A long way from Alberta –  but Cricklewood will do

June 12th, 2023 | Ian Carnaby's Racing News

Gordon Lightfoot died the other day.

I dare say only members of my generation will remember him but he was a folk and country singer who let Alberta’s wide-open spaces compensate for disappointments in his personal life. We played him in the Cricklewood house all the time back in 1973; would-be accountants working hard to qualify, a dedicated librarian, a future banker and a young man wondering if Jacinth would win the 1,000 Guineas. He tended to have more time on his hands than the others.

1973. Mick Channon scored in nearly every game but Southampton still departed Division One, this being the first year that three went down. Plus ca change, as a French football follower might observe, given the sad denouement in 2023. But Cricklewood, a couple of years before George Ward’s bitter dispute with the unions at the strike-ravaged Grunwick print processing plant just up the road, was good to us. There was the Galtymore Dance Club, where you sat quietly as old Irish republican ballads replaced traditional dance tunes around midnight, and the little Italian place where the fegato (liver) wasn’t too strong and quite a bit cheaper than Kensington and Notting Hill Gate.

But most of all there was Gordy, who we went to see at the Albert Hall. Just him and his guitar and a cry of approval from a young woman in the audience when he got to The Last Time I Saw Her, his saddest and most beautiful song. It wasn’t mentioned in most obituaries, the track most often cited being If You Could Read My Mind, which he wrote when his first marriage was coming to an end.

‘I never thought I could feel this way but I gotta say that I just don’t get it. I don’t know where we went wrong, but the feeling’s gone and I just can’t get it back.’

There were three marriages in all but domestic harmony must be hard to achieve when your living depends on long days and longer nights up-country, when snatches of conversation and perfectly ordinary Canadian settings prove inspirational.

‘If you could read my mind, love, what a tale my thoughts would tell;

Just like a paperback novel, the kind the drugstores sell.’

So, he never thought things could turn out the way they did and I’m with him all the way on that because I never thought Jacinth could be beaten. The William Hill shop on Cricklewood Broadway was happy enough to accept my worryingly large investment at 4/5 and I was happy too, because she was the top-rated juvenile in 1972 and went on to land nearly all the top mile races at three, but in the 1,000 she happened to bump into Sir Noel Murless’s Mysterious, who calmly put her in her place by an incredible three lengths. We should learn from these things and odds-on is seldom a very good idea but we couldn’t possibly know that Mysterious would go on to win the Oaks in a vintage year for fillies.

The year before, Rose Dubarry had finished only third in the Guineas but, unlike Jacinth, she owed me nothing after beating the colts in the Norfolk Stakes the previous year. At Newmarket she was ridden by Tony Murray, a very fine jockey but a tragic figure who lacked the iron resolve required at the highest level. He won many big races and, following retirement, came into SIS one day for an interview and a screen test. I knew him from my time at the BBC and assured him that he’d come on for the outing, his first try having gone reasonably well but no more than that. In the walk back from the studio, from Corsham Street to Old Street tube, he stated with complete certainty that it wasn’t for him and there would be no second attempt. And he was right and I was wrong because, for all his ability in the saddle and indeed his fame, he’d have buckled the first time a producer spoke sharply to him. SIS was the proverbial walk in the park compared to national or even regional television but he wouldn’t have been able to take the limited pressure or the instructions coming through his earpiece while he was speaking.

I’ve thought about the walk back to Old Street many times over the years. He knew himself almost too well and when he died alone at 41 from a lethal combination of alcohol and pills the world had become too hard a place for him. He never got over the loss of his brother and father, or the break-up of his marriage to Capt. H Ryan Price’s daughter Jane. Also, of course, there had been years of wasting and one truly horrendous fall at Windsor, where he strongly believed he‘d been put over the rails quite deliberately. He was a deeply unhappy man. I liked him very much.

When we weren’t listening to Gordy we were dipping into Derek Robinson’s wonderful novel Goshawk Squadron, about the doomed yet fearless young pilots arriving in Flanders during World War 1. Their life expectancy could be calculated in weeks rather than months, staggering though that may seem to us now. Bleak but very funny in places, at one point they descend on an unsuspecting French bistro and spend the whole evening in semi-riotous good spirits until the ‘patron’, not overly optimistic, presents the bill. They peruse it at length, one of them announcing, in a tone of mild interest rather than concern: ‘It looks like the balance sheet of a small but thriving company.’ Fifty years on, those of us who still get together occasionally will assess any restaurant bill and use the same expression. We’ve never quite grown up, of course.

Goshawk Squadron was Derek Robinson’s first book but also his masterpiece and he was nominated for the Booker Prize. A man of many parts, he was also a qualified rugby union referee and commentator. He worked for ITV and our paths crossed when I was briefly a sports presenter at HTV West in Bristol, his home town.

On Sundays we’d sometimes make the short trip from Cricklewood to Hampstead, a vastly different world. The two main attractions there were the Horse and Groom and the Flask, both of them serving Young’s Special, the finest bitter of my experience, a short-head in front of Brakspear’s. The Horse and Groom vanished some time ago but the Flask is still going strong and many years later I wandered down Flask Walk to interview the late Al Alvarez, a poet and philosopher who was a regular on Radio 4. He was also a poker enthusiast and realised a lifetime’s dream when entering the World Poker Championships at Binion’s Casino in Las Vegas. He lasted only a short time but enjoyed the experience. The bit I liked most when I chatted to him concerned the purchase of his cottage in Flask Walk for just £45,000, which indicated he’d been there for quite a while. He enjoyed being a Londoner through and through although, as he remarked with an impish grin, ‘We had to leave Spain in 1492 but turned up here soon after Cromwell let the Jews back in in 1656.’

Alvarez had his own battle with depression and wrote books on suicide, as well as poker, mountaineering and, bizarrely, North Sea Oil. Whilst he never considered himself a gambler, he thought the same way as a lot of us caught in the web do. He gave up rock-climbing after damaging an ankle but admitted that part of climbing’s appeal lies in the danger. Which makes it similar to poker in a way. You need the danger in order to feel good when you defy it. A man born to tell stories with an ironic twinkle in his eye, Alvarez believed in happy endings –  or at least keeping hope alive.

In one of his lighter pieces, Did She Mention My Name, Gordon Lightfoot has two old friends meeting many miles from home, though one has been back recently. He fields a few innocuous questions…

‘Is the landlord still a loser? Do his signs hang in the hall?

Are the young girls still as pretty in the city in the fall?

Does the laughter on their faces still put the sun to shame?

And by the way, did she mention my name?’

Fifty years on, it’s still the hope that keeps us going.



Marten writes:

Ian is blessed with a special talent. His work has that rare knack of prompting the most emotive of responses in the reader. Somehow he makes you feel nostalgic for an age or time you may never even have known. His latest book is an ideal gift for any horse racing fan! Learn more or buy here: The Long Road From Portman Square