In my debut blog (a whole 4 months ago now – aren’t I the seasoned pro!) I proclaimed somewhat grandly, that music was the food of life Music : Food of Life. Well if there’s any substance to that bold shout, then it’s fair to say that Cheltenham in March lays very strong claim to being the accompanying aperitif. For the uninitiated, the sleepy, regal town of Cheltenham in mid March is not for the faint hearted. For one week it’s normal inhabitants take a communal deep breath as the annual invasion of the crazies descend. Ostensibly to enjoy a horse race meeting, but in truth its an experience that works on so many more levels than that. A once a year crusade by thousands from all over, and most tellingly from all walks of life, to purge and enhance the soul, perhaps getting it a little bit wet along the way.
My first introduction to Cheltenham was as a relatively fresh faced youngster in the early 90s. Even then I was a pretty hardy and seasoned funster who was able to handle a drink or seven but I remember being totally blown away upon arriving at the racecourse at around 11am and witnessing a group of quasi jubilant Irish lads carrying their near comatose mate OUT of the course. This must be some place, I remember thinking, wildly impressed but just a little scared. That addictive mix of emotions has remained with me when at that place, ever since.
It is hard to do justice to what Cheltenham has come to mean to me over the years. It has at different points in my life, given me an outlet for a whole scale of emotions. The obvious ranging from euphoria to downright depressed, perhaps with a financial slant – but in truth it is a far more complex matrix than that. There have been unlikely friendships formed and maintained, flare ups and frolics, haughtiness and naughtiness but always from a like minded troop intent on one thing – losing themselves from reality and having an absolute ball. Personally, I’ve oft used the luxury of a break in a seemingly alien and totally detached world to reflect on what’s important to me, where I want to go, and most importantly what the hell to do about it. I’ve spent time with people who are dear to me, fascinated to see how they react and cope with my own idyllic paradise, and most regularly I’ve imbibed and overdosed on the best pastime in the world – people watching. Because the glory of Cheltenham is its eclectic mix of followers. From bunches of pissed up regional bruisers to plummy toffs in tweed and pink corduroy. From the battle hardened, ruddy faced, over exuberant Irish to the trios of over dressed, under nourished (or is that the other way round) alarmingly brazen tarts with hearts – strangely these two groups are often together. From the supposedly cynical old timers with the glint in their eye, to the next generation, eager for the first taste of what they’ve been weaned on. All thrust together in a explosive melting pot of raw emotion to witness and create a ritualistic procession of fantasy.
This time the magic hit home again. Despite some major changes over the last couple of years both to the arena and the surrounds, the seductive formula remains as vibrant as ever. Tinkering with perfection is a risky business, but hats off to those in charge, and credit where it’s due, most of the amendments have been thoroughly positive. Whoever had the idea of burrowing in and building an endless crystal maze of toilets under the new stand, take a bow. Real architectural mastery for the masses at its zenith. And more pots to piss in which is always handy at a gambling den.
The sights still amuse me and bemuse me in equal measure. Day 3, and the picture that greets me in the basement beneath the main stand is a scene that resembles what I imagine the Somme looked like. Bodies strewn across comfortable thick pile carpet (OK, not exactly the Somme) unmoving and silent in their group despair, as the chill wind of unpredictable outsiders, jubilant bookies and an actual chill wind whistles outside. I swear some of the bodies stayed there overnight. And yet it’s only ever a small step away from the madness. The jostling and revelry of the “known” fun holes – the Guinness village, the Centaur or my own personal favourite the Arkle bar. Again, all slightly different. You want to bump into a footballer, head for the Guinness village; a knight of the realm, the Arkle bar; a reunion of C wing from Wormwood scrubs, the Centaur after the last.
The beauty of the event is that it is not confined to the sporting arena. The actual business of the festival is done in a mere 16 hours of bedlam. And yet to the pilgrims it totals at the very least a full week of glory, and more likely a week sandwiched between a month of excited preamble and anticipation, and probably two of fairly significant rest and recuperation. In the town is where some of my favourite moments occur. Take the poshest restaurant in the poshest hotel in town which this year hosted among others a foursome of clearly great and lifelong friends, who proceeded at the merest slight, to leap up from their table and smash seven lumps of shit out of each other, before those left standing, sat down and finished their desserts. As the ambulance men tended to the broken faced victim and the staff mopped up the blood, no one else in the restaurant even turned a head. This is far from glorifying the horror of violence – I could just have easily recalled the tale of Darth Vader appearing from a lift, or a famous rugby commentator with trousers around ankles – but I’m merely making the point that in one week, in one town, every year, anything goes. And I for one, feel totally in awe and incredibly lucky to be able to afford – both fiscally and spiritually – the luxury of that week, every year, where truly nothing else matters.
Go, I implore you, feed your soul.