On that unseasonably chilly, wet and windy evening I attended one of our brief summer’s rites of passage — the race meeting at Hamilton organised for the benefit of the charities supported by the Saints and Sinners Club of Scotland. It is the club’s main fund-raising event. As usual my companions and I gate-crashed the private box of a man whose anonymity I shall protect. Let us call him Bert. At a Saints and Sinners race meeting about 10 years ago I presumed on our acquaintanceship by bringing to his box a party of friends in the hope of getting a quick drink. Unfortunately I omitted to make clear to them that this was the impulse of the moment and that we had received no formal invitations.
Bert is a sociable and kindly man, and he welcomed us so warmly that you could have been forgiven for believing that we had been invited. He offered us drinks. The balcony gave a splendid view of the course. At the back of the room there was a table laid with a buffet.
We chatted a while. We watched a couple of races. I could not help noticing that Bert, normally so equable and friendly, was getting a
little edgy. When I turned round I understood why. My friends, who included a noted artiste with the knife and fork, had eaten his buffet. They had not toyed with it, or nibbled at it. They had scoffed the lot. Left for the invited guests were only a few scraps, some wisps of lettuce and a solitary and pathetic strawberry.
I retreated in disorder. My friends were mortified when I explained the situation. Some time later, by way of making amends, a couple of us took Bert out for a good lunch at one of the best restaurants in town. The unauthorised visit to Bert’s box has since become a tradition, interrupted last year by the construction of the new stand at Hamilton. Now Bert’s box is bigger than ever and its balcony has the best view of the track. Such was its popularity that I fear we were not the only interlopers. We and everybody else were welcomed as warmly as ever.
My party was under strict instructions not to touch the food. I had booked a table in a restaurant in the West End for 10pm and ordered a car to collect us just before the last race. I had difficulty in dragging my friends away from the very pleasant atmosphere in Bert’s box but eventually bullied them out. As I left I grabbed what I thought was my own large and untidy umbrella.
I discovered my error as we endured another traditional ritual of the Saints and Sinners meeting — the failure of the taxi to turn up. There is always an excuse. This year, we were told later, the police had been moving everybody on.
The rain started anew and it grew chillier. Dinner in the West End began to look a remote prospect. Lord Curzon, when Foreign Secretary, was once rebuked for not knowing how the ordinary people lived: had he ever taken an omnibus? He pondered the charge and admitted its justice.
He hailed a passing bus and asked the conductor kindly to take him to an address in Belgrave Square.
Much in the same spirit we got on a bus bound for Glasgow and asked the driver to set us down at the first Italian restaurant. We were in luck. There was one just round the corner in Bothwell. Although it was crowded with racegoers, the proprietor squeezed us in. We dined comfortably and well.
As we left, my friend Alex asked the lady in the cloakroom for his umbrella. She could not find it but gave him the only blue one she had
left. Alex had won modestly at the meeting; I had lost; but we both finished the night with a new umbrella.
It is, I suppose, commonplace these days. At least the umbrellas involved are not particularly valuable, in that they have been given
away for promotional purposes and the user repays the debt by displaying the sponsor’s name round town.
Like good pens, expensive umbrellas have a habit of getting lost. There is a splendid shop in London, near the British Museum, which sells malacca canes, shooting sticks and wonderful umbrellas. I’m sometimes tempted to buy one, but am always restrained by the certainty that I should lose it. Even in the best clubs it is not unknown for umbrellas of superior quality to be purloined by covetous and unscrupulous visitors, and some places provide facilities for them to be stored under lock and key. People are amoral about books and brollies both.
Though it has lost a couple of ribs and is looking a little ragged now, I have become fond of my umbrella. It is a little bigger than the
Sedgwick gamp and advertises Pure New Wool. If the man from Sedgwick reads this he knows where to find me. As for the man now short of his blue brolly, I can put him in touch with Alex.