Our kingdom in horses

When Greg Wood wrote in The Guardian that Kauto Star was “the first, and greatest, star of National Hunt (racing)’s modern era” I thought to myself at first: wasn’t that Best Mate?  Then I realised that Wood was absolutely right; Best Mate belongs to a different and separate era, a time when – astonishing as this would go on to seem in the context of the huge jump racing boom of the Kauto era – jump racing was perceived by some to be in an inexorable and irreversible spiral of decline, a supposed victim of the alleged Tuscany Tony’s similarly alleged War on the Countryside (apropos an earlier comment on here – that third album didn’t stick around long now, did it? – Marcus Mumford was, indeed, the same age in 2002 as Mick Jagger in 1958).  Best Mate isn’t quite part of jump racing as big business; he’s part of the era when I could, briefly and fleetingly, sense such a paranoia and fear in Dorchester that I could almost imagine the 1974 Lena isn’t currently writing about directly (although she is, I think, writing about it indirectly; TPL – fifteen years later – is currently in a period of two Scottish and two Liverpudlian number one albums in quick succession, but Toryism had already become Whig to such an extent that such a dominance within pop was arguably already on borrowed time).  And he was trained by a former girls’ boarding school teacher married to a totally unreconstructed man of the old Shires (both of whose accents have disappeared every bit as completely as the traditional accents of areas with large BAME populations, if not in fact more so), neither of them genuine business people in the way Paul Nicholls is (if a certain other Somerset institution represents the roots of the new capitalism in old hippiedom, he represents its other roots in a now largely excised feudalism).

Kauto Star was about other currents within British life of his time as well – to some extent he represented mainland European sophistication set alongside the rugged traditionalism of his Irish-bred (though trained in the same English stable) rival Denman, although we mustn’t forget how important the first real wave in history of Irish capitalists making money out of the British market was in the transition of British jump racing into big business – but above all else he was about the realisation that, in fact, jump racing had had little to fear from New Labour because it had already, without anyone really noticing, become out-and-out capitalism and therefore eliminated any elements to it which might have been a threat to them even if you believed the wilder claims.  More than that, he was about The Shires losing that paranoia about modern culture and embracing and becoming part of that culture, and about that culture meeting bona fide capitalism halfway, and about the politics of capitalism dropping whatever notional hostility they had had to The Shires … about the creation of a version of capitalism which was both accepting of what capitalism actually does and broadly supported in The Shires such as there had never been before, and about the creation of a shire culture which, also for the first time, accepted the logical outcome of capitalism as much as the notional idea of capitalism itself.  In short, Kauto Star was about the entire politics of his era, his moment, from the month Cameron became leader to his second Christmas in office (his span of Grade 1 wins).  No wonder he was so symbolic, so significant.

Other National Hunt horses who have made an impact on the wider public feel like similar cyphers and metaphors (to some extent, the most recent Flat horse to have done the same – something harder for the highest-class horses even before jumping had embraced bona fide capitalism, because they always stuck around for much less time – also feels like this; the Frankel Moment was also the moment when it seemed as though Murdoch might fall and gentlemanly capitalism might actually be restored, a moment which was dead even before Henry Cecil himself was).  The fact that Mill House was Irish-bred means that it would be simplistic to identify him purely with the English ruling class, and Arkle was in fact owned by someone whose name ended with the words “Duchess of Westminster”, but there can be no doubt that Arkle’s rise felt like a moment of Irish self-assertion, stepping out of long and overpowering shadows, which might well have seemed symbolically linked with what was happening in Britain (some of it, at least in terms of pop music, driven in part by people of Irish descent).  That he transcended his ownership to become a genuine people’s hero in the Republic of Ireland was, if anything, easier at that moment, before old wounds were reopened in the North in the harshest way possible, and it would have been hard, I think, not to equate the fall of Mill House with the fall of Alec Douglas-Home, the fall which in the end was not permanent, once capitalism had, in the 2000s, lost whatever qualities it had which made it slightly unpalatable to such people.

Simply because he was trained on Merseyside and achieved his greatest successes there, Red Rum‘s career is, of course, also inexorably linked with the Irish – Catholic and Ulster Protestant alike – presence in Britain, and with the planting of the seeds for the revival of the Grand National as a great people’s festival, but he also seems to symbolise the strength and power of the working class, the small man, in the Britain of the 1970s; that he could do what he did to a horse who seemed to exude semi-aristocratic self-confidence and measured cool (although even here there are ironies; that horse was in fact New Zealand-bred, one who might once have been seen as a “jumped-up colonial”, in the year that country felt itself abandoned by Britain’s membership of the EEC and would respond initially with the last top-down, state-based Tory movement the Anglosphere is ever likely to see, before a subsequent Labour government was, in a sense, Roy Jenkins, Thatcher and Blair all in one go).  But Red Rum did what he did in a setting profoundly run down and on its last legs; it felt as though public will and affection might not be enough to keep this rotting edifice alive.  The national sense of decay which many felt in the 1970s – however driven by an essentially Tory worldview and however much some people outside that culture did not feel it, and still do not feel it in retrospect – fitted very closely with the state of Aintree and the Grand National.

Red Rum also exemplifies some of the problems and faults within the Old Labour or broader Old Northern culture; Ginger McCain was a famously reactionary and unenlightened character (and, as he came from Southport, is a good deal less likely to have been a socialist – even a reactionary one – than if he had come from Liverpool itself; “used car store owner” – and, yes, that’s a 1974 link too – also often codes as “working-class Tory” even in some of Labour’s strongest areas).  After his last hurrah at Aintree during the Blair / Countryside Alliance / Best Mate era, his son Donald McCain has been, overall, a far more successful trainer in far less time precisely through embracing jump racing’s new sense of itself as big business; even if Ginger McCain himself might not have been a socialist, plenty of Northerners of his generation with similarly questionable views on social and cultural matters were, so even though it might require a stretch, you can still make the argument that the generational shift, even if not necessarily this precise family line, represents how Northern English culture, and especially North-West English culture, has simultaneously become more driven by pure commerce and the profit motive, with its capitalism on a much greater scale rather than simply as a hobby, a pastime, while at the same time becoming more socially liberal and pluralist (a profoundly problematic dual dichotomy which I still cannot work my head round).

Certainly, a great many horse racing fans are horrible reactionaries – often, in fact especially, reactionary socialists.  It seems to attract all the most reactionary and unpleasant social tendencies on all sides and in all classes; it has historically drawn massive support from both the aristocracy and the lumpenproletariat (the reactionary tendencies of both of which have always needed those of the other to keep going, feel a sense of justification) and been largely ignored by the more liberal social tendencies in between.  A fantasy project of mine some years ago was to build on the work already done by such as Rebecca Cassidy, Kate Fox (in her blither way – she might be, in this field, a sort of Dominic Sandbrook to Cassidy’s Andy Beckett) and Wray Vamplew & Joyce Kay, and put together a definitive social history of the sport in Britain on a par with Derek Birley or even C.L.R. James’ work on cricket.  I genuinely still think there is life within such a vision, because like the origins of British pop, it certainly deserves to be rescued from some of the reactionaries (on more than one side, in both cases) who have attempted to control the territory for themselves; I just don’t think I’m really capable of writing it.  But it still needs to be written.

The bit at the top of this blog about “the horsiest Leftie in the Anglosphere, but there are many horsier ones beyond” is written advisedly; in mainland Europe (and the greater similarity here is, I think, an underrated factor in Scotland, Wales and Ireland being, on the whole, more Europhile), there is simply not the culture of separation and distinction between Left-wing politics and horse-related (and other rural) activities and enthusiasms such as there tends to be in England.  It is easy to underestimate and forget just how different English political and cultural divisions might be if this split didn’t exist; for a start, you wouldn’t have the phenomenon of Leftists saying that they don’t like other professional regional stereotypes in England but have no problem with the Wurzels, because they don’t imagine that the latter could possibly conceal anything more progressive in the way that they recognise that, say, Brian & Michael damagingly did.  This is pretty much exactly what someone says in the Popular comments to the entry for “Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs”, and is a depressingly predictable view on the English Left, and in itself part of the reason why Tory majorities can just about happen.  These things predict themselves and institutionalise themselves; each side needs the narrowness of the other.  Breaking them down has been an important part of my identity, of what I am.

Those who know me in the flesh will know that I have pulled away from this recently; I haven’t been riding for a while now, prefer to keep my distance, step back a bit.  Naturally this is down to the way I am wired and what I can cope with and cannot, not any antipathy towards the social act in and of itself.  I have no problem whatsoever with the thought of riding; the more people who think like me who can do it the better.  Finding something impossible personally is in no way a criticism of what it actually is; sometimes it can, in fact, be the precise opposite.

Kauto Star saw out Blair and saw in Cameron with rare perfection and accuracy.  But there are other cultures, even out here, which have equal validity and status within the fabric of this country.  The Left and Right alike forget them for alarmingly similar reasons.  They shouldn’t.

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