Archive for the ‘Other readers and researchers’ Category

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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I remember once hearing someone quoting his favourite “most pretentious remark” he’d heard was by another person saying “as I was re-reading Moby Dick….”  A highly regarded but (according to the only person I know who has read it) a highly turgid book.  Well, I am re-reading Paul Mathieu’s Beckhampton, the 200-year story of the racing stables and the trainers, owners and horses connected with them.  It’s not all that long since I first read it, but it is the absolute opposite of turgid.  I don’t know how Paul manages to find out so many interesting stories and pack them so adroitly into his narrative.

That book and mine have certain people and subjects in common and I feel mine would be so much more amusing if I copied many more of Paul’s stories.  I won’t, of course, but it’s difficult and counter-productive not to use some of his insights.   I will use them sparingly, for I feel guilty that it wasn’t me that did the hard work unearthing them in the first place.  I console myself by ensuring I will acknowledge him unhesitatingly and with gratitude.

I’ve now re-read the whole of the Salisbury text.  It’s amazing how quickly the time goes when messing about with it.  Lately I’ve had to think about how to begin the story – ideally with a bang – and how to deal with discrete subjects that don’t easily fit into the main chronological narrative.  Wedge them in anyhow at the most suitable point?   Smuggle them into the final chapter?  Condemn them to being appendices?  If so, in what order?

Next I should search for every time I’ve left the word “check” in the text, and steel myself to sort out what to do to resolve those incidences.  It’s bound to involve scrabbling around in the loft peering at old Racing Calendars.

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Good progress with Salisbury.  I’m halfway through revising the first draft now.

I made welcome contact with a fellow researcher who bought three of my books.  His passion is Sea Pigeon, who was good enough to run in the Derby but is best known as a Champion Hurdler with a fine turn of foot.  He won it twice, latterly at the age of eleven under the most confident ride imaginable from John Francome.  He was the last in a glorious golden age of hurdlers from 1971-81 including Bula, Comedy Of Errors, Lanzarote, Night Nurse and Monksfield.

Fellow Researcher has 15 lever arch files about Sea Pigeon and I am now on a mission to help him identify some people in a photo of the horse on Derby Day 1973.   There’s somebody I know who might recognise them, who I hope to visit next month.  This is of academic interest, to say the least, but sometimes We Just Have To Find These Things Out.

Sandown on Thursday was very hot, but relative coolness and comfort was found by darting between various shady places, such as the trees by the pre-parade ring (NB: very few horses pre-paraded) and the breezy upper level of the grandstand overlooking the paddock.  At one stage of the afternoon when I was at the latter vantage point, the commentator for the day, Mike Cattermole, came and stood not far from me to familarise himself with the horses who were walking round the paddock.  It wasn’t long before he was approached by a lady asking to be photographed with him, clearly a fan of his from his Channel 4 days.  Then her friends joined in, seeking autographs and more photos.  A jolly conversation between them all ensued.  Mike couldn’t have been nicer.  I fear he will never escape being labelled as charming, suave and debonair.  I wish I had his problem.


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Planning to pop in to the British Library the other day to do an odd bit of research, I looked at my Reader Pass (yes, that capital R is correct) to find it expired in three weeks’ time.  It doesn’t seem long ago since I last renewed it, but it must be three years.  I took proof of ID along to renew my pass for a further three.

I recall my original application for a Reader Pass in 1990, when I first set out to study defunct racecourses.  With that pass you could go along to the British Library and order any book that had ever been written in this country.  In those days you had to justify your need to use it.  Nowadays it seems much less stringent.  I applied in writing, explaining that I was working on a subject that nobody else had.  (I was not to know that somebody else was in the process of doing so, but that’s another story.)

I can still see in my mind’s eye the letter I received from Charlotte something saying that my application had been granted.  How pleased I was!  The British Library was still in the Reading Room of the British Museum then.  It was wonderfully atmospheric – albeit a little archaic.  You could imagine Dickens and Marx and any number of eminent Victorian authors sitting in the same seats, poring over the books they’d ordered.  I can still hear the rumble of the wooden barrows that were used to deliver books to people.  Nowadays you have to go up to a desk to collect them.

While renewing my pass I asked, facetiously, if I could have a silver card or maybe even a gold one for having over 25 years service, so to speak.  The chap processing my renewal was sorry to refuse, but he said that if I’d come on the following Monday I could get a special purple card.  This was a one-day-only arrangement, celebrating 20 years in their new premises.  I’m not sure why purple is a suitable colour for a 20th anniversary.  I said I was unable to attend on that particular day, so he kindly gave me a nice sharp British Library pencil as consolation.


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I was pleased to get one of those occasional, random enquiries about something really obscure the other day.  It concerned a stud groom employed in the late 1880s at the Heather Stud near Bath racecourse.  The initial enquiry came in to Bath, and they passed him on to me, mentioning my book.  I had never come across it, but I dug out some information from the excellent British Newspaper Archive, which I think added a little bit to the enquirer’s knowledge.  Unfortunately for a someone who was a mere employee there’s usually a limited amount of information out there once you’ve gone beyond births, deaths, marriages and censuses.

I continue to be near the end of the full first draft of Salisbury.   Yesterday I settled down to make inroads into two discrete subjects.  Instead, I started on a third, found an old photograph that created a new mystery; solved another one that I wasn’t sure was a mystery; and found a ten-years-later epilogue to a story I thought had finished.   On balance, though, quite productive.  Yet I remain near the end, and feel just about the same distance from it as I did yesterday morning.

I made my first visit of the year to Salisbury races this week.  The first of what may be very few, as nearly all of their other meetings are weekends, evenings or days when I have other things lined up.  Something will have to give.

They have a fine new information panel on the wall of the rubbing house, explaining what it is and that it’s at least 300 years old.  As for the racing, I received a good tip.  “If Lady Rothschild is present, back her horses.” I was told this moments after she arrived in the winner’s enclosure to greet one of her horses, which had just scored at odds of 10/1.

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What follows is the full version of my review of a new book, Pitchcroft: 300 Years of Racing in Worcester.  Due to space limitations it was a shortened version that appeared in the Racing Post last Sunday.

Any book by Chris Pitt should be an automatic purchase for a keen racing fan or student of its history.  He is the author of the highly-regarded A Long Time Gone, the definitive study of racecourses closed in the 20th century and Go Down To The Beaten, little-known stories of Grand National failures.  He’s now turned his attention to the history of Worcester races, which have been run on the Pitchcroft, close to the city centre, for at least 300 years.  The river Severn, flowing alongside it, plays a major part in the story.  Flooding has been a frequent if unpredictable occupational hazard.

The course’s first heyday began when steeplechasing took off in the 1830s and the Worcester Grand Annual Chase quickly became an important race.  Its importance declined after the 1866 running, when Lord Coventry withdrew his patronage.  One of his runners had collided with a pony that strayed onto the track and he felt the management were responsible.  The race became a shadow of its former self and limped on until 1933.  It’s good to know that it’s being resurrected this year.

The flat was always low-key in comparison to jumping, but it seems perverse that racing on the level had to be discontinued in 1966 for economic reasons.  The track had more than its fair share of Saturday dates that racecourse executives would kill for nowadays, but crowds stayed away.

Nevertheless it was a good move, and a golden age from the mid-1970s brought several top-class jumpers to compete for good prize money in sponsored races such as the ATV Today Chase.  Tingle Creek, Night Nurse, Silver Buck, Wayward Lad are just some of the stars that ran at Worcester.

The quality started declining in the mid-1980s when some of the key sponsors fell by the wayside.  Happily, in the last 20 years the course has found a niche providing summer jumping..

The author can always be relied upon to find the quirky stories, like the ones about the lion fight, the five-legged horse and Sir Edward Elgar’s love of the course.  He recalls people such as Ted Skryme, John Whitt and Jack Bennett, perhaps not well known now but key figures on the racecourse in the 20th century.  Their efforts deserve to be remembered, for without them the course may have gone under, in more ways than one.

The book is nicely presented and copiously illustrated.  It is a fine record of what, until now, was a historically underappreciated sporting venue.

Pitchcroft: 300 Years of Racing in Worcester costs £13.99 + £2.00 p&p and is available from: Pitchcroft 300, Porters Hill, Droitwich, WR9 0AN. Email: pitchcroft300@gmail.com Copies are also available from Worcester Racecourse.


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