Dismayed by the Season's bleatings

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The Independent Online
I'M afraid it's that time of the year again when sports fans will just have to grimace and bear it - the "it" being that Edwardian museum piece called "The Season", in which people with little interest in sport suddenly attach themselves to it because of a perceived social cachet. Last week these wretched molluscs were clamped on to Royal Ascot, today they'll be at the polo, and for the next fortnight shoals of them will be clinging to the Championships at Wimbledon.

Beyond that, there's the Henley regatta, to which they are welcome, and Glorious Goodwood, to which they're not. There will even be a significant representation at that festival of grunge and ear-plugs, the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, although arrival will be via helicopter not caravanette.

A well-known champagne company took a front-page advertisement in last Thursday's Daily Telegraph to publicise the other ports of call for the season, which, strangely, did not include any of Chelsea's friendlies, speedway, boxing or town-hall wrestling. It's not what you're seeing that matters, but who's seeing you - a female observer of the season proudly announced in a radio interview last week that she'd been to Royal Ascot five times and had never watched a single race.

Well, as a regular television consumer of Royal Ascot, I'm in the position of watching all the races, while trying to ignore the fashion flim-flam and overt snobbery that threatens to engulf the main spectacle. But it's becoming increasingly difficult to avoid, and even harder to stomach. The Ascot gavotte is more like a garotte these days.

The BBC's opening broadcast last Tuesday quickly declared its perspective as host Julian Wilson - sorry, "Julian Wilson, Esq" as his badge insists - and guest fashion commentator Ewa Lewis, the "Social Editor" of Tatler, mewed sympathetically to each other about "Lloyds' losses, rising school fees, and increased indirect taxation" and their possible effect on the meeting.

It's at times like this that you have to wonder to whom Julian Wilson thinks he is talking when he looks into the camera. It is safe to assume that he has no mental picture of the disabled pensioner in a high-rise flat, or of those forced to sell The Big Issue for a living. One imagines that he may visualise a maiden aunt in the Cotswolds who can't be at Ascot because her chambermaid is inconsiderately off sick with rickets.

For the rest of the week, the armchair viewers or those not admitted to the Royal Enclosure, are obliged to see the horse racing, top class on most days, merely as an adjunct to a series of house or garden parties, or as the Royal Family's private fiefdom, the carriage procession up the course each day being among the most powerful statements of territorial intent since the Kray twins were in business.

So a sport which, for the rest of the year, is happily defined as belonging to the people is suddenly hijacked as the temporary playground for a social elite - it's hard not to sound like Dave Spart when writing about this. But then that's part of the Season's defensive weaponry, to render its critics as killjoys or Stalinist revolutionaries.

My best friends, Tote Credit, my local bar, my Havana cigar merchant and my bank will all tell you that I am neither, but Royal Ascot just gets me deep in the gut. I'm annoyed when I can't see the horses for the propeller-sized bow on Eve Pollard's hat, and I'm irrationally distracted by the news that handbags with chains "don't belong here".

I also don't want to believe in the survival of that pernicious English snobbery, which was revealed when an Irish owner, celebrating his horse's win in the unsaddling enclosure, provoked the comment: "Hang on, this isn't Cheltenham." As the parade moves on to Wimbledon, it has to be asked whether this sickly link between sport and high society has a decaying effect on the nation's competitive edge, echoing the languid under-achievement of the upper classes.

Is it more than a coincidence that the most successful jockeys at Ascot were Irish and Italian, or that the bulk of the prize money will be banked in Dubai? There's no chance of an English winner at Wimbledon, while whatever happens at Cowdray Park or Cowes will have little impact on the outside world. And as for the cricket ...

Elsewhere, it is a different story. The Tour de France manages to be both a national festival and ruthlessly competitive event, while the Melbourne Cup horse race in Australia, or the baseball World Series in America remain uncompromised by worries about social or sartorial codes and are much more enjoyable as sporting fixtures for that reason.

The summer season of English sport, however, remains dogged by imperial nostalgia, snobbery, frantic role-playing, posturing and, yes, persistent failure. It seemed entirely apt, then, that while our rugby players were capitulating to France and our cricketers were crumbling to the West Indies, John "warm beer" Major was running the white underpants of surrender up the mast.

Another vein of nostalgia was opened up this week when Havant District Council announced that it was considering a ban on "street football" in order to prevent general rowdiness and damage to gardens. The notion was soon put around that such a ban, if applied nationwide, would seal off the well-spring of our youthful footballing talent.

Such traditionalists as Tommy Docherty and Bob Wilson were encouraged to reminisce at how their own skills were honed on bomb-sites and street corners, dodging Hovis delivery bikes and whippets, and kicking the withered shell of a tennis ball against a garage door. It was opined that were it not for street football, George Best would never have appeared.

Several thoughts jostled for primacy here - wouldn't the street football ban turn out to be a good thing if its skills and disciplines are being reflected in the English game? Those who recently attempted to compete at football with Brazil at Wembley certainly gave a convincing endorsement for beach over pavement as the best proving-ground. Would Terry Venables next take the England squad not to Bisham Abbey for training but to Granada's Coronation Street set?

These thoughts were soon disrupted, however, by the news that Blackburn Rovers had bid pounds 10m for the Havant 11-year-old, Dean Weetabix, while another Hampshire youth, 12-year-old Darren Ringpull, speaking through his agent Eric Hall, had confessed his addiction to a fizzy orange drink. Meanwhile, Adidas announced that their new line in football boots, hand-carved in wood, would be known as the "Vinny Jones Clog", and the nation slept soundly again.

There will be all sorts of learned analyses advanced about the reasons for the England rugby team's annihilation by New Zealand in the World Cup semi-final last Sunday afternoon, leaving aside the contribution of Jonah the Whale. But I wonder how many of you felt the whole enterprise was doomed when you went to collect your Sunday papers only to see several of the players endorsing tabloid scratch-cards. Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mercenary gits.