Sunday, September 19, 2010

A very sad day

Tuesday was a very sad day, featuring as it did the funeral in Letcombe Regis of John Kirby, to which I travelled with with John's good friend Richard Perham. When Richard did his Q&A session in the Racing Post a year or two ago, he nominated John as one of his notional dinner party guests, which makes it clear how big a part John had played in Richard’s life. John played a big part in my life too, being a rock-solid support during the tricky years when boyhood ends and adulthood begins.

Looking back on it, it's astounding that my friendship with John ever happened. When I was at school at Wellington, which is in a village in east Berkshire called Crowthorne, John and his family lived nearby in Finchampstead and he had two shops – an off-license and a delicatessen – in Crowthorne. He trained a couple of National Hunt horses under a permit and in my final year at school I was bold enough to approach him to introduce myself and ask whether I might ride out for him in the mornings before school. You know how, when one looks back at events quite a long time in the past, one can remember that they happened but cannot remember any of the details: well, I know this approach must have happened because I did ride out for him, but I struggle to envisage how I, shy and diffendent as I’ve always been and particularly was at the time, was bold enough to introduce myself to a complete strange thus, particularly bearing in mind that what I was asking for was clearly against the school’s rules – and it’s even harder to see what prompted him to accede to my request, when it would clearly have been much easier for him to turn me down. Nowadays, it is hard to envisage anyone in such a situation saying, “Yes” – one would be too worried of the idiot boy getting injured (either by a horse or by falling off his bike on the way out to the stable) and one getting sued! But the world's a very different place now to what it was then, and, anyway, that’s what John was – if the choice was between being kind to someone and taking the easier option, he’d be kind. Full stop.

Anyway, my final year at school was hugely improved by these early-morning rides with John and his friend Chris Salmon, and also by the pleasure of being made to feel at home by John and his wife Veronica and their children Caroline and Angela. Looking back, I still can’t really take in just how lucky I was. Anyway, a couple of years elapsed. I’d started work for Andy Turnell near Marlborough, and then Andy moved his stable to East Hendred, a few miles east of Wantage – and then, coincidentally, the Kirby family moved to Furzewick Farm, a mile south of Wantage on the Hungerford Road. And my role of surrogate child resumed. It was a pleasure to go over to help John every afternoon (although I’m sure I could just as easily describe my contribution as hindering him) as he and I rode out together along the Ridgeway and up the steep gallop owned by his neighbour David Gandolfo. Again, I was made so welcome by the whole family, made to feel totally at home in their house and basically just given a real home from home. John even let me loose in a couple of races on Long John – over hurdles at Towcester and Warwick – and was kind enough not to point out to me how badly I rode the old horse.

I moved to Newmarket in May 1987, heading up here armed with much that I’d learned from John and also fired by his recollections of this special place. John had hailed initially from London and, while horses had always been his passion, in his youth it had been prevailed on him that he’d be wise to work hard to establish himself in business before making his passion his profession. And that is what he had done, only doing the horses full-time once he was in his 40s and had got his interests in Crowthorne established and running smoothly. He had, though, spent a brief period in his youth in Fiddler Goodwill’s stable in Newmarket, and I came here full of the magic of John’s recollections of his happy days here. I particularly recall him telling me of Fiddler sending him down the High Street on his bicycle in the early mornings to read the board outside the Jockey Club to find out which gallops are open – and, to this day, every time I go into the Jockey Club and see that board, I always think of John.

Anyway, I’ve stayed here and John has stayed in my memory as one of the friends whom I’ve been most blessed to have made along the way. I’m saddened to say that I had much less contact with him and Veronica than I should have done over the past few years – but that’s life: you don’t know, ie appreciate, what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone. I think that the last time I saw him was when Jill Dawson won at Salisbury. He and Veronica were there as guests of Mr and Mrs Bill Robbins, who owned an Andrew Balding-trained runner in the same race, a horse which John had broken and educated for them, as he did with all their horses. It was great seeing him because, as with all true friends, it didn't matter that too long had elapsed since the previous meeting: one just felt at home with them straight away. I only wish that I'd seen more of him over the past decade, but I'm afraid that is the way of life (or it is if one is as self-centred as I am): you get so busy running around in circles in your own little corner of the world that you find yourself losing touch with the friends whom one doesn't meet in the normal course of events. No matter, you believe - they're still friends, and you meet them odd times and the friendship remains strong. But of course it does matter, because none of us lives forever, and suddenly someone's not around any more, and all you can do is rue the fact that you didn't see enough of them while the chance existed. And, of course, you rue the fact that you didn't let them know just how much you appreciated their friendship while you had a chance to do so. I once heard a great phrase on the radio, on the anniversary of some massacre somewhere in which people had lost loved ones completely out of the blue: the phrase was, "Don't leave it too late to tell someone you love them". Of course, in practice, you don't go around telling your friends that you love them because they'd start to worry if you did, but I only wish I'd put it on record before John died just how much I appreciated what a great friend he'd been to me. I'd like to think that he knew, but even so I should have told him. Even if nothing else, I hope that he knew how much I appreciated the fact that, when he wanted to give one of his horses a couple of runs on the Flat (he only had a permit to run horses under National Hunt rules), I was the person given the honour of training Tissisat for him, which really was an honour because John was the complete horseman, so being entrusted with the care of one of his horses really did mean something; and, obviously, it would have been far easier for him to put the horse with a trainer in the Wantage area than up here in Newmarket.

Tuesday, thus, was a very sad day, celebration of John's life though it was. We weren't to wear black because we were under orders to celebrate his life rather than to bemoan his absence, and John's family were towers of strength, most notably Caroline, who spoke very movingly of her father - as did Chris Salmon, who gave a beautiful address in honour of his lifelong friend. They were both lovely speeches; the tragedy was that John wasn't there to hear them.

Compared to the death of such a special man, setbacks to one's friends which are not matters of life and death are, by definition, not matters of life and death. Even so, after I'd come out of the church, my mood certainly wasn't lightened by hearing of Iva's terrible accident at Yarmouth. As I was in church when it happened, I didn't see it, but I'm told that, even by the standards of stalls mishaps, it was a frightening incident, from which she appears lucky to have emerged with merely a broken leg. She'll mend, but it was obviously a horrible accident - while further cause for sadness that day came in the evening when reading on the internet that Rebel Raider, whom our friend Clare Lindop rode to win two Derbys two seasons ago, had fractured a sesamoid, thus shattering the dream (which had seemed justifiable) that he and Clare might win this year's Melbourne Cup. Still, for all of us still alive, life goes on - even if, thanks to John's absence, it goes on in a world now missing one more good man.


Alan Taylor said...

Hi John, don't feel to down about the fact you feel you did not express your feelings more as regards to John Kirkby. We Brits ,wrongly or rightly have the stiff upper lip and know our friends appreciate and love us.We do not seek or need to be told, it is taken as read.

I am sure there are many people whose lives you have touched who
appreciate it but as you say if people suddenly started to declare affection, admiration or love you would think they were "going off their trolley"!
I would suggest on your rides on the gallops you carry on "ribbing" the lads as if you start suddenly start declaring un-dying admiration for all and sundry they may call the jockey club inspector to have you certified!
You will only get glowing tributes after your death(hopefully some way off). On the reverse side of the coin people who do not like someome seem less reserved about their feelings and only to ready to tell you what they feel about you.

Nathan said...

Heartfelt words indeed John but i suspect the selfishness you describe is merely human nature. John Kirby's actions obviously not only shaped your life, but shaped you as a person too, enabling you to do the same for others. You should take heart from this as i'm sure your friend was proud of you and very happy to have been your friend and seen you grow to be the man you are. Your words suggest they broke the mould when they made John Kirby...

John Berry said...

Thank you both very much for those kind words.

andrew Boxhall said...

Lovely kind words John, for a man who I had so much respect for.
I first met John when I was conditional jockey for David Gandolfo. After finishing work for the morning I would go over to Furzewick and break in the young horses with him. He was a real horseman who taught me more than I could ever thank him for. I was privileged to be invited to Christmas lunch with John, Veronica and the "girls".
I wasn't able to go and pay my respects, and lost my own father a few days later.
I wish I had called in to see him up at Pewit on the many times I passed, but life sometimes doesn't give us time, or maybe we don't give life enough time.
RIP John Kirby