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, is like being transported into another universe. Today, when professional dedication is the norm, the idea of someone from an aristocratic family 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 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.
It was probably the writer which attracted me, rather than the jockey – Oaksey could never have been mistaken for a professional. As a journalist, he had a knack for a vivid phrase. "You've failed to clear the ditch – and it comes up too fast," he once wrote, describing a fall at Aintree. "The pricked brown ears that bounded your horizon disappear, and the reins scorch through your fingers like unchecked line on a running barracuda."
Before I had grown up and been inspired by the writings of Graham Greene, Joseph Heller and Frederick Exley, it was Oaksey who showed me that the thing to be was a writer. 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. "Even at my fittest, I found myself getting uncomfortably tired," Oaksey wrote of his career as a jockey. 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.
Middle England's mummies
To judge by the considerable amount of coverage granted to the departure of two newsreaders from BBC Radio 4, one is tempted to conclude that the silly season has been extended this year. The retirement of Harriet Cass and Charlotte Green has taken up where the Clacton lion left off.
Cass and Green are veteran announcers who, after quite a few years on the radio, have decided to go and do something else. One can just about understand why the BBC solemnly broke the story on the news, and then included jolly compilations of their best moments – it has a brand to promote – but the high emotion shown elsewhere is baffling. It will be like losing old friends, one commentator said. They had provided the soundtrack of our lives, intoned another.
Remarks like these remind one that Radio 4 is essentially a club, whose members are reassured by its measured tones and quiet sense of civic virtue. Announcers, mellifluous and calming, end up becoming mummy figures to Middle England. No wonder they need a rest.