Grand National

I made myself do it. After days of avoiding the internet, I made myself look at the pictures of the fallen horses of the Grand National. As suspected, it broke me. I know there are pictures of wider-scale suffering doing the rounds every day, but, for me, as examples of pain that could have been prevented by people being better humans, they are just as harrowing as the scenes of war.

But I’ll tell you what is worse than looking at the pictures. It’s reading the statistics of the fatalities. 35 horses have died in the last 50 years. A year with no deaths is considered an uncommon bonus.
And that’s just the Grand National.
There were 27 fatalities on other races held at Aintree between 2000 and 2014.
And that’s just Aintree.
145 horses died on British National Hunt racecourses – in 2013 alone. One year. 145 deaths.

And it’s not getting better in this ‘enlightened’ age.

Since 1999 the average number of horses ‘participating’ in the Grand National has gone up over 25% – from 29 to 40 – worsening the crowded conditions and increasing the likelihood of deaths. So in the interests of greater ‘participation’, and the resultant greater injection of cash for already rich people, we are becoming less humane than at any other point in the race’s inglorious history. Less decent than we were years ago when animal welfare featured low on our social conscience. Less morally invested in the important notion that these horses do not get to choose how casually their lives are risked.
The horses do not get to choose. The horses get whipped.

And it’s not just the death count, though that is deplorable enough.
The deaths just serve to hide the quota of horses who suffer injuries from major to minor, and those who don’t sustain any visible damage but who ‘merely’ suffer from anxiety and exhaustion. Would we deploy our children to a day of ‘fun risks’ with such nonchalance?

And complicity in pathetic excuses is inexcusable; it makes you ugly.

It’s not enough that it’s a ‘national institution’. It’s not enough that the newspapers like big colour spreads of ludicrous women wearing ludicrous hats. It’s not enough that millions of pounds of sponsorship and gambling pots are involved.
It’s not enough that the horses are groomed daily and have a far better diet than most low income families in this country. It is not enough to suggest these horses enjoy their rigorous training because they love to run. Breeding is one thing; pushing a horse to the death then shrugging and buying another horse is another.
It is not enough to say only a few die and the rest “finish comfortably” (what the fuck is finishing comfortably anyway – getting to the end without their necks bending double as their faces plough into the ground?). It’s not enough that organisers work with animal welfare organisations to reduce the severity of the deliberately difficult fences and to improve veterinary facilities. Having more medical provision on hand is just another way of saying you know the chances are high that the creatures will be damaged but you want to see what happens anyway. Prevention is better than cure. Don’t put their lives in danger.
It’s not enough.

The Grand National is not one of the things that makes this country great or interesting. The Grand National is just another jewel in the crown of privilege still worn by this country of rich men doing whatever they like; the consequences of their questionable actions still being swept under a carpet, which still seethes with centuries’ worth of bodies of the poor, uneducated, innocent, and shackled. People, and horses. Lives. It should be a relic but that carpet still exists. It is not a jolly; it is a blight on our national soul.Unknown

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The Wall of Death & Other Unlived Lives

I like to think we all have a good few alternative lives inside us. Our minds are too full of wonderful things for the one corporeal life to do us justice.

I have quite a few. Like my hippy one. I went to LA when I was sixteen, and came back thinking I would never wear shoes again. I read half a book about Buddhism, and promised myself I would learn Reiki. The phase passed quickly, and I still don’t know what Reiki is, but some part of me was sewn in that life and is now strolling the beaches of Topanga in loose white clothing. My hair has grown curly from Pacific salt and I have the world’s largest collection of window crystals. (I have to wear double Ray Bans even at night to stop all the refraction from blinding me.) My daughter, Dolphin Sky, jointly begat by three vagabond brothers at a midnight drum circle, can peel an avocado just by singing to it. She makes guacamole so heavenly it makes Mexicans weep.

That’s one.

Another one is that of a trustworthy estate agent – simply because I love nosing round people’s houses. I get to my appointments early to make sure the surfaces are clean and my butt is really toned from power-walking along the seafront every night. I look excellent in a pencil skirt. I use words like ‘cornicing’ and ‘basically’ a lot and my car smells of sunbaked vanilla and new shoes.

There are others. They multiply the more I type in fact. There are probably prescription drugs that would see a few of them off but why bother. There’s room enough in my head for them to all rub up against each other. Like a tubetrain of perverts at rush hour, all happy for the unadmonished contact. We all have other lives that get set into motion by the merest flexing of our imaginations, and some part of them carry on living when we think we have abandoned them for other thoughts. They are our what ifs and why nots. We all have them.

Since the funfair came to town I am aware of yet another life. Not the one where I am Margheretta – tomboy, daredevil, and star of the Wall of Death. Possessor of a thick red ponytail that shoots sparks as I whip past on my glistening motorcycle. (Carnival legend has it that my mother died in childbirth because I had so much hair. I have a picture of her in my locket, but when I open it things around me burst into flames.) Not that one. But another one. More real.

When Carter’s Steam Fair came to town at Easter it was familiar to me as my old childhood books. The colours all a palette that I knew. That we all know. The traditional olde-worlde fair. I took my nephew Elliot to the coconut shy because my Dad used to run the one at the school summer fair. I took my niece Viola on the carousel and the motion of the gilt horses felt as familiar as walking. The dodgems span and whacked to the sound of my Dad’s favourite rock and roll tunes and I remembered how it felt to be flung around in the nook of his armpit – but now I was the one steering. I saw all those old things become a part of their lives too. Elliot on the rifle range, shooting for candy cigarettes. Was some small part of him becoming a cowboy or a cranky outback rabbit-botherer named Hank? Viola on her coloured horse Willow – was she a she-knight, a gypsy Maid Marian, an Olympiad? Were they forming dreams, ambitions; setting their imaginations off like helium balloons in the sky?

It’s likely, at 6 and 8, that they were just in the moment, with no thought for the future. Of course they were. They’ve not been turned into morbid defenders of nostalgia like me yet, and I mostly hope they never will, not in the same way at least. Their way will be their way. Their future their future. But I hope they remember our day, my childhood nudging secretly in alongside theirs, the colours and music, the motion, the pink-cheeked excitement, the carnival assembly of thousands of other lives, old and young, lived and unlived, all as real as the imagination allows. I hope they remember the fair.

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