Before I even start to share my thoughts on National Velvet I think I need to acknowledge that, like many, I find both pleasure and pain in a sporting fixture such as the Grand National. The pleasure has been that for many years we have had a little family sweepstake, drawing our horse names out of a hat and then having some fun seeing who wins. The Tinker's horse rarely makes it past the first fence, mine usually trips on the Melling Road.
The flip side is of course the inevitable debate about the horses and the impact on them... and watching last year who can ever forget Synchronised, the horse that unseated its rider before the start, perhaps somehow knowing it didn't want to run...Clare Balding even said as much as she commentated live, the horse eventually suffering a fatal fall at Becher's Brook. I remember feeling very sad indeed about that.
I don't have the knowledge, the expertise or the passion about it to be drawn into the 'rights' or 'wrongs' debate, but felt I should at least acknowledge its existence out of respect for the sensibilities of others, before remembering that as I watched last year I also thought I must read National Velvet again in time for next year's race.
Then of course I have to find my copy. This my original book, perhaps the edition that many of you may also have read, a Peacock Book, the bridge between Puffins and Penguins, and mine given to me on my twelfth birthday by my brother. I remember loving it even though my non-affinity with horses was already legendary, but then the book, published in 1935, is about so much more than horses.
The Brown family live by the sea in a Dorset village. Mr Brown the hard-working local butcher, taciturn on the surface, underneath a bit of a softee, Mrs Brown the matriarch who seems to spend much of her life cooking huge meals for her family of four daughters Edwina, Meredith, Malvolia and Velvet and their little brother Donald.
The story so well-known I barely need to mention the bit about Velvet choosing ticket number 119 and winning the high-spirited horse that nobody wanted in a raffle, and The Pie going on to win the Grand National with Velvet breaking all the rules to ride him. The race entry money paid with the gold sovereigns won by Mrs Brown for that cross-channel swim in her youth.
As I read I couldn't remember which had come first for me all those years ago, was it the book or the film.
Was my earliest encounter with a dark-haired Elizabeth Taylor playing Velvet, or the fair-haired Velvet in the novel ?
Velvet, whip-thin, a dreamer, excitable and impetuous, with the queasy, sensitive stomach and the vivid imagination, but who has more pluck than most when it comes to taking a few risks and going for it
Did I remember Mrs Brown as the severe-looking and much thinner film version, or did I know that she was actually what Mma Ramotswe of No.1 Ladies Detective Agency fame would call 'traditionally built', and that her size is an ongoing source of embarrassment for her, and also an intrinsic aspect of the storyline.
Mrs Brown the epitome of firmness and fairness; an affirming, encouraging, supportive mother who at regular intervals sweeps up the precocious little Donald under her arm, complete with his bottle for collecting spit, transporting him off somewhere else so that he can consider the error of his ways.
It is fascinating how one overlays the other, but reading again it is the book's unique and lasting qualities that now remain uppermost in my mind rather than the film, and if ever any book has stood the test of time, National Velvet is it; as compelling for me now as then. At the heart of the book is the very traditional and well-fed Family Brown, supplied with a daily round of nourishing food all seated around the well-set table, and a picture quickly emerges of a caring, close-knit, loving and supportive family. Encouraging of each other's endeavours, tolerant of each other's shortcomings and optimistic about every outcome. This is a book about grit and determination, and allowing children to be adventurous, to grow wings and fly with them, accepting and taking responsibility for the consequences, good or less good.
Inbetween that first and second reading (only a gap of about forty-eight years) I had unwittingly acquired Enid Bagnold - A Biography by Anna Sebba, and a quick breeze through that has enlightened me about Enid's complex and interesting life. Married to Sir Roderick Jones the head of Reuter's News Agency I also discover along the way that Enid was Samantha Cameron's (Mrs Prime Minister) Great Aunt, and that the Jones family (Enid was very disappointed with the rather undistinguished surname) lived for some years in Edward Burne-Jones's home in Rottingdean in Sussex.
It was during the Sussex years that Enid and her children did the pony and gymkhana circuit, and with money behind them it can only be imagined how popular they might (not) have been as they pitched up at all the village horse shows with the best ponies and the smartest tack, scooping up all the rosettes before moving onto the next one. It's a bit like our village and the child who regularly comes to stay with extended family at Village Show time and scoops the "Best in Children's Classes" with their Miniature Garden on a tray 12" x 9"... tsk... interlopers.
It was clearly all enough to give Enid the inspiration for a book on horse-mad girls but it was a friend of Enid's who found the crucial piece of the plot jigsaw...
'Geofffey Eastwood set her thinking on a different track. He asked at lunch one day if she still had ' that terrible piebald that jumps everything'. When Enid said yes, he told her she should 'stick it in the new book and jolly well make it win the National.'
Enid did just that whilst also borrowing liberally and very obviously from the village community for her characters, which I dare say did little to enhance her popularity in the queue at the butcher's shop.
It would seem finding the right 'Velvet' for the film was a little like the casting of Scarlet O'Hara in Gone With the Wind. Billed as the biggest cinema role in years, Katherine Hepburn was in the running (sorry, no pun intended) but was eventually pipped at the post (now I can't resist) by Elizabeth Taylor, then an unknown twelve-year old English girl, and some nine years after the film contract had been signed.
Now I am intrigued by the film all over again and those discrepancies with the book... that horse doesn't look like a piebald to me either... so I am hoping it will be on some time over the weekend. The incidental details unknown to me, and my thanks to Anna Sebba's book for providing them.
Elizabeth Taylor grew to love the horse she rode in the film, King Charles, and as a competent rider could jump him six foot bareback. Given the horse as thirteenth birthday present after filming, Elizabeth Taylor kept him until he died. I also read somewhere that she suffered from back problems throughout her life thanks to the numerous falls she had whilst filming.
The film was a huge box office hit. Queues forming from 7am and stretching around four blocks in New York breaking all previous records. 26,152 people saw the film in a single day in 1944 and by the end of the week viewing figures were up to 176,465. Arriving as it did upon a world wearying of war the film must have offered a sense of real hope and optimism, that true feel-good factor.
As seems so often to be the case, film rights contracts signed hastily in the euphoria of book publication earn nothing like the money they should for the author, and Enid Bagnold was eventually to find herself in dire financial straits despite watching her book take on a hugely succesful life of its own.
But none of these asides detracts from the real pleasure that re-reading National Velvet has given me this week, in Enid's own words...
'It was that special atmosphere which trembled and blew its way into National Velvet...'
and I surely felt it as I read.
I feel sure many of you will have read National Velvet too so please do share your thoughts, and here's hoping that we count them all out and count them all back in at the end of today's big race, and may the best horse win... mine.