Category Archives: Hard work is this blogging

Roosevelt at Aston University, Birmingham

Me and England’s second city have ishoos.

The traffic is one. Always getting lost in and around its environs is another.

Yet, I took it upon myself to visit last week, on business. I left early and fairly zipped round the M25 to the M1. There the traffic was light until we entered a zone of road widening or some such, which involves miles upon miles of motorway being narrowed into tight little lanes that make my teeth sweat.

After that experience, the M6 was, for once, unbounded joy. And then, 10 minutes from my destination, I went wrong and the sat nav added a vicious little half an hour extra to my ETA. There is nothing to be said about that lost time, except that there was congestion, slow-moving traffic, and air quality to rival that of Beijing.

Aston University is a pleasant city centre campus. After visiting a number of their car parks and having an unscheduled wander around their science department, notable for discovering that copper kills bacteria, I’ve nevertheless asked my girls to cross it off their future UCCA lists. I would, however, commend to anyone their rather marvellous 1950s buildings. They are like the old grammar schools on steroids – think acres of parquet and Philip Larkin windows.

This photo was taken in the modern Business School,which doubles as a hotel and conference centre. Lunch was good, but as if to offset the soaring grandeur of the older campus buildings, the ceilings in this gaff scraped my cranium.


Kauto Star off to do dressage

Kauto Star has featured on the *header photo of this blog for a long while now, along with his regular rider Ruby Walsh. It therefore seems right to note that today was the day he left his longtime home of Ditcheat, with trainer Paul Nicholls and the man who has ‘done’ the Star for all these years, Clifford Baker.

The Twittersphere is all aflutter with the news: the manner in which the departure came about, the new career for the amazing horse we have loved for so long. It seems that the owner, Clive Smith and the trainer had some sort of difference of opinion and the planned departure to pastures new was brought forward to today. Apparently Clifford Baker’s daughter didn’t even get to say goodbye to King Kauto.

I suppose it’s a mini PR disaster for racing. Kauto Star has been the jewel in the crown of winter National Hunt racing for years. That the owner and the trainer should ‘fall out’ over the rest of his career is a shame. That career is nominally in dressage. They aren’t mucking around either, Kauto is going to be ridden by an Olympic hopeful rider and retrained by the great Yogi Breisner. Clive Smith says Kauto is ‘too good’ to be a hack, but what an earth does that mean? I would have been more on his wavelength if he said, ‘look the horse is only twelve and he needs to be kept busy – he’s that kind of horse.’ To me, it looks like an old guy giving a pretty young lady a lovely present, but I am old and unkind perhaps. Back on a more empirical footing, good dressage horses tend to be warmbloods, not thoroughbreds, the latter being too hot-blooded for the manege. I admit I am kind of hoping Kauto Star puts them all in their place, politely, over the next few months.

Running and jumping is the the boy for me he might say, if he could talk… Now, where’s my old neighbour Denman?

Denman out with some mates and new rider Charlotte Alexander from Horse & Hound

Click here for more of Denman’s Diary and a life after racing.

And here to see Kauto Star in his new home as of today. Good luck lad.

*I’ve been wondering if it’s time to change this for a while now, but I don’t think I’m ready yet.

Plates in the air

I have never believed it is possible for anyone to keep all the plates spinning in the air for very long.

Today, the sad news is that we accidentally smashed the commemorative Withindale Easter Egg Hunt plate right in two. Last Friday I smashed a champagne flute and tomorrow… who knows.

Whilst we wait to find out what’s next I’d like the Egg Meister, or a suitable representative to kindly advise if they would like their original plate returned next year, plus some superglue, or shall I get on the case for another suitably Easterish plate and transfer the plaque (also with superglue).

As I said, plates in the air, having it all, doesn’t work: always ends in some kind of smithereens or the other. As it’s Friday night (was dance night), here’s a tune. I couldn’t dance to this in a month of Sundays, but I used to like playing it in Stamford Hill when I was pootling about in my white Peugeot 205 (diesel: as my Grandpa would have said). It’s a shockingly dated video, and Lionel prancing around with a bare chest under an unbuttoned shirt is a big No from me, but still, sometimes it’s good to go back to a time in your mind when you only had the one plate to balance on a stick and keep spinning, into infinity and beyond.

‘It’s alright, do it again…’

Writing on the wall (or the blog)

Yesterday’s post did not feel like my finest hour; I am not keen on admitting to having emotional reactions to washing lines. It made me think, does writing reveal the self, or does it just reveal whatever flotsam and jetsam happens to be floating through the mind, the psyche, at any given moment?

I can obviously only speak for myself. And I think that some ideas, reactions, moods are ephemera; given time they pass on by. You can buy ‘ephemera’ on eBay you know. I put my own on Amazon. If I write about these temporal phenomena, they are released on their way downstream and the process of making them into words allow me to stand on the bank, watching as they disappear. Other things are less easily worked through, becoming trapped in the whirlpools and eddies of my head. Round and round they go as my head becomes the body of water itself. Writing is, I suppose, a way of constructing something to hang onto as I am dragged by the current. A way of being in the whirlpool, without going under.

If there is a true self, then it is a slippery customer. It can be a narrative, a construct: linear, rhizomatic, tragic or comic – depending on your taste. It can be the sum total of your thoughts, or it can sit outside those: you are not your thoughts as various esoteric teachings have it.

That last statement has proved troublesome for me. When I first engaged with that possibility I found it terrifying… I was not my thoughts? But I liked my thoughts. I liked them rather a lot. I put the book down. Life flowed on towards the sea and the notion drifted onto my shores once again.

I am not my thoughts? Well surely that’s a thought in itself? That gives me a semantic problem. Is it what Wittgenstein meant when he said that ‘the limits of my language are the limits of my world.’? On the other hand, it would be nice to separate out some version of self, from the person who tapped out a small-minded post about the neighbour’s washing line. I am not my thoughts, indeed.

How can we know self then if we are to go beyond language, as it seems we must if we are to buy into this logic? What good is turning the thoughts in my head into words through the keyboard, when the words are the limiting things themselves? I can only say this: I think I have had brief glimpses of understanding beyond words and if that is where a version of the self is to be found it may be the real and elusive self that we obfuscate under layers of history, culture and ego. I think that to get to it, it is not thinking that is required, but listening. And not listening with ears either, it is listening with hearts.

I accept this may read crazy to some, those who like logic and reason. I like logic and reason! But my experience is: they can only take you so far. Wittgenstein twigged this in the end, after a life of logic and reason, butting up against the limits of language, saying, ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.’ So, we may as well return to the silence of the heart? Here’s some empirical evidence for those who aren’t convinced you can listen with it e.g. your heart has its own network of neurotransmitters and around 40,000 neurons…allowing it to sense, feel learn and remember. Perhaps, after all, there is some logic to a form of knowing that does not just involve theory of mind.

As for my excuse for continually tapping away on this contraption, perhaps in order to truly know I am not my thoughts I must firstly think them all, and categorise them in writing, before letting them flow out into an ocean of collective consciousness where they will become indistinguishable from all the rest.

Here’s someone else’s thought. I found it on the wall under a railway bridge last week. It reminded me of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus’s quote

“Everything changes and nothing remains still … and … you cannot step twice into the same stream”

Actually, that sea of thought I mentioned before, well, you’ll find it in ancient Greece. Read Greek philosophy and one might never suffer from the thought delusion again. Not only are you not your thoughts, your thoughts are not yours in the first place…

P.S. If you’ve got to the end of this particular log jam of thoughts and words, well done, it can’t have been easy.

‘Jumping off the edge of the world’: why Becher’s Brook must go

Let me be clear about this: watching Red Rum win (and come second) in Grand Nationals on black and white telly was my 1970s childhood. Red Rum was, along with Muhammed Ali, my sporting hero. And, because memory works in mysterious ways, I remember watching one, or the other, or both win, in black and white vision in the back room of my great-grandmother Walker’s little council house in Leicester; although I must’ve seen both of them elsewhere too. For me, the sport, my childhood and the family, the love of it all, are inextricably linked; so I can’t hate the Grand National.

Equally, these days, I can’t watch it. The reason being, that the statistics speak for themselves. I know, the odds are that horses will fall, and that from those falls, some horses will die.

I also know now, having looked at the Wikipedia statistics here, that horses are most likely to die in a fall at Becher’s Brook – the awkwardly-shaped fence that horses jump as obstacle number #6 and #22 and that jockeys have described as ‘jumping off the edge of the world.’

Of the 68 horse fatalities in 165 runnings of the race (and I think that 165 includes 3 runnings at Gatwick during the First World War), 15 horses have died in incidents that involved Becher’s Brook. That’s more than double the fatalities of the second most deadly fence (obstacle #4 & #20, that has no name) which has 7 fatalities associated with it. Becher’s Brook is unusual, not in its height of 5 feet – there are 6 others of 5 feet and the tallest, The Chair, is 5’2″, but because its landing side is so much lower than the take off (estimated to be between 6 and 10 inches lower). It was named after Captain Becher parted company with his horse, Conrad, at the obstacle in the first officially run Grand National in 1839. It is a fence designed, not just for jumping, but to catch horses out.

And it does.

And it must stop.

I have read people saying that, yesterday, Synchronised got up from his fall at Becher’s and galloped on, therefore his fatal injury cannot be attributed to the fence, just subsequent ill-luck in riderless running. I would say, how can we know? And then there is According to Pete who also died after being brought down at the same obstacle on the second circuit.

There are other changes, I am sure, that could, and perhaps should be made to the race. But the continued acceptance of a notorious and tricky fence that claims more horses’ lives than any other in the race is a disgrace. The statistic for Becher’s Brook is one that we, those who follow racing under either code, should not continue to stand for.

Captain Becher and Conrad came a cropper in the naming of the fence in 1839. In the one hundred and seventy-three years that have elapsed let us stand for progress, but primarily the welfare of the horse. Let the sad losses of According to Pete and Synchronised be the very last victims of Becher’s Brook.

I, for one, have had enough. Have you?


According to Pete

In praise of jockeys

I can’t let the Festival week end without noting the general workaday heroism of our jockeys, both jumps and flat. They often come in for a lot of stick (excuse the pun) and if you don’t ride you can have no idea of the physical demands made on their bodies every day, and that’s not including kicks and falls and wasting to make weight.

For my money, these guys are the toughest athletes we have. Early starts, long journeys, seven day weeks on little food – no wonder Andrew Tinkler tweeted this morning that if he’d been lucky enough to win the one million that one of Nicky Henderson’s stable staff did this week on a yard five-timer, Tinkler would be straight off to Heathrow – not riding work the next morning as indeed the lottery winner was (full story here).

Anyway, props to Ruby Walsh and Tony McCoy for yesterday; not just for having the wisdom to preserve the beloved Kauto Star after nine fences jumped, nor indeed the looks like you won’t even be placed ride on Synchronised to lift the Gold Cup. No, massive, massive respect for this brief exchange, redolent with meaning, between the two friends and competitors during the running of the Gold Cup, reported in the Racing Post.

Ruby said: “I was thinking about pulling up when
AP [McCoy] said ‘if I were you I’d be pulling up’.

The rest is history.

From the Mirror: AP with Synchronised ~ what a lovely Sadler's Wells face

On another cockles-of-my-heart note, Paul Nicholls is parading Kauto Star, Big Buck’s and Rock on Ruby through Ditcheat this lunchtime, in that order. Kauto Star in front, where he belongs.

The Greatest Show on Turf: Gold Cup Day (start spreading the news)

There’s something about Gold Cup Day. For me, Champion Hurdle Day used to be the most nerve-wracking day of the Festival because it was Day One and I was always in love: Rooster Booster, Detroit City, Harchibald, Brave Inca and Hardy Eustace. It was the race I had invested in most heavily emotionally, and sometimes financially, because it felt more like a bit of me. It spoke to my passion for flat racing and as a lot of the contenders had flat racing pedigrees I had another angle in on the form. By Gold Cup day, I was too knackered to do anything more than enjoy the last championship race.

Then a few years ago in a conversation with a fellow punter, sitting in those elevated seats overlooking the course at another Cheltenham meeting, I mentioned that, to me, the Champion Hurdle had started to feel more like a sacrifical altar than a race. As I said it, I was looking out towards Cleeve Hill and imagining all those Champion Hurdlers coming round the top bend. It was one of those things you say, but weren’t expecting to. Since then, Tuesday at the Festival has seemed a little less vitally important.

Gold Cup Day, now on a Friday, stands alone. It never has seemed like a sacrificial altar to me and I don’t want it to start now! After all, if you’ve (the horse) have made it there with a serious chance its just like that line in the Sinatra song New York, New York about making it anywere…King of the Hill, Head of the Heap, Top of the List, King of the Hill la, la, la…

Sorry. No doubt about it, the Gold Cup is a culmination. It is the culmination of the working week, it is the culmination of our National Hunt season, it is the culmination of the Festival and it is the culmination of a jumps horse’s career.

To culminate means to bring to a point of greatest intensity or completion, from the Latin root culminare meaning to crown, or culmen meaning the summit. And there is more. It also has a meaning relating to astronomy. To culminate in astronomical terms means that a star, or other celestial body, reaches the highest point above an observer’s horizon.

Gold Cup Day has its own Star today and I, along with most of the racing fraternity, are hoping beyond hope to see the culmination of Kauto Star’s most magnificent career. If he wins, I will surely be enjoying my own culmination: following the Star into my own celestial meridian.

Conveniently down the road from my house

P.S. If Kauto Star doesn’t win, please let him come back safe with all the rest, and I know we will love him just as much, if not more, as before. And I will still play the Frank Sinatra tune tonight and toast the greatest jump horse I have ever seen.

Greatest Show on Turf: Day Three

Big Buck’s: the once distressing errant apostrophe has now become part of racing legend.

Today I think of him, Inglis Drever, Baracouda and Iris’s Gift, who shared a possessive apostrophe with today’s defending champion.

That is all.

Big Buck's by Charlie Langton

The Greatest Show on Turf: Day Two

I spoke to Wray Barton about Cheltenham today after she enquired how it was going. Well it’s not really I had to reply. My heart’s not in it – one reason for that being that it (my heart) is going to be in my mouth until after the Gold Cup.

That state of being in the world has not been helped by the fatalities so far, five as far as I am aware. Two yesterday in the Cross Country, another in a separate race and two today in the Coral Cup. It’s an unusually high number, and it sours the whole thing. That’s racing, people usually say. That’s life as well. Knowing it doesn’t ease the blow though.

Dusk at Cheltenham

The Greatest Show on Turf: Day One

Hurricane Fly by David Yates from the Mirror

Hurricane Fly is odd-ons favourite to successfully defend the Champion Hurdle today.

What a great study this is of him on the course at the foot of Cleeve Hill.

I hope everyone has the Festival they wish for.