One of the things I love about Twitter and Facebook is that they are not just about comical kittens and small puppies doing amusing things. They take you to places you might not necessarily go. So it was that I found myself, first thing this morning, reading an article in the Irish Independent, which was so good that I read it twice. If it had not been retweeted by a kind person on my timeline, I should never have found it. I am very glad I did.
It tells the story of the amateur rider John Thomas McNamara, who lies in Frenchay Hospital in Bristol after a critical fall at Cheltenham. It’s an astonishingly good piece. It’s the kind of article which makes me say: if you read only one thing on the internet today, make it this.
The writer in me sits back in awe and wonder, because to produce journalism this fine is a properly difficult thing to do. A lot of journalism can be efficient and effective, but is written by people who have no love for words. They don’t give a bugger about the language of Shakespeare and Milton; they just want to tell the story.
John O’Brien, not a writer I know, has a beautiful feeling for the rhythms of language, for the swoops and swings of it, for its dying falls. But he is clinical too. There is not a word wasted; each adjective is perfectly chosen. He paints a vivid picture of a world that many people don’t see; he takes you into the heart of the weighing room, and behind the white hospital door.
It is moving, but never mawkish. It pays a good tribute to a good man.
The writer in me loves it, because it is rare to read prose of that quality in the newspapers. Even some of the most garlanded columnists often descend into platitude and pablum; a disturbing number paddle in the shallow waters of received wisdom. Some are blatantly hypocritical and some seem devoted to the réchauffé. (And yet, says the cross, sceptical part of my brain, they still get paid the stupid money.) So it’s lovely to be reminded that there are still journalists out there who are so shiningly good at their craft.
But the real reason this piece made me sit up straight at seven-thirty in the morning, and catch my breath, and feel my heart flip in my chest, is much more personal.
Not so very long from now, it will have been two years since my father died. It’s a long time, and at the same time it’s nothing at all. He is close by me every day at the moment. I don’t know whether that is an anniversary thing, or just a coincidence. Perhaps it’s a Cheltenham thing. Last Wednesday, I ran into a very old friend outside the Guinness tent, whom I had not seen for years. He knew and loved my father well. As I was discussing my ridiculous accumulators and whether Dynaste would win the Jewson, the friend laughed fondly and said: ‘The apple really does not fall far from the tree.’ It was the best compliment anyone could have given me.
Whatever the reason, the old gentleman is at the front of all my waking thoughts, just now.
When the talented John O’Brien writes about the brave and beloved J.T. McNamara, a horseman who rides racing horses for love rather than money, he might, in some ways, be writing about a Corinthian from over fifty years ago. My dad was another of those flinty fellows whose gutsiness got him into trouble, in the end. He had ears ripped half off, ankles smashed, and his shoulders constantly dislocated. They almost literally fell out of their sockets in a hard finish, until he had them sewn into place, leaving wide, shiny, scarlet scars which I remember vividly from my childhood. (The eminent surgeon, Bill Tucker, once left a Saturday night dinner party to reset one of Dad’s shoulders.) But all that was nothing compared to the two broken backs and necks.
I remember learning of this when I was quite a small child. It was a bit of a legend in our house, the time Dad broke his back and his neck for the second time. I remember not quite understanding, because I thought that was the kind of thing that killed you stone dead.
The doctors sat on his bed, just like they did in this good article, and said he must never ride again, never so much as sit on a dozy old hack in a slow walk. If his poor battered body hit the ground once more, they said, he would be in a wheelchair for life, or under the sod. Dad nodded and pretended to listen, and one year later, against all orders, lined up in the Grand National. Years later, when I asked him what happened, he said, dry as a bone: ‘Fell off at the third.’
He walked away from that fall and rode out every day into his advanced age. I think, now, how lucky he was, how different everything could have been. I hope passionately that J.T. has such a lucky end, and will be able to tell his own young children the same kind of stories our father told us.
As I was writing this, the wireless was chattering in the background. There was a fascinating discussion on religion and morality going on, to which I could not pay proper attention, because I was typing fast of gallant racing gents. But one sentence suddenly struck my ear. It went something like: ‘Be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks of the hope that you have.’ I think it was St Peter who said this. My theology is thin, but it’s a question I like.
I have an answer for the hope that I have, and I have a lot of hope. I think pretty much most humans are pretty good. I think almost everyone wants to love well and be loved in return. I think ordinary people do extraordinary things, day after day, without any of them making headline news or winning prizes. I think the human heart is rather a wonderful thing, both literally and metaphorically.
You can say it’s nuts, riding fast horses over high fences. You can say it is unnecessary, in this slick, computer age. You can say it’s a risk too far. But it rather gives me hope, that there are still dauntless jockeys who do exactly that, on an obscure windy Wednesday at Huntingdon, as well as on the fabled Friday of the Gold Cup.
It gives me hope that those weighing rooms are still places of admiration and affection and brotherhood; that the jockeys all help each other out; that they are so damn sporting. They get paid a pittance, in terms of professional sport, and an ambulance follows ten yards behind them every time they go out to do their job. There is a true toughness and stoicism in that which I really like. There is authenticity, and lack of flash. There is proper old-school grit.
A couple of ancient, grainy pictures of my old parent, much missed, much remembered:
Here on the left, over fences:
Gritted teeth over hurdles:
Rather Tailor and Cutter, in his trusty old flat cap:
And here is the link to the brilliant article, about a fine man I have never met in my life, but who remains in my thoughts too: