It was Bryn’s 40th birthday last Friday. By Sunday he was facebooking about buying seeds, gardening gloves and knee protectors ready for an afternoon of horticultural indulgence. By his own admission, the transformation from zestful youth to bucolic middle age had been meteoric. A mere two-day pupation.
His birthday bash was a good laugh. Brynaldo had taken over the ground floor of a tapas bar in Putney and filled the place with family, friends and an ipod’s worth of poptastic 80’s grooves. Some rather more pop than tastic. Was that really Belouis Some trading aural blows with Kylie, Queen and Kim Wylde?
We were staying over at Nick and Den’s and had left the four children to fend for themselves in Worcester Park for the evening. We kept disturbing visions of lasagne and dib-dab fuelled teenage mayhem at bay by drinking too much and turning off the mobiles…. This was Mrs A’s birthday bash too, in lieu of the previous day, Bryn having kindly avoided a clash and enabled us to hijack a small part of his celebrations. The last time the four of us were with Bryn and Debs was at their wedding. Den remembers most of that occasion really well. Right up to the point she passed out in our hotel room, rioja-crocked, and Nick - with eyebrows so knitted he could have made a cardie - took her home. Partly in disgust and partly in relief that it wasn’t him for a change.
We were all much more civilised on Friday, catching up with Pete, Ad, Paul, Andy, amongst others. Ben and Clare arrived and the six of us set ourselves up in the corner, plundering the magnificent tapas fayre produced at regular intervals. Cheers Bryn.
Ben and Clare are a little younger than us and have a gorgeous 11-month old daughter. Sometimes, the age difference/lifecycle thing around the table was palpable. At one point, Mrs A and I were engaged in some mildly humorous and sustained insult trading, whilst Nick was farting for England and getting some deserved grief from Den. I glanced up at Ben and Clare who were sitting close to each other, holding hands and calmly taking noting our behaviour. I could read Ben’s mind. “Oh, Christ”, he’s thinking. “This is going to be us in ten years time!” No worries Ben. You couldn’t wish for finer role models!
Ben and I had a good chat about blogs. He’s a proper blogger with an excellent line in left-of-centre education politics and a sizeable, burgeoning following of active commentators. Check out pencil and paper test. At that moment, Bryn popped over, hung an arm around my shoulders and said, “Davoski, There’s someone here wants to meet you after reading your blog!” Fantastic! I turned to Benaldo and tried to say something like, “Scuse me, Ben. My public awaits. You have your thousands of followers, I simply get asked for personal appearances.” But instead I just whooped something incoherent like “Wehey, Hahaha. Bloody hell!”
The evening drew to a close. Bryn was looking reasonably chipper when he departed. We’d had a top night and headed off in a 6 seater taxi on one of those two-destination rides with protracted debate about splitting the fare at the end. Nick’s house was first call and he gave Ben a £15 quid contribution.
“Is that about right? Blimey, I’m not sure.”
“Yep, no prob” says Ben
“Did you give Ben £15 as well”, said Nick to me, outside the cab
“No! Shit! Should I have done?”
“No, your right.” I fumble for my wallet and tap at the back seat window.
“What’s up guys?” inquires Ben
“We need to give you some more wedge”, I say.
“No, don’t think so, that’s about right”, responds the Boy Benaldo.
“Yeah, yeah, you’re gonna get clobbered otherwise. Er, here’s….a fiver! Does that make it about right?”
“Don’t ask me! Stop chucking money about!”
“How much did you give him?” asks Nick.
“A fiver”, I say, doubtfully.
“Sounds about right.”
And they were gone. Whisked away by a cabbie, wearing a care-worn, see-this–farce-every-Friday-night expression.
After a late finish, it was some time before we all surfaced in Nick and Den’s superb new kitchen extension, with a fridge big enough to sleep in that dispensed three sorts of ice. By then, I’d been out for the Racing Post for it was Grand National Day.
The Jenkins’ served up a stonking full English to soak up the previous evening’s excesses. And then it was time for some serious National study. The four children came up with, on the face of it, reasonable picks not without a chance. But not Mrs A, who stuck to the tried and tested formula of backing the biggest outsiders to the smallest stakes on the nose. She regularly reminds me of the year I laid off one of her ridiculous fancies, Sonavafushi, on Betfair just before the off at half the price I’d backed it hours earlier. This rag was still leading the race with a circuit to go and I was evacuating breeze blocks by the score! I’m pretty sure my lovely, forgiving wife would not have called in her £550 debt if Sonofavushi had prevailed. Pretty sure.
The racing at Aintree on the previous days had been excellent, though not without incident. The papers were full of pictures from the Topham Chase in which there had been spectacular falls. Miraculously, horses and jockeys had all got up and walked away. We were looking at one photo of Buffalo Bob rolling over Sean Quinlan. “Blimey”, exclaimed Den, “it’s amazing they survive isn’t it really?”. “Yes”, I said, though they all wear body protectors as standard these days”. “What, the horses..?” We all looked up at howled with derision. “….Oh, you mean the jockeys, then!” Images of strapping 17 hands high geldings prancing around with their torsos wrapped in carbon fibre vests played around our minds. Briefly.
We bade farewell and scooted back round the M25 to catch the race at home. Neighbour, Hellie joined us because her telly was on the blink. She’s an Austrian who has lived in the UK for about 60 years but refuses to shake off the accent. The running commentary she served up during the race reminded me of an old Peter West incident when this most dignified of cricket presenters was sat atop a shaky TV gantry with his head highly adjacent to an old-style loudspeakers. Just as Peter was about to interview two tea-time guests, the PA crackles in to life with details of second IX fixtures for August, or somesuch. Barely audible above the din, Peter says, “Yes, I suppose there was always a danger that would happen!” (Check out Sports Review 1980 0.38 mins in) Hellie provided us with a similar experience:
“Denis, my husband, you know he larffed zis race. He liked ze flat so match betta, but he alfays vatched zis race as vell. Vee haff neva been to zis race zo. All zose peepel. Too many yoo know. And zay say zere is a recession on. I can’t see it. Can yoo? Zey are probably all on benefits anyfay.
Look, zat is my horse. Oscar Time. And zat fon. Niche Market. I sink zat is Niche Market…vot are ze colours again? And zat is mine too, I just heard him mentioned by ze commentator. It’s hard to hear. Vot is he’s saying? Speak up man!
Off course I haven’t put any real money on any off zeez. I’m just vatching it for Denis. He vud never haff forgiven me if I didn’t vatch it. God rest his soul. I sink zat is mine in ze lead now, vat do yoo sink? Eh? Ballabriggs? Ok, I sink I haff been looking at ze wrong horse.”
And so it went. Hellie if you ever read this, my biggest apologies. We love you dearly, but I sincerely hope you see the comedy value in this.
There was precious little other comedy value in a race marred by the deaths of two horses. Not long after the horrific Newbury electrocution incident, dying horses were once again filling TV screens. This time projected into the living rooms of millions of families watching the nation’s biggest race. Press, Twitter and blog reactions provided a range of negative views from ridiculous, knee-jerk calls to ban the race through to one sickening article which likening the Grand National to bullfighting. This is an absolutely farcical and borderline libellous claim. The point of bullfighting is to kill the bull. The point of the Grand National is to win the race. They are light years apart.
Nevertheless, this sensationalist rubbish still highlights a contention about cruelty that racing finds difficult to shake off. Indeed one which racing has been slow to address thoroughly and reject with articulation. There were two deaths in this race. There have been ten in the last ten runnings. Is one death too many? Is ten acceptable? I don’t know what is an appropriate measure of such things. But I do know – or believe – that exposing horses to a small element of managed risk does not represent animal cruelty. Such arguments always run into the debate about compulsion versus freewill. Would the horses run and jump if they knew the risks in store? Well, we can never answer that and so it should be taken out of the equation. Trainers, owners and jockeys; rulemakers, equine vets and racecourses make those decision on the animals’ behalf. This is the very sphere in which the sport can and must improve: by providing the best care, the highest standards, the strongest governance. There’s still some way to go to reduce and manage the risk; to improve and develop aftercare. These surely are the next steps towards marshalling the pro-racing argument.
Blimey, got a bit heavy at the end there. Happy 40th Bryn. Hope you correctly assessed the risk of your gardening expedition. Knee protectors, yes. Body protectors, no!