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Rural Raving

Rural Raving at Henley Regatta

Getting shitfaced by the river with the filthy rich.
July 7, 2014, 1:39pm

Our cities are being swallowed by money. The natives are being priced out, and the rich are moving into our houses. We can't stop gentrification, so why not fight it the only way we know how? By flocking en masse to the country with our booze and our drugs, until one day we're all going berserk in farmers' fields again like the good old days of rave, Thatcher and football violence?

The Henley Royal Regatta is a five-day-long rowing event held in the mostly inert town of Henley-on-Thames. Having known nothing of the Royal Regatta, and going on its aristocratic name alone, I thought it would be a hyper-exclusive event attended only by minor royals, Clare Balding, canapes and people who'd be dead by now if they didn't have so much money. Henley is a town that probably has more blue plaques than police officers, a town that creates Olympic champions rather than suffers Olympic legacies. Boris Johnson used to be the local MP and Richard Curtis has a holiday home here, for fuck's sake – can you imagine anywhere more sedate than the place where the man who wrote Love Actually goes to relax?

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But when I arrived what I found instead was a town overrun with a heady mix of boating aficionados, cokey Essex lads, old sea dogs, pissed children, squawking teenage heiresses, rugby pricks and relative oiks from the surrounding Home Counties. They were everywhere, spilling out from side streets, alleyways and river paths onto the tiny, quaint pavements of Henley. Find it on Google Maps, wedged between Reading and Slough, and you'd think it only had about five streets – yet it was replete with wrong'uns of every stripe; young and old, bronzed and pale, wankered and not-quite-as-wankered.

Yes, there was a hotdog stand called "You Silly Sausage", but honestly, my first regatta wasn't even that twee. In fact, it turned into one of the most emotionally tumultuous days out I can remember.

After getting a pint on arrival, I wandered out on to the decking of a riverside pub. The man in the Union Jack waistcoat represented all I thought Henley would be: a last pocket of dewy, muted traditionalism in a country that’s fast leaving that world behind. He was a broken-hearted Queen's corgi, recently neutered, riding the boat of life eating Pedigree Chum until the big sleep. As he scowled at a riverbank, he must have thought, 'These people don't even give a shit about boats.'

And he was right – instead, they were busy necking pints, smoking fags and listening to N-Trance.

It was quite nice watching the vessels filled with drunkards meander along the Thames – such as the Elvis boat, which got cheers from everyone on the bank. I couldn’t work out whether they were pros or just a bunch of beer-bellied chancers in fancy dress. Either way, how much longer will people be able to eke a semi-career out of this dead musician? Where will his fame end? Will our children come to Henley Regatta and see eight Elvises, or will they just see eight fat monsters in clown suits?

But then I saw these Good-Time Gavins drinking hard and abusing passers-by on the bridge and it reminded me: I had a place to be, a destination, a mecca: Chinawhite. You see the luxury West London nightclub where footballers, models and musicians go to be the debauched arbiters of their own downfalls in private, had pitched a tent upriver, and that was where Henley was going to show me its guts – via Pete Tong, who'd been booked to play a headline slot.

I don’t know why or how it happened, but almost everyone in attendance was dressed fucking horribly. Actually, that’s not fair: it was only the men. Rowing club attire has to be the most ill-thought-out thematic clothing on earth; the horrible striped jackets, all the trousers some shade of puke or salmon, the weird ties… It was as if they’d all gone to Savile Row with a wad of £50s and slapped a tailor round the face with till he made them look like an old sweetshop.

All along the riverside people were sat down drinking and eating. It all got a bit much for some, like this gentleman, who had boat-bantered himself catatonic and was taking it easy in what seemed to be the designated "chill out" section.

There was a moderate police presence, but they weren’t Met Police, they were friendly, out-in-the-sticks police. The most they probably have to deal with on normal days is returning a naughty boy home who’s just nicked a Yorkie Bar from Mrs Hamlet’s Convenience Shoppe. Apart from dickheads fighting, I can’t really see what you’d need to police, anyway. Boat rustling? Lifejacket damage? Duck disturbance? They might as well just merge it with Reading Festival; it’s close enough, just throw it the same weekend and use their feds. It would probably work out cheaper.

I made a pitstop at a big drinking tent. They were selling £13 single-measure cocktails in paper cups. I noticed the World Cup was being shown on two screens, but no one gave a flying fuck about it. There were maybe five people out of 300 watching it. I realised I'd found the one place in England where people care more about boats than football, and they didn't even seem that interested in the boats at all.

As the long, long pilgrimage to Chinawhite continued, I realised that Henley Regatta wasn’t the specialist event I’d thought it was. It was more like a Goodwood Festival of Speed, or some other open green space where dads get to enjoy themselves for a day.

Which is probably why some business genius hired some attractive young girls to go round selling cigars from a pram to old men. Freud once said that in dreams, "Even a cigar may just be a cigar". Not today.

Just as I was beginning to lose all hope, there it was. White flags with the name scribbled on in their trademark font. Chinawhite was in front of me. I’d just made it and people were already passing out over the wall of the VIP section.

I met one of the guys running the show, who told me it was difficult knowing who to let in and who to deny entry. I found this fascinating. Everyone here is rich and dressed the same, so what are the criteria for discrimination? What could possibly have security ward you away from Chinawhite at Henley Regatta? Is it a case of gold watches: OK, gold teeth: piss off?

I only got more confused when I saw they'd let this punk in. What a sellout.

On my first visit to the toilet, I was quite loudly called a "nonce" by the guy in the bowtie. To be honest, I didn't appreciate this; it didn't make me feel very comfortable.

Inside the main tent, there was a roped-off VIP area. Already a wristband-only event, this pokey, penned-in special-people bit was smaller than the rest of the tent, and seemed at first glance only to trap people within their own desperation for exclusivity. They were listening to the same music as everyone else, looking out at the same amazing sunset, sipping the same champagne. These are paid-for tickets, at what I can imagine are inflated prices, just to have the special privilege of… what? Ordering drinks to a table and not being able to dance with everyone else?

But fuck it, they can keep their velvet gulag: I was going to get blasted and try on some sunglasses. I flirted with the idea of just keeping some on and walking away, but I didn’t. 'What’s wrong with you, Joe?' I thought. 'There's no security, no one would notice.' But I guess that's the kind of place I was in. Untethered designer sunglasses within grasp and no one touches them, not through fear of retribution, but because they just don’t fucking need them. It was peculiarly shaming.

I realised that I didn't steal the sunglasses because I wanted to blend in, to be one of them, but my bank account and my unmoisturised skin meant it just wasn't happening. I climbed on a boat to see what it felt like being the Captain, but I just felt like a scurvy-ridden deckhand, mopping up bird shit and fish entrails.

If it wasn't clear enough already, I don't really know anything about rowing, so I spoke to one guy wearing one of those funny club jackets. I wanted to know if the different jackets denoted different tribes, if some colours were renowned or infamous for being particularly badly behaved or stuck up. Is there a rowing Millwall? Is there a rowing Slytherin?

“Look," he said, "96 percent of people here today haven’t even seen a fucking boat. They couldn’t give a rat’s arse. Rowers are boring, all they do is row. The guys from Harvard and Yale come here to win. The rest of us are all fucking chancers."

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The impression I got from him was, "Fuck the rowers, we’re here to party hard and smoke cigars from prams," and to be fair, that’s exactly what they were doing. He did also tell me that rowing was accessible though, which is a strange idea, given that it must cost thousands of pounds and countless hours of toil to get into any university, let alone one that has its own elite rowing club. I guess you just can't trust people who tell you their names are "James Akabusi".

As I was speaking to a group of people next to Chinawhite who were using their top hats as ice buckets, I heard some yelping. A couple of police had surrounded a ginger man in his pants who’d just climbed out of the Thames. Drama.

"They were my friend's shoes," he told me. "I went in to get my mates shoes." I told him his mate was already wearing shoes. "He brought spare ones," the ginger man said. I asked him where his shoes were but him and all his mates just looked at me like I was a fucking idiot.

This is your classic posh people mindgame; I don't even think he was that pissed, he just wanted to belittle my intelligence by being deliberately confusing. You'll have run into this sort of thing yourself, perhaps, those people who refuse to laugh at your jokes at house parties because to do so would be some sort of admission of weakness.

I was starting to get sick of Henley Regatta.

My friends began to leave. I had no money. Sat on the grass watching the sunset, I started to wonder if it was time to just cut my losses. And then a guardian angel appeared, out of nowhere. He said his name was George, and he was looking for respite from his friend, Steve, who had taken his socks off and was going nuts to Pete Tong.

Quiet and pleasant, he was the sort of guy who'd give you a pat on the back if he caught you crying on the tube. I felt like he was as unsure of his presence here as I was, perhaps that’s why he gravitated towards us. We had a chat, shared some fags, and then he pulled £90 from his wallet and asked me to go and get us all a bottle of champagne.

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I obliged, brought back five glasses and we shared it together, watching the pink Berkshire sky dip into black and blue.

Hugo from Made In Chelsea was there, but instead of ensconcing himself in the VVIP section, he was out here slumming it with the rest of us dickheads. Perhaps to the rich, petty things like fame and "being on’t telleh" don't mean anything. These are people who could legitimately call themselves socialites; after all, they aren't just you putting it in your Twitter bio because you get guestlist at a lot of raves.

By now, George had left us, so we went to join the party. Night had taken over and, as always with all-day drinking, the hole was being dug deeper and faster with every minute that passed. The point of no return was reached, everyone was going to feel like death warmed up tomorrow, but fuck it.

People were pouring champagne on each other, passing out, laughing, crying. It was a special kind of excess, perhaps once a year for some here, once a week for others, but in this fenced-off tent, as Pete Tong played Route 94, there was a sense of silly, shit-faced togetherness.

Say what you like about posh people, they know how to throw a fucking shindig. In the various jobs I’ve had up till now, I’ve had the opportunity to slip into some of these, and while the quality of the people is at best shaky and at worst suicidally unbearable, once they’re all inhaling flutes of "champers" and dancing like Prince Charles on holiday to Duke Dumont, it’s just like any other party.

The more I get disillusioned with metropolitan clubs and everything involved in them – the prices, the bouncers, the tunes, the people – the more I yearn for things like this. Stupid, ultimately pointless events where music serves only as a conduit for getting more hammered and loose.

Of course, the sounds weren't great, but they didn't have to be. It didn’t matter; no one came here tonight to add to their Discogs wishlist.

The event would go on until about 3AM, I was told, but I’d had my fill. I asked Chinawhite at Henley Regatta to show me hers and then showed her mine. We were both satisfied with the results.

The rush to get the last train was met with the sonic boom of fireworks. It was stupidly magical, the banks of the Thames lit up by coloured lightbulb wires and gunpowder above. I felt like I was in a film about rich teenagers falling in love in the Deep South. It was kind of beautiful.

That said, the train home was carnage. I emptied a bag of ale I'd stolen from the picnic area into some guy’s mouth, which his fiancée hated. I asked a woman to buy me a burger at Paddington, but she refused and kicked me. It would seem the milk of human kindness hadn’t spread to her part of Henley Royal Regatta. Where’s George when you need him?

A lot of people hate the rich, but to be honest, in the right circumstances, with the right amount of booze, the right night sky overhead and Pete Tong, it's easy to forget our class differences. You might not like their blazers but you have to admire their dedication to getting arseholed, if only because it's exactly the same as yours. If you can jump the VVIP rope, the barbed wire, the brick wall, then you too can party alongside the affluent. Just don't be surprised when they sober up and call the police.

@joe_bish