Thursday, July 2, 2015

Heritage, history and Arkle; the greatest horse that jumped a fence

Richard Mellor

I wrote a commentary a few days ago in response to a piece I read that the musician Charlie Daniels wrote about the Confederate Flag and what it meant to him. He talked, as others have about heritage and it was this heritage, the connection to his geographical roots and the memories of the home and place he came from. It had nothing to do with racism or hatred of blacks for him. I am not about to repeat my differences with him on this you can read it here.

But I just watched this race above, the Gallagher Cup won by the greatest steeplechaser of all time, Arkle.  I watched this race back then as I did many other races.  My father had a pub in the country (you don't own these places) and he was a bit of a bookie and loved racing, a bit of a hustler we Americans might say. While a sport of kings and the rich, communications and the modern era racing is watched by millions of people in Britain and there are many many courses. Arkle is a legend.

I sat watching this, wiping the tears from my eyes. "What is the matter with me" I said to myself. It's not so much a result of sadness but this powerful swelling of emotion.  As Arkle came round the last bend, beating his old rival Mill House and another great steeplechaser  Rondetto all horses I remember and bet on at times-----but never against Arkle---- it got worse. The scrappy Arkle at 17 hands shorter and somewhat less regal than Mill House took off. He was conceding  16 pounds to the great Mill House and 35 pounds to champions like John O' Groates that won the race previously, some of the best steeple chasers of the era..

When he was beaten a half length by Stalbridge Colonist in the Hennessy Gold Cup he was conceding 35 pounds to the winner. Stalbridge Colonist's jockey Stan Mellor, (I always bet Mellor but not against Arkle) said of the race: “The way we went past Arkle, and then the great horse battled back, the champion actually went up in my estimation – even in defeat." Last minute of that race here.

What drives me to tears watching these two races is two fold.  There was something magical about Arkle. He was a scrappy horse lovely to watch and a bit ungainly at times, unlike the regal Mill House. Look at the difference between their gaits, Arkle had a tendency to cross his legs when he jumped. But the other is that I'm looking at part of my heritage.  What I mean about this is the era in which I grew up, the 1960's. Not only was it a revolutionary decade with the colonial revolutions, the rise of the women's movement, the Civil Rights movement here in the US, the labor movement at home and the French General strike a few years after this race.  Art and culture was rapidly changing as Bob Dylan said in song, or poetry with music really. It was a decade that changed British music for ever as the black bluesmen from the US came over and transformed it. So did Chuck Berry and many more as well the European American musicians themselves influence by black American musical culture, Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, Elvis, etc.

Georgie Best was transforming the way a footballer should look. He had long hair, was a ladies man and liked to party. He once said, "I spent most of my money on booze, birds and fast cars, the rrst I just squandered." This was not the way to behave back then.  The image of Bobby Charlton, Stanley Mathews, an image steeped in 1950's conservatism was passing. The staid good old boys did not like Georgie Best. I cried when he died too because he refused to conform. It's a shame it came out more in self destruction than political struggle but the pressure is intense.

I confess in my shame, I was not sufficiently political enough to dive deep in to this political typhoon but, like all of us, it engulfed me in one way or another.  After all what is Big Bill Broonzey's Black White and Brown but a political message. You don't have to have a sociology degree to impart some historical knowledge. I may not have been conscious enough of it but it went in. But for me, apart from the music,  I was lucky enough to to live in a time to see the greatest horse that ever jumped a fence.

It's this combinations of things that make our heritage.  There were other things that affected me negatively too, that is not "my" heritage. I was for a brief moment and not in an active way drawn to the anti-immigrant racist vies of Enoch Powell, the politician. He was an academic, a member of the intelligensia.  In my mind, if we sent immigrants back, there'd be more jobs for us. That the British invaded their countries not the other way round didn't occur to me but it didn't take long to change that line of thinking. The Irish came over in droves to avoid starvation.

The British racists that govern society are much more refined than their American counterparts. I often say the British capitalists went around the world stealing everything that wasn't nailed down but they did it with the right grammar. When Americans watch Downton Abbey and witness the genteel and educated way they talk to each other and swoon over it, this was not how they related to those they considered beneath them.  They were ruthless in their treatment of their lessers.

Arkle's skeleton 
We all have these memories that take us back and watching Arkle for me is one of the ones I treasure. Watch him in these races and glory in seeing the greatest of all time. His odds once were 1-10. Here's how great he was.

"The racing authorities in Ireland took the unprecedented step in the Irish Grand National of devising two weight systems — one to be used when Arkle was running and one when he wasn't. Arkle won the 1964 race by only one length, but he carried two and half stones more than his rivals."

I'll give another example of heritage and emotion. I have a good friend who is Mexican American. I met his nephew once having a drink and I mentioned I know his uncle. He said he hadn't seen him in a while but last time he did he walked in the house and his dad and his uncle were sitting there drinking Tequila listening to Mexican music and crying like babies. That's what thinking about heritage and life can do for you (Tequila can help release some suppressed feelings I'll say.)  It's good heritage. They weren't thinking of profits, or their employees or their portfolio and crying tears of happiness and reflection on that. Hateful heritage like that the confederate Flag represents may run alongside our own, but that doesn't mean we have to adopt it as ours and must recognize as I did with regard to British capitalism's murderous history, including toward it's own workers,  that when we do we we are wrong. Young people will not be as attached to these memories as the ties between community and families is being so assaulted and working class culture so-coopted that heritage becomes corporatized. But that will change.

Here is a great tribute to Arkle. His skeleton stands at the Irish National Stud. I missed getting there last time I was in Ireland but I hope to make it next time.

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