Saturday’s historic Grand National win by Rachel Blackmore on Minella Times, making her the first female jockey to win the race since it began in 1839, was thrilling in so many ways.
‘Now girls can dream’ Blackmore said afterwards in one of many press conferences.
But in fact Enid Bagnold, the novelist, had already had that dream, a dream which she wrote about in her 1935 classic novel National Velvet. Nine years later in wartime Hollywood, with palm trees appearing on the imagined Aintree racecourse, MGM turned the book into a hugely successful film, a box office hit that set the then unknown child actress Elizabeth Taylor firmly on the path to stardom. Taylor was a horse mad English child who happened to be living in America at the time. She was little more than ten when she first auditioned for the role and told me, 40 years later, when I was writing the biography of Bagnold, why getting the part had meant so much to her.
I have interviewed Elizabeth Taylor twice and in November 2020, mid lockdown, I was asked by the BBC (with full Covid restrictions in force) about my memories of meeting the iconic actress.
Both my interviews were many years ago, ten years apart, but five minutes with Elizabeth Taylor is something never to be forgotten. I had fifty minutes twice. My reflections will appear, with impeccable BBC timing, this Saturday https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000vc82
Rachel Blackmore’s win is a triumph but it is worth also remembering that sometimes Life imitates Art and Enid Bagnold had imagined just this scenario almost ninety years ago, when no female jockeys were allowed. Another triumph, but of the imagination.
If like me you’ve been enjoying hearing the deep and clipped tones of the 1940’s reporters telling us about the progress of D Day (I know it’s radio but you can definitely see that they are wearing suits and ties or possibly even dinner jackets) have you also wondered where are the women’s voices? Answer is, of course, there weren’t any. Not only were there no women announcers or presenters but British women were not allowed to be accredited war reporters. The only way around this disbarment was for reporters like Clare Hollingworth to join an American news organisation if they wanted to report the biggest story of the day.
Even Martha Gellhorn, the veteran American journalist who had been reporting the War for Collier’s Magazine since 1937, suffered from this attitude as the US Army’s public relations officers objected to a woman being a correspondent with combat troops. But she was determined not to be relegated to reporting behind the lines or what was demeaningly called ‘the women’s angle’ and came up with a brilliant ruse. Read More
I’ve been thinking a lot about grit, determination and willpower recently. I’ve been glued to the Sunday evening TV series Who Dares Wins about SAS selection which this year, for the first time, has included women. I happen to know one of the contestants as she teaches amazing fitness classes at a studio called Barreworks in Richmond. As I struggle to do some of her apparently ‘simple’ plank and weight lifting exercises, I’ve always known Vicki Anstey was a bit of an inspiration and clearly had reserves of strength the rest of us can only dream of.
This weekend, instead of me questioning other people, two interviews about me appeared, one in print and one on the radio. I already knew, of course, how tricky it is, when you are under pressure, to convey exactly what you want to say and yet this really brought it home. This is how other people will see me!