Henley Regatta: An outsider’s perspective on a right royal knees-up
The first thing you notice, as you walk around Henley-on-Thames during the Royal Regatta, is the blazers. They seem to come in colours right across the spectrum of garishness, and represent either a famous public school or one of the hundreds of rowing clubs that take part in the event each year.
And it’s a competitive business, these blazers. “Don’t take this the wrong way”, I overheard one young man say to his friend during Regatta week, the climax of which was on Sunday. “But your blazer isn’t exactly made from high-end tweed”.
I have been visiting Henley at weekends for the last year, since my girlfriend relocated to the area because of work. Coming from an inner-city area of Birmingham, Henley often seems like a different world – and never more than during Regatta season.
Besides blazers, the full Regatta uniform for men consists of either a cravat or a loud, usually striped tie, off-white chinos and boat shoes (Panama hat optional). Women tend to opt for tasteful, knee length party frocks, though I did see the odd younger woman complimenting her dress with a striped blazer (I can also report that the Royal Ascot ban on ‘fascinators’ has not yet reached Henley).
Outside Sainsbury’s I spoke to a slightly hungover looking Harry Moore, who had rowed at Henley for Abingdon School, the £26,000-a-year boarding school that he attended. For Harry – who was dressed in his navy-blue Abingdon blazer with red trim – the blazers are a crucial part of “a tradition that all rowing clubs have”.
Adrian Dalmedo, meanwhile, who was attending the Regatta sporting a cricket hat in the maroon-and-yellow stripes of his local club (as a “piss-take”, his friend Ralph said), likened the dressing up at Henley to “the first day at the Test match” or “wearing your replica shirt to the football”.
In football, wearing your team’s colours is about tribalism and group solidarity and there is, of course, an element of this with those who come to Henley. But the striped blazers and ties seem to be about much more than fanaticism – fundamentally, they are also about privilege and status.
At my school, it was traditional for leavers to vandalise their blazers, as a sign that one phase of life had come to an end and another was about to begin. By contrast, the odd thing about those who have attended fee-paying schools is the way in which their school often defines them, long after they have stopped going there.
Alongside the actual rowing, then, a key part of an event like the Regatta is the opportunity it gives people to show off. As Harry admitted, he enjoys the Regatta for the sport, but also because it gives him a chance to “peacock” and to “be recognised” – as a rower, an ‘old boy’ and, by implication, as a member of the elite.
At the local Waitrose, bastion of middle-class respectability, I asked the fed-up looking till operator what he thought of the Regatta. “If you like posh people, go”, he told me, before suggesting that the most popular products that day had been bottles of Pimms and Champagne.
Like all towns that host popular festivals, the Regatta provides a considerable boost to the local economy. Sainsbury’s shipped in extra staff just for the weekend, while Laurence Morris, proprietor of Laurence Menswear on the high street, could barely contain his delight at the spike in sales caused by the Regatta (Laurence has sold more than fifty ties this month, twice his average monthly figure).
In truth, of all places Henley is probably the area least in need of financial stimulus. Even as unemployment has blighted the rest of the country, the cafes, restaurants and chocolatiers of Henley have regularly advertised for extra staff, sustained, perhaps, by the seemingly bullet-proof demand provided by the professionals who often relocate to Henley from London in order to start a family.
Like Royal Ascot, a Lord’s Test Match or, to a degree, Wimbledon, an event like the Regatta is a reminder of the stubborn way in which class continues to structure our society. And if anything, class seems increasingly prominent in British life. Four decades ago, for example, it was possible to gain membership to the prestigious Stewards’ Enclosure at Henley on the day. Now there is a waiting list of ten years.
In 1985, 200 anarchists gatecrashed the Regatta with chants of “The rich, the rich, we gotta get rid of the rich”. This year, the worst I heard was a middle-aged man grumbling “these are the idiots who are going to run the country one day”. Class has been off the agenda in Britain for some time. But a walk around Henley soon shows you that it remains as prevalent as ever.
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