Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Mightier than than the sword

It's good to be predictable.  Particularly good if it means that you've got two chances to read your favourite books.  Two of my favourite contemporary novellists are Philip Kerr and John le Carre.  Each has had a new book published this year, 'A Man Without Breath' and 'A Delicate Truth' respectively.  I had a book token which I'd been given for Christmas, so earlier this year I treated myself with it to a hard-back copy of the first-named, the latest of Philip Kerr's outstanding Bernie Gunther novels.

Anyway, come 7th June, my birthday, what should happen?  I received two copies of John le Carre's book and one of Philip Kerr's, meaning that I had two copies of each of them.  And they were perfect presents because I love the work of both authors,
and they are both terrific books.  So part of the remedy was taking the (still untouched) copy of 'A Man Without Breath' which I had bought from Tindalls' back to the shop - and asking not for a refund, but to use the money thus refunded, plus some more, to buy some other books. Hence my treating myself to second-hand copies of two of Roger Mortimer's books, 'Great Racehorses of the World' and 'The Jockey Club'.

Strangely, I have owned a copy of Roger Mortimer's and Peter Willett's second 'Great Racehorses' volume for maybe 35 years, since I was at school.  I remember reading it and really enjoying it.  But I'd never owned or read a copy of the first volume.  But now I've put that right, have read a few of the essays and am enjoying it greatly.  And I've just finished the other Roger Mortimer book, a history of the Jockey Club, published in 1958.  It's good to mention these books today as today saw the running of the Peter Willett Conditions Stakes at Goodwood - and it's good to write about this now as I've probably been upsetting people who are alive in this blog recently, so if I can stick for once to people who are dead, it's probably not a bad idea.

Anyway, Roger Mortimer's history of the Jockey Club is superb, and I'll inflict a few of its finest passages on you.  You might have read the Roger Mortimer book 'Dear Lupin' recently, which isn't a Roger Mortimer book in the sense that it wasn't written by Roger Mortimer as a book, being instead a collection of letters which he wrote to his prodigal son, who seemingly has scented a fast and easy buck by putting the letters together as a book.  The prose is, of course, sublime - but I couldn't read it as I had an uneasy suspicion that Roger Mortimer would be spinning in his grave at the thought that his private correspondence was being gawked over by the general public.

And not only that - nowadays it has become common for members of the press to believe that they are of greater interest than the people/events whom/which they are supposed to be reporting; but I feel that Roger Mortimer would be horrified by this modern trend.  He'd regard the turning of the domestic politics of the Mortimer family, and the largely fruitless attempts of a father to turn his feckless son into a normal member of the human race, into the subject of a book as an abomination, coming as he did from a generation superior to that which regards 'reality TV' as an acceptable form of culture and entertainment.  Anyway, his son has allowed the modern audience to believe that the non-events in 'Dear Lupin' are a satisfactory reminder of the genius of Roger Mortimer, one of the greatest writers ever to favour the turf with his attention.  In so doing, he has rendered his father a massive disservice: Roger Mortimer was far, far better an author than that book implies.  And these few selected passages from 'The Jockey Club' can remind us of his genius.

Much of the book concerns interesting members of the Jockey Club over the centuries.  How about the thirteenth Earl of Eglington, who "is still remembered for ... his drinking match with Sir David Baird"?

"As regards the match, Lord Eglington, who was a fervent admirer of his own abilities, declared in the Jockey Club Rooms one evening that he could drink more champagne without discomfort than any man in the United Kingdom.  Whereupon General Peel, a fortunate soldier in so far as he attained that rank without a day's active service, at once stated that he could produce a man whom he would back for 'a pony' to drink more champagne than Lord Eglington.  The challenge was accepted, and at seven-thirty the next evening General Peel produced his nominee, his brother-in-law Sir David Baird, a tall, stringy Scot who was said to look like a pair of tongs.

"The match was bottle for bottle, that is to say, when one man finished a bottle his opponent had to finish one too, and then both began on a fresh one.  Lord Eglington set a tremendous pace with the first three bottles, hoping to crack his opponent early on, and he drank away at a great rate, chatting at the same time in the merriest of fashion to his friends and supporters.  Baird, on the other hand, drank dourly and in silence.

"After a few more bottles, however, Eglington's conversation grew rather less voluble and he began to show signs of distress.  At last, white as death, he rose slowly from his chair, declared he could drink no more, and staggered from the room.  Baird, on the contrary, was still completely unaffected.  He played three games of billiards with Squire Osbaldeston, winning two of them, before he went to bed, and the next morning he was out on the Heath before breakfast smoking a short, foul pipe.  Lord Eglington rose somewhat later and felt unable to wear a hat all day."

Or how about Colonel Anson?

"Colonel, afterwards General, Anson is worthy of mention as he was a famous figure in social, sporting and military circles.  Like Greville, he was much in demand in affairs of honour, and it was his skilful handling of the duel that prevented Osbaldeston from killing Lord George Bentinck.  On the Turf he was not only rated one of the cleverest matchmakers of the day, but he also won the Derby in 1842 with Attila and the Oaks in 1844 with The Princess.  As an ensign in the Foot Guards he had fought at Waterloo, and subsequently he acquired a considerable military reputation in districts not more than a few hours distant from Newmarket.  It came as a great surprise when such a social lion accepted the command of a division in India in 1853.  Three years later he was Commander-in-Chief in India and held that position when the Mutiny erupted in 1857.  News of the outbreak was brought to him during a dinner party he was giving, but his good manners unfortunately prevented him from opening the telegrams in front of his guests.  He had not seen active service for forty-two years; not surprisingly, the heat and the crisis combined proved too much for him, and the old gentleman, whose proper place was in Whites or on Newmarket Heath, lay down and died after the first day's march of the campaign.  The wine and beer he had brought to sustain him was sold to the 9th Lancers' mess for £400."

Or King George V, who must have been cut from the same cloth as his grand-daughter, our Queen?

"It is perhaps worth mentioning that at the time of his coronation, the lads at Newmarket subscribed sixpence each to give the King a pair of race-glasses as a present.  He was genuinely touched by this kindness, and of all the gifts he received, this, out of thousands, was the only one he insisted on giving thanks for in person.  He met a deputation of three lads, and there were tears in his eyes when he expressed the very real pleasure that the present had given him."

Those words together would form less than one page of a book of 176 pages, a book which is a true delight, a terrific source of both information and entertainment.  It was a pleasure to read - and we've got plenty of pleasures at present, as this chapter's photographs, taken since I posted the previous chapter of this blog, make clear.  We're into September so the summer might now be Indian, but it's still really, really special.

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