I went to the Henley Regatta, England’s crew racing championship, in late June 1987. It was great — rich young women wearing hats four feet in diameter. It was like the Ascot Enclosure scene in My Fair Lady come to life, a living cartoon of English toffs at their toffiest. You don’t travel to have your stereotypes undermined, you travel to have your stereotypes triumphantly vindicated, and Henley it terrific at that. Also, every so often, some guys row by, in case you are in to that sort of thing.
England has a whole bunch of these kind of Bertie Woosterish sporting / social events in the summer. Lately, they’ve gotten extremely expensive. Here’s a recent article by Harry Mount in The Telegraph:
… the English summer and social calendar has, in recent years, been quietly - but decisively - globalised and commercialised. The rackety, amateurish, faded charms of high English summer have been replaced by a professionalised, slick operation, supercharged by oceans of international cash. London is the new Rome of the globalised empire, and the English summer has fallen meekly into the imperial line. …
For the super-rich, the world isn’t divided into countries any more; just rich and poor parts. And, like swallows, their favoured rich parts in summer are now their English boltholes in the north. England should be proud to welcome them, proud that they have chosen us over Monaco or Biarritz. And even more proud that, rather than live in a globalised bubble, they are fascinated - fixated even - with the echt English events of the summer season.
… Walk around the City - or Mayfair, natural habitat of the hedge fund - and you enter a new gilded Babel, where international bankers scoop up their billions in English, the international language. Britain now has a Wimbledon economy: we provide the charming venue, and foreigners come over to enjoy themselves on Centre Court.
… Staggering new fortunes - far greater than those built by medieval English aristocrats, or Victorian English tycoons - have been accumulated across the world in recent decades. The collapse of the Soviet Union produced commodities and utilities empires in the 1990s. In India and China, the booming new market economies have spawned a fresh generation of billionaires.
But these countries don’t have the right infrastructure for the super-rich: the racecourses, football pitches and tennis courts that host the most famous sporting events in the world, the Palladian country houses, the garden operas, the ancient private schools. England has all these things. And it also has the sort of secure political and economic structure that means the billionaires of Egypt and the troubled Middle East are pouring their billions into Britain. Sixty per cent of homes in London worth over £2.5 million are now owned by foreigners.
So England has become globalised - but the old-fashioned clichés of typical Englishness have never been so popular. Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United have all been snapped up by Russians and Americans with money to burn. Harrods has gone to Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund; the Savoy to the Saudi prince Al-Waleed bin Talal. And here’s another paradox. This tide of foreign money into England, and the English summer season, has revived the ancient institutions and nostalgic rites that many English natives had long ago rejected as over-formal, affected and ever so slightly embarrassing. …
But it’s only the juiciest English cherries that the new billionaires pick. The Oval and Lord’s are packed, while county cricket goes to the wall. West End theatre and the opera at Covent Garden thrive, while regional theatres dim their lights for good. As provincial racecourses face bankruptcy, high-end racing has dodged the recession. At last week’s Derby, attendance was up by more than 6,000; hospitality sales soared by 25 per cent, as punters drank 14,000 bottles of champagne, 65,000 pints of lager and 35,000 glasses of Pimm’s. The English summer is no longer ‘sand in the sandwiches, wasps in the tea’ - as John Betjeman described it. It’s caviar on the smoked salmon, bees in the Bollinger.
The international celebration of Englishness reaches new heights on sports day at the best English private schools. At Eton, the fourth of June now plays host to a United Nations of the richest parents in the world. Gone are the days when prep schools were the last word in austerity chic, when Molesworth warmed his frozen fingers on the only radiator at St Custard’s. Now Russian oligarchs fly in to sports days at Oxfordshire prep schools, landing their choppers on the rugby pitch. Again, though, it’s only the most expensive, ancient and famous English schools that get the moneybags treatment. Many of England’s lesser private schools - those dependent on recession-struck English parents - are closing down or making last-ditch appeals for their survival. Meanwhile the elite schools have never been so flush. In its annual appeal last year, Westminster School sought donations from old boys - including Nick Clegg and, incidentally, myself - for a £12,200 ‘planetarium projector’, a £5,000 ‘ultraviolet-visible spectrophotometer’ and a £25,000 set of theatre lights.
An educational arms race has escalated among the global elite, who want their children at English schools and American universities. As our state schools plunge down the international league tables, the best English private schools cruise heavenwards into an altogether headier stratosphere. They have morphed into hi-tech luxury hotels, purpose-built to satisfy the new breed of international client. And, while the hedge-funder elite drive up school fees, house prices and the cost of a Wimbledon ticket, the Merchant Ivory vision of an English Arcadia is rigorously maintained: whether it’s strawberries and cream at Wimbledon, the top hat and tails dress code at the Derby, or the shorts, cap and blazer of the prep school uniform, frozen in the 1950s.
Most of the English, though, have long since fled this gilt-edged wonderland for cheaper climes, like Tenerife and Florida. The English summer has never been so English. It’s just a shame that the English can’t afford it any more.
Was the Harry Potter phenomenon of the last dozen years, with its unapologetic Britophilia, more effect or cause of this trend? If you are some Russian oligarch or Connecticut hedge fund master of the universe, the one person you really fear is your 13-year-old daughter and her ability to ruin your family vacation by pouting and rolling her eyes. So, you tell her you’re going to visit the home country of Harry Potter.