City Boy marooned in the country

February 8th, 2022 | Ian Carnaby's Racing News

It was around the time that young Archie Bellamy lost his irons on Lively Citizen that I started to miss London. Sitting in the Insurance Bar at Cheltenham and unable to move with a cracked knee  –  no more on that, I promise  –  it seemed to me that the course specialist had a very good chance in a routine handicap hurdle. Ah well.

As a lounge suit sort of person, Cheltenham on trials day is not quite right for me. It’s Middle England writ large, with even the children kitted out just so. This is not to say I didn’t enjoy myself, of course. I made copious notes with the future in mind and, as I couldn’t get up, a kind lady backed Miranda for me at the away meeting. Price too short, horse not good enough.

No, it was just that I started thinking of big races I’d watched after visiting various hostelries around Soho in the old days; the open-top bus from Frith Street to Epsom on Derby day and quiet pints in Nell of Old Drury opposite the theatre on Drury Lane. The Nell found its way into the short story Seeing Bessie Smile in Not Minding That It Hurts  –  a happy day indeed and the horse won too, at Ludlow, though it wasn’t called The Quare Fellow. I called it that because I’d always wanted a horse named after Brendan Behan’s play, just as I’ve always wanted a filly called The Lass of Aughrim from Joyce’s wonderful short story The Dead. There may still be time and I suppose Jim Old could look after them at Twiston-Davies’s place.

I’m not sure about the old advice to ‘never go back’ because I revisit old haunts again and again, though it’s foolish to assume the people you meet will have memories similar to your own. I climb the steep hill to the Holly Bush in Hampstead but have yet to meet anyone who associates it with Sir Kingsley Amis, even though he wrote much of his famous novel Lucky Jim there. It was nearly 70 years ago, after all. On the darker side, the past is sometimes best left alone. There is no mention of the brutal, murderous Krays in the Blind Beggar pub on the Mile End Road, but the tragic figure of Sandra Rivett, mistaken for his wife when attacked by Lord Lucan, surely deserved an acknowledgement of some sort in the Plummers Arms in Pimlico, where the bloodstained Lady Lucan arrived in a state of panic that dreadful night.

I drink in the White Star bar and restaurant in Oxford Street, Southampton. Perhaps the  £2m refurbishment (rash at the present time, I think) will include a picture of the Titanic, the White Star Line’s pride and joy back in 1912. After all, well over five hundred Southampton-based crew members perished. But catering staff move with the seasons these days and there is no guarantee they will even make the connection between the ill-fated liner and the town. I’m not criticising, though I do find it rather sad.

I used to make lists to help me get to sleep but we can forget all about that for a while. Many years ago I was pretty certain I could name all the pubs on Fleet Street itself but I decided to include betting offices and hostelries on Farringdon Road, all the way up to King’s Cross. Obviously a man would need a livener in the Betsey Trotwood before researching the task and I have never felt any guilt over small rewards, especially when the day is still young.

Betsey appears in David Copperfield and there must be areas of London where, even now, Dickens could come back and knock off a novel in a month or two but Clerkenwell would be unrecognisable to him.

Between jobs and working as an itinerant board man in the early 1970s, I shared shifts in a Clerkenwell shop with a charming Irishman called Jim, who always backed Commutering in trap 1 at Harringay. He lent me a few books and one of them was Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square by Arthur La Bern, which Alfred Hitchcock turned into the film Frenzy.

I already knew the William Hill shop in Shepherd Market, which features in the book, as does Ye Grapes, a very good pub nearby. In addition, there was a Turf Newspapers shop presided over by the rudest man in England. In fact, he was so rude people couldn’t quite believe it and would go back for a second bash. Sometimes I’d buy a book, sit in Ye Grapes, watch the working girls out of the window, then go and bet in Hill’s.

Anyway, after the Sir Peter O’Sullevan awards do back in November, I decided to stroll down there for old times’ sake. This is how life (and especially leisure time) has changed. Even in the bitter cold a huge gathering of teatime drinkers made access to the pub tricky, to say the least. There were few, if any, masks and the coronavirus might just as well have been officially all over or only a silly rumour in the first place. Not only that, but every other place between Shepherd Market and Paddington was much the same until I tottered into the Monkey Puzzle on Sussex Gardens. Never go back? Well, I’ll always go back to Ye Grapes but it will be noon and I’ll have a copy of the Racing Post and the Weekend Card with me. Then I shall return to the Hill’s shop and relive the famous day Don’t Drop Bombs won the Brighton amateur riders’ race by miles and Arno Rudolf and I got the dancing started. They hadn’t seen that before.

Where was I? Oh yes, Ludlow and The Quare Fellow. It’s a funny thing but when I had all that time in the Insurance Bar I studied the mares’ bumper for an hour or so. And there was winning Ludlow form in it. Interestingly, both Mullenbeg and Tintern Abbey had prevailed on  similar ground over an identical trip but Mullenbeg was carrying 11lbs more by virtue of Jay Tidball’s 10lbs allowance on Tintern Abbey. Under the circumstances it was hardly surprising that Mullenbeg not only sprinted clear at 8/1 but had her old Ludlow colleague well in arrears. It looked decent bumper form and should pay to follow.

We watched it in a Ladbrokes near the course but Howard Dawson was parking the car and I couldn’t get to the counter. Still, all part of life’s rich tapestry and let no one say I’ve lost my sense of humour so here’s a joke.

A giraffe walks into a smart wine bar. ‘Highballs are on me!’ he says.

I tell you, I’d laugh like a drain if it weren’t for the pain.

Keep smiling.


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