I began my journey to find the heart of the British dream at Waterloo station over a bacon sandwich and ended in Fulham eating fillet mignon. How did I end up there? How had I ravaged and consumed in such boldness?
Using a broad brush and Royal Ascot as an obvious allegory, I tried to find a true sense of England and what is to be an Englishman. I summoned the spirits of Mr.R.Steadman and Dr.H.Thompson at the Kentucky Derby. Nervously I joined a corpulent sweating city trader, full of a lust for depravity and money, early on Tuesday. We had tickets for the grandstand (the middle class), which is squashed between the cheap – relatively – silver ring and the high end Royal enclosure. Unfortunately, there was no need for my splendid morning suit (a gift from an Australian!!!) but a lounge suit was compulsory.
To be British, in this post Empire era, is to be quietly patriotic and loudly apologetic. This embarrassment drips down into our psyche. Britain is maddeningly class conscious with a muddle of people wanting to go up, down, or sideways.
Weekly, usually on Friday night, I am cornered by a supposedly well wishing person who says: “You are so posh”. It is an inconsiderate shot to the bows that I am expected to reply to in a meek and atoning manner.
Though the analysis is correct and this inverse snobbery used to offend me, I was confused at why I was being defined by a boat ticket- ‘Port Out Starboard Home’. I am cheerfully open about my public school education. I have never been tempted to follow the doubting Thomases who adopt extraordinary mockney accents and almost pretend to have come from tougher backgrounds.
Royal Ascot is a gorging mass of English people trying to look their best and have an overtly good time, which for the English means buckets of liquid refreshments. I began my anthropomorphic experiment by sloping around the champagne bars near the parade ring. Though we were heartily swilling down pink champers there was a rather serious feel to it. All the races goers were proudly showing their excellent clothes and keeping their wedding demeanours stiffly on.
We moved to the bookmakers to find some true English charm and watch the Queen and her family bounce along the turf from the Windsor gate. I had 3/1 on her hat to be blue. To a man the whole crowd stood in reverence and tunefully toasted her with the national anthem. This was my first glance at the British unity- we are all royalists and love the Queen.
With Brenda on my brain we felt it was time to potter over to the Royal enclosure and see if Rod Stewart was milling around. Though my usual habitat, I had no invite and therefore no morning suit, I began to walk my normal route into the enclosure. I felt the stiff hand of a stentorian steward. I swiftly realised that this party was not for me. Roped out, noses stuck against the glass window, we watched the people in the ivory tower with salmon and asparagus dangling from their teeth. A strange combination of the incredibly bored and raucously loud roamed.
Perhaps it is the exquisite outfits but there is delicious decorum, with a lovely touch of naughtiness, to the joyous British upper class. It was back to my middle class lawns and more champagne.
Due to the cartoonish pride of each class it is very difficult to draw a picture of An Englishman – is he a gruff builder or cabby in a football shirt, a plump country gent, a real ale lover, a wild blazer at Henley, a preened metro-sexual from Essex, Keith Floyd, an old dear having a cup of tea? All perfect postcards from the corners of this lovely land.
After a win from the imperious Kingman, sprits rose as did our collective wallets. Mad dogs and drunken English stand in the sun. ‘Ascot drops’, women’s calves after their high heels are disposed, were being seen all over the place. People were starting to wane like slugs trapped on salt in sunlight.
We decided to view the silver ring. It was rather like arriving at an Italian restaurant in the middle of a mafia shoot out. In twenty minutes I saw four fights (including one in a portaloo), a trouser less man singing in a tree, an almost naked woman rolling on the floor, and the coupe de grace was a wine bottle flung into a women’s head…I promptly fled in fear for my safety, but later realised that this was a place where everyone was enjoying themselves. Not my idea of fun but neither is a cucumber sandwich.
I settled at the bandstand to sing old colonial songs with the rest of the inebriated newts. I met a green grocer done well who had been in the Royal enclosure, we prattled away on an even footing about football and horses.
I didn’t find my perfect photo of the ideal Englishman. It struck me that Britain is a nation of sneery insular pompous people. However it is a charismatic nation which delights in debasement and quickly dissolves away its human decency over a drink. It is divided into strict a class system – there is a plethora of social climbers, chameleons, and deniers. We may be a patriotic country rooted and severed by our accents, but the English delight and unite in a good drink and a nod of the head to the wonderful queen.