I can think of a million and one reasons why I should not have enjoyed Clare Balding's recently published autobiography, My Animals and Other Family and yes, it is a deliberate play (with the family's permission) on Gerald Durrell's book My Family and Other Animals.
But firstly, and for those who have been on Mars through the summer, Clare Balding is the national treasure who guided the TV ship through the vast oceans of Olympic and Paralympic coverage and basically left many of the other anchors dead in the water...oooh I didn't realise where that analogy was going... I'll quit while I'm winning, but anyway, our Clare was just brill. Never knowingly under-prepped, and with highlighter pen, swathes of paper and all the right info at her fingertips, Clare Balding has been crowned the new Des Lynham (he was the last one who had the gift of the perfect sports anchor) Plenty of us who may never have watched horse racing in our lives may well switch onto it now because Clare will be doing that next.
But I generally don't enjoy autobiographies.
And I generally don't enjoy celebrity autobiographies.
And despite my best efforts and all that ancestral ostling, I have never been that keen on horses either since that one in Horseguards, Whitehall, sneezed on my new ankle socks when I was about six. If I am honest horses scare me a little too.
I mean they are big, right??
I was walking back down the field with the dogs the other day and suddenly sensed something at my shoulder... in fact it was two 'somethings', riderless horses that had appeared silently out of nowhere, and I jumped at least a furlong. Little Nell couldn't be seen for dust and Barney the Brave squared up to take them out, and I just looked a complete idiot and yelled 'Go away' very unhelpfully when they started a bit of a charge. Clare would have gone and stroked their noses, produced sugar cubes out of her pocket, whispered soothing words in their pricked ears and probably ridden them bareback from whence they had strayed.
And My Animals and Other Family is horses and dogs, Clare's best friends all, front cover to back cover... Valkyrie, Volcano, Frank, Hattie, Ellie May, Lily, Quirk, Stuart, Henry et al and Clare's equine heritage clearly far stronger than mine, her father Ian Balding champion horse trainer to Royalty and also the trainer of the famous Mill Reef. Though not trained by Ian Balding Shergar gets a mention in passing too. I now feel I must own up that we've always made awful (really awful) jokes about Shergar here (he was the prize racer who was horse-napped and never heard of again) and tried to work out how many tins of priceless dog food a horse that size might equate too, and I feel a bit bad about that now.
I hope I can be forgiven because I am warming to horses now that everything has been explained, and you have no idea of the mysteries that needed unravelling. I have several horse-loving friends and have always dozed off when the conversation comes around to laminitis and colic.
But I now know about laminitis (too much grass eating = nitrogen-compound overload = poorly feet) and hoof oil, and riding short and upsides. I know you must keep your line and kick on and take a pull now and then, and above all you need a strong, steady lower leg for dressage.
Then there are the bits. Not to be confused with what we euphemistically call Magnus's feline manhood, and his bits which are for surgical intervention and removal next Friday, but I mean who knew there were that many bits, as in the things that go in a horse's mouth... Pelhams, Kimblewicks, Dr Bristols and Waterfords, even a Balding.
I know officially that a furlong is 220 yards whilst a hand is about four inches, as in the span of a flat hand, and it was Henry VIII who standardized that measurement in 1541 having ordered the destruction of all stallions below fifteen hands, and all mares below thirteen hands because Britain's war horses were getting a bit puny. Horses won't stand still to be measured with a tape so hands are quicker and easier. Clare's desk is ten hands wide (Shetland pony sized), mine is seventeen (probably big enough for the Grand National my desk) ... my computer screen is six hands (no messing with tiddly screens here)... my chair is five hands off the ground, yes I like this. I might start measuring babies and toddlers in hands in future, instead of all that fuss pinning them down on a measuring mat ... a newborn baby would be about five hands, so much easier, surely parents wouldn't mind.
The intricacies of polo are also explained, and though I didn't think I really wanted to know this I was actually very interested, because it might all come in useful when I meet up with my student nursing best friend at our Great Ormond Street forty year reunion next weekend. She has just taken up polo ( Wiz, if you are reading this...why?? Wasn't the competitive rowing arduous enough??) so I can ask her what her handicap is and ensure that she knows to be decisive and strong and 'ride off each other' and never to yank her pony's mouth. She has just bought a mallet so I can be interested in that too.
But Clare Balding's humour, and there is plenty of it and all charmingly self-deprecating, is leavened with some harsh reality.
Clare's father, and to some extent her mother, and most definitely her grandmother, are so deeply involved with their horses that Clare and her brother must just get on with life, be self-contained and put up or shut up. Family holidays are a rarity, though horse riding opportunities are plentiful, and Clare was up on Mill Reef almost before she could walk by the looks of it, and even I can tell that is one fine horse...
...but it would have been no good fancying a turn at BMX racing or ballet or violin lessons or something, it would have to be horses or nothing. When Clare arrives at Downe House school as a boarder (the writer Elizabeth Bowen was an alumna) and sans pets and horses, she feels completely out of her depth, both socially and academically and the harsh realities of life start to take their toll with events taking several desperate turns as Clare tries hard to fit in and be one of the gang. In fact when she stops doing that and decides to be herself it's all a whole lot easier, but to this day her father remains notoriously difficult to impress and more especially if you are a woman.
Surely he loved that interview with Chad's dad??
Surely he was overflowing with pride when Clare presented the flowers at an Olympic medal ceremony in front of 80,000 cheering fans who were actually cheering for her??
In fact there is one very touching moment of redemption in the book when Clare's father does recognise her achievements, whilst along the way Clare recounts, self-effacingly as always, her successful years as a jockey and the trials of making the weight, a near mash-up in the last furlongs of a race with Princess Anne, breakfast with the Queen chez Balding and plenty more. The book ends with Clare's acceptance to read English at Newnham in Cambridge, though she will need time off in the first week to race at Chepstow, and for which she will have to ask Director of Studies, Mrs Gooder...
'You would like to go where?' asked Mrs Gooder
...You and I shall make a deal. There is one page in the newspaper that I do not understand and, if you promise that you will explain this to me, you may ride at Chepstow.'
She opened a copy of the Guardian to the racing page and gestured.
'Might as well be gobbledegook. I do not like to feel ignorant.'
I feel much less ignorant now too and have really enjoyed my canter through My Animals and Other Family in the company of Clare Balding, and so did Little Nell who one minute was sitting quite peacably on my lap as I read and the next thing had chunked a complete corner off the book (witness that picture above) which sort of felt forgiveable in the end, because Clare's dogs would probably have done that too, and she wouldn't have got cross either.
All this talk of family and animals feels like a good excuse, if ever I needed one, so here is the latest Nell and Magnus Do Battle clip, and as you can see the rate the non-identical twins are going Magnus might not be needing that trip to the vets next Friday...
Bit of a cheat there on the tail grab but two falls and a submission seems to clinch it. Magnus never uses his claws and always comes back for more, and aren't those Sprocker ears coming along gorgeously too, Little Nell now all of three hands. Magnus possibly two.
Don't miss My Animals and Other Family, it really is a treat of a read.