ODE TO OAKSEY
St Paul’s Knightsbridge
7th November 2012
John Lawrence – as he then was – was my hero from the very beginning. But I have to tell you that my first sight of him in the flesh was something of a disappointment.
It shouldn’t have been. For it was at Sandown Park in April 1958 and he had just won the Whitbread Gold Cup on Taxidermist outgunning the mighty Mandarin up the final hill and to my teenage, would-be jockey self he was already an awesome inspiration; the dashing Corinthian whose despatches to the Telegraph conjured up clammy fear, thundering hooves and, a phrase I remember from some otherwise long forgotten race report – “riding back with the hot, salt, sweat stinging in the eyes.”
I imagined some elegant, ruthless, long haired mix of a young Hugh Grant crossed with Daniel Craig. But when the Queen Mother stepped on to the presentation rostrum the hatless 29 year old who bowed before her was already bald enough to seem middle aged. This was not so much James Bond as Hercule Poirot.
It is an odd image but it lingered as I moved through the ages in John’s wake – as an ever avid reader of his columns, a riding rival, a newspaper and television colleague, and finally as his successor, after Edward Cazalet, as Chairman of the Injured Jockeys Fund. For six months I even lodged with him and Tory and a young Patrick and even younger Sarah at Marndhill, and lived off Tory’s very excellent stockpot at lunchtimes. But the importance of that first memory from Sandown is that, even at 29, John was a mix of the old and the young. He had a judge’s brain and a child’s enthusiasm. In speech or on the page, he had a clear, strong, insightful but generous authority. In the saddle, even when he got pretty good at it, he never lost the boyish thrill and wonder of being able to do it at all.
For he was not actually very good at the beginning. He may, as Edward has explained, have fallen in love with race riding at that Pegasus point-to-point in 1951, but it was not until 1955, at the age of 26, that he began to ride out with trainer Bob Turnell and was promptly run away with on the very first morning. When Betty Turnell said she hoped John might ride some winners, Bob replied “hasn’t he left it a bit effing late?” And when Taxidermist’s trainer Fulke Walwyn first saw John on the Lambourn gallops his analysis of the style was “a fine example of the Old English Lavatory Seat.”
But John was determined as well as enthusiastic and, unlike some of us, kept on improving and actually getting fitter as he got older. He won the Hennessy (on Taxidermist in a last stride photo finish). He won four races at the Cheltenham Festival even if he did get beat in the 1958 Kim Muir by no less a rider than Mr Edward Cazalet, the only future High Court Judge ever to score at the Festival. John went on to have ten Grand National shots beside that legendary ride on Carrickbeg and twice won the Foxhunters over the big Aintree fences. He was also twice champion amateur over jumps and on the flat won four Moet and Chandon Silver Magnums over the full Derby course at Epsom. By the time a bad fall at Folkestone stopped him in 1975 he was 46, that’s eight years older than Tony McCoy is now – and I have been trying to tell him to give up for ages.
John was never much of a stylist but he got the job done. There is a picture of him and me jumping the last fence at Stratford in the 1968 Horse and Hound Cup. It was my last ride before turning professional and, to use one of John’s favourite phrases, “non-swanks”, I do look much the neater of the two jockeys. Yet, as he never ceased to remind me, it was John who came out the winner.
But what a stylist he was with words. John loved the wit, the rhythm, the detail, the magic and the majesty of words. He could give you great chunks of Shakespeare or Tennyson or his beloved P.G. Wodehouse by heart. But he also adored the super cool of Raymond Chandler and the classic class of Graham Greene. When surprised he would love to say things like “the pen dropped from his nerveless fingers”- or, apropos of nothing much, would revert to the first, and I might say, only line of his never written novel. Mind you the opening was a cracker. It went – “It was hot that summer in Ithaca.”
In my opinion the happy chance that brought John’s love of words and horses together was something that racing has never bettered in the 350 years since The Merry Monarch Charles II first galloped up the Rowley Mile with the prospect of the lovely Nell Gwynn at the end of it. Sport may be a triviality but John could ennoble it. And if you think that is Ciceronian exaggeration remember the unique Carrickbeg report we have just had read to us by the new president of the Injured Jockeys Fund, or listen to what John wrote on the evening of the 17th June 1962 after Fred Winter had steered a bridle-less Mandarin round the labyrinthine Auteuil racetrack to a famous win that afternoon.
“From Agincourt to D-Day,” John began, “France has been the scene of more brave deeds by Englishmen than any other country in the world. Mostly, of course, they were inspired by the horrid waste of war, but sport in its less serious tragic way can also lift a man to heights of daring and achievement, and as Fred Winter and Mandarin came back on Sunday after winning the Grand Steeplechase de Paris, I like to think that the ghosts of long dead English horsemen rode beside them, glad and proud to know that the flag for which they fought and died still flies, even in this sad, dull, mechanical age.”
It’s all great Churchillian stuff and it is not untypical of John’s connections that the piece was actually filed from the British Embassy but while such privilege often leads to pomposity in both the person and the prose, John had far too developed a sense of the absurd to ever let that happen.
Witness this report two years later of his ride on Pioneer Spirit at Cheltenham, his most embarrassing moment in the saddle. Coming round the last bend miles in front John had got confused with the temporary railings, thought he had taken the wrong course, pulled Pioneer Spirit up and turned round to the amazement and delight of the late Bill Tellwright on the sole surviving pursuer.
John’s account was a masterpiece of “Mea Culpa” which concluded: “And anyone who thinks – as well they might – that a £25 fine was not a severe enough penalty for so unforgiveable an error, will doubtless be glad to hear that, getting home on Saturday night, I ran a hot bath, neglected to turn the taps off – and brought down a dozen square yards of ceiling in the room beneath. All in all, it was quite a day.”
John might have been humble but, with his background and his beliefs in justice, he was no shrinking violet as the racing authorities often had cause to remember. The Injured Jockeys Fund may have been his greatest legacy but he was also a constant force in demanding a better deal for horses, lads, trainers and spectators as well as riders, and was never afraid to stand up and say so. Indeed in some ways his physicality and courage made him an even better speaker than he was a writer. On his feet John could inspire, argue and amuse although just occasionally he could mix the wrong story to the audience in front of him. Shall I tell you the one about the mole? No Ma’am, perhaps not.
It was natural that television would come calling and, as Edward has said, John became a much loved member of our ITV and then Channel 4 team. The audience loved him for what he was. He had real experience, serious eloquence and no concern about things looking messy. Who else would do a live bungee jump live on TV in his 60s? But funnily enough, John didn’t really enjoy the telly that much, preferring the direct contact of an audience or the control of the words he put on the page to the reaction-less intimacy of the camera and the need to take direction from a producer talking in his ear.
In fact he never really mastered that last trick and his response to the Anglia TV producer telling him to comment on the Anglia chairman’s matronly wife as John drooled over the extremely saucy looking young lady collecting a trophy at Newmarket, prompted the response now immortalised on You Tube: “yes, yes, and there’s the Chairman’s wife – yes, I suppose she is jolly pretty too. Yes, definitely jolly pretty.”
But what John did master was the need to add something to the normal routines of life. “I say old man,” he would start off on the phone and, before you knew it, you had agreed to some new plan whether it was taking part in the Oaksey Sports, running the London Marathon, doing the 44 mile Lyke Wake Walk across the North Yorkshire moors, writing a script for a film about the Gay Future saga or, on one memorable occasion, going to see Gerry and The Pacemakers at Caesars Palace. “That’s great John,” I said, “but it’s Newmarket next day we would never get back in time from Las Vegas.” “Oh no,” he said, “it’s not Caesar’s Palace, Las Vegas. It’s Caesars Palace Luton.”
Throughout it all the love of horses, and particularly of jumping fences on them, continued to inspire. He and Tory, joined often by Edward, became cracks at team chasing with the not too originally named Tory Party, and one of the finest of all his “non swanks” attainments was riding the star eventer Cornishman in the lead stunts on the film “Dead Cert” which included jumping a London taxi and in and out over the double gates of a level crossing. Dead Cert also saw John’s speaking debut on the big screen. He played a vet’s assistant. His only line was the not-too catchy – “Sorry guvnor, the urine sample’s no good.” Spielberg never called.
Yes, we laugh, as John Loved to laugh and thank you all for laughing with me. Yet if, in many ways John was old fashioned enough to belong to another era, in the most important ones he was proudly so. Because he rightly espoused those old fashioned virtues which insist that with privilege comes responsibility, that achievement should always be tempered by compassion and that in the end helping others can be the finest of fulfilment
So a man of high courage and performance, of gifts and brains and love and laughter. A man who lit the lives of all of us assembled here. Let’s close with the ultimate of compliments and one which should never lightly be bestowed. It is to state that – in the case of John Geoffrey Tristram Lawrence, Baron Trevethin and Oaksey – we will not see his like again.