This is a cleverly constructed book, featuring one of Clare's beloved horses or dogs for each chapter of the book and her life until her early twenties. This device works really well; whilst each animal varies in the role it played in Clare's life, it gives real meaning to the title.
Gill Heeley's beautiful drawings of every extra- special dog or horse enhance the chapter headings. I suspect many people will want her to draw precious equine or canine companions as a result. Clare's story will appeal to an enormously wide range of readers, reflecting the many different roles that make up her status as a National Treasure. Whilst best known as a sports commentator, Clare has presented 'Ramblings' (about walking) on Radio 4, contributed to Countryfile, and contributed to state occasions like the Trooping of the Colour.
Her warm, empathic personality is tremendously endearing - and this book shows how it was formed. Clare's background is widely known, being the daughter of top racehorse trainer Ian Balding, animals were sure to play a huge role in her upbringing. The demands of running a racing yard meant that whilst he worked at home her father had little time to spare for parenting. Which was probably just as well - there is a well-known but scary photo of Clare aged 2 perched on the back of the stallion Mill Reef. It could easily have ended in disaster.
Clare's formidable grandmother Priscilla played a major role in her upbringing. Unable to take on a role as a racehorse trainer herself (women weren't allowed), she appointed Clare's father as her trainer and he later married Priscilla's daughter Emma. Emma was at home having been denied a further education from a mother who thought women unworthy of senior roles. Priscilla had little patience with children, her cutting comments and harsh demeanour must have been truly frightening to Clare and her brother, Andrew. Not to mention exasperating in the extreme to Clare's mother.
This is also a remarkably honest book - Clare had some difficult times at boarding school and could easily have been expelled. These events are told with a highly reflective eye and the life lessons learned are made clear. Having read Clare's father's book Making the Running: A Racing Life I found that one story from which Ian didn't emerge with a great deal of credit was retold by Clare to show him in a far more favourable light. Not out of dishonesty, I am sure, but out of a strong sense of love and filial duty.
A relatively strict upbringing and a rocky school life could have been the basis of a truly unhappy childhood - but it wasn't. Animals were Clare's saviour and it's an absolute delight to read of the joy and freedom they brought her. Riding was one thing Clare excelled in, and her ultra competitive nature (inherited from her father) found a release in equestrian sport. Clare had the opportunity to excel at race riding and became lady champion jockey. She rode with hands and heels, never using a whip, and her thoughts on this are interesting.
As a racing fan and dog owner I enjoyed the book tremendously, but my greater joy was in the way Clare's story unfolds through the animals and how they helped form Clare's fantastic people skills. Clare's brother Andrew played a major part in many of her childhood adventures and the very close bond that grew between them is lovely to read about. It also explains Clare's 'speechless' TV interview in tears when her brother won the Oaks. It wasn't unprofessional, it was sheer joy finding an outlet from a deep source of love.
A wonderful book which deserves to become a classic, as its near namesake did.
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