I earned £305 in my first year as a full time writer, £35 of which came from an article I wrote for ‘The Listener’ about horse racing called ‘Talking Horses – Majesty and Money.’ I’m not a journalist and the fee pleased me. What prompted the article was television’s coverage of horse racing, with an undue emphasis, in my opinion, on betting. In the article, I revealed my reverence for topflight racehorses. A hand written letter arrived, passed on by the BBC, the publishers of ‘The Listener,’ from a monk(or friar?) at religious order in South London, Beulah Hill, recognising this ready capacity of mine for worship (I had been eulogising such great flat race horses as Nijinski, Mill Reef, Brigadier Gerard, Sea Bird, Allez France) and he saw the religious in me, gently suggested my reverence might be applied to more conventional objects of worship. I ignored the letter: I was 29. It would be twenty five years before I approached a monastery (See ‘The Beatific Vision’).
Nijinski was, and remains, my favourite among the greats. He features, imperiously, elsewhere in these notes – he’s by Northern Dancer out of Flaming Page. His sire, Northern Dancer (tracing back and simplifying a little) is out of Nearco who’s by Pharos out of Nogara - and thereby hangs a tale. The mare Nogara had been brought to England by her breeder Federic Tesio, an Italian, He wanted a mating with Fairway, a brilliant English colt and sire. This is the early Thirties. But nominations to Fairway were limited (as they were then – to about 40) and Tesio had to settle for Fairway’s full brother, an inferior colt and sire – though himself a French Derby winner– called Pharos. The great Nearco, prominent in almost every top flight pedigree since, was the result. That late switch of sire interests me. What if the English aristocracy had relented, let the Italian outsider have his first pick? No Nearco, possibly the greatest horse and sire of the century. Incidentally, the perfectionist Tesio never bred himself from the superlative Nearco, feeling his breeding was ‘compromised’.
Tesio also features in what follows. Another supreme horse he bred many years later was Ribot (dual winner of the Arc de Triomphe) and the first racehorse I was aware of. Tesio died before Ribot raced, not knowing the colt’s (soon to be) triumphs: he won the Arc de Triomphe twice, as well as coming to England to win the big mid-summer all age championship, the King George and Queen Elizabeth Stakes. At Christmas – 55 or 56, the years of Ribot’s supremacy - my father, a betting man, received a (promotional) diary through the post with Ribot on the cover. I was thrilled at this little item; my mother, who knew the reality of a gift from a bookie, less so. My mother, incidentally, always said that she had got married to my dad because Windsor Lad had won the Derby – in other words, in the ‘hungry’ Thirties, dad had had a windfall – Windsor Lad came in at 6-1 in 1934.
I could measure out my life through Derby winners. But back to Ribot. In the late Sixties, he was the most fashionable stallion, and the trainer Vincent O’Brien was called out to a stud farm in Canada to inspect a young Ribot foal colt that the owner Charles Englehardt had his eye on. Vincent found his expert (Irish) eye, instead, taken by a Northern Dancer foal, from that other Tesio ‘masterpiece’, the Nearco line. The good looking colt-foal’s sire, Northern Dancer, Canadian born, was winner of the Kentucky Derby, and unproven as a sire. The young colt’s dam – a marriage made in heaven - was Flaming Page, who won the Canadian Oaks. This beautifully bred animal became (cleverly named) Nijinski, who would go on, under Vincent and Lester Piggott, to win the English Triple Crown of 2,000 Guineas, Derby and St. Leger. I saw Nijinski take the Leger, and go into history. It was the last race he won and have described (in ‘Ravilious’) how – as a 23 year old - I cried when he lost what was to have been his final race, the Arc de Triomphe.
I watched the big French race, the Arc, at my Auntie Annie’s in Nottingham. In those days the Longchamp race would be a half hour insert into BBC programmes on a Sunday. My mum and me had visited Annie, my dad’s sister, whom I barely knew, in the car my dad had left us when he died, and I had then, effectively, taken over. It was 1969. The motorways were just opening up and Nottingham seemed more in reach of Chesterfield, where we lived. Annie was amused that I had ‘inherited’ my dad’s racing enthusiasm. A year or two later, a Christmas card my mum had sent to Annie was returned with (I think) the printed stamp, ‘Deceased’. I can’t quite remember how they did these things then, but my mother, who took umbrage easily, was quite rightly incensed that no-one on my dad’s side of the family had let her know (’I’m sending Christmas cards to the dead here’). And I had no idea till then that Annie was divorced – some things were still – the late sixties – swept under the carpet. Then my mother died, and the Wakelam side of the family (the other side of the M1 so to speak) were lost to me, not that it mattered to me much then. I did wake up in the night occasionally thinking: ‘Who was that elderly chap we once visited in 1959 – was he called ‘Uncle’ Herbert?’ Or, ‘that guy Aaron, who once arrived in a car.’ Who he? I thought in my dotage I would check some of these things out.
About five years ago an e mail arrived from a Jacqui Wakelam. Was I Albert’s son? I had a web site by then; she had got the contact address from that. It turned out that Jacqui was married to Nick, who was the son of Frank, my first cousin, who was the son of George, my dad’s eldest brother. Ready made relatives, quite close, and completely unknown. I had never met my first cousin now dead (who even looked like me) or his sister, Joyce, who had collected Press clippings about me, when I was a young writer getting local publicity up North. ‘She was ever so proud of you,’ said Nick. ‘But she never contacted me!’ Nowt so queer as folk. And on that, I’d told Nick that I was gay (‘I inherit the Wakelam gay gene’ was the way I broached it to avoid the usual questions of whether I was married etc.) and he said he had always thought that my greatest fan, his aunt Joyce, and my – unknown - first cousin, might well have been lesbian. Who knows? She never married, looks a bit butch from the photos, and took up archery late in life - and that’s enough for me.
Nick put me right on a memory I had of some organised sports on our street – egg and spoon, sack races, prizes, bunting, that I had linked with the Coronation. My mum had said to me that day, ‘Your dad’s a bit upset. He has to go to his brother’s funeral.’ I had thought I was six and it was 1953. George, dad’s brother, and Nick’s grandfather, had died in May 1951 – so it was, in fact, Festival of Britain time, two years before and I was 4, making it one of my first memories. Dad had two other brothers: one, Stephen (whom I’m named after) was killed down the pit in ’24, leading to my dad quitting mining and home. What I didn’t know (but that Nick had discovered) was that Stephen had had a son, also called Stephen, who died as a baby. It’s not hard to think of why I wasn’t told. The ‘Uncle’ Herbert we went to visit in 1959, a visit of which my mother said, ‘Your dad’s only going so as to be left something in the will’, turned out to be my Dad’s uncle, Herbert Stephen Annibal, his mother’s sister’s widower. An Annibal features in one of D.H. Lawrence’s early novels, and Herbert and one other related family with that unusual name had lived within a few miles of the novelist, at Eastwood. Oh, and Nick, assiduous, discovered that we were left £200 by Herbert. We got a washing machine and fridge at that time, probably as a result.
There is one more ‘Who do you think you are?’ revelation. My dad’s last brother was a shadowy figure called Wilfred. In the War, just before my dad went away into the army, and was still working as a (beat) Police Sergeant, Wilfred turned up in Chesterfield. He wanted to borrow money. Dad told him to hang on. He would come and see him after his shift was over. My mother told me this tale. Wilfred wasn’t at the meeting place, presumably a pub. ‘What happened to him?’ I asked my mother. ‘Don’t know. Best not ask. We think he finished up in Liverpool.’ Liverpool may have featured, but Wilfred outlived all his brothers, Nick told me. He ended up homeless on the streets of London, dying and buried in 1970 by the predecessors of Centre Point. I was visiting London then as a young man, out of Cambridge. This juxtaposition of our respective fortunes upset me. I went out not long ago from the BBC’s (then) Aldwych building where I was working, to investigate. I didn’t get very far. The address I had for the homeless charity doesn’t fit the new configuration of the street. It’s now some kids’ centre. Where he might be buried, or his ashes cremated, I don’t know. I do know that my uncle Wilfred Wakelam was one of an army of (once) young men, who in the Thirties took to the roads. I’m just about to write about one of the Tramp Preachers who ministered to them. I also know that my mother could tell a good story, even one with an attenuated – maybe censored - ending. She told me a number when I was a little lad in a way my father, a reticent man, never did. And, though she once said, ‘Oh, you get all your brains from your dad,’ he never told tales like her. It’s a gift for which I’m grateful.