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The Ladies of Aintree.


THERE’S AN OLD folk song that starts:

So the Ladies of Aintree went out for the day,
With hey and a ho and hey nonny-no,
And they took to the course with their flesh on display,
With a hey and a ho and hey nonny-no…

and then goes on for a dozen verses describing the shenanigans of certain women on Ladies’ Day at Aintree’s Grand National Meeting.

Well, no, of course there isn’t. I just made it up because it seemed like the sort of thing that would be memorialised in verse in the olden days. One reason I couldn’t go much further was that it fell into a regular anapaestic tetrameter, a particularly difficult metre to maintain.

Over the last half dozen years it has become traditional for The Daily Mail, Britain’s most hated yet most popular newspaper, to feature photos of various women, firstly in their glorious, flesh-revealing attire and secondly in their less glorious but even more flesh-revealingly drunken, falling-over jollity later in the day.

The ladies are what my parents and older generations would have called “common”. The word is rarely used in that sense any more. It’s not the same as the common in Pulp’s famous song, which just means working class types (though the ladies concerned are clearly in that bracket). Common in this context means tasteless, vulgar and lacking decorum, the sort of thing nice middle class folks look down on – and your “respectable” working class as well. Good old British class snobbery, in other words, and it’s still there even if, in these postmodern, egalitarian, everything goes, who are you to judge days, a lot of the vocabulary is not.

The Mail’s coverage reminds me of a number of things. Putting on my professorial cultural studies gear I think first of Roland Barthes and his article “Le monde où l’on catch” (from Mythologies, the only writing of his I can cope with), which is about wrestling and how the spectators and everyone else involved know that the game is spectacle rather than reality but nevertheless voluntarily go along with it. So it is with the Mail’s display: we know the photos are to titillate and amuse us while provoking a sense of moral superiority at the same time. We play the willing hypocrites.

That’s the intellectual bit over. Back to the populist grunge level. Forget The Scaffold song, thank you very much, anyone still familiar with the now infamously un-PC Carry On films will recognise the syndrome: busty women lusted over by unreconstructed chauvinist men in an orgy of male gazery — cue a Sid James laugh accompanied by a Kenneth Williams cry of outrage.

The ladies’ antics are reminiscent of the way the English used to behave in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, before Victorian rectitude set in and prepared the ground for today’s prudish political correctness.

Looking even further back the ladies’ antics are reminiscent of the way the English used to behave in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, before Victorian rectitude set in and prepared the ground for today’s prudish political correctness. People then were given to greater boisterousness in public than now, drinking, gambling, whoring, dancing, spending extravagantly and whatnot, irrespective of class or manners. They were also given to expressing themselves freely, another characteristic falling into disuse. Fairs used to take place up and down the country in which people could let their hair down and sometimes get their pockets picked. The most famous of these was St Bartholomew Fair in Aldersgate, London, which was notorious for its debauchery and disorder. The authorities, growing ever more censorious as authorities do, eventually managed to expunge it entirely in 1855.

Ladies Day at Aintree is the height of decorum compared to these old fairs but nevertheless continues a faint memory of the unhallowed tradition of public licentiousness. It was only a matter of time, of course, until someone complained about the annual gallery of female revellers in various stages of dissoluteness. The Liverpool Echo published an open letter (yes, one of those letters) to The Daily Mail, criticising it for its “unflattering” coverage. This was Liverpool, by the way, a city whose abundant self-regard is matched only by its capacity for feeling aggrieved, so I think we can take the complaints with a bucket load of salt.

Anyway, it won’t – and shouldn’t – make any difference. There’s too much pleasure to be had by all involved, including the righteous. If the ladies of Aintree want to dress up, go to the races, get drunk, astound the patriarchy with their cleavage, and be photographed before, during and after the festivities, then let them. I can’t seen anyone stopping them. Hey nonny-no and all that.

suxcoverCurrente Calamo columnist, poet and writer Michael Blackburn lives in Lincolnshire. A Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Lincoln University (2005 – 2008), his poetry has appeared in numerous publications and anthologies over the years, including Being Alive (Bloodaxe) and Something Happens, Sometimes Here (Five Leaves Press). His most recent book is Albion Days (perennisperegrinator press). Sucks to Your Revolution is a collection of his Fortnightly columns.

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