Henley embodies something ghastly about us

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

Share

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?

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

English Teacher, full time supply role, Isle of Sheppey

Competitive Salary: Randstad Education Group: The Job: Our client school is lo...

ICT Teacher, full time supply role, Isle of Sheppey

Competitive Salary: Randstad Education Group: The Job: Our client school is lo...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Maths Teacher

£90 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Science Teacher (mater...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: The campaigning is over. So now we wait...

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
In this handout provided by NASA from the the Earth-orbiting International Space Station, weather system Arthur travels up the east coast of the United States in the Atlantic Ocean near Florida in space. The robotic arm of the Space Station Remote Manipulator System or Canadarm2 is seen at upper right. According to reports, Arthur has begun moving steadily northward at around 5 kt. and the tropical storm is expected to strike the North Carolina Outer Banks  

Thanks to government investment, commercial space travel is becoming a reality

Richard Branson
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week