Archive for the ‘Other readers and researchers’ Category

Preparing for the house move has taken up a lot of time in the last fortnight and the house is in uproar, with almost 100 boxes filled with many of our worldly goods and another ten or twelve containing my collection of Racing Calendars, with all the results back to the 18th century.

At Salisbury  last week I met Chris and Mary Pitt.  Chris is the author of one of the classic books of modern times, A Long Time Gone.  Not many racing books go beyond a first edition, but his definitive, highly esteemed work on all the racecourses that closed since 1900 did.  We had corresponded off and on ever since the 1990s, but this was the first time we had met.  It was a pleasure.  I was glad to hear that there are very few copies of his book about Worcester races left – buy now if you haven’t already!  His more recent one about Warwick is doing well and he’s well on the way working on his next project, which is about a racing family with a dramatic, hitherto-untold story.

I’ve had no answer as to whether my terms for the new project will prove acceptable.   If it doesn’t, I will revert to the original post-Salisbury and Ffos Las plan of leisurely research on a range of esoteric racing subjects.  They have no commercial outcome.  Books may or may not emerge, but I will simply do them for my own interest.

Whatever happens, this is the time to end my blog.  I have been round the block a few times describing the process of writing, and a degree of repetition has set in.  I started on 10 February 2011 when the Bath book was in preparation, encouraged by the lovely Diana, who set up the WordPress site for me.  Bath was completed in that first year, and five more books have been written since.

I can point to the blog having thousands of views and visitors.  Not all of them will be bots or malware.   The Racing Post kindly wrote about my blog one day.  Several people have been in touch and I’ve had some interesting correspondence.  Gregory, studying an Austrian artist who was briefly interned on Brighton racecourse; Alfred, about his great grandfather jockey; Scandinavian Stephanie probing the Alfred Day family and their in-laws; Andrew, striving to redeem the reputation of the 19th century Days.

So, with thanks to my readers, regular or occasional, I will bring the curtain down here.

But the research goes on!

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I only met John McCririck once, when he agreed to do some book-signing at Fontwell – not a course at which he was seen regularly.  We’d  already had the exceedingly successful launch, where Josh Gifford signed a hundred copies and remarked that he’d not written so much since his school days.  On a later occasion A P McCoy agreed to sign some.

McCririck was dressed in his familiar winter gear of tweeds, deerstalker and cigar.  I’m sure he completely baffled people who bought The History of Fontwell Park by scribbling a great long spidery screed on the title page that included something about Edwina Currie.  This was a few years after he appeared with her on the TV reality show Celebrity Wife Swap.  They didn’t hit it off.

People who didn’t want a book, but asked for their racecards or something else to be signed, were firmly rebuffed.  Yet anyone who wanted a photo taken with him was welcomed and he posed in his trademark wide-eyed open-mouthed style.  It was puzzlingly why one but not the other was acceptable.

I couldn’t find the Salisbury book in the Racing Post’s online Shop but I was reassured it was there, under New Titles, and it is also in the section called “Flat”.

Incidentally, when selling the book at Ascot a month or two ago a relatively new hardback “The Triumph of Henry Cecil” attracted a lot of interest from browsers.  Other racegoers who had already bought and read it commended it.  There have been other books about Cecil, but this one is the inside story about his revival from what had seemed a career-ending slump, with the glory of the Frankel years contrasting with his battle against cancer.

Now that Salisbury has been reviewed by the Post, I ought to send them Ffos Las.  I hope they treat it on its merits and don’t compare it with Salisbury, which has 400 years more history behind it.  I need to send copies of both to the British Library so that they will be there for posterity.

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The Salisbury book is reviewed in today’s Racing Post.

It’s pleasing, although quite sparing as regards comments about the quality of the book (“tales told in detail and told with devotion” is more or less all).

The writer takes the view that the older history is much more interesting than the present.  He does refer to several highlights of the course’s long-ago past that I hope will entice buyers. Racing Post review 300619

It’s a mixed blessing that the review is printed directly below one about Chris Pitt’s excellent book about the history of Warwick races.  Another course with a long history, it has the benefit of staging jump racing for the best part of 200 years, which is an activity that I feel generates more – and more interesting – incidents and anecdotes in a biography than a flat race-only course.  Presentationally the Warwick book is very attractive, there is a constant flow of interesting content and I’d say Chris is a livelier writer than me.  So, if you have any cash left over after buying Salisbury and Ffos Las, the Warwick book (titled Chandler’s Leap and Other Stories from Warwick Racecourse) is available from the racecourse for £16.50, presumably with postage and packing to add if necessary.

Last Monday the Daily Express article by Neil Clark about me was printed.  It’s pretty good, although the newspaper’s sub-editors have deleted some text and added some of their own.  There are some baffling typos (three years were added to my age, which instantly made me feel that much older) and it’s a pity it wasn’t published during Royal Ascot, but I am happy with it on the whole.  Their decision to have a picture of the Queen rather than me was a wise one.

Daily Express article re JB with pictures

I see no sign of it on the Express website.  Perhaps I’m being greedy!  Given that it was in the general features section in the middle of the printed newspaper, I wondered whether it would go under Sport, Lifestyle or Entertainment.

We sold some more books at Salisbury’s very pleasant meeting on Wednesday and heard some more positive feedback from those who had read it.

I’ve been writing to some of my old book-buying customers – some of whom have been on the mailing list for 20 years – and was gratified to receive prompt replies, containing cheques, asking with just one exception for both Salisbury and Ffos Las.  There are more marketing avenues to follow up for both books in the next few weeks.

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After the anticipated excitement two weeks ago of the Ffos Las book launch and Daily Express article, damp squib is the phrase that comes to mind.

Hardly anybody was at Ffos Las last Thursday week and the number of sales I made was tiny.  I signed more than I sold.  That was thanks to Tidds, one of the people who have worked there from the start, who had already bought a number of copies to give to different people.  He is one of those invaluable types (in any organisation) who knows where everything is, what happened x years in the past and what has to be done in the latest crisis.

Two of the possible four in-laws kept me company and gave me great moral support.  They really shouldn’t be let loose on a racecourse, though; I found they’d put £2 each way on a 4/11 favourite.  (It finished out of the frame)

There will be more of a push on the book this Thursday, which is close to the true 10th anniversary of the course’s opening.  Though I won’t be there, I hope they will get some local rugby-playing celebrities to sign copies, and endorse it in the other sense too.

The Daily Express feature, which was expected in the aftermath of the Derby, had to be deferred because there was too much Trump and D-Day news for it to be fitted in.  Until when, I don’t know.  I sincerely hope it will be in this week, tied in to Royal Ascot.

The day after Ffos Las, I travelled up to Uttoxeter, to go racing and meet some old friends.  It rained all day but the racegoers, many there for Sausage & Cider Festival (particularly the latter) didn’t seem too bothered.

Weather permitting, I will be back at Salisbury on the 26th trying to sell that book the annual members and the regulars who haven’t yet bought one.

I have nearly finished reading Chris Pitt’s book about Warwick.  It’s a good story and presentationally this book is much livelier than mine.   I’ll say more about it later.

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Double excitement here as the clock ticks down to two key events.  One is the launch of my new Ffos Las book, at the races there on Thursday evening.  In my typical pessimistic fashion, because I have not yet seen it in physical form, I worry that there’s something wrong.  So far it always has been all right on the night…

Some of the in-laws are going to be with me at Ffos Las to mark the occasion; there’s extra pressure!  Here’s hoping that the weather forecast (cool, bright spells and showers) is wrong.  It will have a bigger splash at their race meeting on the 20th, closer to the precise date of the course’s tenth anniversary.  Sadly I won’t be there for that, but it would be nice if some Welsh rugby celeb could be present to sign a few copies.

Before then I hope to see my name in the national press, if not in lights.  The Daily Express is doing a feature about me and my love of racecourses and writing about them.  This is entirely thanks to a very kind gentleman I met just a few weeks ago at Ascot when we were helping to sell books on Rupert’s stand.  Neil is a racing journalist who turns his hand to feature writing as well for the Express.  He’s a very versatile chap, for one of his most recent articles was about rabbits.

His pitch about me to the powers that be there was successful, and we have had some long chats that he has turned into a feature-length article.  It should appear on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday, but we may not know until going to the newsagents that day and buying the paper.  Appearing soon after the Derby and not long before Royal Ascot is particularly happy timing, when racing is more in the mind of the general public.

I hope this will boost Salisbury and Ffos Las book sales.

Neil himself has written a jolly good book himself about Edgar Wallace, a prolific author in the early part of the 20th century yet largely forgotten now.  His books weren’t exactly great literature, but they were page-turners and wildly popular.  In the 1920s one in four of all books bought in this country was an Edgar Wallace.  I bought a copy of Neil’s book at Ascot and have finished it already.

Since then I have started on Chris Pitt’s new book about the history of Warwick races.  It is coincidence that all these books about racecourses are being produced at the same time.

Despite all this going on, I must say that it feels peculiar not to have one of my own works to be getting on with researching, writing or checking – a situation I have rarely been in over the last 20 years.

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I had another grand day at Salisbury on Thursday, selling more copies of the book alongside Rupert, who invariably called out to any familiar faces, “How many would you like to buy?”

I was approached by various racegoers who came up to me to say they’d already finished it, and enjoyed it greatly.  “I read it in two settings”, said one.  “I couldn’t put it down,” said another.  It’s so nice that people liked it, and that they took the trouble to say so.

One gentleman apologetically pointed out three factual errors in the text, but he did it so charmingly I didn’t feel in the least chastised.  None of them were show-stoppers.  Nor was one misprint Jeremy found.  Nobody else has pointed it out – or thought it worth mentioning.  I’m told it’s almost inevitable that this sort of thing happens.  It’s hard to get 60,000 words completely correct.

We must have sold around a hundred so far, and that’s before any reviews have appeared.  You can buy it from me by cheque (only £14.50 including p&p for readers of this blog) or from the racecourse at


There are some great banners on the course advertising the book.  I must take a picture of one next time I’m there; not, perhaps, the one which is directly underneath a permanent sign saying “Toilets”.

Sales were quiet at Ascot’s two-day meeting the previous week.  The crowd was very small by Ascot standards on the Friday.  It was much bigger on Saturday but they weren’t very interested in books.  As it turned out, the writer David Ashforth (who was also present for signing duties), Rupert’s assistant Neil (another author) and I wound up buying each other’s books.

A flurry of correspondence with the Ffos Las printers, spotting and correcting various small misprints, culminated with me being sent a loose-paper copy of the book yesterday.  Just as well, as I found something wrong despite having made “final adjustments” at least three times before.  Once I’m satisfied (again) I’ll let them know and the presses can start rolling.  Apparently they’ll need two weeks to print the necessary number of copies, which brings us up to a few days before the planned launch date of Thursday 6 June.

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To my surprise Vice magazine has been added to the list of places where my name is quoted in connection with racing history.  I was approached by David Hillier, a journalist who had been commissioned to write an article about violence at the races, in view of trouble at Haydock in February, and at Ascot and other tracks last summer.  He was interested to know whether this was a new problem, and found me by searching online for “racing historian”.  Hooray for Google.  I was able to tell him the answer was definitely no.  Just think of Brighton Rock – and see the chapters in many of my books where 1920s gang warfare affected meetings such as genteel Bath, or 19th century chicanery with con-men, find-the-lady tables and welshing bookies.

I gave David quite a bit of material to consider.  I didn’t expect the whole lot to be quoted, but enough was used to justify me getting a name-check and an unexpected addition to my portfolio.

Vice is not as insalubrious as its name suggests, and the content is serious, quirky, and from my quick look at it, well-written.  But it’s not for the proverbial maiden aunt to read.  It can be read online here.


Meanwhile a revised proof of the Salisbury book from the printers should be with me in a few days, and I’m hopeful there won’t be many more versions before we can say “print”.  The last photo to be included, a group shot of staff and directors, has been received (necessitating a re-jig of the colour section, as it was of Cinemascope width rather than an ordinary landscape shape).  The front and back covers are 99% done.

Now I am concentrating on getting the Ffos Las text close to completion, while waiting to find out what we can spend on photos.  (Smaller book, smaller budget)


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My last post’s Option C has come true.  The printers of the Salisbury book have gone very quiet.  I know of no response to Jeremy’s email last Friday week, which pressed them for an updated quote for the job.  Perhaps they have replied and he hasn’t told me, but in that case I need to chase him.  Getting nowhere fast – behind schedule now – maybe we won’t make our launch date.

Domestic business means I haven’t done much on Ffos Las in the last few weeks.  I need only say the words “house selling” and “solicitors” to explain why.   Not that there is a huge amount to do on “the birth of a racecourse”.  There isn’t a lot more I can add to the text, although “text” is dignifying it somewhat.  It has a lot of rough edges.

The books are also compromised by the other work – writing articles and compiling statistics – that I am doing for various racecourses, which is subject to a series of deadlines every week.  It cannot, therefore, be put off.

It’s ironic that my interest in the past is now on the verge of being overtaken by my work on the present.  The latter, the more urgent, requires keeping up to date with current racing news, yet it has a short shelf-life (shades of the old cliché about yesterday’s newspapers being today’s chip wrappers).  Nevertheless the former will, I hope, have a rather longer existence, and I like to think my books will be of use to the next person who decides to write a history of Salisbury, or Fontwell or any of “my” other racecourses in 50 years’ time.  Or to the university student of the 23rd century, researching this remote period of ancient history, who may regard the very idea of a sport involving animals as positively medieval.

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I am still waiting to hear Jeremy’s comments about the Salisbury text.  Because of that I have left the latest of the two versions I’ve sent him alone.

I’ve also sent him my suggested list of images to have in the book.  Out of almost a hundred possibles my “short” list is about three dozen.  But they don’t include modern (ie post-2000) shots of good or famous horses winning there.  We’re now at the crunch time when we have to decide how much we want to pay press agencies for these photos.

I sought advice from the British Library about the presentation of certain historic maps. Their Map Room is a wonderful resource, but whenever I’ve been there I never see more than four or five people studying there.  They are usually outnumbered by the staff on the Enquiries desk, the security person who lets you in on production of a reader’s pass, and the people receiving maps from storage, handing them out, collecting them and sometimes making photocopies.  In other words, it’s often quiet there and the lady on the Enquiries counter was glad to be asked for guidance on a slightly obscure question, like the one I posed.

There is another racing book – or I should say booklet – in the pipeline.  I’ve gathered material on it off and on for over a year.  I’ve sort of been given the go-ahead a few times, although I’m still not completely sure it’s going to see the light of day.  Nevertheless I have made a start on composing something in this last fortnight and it looks like it won’t be as onerous a task as I first thought.  I’ve just returned from a weekend in Devon where, if it wasn’t raining, it looked ready to at any minute.  A lot of the time was spent indoors and with no wi-fi available to distract me, I was able to make good progress with this new book.  More news when I am 100% sure.

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Since the last post I’ve visited Jeremy, the boss at Salisbury, to talk about pictures that might go in the book.  We also resolved a few queries I had about points of detail and I’ve now sent him the draft text for him to read.  He’s got a few other things on the to-do list.  I must admit I’ve left the book alone for a week after that, due to domestic business, work on the weekly articles I do for regional papers, and some other ad hoc racing statistics that proved deceptively time-consuming.

One very welcome development in the last few days was the discovery of several historic photos of the course, whose existence I didn’t know about before.  This makes the process of selecting images for the book even more difficult.  In a good way, that is, as too much choice is better than too little.  We’d have to pay for them but I think we’ll find they’re good enough to justify the expenditure.

I’ve also been able to confirm that it’s all right for me to quote extensively from somebody else’s detailed research on a particular aspect of Salisbury’s history.  That’s very generous of them.  Generally I’d like to rewrite others’ input so that the overall style is consistent, but in this case I believe it would be better to leave the imported prose intact.

I’ve resumed contact with one of my other helpers who’d provided some family history information that shines extra light on certain parts of the story over 200 years ago.  I’d written to him – a letter, that is – because emails had gone unanswered.  It transpired that he had changed his broadband supplier and this had caused a lot of trouble for him.

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