Postcard from Ascot: don’t forget your manners
The arrival of summer brings with it the social season in Britain. During the heyday of the aristocracy, the midsummer would see “well-bred” girls make their grand entry into society. At lavish balls, witty and fine-eyed Lizzys would meet their Mister Darcys. Plain Janes without suitors would be left to contemplate their future as spinsters or governesses.
Things have, of course, changed. But for the most part, the Season remains, and is accompanied by just as much genteel anticipation as it would have been during Georgian and Victorian times. The Wimbledon tennis, the Henley Royal Regatta, the Cartier International Polo are all regarded in some circles as events at which one must be seen. Late last week, I headed to what many now consider to be the opening round of the Season: the races at Royal Ascot.
Things aren’t necessarily as “civilised” as they may seem. These days the social calendar has become a kind of social battleground. Not only between young aristos fighting to win the hearts of their Lizzys and Darcys (or their Princess Zaras and Prince Harrys), but also between the social classes. Because it’s no longer just the gentry and the wanna-be middle-classes that take to Ascot, Wimbledon, Henley and Windsor. The “chavs”, Britain’s much-maligned working-classes (the equivalent of our bogans, but without the obvious charm), have arrived. In force.
Stepping off the train at Ascot, a Berkshire town just west of London, you caught a glimpse of the underlying battle. There were the chaps in their silk top hats and morning tails, and the ladies in stylish hats and elegant dresses – toffs headed for the Royal Enclosure. There were the gents in their lounge suits, and their wives sporting colourful fascinators – perhaps your respectable doctor and schoolteacher off to the less fancy Grandstand. But these two groups seemed outnumbered by the more relaxed folk bound for the more proletarian Silver Ring – the plumbers and electricians, the hairdressers and receptionists, who’d managed to score a day off work to head to the races.
As with everything else in Britain, life here still moves to the rhythmic clashing of the classes. It was once summed up in that legendary comic sketch performed by Ronnie Barker, Ronnie Corbett and John Cleese in the 1960s: the upper class looks down on the middle class, and the middle class looks down on the lower classes, who, in turn, know their place.
But in recent times, this enduring class system has found itself increasingly under challenge. Last year, the trustees at Ascot led a dress code crackdown in a bid to prevent Royal Ascot from turning into Royal Chavscot. In the equivalent of Clare Werbeloffs crashing the Members’ Pavilion at the SCG, the riff-raff had infiltrated the Royal Enclosure; too many women failed to adhere to the smart dress expected of “ladies”. Brown tans were too fake and streaky, dresses were too many inches above the knee, shoulder straps on dresses were too spaghetti-thin, even knickers were too ill-concealed (that’s assuming they were being worn at all).
This year, the hysteria of the meet’s organisers reached a new high. Having now successfully barred chavs from the Royal Enclosure, yet still fearful of the encroaching masses, Royal Ascot teamed up with etiquette experts Debrett’s to offer race-goers a guide to proper decorum. Rule One: “Eating in public requires all private habits to be closeted. Pace yourself, so neither hoover like a wolf nor pick like a sparrow.” Rule Two: “A man should stand up to greet a woman when she first arrives.” And so on, and so forth. The Debrett’s Guide to Royal Ascot is sure to become a classic to rival the fantastically meticulous All-England Club’s “Guide to Queuing” that people receive when lining up for Wimbledon.
Walking around the Silver Ring concourse, I could only wonder what the Ascot trustees would make of the scene. There were young and not-so-young women in brightly coloured and very short dresses, there were greasy-haired men in ill-fitting suits. There was the occasional tattoo bared on salon-tanned female shoulders. Yet, everyone seemed to be enjoying the breezy summer’s day.
Having been here in Britain for close to five years now as an Aussie ex-pat, I remain somewhat baffled by Brits’ preoccupation with social class. Among their middle- and upper-classes, there is a seemingly endless capacity for snobbery. At the same time, I have begun to understand why condescension lingers. For you get the feeling that Brits, no matter how much they might like to protest, enjoy the security that comes with having clearly marked social class boundaries.
As one etiquette adviser said of Debrett’s guide to the races this year: “People are actually very keen on being given guidelines, because if you are attending an event like Ascot for the first time it can be very intimidating. The most important thing to think about is how your behaviour will affect others – these are social rules.”
Which is perhaps just another way of saying to the lower classes should, as the Two Ronnies and Cleese immortally put it, know their place. But today’s British class structure probably no longer involves any class looking up to any other, assuming they ever did. It’s just that some continue to look down on others.
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