The Least Equestrian Man In Europe Ponders The Grand National
I am the least equestrian man in Europe. Even though I live in the middle of horse-breeding country and work for a university that offers a degree in “Equine Studies”. The poet who has most absorbed me professionally, William Cowper, felt similarly and remarked that he would rather carry a horse than be carried by one.
(Oddly enough, the doggedly and significantly pedestrian Cowper set up his strange and chaste house with Mary Unwin as a result of her her husband Morley being killed after falling from a horse. And his most famous comic poem, “The Diverting History of John Gilpin” is about a man unable to control a runaway horse)
But The Grand National at Aintree is a little different, because it reminds me of my father, whom I miss, and my father’s father, whom I missed altogether.
There is a legend in our family that all the Conrads in it are named after the horse that caused Captain Becher’s fall at the jump that would be subsequently named after him. There are chronological difficulties with this legend which should not be checked too closely. In fact this legend should be stuffed in a fat file marked “too good to check”.
Any horse called “Conrad” in the first half of the nineteenth-century was probably named after Lord Byron’s famous pirate (“The Corsair”).
My grandfather Conrad, who died the year before I was born, suffered at a critical period of his life from acute lupus scarring and was therefore judged “too ugly to fight in World War One”. Apparently the entire conflict would have just been depressing if my grandpa had joined in. So instead, he hung around Aintree race-course and he had a system. He knew every inch of the track and he never placed a bet anywhere else.
Much later, grandpa would walk out on my grandma and her four children and start a new family on the Isle of Man. Understandably, Dad (also Conrad) never had much to say about him. I’ve only ever seen one photo of grandpa. It’s not a close up, and he’s standing in a field looking very dapper and smart, wearing a sharp suit with the kind of effortless elan that suggests that wearing sharp suits came naturally to him. It might be on the occasion of my aunt and uncle’s wedding.
Dad was not a gambling man, though The Grand National would always involve a little flutter, a slight gesture to a family tradition. Maybe I should bet something myself today after all, although the exercise is very alien to me.
Despite what I owe, or don’t owe to this race, I really don’t know horsey people at all. I knew Clare Balding very slightly at university, and gave a ludicrous speech in her honour at one rather formal event. That’s the summit of my equestrian identity.
There have been about 15 equine fatalities at the Grand National Becher’s Brook jump since 1839. But Conrad wasn’t one of them. He took one look at the fence and stood his ground as though to say “you can jump this bugger if you like mate, but I’m having nothing to do with it”. So Captain Becher cleared Becher’s Brook all on his own and crawled out of the quaggy ground remarking that water without whisky had very little to recommend it.
Since my surname is Swedish for “Muddy Water”, the pairing of “Conrad” with “Brunström” has a peculiar steeplechase feel to it.