A great sigh of relief echoed over the vast expanses of mud that stretched as far as weather forecasters could see when the English summer returned to its proper form and rained “stair-rods” virtually every day. “The wettest June since 1902,” the BBC television weather commentator said happily. Hot weather had finally been banished back to the continent, where it belonged. At last, the British could slog through “the season” in proper stiff-upper-lip discomfort.
Royal Ascot was a flurry of silk print dresses, worn over sturdy woolen vests to keep out the cold, and feathered hats with black umbrellas to protect them. Picnics during black-tie opera at Glyndebourne were spread out on thoroughly soaked grass, attended by ladies with long dresses wearing plastic macs. Wimbledon was an orgy of delight. For a few days, there was a deliciously fright-
ening chance that it might have to be cancelled entirely, for only the second time this century. Oh, the familiar worry of it all, with the accompanying chatter among taxi drivers, letters-to-the-editor and dinner-party goers. Finally, when the tournament was 196 matches behind, the sky relented for a few hours and play resumed with those ominous courtside coverings that look like plastic sheets for bed-wetters, ready for more rain.
These days, the English season begins in May with the Chelsea Flower Show and carries on through July. By the end, British livers are enlarged, stomachs gorged with strawberries and summer pudding, and guests drag themselves to the finishing line vowing never to do it again—until next year.
The 1997 season has not been a smashing success for me. The day of our summer drinks party, my husband came down with a sudden virus and uncharacteristically, but Gatsby-like, missed his own party, full of people most of whom only he knew. I tried to bluff my way through 300 guests without being able to introduce many of them to one another. It also happened to be the day that the British Tories were fighting over the selection of their new leader, and Tory left-winger Ken Clarke had signed a pact with rightwinger John Redwood.
“Don’t go downstairs,” a guest told me, “because I think there will be blood on the walls after Lady Thatcher finishes with Lord Tebbitt.” I started up the stairs instead, only to be greeted by a frantic member of the Royal Family. “Is it true that you have that Greek gossip columnist downstairs?” she asked. It was true. She put a hand to her flawless forehead. “Please,” she said, “keep him away from my husband.” Trapped in my own home, I tried to think where to go. The playwright, newly knighted Sir Tom Stoppard, watched with amusement. I could sense a scene forming in his head in which I would not be a heroine.
‘Do you mind,’ said a battle-ax in tweeds at the Chelsea Flower Show, ‘but your shoes are destroying the plants’
At the Chelsea Flower Show, I stood like a fossilized tree trunk, paralyzed with fear that guests at The Telegraph garden, where I cohosted proceedings, would ask me a horticulture question. “Do you mind?” said a battle-ax in tweeds, “but your shoes are destroying the plants.” I had failed to identify a rare patch of artistically placed moss on which my totally inappropriate Manolo Blahnik stilettos were standing, ready to trip off to a party after the flower show.
By August, London is empty. The wealthy go to their castles in Scotland or villas in Tuscany, the middle classes go on holidays abroad, and the secretaries and nurses go to the British seaside or on package vacations in Portugal, Cyprus, Greece and Spain.
The fact that someone as non-U as myself has any contact with the season is a measure of how society has changed. In her fascinating book The Last Season of Peace, Angela Lambert traces the British season over the past three centuries. Its rituals, she explains, were
based on three “motives”: “The lure of the court and the great offices of the state, from which honors, preferment and influence derived; the magnetic pull exerted by the entertainments and fashions of London; and the perennial ambitions of the nobility to marry off its sons and daughters well.” All the season’s parties were in effect entertainment for the interrelated tribe of British aristocracy. But by the end of the 19th century, “the invasion of industry and commerce, of Jewish financiers and American millionaires’ daughters, had diluted the aristocratic exclusivity of society.”
This year may prove to be another sort of “last season.” With the election of Tony Blair’s new Labour Party, the rituals could change and a counter-season develop. No members of the Labour government were to
be seen this year at Royal Ascot. There are signs that, if Labour becomes a permanent hierarchy in the sense that the Tories were for 18 years, it will develop its own society. The government is gearing up to ban fox hunting as well as the parliamentary right of hereditary peers. The countryside will be overrun by foxes and the salons of London by disenfranchised nobles like the remnants of deposed continental dynasties. And as Labour launches its campaign against the car, we already have areas in Britain where people are fined if they are discovered driving alone on certain highways. “Who wants to go to dinner parties in buses?” wailed one season habitué.
Meanwhile, the unions have started industrial action. British Airways employees have voted for rotating strikes throughout the summer. That should keep London full of people as they slog out to Heathrow only to be turned back on the highways that labour has now decreed should have fewer entry ramps and ought to have tolls for any cars going into London.
Ah, well. The elites may be changed, new customs devised and old rituals disdained. But the English predilection for food, drink, elites and the season is inbred if not immutable.
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