“Well the trouble is too many people are allowed to vote. I mean you’re not allowed to say it of course, but it’s true.”
In the Colours Room of a club that had better remain nameless, the Earl of Pseudonym was eying me up and down rather coolly. The walls were festooned with eighteenth century oils of hunting and fishing, the carpet was a deep scarlet, and the brandy balloons were the size of small crystal buckets.
“That’s not a, erm, majority opinion,” I ventured.
“Well that’s exactly my bloody point.”
His Earlship studied his drink with some melancholy. We had all been at the races all day, a lot of the horses were owned by foreigners, and now his bloody Club had been invaded by Australians of all people, your correspondent and Radio Girl, most fetching in a light green number, and currently receiving much attention from an ageing Hungarian count, who had clicked his heels and bowed slightly upon greeting. Our host, an agent for one of the larger stables, was nervously looking at future seating arrangements.
It had been a hell of a day for all concerned. A hell of a day. It was the day when the Tory lead, held down to 33% or so by the Lib-Dem surge, had begun to climb back, as the Nick Clegg phenomenon began to fade. Now, by one poll, the Tories were back at 35%, a good seven points clear of Labour at 28, and the prospect of a slim blue line majority was coming back in.
Given this possibility it seemed vital to skip one or two of the suburban constituencies, hard-working people, salt of the earth, etc etc, and more closely observe our returning masters by accepting an invitation to go to a major race meeting and sink free piss in a private box surrounded by rich foreigners.
A decade or so since I’ve been to the races properly, and at the first sight of silks, my heart thudded and the adrenalin surged all over again. I studied the form, and got the usual feeling, that of fake expertise and a sense that one’s own choices have a special quality ordained by God or the universe.
As on the turf, so at the hustings, my copy of The Guardian glanced askance at in the box suggesting that Nick Clegg was now arguing that he and the Lib-Dems, not Labour, were the principal contenders to defeat the Tories. Gordon Brown appeared to be going out of his way to confirm that. A day after calling an old woman a bigot, he had had a mild heckler thrown out of a meeting of handpicked Labour stooges.
“This is an interesting horse,” said the agent, pointing out a thing called Makfi. “It was owned by the Sheikh, but he sold it off as part of a cull. Someone took it over, and now he’s in the race.”
From the balcony I peered out at the Sheikh, pacing the mounting yard, an entourage of thirty or so flocking behind him. He looked like Omar Sharif playing a sheikh, all steely eyes and falcon-like bearing. He looked like a man who knew his horses. But later I saw Makfi down at the yard, and he looked like a pretty good horse, the hell I would know. Not a horse to be trifled with.
The box began to fill with hearty blondes and men whose face had taken a shortcut to their neck, bypassing the chin entirely. Having concluded a 10 side bet on the result in a Shropshire seat called Ludlow with a decent type there, I went downstairs to check out the betting floor.
It was hell.
Four floors beneath the box, the Grotto Bar was a heaving beer pit of seething failure, anger and exclusion. It was like an international convention of hens’ parties and stag nights.
“Whatchoodoing?” said a kid in an open necked black suit, collar splayed out over his grey lapels, as I was writing notes at the bar.
“I’m a journalist, politics.”
“Yeah I want to get into journalism?”
“Gotta do something. Gotta do something. This is a sh-t country.”
“What do you do now?”
“I’m a stand-up comedian. I’m into politics.”
“So you like Bill Hicks?”
He looked crestfallen at that.
“What do you think about this election?” I said.
“Well they’re all the same ain’t they.”
Back in the box, I told the agent about my trip into the lower denizens.
“Mate that’s the members’ bar. Those people all paid thirty quid to be in that patch of grass. You haven’t even seen the public bar.”
I glanced at the papers again, aware that I should know something about what was going on. In The Times, David Cameron was remarking that he would try and form a government first off, even if he didn’t get a majority.
“So what do you think will happen in the polls?”
Relax. Count a couple of beats. Take one of a dozen possibilities, and assert it. It’s what everyone’s doing across the country.
If Labour gets the largest number of seats but the smallest vote … erm … crisis of legitimacy … erm … provisional coalition for purpose of new system … erm 1924 1911, real problem if Cameron gets between 290 and around 310 seats.
Actually that bit was true. With the Tories surging ahead but not yet into the 37-38% share that would give them a clear victory (if Labour continues to sit in the high 20s), the risk is of them being largest party by some margin say 300 seats for the Tories, 230 for Labour, 90 for the Lib-Dems (on the same vote as Labour, note) then the situation is a mess. By convention David Cameron would get the call, but only in the first instance to create a coalition majority. Cameron argues that around 300 seats is enough to seek single-party minority government.
In effect there would be two competing legitimacies. Anything could happen.
Down on the track, anything was happening. The 2000 guineas was halfway through, and Makfi, mongrel horse was storming it in, coming down the side, heart going like a ship, across the finishing line and won.
Later people would talk about different training methods, etc etc, but we all knew what it was. The horse was out for revenge. Fuck you, it had thought, no-one sells me. It was for that that I had placed my faith in the damn thing, and it had not disappointed. Its former owners knew that too. Out on the box terraces, the sheik and his entourage had turned on heel and disappeared inside as soon as the photo had flashed.
“…the horse was out for revenge,” I said, to, well, a horseshoe of people at the club later. Silence, tumbleweeds. People thinking “well that’s damn stupid a horse can’t think.” Radio Girl was valiantly trying to make conversation with the Hungarian count who had fallen in love with her.
Outside, the street spotlights from the high street nightclub Goodfellas played over the fanlight windows. We had stopped off on the way out, at my request, at the public bar, a supercharged chrome basement with taps by the dozen, and a steaming bain-marie like a health spa in the middle. The singing had long since begun, many men in kilts. Behind us there was a thud, as one heavy bloke, a six foot skinful, hit the hard, easily washable floor.
Then it happened. It had just been a drunk fall, no drama, but in an instant there were eight cops there surrounding the area, private security talking into walkie talkies, anxious officials. This was the Britain I knew, the Britain of now, where a bit of pissed foolishness becomes a security incident.
What could be better calibrated than the whole operation, the boxes on boxes, the private members bar, the pseudo-members bar below that for the wankers, and back beyond, the public bar for the drunks. Who could not see why there is such thin-lipped, persistent anger in this country, when it is written in concrete?
Back in the club, you wouldn’t know it, even with the disco searchlights peering in. Here, the classical proportions and austere grace of the decor cannot but confirm that little will change inside should nothing really change outside and there are two divvy vans parked outside Goodfellas just in case.
“Were you a wild child?” I asked the Earl’s wife, a Charlotte Rampling-esque Italian of 70s vintage. “Were you perhaps in the red brigades?”
She smiled a little.
“I was never in the red brigades. But I had some interesting times. I wanted to try new things. That’s why I came here.”
“This is all news to me,” said the Earl, dryly.
“What did you think it was my dear?”
“Thought it was my damn charm.”
Later, over digestifs, the whole club watched the Kentucky Derby, an ugly mud bath of a race, rotten and depraved as the man said. Here it was grace abounding unto the last of sinners.
Outside in the chill air off the fens, U2 was booming out of Goodfellas. “One but we’re not the same hurt each other.” The two divvy vans had become four. Just in case these people tried to vote, perhaps.