The ghosts of Christmas past

December 5th, 2022 | Ian Carnaby's Racing News

Walking down Northlands Road the other day I thought about Hampshire cricket, the late John Arlott and Hambledon, the famous old village which may not have given birth to the game but undoubtedly nursed it through the teething process and beyond.

It was probably also John’s spiritual home, though he was actually born and raised in Basingstoke and is regarded by many as a son of Southampton, where he reported and commentated on many games at Northlands Road and has a street named after him. The city looks after its heroes; there is also a road commemorating Charlie Knott, who set up most of the sporting venues close to the Dell  –  speedway, greyhound racing, ice hockey  –  and owned the Mackeson Gold Cup winner Chatham. His son Charles played for Hampshire and the MCC.

Some of the Christmas lights were starting to appear and my thoughts turned to racing and how I became hooked, for want of a better word. The King George at Kempton on Boxing Day had much to do with it  –  Halloween’s second victory in 1954 and Mandarin’s triumph three years later. My parents’ sixpenny and shilling bets were handed to the bookies’ runner Ern, who doubled as a bus inspector, keeping a watchful eye out for an errant number 11 or 14 outside the Palladium cinema.

Shane and The Man From Laramie live on in the memory. I’ve been waiting for over sixty years to say ‘No Joey, I gotta be goin’ on’ like Alan Ladd at the end of Shane when he’s despatched the baddies, getting shot himself in the process, but the moment has not yet arrived. My life is made up of dreams and memories; the only time I think about the future is when I’m trying to decide whether Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye by Ella is a short-head in front of Jo Stafford’s Haunted Heart when it comes to the big day. You know the one. (Actually I exaggerate slightly. I do also check the five-day entries for the Carnaby seller at Brighton.)

There was snow everywhere else but Kempton survived on Boxing Day 1984, when Burrough Hill Lad held Combs Ditch by inches. On such days it was possible to drive back across London through semi-deserted streets, Earl’s Court Road briefly bathed in the golden light shed by the Hansom Cab pub. Then all the way up to Hampstead and the choice between the Horse and Groom and the Flask, only the latter surviving now. Colin Brown rode Combs Ditch and now acts as racecourse host on my Brighton day, while the poet and broadcaster Al Alvarez lived on Flask Walk.

His great ambition (he died three years ago) was to play in the World Series of Poker at Binions in Las Vegas and he finally made it. “But I was what the Americans call ‘tight-weak’” he told me. “I’d only go in with a solid pair at least and they soon worked me out and raised me to put the pressure on. I was eliminated quite quickly and when I rang to tell my wife she burst into tears, which is better than ‘I told you so’ I suppose.”

Mine has been a misspent life, no doubt about it. At Cambridge I should have been in digs in front of a gently hissing gas fire, studying Marcel Proust and trying my hardest for a First, rather than the honest Second which came from seldom missing a Newmarket meeting, the Cherry Hinton girls in their winter furs, Parker’s Piece in the fading winter light, and that freezing cold day, cycling down Grange Road and telling my Spanish tutor that Henry Alper’s Dish Of The Day was a certainty (when I believed in such things), which he was.

Alper was a tricky individual and trainer Colin Davies was probably fortunate to have Persian War for all three of his Champion Hurdle victories because the owner was apt to make changes at short notice. The horse was the star of my Cambridge years and soon after I graduated he defied 12 stones in the Irish Sweeps Hurdle at Fairyhouse over a very cold Christmas.

Proust died almost exactly 100 years ago. ‘The memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment. And houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years.’ Well, yes. If I feel regret walking down Northlands Road it’s because the cricket ground and the Dell have disappeared without trace. But if I look back at Boxing Day 1991, which saw the first of The Fellow’s two King George victories, all I remember is trainer Francois Doumen charming everyone with his amiable and witty response to all questions when the microphones and notebooks were thrust in his direction.

It was a sad time, though, with John Arlott having passed, as people say these days, a fortnight or so before. I’m not a particularly religious person but I like to help out at the local church and I noticed the other day that he’d written the hymn which has come to be known as ‘God’s Farm’  –  ‘God, whose farm is all creation’, which celebrates the harvest festival.

He originally came to the BBC’s attention not as a cricket devotee or a wine connoisseur but a poet. The hymn was written at a time when his religious belief was at its strongest but he all but lost his faith when his eldest son Jim was killed in a car accident on New Year’s Eve, driving home late at night from Southampton in a sports car which John had helped him buy.

He was very hard on himself and always wore a black tie as a penance for his role in the tragedy. The rest of his family suffered through his ongoing remorse, something which becomes quite clear in his son Tim’s biography. Considering his inner turmoil, John Arlott produced work which was highly original, some would say unique. I wish I’d known him better but I spoke to him only twice during my time at BBC Radio.

I think of all these things at this time of year and whenever I travel along the A272 to Goodwood, which passes so close to all the Hampshire villages John loved and included when he founded the local cricket tournament. Given a free hand that’s where I’d like to end up, overlooking the pitch at Hambledon, still trying to write the definitive Proust biography, still trying for a First and still living in the past. Ah well.

In conclusion let me wish you a happy Christmas, a winner on Boxing Day and a peaceful and prosperous New Year, one without any heartache or loss.