Fathers' Day Out: God bless the regatta's little pink socks: The Leander men wear their badge of authority on their feet and some call the man in charge God. At middle-class Henley, conformity rules

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The Independent Online
I DID not get off to a good start. No matter how hard I tried, I kept calling it Wembley. And it stuck. That did not go down at all well, especially when I sought to strike up a conversation with a couple of ancient oarsmen in the middle of their lunch in Lion Meadow, the members' car park. They offered me a glass of champagne and regretted it, I fear.

After a while you could see I fitted into their image of the press - ignorant and seedy - even though I was wearing a tie and my best pair of trousers. But the pants were not white and my jacket was not a blazer. I almost called them old rowers instead of oarsmen, which would have been more disastrous than calling Henley Wembley, but I caught myself in time. They kept looking at the champagne glass, waiting for me to finish and leave.

Then my other problem: I misheard the name of the chairman of the management committee and forever called him Mr Conti. His name is Coni, pronounced Coney, as in Coney Island, New York, which has a beach and an amusement park that could be described as the Blackpool of the US eastern seaboard. Henley is certainly not Blackpool. It is perhaps one of the most idyllic reaches of the Thames with an arched bridge and Norman church at one end and an island with a Greek temple folly at the other, a mile-and-a- half away. For five days in July it holds the regatta.

Mr Coni's initials are P R C, which in my book stands for the People's Republic of China. At the other end of his name are Esq, OBE and QC. He runs the regatta as if he were Deng Xiaoping. His colleagues sometimes call him God, because this 56-year-old barrister, who deals in crime and family law, is in charge of everything. His authority, however, is based on his turning the regatta around from near bankruptcy in the early Seventies into a popular social event, which today earns more than pounds 300,000 and has the finances to patronise the rest of the rowing world.

His writ runs across the river into Henley town. He chose the parson who is conducting the service in St Mary's Church today to mark the end of another successful regatta. He even chooses the hymns, just as he chooses the music which the Band of the Grenadier Guards plays in the Stewards' (or members) Enclosure throughout each day of rowing.

The musical diet is published on the back page of the official programme beside the price list for the regatta shop, a hole in a piece of canvas near the gentlemen's lavatory: there are socks at pounds 3.50, Spode bonbon dishes at pounds 29 and tablecloths (rectangular) pounds 16.29 as opposed to tablecloths (round) at pounds 12.50.

As you can see from this selection, there is nothing flash about Henley. It is sensible, quite unimaginative, oddly eccentric, perfectly organised and very county. Above all it is amazingly beautiful. Ascot has toffs at one end and spivs at the other, although in most cases it is hard to distinguish between them. At Henley, there is no mistaking. The middle classes run this show. Standards are upheld, rules are static and unchanging. If you don't conform, you are out. It is rather as I imagine British India before the Second World War. Advertising? Good heavens, no. Sponsorship? Certainly not. Look what happened to Wimbledon.

The bonbon dish, you may think, is the only hint of frivolity. But you would be wrong. At Henley it is the socks. Other people say it is the blazers. But blazers are as obvious as a bunch of flowers. Mr Coni wears a fluorescent pink pair of socks, as does every man at Henley who fancies himself a member of rowing's inner circle.

This signifies that he belongs to the Leander Club, an institution formed above a humble boat house at Lambeth in 1818. The club, which hires the top coach in the country and attracts the best oarsmen, has about 2,800 members, by invitation only: much more exclusive than the 5,500 members of the regatta, a privilege which gets you into the Stewards' Enclosure and allows you to invite up to eight friends on most days, at pounds 23 each. This provides the regatta with its main income. At Henley it is not the form to talk about tickets; you acquire a badge as if the bloody thing fell out of the sky.

A Leander man also gets a pink tie and pink schoolboy's cap. When you meet Mr Coni in his office, a canvas corridor in the tented village that is the regatta headquarters, his socks are the first things you notice. The second is a Victorian looking-glass on a chest of drawers, which he presumably uses when he puts on his pink tie. You could be in an officer's billet during the Crimean War.

The conversation is very clubbish: 'old so-and-so', 'the department of health and tiddly-piddly'. He smokes Turkish cigarettes through a a gold holder; he used to buy Sobranies, but the European Community killed that firm off, he says, and he now pays an arm and a leg for an American brand called Rameses II. He says he does not need to defend Henley's rules and regulations, and he finds some of my questions incomprehensible.

Snobbish? The regatta owns the land and, as a private club, can set its own rules. The public, some 200,000 on a fine Saturday, can watch the rowing free of charge farther along the river bank. Dressing up is a 'positive virtue', and so is kicking out people who do not display good manners.

As for the press, well don't bother. Television cameras and photographers are not welcomed, reporters are allowed into the Stewards' Enclosure for only five minutes, only with an escort and only if they are properly dressed; and that means a jacket and tie.

I was required to sneak in from behind the counter of a Pimms bar, and my minder, a young woman, kept warning me away from the guards at the main exits. However, if you are from the Times - which I fear the management committee still believes is venerable - you gain entry unaccompanied. And should you seek a press release, you will find some from 1987 with the date scratched out and the statistics changed to suit 1992. You could not describe this side of the regatta as streamlined.

The rowing writers at Henley tend to be retired oarsmen with other jobs in the winter. They delight in firing cannon shots across the divide from their canvas pavilion on stilts in the middle of the river to the Stewards' Enclosure on the bank. They are either old Etonians or Oxbridge men.

They say Henley is a good nursery, but the most important international regattas are elsewhere - Cologne and Lucerne, for example - and the top crews stay away. The foreign crews come for the fun, and the setting, and the glamour of Britain's women dressed to the nines and their men in ducks and blazers and schoolboy caps.

I was not quite sure whether I should mention this heresy to the regatta's Deng Xiaoping; I feared he might choke on his Turkish tobacco. So in a rather cowardly fashion I asked him only how important the rowing was?

'Overwhelmingly', he replied. Then he gave me my quote of the week: 'There is no other regatta I know of which stops for one-and-a-half hours for lunch and one hour for tea.'

(Photograph omitted)