The Cup: life in death’s gilded waiting room

Perhaps if I could be arsed, I would be boldly opposed to Melbourne’s Spring Racing Carnival. As things stand, however, I have a very long list of things about which to be angry, and these currently include the brutal dereliction of duty by the Australian government to the former detainees of Manus, and the recent arrival to my street of a “fun” young couple who broadcast the abomination I Gotta Feeling across the neighbourhood very reliably eight times every Saturday. They work in the finance sector.

In any case, it is easy to outsource one’s opposition. If pressed, I would choose that of my friend Bernard Keane, who has some stern words for the bloodthirsty rentiers of the corporate marquees and stables. I cannot find much agreement with yesterday’s piece by the good Melbourne writer Gay Alcorn, who here takes a, “Larrikins, you’ve gotta love ‘em!” tone. I am, at best, indifferent to what now passes for larrikinism—this occurs no longer in the 1891 spirit of the shearers’ strike and seems now largely to serve as a description of private school tits who call each other “bra” while dressed in suits made from Italian textiles.

Let’s just say that there is no shortage of opinion about the carnival, and its lowest day, The Melbourne Cup. If we crave a readymade view of this cultural event, we can find a good one easily. If you fancy justification for your mild affection toward the day, for your loathing of those pesky naysayers, look to Alcorn, or to others. If you prefer an account of equicide and big brand greed, Bernard is one of your guys. If your most sincere wish is to see the questionable couture of Reality TV stars ripped apart in text, I don’t know where you go. There must be some fantastically snide fashion writer tearing up the tangerine. If you find them, let me know.

The unwitting goal of life in the famous Flemington Birdcage—the home of all the corporate marquees—seems to be death.

If I were to go to all of the bother of forming, rather than borrowing, an opinion of the event, I think I’d take a Freudian position. I have been professionally obliged to attend the event on a few occasions and to me, it reeks of death. “The goal of all life is death,” said Sigmund, when he had given up on sex in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. I’ve never managed to read this entire account of the death drive, so I don’t know if I agree. I can say, however, that the unwitting goal of life in the famous Birdcage—the home of all the corporate marquees—seems to be death.

This could be just me, of course. After all, the last time I attended the Cup was as a correspondent in 2008. Then, death was certainly on the mind of corporations, whose Birdcage structures seemed to shake a little more in the wake of the 2007-08 financial crisis. Many of these big-name brands were no longer in the primary business of making things or of innovating, but of raising their own company’s stock price by buying back investor shares.

Look, you’ve seen Pretty Woman. You don’t need to read no fancy-pants economics to know that Richard Gere learns to live only when he (a) redeems a quirky sex worker and (b) sees the folly of his financialisaton, and decides to build ships.

So, it felt kind of empty in brand-land that year. I am certain, if one looks close enough, the threat of death could still be seen. The wealthy corporation knows that their make-believe wealth can’t last. This is why billionaires are building island fortresses and why investment loans, particularly in property, continue to fall.

Alcorn has a forgiving view of the Birdcage. She sees it as a bit of fun, and a place for young, beautiful ladies to parade. I accept and understand this reading, especially in those years where I managed to swipe a glass of Krug. And I am with Gay on the fleeting delights of youth and youthful fashion. If one manages to forget that these elaborate pop-ups were built by criminals, and that those guests who are not celebrities or aspiring celebrities are all also rent-seeking scum, it can feel like a sexy celebration. Not, as it is, a networking opportunity for those who will cause our economic ruin.

Now, the eros has largely drained from the event, and the “big” news of celebrity misbehaviour is that the newer Paris (Jackson) wore a sponsor’s ankle boots instead of a sponsor’s strappy sandals.

Another reading, one subtler but almost as morbid as mine in 2008, comes from Andrew Hornery. The Sydney Morning Herald society columnist pokes at the near-dead event with a pair of silver tongs. He describes a place in which VIPs of quite modest prominence—Mick Jagger’s brother, Michael Jackson’s daughter, Bec and Lleyton and Dr Quinn: Medicine Woman—have their schedules, outfits and appearances very tightly controlled.

Hornery contrasts this with the visit in 2003 by the then legitimately famous Paris Hilton. Now, we can remember her as the evil origin story for the Kardashians and all empty celebrity if we wish. But, at the very least, we can remember her bad behaviour fondly. Hilton then behaved as an heiress should: like she didn’t give a fuck. While it is entirely likely she was paid a great deal to attend the event, there is no evidence at all, as Hornery notes, that she could be depended upon to behave.

Hilton, at the very least, was unapologetic. Far better to revel in one’s absurd privilege than to permit it to be concealed by deals with department stores and racing organisations. Paris may have had a death drive, but she was certainly enjoying her life along the way. Now, the eros has largely drained from the event, and the “big” news of celebrity misbehaviour is that the newer Paris (Jackson) wore a sponsor’s ankle boots instead of a sponsor’s strappy sandals.

The heiresses are less interesting. The corporations pay greater sums to ensure that this is the case. This is what happens now: companies make fewer interesting things, and produce more bullshit red tape as finance capitalism speeds toward its inevitable death. Horses actually die as a backdrop to all this mild and pretty horror, and tens of thousands return home broke, uncertain why their risk-taking and aspiration never landed them in the Birdcage.

It’s all death, this part of life. Nothing is produced here. No one will make any ships.

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Image via Creative Commons: The way the Sunrise team were at the 2013 Melbourne Cup.

34 responses to “The Cup: life in death’s gilded waiting room

  1. You know what happens to the silly little girls wearing fascinators, extreme fashions and drinkers of crook champers? They grow up.

    For those of us who genuinely love horses we used to have a day in the Autumn where everything was relaxed, the sun shone, the horses looked even better than they do on Cup day, you could get a bet on and you could order the drink of one’s choice. Magic! Then the racing club saw people were actually enjoying themselves. Punishment was in order. They changed the day into the Autumn carnival. Once again the pretty little things saw a chance to make themselves ridiculous. And I cancelled my membership.

  2. Nothing spruiks Marxism better than gratuitous insults directed at successful people enjoying themselves. Razer displaying her curmudgeon again. MSM should provide her with a well-paid, daily commentary position. The ensuing rants would kill off quickly any residual respect for her doctrinal opinions. I’m glad we have her – someone has to bookend the commentary spectrum with an extreme position.

  3. Watching it on TV is like watching one big branded content video for the various large online gambling pricks (I mean companies) – I used to go to Flemington religiously now you’d have to drag me by the hair to get me there.

  4. What puts the finishing touch on this piece is the lead image with Kochie, featured but not prominent.

    A true icon and idol of televised mediocrity, one who smugly traded is valueless soul for cold cash, a hero of the also rans.

  5. Dry as Bra. Love the Paris Hilton observation and did you notice fascinators have become Tiaras and Crowns this year? The B grade are so desperate to be royalty they’ve crowned themselves.

  6. What I have never understood is that dog tail docking is illegal but geldings provide so much entertainment at the track. If I was given the choice ….. but it is a good work thing. People chat about something safe, sweeps are organised. Fun happens. I was a trainee nurse once and couldn’t find anyone to help with a patient in pain…..course every nurse and doctor was watching the race…but it is only a bit of fun…like a gelding you can’t give a fuck about everything….

  7. It’s like ANZAC day – it’s taken on a life of its own far outside its original remit (and like ANZAC day, best ignored).

    Mark Twain seemed to have enjoyed it, though:

    “Nowhere in the world have I encountered a festival of people that has such a magnificent appeal to the whole nation. The Cup astonishes me.”

    Maybe he was just easily amused…

  8. One of these days I’m going to pick a bone with you Helen, but it won’t be on this occasion.

    The nauseating blend of the Pret-a-Porter girlie set from Myers or D.J.’s with the winkle-picker stove-pipe suits on blokes skinny enough
    to be back pockets for Carlton, say. And some say that’s good. The quality in their D/B Wescits, suits and top hats, a grim Ascot Gavotte without celebrity – all wishing the Cup could be at Aintree, Ascot or The Downs.

    See Helen, they’ve usurped “The Workers’ Cup, transmogrified it; called it “The Worker’s Cup”, applied 1980’s marketing pizzaz
    and generally cheapened the whole damned show. The racing is secondary. Meanwhile the Hoi-Polloi get pissed, and hope to get a root
    that night. Now that’s ambition for you. Meanwhile a quarter-billion dollars were bet on that single race.

    And don’t get me started fascinators!…(guffawing, here). Look we’ve all behaved badly occasionally. But my take is that womanhood
    is trivialized at these events. There is no female substance here. It’s a thoroughly blokey business. It is all silly frippery, and nostalgia for an age which had never really coalesced here.

    And has anyone thought about the ramifications of one person owning a number of horses in this race. That it would be much easier
    to “engineer” a result by using some of the runner to play interference, bottle up favourites and therefore get an even bigger dividend
    by beeing on your cert?

  9. Haha Helen haha seriously you are a literary genius. Your thoughts are just the best thing we have in this space. You present your opinions with an intelligence and wit that is just magnetic. You want to stop reading b/c we start the next thing before we finish the former thing in Sydney, but you can’t. It just too damn smart & funny.

  10. When I didn’t win the golden ticket to the Helen Razer writing course I was so deflated I stopped reading her. What a stupid thing to do. She can not be denied. Effing brilliant, as ever.

    All hail this critique re the holy grail of vacuous stupidity…now, who’s game to dissect the profoundly suspicious Waterhouse mob? Or is that just going TOO FAR?

  11. Lovely nuanced piece. What a fresh view, of a jaundiced, cultural, decomposing, relic of what a life used to be.

  12. Completely relish ( as always ) Helen your razer sharp view of the true ridiculousness of this ceremony whilst owning up to pilfering a glass of Krug
    Our geographic location, as Paul Keating stated,is “the Arse End of The World” ,And so we continue to apologise and mimic .
    I can imagine Jeremy Corbyn attending by accident and behaving like Jesus in the temple ..getting angry and overturning the tables where punters are placing their bets.

  13. I have also experienced the Melbourne cup to discover that horse racing is just an excuse to dress up, throw money away, get drunk and behave badly. Unfortunately the event is not dying and it is a sad commentary on Australian culture that this is seen as “fun”.

    1. Yes! You’ve got it! Dressing up, throwing money away, getting drunk and behaving badly is why we all do it. Except of course the Plymouth Brethren and a coven of humourless lefty wowsers who read Helen Razer

    1. Given that I today made that point on Radio National, made it yesterday on ABC Sydney and wrote an entire book to commemorate the fact, I think I’m done.
      (Also, it was, in our calendar terms, yesterday.)

  14. As has been said before about Mr Dutton everyone who went to the Melbourne Cup, who betted on it and who went to see some stupid lunch wearing a silly hat hat or a woman with one will die. Its certain. And sometime, reassuring.

    1. Perhaps, in the immediate sense, do-nuttin’, could be first cab off the rank. Unfortunately, death doesn’t play favourites. Guffawing, here!

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