I'm a non-starter at Cheltenham

While other students went on marches and found sex, I was getting up at 6.15 to ride out
Click to follow
IT IS the time of the year when unwelcome memories return. The feelings of nausea and emptiness in the stomach that are caused by nerves and weight-loss pills. The weighing-room backchat, the last instructions from connections, the moment when the sounds of the crowd fade and you are alone, on your way to the start. The various phrases that, to this day, can induce a shudder of embarrassment: "two pounds overweight... took no further part... unseated rider". Unhappy moments from the distant past, locked away for the rest of the year in the dusty back room of the memory, tend to escape during the days of the festival at Cheltenham.

Even now, when I move in a world where festivals involve writers sitting on a stage and musing thoughtfully about their art, the term still really only means Cheltenham's' National Hunt week, the one festival where, in spite of occasional fantasies (I could still just about do the weight for the Foxhunters), I can never appear.

For the first 20 years of my life, I dreamed of becoming a steeplechase jockey. It would be convenient to put this aberration down to the fact that I had been born into a family for the members of which horses and riding were a central part of existence; that my father was a successful amateur jockey and international show-jumper; that, throughout my childhood, I rode every day when I was at home. But it would not be entirely true. The fantasy was mine, and it was not about hunting, eventing or show- jumping; it had to be racing.

So my prep school heroes had four legs: Pas Seul, Saffron Tartan, Flame Gun, Kerstin. I kept scrap-books filled with photographs cut every day from the racing pages of The Daily Telegraph. In the epic encounters between Arkle and Mill House, my brother and I took sides, arguing our support like other schoolboys following Liverpool or Manchester United.

My embarrassment today is only partly caused by the extent of my obsession. By the time I had reached my teens, I knew that, unlike my brother, I would not become a professional jockey but would be an elegant amateur, riding brilliantly and describing my exploits with becoming wit and modesty for the next day's papers. While others at Cambridge went on marches and demonstrations, discovered sex or advanced their careers in Footlights reviews, I was getting up at 6.15 to ride out at Willie Stephenson's Royston yard. The days when I should have been listening to Raymond Williams, Tony Tanner, JD Broadbent or LC Knights, I spent travelling to Nottingham or Uttoxeter to ride some no-hoper in a hunter 'chase or novice hurdle. I must have been mad.

I could tell tales of being upsides Terry Biddlecombe on Fearless Fred at Warwick, of storming at the run-in at Ascot on Mile-a-Minute, of a driving finish here, a crashing fall there... But it would be unconvincing. The enduring memories of those years are of trying to lose weight, sweating it off or consuming a variety of revolting and debilitating pills, of feeling apart from the racing scene and of not winning.

Lester Piggott once said that the only point in taking part in race was to win; you might as will be last as be second. In retrospect, I can see that my brief, inglorious career as a jump jockey proved that I lacked that killer competitiveness. I came second a significant number of times. Even coming into the straight, the distant sound of the crowd reaching us over the grunts and kicks and shouts, I never quite shook off the nagging conviction that coming second was really not that terrible. It was better than third, and a lot better than "took no further part" or "unseated rider".

I was ashamed of this at the time and still feel uncomfortable with it. Competitiveness is so central a part of the way we live, particularly if we are male, that to be ambitious without particularly wishing to win at the cost of others seems pusillanimous. Perhaps it was no wonder that I ended up as a writer, a profession where, although competition is ubiquitous - you compete with the world, with your peers and, above all, with yourself - it is never head to head and public.

"To be any good you have to think you're the best of your generation," Martin Amis has said, and the sneaky competitive pride of writers will be fully on display at The Word, London's literary festival over the next couple of weeks. Some would say that, in a way, the rivalry between writers is every bit as tough as that between jockeys, but I know which winners' enclosure I believe is the toughest to reach.