2011 – 2012

While Leo was in hospital, however, I did manage to slope up to London on some exciting jaunts. These included an early showing of Steven Spielberg’s marvellous film War Horse at the Odeon, Leicester Square.

Having written a book called Animals in War back in 1982 and being totally devastated at the time and ever since by the appalling things that happen to horses, and indeed all animals caught up in warfare, I was apprehensive that the film might be too harrowing (see the Animals in War Monument, left).

In fact it was absolutely wonderful, beautifully filmed and acted, particularly by the hero horse, who I gather was played bt fifteen different horses. Although heartrending in parts, the film did not dwell too much on the dreadful fate of the animals. One therefore became acutely aware of the suffering of both horses and men but there was enough joy in the story to make this bearable.

I was, however, surprised as I sat sobbing and stunned by the marvellously happy ending, that the dark of the cinema was immediately illuminated by a milky way of lights as people turned on their blackberries and mobiles to check their messages.

I also went to two marvellous parties. The first at the Saatchi gallery to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Sunday Times Colour Magazine. Having written a column for the paper from 1969 to 1982 it was heavenly to see so many old mates, including former bosses Godfrey Smith and Hunter Davies. The second party was at Buckingham Palace to commemorate the birth of Charles Dickens. Her Majesty the Queen looked lovely in white, but very tired, I thought. She has certainly has re-captured all her radiance in time for the Jubilee celebrations.

The evening was fascinating because the guests included experts on every aspect of Dickens from Mr Pickwick to Martin Chuzzlewick.

Earlier in the day I had been to a glorious lunch at the Savoy hotel to announce the runners in the John Smith Grand National at Aintree. I was delighted to be sitting at a table with my hero, Jonjo O’Neil and his beautiful wife Jackie.

There were many speeches and interviews during lunch most of which took place with the participants sitting on a hay bale. On the wall behind them, a four minute video ran repeatedly of Ballabriggs, the winner of last year’s Grand National, hanging out of a loose box. This was hysterically funny, as whilst events of great importance were discussed, Donald MaCain’s sweet horse yawned, bit the door of his box, rubbed his head against the sides, peered out, went to sleep, woke up, peered out, and scratched his head on the sides again. During pudding, when I wandered over to talk to Donald MaCain, Jonjo O’Neill shouted after me, “Tell Donald, it’s a disgrace that poor horse hasn’t been fed for two hours”. This cracked the room up completely.

On 29 February Leo returned home from hospital, which was lovely. Once again the National Health have been absolutely magnificent in helping us and I couldn’t praise them too highly.

On 1st March I did a broadcast for Radio Gloucester protesting passionately against the proposed cull of badgers in the West Country.

Although I am now writing a novel about flat racing, rather than jump racing, in the middle of March I played truant and returned joyfully to the jumps at the Cheltenham Festival. There I enjoyed wonderful racing and fantastic hospitality in the boxes of owner-breeders Lizzie Prowting and Jane Meade, and her husband Martin who has recently had success as a trainer, and Edward Gillespie, who is sadly about to retire from running Cheltenham so brilliantly.

It took me about a month to recover from such celebrations.

On 21st April researching my flat racing book, I watched Love Grows Wild the sweet filly, in whom I have a twelth share, running for the first time this season, coming third on the all-weather track at Wolverhampton.

I was charmed by Wolverhampton. All the cherry trees were in flower around the course, and we enjoyed a lovely dinner after the race. Also the fact that you have to go into a hotel to enter the course and pause at various floors full of bedrooms, in the lift on the way up to the grandstand, made me think there would be lots of opportunities for rumpy pumpy between races if I included Wolverhampton in my book.

Also in April, as more research, I had a heavenly two days staying with Chris and Nicky Harper at their Whitsbury Manor stud farm in Hampshire. I couldn’t have had a lovelier time. The hospitality was amazing and I saw foals being born, mares being covered, and horses working on the glorious gallops where once the great Desert Orchid, learned to become a legend.

There is a signpost directing you to the stud saying “Visiting mares” which seemed to come straight out of Jane Austin. I am finding the breeding side of flat racing more and more fascinating.

Chris and Nicky’s son, Ed, who now runs the stud, and his various members of staff were also heroic in the time they spent explaining how the place works. I also loved awarding the resident stallions with a carrot after they had successfully covered a mare. I hope it will make marvellous material for the new book.

At the end of April we had an hysterical time when Tatler, as part of a regular feature on people’s pets sent down a marvellous photographer, appropriately named Charlie Sainsbury-Plaice to photograph a huge fish which lives in splendid isolation in our pond.

Alas on the day, our fish, known as Eff because he’s allegedly an Orff, and at least 2ft long, decided he wanted to be alone like Greta Garbo and disappeared under the water lilies refusing to come out.

As a result an extraordinarily patient Charlie had to photograph Bluebell, our newest greyhound and Feral our rescued wild cat, but I don’t think they are going to make the cut.

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