William Hogarth was an English painter and satirical illustrator whose work is still influential over 250 years after his death. His art dealt with moralistic topics such as the dangers of drinking and gambling, with titles such as ‘A Rake’s Progress’ and ‘Gin Lane’. In order to properly gauge the relevance of his message today, I decided to take my own peculiar brand of investigative journalism to Ascot last Friday, lured by free admission and a Christmas market which promised the opportunity to secure more racing related scarves and hats that I didn’t need and would rarely wear.
The idea of a Christmas market is an attractive one, but in reality it’s lots of stalls occupying valuable floorspace with racks of very expensive clothes. The idea of attracting new punters to the sport with free entry and a Christmas market is also an attractive one, but combine the two and we return to the bugbear of my quest last year – lack of space.
Think of the M25 at rush hour, but replace the crawling traffic with slow moving punters. Adding to the melee was the baffling closure of many of the bars, meaning that those that were open found themselves mobbed.The introduction of the stalls meant that seating and floorspace was lost and the result was an uncomfortable vibe throughout the afternoon. The only shining beacons in amongst the morass of tweed Bedouin tentage were no less than three stalls selling new varieties of gin.
I discovered Edinburgh Gin last year during my grand tour whilst visiting Musselburgh, and a very fine drink it is too when partnered with Fever Tree tonic and a chunk of ice. I spoke to the distillery staff at the racecourse and remember how they championed the role of the small independent. They confided that one of their biggest competitors (them of the medicine bottle) had become too big, let the quality slip, and sold their artistic soul to the Dollar-Devil.
I decided I should continue my in-depth exploration of the gin explosion (not literally) that has recently swept the country by speaking to the lady on the Masons Yorkshire Gin stall that seemed to be doing a roaringly good trade. She turned out to be one half of the husband and wife team behind the enterprise, and when I recalled my Scottish discovery she revealed that Edinburgh Gin had also become a victim of their own success and had recently sold out. It seems that few are immune to the conundrum of keeping their unique identity as they experience success.
I then gave her a proposition, which she seemed quite excited about (that sort of response hasn’t occurred for a few years now, and I can only assume it was an advanced selling technique). My proposition was entirely business related I must clarify – if she put my book on her stall I would return at the end of the day to retrieve it and buy a bottle of her gin. I envisaged Hogarthian scenes after the last race with thronging masses lolling around the Ascot market, bottle of gin in hand and squabbling over the only copy of Around The Races In Eighty Days.
Throughout the afternoon pressure at the few bars doing business eased as customers realised that even if they were fortunate enough to get a pint, there was no hope of fighting their way through the scrum to the loo when the time came. Either that or they’d all just bought a bottle of gin. Gaggles of racing refugees clung to the few remaining sofas and chairs that had survived the market cull, occasionally peering at distant TV screens too obscured for failing eyes.
In the relative calm of the outside terraces, chilly punters watched as horses ran in a clockwise direction and occasionally jumped hurdles and fences. Some of the won; most of them lost. As I returned to the Masons stall at the end of the day I realised that my punting had secured a profit of approximately one bottle of premium gin and knew there was only one way the day was going to end.
“Oh I’ve told lots of people about it!” she enthused on my return, whilst the book still stood there mournfully like the last puppy in the pet shop. So the continued crush along the walkways was not a stampede and bidding war for a hand-delivered copy of Around The Races In Eighty Days? Never mind, my paperback now had a new companion on the train home – a bottle of Masons Yorkshire Gin.
So on a day of Hogarthian reflection, what is the moral of the story? Success can be difficult to deal with – to remain true to the principles that got you there in the first place, to remain agile and ambitious despite growth, and to stay independent from those that want to share in your bandwagon. Edinburgh Gin couldn’t quite manage it, despite it still being a ravishingly good tipple. Ascot just about continues to pull it off, despite cluttering up its race meetings with shopping malls.
Perhaps the real moral of the story, though, is that it’s best to worry about success when you are successful. For both Masons Yorkshire Gin and ATRIED, I hope those difficulties are just around the corner.