« Previous | Main | Next »

Summer of Englishness: Royal Ascot

Post categories:

Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 12:05 UK time, Friday, 29 July 2011

The main character of Leo Tolstoi's novel Anna Karenina, Count Vronski famously loved women and horses.

I was always intrigued by this particular combination.

It's understandable separately, but why both along with each other?

For instance, there's a famous narrative which states that the Prophet Muhammad loved in this world women and pleasant scent, but his greatest pleasure was in prayer.

Commentators then explained it as the ascension from the worldly love through the spiritual one to the divine.

But why women and horses?

If you read novels of Leo Tolstoi he makes this convergence not just in Anna Karenina.
In his another acclaimed novel War and Peace describing Countess Bolkonskaya waiting for a visit of her old acquaintance Anatole Kuragin, he writes: 'The little princess, like an old war horse that hears the trumpet, unconsciously and quite forgetting her condition, prepared for the familiar gallop of coquetry, without any ulterior motive or any struggle, but with naive and light-hearted gaiety'.

I was thinking about all of that going on earlier this summer at Royal Ascot - a horse race which is famous also as an ultimate women's fashion show.

That was the place where Count Vronski should have come to fulfil his passion for women and horses.

I must say that the Russian speech was heard here and there and today's successors of Vronski - the 'new Russians' were clearly enjoying the place.

But I would like to talk about the 'Englishness' of this 300 year old institution.
It starts with the very approaches to Ascot race course - which is situated not far from Windsor Castle - the main location for the Royal household.

Acres of well looked after woods, the tranquillity of the boundless fields, empty rural roads - everything is preparing you to the solemnity of that closeness.

And the very course starts with a Phaetonic appearance of Her Majesty on her Royal carriage from afar until the caravan of Royal carriages passes in front of every spectator.

Looks of participants mean quite a lot here too: black or grey morning dress with a top hat is a must do for men and long dress, covering midriffs with an exotic hat - for women.

This traditional Dickensian look brings with itself more traditions hinting towards the historic class make of the English society.

There are three enclosures to watch the race: the highest - The Royal Enclosure, where no stranger could be found - you are either a member of the club or recommended by a member, who has attended the race for the last four years.

There even the guards on watch talking softly and eloquently: 'I humbly beg, Sir, that you will honour the regulations of that Sovereign Enclosure and conceive it has beguiled you of one moment's pain if I ask you to prolong your motion further down, I am, Good Sir, Your Well-wisher, and most humble Fellow-subject...'

So, puzzled and amazed by this tirade, which you read somewhere in classic books, you move on either to the Grandstand - a typical middle-class milieu or even further to the Silver Ring, not a riffraff area, but the part of Ascot were no formalities in dress code apply.

Enough of class-division, the English concept of 'fair game' is present here in betting which makes everyone equal in front of a chance.

One can bet anywhere, regardless of enclosures: if you had no extra money to drink champagne before the course, you can drink it afterwards, after winning the bet. Fair deal? Fair...

There's a moment of 'here and now' - along with the lightning speed of the horse race you can also race to the betting shop for your win.

I don't think that this feature confined just to Royal Ascot.

One can see it in the National Lottery, X-Factor, Strictly Come Dancing and many other endeavours: to wake up next morning rich and famous.

I don't think that it's a purely English feature, but the famous English wit appreciated much more than long-lasting contemplation or life-long wisdom, chimes somehow with 'here and now' concept.

(By the by the dominance and preference of the tabloids with their snappy and flashy headlines in the media scene could be also read in the same manner).

I should have also said about the spirit of free enterprise as well as ubiquitous English charity, when you can see private courtyards open for payable parking, some of them earning extra money, some raise money for good causes.

(A lady in front of the gates put for a pound a flower in my button-hole. A man next to her whispered: 'D'yuo need an extra tikkey, err?')

But let's be back to our gorgeous women and majestic horses.

Am I any clearer why Count Vronski loved them equally?

Did Royal Ascot make the answer a little bit clearer?

Maybe because the horses are the archetypical symbol of masculinity: I was a toddler when my great-granddad tied me up to his back and mounted on his horse.

Ever since when I think of my parental roots it feels that they are growing out of a horse.
Centaur is the name for that archetype.

So maybe Count Vronski was passionate about the place where the pure masculinity races towards the pure femininity?

It's just a guess and the Royal Ascot might be one of those places, though with some English reservations...

BBC iD

Sign in

BBC navigation

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.