The Royal Ascot, five days of horse racing that are a major event in the British social calendar, ended Saturday. I had read with fascination about Ascot, with its interesting combination of high-end millinery and heavy drinking, and so this spring I secured a press pass, which gained me admittance to the Royal Enclosure, the most exclusive section, which requires men to wear top hats and tails.
This was a place I did not belong, and therefore exciting. I bought a hat, sewed up a hole in my dress (this required threading a needle) and shaved my legs, possibly for the first time since Prince Harry married Meghan Markle. I can report the following.
1) Upon arriving, I was delighted when a man in a morning suit approached me, apparently wishing to engage in conversation. He said, "Madam, are you aware that there is a price label hanging out of the back of your hat?"
2) There were hats that looked like swarms of gnats. There were hats that looked like side salads. There were hats that looked like small seafaring vessels. There were hats that looked like sneezes. There were hats decorated with concertina wire and scallions. There were midair explosions involving baby eagles. There were quite a few hats that made me wonder if sufficient oxygen was reaching my brain.
3) I wore the wrong hat. I thought it was fashion-forward, but it was actually just wrong. I realised this on the Tube, but it was already too late. My hat was a men's straw Panama hat. I thought it made me look like Katharine Hepburn. No.
I stepped on the escalator at Waterloo behind a long line of women in Spanx and fascinators. It was as if everyone knew a code except for me. My heart sank. For the next seven hours, I was reminded that there is much I do not understand about this place. I thought, this must be what Meghan Markle feels like every day.
4) In the Royal Enclosure I met a 21-year-old Chinese student, the descendant of a long line of officers in the People's Liberation Army. I noticed him because he was dressed like a dandy, wearing a pale pink silk tie with a pearl stickpin. He said his grandfather was a secretary to Chairman Mao.
Then he told me not to use that, because it sounded like bragging, and that Mao had hundreds of secretaries. He then said this last statement was a "humblebrag." It turned out he had gone to Wesleyan. He said he had two top hats, one Edwardian and one Victorian, and he always had trouble deciding between them.
5) In the Royal Enclosure I also met an American man from Rockville, Maryland, who is involved in the manufacture of office furniture. His wife was so excited to see the queen ride by in a carriage that she had taken a place on the railing at least 15 minutes early.
"We fought a revolution to get away from aristocracy," he noted, cheerfully. He and his friends had rented morning suits and top hats. "We look like the Monopoly guys," he said.
6) I approached a group of British school friends in their 20s, and they pushed one friend, in a blue waistcoat and spectacles, toward me because he had strong views. He said he had been coming to Ascot since he was a little boy (he owns five top hats), and complained that the Royal Enclosure had relaxed its membership rules, allowing too many people in.
"You end up diluting it,'' he said. "It's become a moneymaking thing. It used to be an aristocratic thing."
"Do you mean foreign money?" I asked.
No, no, emphatically not, he said, getting very alarmed that I was going to quote him by name. "The most important thing is that everyone enjoys themselves," he said, and left for the bar.
6a) They seemed posh to me, in a "Brideshead Revisited" way, and I asked one of them if they went to Oxford. He looked at me queerly and said no, University of Bristol, and I realized again that there is much I do not understand about this country.
7) One person who agreed that the Royal Enclosure was letting too many people in was Othman Al-Omeir, an elegant-looking, Saudi-born businessman who is friendly with the ruler of Dubai, who owned two of the winning horses.
"Unfortunately, like everywhere, they are more interested in how much money you make," he said, a little mournfully. "Last year there were less people than this year. The year before that there were fewer people than last year. It's becoming Facebook."
8) By late afternoon, women had begun to open up about their hat problems. Nicola Woolf, a 31-year-old marketing manager who was wearing a fascinator that featured giant loops of black wire, was having trouble getting through doorways; her friends had not offered any assistance, but instead documented her struggles with their cellphones.
"Normally I'd say it's OK if you can see out of one eye, but you need at least one," Woolf said. "I genuinely have bumped into everything."
Sophie Palmer, 24, said her hat had been knocked off at least three times, and that when kissing boys, she found herself offering sections of her face with extreme caution: Their kisses sometimes landed in an area at or below her jaw bone. "It's an awkward situation," she said. Many women also shared concerns about wind velocity.
9) My plan was to write about the bookmakers working on the rail, who, like the punters, wear morning coats and top hats, but who are of a different class, fast-talking old men who have seen themselves replaced by computers. I thought I would write something sweet and nostalgic, of the dying-breed genre beloved by The New York Times.
I picked out a specific man, Stan Dodd, who wore a fat white rosebud in his lapel, and who surveyed the bettors with a cold, appraising eye and called them in with what sounded like, but was not, affection. "Step forward if you like a wager!" he bellowed. "Gents! Step on in! Don't be shy!"
I was exchanging texts on WhatsApp with my husband, who knows about gambling. "They are victims of big data," he wrote, and I thought that was a wonderful phrase, perfect for my article, so I went around and asked a bunch of the bookies whether this was true. They obviously found me annoying, so I gave up.
9a) I am 48 years old and have been working as a newspaper reporter since I was 22, more than half of my life. I had devoted an entire day to interviewing people at the Ascot, and had a notebook full of quotations, but it was like the lint that you peel out of the wire basket in a dryer. It did not add up to anything. This was a misuse of resources, a failure that would have been a blot on the record of a summer intern. Already, I had been wondering whether I had hit some kind of natural limit in this work. I decided to go home, and bought myself an ice cream cone.
10) Toward evening on the last day of the Ascot, everything unravels. The bookmakers pack up their computers and roll them away on dollies, leaving the lawn littered with betting slips. The racegoers, who have been drinking since morning, are sunburned and beaded with sweat.
Now no one is playing at aristocracy. Women take off their high-heeled sandals and dangle them from one finger. Men hug each other. The racetrack understands this dynamic, the swell of emotion at the end of the day, and there is a singalong at the bandstand.
This is where I was at 6pm, among 1,000 people singing. All day I had been having conversations about England, about Ascot as some apex experience of Englishness. The outsiders wanted to be near it, the insiders wanted it back. I was thinking about what I love about my British friends, how they do not take themselves so seriously, that thread of humour that is almost anarchic. The bandleader was playing American songs, Take Me Home, Country Road and Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.
Then something interesting happened: The band struck up Rule, Brittania, that hymn to British dominion over nations "not so bless'd as thee." Some sort of electric current went through the crowd; a tall man beside me drew the air into the bottom of his lungs and commenced singing like a bassoon; people were waving Union Jacks on sticks. The crowd seemed to expand, with — what was it? patriotism? nationalism? On the overhead screen, there was an image of a young blonde, her hair illuminated by sunlight. The song so lifted the spirit of the crowd that the bandleader started it up again.
I was struck by how martial the lyrics were, how odd they sounded in a world without sea battles. I turned to a man standing near me — he was black — and asked if he thought the lyrics were a little colonial. He barked a short, sarcastic laugh, and said, "Yeah, just a little."
Then a woman named Rebecca, who was wearing a big, floppy polka-dot bow, jumped in. She was white, an insurance agent in her 30s, and she felt uneasy, apart, in the singing crowd. "I think it's colonial, and I hate it," she said. "I used to sing these songs in school, and they were just our songs. Now they're football hooligan songs. Someone else has claimed them."
She did not want to tell me her last name, though — something about the conversation was hazardous — and she made her exit, threading her way out of the densest part of the crowd to where her friends were waiting.