Posts Tagged ‘Kentucky Derby’

The Cheltenham Festival is Decadent and Depraved

February 12, 2016

Shark Hunt Pic

A few weeks ago I blogged about how a group of my friends had come back dazed, shocked and annoyed from a day at the races in Cheltenham. They’d been in one of the beer tents when I group of hunt supporters from the surrounding country gentry came in. They were shocked at how personally graceless, arrogant and condescending they all were, combined with their physical repulsiveness. ‘They had no chin!’ wailed one of my friends. They were all agreed that they were fairly hideous. I put it down to the proverbial inbreeding in the British aristocracy and the horsey set.

Reading through the collected journalism of Hunter S. Thompson, The Great Shark Hunt, it seems that Dr Gonzo had the same experience of the type of Southern aristocracy, who attended the Kentucky Derby, in a piece he wrote for Scanlan’s magazine, ‘The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved. This was the first piece to have the term ‘Gonzo’ applied to it. It’s an account of how Thompson and the caricaturist, Ralph Steadman, went to cover the 1970 Kentucky Derby. This took place against a backdrop of political tension and the expectation of violence by the Black Panthers, expectations that were gleefully stoked by Thompson himself. As drugs were very definitely banned and unavailable there, he and Steadman got drunk instead and caused chaos in their own way. Thompson hit various people with the can of Mace he was carrying, while Steadman innocently nearly started fights by showing people the drawings he’d made of them. They reacted angrily, to Steadman’s astonishment. In Britain people had only ever taken the caricatures as a good-natured joke. Not so in the Southern US, and at the Kentucky Derby, which Thompson described to Steadman as like a giant outdoor loony bin.

And the inmates Thompson particularly wanted Steadman to sketch in this alfresco madhouse were the inbred, horsey aristocracy. Thompson says

He had done a few good sketches, but so far we hadn’t seen that special kind of face that I felt we would need for the lead drawing. It was a face I’d seen a thousand times at every Derby I’d ever been to. I saw it, in my head, as the mask of the whisky gentry – a pretentious mix of booze, failed dreams and a terminal identity crisis; the inevitable result of too much inbreeding in a closed and ignorant culture. One of the key genetic rules in breeding dogs, horses or any other kind of thoroughbred is that close inbreeding tends to magnify t5he weak points in bloodline as well as the strong points. In horse breeding, for instance, there is a definite risk in breeding two fast horses who are both a little crazy. The offspring will also be very fast and also very crazy. So the trick in breeding thoroughbreds is to retain the good traits and filter out the bad. But the breeding of humans is not so wisely supervised, particularly in a narrow Southern society, where the closest kind of inbreeding is not only stylish and acceptable, but far more convenient – to the parents – than setting their offspring free to find their own mates, for their own reasons and in their own ways. (‘Goddamn, did you hear about Smitty’s daughter? She went crazy in Boston last week and married a nigger!’)

So the face I was trying to find in Churchill Downs that weekend was a symbol, in my own mind, of the whole doomed atavistic culture that makes the Kentucky Derby what it is.

Thompson and Steadman don’t actually find that characteristic, Southern decadent face, until the end of the Derby. They finally see it as days of boozing and a diet of fish and chips and French toast, when they look in the mirror. It’s a funny piece, with Thompson’s trademark vitriolic wit. And it seems on both sides of the Atlantic there is a stereotypical face belonging to the local equestrian gentry. Thompson saw it at the Kentucky Derby. My friends saw its English counterparts at the Cheltenham Races. Thompson did get one thing wrong in his description of that part of the sporting gentry. They may have been decadent, but they weren’t doomed. The influence of such inherited wealth was declining, until Maggie Thatcher and Ronald Reagan revitalised it. It led to what Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd hailed as a ‘social restoration’. And it has led to some fine examples of decadent atavism, like David Cameron, George Osborne and the Eton toffs, getting into power.

Never mind the Cheltenham Races or the Kentucky Derby. The entire British cabinet is decadent and depraved.

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