Monday, 24 October 2016

Memories of greatness.

The day starts in low cloud and incipient rain. Then the sun shoulders its way through and gets cracking. The autumn landscape is lit up and the colours dance and gleam.

My friend Isla, who is eleven, comes to ride the red mare. They do cantering with no reins and trotting with no irons. This is obviously very, very clever. ‘Do you feel proud of yourself?’ I say to Isla, lauging.
‘Yes, I do,’ she says, without hesitation. She smiles her radiant smile.
‘So you should,’ I say. ‘I am very, very proud of you.’

But for all the wonder of the natural seat and the ease in the saddle and the instinctive stillness she has, which the mare adores, what is most touching is that they are becoming friends. I was a little late to the field and found them together when I arrived, having a chat, the mare’s great thoroughbred head resting gently against the child’s slight body.

It is a year since my mother died and I had been dreading this day. Watching Isla and the mare together made everything all right. It was all life and goodness and happiness. It was the human heart. It was hope.

I was going to reproduce what I wrote about my mother on this day last year. I wanted to mark the moment. Then I thought it was too sad. So I went back through the blog and found a sweet conversation we had together. I wish I had written down more of those. Mum had such great memories and was often surprisingly funny. She had such a dry wit, which was all a matter of timing, that it sometimes did take one by surprise. My father was famously the funny one, so it was easy to forget that Mum could make one shout a great belly laugh.

I’m glad I wrote this one down. As I read it, I can remember lying on her bed, Stanley by our side, talking of the great racing men and the great racing horses that she had known and loved. She had too much sorrow in her life, but she did see a lot of greatness, and I’m passionately pleased about that.

This is from two years ago:

My mother is home from the hospital. I lie on her bed and talk of Michael Scudamore, who has died.  ‘I can see him now,’ says my mother. ’Sitting on the lawn, in a director’s chair, drinking Pimm’s.’

I think how racy my mother must have been, to have director’s chairs on the lawn in the late fifties.  ‘He was a very good jockey,’ she says. ‘But the real thing about him is that he was so nice. He was the nicest of them all.’

Nice is considered a poor word. I’ve always liked it. It is a small, humble, unassuming word. It does not show-boat, or take up all the oxygen in a room. And it does, whatever the sneery received wisdom says, mean something. He was a nice man, Mr Scudamore, and that is a proper epithet for a gentleman of the turf.

‘Fred Winter was my hero,’ says my mother. ‘Because of how he rode a horse. He was the most beautiful jockey I ever saw over a fence.’
She pauses, remembering. ‘Then Francome came along. And he was beautiful too.’
I remember watching John Francome ride. There was a poetry in it.

‘The one I love watching at the moment,’ I say, ‘is Ryan Moore. I watched him educate a two-year-old colt in a race the other day. He took him through the whole thing, very gently, step by step, letting him find his stride, sitting perfectly still, and then picking him up a furlong out and letting him rock into a flying rhythm and showing him his business. He won, and he never picked up his whip.’
‘So the horse would not know he had a race,’ says my mother, smiling. ‘Scobie Breasley used to do that. He was a genius with two-year-olds.’

We talk of the Hannon two-year-olds, and how beautiful they are. Many trainers have a stamp of a horse. You can often guess, just seeing the beautiful creatures in the paddock, which yard they come from. The Hannons love big, strong, close-coupled horses, very deep through the girth, with short, powerful necks and finely-carved heads.

 ‘And Mark Johnston,’ says my mother, ‘likes those nice, long horses, rather old-fashioned types.’
‘Who look as if they might go hurdling,’ I say, laughing.

Almost under her breath, almost wistful, my mother says: ‘The most beautiful of them all was Frankel.’

We remember Frankel, as if we are paying homage, which in a way we are.
‘They have a presence,’ I say. ‘Those great ones.’
‘Nijinsky had it,’ says my mother. ‘You could feel it the moment you stepped onto the course. Although he wasn’t much fun to see in the pre-parade ring.’
‘Because he got so lathered up?’ I ask.
‘Oh,’ says my mother, indulgently, as if describing a naughty schoolboy, ‘he got himself in such a state. But it never seemed to make any difference. He just went and won anyway.’

‘Michael Scudamore,’ says my mother, reverting to our point of origin, ‘made a dynasty. Imagine that. His grandson is riding now.’
‘Tom Scu,’ I say. ‘He’s a lovely jockey. And a gentleman too.’

We contemplate the Scudamores, the nicest of them all, a family which knows horses like sailors know the sea. I think of the brothers, who only this week carried the coffins of their grandfather and grandmother into a Norman church. The old lady died, and her husband followed her three days later.

What loss they must be feeling; two blows coming so close together, two mighty oaks felled. I look out at the sunshine. It was sunny like this when my father died, that impossible, improbable sun which is not supposed to shine on dear old Blighty, these islands of mist and rain. The Scudamores must have that same feeling of unreality that I remember so well. They must be looking out into the blinding light and waiting for the world to make sense again.


  1. Oh, this is so lovely. I do hope your day has passed peacefully. Your mother sounds like a very special person. It is wonderful to have you back, I can't tell you how much it brightens my day. Even when your words are melancholy, they are full of poetry. Rachel

  2. I have only just seen your book on the sidebar! Going to Amazon right now! Rachel

  3. Good for you, getting through it. I like to use "nice" as a way to describe people that I fancy. It's a very understated word, but with the right inflection, "nice" can have a warm, sexy underglow.


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