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Soames Goes Racing

John Galsworthy (1867-1933) was born at Combe, Surrey, into the family of a barrister. He was educated at Harrow and later at New College, Oxford. His greatest achievement as a novelist was The Forsyte Saga, and its sequals. The original Saga consists of three long stories, The Man of Property (1906), In Chancery (1920) and To Let (1921), with two linking stories. They depict in great detail the history of a typical London family of the wealthy and apparently secure middle class between 1886 and 1920. This history was extended in three further novels, The White Monkey (1925), The Silver Spoon (1926), Swan Song (1928), again with two short stories. Some of the characters were carried over into later books - Maid in Waiting, Flowering Wilderness (1932), Over the River (1933). The greatness of the Saga rests mainly on its sincere and profound satire. The Forsytes, as Galsworthy lets us see, are utterly circumscribed by property, and money or property, which is the same thing, completely determines their whole lives. Of the books comprising fhe Saga, The Man of Property is considered to be the best, its sequals rather lacking the satiric edge characteristic of the first novel.

Galsworthy also wrote many disconnected short stories and a number of plays, including The Silver Box (1906), Strife (1909), Justice (1910), The Skin Game (1920), Escape (1926) and others.

The extract we include has been taken from the novel Swan Song. It depicts Soames' visit to Ascot. Though the scene is laid in the early 1920's, the episode will give the reader a good idea of the atmosphere of this traditional race-meeting, as, apart from fashion, little or nothing has changed there since those days.

... What a crowd! Here, on the far side of the course, were rows of people all jammed together, who, so far as he could tell, would see nothing, and be damp one way or another throughout the afternoon. If that was pleasure! He followed the others across the course, in front of the Grand Stand. So those were "the bookies"!* Funny lot, with their names "painted clearly on each", so that people could tell them apart, just as well, for they all seemed to him the same, with large necks and red faces, or scraggy necks and lean faces, one of each kind in every firm, like a couple of music-hall comedians. And, every now and then, in the pre-racing hush, one of them gave a sort of circular howl and looked hungrily at space. Funny fellows! They passed alongside the Royal Enclosure where bookmakers did not seem to be admitted. Numbers of grey top hats there! This was the place - he had heard - to see pretty women. He was looking for them when Winifred pressed his arm.

* (Bookmakers - (coll) "bookies"; bookmaker - one who makes a living by taking bets at race courses.)

"Look, Soames - the Royal Procession!"

Thus required to gape at those horse-drawn carriages at which everybody else would be gaping, Soames averted his eyes, and became conscious that Winifred and he were alone!

"What's become of the others?" he said.

"Gone to the paddock, I expect."

"What for?"

"To look at the horses, dear."

Soames had forgotten the horses.

"Fancy driving up like that, at this time of day!" he muttered.

"I think it's so amusing!" said Winifred. "Shall we go to the paddock, too?"

Soames, who had not intended to lose sight of his daughter, followed her towards whatever the paddock might be. [...]

Suddenly, beyond the railings at the bottom of the lawn, a flash of colour passed. Horses - one, two, three; a dozen or more - all labelled with numbers, and with little bright men sitting on their necks like monkeys. Down they went - and soon they'd come back, he supposed; and a lot of money would change hands. And then they'd do it again, and the money would change back. And what satisfaction they all got out of it, he didn't know! There were men who went on like that all their lives he believed - thousands of them; must be "lots of time and money to waste in the country! [...]

What a lot of cars, and what a lot of people! "The national pastime" - didn't they call it! Here came the horses walking past, each led by a man. Well! They were pretty creatures, no doubt! An English horse against a French horse - that gave the thing some meaning. He was glad Annette was still with her mother in France, otherwise she'd have been here with him. Now they were cantering past. Soames made a real effort to tell one from the other, but except for their numbers, they were so confoundedly alike. "No," he said to hirnself, "I'll just watch those two, and that tall horse" - its name had appealed to him, Pons Asinorum. Rather painfully he got the colours of the three by heart and fixed his glasses on the wheeling group out there at the starting point. As soon as they were off, however, all he could see was that one horse was in front of the others. Why had he gone to the trouble of learning the colours? On and on and on he watched them, worried because he could make nothing of it, and everybody else seemed making a good deal. Now they were rounding into the straight. "The favourite's coming up!" "Look at the Frenchman!" Soames could see the colours now. Those two! His hand shook a little and he dropped his glasses. Here they came - a regular ding-dong! Dash it - he wasn't - England wasn't!; Yes,by George! No! Yes! Entirely without approval his heart was beating painfully. "Absurd!" he thought. "The Frenchman!" "No! the favourite wins! He wins!" Almost opposite, the horse was shooting out. "Good horse! Hooray! England for ever!" Soames covered his mouth just in time to prevent the words escaping. Somebody said something to him. He paid no attention; and, carefully putting Imogen's glasses into their case took off his grey hat and looked into it. There was nothing there except a faint discoloration of the buff leather where he had perspired.

(Swan Song by John Galsworthy)

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