Book of the week: Writing high on the back of skulduggery

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The Independent Online
The Racing Man's Bedside Book

Compiled by Julian Bedford (Colt Books, hardback, pounds 18.95)

Zola was a punter. Forget Germinal and J'accuse, Emile Zola reserved his most considered writing for the back of a fag packet to work out his each-way yankee at Saint-Cloud.

The role of the turf in Zola's life becomes apparent after reading his Longchamp paddock commentary in this excerpt from that notable novel-cum- form book, Nana: "Lusignan's too long in the back, but very fit...Not a penny, I tell you on Valerio II; he's skittish and galloping with his head up...I saw Nana after the Grand Poule des Produits; she was dripping with sweat, her coat was deadly dull, and she was panting like mad. I'll bet you 20 louis she isn't placed."

It has to be a comfort for every sad wretch of a punter up and down the land to know that even a literary genius like Zola can be similarly afflicted; can care enough and know enough about horse racing to be able to write about the sport in such detail.

Thankfully, too, he is not the only literary figure of significance to consider racing worthy of his attention. Defoe, Trollope, Kipling, Yeats and Betjeman are gathered together by Julian Bedford in one stable, , along with some other devotees of the turf who are better known in another sphere, Disraeli and Churchill.

Best of all, though, are those for whom racing's demi-monde, a world of greed, desperation and habitual failure, is a natural habitat, a source of inspiration reflected throughout their writing. This is the world of Damon Runyon and his characters Willie the Worrier - no relation to Benny The Dip - Dirty Dutch, Unser Fritz and Slow McCool. And it is the world of Hemingway, whose My Old Man, the tragic tale of a jaded old jockey, has a current of fear and menace running through it that is all the more unsettling because the story is told through the admiring eyes of the jockey's son.

Racing's seaminess is its attraction, though; an escape from routine; an opportunity, perhaps the only opportunity, to take a gamble. "Once, after Newmarket, my father was missing for two days," J B Morton recounts in Best of Beachcomber. "My mother did not seem to be in the least worried. `Newmarket,' she said, `is always a special occasion for him. He was once away for eight days celebrating his losses'."

Mother may have been understanding on that occasion, but it might be more difficult to explain to her why the title of this collection suggests that only half the population is capable of appreciating some of the finest writing on racing ever assembled in one volume - outside this week's update to the form book.