Thursday, February 11, 2021

Lest we forget

The main news story this week appears to be whether people will be able to go on holiday this summer.  (And this follows the recent national debate about whether 'influencers' should be granted 'key worker' status.)  Am I missing something here?  We're heading now swiftly towards 120,000 COVID deaths (and it only seems like yesterday that we passed 100,000) and the main story is about summer holidays?  I know that I'm very fortunate in that my life is largely unaffected by lockdown (I imagine that farmers are the least affected, with those who work in stables or on studs close behind) but, honestly!

I tend to use the phrase 'It's not a matter of life and death', but COVID is a matter of life and death for the 120,000 and their loved ones.  For anyone fortunate enough not to have been touched by death in the current pandemic, though, it's not a matter of life and death.  The travel industry is a big concern, apparently providing over 900,000 jobs, and commercially the nation's collective holiday plans are a big deal for those people.  But for the rest of us?  A holiday is leisure, it's part of one's social life.  And if one's concern with COVID is that it's interfering with one's social life, then I really feel one is mistaking first-world problems for real ones.  What's brought this on, you might ask?  Well, I've been reading some books written by the late Caroline Ramsden, and some WWII-related observations from her memoirs A View From Primrose Hill have really struck a chord with me.

Miss Ramsden’s family home was in Lancashire, where she grew up before spending her adult life living in Primrose Hill in London.  She and her father loved racing and owned horses over an extended period.  Their horses were trained by Jack Leader in Newmarket and by Tom Walls at Epsom.  One horse who features very strongly in their story was Red Raider, who was owned in partnership by Mr Ramsden and Tom Walls.  After Red Raider had been racing on the Flat, an attempt was made to school him for National Hunt racing, but he could not or would not learn to jump well.  Consequently, as he was a small horse, he was given to Miss Ramsden as a show-hack.  She rode him (side-saddle) very successfully at horse-shows in the summers of 1937 and ’38, doing very well including winning ‘Champion Hack’ at Richmond Royal Horse Show in 1938.  He must clearly have been a horse very close to her heart. 

The details in that previous paragraph are included to provide some context for what is to follow.  The following passages, which I found very moving, thus become self-explanatory.  Miss Ramsden wrote her memoirs in 1984 when she was aged 80, so four decades had passed between the events thus described and her writing about them, and time is a great healer.  Even so, the fact that she was able to write so matter-of-factly about heart-rending events of the utmost sadness is a searing demonstration that life for everyone during the war was, by our current standards, unimaginably difficult.  This provides a timely reminder that what is going on nowadays (for those who don’t die, anyway) really shouldn’t be too difficult to endure.

The first excerpt which I am quoting comes after the declaration of war in September 1939, at which time Miss Ramsden (whose other passion, besides racing, was the theatre) was staying with her father in Lancashire.

‘Would there be air raids immediately?  What would happen to my home in London, and my many friends who lived there?  Would racing be stopped?  Would the theatres be closed?  And, uppermost in our thoughts was my brother, father’s adored only son, who had gone straight from school into the army in 1917, and emerged at the end of the war as a captain, with the Military Cross to his credit.  Now, aged forty, he was over immediate call-up age, but we both knew he would volunteer for active service, which indeed he did.’

We now move on to the following spring.

‘Racing was, of course, considerably curtailed during the war, but Liverpool staged a fixture at the beginning of April, when the Grand National was run.  I had no heart for joining the small party which father assembled at The Woodlands, but I took time off to go there.

‘My brother had rejoined the army and was with his regiment, stationed at Barnard Castle, awaiting instructions to go – anywhere.  He managed to get home for the day of 5 April and met us at Aintree, where he took his children out onto the course and showed them all the famous fences.  After the racing he drove back to Barnard Castle with my sister-in-law, and that was the last we saw of him.  Three days later the Nazis invaded Norway, and he was killed there on St George’s Day.  His death brought an inconsolable grief into father’s life.’

We subsequently move on to further wartime reflections.

‘In 1939 I put Red Raider back into training.  I offered to return him to Tom but his small stable was already overcrowded, and so I sent him to Jack.  He ran four times in 1940 and was only once unplaced.  Bob Lacey rode him in two of his races, one of them being the Earlstown Handicap at Haydock, which he won by a neck from Gordon Richards on Pun Gun, and twelve other runners.  Raider’s starting price was 20-1, and this enabled me to bring off one of the most successful bets of my life.  His race was the second leg of the Tote Double.  There were only seven runners in the first leg, so I took one ticket on each of them, a total expenditure of £3. 10s.  There were three other winning tickets and we each collected £221. 12s.

‘In normal times I would have kept Raider in training as long as he continued to show an aptitude for racing, after which he would have gone into luxurious retirement which was well and truly earned.  But racing was only being allowed to continue in order to keep the thoroughbred breeding industry alive and an eight-year-old gelding, however beautiful, had nothing to contribute to this project.  Thoroughbreds do not take kindly to being turned out in winter, unless they have a warm stable and good food to come in to at night, and Raider’s talent and temperament, unlike Jester’s, were completely unsuited to any sort of domestic chore.  I shudder to think what might have happened had he been harnessed to Jester’s cart!  For some time I dodged the issue but, as the weather turned chilly in the autumn, I made the inevitable decision.

‘Bob Lacey, partner in Raider’s last winning appearance, had all the attributes which go to make a top-class jockey, and, given time, he would undoubtedly have become one.  In his short career he rode a number of winners, the most notable of which was Gyroscope, trained by Jack Leader, in the Cambridgeshire of 1939.  He was killed when the bomber in which he was rear gunner was shot down over Germany, six years later.’

These words have made a big impact on me and I feel that they are worth sharing with a wider audience.  And, since reading them, I have read another of Miss Ramsden's books, Goodbye Manchester, and there's some more about Bob Lacey here, so I'll add them, even if only because in the late '30s he was clearly a big part of the community here, and I'd like to do my bit to keep his memory alive.  Earlier in the book Miss Ramsden explains that the Manchester Committee (of which her father was the Chairman at the time) made sure every season that there was a good trophy for the Manchester Cup (first run in 1816).

'I have no idea what the first cup looked like. I know that in subsequent years it was sometimes made of silver, or silver-gilt, but once my father became connected with the course he took a great pride in the trophy.  Olivant and Botsfords, St. Anne's Square, Manchester, made it for us each year, and it had to be gold.  As the price of gold increased, the size of the cup diminished, but I don't think we ever gave an ugly one; they were always copied from antique designs and mounted on an onyx base.  A great deal of care and thought was expended on their production ...

'In 1940, owing to wartime conditions, racing programmes were subjected to all sorts of sudden and drastic changes.  On May 10th it was announced that all Whit-week racing had been cancelled, but Manchester was allowed to hold a one-day meeting on Saturday the 18th.  The programme did not include the Cup, although one had been made.  My father and I bought it and gave it to Bob Lacey, Jack Leader's promising apprentice, who had had his first winning ride on my father's Spinalot, and had also ridden my first winner, Excelsa.  I have a letter from Bob, dated November 16th, 1940, which begins; 'Thank you very much for the Manchester Cup.  It is simply marvellous and quite the nicest present I have ever had.  It arrived yesterday morning and now stands in front of me.  I am very proud of it.'

'Bob never rode again after that date.  He became an air gunner and wireless operator with Bomber Command, and was killed in a raid over Germany (his thirtieth) on January 19th, 1945.'


Unknown said...

Wonderful story about Miss Ramsden,John. The Tote Double quote reminds me of the time when I was working in the credit betting office in 1960.
We didn't have computers or calculators. Received the results via ticker tape from Exchange Telegraph. An elderly headmaster worked with us a few days a week. He had a Tote Investors account and had many a Tote Double success. I'll always remember him buying his little Ford Pop car on the strength of a Spring Double 1961(Lincoln /National) 10 shilling double John's Court and Nicklaus Silver. Of course John's Court was trained by the hcap maestro Eric Cousins who won it a year later with Hill Royal I think. Old Tommy the headmaster used to teach maths, and used betting prices to help the kids with fractions.��

Unknown said...

Sorry John, I didn't sign it. It's Bernard Dowdall. 👍

David J Winter. said...

That is an extremely profound and somewhat emotion producing set of reproductions from the books. The fortitude she showed amid such great human loss of family and jockeys is quite remarkable. I share with you the astonishment of the populace aggravating for “ clear guidance” for booking summer holidays when the death toll is so high and, to the people allotted half a brain cell, obviously set to continue for a protracted uncertain period. I’m afraid that the sheer ignorance of such demands is unsettling when you also consider those in the NHS who are putting their lives in danger daily: is there no thought for them? Yes, of course the lockdown is tough and we all want it to end but hectoring the government about a couple weeks in the sun is a dis-service to all the families who have been touched by bereavement. Thank you John for reproducing the para’s from the books...quite poignant.

John Berry said...

Bernard, David, thank you both very much for those observations.

That sounds like the school teacher we would all like to have had, Bernard!

With best wishes