January 3rd, 2020 | Ian Carnaby's Racing News

It can only go down as a quiet Christmas at this end, though 2019 ended with a minor celebration as Urtheonethatiwant defied a 7lb increase at Warwick, having won a long-distance handicap hurdle at Ludlow the time before.

As someone who follows apprentices and conditional jockeys with considerable interest, I couldn’t resist Urtheonethatiwant because it wasn’t a net 7lb. Bryan Carver had claimed 3lb in the race for conditionals at Ludlow but here he was entitled to the full allowance, so the horse had only a 3lb harder task. Not only that but he was down to a bargain basement ten stones and won easily. It was a shrewd bit of placing by Jeremy Scott.

There was nothing minor about the celebration when Southampton beat Tottenham at St Mary’s on New Year’s Day 24 hours later. The game was on television but one drives a couple of hours to be part of it all, not that I thought the Saints would prevail. If only it were possible to bottle the euphoria and uncork it now and again. There is something about the moment the whistle goes in the gentle, misty rain, followed by the walk back through the churchyard and the certain knowledge that nowhere else on earth will ever rival this place in my affections. I’m a supporter, I suppose.

I have to find something to do. My dad, the old Geordie miner, worked shifts at Pirelli’s in Eastleigh for the rest of his days after heading south following his younger brother Tom’s transfer from Blyth Spartans to Southampton in 1937. He couldn’t imagine NOT working and the idea of sitting alongside a brazier as a sort of night-watchman  –  they existed in those days  –  undoubtedly appealed to him. There was a half-smile on his face which probably persuaded my mother that he was joking, though I’d have gone 4/6 that he meant it. He went on ahead at 59 so it was never put to the test.

‘Given my time again’ (which always strikes me as a particularly useless conversational gambit, so please forgive me), I’d have risen early at college, studied form for about an hour or so from 7am onwards to work out my bets, if any, then read Proust and La Rochefoucauld for several hours by a gas fire in a house somewhere hard by Parkers Piece. Needless to say, I had things precisely the other way round and welcomed any excuse to be at Newmarket, watching Eric Eldin on Gaykart just getting the better of Lester on Pretty Puffin, thereby settling a term’s bar bills. I was so in thrall to racing that the day after the Craven meeting I even took a train from Cambridge to Newbury and, instead of studying Moliere’s Tartuffe, saw Willie Carson win on him at 100/6. (Fit from hurdling, see, before AW racing messed everything up.) When SIS let me go in 1991 the thought occurred that I could go back to Churchill and study for a First rather than a modest Second but having a wife and three young children ruled it out.

But what to do now? I’ve been asked if I remember enough about Proust to give a lecture (no, not really, but I have a remarkable memory and can quote freely from A La Recherche du Temps Perdu as well as identifying with Charles Swann, the erudite and highly intelligent Jockey-Club member who is utterly obsessed (that’s the bit I identify with, not the other bits) with Odette de Crecy, a high-class courtesan. He even marries her so that he can check where she is all the time. (As if.) He doesn’t ask much, though he’d quite like to know if she entertained women, as well. ‘Entertained’ as in, well, you know. She won’t tell him, though, which strikes me as rank bad form. At the end of the Swann In Love section, poor old Swann reflects that all these years he’s been in thrall to someone ‘who wasn’t even my type’.

Proust is forever going back over old ground, only to find that ‘houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years.’ Looking for a place in Notting Hill Gate to back Harry Senior on Welsh National day, I was struck by how much things had changed. The Ladbrokes close to the Coronet cinema is long gone and so, too, the Kensington pub off Holland Road. I used the Kensington when a group of us shared a flat at the end of that road (whole block demolished afterwards, not out fault) and turned it into the Talbot, which features in my short story Zarzuela in Not Minding That It Hurts.

But we can make rash assumptions sometimes and I thought the restaurant Au Caprice Des Dieux (what committed gambler could ever resist a place which translates as In The Lap Of the Gods?) on Holland Park Avenue had to be where  the playwright Simon Gray and his wife Victoria regularly dined with Harold Pinter and Antonia Fraser. Not so. If you read Gray’s wonderfully funny musings in The Last Cigarette, they ate at Chez Moi, which may or may not have been the same place under a different name. Anyway, both are now as fugitive, alas, as the years.

Gray and Victoria kept the Pinters warm and sympathetic company during Harold’s terminal cancer. As if to demonstrate that there are indeed no certainties, when Gray was diagnosed himself, the disease progressed so rapidly that he actually went a few months before his great friend.

It sort of puts things into perspective when you’re looking for some even-money about Harry Senior and deciding to accept 4/5. Still, at least he won. What with that, Urtheonethatiwant and the result at St Mary’s, I feel a corner may have been turned. Whether I’ll recognise any of the roads, trees or houses is another matter, of course.