I WENT to the Derby on Wednesday looking for a boxing match and stumbled on a game of two-up, being played with old pennies in an enclosure the size of a cock-fighting square on the edge of the Epsom Downs. The gambling was perfectly legal and above board. But boxing - bare-fisted - was a thing of the past, I was told, like gypsies in painted wagons being pulled by neatly groomed Clydesdales. 'You'll be more than lucky if you find a fight here,' Albert Coates, 83, said as we leant against the railing watching the coins being tossed in the air.
'Now come on boys, he needs 50 quid,' the men in the square call out. 'There's 20 here,' one says. 'A tenner here,' says another man who has wads of notes folded into strips and filed between his fingers. 'Another tenner? Come on boys, just 20 quid to get the game going.' One would go over and speak in Romany to a colleague.
These men were travellers, not the New Age variety, but people we used to call gypsies. They meet on Epsom Downs every year during Derby week for a get-together that brings them from all parts of Britain. By the time the Oaks had been run yesterday most of them had moved on.
Mr Coates said numbers had declined over the past decade, a factor he blamed mainly on the rising cost of parking a trailer on the Downs - pounds 60 this year compared with pounds 50 last year. He said the women in his family liked to come for the shopping. Shopping? There is a market in the valley opposite the final straight - two avenues of stalls selling everything from lavatory seats to curtains and chain saws.
Charlotte Smith, also 83, reads hands and the crystal ball, but pulled out of Epsom after the Derby and headed for Doncaster. 'People don't have the money to spend nowadays,' she said although 40 people had passed through her caravan on Derby day. She refused to tell me her fee, but the average charge for a half-hour 'reading' tends to be pounds 10.
There is a strange hierarchy to the Downs on Derby day, far removed from the toppers and tails at the grandstand enclosures on the other side of the track. On the hill is a vast marquee guarded by a wire fence and army dogs where several hundred Grenadier Guards, past and present, meet each year with their wives and girlfriends for lunch. In front, sliding down the slope are the local hoi polloi. Behind are rows of coaches and vans with parties from Wales, the Midlands, Northern England and the South-west. Well to the rear, away from the crowds, are dotted the green wellie people, their cars turned to form circles like wagons on the prairie, trying to pretend they are at a point-to-point.
Rising on the other side are what one would probably call the Essex and Kent crowd, who left Labour to vote for Margaret Thatcher. They come back every year, park along the railings or as close as possible, and cheer the Queen and Royal Family when they walk by to the paddock to inspect the horses. The travellers are encamped on two slopes near the Rubbing House pub at the far end of the straight. They are the only ones who don't look drunk. They have a whole week at Epsom; the others have one day.
Don't fly for me . . .
PRESIDENT Carlos Menem of Argentina has become the darling of international bankers and free-marketeers with his privatisation programme. He boasts that Argentina has left behind inefficiency, incompetence and all those bad habits of the past.
He is especially proud of the privatisation of Aerolineas Argentinas, the national airline, which was sold off to a group of Argentine investors and
Iberia, the Spanish airline.
The President rarely flies Aerolineas himself, so he may be unaware that a tiny doubt has arisen over Aerolineas Argentina's performance. As the Wall Street Journal put it, 'Problems ranging from an outbreak of cholera among passengers to a fire aboard a plane now lead some Argentines to avoid Aerolineas Argentinas . . .' before quoting local banker Robert Ruiz's judgement that 'it's a tragi-comic series of errors of which we haven't seen the end'.
Fortunately I didn't know this as I sat on an Aerolineas Argentinas flight recently, flicking through the pages of its in-flight magazine, En Vuelo.
I was transported back 30 years when you would spend hours trying to unravel Jap-lish, the incomprehensible 'how-to-operate instructions' written in English for Japanese hi-fi sets and kitchen equipment. Someone's cousin, rather than a real linguist as we should expect in Menem's Argentina, seems to have been responsible for translating the magazine into English.
Here is a story on clocks: 'In 1883, the relation between man and time changed radically when it is adopted Greenwich meridian as meridian zero. World hour appeared in people's habits. To the end of that century watches lost their wealth symbol connotation to become an utilitarian object.' And another on the Chunnel project: 'Only one proyect was put into practice, was Coronel Beaumont's attempt who began boring a tunnel in Shakespeare Cliff but this attempt didn't last long because technical problems. It ought to be put aside after boring some meters.'
I only hope the translation of the Boeing aircraft maintenance manuals into Spanish was undertaken by someone with a firmer grasp of English.
Roger and out: it's an academic choice
TODAY the Royal Academy's annual summer exhibition will be open to the public. It is the last organised by Sir Roger de Grey, who is required by the Academy's rules to retire as president this year having reached the age of 75. On 10 December - the day 225 years ago that Sir Joshua Reynolds unwillingly became the Academy's first president - the 90 painters, sculptors and architects who are Royal academicians will elect a new leader.
Sir Roger is a painter. It is not a joke to describe his paintings as grey. They are landscapes mainly, with a self-portrait tucked away in a corner. Brian Sewell, the art critic, told me Sir Roger was a rather good painter - he was not so kind about this year's summer exhibition, which he likened to a collection of Hyde Park railing rubbish.
But Sir Roger will not be remembered for his grey tones or choice of art. He will make the Royal Academy roll of honour as the man who rescued it from terminal decline. He restored its tattered reputation with a series of hugely popular, as distinct from populist, art shows. He won back younger artists such as David Hockney, whose latest work - a group of surrealist canvases that look like stage backdrops - is on display in this year's summer show. He built up its finances and established a style that the rest of the British art world followed - corporate sponsorship to finance grand exhibitions that draw on works from around the world and to refurbish buildings.
Sir Roger would like to be succeeded by an architect, and there are 12 among the 80 contenders. The new president will oversee the next stage in the Academy's development - an architectural centre in the building behind Burlington House which now houses the Museum of Mankind. The museum moves back to Bloomsbury when the British Library moves out and the Academy wants to take over.
The architects are a mixed bunch from the famous and active, such as Sir Norman Foster and Sir Richard Rogers, to the obscure and academic, such as Theo Crosby, former professor of architecture at the Royal College of Art and camp follower of the Prince of Wales.
Captain Moonlight is prepared to open a book on the winner. I must say the natural choice would be Sir Richard Rogers, 59, he of the Pompidou Centre in Paris and the Lloyd's Building in the City of London. He is a cultural and social giant, immensely engaging, who has entertained the president of France and humble arts students at his home in Chelsea. There would be no shortage of ideas, cash and corporate funding, gushing Americans and admiring Continentals during his presidency, but I doubt he would accept the post. He is, after all a very busy man.
Sir Norman Foster, 58, (Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank headquarters in Hong Kong, Stansted airport terminal and the Academy's own award-winning Sackler Gallery) is one of the world's great architects, but he is also a busy man. (For those interested in networking, Sir Roger de Grey's son, Spencer, is a senior partner in Sir Norman's architecture firm.)
You come down to earth after those two. The favourite would be Professor Crosby, 68, who would like the job as he is unemployed. He is a committee man and a traditionalist. In the run-off he would probably face Professor Trevor Dannatt, 73, formerly of Manchester University, a gentle old-world liberal - some of his colleagues might even say left-wing - who designed British embassies and municipal housing in the 1950s and 1960s.
Joint third favourite would be Michael Hopkins, 58, who designed the Mound Stand at Lords and is known for combining hi-tech design with traditional materials, and Sir Philip Powell, 72, another municipal architect from the 1950s. He is a gregarious chatterbox in the mould of Sir Hugh Casson, Sir Roger's predecessor.
The rest of the runners are: Edward Cullinan, Sir Philip Dowson, Paul Koralek, John Partridge, Colin St John Wilson and Richard MacCormac. A wild card would be St John Wilson, 71, architect of the unopened and not much loved new British Library. He is Emeritus Professor of architecture at Cambridge, clever and sophisticated. Word reaches me he thinks he has it in the bag. A knighthood and the decorative initials PRA come with the job.
Say what you like about . . . . . . Graham Taylor but:
He's done wonders for Bobby Robson's reputation
He's raised the profile of winter root vegetables
Make sure you address it to his employers
He'll say you've got a point
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