My old school has long enjoyed a proud reputation for sending its pupils on to further education. Every year the cream of the crop seem to find their way to one of the Oxbridge colleges to study all manner of subjects, some of which did not exist in my day.
Because of those long-established links the alma mater has always staged annual dinners at Oxford and Cambridge for past pupils, and this year, for the first time, I got around to attending the one at Clare College, Cambridge. Needless to say, I was the oldest attendee, I knew nobody, and nobody knew me. But they were a chatty bunch and several wanted to know whether there was a suffix to my name, featuring some initials and (Cantab). I replied that my presence had more to do with the fact that I lived only a dozen miles away and had fancied a jolly evening with some fellow Devonians.
I favour change. I welcomed a Flat season that started on January 1 and lasted until December 31, something that sport on the all-weather brought us
I was delighted to learn that the master who got me through O-Level Latin was still going strong at 91, but it seemed that the grim reaper had gathered in a bumper harvest from the rest of the staff I knew. It was presumably my seniority which decreed that I should occupy the privileged seat opposite the current headmaster, a charming young man – well, young to me – born in the year before I left the school. He told me of the many things that had changed there, invited me back to the place, and I told him that I would never make the Exeter dinner all the while it maintained its habitual clash with the St Leger.
He also had questions for me, particularly wondering what I remembered of the things I had learned at school. I told him that in the fourth form, aged 12, I had memorised all the Derby winners from 1780, something not actually on the curriculum, but useful later when it came to remembering dates for my O-Level History. Blow me down if he didn’t Google ‘Derby winners’ on his tablet and invite anyone in the room to challenge me; I passed the test with 100%.
I suppose I could have told him more about what I’d learned without risking a two-hour detention, but I decided not to mention that my last two terms were spent in virtually total idleness. I had wanted to escape in the summer of 1962, but had nowhere to go, and my parents insisted on my staying with a view to obtaining a place at university, a fate I would have dreaded if I had believed it possible. There was no way into any uni without O-Level Maths, which was beyond my comprehension. First time around I got 7%, reputedly the lowest mark in the county. I could work out what a half-crown win double at 100-6 and 100-7 would pay, but trigonometry was always going to beat me.
The three A-Levels I’d already got meant nothing while maths remained a mystery. In those last two terms I suffered four periods a week in the company of kids three years younger than me, not even trying to make sense of sines, cosines and other such nonsense, and spent the rest of my time in the school library, where a daily delight was provided in the form of a copy of The Times.
In those days the front page comprised nothing but advertisements, but I soon learned where to find home and international news, and, more importantly, the location of the racing column and the crossword. Nobody else was ever going to tear that paper away from me. After only 49 years’ addiction to the crossword I won a prize for the Saturday cryptic.
School work was the last thing on my mind, and I revelled in what I could only construe as idleness, but I recognise it now as highly constructive idleness. I was learning all the time, sometimes quite unconsciously, about words, and I was learning from a quality publication; that was good grounding for a lad with ambitions in journalism.
As the paper’s correspondents were anonymous, I had no idea who was hiding behind ‘From Our Racing Correspondent’, but the guy was well-informed, he knew how to string a few sentences together in impeccable English, and he educated the ignorant me no less than Clive Graham and Peter O’Sullevan, whom I read at home every morning in the Daily Express. I wasn’t to know that before very long I would get to meet Clive, Peter and Frank Byrne, the mystery Times man.
I have held The Times in the highest regard for more than 50 years, and at one time might have relished a chance to join its staff, if it weren’t for the fact that I have been lucky enough to find employment with other worthy publications. While I never had a byline in The Times, there were occasions during my agency days when my words appeared in it, and I was mightily chuffed to read them there.
I am still a subscriber to The Times, and always will be, not least in the hope of realising my ambition to win the Saturday Jumbo crossword, but there are days when I have to feel that its current racing correspondent writes with the primary intention of annoying me. Alan Lee, who writes for this magazine, is a nice guy. I enjoyed reading him when he wrote for the paper about cricket, and I take no exception to most of what he writes about racing.
But he appears to have become the chief advocate and apologist for all the absurdities recently introduced in Flat racing. His Times column of March 24, in which he attacked all who are opposed to change, and in particular castigated those opposed to the recently announced abbreviated jockeys’ championship season, was as wrong as it could be.
I make no apology for being a traditionalist. I’ve been in this game for over half a century and I know how valuable tradition is. The sport’s marketing arm do not and have not got the wit to realise the damage they are doing.
I don’t object to change per se. I’ve seen plenty of changes – starting stalls, Sunday racing, and a whole lot more besides. I’ve been in agreement with many of them. I like progress.
Alan Lee says that the essence of any championship is that it should be aspirational. All those eligible to compete should see it as an ambition. And he says that in National Hunt racing the title is an ambition for almost all. So how many in the last 20 years have nurtured an ambition to be champion rider over jumps? There has never been a proper contest in that period, and who could ever have seriously imagined he might win it, save a couple of broken legs for the obvious champ?
Yes, aspiration counts in many sports, but not necessarily in racing. Through all the years I was privileged to watch Lester Piggott in action, I was in no doubt about who the best jockey was. But he didn’t have to win the title every year to convince me of that. There were guys who wanted it more than him sometimes, and the championship came as a reward for industry. And there was nothing wrong with that. Those champions earned their titles.
So the jockeys were consulted over the changes made for 2015 and they like them. No, some of them like them, because they can employ less effort and maybe acquire bogus glory. The industrious guys, who will ride day in, day out, doing their damnedest in Britain all the time, are the fellows Britain should be promoting, not those who think that five and a half months constitute a season.
I favour change. I welcomed a Flat season that started on January 1 and lasted until December 31, something that sport on the all-weather brought us. That is the truth about what the Flat season is. Anything else is a lie in my opinion, and I am appalled that my favourite newspaper throughout the last half-century should be promoting that lie.