The Smile of Triumph
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
Typewriters are having a bit of a moment. When I was eight my parents bought me a toy typewriter and I spent a part of everyday writing up the local news. Not that there was any news in our sleepy suburban village. Nobody talked about fake news in those days so I suppose I concluded that what happened at the tennis club mattered? It did to me. I had the story telling bug. For my 21st birthday, my sister and brother in law gave me a real portable typewriter as a birthday present, one that I loved and took with me to Italy when I worked there for Reuters. I still have it but it too now looks rather like a plastic toy. I can’t possibly give this typewriter away, even though it has been useless for the last thirty years! I’m sentimentally attached to it and it, in turn is irrevocably linked to my youth. I can remember how important I felt using it to write my first story on assignment: the Aga Khan’s One Ton Cup Yacht race in Costa Smeralda, Sardinia, a subject about which I knew absolutely nothing. But I quickly discovered the great joy of journalism was that if you worked hard enough and asked enough people the right questions, you could suddenly become an expert. Read More
One thing I never thought I would be doing this summer was mucking out a smelly chicken coop. I’m fond enough of animals (well, dogs) but nobody would describe me as the rustic type.
But then I also never thought I would be saying goodbye to my beloved life partner and husband of 43 years. The two are not unconnected.
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!
Listen to the BBC programme here – there is also a podcast of this edition of Private Passion available.
Here’s another article where I talk sexism, Elizabeth Taylor – and women’s lives