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An essay by Robert Lynd

Going To The Derby

Title:     Going To The Derby
Author: Robert Lynd [More Titles by Lynd]

"Do they have as much fun at the Derby as they used to?" I heard an old gentleman in a white hat, canary gloves, and buttoned boots asking a fellow-passenger in a London train. Fun? No; one would hardly call it that. Looking back on it after forty years one will no doubt call it fun. But it is certainly not fun while it lasts.

The two most important features of the Derby are getting there and getting away again. Getting there is harder work than bricklaying or journalism. You may ride in a motor-car, but your motor will be as useless to you as a submarine in a swimming bath. From Sutton to Epsom and from Epsom to the Downs a long procession of motor-cars, buses, waggonettes, greengrocers' carts, lorries, school carts, drays, and human beings stretches like a serpent of infinite length--a serpent that is apparently too sick to move. One thinks of it as an old serpent that has made itself very ill by swallowing machinery.

Every few minutes it gives the machinery in its inward parts a shake, and makes one more effort to crawl. A queer rattle, shiver, and groan run through it from tip to tail. But the effort is too much for it. It immediately subsides on a lame and impotent stomach, and hour after hour passes with no other diversion except the antics of an occasional nervous horse that rises on his hind legs and waves his forefeet in the back of your neck over the hood of the motor.

There is a common belief that the crowd that goes to the Derby is a cheerful crowd--that it sings and plays concertinas and changes hats. There could not be a greater delusion. It is as quiet and determined as a procession of men and women going to hear Dr Horton preaching at Hampstead. Not a song--well, one song. Not a joke--well, one joke, when a fat man saw a poor brown lop-eared ass in a field of daisies, and called out: "There's the winner o' the Durby!" He apparently felt it was a very good joke, for he repeated it to parties on the tops of buses and parties on greengrocers' carts and parties in furniture vans.

The sun, however, was unpropitious for jokes. Even the East Ender, who had worked an edging of red and white wool into his pony's mane and hung rosettes of red, white, and blue at its ears, was too busy perspiring and hating his hundred thousand neighbours to smile. He was also busy weighing his chances of getting to Epsom Downs before Judgment Day. I admired his spirit in waving a whip with a knot of coloured ribbons. There was little other colour to be seen. We were a procession of victims--red as beef, steaming like the window of a fried-fish shop, dusty, swollen-veined--and we could only sink back helpless and gasping in the grip of the monstrous procession of wheeled things that advanced more slowly than any snail that was ever known on this side of the Ural Mountains.

I doubt if that procession ever reached Epsom Downs. I did so only because I got out and walked; and even then the first two races were over. Half England seemed already to have arrived on the hills, and to have pitched its wigwams there. The other half was blocking up the road for ten miles back, and could not possibly arrive in time for the Derby; but the half who had arrived had already set up a city of booths and flags on hill after hill as far as the eye could see.

There may have been encampments of this vastness in the days of Xerxes, but surely never since. It was oppressive, overwhelming. There were so many people there that there was no room for anybody. There was no room, so far as I could see, for the man who plays the three-card trick on the top of an open umbrella, or for the man with the tape and pencil, and even the beggars who prayed by the roadside for your success were few. There was simply a crush--an enormous, sweltering, and appallingly silent crush. Even the bookmakers seemed to be awed by it. They stood on their stands beside blackboards full of horses' names and mystical figures, but they did not yell at you hoarsely, bullyingly, as bookmakers ought to do. If, having looked at the elephantine portrait advertisement of one of them, you wished to bet with him, he would consent in a listless way, and say wearily to his clerk: "Nine-nine-one, seventy shillings to a dollar Polumetis," as he handed you a blue, red, and green card.

I do not blame him for not being enthusiastic. I am myself no longer enthusiastic about Polumetis. Still, one wished for a little violence besides the violence of the sun and of the man who tried to sell you a shilling's worth of sausage and who said he was "the only firm, the only firm in the place." Camden Town on a Saturday night could give points to Derby Day for colour and uproar. Derby Day is so big, perhaps, that it is frightened of itself. But I forgot. There was one violent man. He was fat, hatless, and sweating, and he was hoarse with shouting superlatives about his tips to a circle of poor old men, "dunchers" in caps, small boys in jerseys, and tired-looking country girls.

"If only I could tell you where I got my information," he declared, "you'd--you'd be s'prised. If any of you has got twenty-five pahnd abaht him--if you've got even a tenner--why, you've only got ten bob--well, you can't exactly have a gamble for ten bob, but you can 'ave a bit o' fun, anyway. If you take my advice--it's 'ere on this bit o' paper--you can 'ave it for a bob--I can give you three 'orses that'll turn your ten bob into a tenner see? Some people tell you Tetratema's going to win."

He made a face of disgust, popularly known as giving Tetratema the raspberry, "Don't you believe it. Didn't I tell you Tagrag? Didn't I tell you Arion? 'Ere, take my tip, and you'll dance all the w'y 'ome with joy tonight. Dance? Why, you'll go 'ome jazzin' all the w'y."

And he spread out his fat hands and threw out his fat stomach, and danced on the grass, just to show one how one ought to behave if one backed a Derby winner.

Meanwhile, his partner, dressed as a red and white jockey, in a peaked cap and incongruous puttees, moved round the circle thrusting his slips of tips almost angrily on us. "Go on," he ordered us. "What's a bob to a gambler? You people read the papers and believe what you see in 'em. The papers! I tell you stryte--the worst pack of rogues and bookmakers in England." A simple old man of ninety, who had lost his teeth, beckoned to him and paid him a shilling for his tip. The jockey took him aside and whispered impressively into his ear. Then he said, in a loud voice: "Are you satisfied, sir?" "Quite satisfied," quavered the old man. I wish I could have stayed near him. I should like to have seen him jazzing later in the evening.

Sausages, lemonade, fried fish, chewing gum, bets, ladies standing on the roofs of taxis, a try-your-strength machine, extemporised conveniences of civilisation, with youths standing by them and yelling "Commodytion!" hills of humanity in all attitudes of dazedness and despair, the thunder and the shouting of the distant bookmakers under the stands, the quiet of the ten thousand free-lance bookmakers who were, I suppose, breaking the law in the open spaces; the dust, the sun, the smell, faces smeary with fruit, the cunning tinker in an old khaki hat with striped ribbon, who was selling some twopenny instrument that was supposed to imitate either the bark of a dog or the song of a nightingale--one could not tell which from the noise he made with it; stand after stand packed to the sky with what are called serried ranks of human beings, who looked like immense banks of many-coloured shingle, and who, as they raised a million pairs of field-glasses to two million eyes, scintillated in the distance like a bank of shingle after a wave has broken on it on a tropical noon--it was certainly an amazing medley of spectacle and odour.

It is said that an important horse-race took place. It is even said that Polumetis ran in it. I looked for him everywhere--over people's heads, under people's heads, through motor-buses, round the corners of refreshment tents, in the sky above, and on the earth beneath. But no Polumetis was to be seen anywhere--except on my race-card, where I read about his lilac-coloured jockey. A jockey in lilac--how beautiful, how Japanese! And, indeed, all the jockeys as they paraded down the field before the race seemed to have robbed a rainbow.

They brought meaning and beauty into an otherwise bald and unconvincing mob. I assure you I love horse-racing--if I could see it. But of all the people who congregated the little crooked hills of Epsom, I doubt if ten people in a hundred saw it. You knew that the horses had started only because, as you lay dreaming, the million people on the stands suddenly made you jump with a loud, sharp, and terrifying bark, which said: "They're off!" in one syllable.

Then there was deep silence, and somebody near me said: "The favourite can't be leading, or they would be shouting." Then from the stands came a murmur like bees, a muttering as of a man talking in his sleep, a growling as of wind in a cave. This only served to intensify the silence of a defeated people. One knew that something awful must be happening. Perhaps even Polumetis was winning.

Above the heads of the crowd the heads of jockeys began to be visible. A fool cried out: "The favourite wins." Another: "Allenby has it." Then one had a glimpse of three horses close--well, fairly close--on each other's tails, and none of them the grey Tetratema. I noticed that on one of them crouched a jockey in exquisite grass-green. He passed like a fine phrase out of a poem of which one does not know the rest. But I did not really know who had won till the numbers were put up on the board. Then a badly shaven man in a bowler cried: "Spion Kop has won! Bravo!" and clapped his friend on the back. The rest of us looked at him with contempt. The tinker-nosed man who played the instrument that sang like a dog or barked like a nightingale began to squeak it into people's ears.

The crowd began pouring itself through itself, and the dust from its feet rose like a cloud till it was difficult to see across the course.

And the motor-car broke down on the way home.

And Polumetis didn't win.

And I'm as tired as a dog....

And so say all of us.

[The end]
Robert Lynd's essay: Going To The Derby