I was going to write something very, very cross about the massacre of prose. Yesterday, I finished a book so badly written that it actually sent me into a mild depression. I could feel fury and sorrow pulling at my throat and clenching in my stomach. Today, I was going to wreak my revenges.
But then, something quite else happened.
One of the good old men died.
I think a lot about the good old men, and women too, that generation which is quietly, slowly, inexorably going, retreating like the slip and pull of an ebbing tide. They are the ones who remember the war, and do stoicism better than anyone.
Some of them were very naughty, and some of them startled a whole lot of horses, and some of them were bores and bigots, and some were not at all safe in taxis. One can’t sentimentalise an entire generation. But it seems to me as I grow older that an awful lot of them really were good. They got through battle and blitz, and rationing, the weary, faded years after the war when poor old Blighty was on her knees. They saw the three day week and the bodies unburied in the street and the piles of rubbish outside Whitehall. (I remember very vividly my father coming to play Monopoly with me by candlelight in the seventies, because of the weekly power cuts. He always won, and he always pretended he was sorry about it, but he was too much of a gambler to help himself.)
I love and admire them and think I can learn more from them than they know.
The good old man was my father’s oldest friend. They were schoolboys together, and went up to Oxford together, where they rode horses and drove to London in a dodgy car and generally were quite rackety and wild. John Lawrence, as he was then, actually did some work and got a degree, whilst my father, not an academic fellow, went down early by happy, mutual consent.
Later, my father and J Lawrence rode in races together. Dad had a really good sort of horse called Carrickbeg, a big, bold, bonny fella, who won a couple of races with my father on board, and then, under various different jockeys, won the Kim Muir at Cheltenham and even finished second to the great Mill House, the second best chaser in the country at the time, after the daddy of them all, Arkle.
His trainer, Don Butchers, thought he was a natural for the Grand National. I can’t remember why Dad did not ride him; I think it may have been after his first broken neck. Anyway, John Lawrence bought a half-share and took the ride.
Carrickbeg was only seven, absurdly young for a National horse, but he jumped round like a lion, and, at the Elbow, was ahead. He looked to have the race in the bag. It was my father’s enduring dream to win the National, and that must have been the fleeting moment he tasted the greatest victory of them all. Then, like a horror show, almost in slow motion, Pat Buckley on Ayala loomed up at Carrickbeg’s side, and, with only yards to go, flashed past to win by half a length. There was a terrible picture that I remember from my childhood, of Buckley and Ayala with their heads raised in triumph, whilst, just behind, Carrickbeg and John Lawrence had theirs down in dogged, desperate defeat.
Years later, Bob Butchers, the nephew of Don, wrote of that moment: ‘I must pay tribute to a wonderfully gallant horse who at seven was the youngest in a field of forty-seven and was in only his second season as a chaser. The sportsmanship displayed by Don, Gay and John was magnificent as they accepted defeat like the real men they were.’
Lawrence himself wrote, only days afterwards: ‘At that bitter moment when Ayala's head appeared at my knee, I wished them both at the bottom of the deep blue sea. Now, with admiration and only a little envy, I salute them for winning, deservedly, a truly wonderful race.’
Lawrence became John Oaksey, and went on to be known as The Noble Lord of Channel Four Racing. He was a brilliant and idiosyncratic commentator. I can still hear his voice in my head from Desert Orchid’s remarkable and unexpected first King George victory, when the grey horse blasted off in front and never came back to his field. Gasping, as Desert Orchid stood off outside the wings and sailed over one of Kempton’s great fences, Oaksey cried, with wild admiration in his voice: ‘Just look at that leap!’
Less well-known, outside racing, is that he founded the Injured Jockey’s Fund. Life without it is unimaginable now, but at the time, jockeys whose short and perilous careers were ended by injury had nowhere to turn. The charity, one of racing’s shining, true things, not only helps ex-jockeys in need but runs Oaksey House, where they do miracles of physical rehabilitation.
John Oaksey was a legend of my childhood, a smiling, kind, funny man, beloved by everyone who ever met him. He really was one of the good men, a true gentleman of the old school. He was an enthusiast, and I don’t think he ever had a common thought or mean.
Towards the very end of his life, when he was too frail to come to the races, the tough, gutsy horse he bred, Carruthers, won the Hennessy, and, such was the affection and esteem in which Oaksey was held, the whole of Newbury racecourse erupted in scenes of streaming joy.
I have not seen John Oaksey for years, but I remember him well, and he was my father’s good companion. I felt profoundly sad when I heard the news this morning, and moved and melancholy as I read all the touching tributes on Twitter, which has, rather unexpectedly, been adopted by the racing crowd. I don’t expect Oaksey would have known what Twitter was, but I hoped that perhaps someone might have told his family to have a look, so they could scroll down the pages of loving memorial. The love was expressed by famous trainers and fine jockeys and ordinary punters alike.
It made me grieve my own dad all over again, which I have not done for a while. I have been getting on with things, and time is healing, and I am filled with excitement about my glorious horse and my new secret project. (6,000 words so far this week.) But I mourned the two old men, and the end of an era which is marked by their passing, and I went up to my mare to get the sorrow out. I thought I would do a wild ride in honour of both horsemen, who had booted more thoroughbreds into more fences than they could count.
The wind has been up for two days, and Red had the devil in her. I hate to trade in stereotypes, but she is a chestnut mare, after all, and sometimes she does live up to her billing. Instead of the soft old donkey incarnation, into whose velvet neck I could cry, I had a bronco on my hands.
It was perfect. I could not indulge melancholy; I had to ride with every bit of hand and heel I had. She threw down the gauntlet, and for a moment I hesitated, and then I damn well picked it up. Fast trotting in tight circles and serpentines and figures of eight was, I decided, for no special reason, the key. (Get her mind on the job, show her who is boss. I may be a kind, soft boss, but I AM the boss.) As the wind whipped at us, I yelled encouragement at her, shouting and whooping into the weather. ‘Come on, come on. Trotting races,’ I bawled, at one point, as I twisted and turned her through tuffets and round saplings, inventing my own obstacle course as I went.
Then, suddenly, instead of fighting me, she was enjoying herself, and we raced faster and faster, and she turned on a sixpence, perfectly poised and balanced, and the adrenaline coursed in us, and I laughed aloud, thinking of how the two riding men would have known this exact feeling, half of their lives.
And then I let her down, and we walked round the field on a loose rein, slouching like cowboys. She had her head down and her neck stretched and her stride was long and loose, and there was no trace left of the tight, bolshie creature who had met me at the gate.
Horses are a mystery. I don’t know why that mood had taken her, or what it was about. But she chose the exact right day to give me a steely challenge, and at the end, as I got off, and she gave me her butter would not melt look, and poked her head into the crook of my arm so I could scratch her forehead, I thanked her. I said, out loud: ‘Oh, those old fellas would have taken a shine to you.’
A rather blurry archive photograph of Mr J Lawrence and the tough young warrior Carrickbeg, jumping the last at Aintree, on that fateful day:
Lovely close-up from Getty Images:
His riding companion, my dear old dad, from my own archive:
Neither of them were the prettiest or most technically accomplished of riders. Dad had stupid amounts of courage and horses responded to that. Oaksey, wrote my mother this morning, in an email full of memories, ‘had good hands and horses ran for him’. That’s one of the great imponderables of racing. Some jockeys have that unknown extra thing, for which there is no written word; horses, with their finely tuned telepathy, sense it, and give that little bit more effort, forget to be mulish, remember their finest, ancestral selves, and it can make the difference between defeat and victory. John Oaksey had that extra thing.
Certainly I wished for an extra thing as I climbed onto my circus trick:
Then she gave me her most innocent and even slightly wistful look, as if I had imagined the whole thing:
And happy Pigeon, because on days of melancholy, this face really can lift the most doleful heart:
No hill or garden today; too tired. Normal service tomorrow.