My Animals and other Family, By Clare Balding

One is most amused

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The Independent Culture

Possibly the best legacy of the 2012 Olympics has been Clare Balding. We always knew she was there, the springy Labrador of BBC racing. But since the Games, she has proved that swimming, diving, show-jumping – any minor sport – can be exciting, so long as she's presenting.

"Why can't everyone be Clare Balding?" demanded the Daily Mail. "She can do anything," Caitlin Moran pronounced. "If there were four more Clare Baldings, we'd have our empire back. Six, and we'd be colonising the Moon."

Now, she has written a memoir of her youth and, needless to say, it's brilliant. Actually, before we get carried away, this should have come as a surprise. Balding is a sports personality from a racing background. As she acknowledges, racing folk aren't communicators. They speak their own language and deliver it in military barks. They do not emote, except through animals.

In this, Clare is true to her tribe; each chapter is centred on a dog or horse she has loved. And yet, it is as much about frightful humans as lovable nags. The stories canter along, Clare turning out to be a deft raconteur, telling stories such as when she nearly hit the Queen with a sausage, or about the time she was suspended for stealing some wind-up chattering teeth from a corner shop.

Her father trained racehorses for the Queen, though he was less gifted at raising a daughter. "Do you love me more, now I'm thin?" she asks after losing weight for a race. "Yes, I think I do," he replies. But then, he's just as gauche with the monarch: when she asks his opinion of Thatcher after the 1979 election, he says: "Well, it's going to take a while to get used to a woman running the country."

A tomboy as a child, then a horse-mad teen at a cool boarding school, Clare is the permanent outsider. She is tough yet needy; sporty yet academic. Some might have wanted more on Balding's sexuality, but it doesn't define her. After trying boyfriends, she returns them like library books and decides she's been "looking in the wrong part of the library".

What could have been a dull stroll round a Berkshire pet cemetery turns out to be a gallop through all the most powerful human emotions. Balding's writing reveals her to be the bastard love-child of Jilly Cooper and Gerald Durrell, via a spell at Malory Towers. But best of all, she is always simply herself.