The age of the amateur seems so distant from the way we live now that reading the obituaries of Lord Oaksey, who died this week, was like being transported to another universe. Today the idea of an aristocrat becoming nationally famous by riding in steeplechases at the top level, and then writing about his exploits in the press, somehow feels closer to the 18th century than the 21st.
There was a time when Oaksey, or John Lawrence as he was before he inherited the family title in 1971, represented all that I wanted to be. He was a champion amateur jockey, riding at the top level against professionals and winning, on a horse called Taxidermist, the Hennessy and Whitbread Gold Cups.
His columns as a racing correspondent for The Daily Telegraph were the first things I would read every morning when boarding at prep school. He lived the perfect life, it seemed to me, being both a man of action and of words, not only riding in the Grand National but, apparently within moments of weighing in, writing about it with wit and modesty. No one did more than he to popularise what had been a rather enclosed, unfashionable sport and, after he retired, he set up the Injured Jockeys Fund, a legacy as important as his columns.
It is possible to be over-nostalgic about the age of gentlemen amateurs. Members of the officer class, they had either served in, or at least lived through, the war. Men like Oaksey, and his friends and fellow amateur jockeys Gay Kindersley and Bob McCreery, were steely and driven in their pursuit of fun, and yet, in the manner of their generation, would never boast or admit to trying too hard. Behind it all was a determination to live to the full the life that they had been given.
"One can't sentimentalise an entire generation," Kindersley's daughter Tania reflected in a blog this week, and she is right. They were extraordinary, those dashing chaps of Mayfair and Kempton Park, and they were probably right to make the most of their privileged lives. On the whole, though, I am glad that life has moved on.Reuse content