Sunday Supplement: Oaksey Remembered

Sunday supplement by Tony Stafford

Oaksey Remembered

Oaksey Remembered

I hate funerals, so much so that I even missed one that I should have gone to earlier in the year. In my not-too-distant days of self-induced penury, I had reason to thank the late George Ward for his kindness in a number of ways. When he died, somehow I missed the news, and have never stopped regretting not going to his funeral.

One other very nice man whom I think of as a friend – and whom I do not mind standing next to in photos as he makes my profile look almost svelte – is Ken Biggins. Big by name and big by stature is Ken. When he told me one day at Manton, where he is a considerable owner, that he made the oration at George’s funeral, I could hardly bear it.

There is one funeral, though, and no doubt memorial that I must go to, and that is of the late, very great Lord Oaksey, who died aged 83 last week and was one of two senior racing journalists with whom I had almost daily contact over two score years at the Daily Telegraph.

The other was Peter Scott, Hotspur of the paper, a title he inherited from Old Etonian Bill Curling, and when he left, Aussie Jim McGrath took over. Another Etonian Marcus Armytage, writing under his own name, effectively took over my role as it was in 2002. John went to Eton, too, so what were me (Hackney) and Aussie Jim doing there?

John Oaksey wrote and rode as John Lawrence until his father’s death in 1971, so he had already assumed his title when I joined the paper the following year. Lord Oaksey senior was leading counsel for the prosecution at the Nuremburg Trials of the Nazi hierarchy after World War II and John saw much of it at first hand.

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John’s always luxurious prose was entirely positive towards his subject and its participants, human and equine, but there was one article I still recall to this day.

It concerned a day of wind, rain and tragedy at the Cheltenham Festival in the late 1970’s. I do not have it to hand; probably have forgotten some of the elements and may even have got the wrong horse, but my recollection of the bathos of its opening paragraph was thus:

“Only one stand blew down at Cheltenham yesterday; only one Champion hurdler <Lanzarote> was killed – <Bula wasn’t, just badly injured I think> and the Irish won only three (?) races. Otherwise it was a normal Cheltenham Festival day.”

His stark, almost brutal, evocation of the events of that terrible – he’d call it “horrid” – afternoon in the late 1970’s was totally at variance with John’s normal way of writing, but you had to love it. John was one of the journalists whose copy, by common understanding, was only changed in the event of factual error, but one young buck was blissfully unaware of this.

As he does get to see these musings, I will not name him, but when he, in his first week on the paper a few years after that Cheltenham day, set to “sub” his Lordship, he must have been unimpressed by the convention.  The result was a total re-writing of the piece, with almost all the adjectives completely obliterated. That caused an internal uproar, to say the least.

Living as I did in Hertfordshire during that time, I took the chance to get my son to try for a place at Haileybury College, as it was actually nearer to home than any state school. He passed an 11-plus exam and with his elder sister’s encouragement, went there to enjoy the sports and theatrical facilities as well as the education and become an all-round good egg. Worth every penny of the £50 grand it cost us.

We knew the old prime minister Clement Attlee – Oaksey senior’s great friend – had been there, as had some acting people like Simon MacCorkindale, Edward Woodward and principally Alan Ayckbourn, and on one day at a service in the main hall, I noticed the names of Lord Oaksey (senior) and Gerald Balding, father of Ian and Toby and grandfather of Clare and Andrew among the OH’s. Later I learned that David Nicholson – the Duke – who one day years earlier had  kicked my shins to the deepest blue on the football field, also spent a few terms there before deciding riding was a better idea.

Anyway, many years later, my then next door neighbour Roger Anderson, a one-time point-to-point devotee and occasionally rider, asked whether I thought John might agree to be a guest of honour for the local 41-Club (Rotary old-timers) in Hoddesdon town hall. He agreed and was happy to be flanked at the dinner by local celebrities Ray Clemence and Pat Jennings and made his usual amusing speech.

Then it was late home to stay overnight at Stafford Towers, set in a so-called private road, a nomenclature that only meant inadequate lighting and an unmade, uneven surface – a bit like the car park at Walthamstow dogs.

We got back to the house and a rather irate looking Mrs Stafford (version 1) who declared that she had spent the entire three or four  hours of our absence cleaning up dog mess from the stairs, resulting from John’s trail after stepping in a foul-smelling bunch of it before first coming in that late afternoon. He left his mark, as they say.

John was wonderful to work with, and my favourite times were when we both were in action for the Sunday Telegraph at the Grand National every year. In the early days all the papers’ columnists had their phones in the houses across the road from the track. We were on the ground floor of Chasandi, and I (I never learned her name) would ply us with tea and biscuits in the room looking out the bay window in the front, while other journalists – Brough Scott for one – would either be in other rooms, or other houses, I cannot really remember.

When that era ended and “new technology” arrived, we actually had a phone in the press room. My job was to do the first edition, which appeared the next day in Scotland and the north, while John did the “proper” piece, for common consumption. In the end, two pieces remained in the final reckoning.

My idea was to jot down a few facts and pinch a couple of early quotes from the press conference before going on to do 1,000 words right off and a single breath straight to the copy taker in London. That was done usually some time before 5 p.m. Then John would step in and get done by say 6.30.

Other journalists would be quite pedantic. I remember one year – and one year only – getting an invite from the sponsors for me and Mrs S mark 1 – on the special Grand National train, and sitting close to the equally great Hugh McIlvanney. We were almost halfway home and Hughie was still on the phone – by this time there were mobiles! –  to his office, changing the odd word to his final version. Great days. I bet George Hill remembers them too. Oops!

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