I shared a taxi from Cheltenham station to the house party in an outlying village with a stripper. Finding a taxi in Cheltenham during the Festival is as difficult as picking a winner in the Bumper, and we were amazed and pleased to have got one so easily. One wouldn’t have guessed that the dark, petite young woman, thickly wrapped against the cold night air, was a stripper, but she was proud enough of her occupation to talk about it on the seven-furlong ride between the station and the ‘gentleman’s club’ where we dropped her. She’d come all the way from Cardiff, she said, to dance in a cage from 10 p.m. until 6 a.m., and she very much hoped it was going to be worth the effort financially. The driver, hitherto a picture of exhaustion and apathy, sat rigidly to attention on hearing this, and he closely interrogated her via his rear-view mirror. How big was the cage? Was it suspended in the air? Would she be topless or completely naked? Could the punters reach between the bars and grab her? He seemed to know a lot about this sort of thing, confidently predicting that tonight’s clientele would be too drunk to observe the usual niceties. She assured him that her apprenticeship in the nightclubs of Cardiff had prepared her for anything.
We dropped her outside an elegant door in a Georgian terrace. I offered to pay her negligible part of the fare but she absolutely refused. For the rest of our journey, the driver talked at length about the sex industry in Cheltenham, which is surprisingly tiny, owing to the opposition of the police. There are no brothels, for example. Every time a brothel opens, the police shut it down. It is so sad. In a wealthy town like Cheltenham, with so many drug barons and career criminals living there, and the Cheltenham Festival, and gigantic intelligence-gathering centre of GCHQ, you’d think, he said, that there would be plenty of brothels. ‘And let’s not forget the Cheltenham book festival, either,’ I said.
‘Many many times, my fare will say, “I want to get laid. Please take me somewhere now.” And it is so embarrassing to have to tell them that there is not one single brothel in the whole of Cheltenham. Of course they simply don’t believe me and laugh at me.’ The only way he could account for the scandalous absence of brothels in Cheltenham was that politicians were worried that Russian spies posing as sex workers might inveigle state secrets from GCHQ workers nipping into town in their lunch breaks for a quick one.
His satnav brought us to the village church, and an email on my phone with directions took us the rest of the way. The road became a track winding for several miles through pitch darkness. The final direction was that we must cross three cattle grids. The driver concluded his thoughts on the sex industry and instead worried aloud about potential damage to his suspension.
I arrived at the farmhouse in time for dinner. Eight of us sat down to eat, all of whom were horse-racing fanatics and gamblers. They had just returned from the Cheltenham course after the first day’s racing. I asked how their day had been, expecting to hear tales of dramatic horse races and eye-watering amounts of money won or lost. But the most sensational of the day’s affairs, apparently, was a fight in the Guinness tent. It was a proper fight, too: toe-to-toe, prolonged, drug-fuelled (it was thought), with many on each side, and some serious, lightening-fast punching going in, draught Guinness and advertising fixtures flying in every direction, the tent threatening to collapse, and lasting a full five minutes. My fellow guests had been going to Cheltenham every year for decades and it was agreed that it was the best fight they’d ever seen at the festival, or indeed at any other racecourse, and by some distance. One chap said he had seen a tremendous fight on the rails at Newbury once, but that was between rival Cardiff and Swansea City football fans, so lacked novelty value.
Next morning, Ladies’ Day, we piled into a minivan and were in the Guinness tent by 11 o’clock getting stuck in. Ladies, I’d estimate, were outnumbered by gentlemen by a ratio of approximately 100-1; but the few I saw looked fantastic. As far as my betting went, it was the same old story — complete disaster. In previous years I have at least looked at the newspaper tipsters’ choices beforehand. This year I thought I might as well just bet on the name. Sgt Reckless, Dodging Bullets, The Romford Pele, Chic Name and Coeur Blimey came nowhere. I’d have been better off going to the shopping mall and buying myself a decent hat.