That will be a great man gone

June 8th, 2021 | Ian Carnaby's Racing News

We have perhaps reached the stage where we wonder which of the old haunts are still open for business, so to speak. The internet makes it easy enough to find out but that seems too easy, too convenient somehow.

Better, surely, to approach a watering hole of fond memory and sneak glances every few yards, like a gambler pausing at a betting office door and looking sideways at the bank of screens, relief and acute disappointment delicately balanced until finally this can only be Edinburgh, not Bangor-on-Dee and it seems to me, oh by golly yes it does, that the second race down on the left hand side has a winner with two words and they appear to be of medium length. Let’s nurse this sliver of unlikely salvation for a moment or two because nothing can deny its presence now, all in black and white, done and dusted, weighed in and ready for confirmation in tomorrow’s papers. Hopping Around has indeed won the Edinburgh claimer at 7/2 for Pat Eddery.

That was in 1987 and Finchley was bathed in late autumn sunshine. It’s warm again today, thirty-four years on, and I wonder if the Blue Flame, out on the moors between Nailsea and Clevedon, has withstood the ravages of the past fifteen months. Quaint only just held on in a driving finish from tumbledown and decrepit where the Flame was concerned and I touch the brakes before the final bend in the road, fearing the worst. O ye of little faith! An old toper is sitting out the front, the veteran of a few thousand pints of cloudy cider. He is lost in thought and will not remember me from quiz nights long, long go. “Bugger me. I thought you was dead,” he says.

It’s early lunchtime and there is no one inside but it’s soon apparent that very little has changed. It’s one of those old places where you can sit and think about things and I ponder again the events of Derby day, when it looked as if the bookmakers were writing their own results on a truly appalling afternoon for most backers.

That was certainly the case until the last race of all, a sprint handicap won by 3/1 favourite Ejtilaab. In fact, that race furnished a modest overall profit via the 25/1 runner-up Muscika, who seldom puts in two similar consecutive performances (unless they’re both dismal) but is one to note when David O’Meara sets him up for a bigger prize. If you doubt this, go back through Muscika’s record over the past couple of years.

Sometimes I wonder if I’d be as interested in sprint handicaps if I didn’t bet on them. Maybe not. Mind you, my father seemed just as keen on playing rummy with me for nothing as he was on studying the fixed odds coupon. He once had five draws out of five and they all finished 1-1, helping us move house, though there was no great emotion, as I recall.

Looking at the wall in the Blue Flame with its overlapping collection of old postcards, famous prints and social events held in Nailsea when Noah was a lad, you realise not everything is about money. (I know, I know, it’s pretty close.)

When you look at Cezanne’s The Card Players they’re totally absorbed in the game but there’s no cash on the table. They look as if they may have had a glass of red but the bottle is corked up again. I remember the Qatari royal family bought the painting a few years ago for £158m, easily eclipsing the previous world record. We’ll be able to see it when we roll up for the World Cup in 2022, unless Hampshire are playing a four-day championship match at the Ageas Bowl in Southampton. Some decisions are pretty straightforward, I find.

That is the kind of game, and this the kind of pub, that David Foot would have loved. In my view the finest cricket writer of modern times, principally for the Guardian, he passed away last month having made it to 92. I’d been driving around with a copy of Michael Henderson’s That Will Be England Gone (don’t ask, just buy it  –  it’s wonderful), a loving evocation of the traditional county game now eroded by insistent financial and marketing considerations, but David’s progressive dementia would have curtailed his enjoyment.

When I first came down here to work for HTV, we’d meet the other Bristol journalists after City or Rovers games and I greatly regret the passing of those times. He was wry, mischievous, extremely well read and loved by everyone. He was also the most sympathetic of men, as you will appreciate if dipping into his biographies of Harold Gimblett and Wally Hammond.

Hardly a showman  –  too modest for that  –  he nevertheless delighted us at one Christmas get-together at his house by playing the piano with his toes. Life has few greater gifts than seeing those you love laugh themselves silly and I’m not sure my wife is over it even now.

I hadn’t seen him for a while when, completely unsolicited, he penned a warm review of my book Not Minding That It Hurts in the Western Daily Press.

The son of East Coker would be happy in this old hostelry now, among the card players, the old boys with their cider, the Somerset memories and the gentle mickey-taking. David Foot was a very special man and we should be grateful we had him for so long.