Friday, 28 June 2013

Glastonbury 1997


I'm passing a wistful thought in the direction of the 140,000 souls heading to Glastonbury over the next few days. It's a magnificent, sprawling festival and the Stones will be amazing tomorrow night. 

My last trip there was in 1997, the year of the mudfest. Mrs A was carrying our first child, but didn't want to go anyway. So her sister and I ventured forth instead. I recently found a diary I wrote at the time. So I've dusted it off and reproduced it here in full mud-spattered detail....


Rain. All week it’s been raining. Even when I was testing out my new double-skinned Argos tent (£20) out in the front garden, it was squally. The next door neighbour had raised an eye-brow at that. I don’t think he’d even seen a tent before. “What are you doing?” he inquired sniffily.  

And now as I’m rolling up the sleeping bag and over-winding the roll mat, the news is reporting the muddiest Glastonbury ever. But Sister-in-Law Sue and I were determined to fulfil our mission. Mrs A will not be attending. She is carefully carrying our first child and the due date is only 3 months hence. To be fair, even this circumstance isn’t the real reason. Mrs A has very clearly expressed her absolute mortification at the idea of three nights in ploughed field with 100,000 others and only a hole in the ground for relief. She was never going to be a Glasto convert.

What she has done though, rather magnificently, and together with Shiny at the record company, is to secure us guest passes for the three days – worth a small fortune in this day and age – as variously titled support crew for Tamalin who play the acoustic tent on Saturday. Result.

We are watching telly on Thursday night and goggling at the lakes of mud facing the early arrivals at the site. Mrs A doesn’t think we’ll go. I half wonder if it will be cancelled. But we resolve to head out.

Friday

10.30am
The first nutter alert occurs the instant we board the train to Castle Carey.  A well-seasoned bloke in multi-coloured and ripped clothing charges down train corridor after an oriental girl. She is wearing ridiculous high-heeled trainers. He is shouting “Ere, where you going, man, Heh! Heh!”.

The nutter sits opposite Sue. Then another friend appears - an Antipodean bloke just this side of the sanity watershed – who sits opposite me. The Oriental Nutter squeezes herself adjacent.  We are trapped. Colourful Nutter declares himself to be a ‘partee animal’. But he’s almost reduced to tears when he discovers he has left his beer at home.  Some party. He asks us, the rest of the carriage and any passing innocent (though there are very few of those on the crazy train) if they have any lager to donate.  Sue is now hiding in the corner behind a full spread of the Guardian City pages, not a section of that earnest broadsheet that she is usually seen to be reading. The paper is shaking with mirth. I start to feel claustrophobic.

It becomes clear that none of our traveling companions have tickets for the festival; they don’t know who’s playing, they don’t know where Glastonbury is and they do not have train tickets to the right station.  It’s all Rock ‘n’ Roll (man).

The Conversation moves on to an intellectual plane. Colourful Nutter remarks “Hey, look man - cows.  Wicked.  That’s where milk comes from, heh, heh. Farmers out here, they use combine harvesters and that sort of shit, man.  They’re mad.” Antipodeand Semi-Nutter rolls his eyes in disbelief. We give up trying to disguise laughter.

Destination Castle Carey. All out to the shuttle buses. “Aw, man, there’s so much walking in the countryside”, says a familiar voice. The nutter is still here. “Yeah, you’d think they would build tube stations” I mutter. “Heh Heh, man!” He slaps me on the back and he’s gone.

We hike doggedly through mud flowing down the road like a river. We may exchange glances and shoulder shrugging, but we don’t complain. Not once. This is already feeling a bit epic-adventure-like.

We slither our way to Entrance No 2 downhill through foot-deep mud. Sue inches her way along a chain-link fence like a mountain climber, clinging on for dear life. I consider taking out a small side-bet on who will be the first to fall over. But no bookie would ever take my money. Of course it will be Sue.

The first victory of the day sees us successfully fool the stewards into thinking we are band stylists and equipment security crew (guess who was who) for the aforementioned Tamalin. Mrs A and Shiny did us proud.  

2.30pm
Echo and the Bunnymen are already playing on stage. Never mind. Merely one of Sue’s very favourite bands of all time. She’s only travelled 12,500 miles, endured multiple lunatics on a train, resigned to share tent with blunt Northern git, waded through waste high mud and wrestled axe wielding octopuses to see them. This view from half a mile away with washy sound ricocheting off fences, trees and toilets probably matches her expectations.

We eventually find place to pitch tent that isn’t a complete quagmire.  The tent is thrown up, kit is dumped and we plother down to Pyramid stage in time to see 1½ songs by Merseyside gods.  Nothing Lasts Forever seems a little subdued for the circumstances but Do It Clean is wonderful, if a physical impossibility. Clearly chosen tongue in cheek. It stops raining and our spirits rise. But this is worse than any of the pictures in the paper had prepared us for.

We shift around the stage about 20 yards.  It takes us 20 minutes and we realise that the longer you stand still the further you sink. Terrorvision hit the stage and play a blinding, vibrant set. Pretend Best Friend on any other day would have had everyone dancing, but by the time feet are sucked out of cloying mud to partake of a shimmy, the track has finished.

Next we wade to the Acoustic stage by skirting round a lake of liquid, quivering mud. Plenty have waded in and are dancing, slithering and drinking caked in the brown stuff and with tufts of straw attaching itself to the mud. It really is a visually pleasing aspect
Only a matter of time before one of us goes over. Indeed I see the first signs of Sue’s instability almost immediately. She stumbles in the gloop and instinctively tries to grab anyone nearby. The resultant wild arm flailing was later judged to have powered most of that evening’s lighting at the Green Field. Had Sue actually grabbed anyone during the manouevre, it would have prompted a fairly nasty domino effect. I made a mental note to stand well back. 

We find the Acoustic Tent via the mulled wine stall with which we are due to become well aquainted. Tamalin are on and prove very popular. Great instrumentals.  They seem to be performing adequately despite their stylist and equipment security team going awol… Catch up with Shiny who is looking after the band today and express our gratitude for the passes again, this time in Budweiser. Its great to see her and we ‘ave a larf. Time for another drink.  Say goodbye to Shiny and venture onward.

3.30pm
Catch a couple of Levellers tunes on the Pyramid stage. They sound pretty good.  Lead singer Mark Chadwick is wearing a shirt he must have borrowed from the Beach Boys.  Never mind.  We try to get back stage with our fancy red wrist tags…and fail miserably.  All the stewards are Scottish and say ‘Try the other side of the stage’.  How many sides are there to this pyramid?

4.00pm
Back to the tent in a brief interlude before the evening’s entertainment to sort out roll mats, sleeping bags and rucksacks. Once that’s done, inevitably realise there’s no room for us in the tent.  So we try again.  Once inside I lever off my muddy boots that weigh three times more than when I put them on. This is a mistake.  The catapulting motion liberally covers everything inside tent with chunks of congealing earth. It is now only slightly better inside than out.

We are pitched quite near one of the perimeter fences. There is a slow trickle of people jumping over them into festival site - a decent 20 foot leap.  PC Plod and his mate (of whom we shall hear more later) goes to the fence to sort out these interlopers. He spends a good few minutes observing and just hoping they will go away, before he resigns himself to a confrontation.

Amazingly, after a few persuasive words, they leap back over the fence (only to reappear later when Plod has moved on).  Plod’s mate is feeling pretty smug at this stunning display of forthright policing.  He wanders over to our tent and mischeviously catches Sue’s eye.  He’s a canny bugger, this one.  Sharp as a blade, too.  “Come to see some bands have you then?” Sue momentarily foxed by this question of the bleeding obvious.  “Have they started yet?” he continues.  Sue asks him to repeat that.  She didn’t quite catch it because of the noise of the band on stage.

I dive back into the tent and find something to shove in my gob to muffle the laughter.  Sue is now at the mercy of this suave silver-tongued law enforcer.  “How are your feet then?” is his killer line. This is the second best chat up of the weekend. Only bettered by “Do you want to see my tent?” overheard on Saturday.

6.00pm
Give Beck a miss and go to the market  for fuel - and a drop more mulled wine – which never hurts.  The choice of food is incredible. Sue is in her vegetarian element.  Indecision about which stall to attack leads to a number of wobbling in the mud incidents where Sue’s feet are unable to follow the body’s subtle and many shifts of direction. Odds shorten on Sue being first in mud.

6.45pm
Hit the Pyramid stage for an absolutely blinding set by Supergrass.  One of the bands I’d been most looking forward to seeing and they didn’t disappoint. There is a stonking atmosphere and Alright, Richard III, and In It For The Money were all crowd pleasers. But a cheeky Sun Hits the Sky was a majestic, if ironic, set closer. Brilliant.

8-30pm
Sharon Shannon is playing her extraordinary mix of fiddle and accordian Irish folk to a crowd bursting the seams of the Acoustic Tent. She is excellent and feeds off the raucous energy to stir up a right old Celtic storm. She benefits from a cracking sound too, probably the best we get at the festival.

9-10pm
First bad clash of the night. We compromise badly by seeing a bit of The Smashing Pumpkins on the Pyramid Stage.1979 and Porcelina of the Vast Oceans ring out across this surreal scene under Billy Corgan’s insistent vocals. We want to see The Seahorses too and so shimmy over to the Other Stage. But it takes ages because with the thickening sludge sucking in stray punters to a filthy end, we are consigned to the duckboards. A trench warfare of single file queuing at the worst pinchpoints. We just about catch the end of the band.

The mud here is of a different quality. I’m fascinated: less deep but more slippy than elsewhere.  I muse and speculate on the possibly geology of the field and it’s environs that might produce this strange occurrence. Meanwhile Sue has gone for a drink.

9-45pm
Ash play a good set, smashing out a more punky, edgy sound than on record and they go down well with crowd.  Angel Interceptor is a classic and Petrol for the encore was incidendiary. Ho ho.

We discover that this stage has been out of action nearly all day because it was sinking – literally - into the mud. The Seahorses were the first band to play.  We consider ourselves to be very fortunate, pat our selves on the back (thereby nearly falling over) and go for a drink.

11.15pm
In the dark, the lights from the stage reflecting on the gloop to make the surroundings appear even more like a shimmering sea. If the Eskimos really do have 50 words for snow then we must be getting there for mud analogies in this piece alone.  Reef play great set - put a lot in to it. Place Your Hands is a glorious highlight.

12-30am
Beer, wine, chips and we then wend our weary way home.  Avail ourselves of the services of a Mexican gunslinger serving tequila slammers from his bullet belt. Splendid innovation. Still neither of us has fallen over… these should help, then.

The tent seems reasonably OK.  No room for the walk in wardrobe though. I can’t find the foot spa and I’ll need the trouser press in the morning.  The clock/radio/teasmade has stopped and the barby has gone out.  I woke in night because of horrible smell. Discover that Sue has put an air freshener next to my feet.

Saturday

9.30am
Awoken by the touching conversation of some Yuppy Glastonbury Virgins in a nearby tent about toilet habits.  Regularity of visits during the festival seems to be of particular interest.  One bloke is very pleased with himself: “Well, so far, I’ve only been for a slash, so its been OK, right, but this morning, right, I’ve had six slices of bread, yeah.”  His partner replies by describing a shower scene that would make Psycho seem dull. We were treated to a vivid account of her toilet duties - consistency, regularity, speed, direction, etc - and about her encounter in the Radio 1 hot showers where she stumbled upon a load of hippies who all showered together with nothing on! (Isn’t that how showers work?) And there were a few pot plants in there as well.  Not sure if they were naked.  She concluded that ‘You should do it, you really should do it’.  We thought we might not.  

10.40am
Caught the end of The Wannadies on the Pyramid stage who sounded pretty good despite a horrible (early!) morning slot.  Quite a few people down to see them. 

Head over to the Market.  There has been no rain and the mud has developed an engaging cloying quality that subtly attempts to prise the boot from the foot whilst one stands there minding one’s own business, drinking and eating.  It’s worse than yesterday. Possibly.

Whilst munching on a particularly greasy bacon, egg, mushroom and brown sauce roll, I overheard one festival-goer who, whilst obviously having a good time, remarks “I wish Jim Morrison was here.  Shame he’s dead.” Some people are never satisfied.

12.15pm
Shopping trip is cut short in order to nip back to Pyramid stage.  Republica are on and they play really well. Both agree that they were better than expected.  Singer Saffron really goes for it.  Band show hitherto hidden subtlety and complexity.  Enough analysis. Bloody hell, it’s time for another drink.

1.30pm
Go off exploring but journey halted by inconsiderate young lady who stops immediately in front of Sue.  Sue tries to adjust, but her feet don’t move with her and before long she’s doing the windmill again and I’m standing back again.

Unfortunately she regains her balance. All bets are still on. 

2.00pm
Meander our way to the Dance Tent despite reluctance to actually step inside this unknown and unnerving territory. Hesitation well placed. Not natural ravers. Sue takes photo of man who thinks he is, however, betrayed by a rather lovely dayglo shirt patterned with purple, blue and indigo eyes, clashing subtly with tattoos on his arm and neck. Stick around for two Moodswings ditties before hightailing it. Terrible.

2.30pm
A-ha.  Find our way into the back stage area. Rub shoulders with some mega-stars in the bar (well with each other when Sue played stuck-in-mud again).  Found out later that Paul-brother-of- Liam-and-Noel Gallagher was stood right next to us.  Sue thought he looked like a mate of hers and nearly when up to him and said “Spike!  Long time no see!  How’s it going?” She would have been very disapponted to hear him say “Er, sorry, I’m Paul Gallagher actually.”

3.30pm
Time to kick back at the Green Field.  Options included making willow pencils for 10p and dream-catchers for 50p. Given that Sue’s arm-flailing had been powering most of the field, we thought we should have got a couple of free goes. So we moved along.

Log jam on the bridge trying to get to the Healing Field.  A boy playing with bells attached to bridge is told to ‘Come along Garland, you can’t stop here!’ This could only be Glastonbury.

Spent a cool half-hour in the Croissant-Neuf circus tent watching a brilliant Irish band FOS Bros blaze through some traditional reels and gigs and some of their own stuff, too.  Manic fiddle player had had too much hash cake, but he was excellent, nevertheless.

4.15pm
Walking back through the sticky mud, we contemplate the philosophy of nearby woman who said “Just pretend the mud is like a field of chocolate spread”. This makes Sue salivate, so we go to find something to eat. Sat outside a Real Sausages stall, the girl behind counter shouts at me as I was taking a photo of bloke falling in the mud. “Go over there and fall down yourself and I‘ll take a photo of you! Haa. Ha.”  Well, unfortunately for her a bloke walking past the stall thought she was talking to him and flicks her the ‘v’s. The sign on the van says ‘Welcome.  Real Sausages.  Smart Casual Only.’

6.10pm
Acoustic Tent is packed for Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel.  Massive cheer when he appears and we get a good mix of old hits and new stuff. ‘Sebastian’ is poignant and ‘Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)’ is the highlight, of course.  A classic that raises the hairs on the back of the neck and there’s a lot of emotion about.

7.30pm
Make our way back to the market.  An hour or so until the next band - time to eat and drink and shop. And finally it happens. Sue falls over. Out of nowhere, the legs slide in opposite directions, Sue does the splits and she’s gone. A mixture of hilarity and panic decorates her face.  I’m too busy laughing to help.

9.00pm
Ocean Colour Scene put in a pretty good set, but Steve Craddock is wearing an outrageously ridiculous hat, so the band lose a couple of points.  Some of the songs are a wee bit on the dull side, but everyone waves their arms, trying to copy Sue’s windmill impression, to songs like Day We Caught the Train and The Riverboat Song.

10.15pm
Try to get a drink at the bar, but the crush is incredible, so we find ourselves stuck in the mud for a few minutes - makes a change, Decide that Virgin Cola from the ice cream van is a better idea.  Stand there for 10 minutes before we realise the people in front of us are not in the queue.  Rain starts to fall for the first time this weekend as we drink our cokes.  People stand behind us for 10 minutes before they realise we are not in the queue.

10.45pm
Electric sense of anticipation before Radiohead. And no-one is disappointed.  Stunning performance.  The OK Computer material is dramatic, majesterial and spooky in this environment. Thom Yorke is so very impressive.  Creep is the highlight from the back catalogue, but an excellent No Surprises steals the show when we get an impromptu firework display from somewhere else on the site half way through the song. 

We head over to the Other Stage and just see Kula Shaker play Govinda plus a couple of encores, before they finish.  Sounded really good, but not sure it was worth the hike.

1.15am
Sue goes to loo for only time in 4 days.  Unbelievable.

1.30am
Long slow wend up the hill away from the amphitheatre of dreams and attempt to find the tent.  With aching limbs and mashed brains, this will be a challenge. I give the torch to Sue.  This is a mistake.  Zing. Whilst picking her way through tents, she trips over a guy rope, falls flat on her face and drops the torch.  The crowd inside seem unaware that half of their tent has caved in. We don’t hang around for the realization. Last time Sue entrusted with the torch.

Sunday

10.30am
A lie in - no toilet conversations from nearby tents, although we understand Piers, one of our Yuppy colleagues has been a little upset and was close to leaving.  Bless.  Gentle amble down to main drag.  Mud has developed a cake mix consistency and is easier to walk on in places. Spot of breakfast at the meeting place and splash of mulled wine at the mulled wine place.  It is almost warm.  Bare flesh is on view.  Photos were taken to prove it.

12.45pm
The Blue Nile play an unexpectedly excellent set on the Pyramid stage.  Full of warmth, good humour and cracking songs.  Just the job on a mellow Sunday morning and one of the best moments of the whole festival.   Robert Bell gets a bit carried away and indulges in spontaneaous hand-clapping. He is wearing a t-shirt which he could have borrowed from the Levellers who might have borrowed it from the Beach Boys. Best heckle of the Festival too. After Walk Across the Rooftops a bloke in the crowd shouts out “Can you play that again, but with more treble on the guitar?” Paul Buchanan retorts, “You must be our producer - that’s why it takes us three years to record an album!” It’s always nice to hear a bit of hearty banter. 

Billy Bragg is next up so we run like hell.

2.00pm
Shopping is done: a nice Glastonbury long sleeved T-shirt (slim fit) for me; an equally nice Glastonbury short-sleeved T-shirt (extra large) for Sue. (That’s what it says on the labels!)  Also buy beautiful tie-dye sleeping suit for soon to be baby Atkinson.  Mrs A will love it.  Pretty, understated lighter purchased for Shiny as a thank-you.  A little thought goes a long way.

3.00pm
Bigger crowd for Sheryl Crow who is sporting a cool stetson and some less cool yellow shades. She plays well and is appreciated by a polite Sunday afternoon crowd.  Doesn’t set the place alight.  Just as well, probably.

4.40pm
Time for a spot more eating, drinking and shopping before we pick our spot and settle back for Van Morrison.  Van the Man wasn’t on his best form today and didn’t catch the mood of the festival. He needed to play more of his hits, but he almost never does. Grumpy old artistic git-ness. Still, he’s bloody good at what he does, the band were superb and this was all very pleasant really. Nobody complained too much.

6.15pm
Overheard in a tent on way back to stage: “Did anyone bring a rolling pin?” Not sure if this was for cake baking or head battering. Bizarre either way.

7.00pm
Sue encounters drunken man having an argument with his wife by the Pyramid stage.  He turns to Sue and says “What day is it?” Sue replies “I dunno!” Man says, “See, I knew I was right!” Double bizarre. 

7.25pm
Popped along to the Other Stage to catch a bit of Live, who were OK when they played songs of the first album, but nothing startling.  This field is the worst part of the site and still represents a skating rink. Even by day three there are stacks of people who enjoy nothing more than chucking themselves around in murky pools of brown gunge. We pass a youth who is covered head to foot in mud and beer. He collapses to his knees, looks despairingly at his mates and squeaks “I can’t go on.  I’ve had it.  My voice has gone funny.  I can’t even speak anymore.” His mates simply stand around necking cans of scrumpy.

8.45pm
Toddle off to the Pyramid stage after a little snack-ette to see who has replaced Stevie Winwood for the Sunday evening slot.  Delighted to see that Kula Shaker are to play again.  They change the set around a bit from last night (apparently) and do a cover version of a Neil Young song who had been rumoured to be turning up (but I think that’s a Glasto tradition now) Lead singer is a mickey-taker, but the band play stonking show. Ash are due to play another set as well.

10.30pm
Back to the Other Stage because we don’t want to see Ash again.  I ‘feast’ on spinach and peanut satay with cous-cous, mixed veg and pitta.  It is in fact delicious, but I feel rumblings.  Sue suggests I sleep outside the tent this evening, with the air freshener.

11.00pm
Time to sit back and soak up the cool sounds of The Bluetones and then its all over.  Boo.  Take a circuitous route back to the tent soaking up the atmosphere.  Call one last time at a wine bar.

Meet a man who, very generously, is giving away free hugs.  Many people take him up on his offer, but Sue declines.  This man has rings and piercings all over his head.  There is no telling the trouble that might be caused should any of these get cottered in Sue’s big hair, mid hug.  Is there a fire brigade service on site with extraction equipment?  Warily, we move on.

1.00am
It’s serious party time up by the tent.  Many people have already packed up and gone, leaving room for plenty of fires and there is a slew of firecrackers, flares and ghetto blasters.  Eventually drop off to sleep when a downpour puts out the parties.

Monday

8.30am
Woken early by sound of crashing tent poles of kindly neighbours preparing to leave.  So we followed suit and packed up the tent. The walk back to the pick up point felt twice as long as on way in and we reluctantly joined the long queues for shuttle buses to Castle Carey.  One of the people in front of us was attempting to roll a joint resting on his mate’s rucksack.  “Get it off”, said the rucksack owner, “Get it off. It’s weighing me down”.

11.00am           
Castle Carey station is awash with dirty, smelly, crusty, tired and skint festival goers who have just discovered that the London-bound train has passed through without stopping.  Most likely he took one looked at the humming platform and put his foot down. But no, it transpires that a lorry has recently hit a bridge at the next station down the line and nothing is moving in or out.  It’s chaos. Eventually, we sneak our way near the front of the queue by nipping down the back of some portacabins.  When the platform is opened up again, we are amongst the lucky few who make it on. 

11.50am
The next London train is horribly late and pretty full, but we squeeze in at the end of one carriage.  It seems that everyone on the train has just come back from a twin-set and pearls holiday in Paignton. They are horror struck at the mob of primordial creatures invading their train. A scene from the forthcoming movie ‘Attack of the Dreadlock Swamp Zombie Travellers’. As rock n roll as it sounds, we have reserved seats in the next carriage. But no chance of claiming them. Still, the entertainment here is better. One confused old dear who wants to get off at Reading has us all looking for her ‘black’ suitcase.  She can’t remember which of 350 ‘black’ suitcases in the vestibule it is.  Things go from bad to worse when a stack of cases and rucksacks fall on top of a festival goer who is trying to help her. The train is held up whilst a guard tries to find the right one. It seems that she still can’t identify it but decides to take one anyway.  What the Hell.

3pm
Mrs A has collected some excellent cuttings from the press’ enthusiastic mudfest reporting. Some great pictures. Now back home - washed, showered and changed - it seems hard to believe we were in amongst it. 



Looking back now at the line up from 97 there are massive bands that we made no attempt to see like Ray Davies/The Kinks, The Orb and The Prodigy. But it's the bands you don't know rather than the bands you do that really make the event special.  So many acts we glimpsed for a few tunes on small or informal stages and then moved on. Names lost in the mists of time. Who knows what became of them. Jake Bugg's parents maybe?  

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Royal Ascot already


I’ve been rubbish at any sort of punting for the last few weeks, successful or no. With Royal Ascot on the horizon, I intend to make concerted effort next week.

Sad to note that Sir Henry Cecil won’t be there. He lost his long fight with that vile disease cancer in the very season after the retirement of the best horse he ever trained. It's easy to over romanticize the relationship between Cecil and Frankel. But for all the world it looked like the wonder-horse’s perfect season gave HRAC something to live for last year. The racing public has no real access to the private world of the Cecils (nor should it) so who knows what combination of treatment, support and will power was keeping the master trainer going. But there is no cheap sentimentality in suggesting that Frankel was a big factor. Indeed Cecil admitted as much in a very brief interview after the horse’s final appearance at Ascot in October.

My own fondest memory of Cecil's valedictory season is inevitably tinged with healthy northern bias. The touching and heartfelt reception he received from the knowledgeable racing folk at York after the International in August was as deserved as it was generous. The master of Warren House had been away from the races since early Summer before arriving on the Knavesmire to witness (arguably) Frankel's most devastating performance. This frail, hoarse, wracked and riddled gentleman had become a national institution by then and was given a standing ovation by a crowd who appreciated the effort it had taken for him to get there.

Cecil had many the qualities that endear him to the British public: an aristocratic, charming, polite and slightly aloof character with a whiff of roguishness and a hint of controversy (witness the high profile fallouts with owners over the years). An immensely likeable man who, latterly, was filled with oodles of humility. More than anything, an instinctive horseman who tenderly nurtured the talents of a staggering number of classic and Group One performers. For an insight into the impact on genuine racing fans, have a read of this excellent blog by Horseracingchat

I did indulge in a small spot of punting a week or so ago when good friend Julie and her book club pals had a trip to Bath races. I like the ambition that this particular book club is showing. Julie asked if I had any hot tips for the meeting. Bath racecourse, the highest flat track in England, is more celebrated for its imperious aspect over the Mendips than its quality of racing. 

I had a look at the card all the same and texted Julie a couple of likely sorts from Richard Hannon in the 2 yo maidens and one or two outsiders who might like the drying ground. One of the Hannon runners won, admittedly at a skinny enough price and then in the very last of an eight race card, Powerful Wind screamed home by 3 lengths in a 5f sprint at 8-1. I was feeling very smug. My phone rattled and I clicked to read the surely congratulatory text. “Thanks for the Powerful Wind tip. Unfortunately we left before the last.”

This was not the first time I’d experienced such a thing at Bath. A good few years ago, I’d bunked off early from a conference in the area to catch the action at Bath. I’d asked sprint specialist Bacchy if he had any advice. He came up trumps in the last, some dodgy class 6 5f event. However, I had had a retched afternoon and, faced with a long journey back, cut my losses and headed home. Bacchy’s tip Hello Roberto scrambled home by three parts of a length at 6-1. I felt sick.

I’ll be looking for a bit more follow through at Royal Ascot next week. So much to look forward to, despite recent defections.

The Queen Anne is a strong event to kick off the week. I’m looking forward to seeing Animal Kingdom whose form is over the horizon from the rest of the field. I like Elusive Kate (8-1) who could go close if Animal Kingdom has a blip here. Aljamaaheer is progressive and I may attempt to extract some value at around 14-1.

The St James Palace is fascinating. Two of the principals are on a recovery mission. Dawn Approach after blowing out in the Derby and Toronado after the 2,000 Guineas. In the meantime, Magician looked all class in the Irish 2,000 Guineas and the form was franked by Trading Leather at The Curragh last week. He’ll give Dawn Approach a race even back over that one’s optimum trip.

Wednesday’s Prince of Wales is equally fascinating where Camelot will try to overturn the recent Irish Tattersalls Gold Cup defeat by Al Kazeem. He may have his work cut out. I like Mukhadram who has the progressive and unexposed profile that suckers me in every time. 12-1 would be attractive. This is a high class field though. The Fugue and Maxios bring Group 1 credentials and Side Glance and Red Cadeaux bring successful globetrotting experience.  

When Times Up puts it all together under the right circumstances he can be a proper Group 1 performer. He had the winner of the Gold Cup behind him when winning the Doncaster Cup last season, but may have needed his run at Sandown in May when giving weight away all round. In an open looking renewal of Thursday’s Gold Cup, 10-1 about the Ed Dunlop charge will see me nibbling away.

Plenty of interest later in the week, of course. Others on my list, should they turn up in the right races are Battle of Marengo (not given the best ride in the Derby), Fiftyshadesofgrey (a rare 2 y-o to have caught my eye), Remote (franked by Baltic Knight on Saturday), Kitten On The Run (Luca Cumani plot horse, I swear) and Windhoek (Mark Johnson’s best horse at the moment).

Back in the ring to take another swing…


Saturday, 15 June 2013

Trials of life


Not the cheeriest post I’ve ever written coming up, so feel free to look away now. This is about a generally crappy time that the family is navigating its way through. Though not without its moments of humour, it has to be said.

The hitherto indestructible and irrepressible Granny Milner, unwitting star of a good number of these blog posts, is in a bad way.

An operation to clear a blockage in her throat recently went wrong and resulted in a punctured trachea. During the procedure an inoperable malignant growth was discovered in the same place. It became obvious that she was facing two significant battles. The first was to recover from the operation and the infections that were coursing round her body as a result of the puncture. For at least a couple of days, things were touch and go. But Granny has some hidden strengths and reserves of grit. She seems to be coming through that phase. It’s good to see flashes of cheeky humour and selfless spirit returning.

The second battle is one she may not win in the long term. But that spirit and humour will enable her to wring every last drop of pleasure and quality from the palliative care that is to come. We are anticipating Granny coming home next week - which is massive progress - ahead of a radiotherapy course. She’s now out of a private room and on to a ward with others at whom she will be talking incessantly to make up for lost time whilst in isolation. The throat may be shot to pieces as regards a feeding mechanism, but remarkably the voice is totally intact. How could it ever have been any other way? Granny’s strategy, of course, is to get as many words out as quickly as possible just in case the larynx packs up as well. The audience for, and subject of those words is largely inconsequential...

Mrs A has had a grim time. Dealing with the rumour that one’s nearest and dearest may well be mortal after all is deeply testing. Add in the daily shuttle to Oxford as if attached to the place on a length of unforgiving elastic, and then assuming the role of news filter for a waiting, concerned world makes for a tough and exhausting existence.

There are silver linings of course. The legendary Auntie Betty is over from Florida (84th birthday on Monday) and spending a lot of time with her one remaining sister. She had been concerned about Granny’s deteriorating condition for a while. In some unfathomable act of spooky premonition she booked the flight and arrived in Britain about two days before the throat procedure was confirmed for the following week. And now that things have gone wrong, there is nowhere else on the planet that she would rather be. 

But spare some pity for the nursing staff. Couped up in the Churchill Hospital with those two for about a month. One confused but chatty. The other loud but deaf.  A potent mixture.

Granny: “I’m going for an x-ray later. Or is it a scan? Or was that yesterday?”
Betty: “WHART? AN X-RAY DID YOU SAY? OH MY GARD! NOT ANOTHER ONE. OH MY GARD! WHY DOES SHE NEED ANOTHER X-RAY?  NOBODY TELLS ME ANYTHING IN THIS PLACE”.

Shuffle and repeat.

Mrs A’s sister Sue has just arrived from Tenerife too. Granny has loved seeing her. But I’m not sure it’s helping the general confusion about who is who at the hospital. Granny introduced her daughter to the duty nurse yesterday as her sister from Florida! Clearly ageing well. 84 going on 47.

Sue’s arrival was meant to be a little surprise for Auntie Betty, just to give her something to cheer her up whilst she’s here. But Granny has been trying hard to harpoon the plans.

“See these new socks, Betty? They were from Sue yesterday when she came in.”
“OH YEAH, NICE. WHART? WHO DID YOU SAY?”

We had a scream the other night when Betty was staying with us. The whole Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Frank Sinatra sing-a-long experience. The four of us were sat around the table with Betty whilst she was crooning along with Neil Diamond,

“THEY COME TO AMERICA! TODAY! TODAY!”

The girls were laughing along.

“AH, NEIL DIAMOND’, WHAT A HUNK.” Betty uttered, in that side-of-the-mouth delivery, wistful look in her eyes.

They both glanced at her and then at each other with grins that said, “Did my 84 year old Auntie just describe Neil Diamond as a hunk?” Betty caught their looks.

“OH YEAH. WITH THAT SEQUINED SHIRT OPEN ALL THE WAY TO THE NAVAL, THAT BIG BUSHY HAIRY CHEST AND TIGHT TROUSERS. WOW! I MEAN WOW! OH MY GARD, WHAT A LOOKER, RIGHT?”

Fantastic. These two positive, selfless, warm and unashamedly individual sisters are an inspiration. 

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Betting by auction


Punting has been at a very low ebb so far this Summer. Too much other stuff going on just now. Not all of it very nice. But in an effort to refocus my priorities I’ve just bought some tickets for a fixture at Newmarket’s July course. A very fine course. So much softer and fuzzy that the exposed Rowley Mile.


 Although it may not feel that way once McFly hit the stage. Yes, it’s another racing/music combo. My all too obvious plan is to engender some love of horse racing in my girls by bribing them with an act they might like. Last year it was Jessie J at Sandown and the year before it was Ollie Murs. Daughter No 1 is particularly pleased with the McFly offering. I was cheered and said,
“Yeah, I quite like that ‘Year 3000’ thing.” 
“That was Busted, Dad”, she retorted. “But they are similar I suppose.”
 Patronised by my children. Again.

I was reminded of the first racing/music event I went to a few years ago, when the idea was innovative and fresh.

My mate Nick was to blame. Nick and a school summer fair. Such events tend to follow a tried and tested formula: parents donate wine, beer, food, chocolates and toileteries to the school and then pay exorbitant raffle ticket prices to win them back. They help their offspring create variations of throw/guess/dip games to win sweets/stickers/cakes. If they are lucky, amongst the tat, broken toy and home-made gift stalls, parents will stumble upon a bar and a hot-dog stand. This isn’t criticism. School associations need to raise cash and parents rise to their responsibilities with a mixture of resigned stoicism and secret pleasure.

Nick pitched up at just such an event to support his son’s school during the boiling summer of 2004. Amongst the ‘find the lolly in the frogspawn’ tables and the ‘guess the combined weight of the teaching assistants’ games, Nick spotted a stall proclaiming a silent auction. A quick shuftie at the prize list sent Nick’s eyebrows into overdrive: hidden between the cut and blow dry at Mario’s and a family meal at Wong Kei’s was a very plainly stated voucher for two in the Queens Stand at any weekday evening meeting at Epsom Downs. Nick’s inquisitive looks prompted a conversation with the stall minder.
“That’s Epsom the racecourse?”
 He checked, just to be clear. It was confirmed that the prize was neither an evening of salt related medicinal pleasures nor a free pillow stuffing service offered by a misleadingly monickered dry cleaners. Indeed someone on the parent’s committee was in fact well-connected at the track. The tickets had generously been blagged as a school fundraising opportunity.

So Nick enthusiastically scribbled his bid on the proffered slip and carefully placed it in an envelope. Whether he furtively snuck glances to either side before sealing went unrecorded. The rules were simple: the highest blind bid won each of the prizes. After some lubrication in the beer tent and, clearly some mulling of the options, Nick returned to the silent auction table and engaged the host in conversation again. Nick pondered out loud his view that he might submit another, slightly higher bid for the racing tickets. Yes, this was a silent auction….but not necessarily uncommunicative. Some well-placed body language intimated that another bid might now be necessary; and as Nick’s pen hovered over a figure on the paper, a quick exchange of glances and a barely perceptible shimmy of the hand suggested that a fractionally higher value might just do the job.

And sure enough, half an hour later, our hero was pronounced the winner of the auction, having secured the pair of tickets for the princely sum of £20!

A couple of days later, Nick and I were having a conversation about this unmitigated success in the pub. I was roaring with laughter! What a coup. Top price tickets for the best end at the home of the Derby cost easily 50 notes each. As the conversation unfolded, Nick set out the range of dates available to him.
“So anyway, Den doesn’t fancy going, so if you can manage one of the fixtures, do you fancy a ticket?” 
“Do I?” I yelped, close to the top of my register. 
“Ahem. Do I?” I repeated, with a fraction more considered baritone. “No, come on. Den must want this, I couldn’t possibly…” 
“Look, I’ll check again, but she’s really not that bothered. And have you seen the new promotion they’ve brought in? Rock and racing! There’s gigs after some of the fixtures.”
We had a look at the flyer. Status Quo were booked for one of the July meetings. That was too much. It would be rude not to.

So on a balmy late Summer’s afternoon we bunked off work early and landed at Tattenham Corner attired in the appropriate smart casual. As we approached the turnstiles for the Queen’s Stand my mind rolled back to my first visit here on Oaks Day a couple of years before when we were waved away from that entrance by a snooty red-coated steward who scoffed at our tickets and sent us across the car park to the cheap seats. Not today, I thought, before I chucked Nick a side long look.
“Is this where you tell me it’s a windup?” 
“If it is, I’m being wound up too!”
 No alarms though. We gained admission with a polite welcome and were soon knocking back pints of guiness in the Mezzanine bar, checking out the view down the track from the outside balcony.

To be honest, the racing was fairly average fodder. There were a couple of interesting maiden events and a handicap or so to get stuck into. But that was hardly the point of this delicious jolly on such a gorgeous evening. We did actually have a couple of short-priced winners each to keep the sense of righteousness intact. Though I was aggrieved to see that a few Quo fans had breached the security to blatantly flaunt their patchwork denim jackets in our stand. I briefly considered dobbing them in, but that would be churlish. How easily I am seduced by my own false status (quo).


The seasoned rockers were comfortably entertaining. I had seen them on two occasions previously. Both times I had gone to see someone else. The first experience was at Knebworth when the majestic Queen were in full cry on the Live Magic tour. Quo were supporting. The next time was at the NEC in Birmingham where one of my favourite bands, classic Brit rockers Waysted were filling the undercard for Rossi’s lads. Waysted’s riff-heavy, balls out, hard rocking sound echoed around the third-full hanger of a venue and bounced off plastic bucket seats before crawling, shell-shocked and broken, into the indifferent ears of the Quo army supping gassy lager in the bars.

At Epsom, however, I had no divided loyalties. The band ripped through back-catalogue crowd-pleasers like the 80’s never happened. Even though these perpetual boogie merchants churned out big selling albums every 18 months or so, the most recent track they played was a solitary cut from 1988, ‘Burning Bridges’. Apart from that it was unadulterated 25 year-old three chord boogie pumped out with cheeky charm and easy confidence.

Our self-congratulatory mood in the Tattenham Corner boozer over a couple pints of IPA was soon burst. We were in understandably good spirits: a couple of winners, a top gig and bargain-bagging in the name of charity to boot. Winners all round. Until we tried to get home, at least.

We had missed the last train back to town. It didn’t feel that late. Indeed, by central London standards, it wasn’t. I hadn’t event thought to check. But the timetable couldn’t have been clearer. We stood around scratching our heads and squinting at the information boards as if prolonged staring would change its contents. Just then, a Southern Railways eight-car train pulled in. We breathed a sigh of relief and hopped on. The guard clocked us as he walked from the cab to the exit and stuck his head into the carriage.
“You’ll have a long wait there lads. This one doesn’t pull out until 6.05 tomorrow morning”.
He waited for us to haul our reluctant asses off the train before chuckling and manually closing the doors behind us.

We made a few inquiries. The mini-cab office was long closed. The nearest alternative station in Epsom proper was a 45 minute walk - and no guarantee of trains from there by then. The weekly bus had departed days ago….. Nick concluded there was only one option.
“I’ll call Den. She’ll come and get us.”
 I was distraught.
 “You can’t do that. It’s miles! And it’s late now”. 
“Well do you want to walk to Epsom? And than have to cab it from there anyway?”
 I relented. Nick found a public phone box (mobiles were pretty common by then, but far from indispensible - neither of us had brought ours), one of the few public services still available in this leafy part of Surrey at that hour. I didn’t hear the conversation, but there was a lot of shrugging shoulder action and holding upwards of palms in supplication.
“She’s on her way”, he said, poking his head out of the booth. 
“I don’t think Mrs A would have come”.
 Den turned up a while later, the two children fast asleep in the back seats. She’d had to wake them up and pile them into the Mondeo before setting off on the rescue mission. To assuage my guilt I sat in the front seat, telling Den how sorry we were and regaling her with stories of the night. I don’t think it helped.

Nick was cuddling his kids in the back. At Worcester Park I jumped out and checked my trains. As expected, the last one had gone and I was to be the guest of Nick and Den for the night. I climbed back into the car. 
“No joy. But the kebab shop over there is still open…”
 I felt, rather than saw, Nick’s grimace.
“Is it?”  
Den shot the car shot forward and we spat gravel, leaving the kebab shop well in our wake. I could just about detect the aroma of doner meat competing with the thick stench of burning rubber. A request too far maybe. I rang Mrs A from Nick and Den’s.
“You're bloody lucky”, she declared. “I wouldn’t have come for you!”