Yesterday was a haunting and strange day.
The third day of the Royal Meeting started off with great loveliness. The rain stayed away, the Queen looked happy and excited, the ravishing filly Even Song flew to victory, filled with promise for the future. In the Gold Cup, my dear old Clever Cookie did not have his day, but the mighty Order of St George did. He was the class horse in the race, and, for all my love of the underdog, there is something that makes my heart beat about seeing that class rise to the top, as it should. But the Gold Cup is a rough old race and one where anything can happen, and Order of St George had never run anything like this distance before.
A French horse, whom everybody knew stayed all day, tore off in front, and I thought for a horrible moment he had stolen the thing. Then the pack started to ruck up behind, and Order of St George was stuck in the melée, with no way out. He was buffeted about, surrounded on all sides by a wall of hard, thoroughbred flesh, and all Ryan Moore could do was, as they say in racing, sit and suffer.
When the gap finally appeared, it might have been too late for many horses. But not for this fine fella. He put his skating shoes on and ate up the ground. He was the best, and he was not going to let anyone else steal his limelight. On he galloped, faster and faster, stretching out that mighty athlete’s body, feeling the blood of champions run through his veins, hearing the ancestral voices in his head. On he flew, into unknown territory, and in the end, after all that drama, he made it look easy, in the way that really good horses do. It was not easy. He had to fight for it. He had to want it. He had the class, but it turned out that he had the courage as well.
There was a great deal of joy. He’s a good horse and a popular horse and he was well backed and there is a lot of affection and admiration for his trainer, Aidan O’Brien, and a lot of awe for the talent of his jockey, Ryan Moore, whom many people think is the best man riding in the world today.
As all this went on, something strange and frightening started happening, out in the world. Twitter is a great gathering place for fans of the thoroughbred, and I follow it all day when the racing is on. In between the banshee yells of delight, there was actual news from the actual world. The news was shocking. Jo Cox, an MP, had been shot and stabbed whilst on her way to a constituency surgery. She was 42, a wife and mother of young children, and a dauntless campaigner for human rights. The man who had attacked her had, according to these fragmented reports, shouted something like ‘put Britain first’.
I felt very dislocated. I did not understand. This is not the kind of thing that happens in Britain. People make jokes about MPs; they don’t shoot them. There is no gun culture in this country. (The last official gun homicide figure I can find is 58 in one year.)
Disturbed and unsettled, in a jagged kind of unreality, I turned back to the racing. The sun had come out and Ascot glowed and gleamed. There was another happy result, as the big handicap was won by Jamie Osborne, a trainer who was a very old friend of my father’s. I remember him from my childhood and my teenage years, when he first came to Lambourn and he was raw and young, and Dad used to take him to the pub for a pint. And there he was, in his top hat, shouting his fella home.
On Twitter, in the real world where real things were happening, it said that Jo Cox had died.
The last race was won by a nice horse for Alan King, a good man who mostly trains over the jumps, ridden by Willie Twiston-Davies, a young jockey who started his career at the age of sixteen riding over the Grand National fences. It should have been a moment of great celebration. But a shadow had fallen over the sun. In some kind of awful, dramatic foreshadowing, the Queen’s colt took a false step and broke his leg and had to be put down. Even though a horse can do this in the stable, in the field, on a quiet day at home, it is always a horribly sad thing to watch. It fills one with regret, and takes a the joy out of the race. But out in the world there was a great human tragedy, too big to comprehend. Britain first? This was the least British thing in imagination.
I stared blindly at the television. Down at the bandstand, where music traditionally plays after the last and all the happy racegoers gather to have a sing-song, the military band in their red tunics and their bearskins struck up, of all things, Land of Hope and Glory. This land suddenly did not feel glorious or hopeful. Everything was jarring and wrong.
I went down to see to my own horses, in my quiet, Scottish field. I did not know what to do or what to think. This Ascot week is usually about the best of British, and now it was about the worst. Nobody should be singing, or smiling, or shouting horses home, or playing songs, or feeling happy about anything. All those simple human pleasures seemed wrong and gimcrack.
I stood with my sweet mares for a long time. And suddenly I thought: perhaps that band damn well should go on playing. Perhaps that is exactly the point. Perhaps Land of Hope and Glory is the very song. Because if fear and horror and sorrow win the day, then the bloody wreckers and haters have got what they wanted. I don’t know who that man was or what he sought, but he made me think of the dark forces who would like to destroy everything that is good about this country, who operate on hate and fear, who despise the other, who want to take away the pluralism, tolerance, diversity, the very cultural melange which makes Britain interesting and good. They want to close minds, point fingers, put up barriers. I thought that a woman such as Jo Cox, who was one of the remarkable, rare, truly fine people who make a difference, who once said that there is more that unites humanity than divides it, might want the band to play on, literally and metaphorically.
After this long time of thinking, I went back inside. I made some green soup. I tried to count the good things, the cheerful things, the hopeful things. The dogs, exhausted from their evening dash about the meadows, slumbered gently. Everything was very quiet. I thought I would, after all, do my usual thing of watching the racing back. I record it every day, and watch it again in the evening. I did not have much heart for it now, but in some very bonkers way I thought that sitting and feeling sad and beaten would be a form of giving in. It’s exactly what the wreckers want.
As I pressed play, a collage of Ascot pictures came up on the screen. And there was one lovely shot of three smiling faces, leaning on the rail around the paddock. On the right was a Sikh man in a very smart suit and an elegantly tied turban. He had his arm round his Best Beloved. She was leaning into him and laughing, her black hair coiled beautifully under a chic pink hat. To their left was a young woman, with very pale skin and dark hair, with a delighted, uncomplicated smile on her face. It was impossible to know what nationality she was. She could have been Irish, or English, or Welsh, or Polish, or French, or Scottish.
Ascot is not a famously diverse event. It is quite white. Racing as a whole is quite white. It’s not that usual to see Sikhs out in force. But this gentleman looked completely at home, as much a part of this very British tradition as those military bands and those Windsor greys and the Queen herself. All three humans were united, across their different heritages, in the joy of the grand occasion. It was not possible to tell whether they were there for the horses, or for the pomp, or for the party, or for the pageantry, or for the craic, or for all of it. They had made a huge effort, and they looked wonderful. What shone out from that snapshot in time was that they were having the best time, united in sheer pleasure.
When the darkness falls, I cling on to silver linings as if they were life-rafts. It’s easy to let go of the small things, the green shoots of hope, the tiny proofs of love, and drown in the stormy seas of bad news, and human tragedies, and horrifying world events. This picture was my silver lining. No human with a gun can shoot that away. The band, somehow, somewhere, will play on.