remember the patter, the menus. "Yes, Remenham Court, Henley. We've had a late cancellation and Tony/Philip/Patrick at IBM/Shell/Hansons said you might be interested. But I've got to know today, Steve. It was Steve wasn't it? Uh-huh. Of course. Champagne reception late breakfast. 11am. Four-course lunch, afternoon tea. Jazz band."

Yes, all at a most reasonable 1,000 per cent mark-up. And by the way you can't see any of the action from the marquee because it's about two miles from the course. We'll try to get a minibus. But this was the 1980s, so they went for it anyway. And the beauty of Henley was that no one wanted to see the action in any case.

Ten weeks was about average before people got fed up and left. Like many I'd been lured by a wholly misleading newspaper advertisement for "a career in international media and sports promotion". One of the other callers was an actor who is now DI-something in The Bill. The only ones who stayed longer were the ex-Sandhurst officers.

Then in 1987 the bust came. There was some sort of hospitality scandal at Wimbledon. The spivs rented houses on Wimbledon Hill for the fortnight and put up the marquees in the gardens. It was all unlicensed, cash-in- hand, toutsville. A newspaper sent a helicopter up. There was a hilarious overhead shot of all the marquees. The police got involved. Sorry officer, all I did was invite a few friends round.

After that the spivs moved out or reinvented themselves and the big leisure operators moved in, so now it is a respectable industry, supposedly.

I first saw Dave sitting outside a hospitality tent midway between the start and the finish. This was about midday, among the ruins of the champagne- reception-late-breakfast (nothing changes). He was in components, mid- to-late thirties. He was sitting with Ken and Denise. They were from the same company, but they had never met before. They were successful reps. They hadn't been invited to the company four-course lunch. They were there to mingle with the clients at the start, get the atmosphere going, then leave the bosses with the clients over lunch and come back for the afternoon- tea session.

Denise was wearing a black cocktail dress that was rather too small. She was slightly drunk. Dave was definitely encouraged by this. But it was still early days, and they were talking business. "I mean, he didn't tell me directly he wanted a new marketing manager," Dave said. Denise and Ken nodded. Ken was wearing a new panama hat somewhat self-consciously. The hat was perched at a jaunty angle, but you could tell its unusual presence weighed down on Ken like a lead weight.

At the approved signal they left the marquee and moved along the bank to a bar. Dave and Ken went on to bottles of Molsen. Denise graduated to dry white wine. They looked at their Henley Royal Regatta programmes and professed bashful ignorance of rowing. The bar stood in a public stretch along the bank, between the hospitality tents and the nobs' enclosures up by Henley bridge. There was a small fairground in the public area, with bumper cars each named after 1950s rock 'n' rollers, and a gypsy palm-reader's caravan, all thoughtfully provided so that the great unwashed of Henley could enjoy the regatta as well.

Except no one was riding the bumper cars apart from the fairground manager himself, a man in late middle-age with a ragged grey quiff. Everyone wants to be a nob these days, of course. In the public-area car-park the picnics were being set up, everyone trying to act as naturally as possible, but in hushed tones. Well, the French do it, don't they? A wife hissed: "Mervyn, the chairs first!" And Mervyn staggered with the chairs, beleaguered. Why did she have to read that "Guide To The Season" in the Sunday paper?

The Molsen bottles piled up on the table. Ken had to go and telephone his wife. "What was Ken's surname again?" Dave said airily. "Can't remember," Denise said, catching his tone. The sun was beating down more strongly than before. They left the Molsen bottles and Dave and Ken's half-eaten toasted sandwiches and went and sat down with the crowds by the riverbank. Denise took off her shoes and dipped her toes in the water. A race went past. "Oo, that one had pink oars," Denise said.

"I met this woman once," Dave said. "And she told me - 'what you've got to do is go out and enjoy life.' "

"Who told you this?" Denise said coyly.

"This woman," Dave said.

Then the rain came. The rain spoilt everything. Everyone in the public area took cover under the roof of the bumper-car track. Denise's dress billowed beside a bumper car marked "Don Everly". The manager with the quiff was over there like a shot, getting into the Don Everly car. "Want a ride?" he asked Denise. Denise smiled weakly and said no thanks. "At least you'd get a ride, know what I mean?" the manager said. Denise edged away. And then the manager was crashed into at speed by two of the other attendants driving cars marked "Ricky Nelson" and "Eddie Cochran".

By this time Ken had returned. It was all over. Dave forlornly discussed with Ken what magazines he read as the rain pelted down. Dave said he read Loaded. In fact he was going to buy the latest issue at WH Smith's in Henley that morning but then just as he approached the counter he realised he couldn't. I mean you couldn't turn up at the marquee with Loaded sticking out of your blazer pocket, could you?

In the rain the only people still braving the riverbank were a few rowing followers in the Refresher get-ups, gasping excitedly when the MC announced: "London are striking 36, and Thames 34." By the time it subsided it was time for Dave, Ken and Denise to go back to the marquee for the afternoon- tea session. They trooped off. Classical music was being piped into the marquee to create the right ambience.

I went off up the bank to try and find Remenham Court. In the hinterlands beyond the start I found Remenham Reach, but no Remenham Court. Maybe I missed it. Probably it was too far away to get to on foot.

A blue lorry was making a slow tour of the backs of the enclosures and marquees. Black-ribbed pipes snaked from the lorry through the canvases. A sign on the lorry said: "Cesspool and sceptic tank emptying". Well, afternoon tea was the third meal in five hours, so some things must be inevitable, whoever you are.

Back at Pilgrim House there were still no other cars. The BMW had gone, leaving a black tyre mark in the gravel. I peered among the pale-green huts but there was no one, just empty rooms, a pulpit in a white-painted hall, and funny green stickers on the windows.

Then an elderly man in a beret came riding into the compound on an old bicycle - must be one of the priests. I waved my fiver and called out if he knew who I should to pay it to. But he just glanced with faint distaste at my ill-fitting blazer and rode past. It must have been one of the other priests who had thought up the regatta parking idea.