Alberts here, Alberts there…..

February 7th, 2023 | Ian Carnaby's Racing News

You can think things through and still make an error of judgement, we all accept that, though how long we think about it afterwards varies from person to person. ‘Tomorrow is another day’ seems to suit many people and I envy them to a degree. I regret things from fifty years ago and think about them at 3am.

Going back no further than the November before last, I decided to enliven an after-dinner talk with memories of various Alberts. Ten years ago I took over toastmaster duties at my school’s old boys’ dinner (always on the Saturday of Remembrance weekend) from Ronald Allison, formerly royal correspondent of the BBC. I did nine years quite satisfactorily, I think, and one talk which included a reluctant and introspective Siegfried Sassoon on the ship out of Southampton Water on his way back to the Somme even prompted a congratulatory telephone call. Bearing in mind how many of the old boys start to doze or wonder what time Match of the Day is on, this was quite something.

And then came the Alberts. Albert Finney, Albert McCann, Albert Stubbins, Able Albert, Albert Argyle, Albert Davison…..the list goes on and I’m not about to make the same mistake twice but, in case it comes up in a quiz, the late Albert McCann was a remarkably bandy (‘Albert, Albert, where’s your horse?’) inside-forward for Portsmouth, Albert Stubbins is the only footballer on the cover of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Albert Argyle is the fictitious hero of Jack Trevor Story’s trilogy about a tally-boy  – a hire-purchase collector who is played in the film version Live Now, Pay Later by Ian Hendry.  Albert’s girlfriend, Treasure, has suffered many disappointments and a few unwanted pregnancies but she loves him.

I think I was trying to get across that feeling of loss that never quite leaves you. My bearded collie Yogi had died a while back and I didn’t want another dog. In the car on the way to Albert’s funeral at the end of The Urban District Lover, Mr Granger lays a sympathetic hand on her knee. ‘Treasure didn’t mind. If it couldn’t be Albert then it didn’t matter who it was.’

Well, I lost them, no doubt about it and it was just as well I didn’t move on to the scallywag Albert Davison and his legendary Leicester coup. Or the day Able Albert held Alakh by an inch or two, the pair racing wide apart, in the 1984 Ayr Gold Cup. We love racing but it’s rash to suppose the outside world has more than a vague or passing interest in it. You can ‘juggle’ your material, of course, and bring in other, more significant things that happened around the same time. Richard Burton died in 1984, something I remember very well because I was working on the Sunday cricket scores on Radio 2 when the phones started ringing off the wall with the Daily Mail leading the way. That was because they knew that Richard’s half-brother, Graham Jenkins, worked in the radio sports unit.

In the small hours you can see that anything involving Richard Burton, and therefore Elizabeth Taylor, would easily eclipse the dramatic events at Ayr, where one of my friends had a £100 csf, not reversed, on Alakh to beat Able Albert. He went away for a while afterwards.

I lie there and think about these things and the way you could make racing tales more interesting to a general audience. I remember many horses, totally forgotten by just about everyone else, horses like Vakil-ul-Mulk and Bunto and Fire Fairy and I ponder other things that were going on at the time.

Hopping Around rescued a financial situation by winning an Edinburgh claimer in 1987, the year I worked as racing correspondent for Robert Maxwell’s ill-fated London Daily News and Jonjo O’Neill told me in an interview that although he wasn’t particularly religious, he went to sit in an empty church sometimes, which made him calmer and even more determined to defeat cancer. An iron man, beyond question. That simple, if moving, story would mean more to most people than Hopping Around easing Pat Eddery ahead of Steve Cauthen in their draining battle for the jockeys’ title. Steve won in the end, you may recall.

Nine Elms still runs around on the all-weather. Looking back to 1963, I remember Severn Bore winning at 100/6 when the big freeze finally relented and a November audience would pick up on the fact that I checked the result in a Coral shop on Burgess Road which is still there. A nice tale and one which underlines my early wayward tendencies. They’d chuckle at that, but the story hardly matches Ayala winning the National for Lester’s dad Keith Piggott and John Lawrence, later Lord Oaksey, so nearly triumphing on Carrickbeg. Good stories, for sure, but when it comes to an after-dinner talk you’re bound to use the fact that Nine Elms can still be found in today’s papers but in 1963 the Great Train robbers were conducting a dummy run on Nine Elms Lane near Kempton Park. My thinking is sharp at 3am and I know the Old Tauntonians are certain to remember the Great Train Robbery (as well as Profumo and the Kennedy assassination that year), but only committed Daily Telegraph readers would recall John Lawrence. As for Albert Stubbins, well……it’s a hard life and we’re gone a long time time.

Pushing your luck with a joke (sort of) is risky at this particular dinner. “A giraffe wanders into a smart wine bar. ‘Highballs are on me!’ he says” still has me wriggling with embarrassment at 3.30am but I suspect one would be safe with a poem as opposed to a rib-tickler. Something by Philip Larkin, perhaps.

‘Sexual Intercourse began

In nineteen sixty-three

(Which was rather late for me)

Between the end of the Chatterley ban

And the Beatles’ first LP’

As a gambler I’d probably settle for that but a few years ago my late friend David Foot, one of the finest cricket writers of modern times, published a book called Between Bat And Ball, in which he imagines Siegfried Sassoon, broken but unfailingly polite and charming, living out his time with regular stints somewhere between cover point and the boundary at Heytesbury.

‘I see them in foul dug-outs, gnawed by rats

And in the ruined trenches lashed with rain

Dreaming of things they did with balls and bat

And mocked by hopeless longing to regain

Bank holidays, and picture shows, and spats,

And going to the office in the rain’

It’s quite wonderful, I think. Please use it when you can. The Southampton dinner is no more, for the saddest and most obvious reason. All those years, all those memories, all those Alberts, all those night-time thoughts. I must go. I feel a few more coming on.