By Tony Stafford
Do you think you are generally a lucky or unlucky person? Most punters spend much of the time bemoaning their luck, with tales of near-misses at the races in the forefront of their recollections. I’ve probably told you here of the time when a fluky 66-1 winner achieved by a fellow press tipster cost me a fourth naps table victory a long time ago.
But on the plus side, both the gaining of my present employment and the starting point of a chance encounter thousands of miles from home which in the fullness of time concluded with my second marriage seven years ago were almost too unlikely even to consider possible.
Destiny is one word for it. Sheer ridiculous luck is a better description, and the ethereal powers that arrange such events were on hand again in the past few days to ease another of those problems.
For years I’ve usually travelled to the races with my good friend Harry, but since he changed his old Mercedes for a more comfortable, newer one, he’s been more inclined to drive himself and that was the case for York, going up on Tuesday, staying four nights in comparative luxury, and back after racing on Saturday night.
Indeed, if it hadn’t been for the flying finish of Mecca’s Angel in the Nunthorpe, foiling Acapulco and the stewards’ apparent Yorkshire bias towards Storm of the Stars in the Great Voltigeur, his week would have been highly profitable rather than irritating.
One of the more recent times Harry took the passenger role could easily have ended in a nasty outcome, his driver clipping a curb on his side causing an instant failure to the off-side tyre. It was quite close to our destination, and Harry knew there was a petrol station just up the hill, to which we limped with some difficulty.
Now Harry’s as much use in the skills of car maintenance as me, but having ascertained there was nobody in the garage capable of changing a wheel for the mini-spare that VW’s have, it was with great difficulty because of his phone’s lack of reception in the Epping Forest area that we got through to the AA, with whom he is a member. Usually you get an “it’ll be no more than two hours” as far as my distant memory of the days when I subscribed to the service. This time, the voice in the service call-centre said: “he’s in the area. He’ll be along in a few minutes”. Almost before the phone had been disconnected, there he was.
I stayed over on Wednesday night after York, but in Durham rather than near the track, and when I set off on Thursday morning, I filled the tank while mentally checking that the front tyre on the driver’s side was not showing signs that the pressure was down. I’d had to put in a little the morning before.
So after racing I set off, and on the A14, just shy of Cambridge Services, 60 miles from home, I was sailing happily along when a thoughtful young man drew alongside, gesturing I should follow him into the imminent lay-by. He came out of the car and said: “Your front wheel’s almost flat,” adding that the nearest garage was “about a mile and a half down the road.”
Again I did the well-worn limping tactic, my many thousands of miles’ experience reminding me that the hazards should be employed. I made it just and having ascertained the location of the air facility and exchanged a pound coin for two 50 pence pieces, attempted the demanding task of transmitting life-breathing energy into the distressed rubber.
One of the 50p’s expired in five minutes with no discernible effect, and the second was mostly exhausted when I heard a voice whose pitch is unique among the many Irish lilts that have been in my experience.
Before even looking across the two pumps to the car involved, I called out “Paul!” and sure enough upon letting go of the device, saw that it was the same large person of that calling who was dealing with the fuelling of the car he drives to and from the races for Adam Kirby.
Just what star-commanding force told Big Paul to choose that precise garage (and as I said just short of the much posher Cambridge Services) only minutes before our paths would have been uncrossed when the A14 splits from the M11 south I can only wonder. Or that in the preceding 150 miles from York, the tyre had not chosen a more spectacular exit at 70-odd mph? (Who says you’re not a lucky face – Ed, or even God)?
Having ascertained my inability at self-changing, the pair of them went to work, Paul first and then a be-socked Kirby: “You’re lucky, he’s usually naked”, proudly asserted the driver. Adam’s nimble fingers were great for the manipulation of the relative bits and pieces, while Paul’s better than average size was great for raising the vehicle with the jack from the car’s kit and standing on the wheel wrench to loosen the nuts.
In minutes – as quickly as that AA man - they finished and were gone. What a man that Paul, and also the brilliant jockey and man that is Adam Kirby, who as the Racing Post said yesterday in their birthday section, is still only 27!
Saturday was to be York again after a day off, but chastened by the events of Thursday I went to Sandown for a quiet day after which the joys of BBC4 on Channel 116 could be fully appreciated. My 9pm foreign two-hour detective needs were pretty-much sated by Montalbano, but there was a late-night jewel in the shape of an hour-long Status Quo acoustic concert from the Round House.
At the start of my teens, I had a period when I collected train numbers, ended abruptly at 14 when I could join Eton Manor and fulfil my dad’s great ambition. Before though, I’d go to the end of station platforms collecting numbers, underlining them in the spotters’ books, with Kings Cross a magnet with the “streaks” including Mallard, 126 mph and all that, as steam was ending its glory era.
Where the Round House is now a theatre, it was an engine-cleaning and maintenance centre, gained access to, illegally, through a little door near Chalk Farm station, and I went there many times, although the people that I undoubtedly must have had with me on the various occasions have slipped from the memory.
The engines – when you got past the occasional stroppy British Rail employee - were ranged around the circular moving stand and were gleaming in their green liveries ready for the next journey up from Euston to Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow.
Cutting to last night, Francis Rossi, Rick Parfitt and co were joined in that same hall by some classical string players and two female backing singers, one of whom also chipped in with some violin.
I don’t know if it ever happened to you, but always when we used to go to shows, my roving eye (I wish) would tend to stray to the same non-essential member of the chorus, as when the first Mrs S joined me for one of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas at Sadler’s Wells (in Islington, not the sire of Galileo).
I had a quick look at the programme that night and saw that in the chorus was a certain Lyn Williamson, and after much scouring of the stage, picked out the likeliest-looking redhead. In the first year after leaving Central Foundation School, I had been invited back for the summer dance and met Ms Williamson, who was a temporary music/singing teacher from New Zealand.
We actually went out half a dozen times that summer, but then she contracted glandular fever and told me I’d better stay clear while she recovered. The next time I saw her was 20 years later in the Mikado! Couldn’t really have gone backstage afterwards.
Last night, my attention was straying from the first minute to the non-violin portion of the backing singers, whose identity was revealed when for once I concentrated on the closing credits. She’s called Amy Newhouse-Smith, is from Liverpool and as well as singing brilliantly, she plays piano, teaches singing, and the few internet examples of her craft revealed a wonderful voice of great variety. She certainly combined well with the more than decent efforts of Rossi and Parfitt.
The boys were good, but Amy was great. Now I’ve another obsession to attend to.