kenny hodgart

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Cult hero No 12: James Hunt

This article appeared as part of a year-long weekly series by the author in the Sunday Herald

James Hunt, the bad-tempered public shoolboy who had a penchant for blonde totty, smoked 40 a day and was prone to spectacular accidents, was never taken seriously by Formula One – until he started winning races. With his unkempt hair and shambolic demeanour, he always looked like he had just stumbled out of a nightclub.

That very scattiness was what endeared him to the British public, however.

Hunt entered F1 in 1973 with Hesketh Racing, a romantic concern bankrolled by the eccentric Lord Hesketh and by then managed by the excellently-named Anthony ‘Bubbles’ Horsley.

Hesketh initially entered F2 with little success but decided he might as well fail in F1 as it wasn’t significantly more expensive and would allow him to show off his yacht, helicopter, Porsche and Rolls to better effect.

Hunt won World Championship and non- Championship races before joining McLaren at the end of 1975 when Hesketh ran out of funds.

That was the year of Niki Lauda’s near-fatal accident in Germany, and though the Austrian recovered well enough to be able to finish the campaign, Hunt beat him to the Drivers’ Championship by a single point. He remained with McLaren for a further two years before moving to the Wolf team, but then retired midway through the 1979 season, declaring that he’d never really enjoyed driving anyway.

Back in those days F1 regularly left its participants dead or dying and the fear of crashing regularly made Hunt physically sick. Missing the immediacy of that danger, perhaps, he was prone to depression in the early 80s and for a while drank heavily – it is said he polished off two bottles of wine during his first broadcast as an F1 commentator for the BBC, in which role he distinguished himself with comments like “the trouble with [Jean-Pierre] Jarier is that he’s a French wally.” Latterly, Hunt did manage to cut out the booze – and the smokes – and channelled his energies into becoming a champion breeder of budgies and parrots, but he died, sadly, of a heart attack in 1993, aged just 45.


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Review: Eclipse, by Nicholas Clee

Geneticists these days are coming round to the Judaeo-Christian idea that we are all descended from the same common female ancestor. In horseracing it’s the male-line that counts – and it is a matter of historical fact that every contemporary thoroughbred on the planet descends from one of three horses imported to England from the east in the early 18th Century and then crossed with English mares.

The legacy of Eclipse – great grandson of one of those horses, the Darley Arabian – is even more astonishing. Born in 1764, he was unbeaten in a brief but glorious turf career, before being put to stud in 1771. Over the next seven years he sired roughly 930 colts and fillies, 344 of which were winners on the racecourse. St Simon, born a century later, had 81 instances of Eclipse in his pedigree, a figure that would increase exponentially in succeeding generations thanks, in part, to St Simon’s own success as a sire. Ninety-five per cent of horses racing today are Eclipse’s male-line descendants.

Nicholas Clee’s book is a good primer for anyone with a passing interest in the breeding of race horses and the genesis of racing as we know it, but it’s also a fascinating study of Georgian society in all its pomp and carnality. Eclipse was feted by royalty and painted by the great George Stubbs, yet more perhaps than any other sphere of life, racing in the 18th Century was cross-fertilised by all social strata, a truth demonstrated by the fact that Eclipse was acquired from a middle class meat salesman by Dennis O’Kelly, the uneducated son of an Irish smallholder.

On arriving in London in 1725, the young O’Kelly, an inveterate gambler and womaniser, found work as a “chairman” – carrying the front end of a sedan chair. Later, in a debtors’ jail, he met Charlotte Hayes, whom he subsequently helped rise to become the aristocracy’s most celebrated brothel-keeper. She a madam, he a racing magnate, Clee observes they were “at the summits of two of the most important leisure industries in Britain.”

The author sifts through myth and half-truth surrounding these two larger-than-life characters and indeed the horse itself. The detail of their era and milieu is at times grotesque – one Lord, it is recorded, once successfully bet that he could find a man who would eat a whole cat live – but the narrative itself is never less than compelling.

This article appeared in the Sunday Herald

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Review: Stranger to History, by Aatish Taseer

This article appeared in The Herald

Aatish Taseer, raised by his Sikh mother and grandparents in Delhi and educated at a Christian boarding school in southern India and in the US, knew when he set out on his travels through Islam’s heartlands that he had a limited grasp of what it means to be a Muslim. Not being extensively versed in Koranic tradition, his own faith was threadbare; rather, indeed, like that of his Pakistani father, Salman, who shortly after Aatish’s birth in 1980, abandoned his new Indian family to return to his wife in Lahore.

In adulthood the younger man has sought to mend that broken relationship, but the pair’s disestrangement, complicated from the first by Salman’s attitudes towards India and the West, was set back in 2005 when Aatish wrote an article about British Pakistanis and Islamic extremism to which abba took vehement umbrage.

Taseer fils, puzzled that his forebear – politician, businessman and avowed disbeliever – should put such store in calling himself a Muslim, wanted to better understand the ‘civilisation of faith’ of which he had heard spoken both in Pakistan and Britain. And so, armed with his own lightly-worn Sufism, he decided to travel once more to Pakistan, this time from Turkey via the Arab world, in search of what this supra-national Islamic identity means. If the fact of his being a Muslim at all is his passport on the road, however, it should also be recorded that it gives him licence to be honest about the religion he encounters to a degree western writers tend to shrink from. For this is a book that asks awkward questions of Islam and comes up with unsettling answers.

Part travelogue, part essay, part personal odyssey, Taseer’s narrative is probing, exhilarating and shot through with pinpoint observations of people, places and situations, from the menace of Tehran to the ecstasy of religious experience and the commercialism of Mecca. His is an attempt to understand those societies from which Islam takes nourishment.

In Leeds just after 7/7, Taseer had observed a generational divide between older British Muslims, who remembered with some pride their hard-earned economic migration from Pakistan, and their offspring, who lacked their parents’ instinctive humour and openness and hated the West. To younger Muslims, whose religion seemed the more rigid and forbidding, faith came with an amorphous sense of grievance. Bored and rootless, they found in political Islam a grand narrative not readily proffered by the secular West.

In Istanbul and Damascus he meets many others who feel the same way, who see the West as stopping Muslims from thinking “as the early Muslims thought.” The notion of the great Islamic past is everywhere sounded, historical fact skewered to support a narrative of aggression and attack from the Christian West. The message, that the Islamic world is now divided because of the West and the influence of its ideas, is one in which ‘cultural Muslims’ like Taseer’s father can believe, as it has “more to do with the loss of political power than divine injunction.”

To his dismay, the solution the author finds gaining ground is a sort of retreat from the world, the re-emergence of Wahhabism and its insistence on adherence to letter of the Book, effecting new levels of intellectual incuriosity and cultural homogeneity. All of this is anathema to Taseer, who has a special feeling for the religious plurality of India but, ironically, it is in Iran that he finds reason to believe the ‘civilisation of faith’ will, not before time, come up against its own illogicality and absurdity. In a country where women are beaten for the merest transgression and young people are criminalised “by a tyranny of trifles”, he finds a growing culture of private and public dissent and widespread hatred of the Revolution.

In Tehran he also finds people who make the distinction between the enforced religion of the Islamic Republic, and ‘the real faith’; yet shocked perhaps that people like his father can be so unperturbed by fundamentalism, he asks: “Did it really matter whether the Islam of the Islamic Republic was the ‘real Islam’ or not? Did it matter whether the socialism of Stalin or Mao was the real socialism?” Indeed, among his Pakistani family – supposedly moderate – he encounters hatred of America, Israel and Hindus, as well as a tendency to doubt the Holocaust. “It was too little moderation and in the wrong areas,” as he puts it.

In Pakistan itself, he finds feudalism unchecked, corruption king and bitter division amid relative homogeneity, “where once great diversity had been absorbed.” His warning that extremists “know the country has to be destabilised, the robust society made bleaker” is all too sage in the light of last week’s terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore. Stranger to History is a beautifully-written book, but the ugliness of what it reveals is what lives on after reading.

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A day in Grantchester

This article appeared in the Sunday Herald magazine

If all you knew of England was gleaned from BBC news or the tabloids you’d probably think it an over-developed, pissed-up dump full of people like Karen Matthews and Russell Brand. It’s almost as though its traditions, its neighbourliness and tolerance, and above all its natural beauty, were things to be bashful and apologetic about. Perhaps John Major’s speech about warm beer and old maids really did do for pride in English heritage, but great pockets of William Blake’s “green and pleasant land” remain still undivested of their come-hither fecundity.

Nowhere is this ineffable sorcery more alluring than in Grantchester, a village some two miles south-west of Cambridge that is as old as the Domesday Book. It is often said that the south remoulds and anglicises the mindset and manners of people not from there, but so long as you realise that on entering you are enjoined to scarper on a sliding scale of eccentricity, Cambridge seems to take no interest in redress. And Grantchester – idyllic, Arcadian, a place where time stands still and whose pubs do not sell lager – is where they go, tourists and chattering eccentrics alike, to escape the droves on the college backs and the world of cars, gymnasiums and Wagamama restaurants.

In doing so they follow in the footsteps of many of the country’s finest minds. Jeffrey Archer, “probably the best storyteller in the world” according to the Daily Mail, lives there now with his wife Mary Archer, the scientist; while past denizens include the poets Rupert Brooke and Sylvia Plath and the mathematician Bertrand Russell. And the list of others to have taken tea or fallen off punts there includes Newton, Darwin, Milton, Coleridge, Byron, Keats, Tennyson, Wittgenstein, Keynes and the Stephens Fry and Hawking.

It was out walking on Grantchester Meadows – the pasture land along the River Cam that separates the village from Cambridge -that Alan Turing first came up with the idea of artificial intelligence. Turing, you may remember, cracked the German Enigma code during World War II. He later lived in Manchester, where, in the 50s he was prosecuted for being homosexual and subsequently killed himself. I was glad when John – my host – corrected my misapprehension that we were about to cycle to Manchester. Grantchester, he informed me, would be a less taxing journey. And so, he on his own bike, I on a borrowed girl’s one, we set off across the Granchester Grind, the path that crosses the meadows.

It would be difficult to prove, but I am convinced there are more bicycles in Cambridge than people. They’re like free newspapers: if someone nicks yours you can always find a spare one lying around. It’s all very well pedalling your library books and your corduroy around the city, though; a different story negotiating the Grind. No sooner had we set wheel on gravel than briar thorns gave notice of their views on two-wheeled gender-bending. Mindful of admonitions regarding health and safety in old films about the Countryside Code, I wheeled my punctured steed along by hand towards our destination, where I managed to get it patched up and we ourselves repaired to The Orchard Tea Garden.

To sit out in the sun drinking tea under the ripening apples there is to feel the ghosts around you, here Lord Byron expostulating grandiloquently, there Keats, half-demented, agonising over his verse in some shady bower. Just a little further upstream is Byron’s Pool, a former mill pond, where the poet used to swim. The mill itself receives mention in Chaucer’s Reeve’s Tale. No swimming for us – instead we admire the enormous cows grazing on the river’s banks. It’s a scene that could have been painted by Constable and one that managed to charm even that grim poetess of death, Sylvia Plath. She indeed wrote from Grantchester to her mother of an occasion on which she recited Chaucer to a captive bovine audience, and the episode is recalled in verse by her husband Ted Hughes: “Your voice went over the fields towards Grantchester. It must have sounded lost. But the cows Watched, then approached: they appreciated Chaucer.”

Having had enough of jam and clotted cream, John explains to me how the Romantic poets, contrary to what you will hear said of them, were bothered deeply by the cruel degradations of the industrial revolution. They feared “the dark Satanic mills” of places like Manchester but it was because they distrusted the new capitalism, and their fight was for the soul of England and its people. John is learned, so I don’t argue, but there is no doubting the poet most associated with Grantchester, Brooke, is unreservedly and unapologetically nostalgic.

Homesick in Berlin in 1912, Brooke, who lodged at Grantchester between 1909 and 1911, first at the Orchard House and later at the Old Vicarage – now the Archers’ gaff – wrote: “I only know that you may lie Day long and watch the Cambridge sky, And, flower-lulled in sleepy grass, Hear the cool lapse of hours pass, Until the centuries blend and blur In Grantchester, in Grantchester.” He ends the poem with the famous line: “Stands the church clock at ten-to-three And is there honey still for tea?” During much of 1911, the hands of the clock on the tower of the church were stuck not at 2.50 but 3.30; to this day, however, it is always ten-to-three in the dining room of the Rupert Brooke Inn, formerly the Rose and Crown.

Brooke moved to the village hoping to escape a hectic Cambridge social life, but instead he became the lodestar of the Grantchester Group, a circle of friends that included Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Virginia Woolf, EM Forster, Keynes and the painter Augustus John. Woolf dubbed them the ‘neo-pagans’: contemptuous of the religious stuffiness of the mid-Victorians and later held to be symbolic of a doomed novocento optimism and innocence, they would go barefoot in the village, hike for miles around and travel to Cambridge by canoe. On one occasion Brooke and Woolf skinny-dipped together by moonlight, although it is not believed that they were lovers.

Russell lived for ten years at the Mill House writing his Principia Mathematica, the manuscripts of which were so heavy that he had to transport them to Cambridge in a four-wheeled barrow, while John, the outright bohemian, lived for a time in a gypsy caravan on the meadows with his two wives and seven children, all male, whose game it was to run around the place naked.

Yet for all he embodied the spirit of his time and place, and the timelessness of that place, posterity has not been kind to Brooke’s reputation, mainly because the sonnets he wrote shortly before his death in 1915 celebrate the dream of dying for a noble cause. They are the poems of a man who never saw battle: he died of septicemia on the Greek island of Skyros while waiting to land in Gallipoli. Locally, though, he’s still a hero – along with Brooke’s and 16 other names, the war memorial in the churchyard bears the inscription “Men With Splendid Hearts”, a line from his Grantchester poem.

The church itself is a magnificent old edifice, its nave dating back to the early 12th Century. We were happy sitting Betjeman-like in its cool stillness thinking ourselves the proper aesthetes; though happier still drinking pints of real ale (Adnams) in The Blue Ball Inn, one of four pubs in the village, all of which date back centuries. The Blue Ball is where the locals drink now; The Green Man – which Brooke tended to frequent and where John (Augustus, not my companion) once laid a man clean out after a quarrel – has fallen on hard times, its Scottish owner having gone bankrupt and then been arrested while breaking into his former property to find out what the bailiffs had left.

The Rupert Brooke, which has a fifty-cover restaurant, and where if you’re lucky you might hear Pink Floyd’s wonderfully bucolic Grantchester Meadows playing on the stereo, is also worth a visit. Or so I’m told: dinner was with friends at Wagamama that night and neither of us could remember what the Countryside Code had to say about cycling drunk. So we opted to play the peaceable Scots, scrapped the idea of paying a call on the Archers and rode back out across the Grind convinced eccentrics these days aren’t quite up to the old mark.