Henley embodies something ghastly about us

The whole point is the value and pleasure created by absurd exclusions

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I was on a crowded bus, struggling back from central London in the middle of this week's Tube strike, when I noticed a curiously-dressed middle-aged couple. He was wearing a hideous blazer, striped shirt and a bright red pair of trousers; she was wearing the sort of shapeless floral dress which looks girlish, and even on a girl would look like a bad mistake. The whole effect was to look not attractive, nor well dressed, nor elegant, but simply posh.

I was on a crowded bus, struggling back from central London in the middle of this week's Tube strike, when I noticed a curiously-dressed middle-aged couple. He was wearing a hideous blazer, striped shirt and a bright red pair of trousers; she was wearing the sort of shapeless floral dress which looks girlish, and even on a girl would look like a bad mistake. The whole effect was to look not attractive, nor well dressed, nor elegant, but simply posh.

When they spoke, it was with the sort of bray which the middle classes believe to be upper class, though it doesn't resemble the speech of really posh people any more - what frissons must have been sent through the Home Counties by the estuary vowels of Zara Phillips, the Princess Royal's daughter, the other day! From time to time they each adjusted a small tag hanging from their necks, self-consciously, and I curiously edged my way towards them to see what it was that they were so proud of. Ah yes, I see: the thing they were still wearing, as the bus made its way towards Clapham, were the entry tokens to the stewards' enclosure at the Henley Regatta. Well, that's something to boast about to the number 137 bus.

I'm sure I'm being terribly unfair here - I'm sure they were a perfectly nice couple, fascinated by rowing without much of an interest in clothes, who had forgotten to take off their entry tags all the way home. But, perhaps encouraged in grumpiness by a hellish bus journey, it did remind me of something ghastly about English life, which for me is embodied by the Henley Regatta; the way that everything in England is always susceptible to being organised along class lines.

I once went to the Henley Regatta, and can honestly say that it was one of the most disappointing experiences of my life. It had been impressed on me, in advance, that I was incredibly lucky to get a pass into the stewards' enclosure - quite why or how I managed to be given such a thing, I now can't remember.

Having dressed up in an appropriately embarrassing way, we got down to Henley, and pushed past the outer rings of hoi polloi, more casually dressed, and corporate tents, which even 20 years ago were quite numerous. Showing our little tags to the ex-soldiers at the gate, we were through into that nirvana of social bliss, the stewards' enclosure. Then what? Then, alas, an incredibly boring day; because one didn't know anyone much, and there was nothing to do except wait for the picnic in the car park and drink one Pimms after another, a peculiarly horrible drink if there is a stiff breeze coming off the river. Oh, and watch the rowing.

Well, I can see that Henley is probably absolutely fascinating if you like rowing, but, for the life of me, I can't imagine what it would be like to be interested in watching rowing. It must be bliss actually to do it and skim down the Thames on a fine summer's day, but actually watching it, you simply sit and wait for two boats to come into view. One is ahead of the other; they carry on at the same pace; then the one which was ahead tends to finish first and the race is over. Back for another Pimms, and the next race, between people you've never heard of, is about to start in a minute.

Now, I know the same could be said about almost any sport which one hasn't been paying much attention to recently, and I admit to following the Tour de France avidly every year, which, rationally, is a much less interesting spectacle even than the triumphs of Mr Pinsent and Sir Steve Redgrave. But what really gets my goat about the Henley Regatta is that, somehow, this very dull non-spectacle is transformed into some sort of significant and even interesting outing by the fact that someone, at some point, declared the whole thing to be smart.

Frankly, if there was no stewards' enclosure, and no fence excluding the oiks, and no opportunity to wear small cardboard tags all the way back home to Clapham, nobody would ever go. And this is not an attractive feature of English life. It is tempting to think of it as an outdated and frumpy way of thinking, but, in fact, the nobs' enclosure is something which is becoming more and more conspicuous in all sorts of once-democratic places.

Nightclubs, even quite ordinary ones, have VIP areas, full, needless to say, of nobodies; showbiz parties often have a series of policed areas of increasing exclusivity nestling inside each other like Russian dolls, until, I suppose, you get to the middle and there is Britney Spears inside a small cardboard box.

The whole point of all of this is not that it is nicer to be within the innermost circle, but a kind of value and pleasure is created by absurd exclusions, even though it's obviously more fun to be on the dancefloor.

In our new classless society, can we not start assuming that celebrity, poshness, connections, don't deserve to be celebrated by the erection of ropes around enclosures? Can we not admit that the people inside the enclosure are no nicer than those outside? And can we, above all, start admitting that there is nothing smart or interesting about drinking Pimms in the wind and watching men rowing up and down the river?

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