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Bollinger, Boats and Business: The English Sporting Season and How Henley Regatta Changed a Life

July 7, 2015
henley-regatta

Henley Regatta 1882 (Illustrated London News)

Here in England we’re smack bang in the middle of The Season. I should say Britain, because the Scots get involved too. But they don’t want much to do with us soft Southerners these days, so let’s stick with the English Season. It sounds more authentic anyway, as in English Roses, and “This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England”.

Early in June, when the sun finally gets to be more than a fleeting visitor, the decadent upper classes and all those who aspire to share their decadence dust off their summer glad-rags and head for a plethora of events where they might see and be seen. And behave disgracefully often as not.

At many of these events there’s the possibility of spotting Her Majesty the Queen. The Epsom Derby for example, or Royal Ascot. From a distance of course, unless you happen to have wangled a ticket to an exclusive enclosure where only the posh, or those with lots of money, may enter. There you might also see Kate Moss and any number of other celebrities and minor royals who don’t look quite as good as they do in the air-brushed renderings you will find in the newspapers and social media.

The list of attractions is so long that you may wonder how any of the serial attendees manage to do any work for the eight weeks through to the end of July, when the exhausted tribe stagger off to their holidays in the Dordogne, Barbados or their little cottages in Cornwall – or all of them in succession.

In addition to the horsey set-pieces, there’s the Chelsea Flower Show, the home of bizarre floral tableaux and extravagant model gardens, Wimbledon, where Andy Murray is currently making his annual contribution to national sales of incontinence pads, and the Lords Test Match, where the monarch traditionally meets the teams on the Saturday of the match in front of the snoozing members of the Marylebone Cricket Club. Sadly, Queen Elizabeth is not a young as she was, so such sightings are becoming rarer. The same goes for other royals of her generation, although Prince Michael of Kent, looking more than ever like an ageing Russian Tsar and a bit doddery on his feet, was seen handing the trophy to Lewis Hamilton after the British Grand Prix last Saturday.

The time was when distant observers, if they weren’t watching on TV, would only get to see the great and the good – and the wannabees – on the pages of the national newspapers. These days anyone with a selfie stick can win instant fame – well OK, maybe a couple of likes on Facebook – as they pose seductively in their garish outfits while being unintentionally photobombed by the Duke of Edinburgh.

For a sizeable number of those who go to these events the sport is irrelevant. It’s all about who’s there, how they look and how you look. And how much champagne and Pimms you can drink without falling flat on your face, or being caught in a compromising position with a total stranger.

Most of the events have been set in stone for a century or more, though there is a relatively new addition to the social calendar: Glastonbury, or Glasto as it’s known to aficionados. This giant music fest is a great opportunity for the rich, the famous and the exalted to pretend they’re just like the rest of us. Like everyone else, they get wet. They can get drunk, out of their brains on horse tranquilliser, fornicate and stagger around in their elegant floral wellies completely unnoticed, because everyone else is doing the same. The one thing they can’t do is fall over in a stupor, because  vultures with iPhones will be lying in wait, hoping to sell the picture to The Sun, as happened to poor Lily Allen a couple of weeks ago.

As with all the other gigs, the key attraction is the existence of a sanctum sanctorum. In Glasto’s case it’s the backstage area. This is where the celebrity count is highest, and at a music event you get to rub shoulders with the people everyone’s supposedly there to see and hear. Unlike Royal Ascot, where the denizens of the Royal enclosure wouldn’t be seen dead socialising with someone as low down the social scale as a jockey – unless of course they could get a reliable tip from one.

Of all these dates in the social calendar there’s one that in my book stands out for pure silliness. That’s the Henley Royal Regatta, which is taking place as I write. This is where once a year grown men decide that they want to look like schoolboys. Take a look at Angus Wilson of AC/DC and you’ll get the picture. Well not quite – even the cream of our high society baulk at wearing shorts with their stripy jackets and school caps.

The idea of Henley is that lots of rowers get together and race their boats of varying sizes down a leafy stretch of the river Thames. But the real action takes place on the river bank, where marquees and enclosures host tribes of paunchy former oarsmen dressed in the colours of their ivy-encrusted private schools. Those who didn’t attend Eton, Harrow and their ilk most likely hire the gear from their local fancy dress shops.

The women parade in their flowery garb and big hats. The ones who can afford it buy new outfits for every event. Those who can’t rack up huge dry cleaning bills and hope they won’t encounter anyone they met at Royal Ascot. No such problem for the guys, who just exhume their moth-eaten blazers and caps from the ancestral burial ground in the cupboard.

Henley, like all the other events, is big on corporate hospitality. For a king’s ransom you can spend your company’s hard-earned marketing budget entertaining ungrateful clients. There are several marquees where this happens. Quite often the occupants never leave the tent. They spend the entire day eating and drinking before being taxied away in various states of dishevelment.

A mate of mine has much to thank Henley for, because it was after one such corporate day that he finally decided to risk his hard-earned savings by going into business.

Richard’s company had invited a party of clients – middle managers from very respectable banks and insurance companies – to join them in one of the corporate tents. His job was to make the clients feel welcome, engage in witty conversation and make sure that he was less intoxicated than they were. As he tells it, the witty bit was tough – actuaries are not generally known for their sense of humour. But as he isn’t a big drinker, staying on the right side of sobriety was no big deal.

What led him to his Damascene moment was the behaviour of the husband and wife who owned the business. The husband, aside from the odd foray on to the river bank, spent most of his time in the tent getting progressively and embarrassingly drunk. He managed to stay upright for lunch, but by afternoon tea – scones, strawberries and all that quintessentially English stuff – he was gone. It was a long time ago, and Richard can’t recall whether the the clotted cream and strawberry jam afforded his boss a soft landing when the great man’s face hit the table. But there he lay, head resting gently on the crisp white tablecloth, moaning and muttering, for the rest of the afternoon.

His wife, on the other hand, whose liver was clearly more resilient than that of her husband, cast the occasional scornful look at him, and flounced off to watch the muscular young rowers as they heaved their way down the river, dragging a couple of the female clients with her. She was not seen again until the cavalcade started on its uncertain way towards the car park.

Meanwhile Richard had the unenviable task of entertaining those of the clients who remained at the table, trying desperately to divert their attention from the train wreck slumped opposite them.

When he got home he thought back on the day, and made his decision. As soon as possible he would leave the company and set up on his own. or with a partner as it turned out. He figured that if you can run a business and still make a profit despite making a total ass of yourself in front of your key clients, how much more can you achieve if you keep your nose clean? Of course that wasn’t the only consideration, but that day at Henley was the tipping point. After all, how can you give your all to a small company if you’ve lost all respect for its leaders?

This might make my friend seem a bit of a prig. But, as he says, it wasn’t just a matter of his respect for them, but of their respect for their clients.

Anyway, it all turned out well in the end. The owners ended up selling their business and retiring to some sun-kissed hacienda. Richard left them, set up a business and did OK as well. So, he recalls, “in a strange kind of way I suppose I should thank them for showing me what not to do, and motivating me to try and do better.”

Which is why, as thousands drink, snort and vomit their way through the glorious summer season, I can’t look at the selfies and the sneaky shots of personal devastation without thinking of my buddy and his epic day at Henley.

From → Music, Social, Sport, UK

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