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Going To The Derby
by [?]

“Do they have as much fun at the Derby as they used to?” I heard an old gentleman in a white hat, canary gloves, and buttoned boots asking a fellow-passenger in a London train. Fun? No; one would hardly call it that. Looking back on it after forty years one will no doubt call it fun. But it is certainly not fun while it lasts.

The two most important features of the Derby are getting there and getting away again. Getting there is harder work than bricklaying or journalism. You may ride in a motor-car, but your motor will be as useless to you as a submarine in a swimming bath. From Sutton to Epsom and from Epsom to the Downs a long procession of motor-cars, buses, waggonettes, greengrocers’ carts, lorries, school carts, drays, and human beings stretches like a serpent of infinite length–a serpent that is apparently too sick to move. One thinks of it as an old serpent that has made itself very ill by swallowing machinery.

Every few minutes it gives the machinery in its inward parts a shake, and makes one more effort to crawl. A queer rattle, shiver, and groan run through it from tip to tail. But the effort is too much for it. It immediately subsides on a lame and impotent stomach, and hour after hour passes with no other diversion except the antics of an occasional nervous horse that rises on his hind legs and waves his forefeet in the back of your neck over the hood of the motor.

There is a common belief that the crowd that goes to the Derby is a cheerful crowd–that it sings and plays concertinas and changes hats. There could not be a greater delusion. It is as quiet and determined as a procession of men and women going to hear Dr Horton preaching at Hampstead. Not a song–well, one song. Not a joke–well, one joke, when a fat man saw a poor brown lop-eared ass in a field of daisies, and called out: “There’s the winner o’ the Durby!” He apparently felt it was a very good joke, for he repeated it to parties on the tops of buses and parties on greengrocers’ carts and parties in furniture vans.

The sun, however, was unpropitious for jokes. Even the East Ender, who had worked an edging of red and white wool into his pony’s mane and hung rosettes of red, white, and blue at its ears, was too busy perspiring and hating his hundred thousand neighbours to smile. He was also busy weighing his chances of getting to Epsom Downs before Judgment Day. I admired his spirit in waving a whip with a knot of coloured ribbons. There was little other colour to be seen. We were a procession of victims–red as beef, steaming like the window of a fried-fish shop, dusty, swollen-veined–and we could only sink back helpless and gasping in the grip of the monstrous procession of wheeled things that advanced more slowly than any snail that was ever known on this side of the Ural Mountains.

I doubt if that procession ever reached Epsom Downs. I did so only because I got out and walked; and even then the first two races were over. Half England seemed already to have arrived on the hills, and to have pitched its wigwams there. The other half was blocking up the road for ten miles back, and could not possibly arrive in time for the Derby; but the half who had arrived had already set up a city of booths and flags on hill after hill as far as the eye could see.

There may have been encampments of this vastness in the days of Xerxes, but surely never since. It was oppressive, overwhelming. There were so many people there that there was no room for anybody. There was no room, so far as I could see, for the man who plays the three-card trick on the top of an open umbrella, or for the man with the tape and pencil, and even the beggars who prayed by the roadside for your success were few. There was simply a crush–an enormous, sweltering, and appallingly silent crush. Even the bookmakers seemed to be awed by it. They stood on their stands beside blackboards full of horses’ names and mystical figures, but they did not yell at you hoarsely, bullyingly, as bookmakers ought to do. If, having looked at the elephantine portrait advertisement of one of them, you wished to bet with him, he would consent in a listless way, and say wearily to his clerk: “Nine-nine-one, seventy shillings to a dollar Polumetis,” as he handed you a blue, red, and green card.