In this green and pleasant land, the fields outside the course are filled with white stretch limos the length of a squash court, attended by race- goers drinking champagne at tailgate parties. Some are even smoking out of glass pipes like these. Presumably those who cannot afford grey morning dress or had forgotten their top hat. Or possibly the touts. There are six races each day of the four-day Royal Ascot season, starting at the gentlemanly hour of 2:30 and finishing at the gentlemanly hour of 5:30.
After six months negotiating for a ticket, it is $130 a pop to get into the Royal Enclosure. Ladies who have spent $400 for their slingback shoes see them disappear into acid as they walk through the disinfectant carpet to ward off the foot-and-mouth disease they have brought in from the castle. Even the toffs must suffer. It is a cruel world.
It is 2:00 and Her Majesty and members of the Royal Family enter the racecourse through the Golden Gates and travel the length of the straight mile in open horse-drawn carriages. The Queen is in tangerine, Princess Anne in rose and the Queen Mum in light blue. Prince Philip tips his hat. The Windsors, of course, are famous for being philistines, not interested in the arts or theatre at all, but regulars at the horses, led by Her Majesty herself. Prince Philip once allowed to a friend, “If it doesn’t fart and eat grass, she’s not interested.”
What most of the 70,000 here this day are interested in, naturally, are the ladies’ hats. A chap’s entire month’s wages can be consumed in three strands of feathers that must, as we know, cover the crown of the head. Hats shaped like satellite dishes, hats that look like a crushed meringue cake, hats that resemble a dead raccoon on top of an otherwise pretty lady, hats that are rented for the day and returned to the department store before sundown.
There is, in the Grandstand Enclosure alone, the Eridge Bar, the Doutelle Bar, the Pall Mall Bar, the Diamond Jubilee Bar, the Arundel Restaurant, the Tryon Bar and the Lawn Bar. The Pimms No. 1 flows endlessly. This is because English racing is based on the belief that there is no use seeing the horses until they cross the finish line. The Ascot course wanders over hill and dale so far away that only the BBC announcer with binoculars can trace the nags and the punters only see them when they finally emerge in the final straight, which is all uphill. The Pimms does well in the long wait.
Outside the Pall Mall Bar, amidst all the silk and frippery, the male attention is centred on a spectacular lady, well over six feet, wearing black fishnet stockings, spike heels, hot pants and a swallowtail coat. Fleet Street next day reveals her as “Miss Whiplash,” a drag queen.
In the Grandstand Enclosure, cleavage is running wild. “Gentlemen are encouraged to wear a jacket and tie or a suit. No jeans, shorts or singlets please.” It is late afternoon in the hot sun and, in the Royal Enclosure, ladies, victims of champagne and high heels in the grass, lay stretched out in their expensive frocks. Captains of industry and heiresses give up and lie down on the greensward. It looks for all the world like a Sunday school picnic outside Moose Jaw. It is 5:00 and the Queen Mum, 100 years young, is the most stubborn survivor in the Royal Box, standing up with her binoculars trying to locate the horseflesh that has disappeared into yonder forest.
Races over, all the top hats and ladies crush — like excited rock fans in the mosh pit — around the bandstand where the Grenadier Guards band pounds out Rule, Britannia and A Long, Long Way to Tipperary. A U.S. professor teaching here says most Americans now view England as nothing more than a tourist theme park and not one in 10,000 knew there was a June election. The Pimms No. 1 is now coming in pitchers and the mob scene gleefully shouts along with Land of Hope and Glory. As the world moves on, you can always look back instead.