23rd May 2019
I’m in full recovery mode and hope to be in proper action at the Curragh this weekend. Hopefully I won’t need to keep resting, as there won’t be much time to draw breath! It’s one of my favourite meetings of the year and always attracts top-class horses.
I’m trying not to be too active, so I’ve had plenty of writing time, although features rather than fiction. One feature is for my regular welfare slot and we’ll be looking at the abuse received by trainers, usually from disgruntled punters. It really is highly personal abuse, threatening and offensive, directed at both the trainer and his/her family and staff. The levels are shocking and it’s disgusting to see what people can sink to when their wallet or judgement is hurt.
Once again I’m reminded of how fiction so closely reflects fact. In my quest to find a plot not already used by Dick Francis and co I simply look at the everyday racing life and try to pick up something supposedly minor and use it against a character’s weakness or fear. But as I grow older I’m realising the minor things I took for granted are the genuine weapons I’m turning them in to.
We used to find Sidney The Algerian and the few others in his corner highly amusing when we raced in France. We couldn’t speak French and understand the abuse he shouted at the losing jockeys, but we got the gist, particularly of the simple replies by the said losing jockeys! It seemed pretty harmless at the time, but I did think “What If..?” later when I wrote Chantilly Dawns and subjected the hero, Marcel, to such abuse. What if it was more than just Sidney The Algerian, and every aggrieved punter? What if it was directed at Marcel in his own home as well as at the racecourse? What if it opened old wounds from a bullied childhood and broke him completely?
Sadly those “What If..?”s are reality. Abuse no longer ends at the racecourse, is no longer the harmless chides of Sidney The Algerian and it does cut through to the bone, whether there are past wounds to reopen or just fresh ones to be made. People can be broken completely, not just by thoughtless abuse but by the deliberate ‘malice aforethought’ meticulously written into an email or letter and sent to a trainer’s address that was searched for online. That’s not Sidney’s spur-of-the-moment outburst. That’s the product of a vicious, spiteful and sick mind. The next time you choose to place your money on a horse you have selected, think twice before heaping abuse on its connections when it lets you down.
15th May 2019
We are so fortunate in our racing industry that welfare is first and foremost, for horses and those working with them. All of our gratitude must go to Racing Welfare for undertaking research into the mental health of those working in the industry and for publishing a detailed report. Hopefully all can now act on those findings.
The findings aren’t new. I wrote Sainte Bastien based on formative experiences from 30 years ago and I’m well aware that while support and awareness has increased, the contributory factors to poor physical and mental health have also greatly increased. Stable staff and professional riders are taller, heavier and routine testing is now the norm, so traditional methods of coping are denied.
The percentages of those suffering from stress and depression are high: 86.67% jockeys; 79.25% stud farm sector; 74.55% trainers; 71.99% stable staff. Continuous racing without break, the care of horses and the pressure to succeed and appear successful are all listed as contributory factors. That the Report is titled “A Lifestyle Rather than A Job” says it all and no one would wish for any other life. Yet it is taking its toll and I personally feel the toll is being demanded by bookmakers. Does the racing industry need the high amount of racing currently demanded by the betting industry? The jockeys of my youth suffered the same deprivations, but there was no Sunday racing, no all-weather racing, no winter Flat racing and no summer jump racing. There were respites. That was just 30 years ago. Only 50 years ago there were no off-course bookmakers. The first Derby was run in 1780. Why only now do we cry utter dependency and pander to the whims of those who shouldn’t count, at the heavy expense of all those who DO count?
10th May 2019
I’m at my old ways again, you say, but on this occasion I have a good excuse for ignoring you all. Following a wonderful Tramore International Ska Festival, where we danced non-stop for three evenings and most afternoons, we headed to London for Undercover punk festival. A rotten head cold kept me in bed instead of watching bands and when I got home my doctor sent me straight to hospital, where I remained for over a week!
It may have felt like a head cold, but in fact pneumonia and pleurisy were off the scale in both lungs. I’m none the worse for it and even got plenty of ‘Grey Motive’ written while in my hospital bed. The benefit of ‘tablets’! I was looking for a crisis for the characters and found one of my own!
The nurses did their best, but the best medicine was on Wednesday, seeing The Derby winner at long last! I had thought he wouldn’t be found here in Ireland, but the quiet lazy worker at Ballydoyle came alive on the racecourse and revealed himself – Sir Dragonet. A beautiful horse, beautifully bred, his grandam a sister to Sea The Stars and Galileo, no less.
9th April 2019
Terrific day of Classic prospects in action at Leopardstown on Saturday and Longchamp Sunday, with more to step out at Newbury and Newmarket shortly. Thomas Trullier has been much in action, too. But right now it’s the next book keeping me busy, Grey Motive.
It had been held up somewhat by an obvious lack of motivation, thankfully not my own but that of a protagonist. The question being, which? I’d nearly thrust even more onto the buckled shoulders of the wrong one, until taking it back to basics and writing a simple list. What motivates?
Terry & Chris: to keep the yard running successfully. Twist in fortune - Triple Crown prospect.
Joy: to look after her family. Twist in fortune - theft suspect.
Jack: - ; - !!!
Very easy to spot the hole here! So after an evening's thought:
Jack: hoping to find a direction in life at the yard. Twist in fortune - (plot-spoiler, but you'll find out eventually!)
The motivation can be simple basics, needs, lusts, but the deeper underlying motivation driving the plot, as opposed merely to their goal, has to be stronger and the twist that pushes them over the line. As with the antagonist in Sainte Bastien, his motivation was to be a success and earn the respect of a disinterested family, but a deeper passion consumed him and propelled him unwillingly into drama. Unwillingly being the key point. The driving passion must be strong enough for the heart to overrule the head. And with that to bear in mind, back on course!
4th April 2019
I’m thoroughly enjoying the new Flat season and mainly following the racing from France on France-Galop, which has led to a nice new discovery. Promising young jockeys come along far less frequently than horses, moving along every 25 years instead of every two, so it’s a treat to find a new favourite, one Thomas Trullier. He has a lovely balanced style and, though I’ve only seen him twice, doesn’t commit that most heinous and all-too-common crime of “bumping”!
Amateur jockeys used to be called bumpers for that very reason, their highly amateurish lack of ability at keeping from bumping up and down off the saddle in a driving finish. Touching down on the saddle with your bum is a no-no. As that excellent judge of a jockey, Mr Bill O’Gorman, will tell you, it’s a bad habit becoming so common now that it is almost considered acceptable. If you were a racehorse in a finish, you would definitely not consider it acceptable!
Meanwhile, Classic trials loom and I will be enjoying the great card at Leopardstown on Saturday and will then be glued to France-Galop Live for the Longchamp card on Sunday! Happy days!
30th March 2019
I’m still buzzing at being a No.1 Bestselling Author, but quite possibly had even more pleasure and excitement on Tuesday, seeing the mighty Ballydoyle string! Wow is the only appropriate word to sum the day up. I was first treated unexpectedly to seeing Latrobe work, the Joseph O’Brien-trained Irish Derby hero. He looks superb, as always. His younger sister, Pink Dogwood, was then among the stars on show from Ballydoyle, all trained by Joseph’s father, Aidan.
Pink Dogwood looks like a proper Oaks filly, together with her companions Mona Lisa’s Smile, Hermosa, Credenza and the unraced Heaven On Earth and South Sea Pearl. Joseph has the Oaks winner, though, in Iridessa! So Perfect looks a nice 1000 Guineas filly.
There aren’t too many middle-distance colts in this year’s Classic crop, but I was taken by Albuquerque and Constantinople, though neither look good enough for a Derby, as well as Mount Everest and Mohawk. Japan and Norway look a little ordinary and Anthony Van Dyck hasn’t made the progress I would have expected. Full of quality, but hasn’t grown or filled out much. Magna Grecia looks superb, as does paddock pick of the day, Ten Sovereigns, both Guineas types. Fresno may be one to watch, too.
The older horses were the superstars, of course. Kew Gardens, Capri, Flag Of Honour and Southern France, all walking together and a sight to behold. What a great season ahead and another bestseller still to write!
23rd March 2019
Thank you to all the Writers’ Union members for re-electing me as Chairman again this year, together with my co-chairman, Phil Mac Giolla Bháin. I’m looking forward to working on behalf of all the writers in Ireland and Irish writers abroad, whether published or just writing for pleasure. It’s a lovely community to be part of.
14th March 2019
Well, this has certainly been a most exciting week – and I don’t mean Cheltenham! My first horseracing thriller, Chantilly Dawns, published in 2011, has just become a No.1 Best Seller on Amazon! Publishers Weekly estimates a book would need to sell almost 1,100 copies every day to land a spot on the site's top five, which is quite incredible. I’m quite jealous to think of my hero, Marcel Dessaint, settling down on a couch with so many readers! I hope they enjoy his company as much as I have.
The real life Marcels will be getting back into proper Turf action next weekend and I cannot wait! As the Irish Flat begins at Naas on Sunday week, France leads off with the first Group race of the year. Happy days!
5th March 2019
Spring is in the air, although a very sudden and unexpected snow blizzard interrupted it for a day! Quite astonishing to see the landscape transformed into an Alpine scene within an hour. One moment, slurping through mud after heavy rains that had broken a mild spell of sunshine, the next crunching through a heavy layer of snow! I prefer snow to mud, as do “The Boys”, Gary and Leo, especially if it means extra hay rations, but now we’re back to brilliant sunshine and a more normal Spring.
Spring can mean only one thing – the start of a new Flat season! I enjoyed a taster while following Gina Rarick’s runners at Cagnes-Sur-Mer throughout the last two months and now I have only a couple of weeks to wait for our own season to start, at Naas, Sunday 24th March. Can’t wait! We’ll also have our first sight of the mighty Ballydoyle Classic force, but I suspect an English stable will retain The Derby crown this year. Happy days ahead.
26th February 2019
I had the pleasure of sending the completed glossy annual “Racing Certainty” to print last week, with grateful thanks to AIRO and Ashville Media for giving me the opportunity and for so much support and expertise. This of course means I should now be free to keep my Diary better up to date, not to mention get that novel finished!
However, the first thing I did with my free time was fill it! An excellent professional development course with Cat Hogan at the Irish Writers’ Centre, The Power Of The Pen, has really got me inspired for teaching, as well as for returning to my own novel. A strategic planning day with the Irish Copyright Licensing Agency also taught me an awful lot and was equally inspiring. Now all I have to do is get a free moment to work on my website and novel!
30th January 2019
My long absence denotes two things – still busy editing and writing the annual racing magazine and still busy here at home, which at this time of year means forestry work. 15yr-old Gary the Dexter bullock successfully passed his annual Herd Test and the much-abused shelves and cupboards in my office (for want of a better word) have been gradually emptied and partially binned! None of which has added to the word total of my novel-in-progress! Young hero Jack has discovered some carefully hidden receipts for foreign items, of which he can understand only 16mm and 35mm. The mystery thickens, but does the danger? At this rate, we might never know!
13th January 2019
The Stallion Trail was a great success again and I so enjoyed meeting old friends, human and equine, and seeing superb horses. But it does increase my concern for the Classic racehorse and its future.
This year I visited only NH stallions and one thing struck me – the stallions siring the greatest percentage of winners are not the fashionable stallions topping the Sires’ Tables. It’s a numbers game and the leading sires are not necessarily the best stallions. They may be getting 200 or more mares and the cream of mares, at that, but they are not enjoying the success of many of the less-fashionable stallions I met, who are siring large percentages of winners to foals, from just a very small crop and without visits from top-class mares.
It’s disappointing that fashion dictates the market, but at least the goal remains to breed a winning racehorse. The Flat market is much more worrying. My musician friends will agree the goal of a musician is to have a string of Number One albums and sell-out stadium tours. Supporting a top band at a good venue is a dream, but not the ultimate goal; just a step toward it.
Any ‘musician’ whose goal is to win X-Factor and have a Number One isn’t actually a musician, just a kid dreaming of five minutes of fame. And Flat breeders, dictated to by owners and the sales ring, are just that. Winning a two-year-old race at Royal Ascot is our equivalent of supporting a good band at a good venue. Yeah, we should be delighted, but only because of the promise it holds for the future. Our stadium tour is actually returning to Royal Ascot at four and winning a Group One. The two-year-old races should be a start, not an ultimate objective. Sadly, had I done the rounds of the Flat stallions this year, I would have met precious few with hopes of siring a ‘stadium’ horse.
This get-rich-quick agenda is seeing more Derby winners at NH studs than it is Derby prospects. For racing fans and the longevity of the thoroughbred, that’s not good. Modern owners aren’t interested in racing, they want a quick return, quick thrill, goodbye. When the last of our owner-breeders have gone, our middle-distance horses and stayers will be gone, too. Very sad.
7th January 2019
I would recommend anyone who has Friday or Saturday free, to register for the ITM Stallion Trail. It’s free of charge and provides the opportunity to go and visit your favourite stars from the track in their retirement. It’s a once-a-year chance to see inside luxurious stud farms such as Coolmore Stud, Gilltown Stud, Kildangan Stud and Ballylinch Stud, the latter full of rich history. Then there are the beautiful stallions to see as well, such as the team at Ballyhane Stud.
I will be on duty for the EBN and am really excited my list includes the Derby heroes Wings Of Eagles, at The Beeches, and Workforce, at Knockhouse Stud. I’m also looking forward to seeing Rule Of Law for the first time since he retired from racing, a few years ago now. What a great weekend it promises to be!
2nd January 2019
Happy New Year everyone and I hope it brings you joy and health. For ourselves, another year like last will be good and it has already started well. I was invited to be Ireland’s judge for the 2019 European Prize for Literature and this could be the year in which my new novel is completed. I certainly intend so.
And what better way to begin the year with a walk on the Curragh, just as Mr Weld’s string joined us for exercise; in front of the impressive new racecourse grandstand, which looks complete and ready for the first meeting in April. Can’t wait! We must be on an athlete’s programme, because we completed our walk as the string completed theirs and the second lot were coming out as we left!
31st December 2018
Looking back on a great year, with lots of star horses, Masar and Kew Gardens among them, and many to look forward to, Quorto among those. I began the year at a punk festival, followed by a ska festival, followed by a literary festival in France, where Tony and I were treated as VIPs in Royan and had a wonderful time. Then another three punk festivals, another ska festival and another guest appearance at a literary festival, with superb race meetings such as the Curragh Classics, Irish Champions weekend and Royal Ascot in between. Not to mention a perfect jaunt to Bristol to see my three favourite bands on the one bill! Rounding off with my first-time stint as a magazine editor. Can’t be bad! Same again, please!
4th December 2018
A proper Winter Wonderland out there this morning! Time to get the Christmas card letter written and reflect on the year, which was a pretty exciting one again. The excitement continues, right up to my visit to Jessie Harrington’s last Friday. Always a pleasure to be in great yards, not to mention being greeted fervently by several very kissy dogs! Who wouldn’t love this job?
I’m still ultra busy trying to get Racing Certainty to press, but have had to do some marketing for my own books, too. That involves blogging and guest blogging! You know I can’t even update the Diary, so how do I blog?! I cheat and interview the characters from my novels! Check me out on Goodreads or Facebook to follow them until I’ve completed the revamp of this site, where they’ll appear as well. But I’m having fun sitting down with my favourite fictitious heroes and posing them questions! I’m loving their responses, especially Pete Allen from Gala Day!
25th November 2018
A busy time, as I’m about to go to press for the first time as an Editor in Chief! It has been an enjoyable experience and I really loved working with other writers and photographers. I’ll keep you posted when AIRO’s Racing Certainty magazine becomes available!
Meanwhile, I am also modernising my website, so learning coding and design in any spare moment I get. This means the novel is back to not in progress! But I have plenty of articles written and in progress, plus The Derby of 2019 to ponder!
Line Of Duty looks like an obvious Derby choice, although the Kentucky Derby could be higher on his radar. Of those I’ve seen, it has to be Quorto, a small compact type oozing quality. Although I’ve not seen Phoenix Of Spain he does look a Derby type and should see out the trip. Too Darn Hot looks invincible in the Guineas and I think the pick of the fillies are Iridessa, who I love, and So Perfect. Plenty to dream about over the winter.
3rd November 2018
I am seriously concerned by the decrease in men joining writing groups and the increase of women's writing groups. Obviously not the lack of men in women's groups, but the lack of men in open writing groups and classes. Why the need for women's writing groups? For example, both Amazon & Easons current Top 10 romance books - all female authors, no surprise. Top 10 crime fiction - 7 female authors. Young Adults - 7. Overall Top 10 fiction - 5. Over in the Irish Book Awards, 45% men, 55% women, with all six finalists of the short story category women. It's a level playing field. Keep writing groups OPEN TO ALL.
1st November 2018
What a wonderful evening with Woodbine Books, Kilcullen, and such entertaining and wise authors. Bookstores like Woodbine Books really support writers and are the lifeblood of literature, but to see the effort put in by their staff behind the scenes has really raised my appreciation to a fresh level. Well done and thank you to all involved.
30th October 2018
I am so looking forward to appearing on tonight’s panel of Kildare authors for Irish Book Week. I know I’ll learn a lot from my fellow panellists, plus a little bit more about my own writing. It’s funny how someone will ask a question that makes me think about something previously unconsidered and thereby awaken all sorts of inspiration and wisdom! If you are joining us at this free event by Woodbine Books, please note the change of venue – Fallons Bar 6.30-8pm, Kilcullen.
24th October 2018
Next week is Irish Book Week and you’ll find lots of events being in held throughout the country’s bookshops, so do go in and check them out. If you happen to be in South Kildare, why not join me and a panel of local authors at the Town Hall, Kilcullen, on Tuesday 30th October, from 6.30pm until 8.30pm. Chair Jo Doyle will be asking plenty of interesting questions, so you will definitely learn about the craft of writing and how your favourite authors find inspiration. My thanks to Woodbine Books, Kilcullen, for hosting this event and for stocking my books!
2nd October 2018
The first week of October is always a nerve-racking time! Have I a sufficiently good body of work over the year to be nominated for Horserace Writer of the Year at December’s Derby Awards? Well, today the suspense was over and I received my 11th consecutive nomination for this prestigious annual Award! WhooHoo!
The peer-judged Award is based on our year’s work in the racing media and my four selected pieces focused on the effects of sales preparation on young horses, mental health issues, concussion and how the working hours of staff are managed across Europe. Many, many months of research, but a pleasure to complete and to have met such wonderful experts along the way.
28th September 2018
I had the pleasure of attending the IHRB Anti-Doping Seminar yesterday and it is good to know Ireland remains free of misconduct. Bad management and mistakes have led to any failed dope tests, but whether or not a drug is performance enhancing is irrelevant. Under the Rules of Racing, a racehorse is not allowed to race under any medication whatsoever. As Dr Lynn Hillyer pointed out at the Seminar, if a horse is unwell it should not race. She is a vet; and we all have the same duty of care to the horse.
As you may by now have noticed, I see gambling and sport as two separate entities and do not agree with those who feel punters should have a say in how horseracing is organised. The FA doesn't consult with the clientele of Ladbrokes and William Hill for advice and neither should the BHA and IHRB. Horseracing is a sport, not a slot machine. So it's rare I agree with the views of Rory Delargy. However, in his two recent columns he has strayed from advocating the rights of punters to my own territory of the rights of horses. We are both incensed that a racehorse trainer has escaped a suspension for withdrawing drinking water from a horse for 48 hours prior to a race. No one with a duty of care to a horse should get away with such an act and that includes any member of staff aware of the act who failed to report it to the authorities.
23rd September 2018
It’s always nice to receive some recognition for a job well done. Mine isn’t a hard job and, for me, rarely seems like work at all, but even so a little bit of praise goes a long way. I have fantastic editors who always have a thank you and kind word about the work I’ve submitted, but behind the scenes I also need to know in advance of results what those results will be. When Jim Bolger was the cover feature for a magazine arriving in shops a few days after he’d won The Derby, bear in mind the magazine had gone to press a few weeks BEFORE he’d won The Derby. I rarely write for dailies and everything for me is submitted weeks in advance.
Which was why it was such a boost to receive an email from a very dear colleague reminding me of my written words this time last year, naming Kew Gardens and Flag Of Honour as future Classic winners – a feat they each accomplished last weekend. I had also set Masar’s name in print as The Derby winner 51 weeks before his Derby win. It’s not rocket science and it’s not worth a trip to a bookmaker, but it is nice to be acknowledged for a skill not all race writers learn. Time figures, form and stable rumours can never be trusted and are rarely a guide, you can only rely on your eyes and the horse itself. Looking at horses is the best part of my job and it is particularly nice that some people notice and remember.
18th September 2018
My Diary space isn’t big enough to thank all those responsible for a great weekend’s racing here in Ireland, even though it clashed with the Champagne Stakes and St Leger on Saturday and Arc trials on Sunday, I just about managed to see them all AND enjoy them all! Among the plethora of retirements, it’s a wonder I’m not one as a result!
Obviously my hosts Pat Keogh and Derek McGrath and their teams, and Declan Healy and Martin Rice and their teams for keeping the media up to date and informed, but primarily we all owe a debt of gratitude to Joe Foley and Harry McCalmont, whose brainchild Irish Champions Weekend was and whose dedication saw it become a reality. There are a lot of great thinkers, but very few doers, so it’s good to acknowledge a happy combination.
I’ve yet to see a potential Classic winner in the flesh yet, as much as I like Quorto. I think there’s better over in Britain and the Dewhurst and Futurity will reveal all. My three choices this time last year were Masar, Kew Gardens and Flag Of Honour, so I don’t want another Golden Horn year of going into the winter without seeing a Derby horse!
13th September 2018
I couldn’t wish for a better wedding anniversary weekend and have to thank Leopardstown and the Curragh for laying on the entertainment for us! If you’ve never been racing before, now is the time to give it a go. Meanwhile, the next novel continues with apace and it’s time to introduce you to Joy:
‘We’ve got a problem.’
Around her, Joy noticed, no one was paying much heed to the relief manager. Maud was slowly checking her till, Rhys making a start on last night’s betting slips. But the words stopped Joy in her tracks. She froze momentarily, then pushed the last drawing pin home through The Racing Post page, the day’s racecards by now on full display throughout the betting shop.
How much should there be in the floor safe?’ Gareth asked.
‘Forty thou’,’ stated Maud, not bothering to look up.
Joy wondered if she was the only one aware of the devastation behind his words? “Should there be”? You don’t count the shop’s money and announce a problem. However calm and quiet his voice, Gareth was about to destroy their comfortable existence. If there was forty thousand pounds in the floor safe he wouldn’t need to ask.
3rd September 2018
My concussion has now cleared, along with the article on it (no coincidence!) I thoroughly enjoyed writing the feature and meeting all the interesting experts it introduced me to, but now I’m itching to get back to fiction and continuing with my next novel. You may recall meeting Jack here some entries ago. Now, meet three of his co-stars:
‘We’ve got a problem.’
Terry jumped down from the small grey thoroughbred colt and stood at its shoulder, gently rubbing its neck as it picked at the grass, on a loose rein.
‘There’s a reason why all the lads want to get on him every morning,’ he said, with an air of excitement.
Chris hadn’t seen Terry look this animated since he’d told him he was going to propose to Su – and that had been thirty years ago. It wasn’t that his friend and business partner was never happy; just possessed of an unfortunate face that looked in perpetual audition for the definitive pictorial dictionary entry for sombre. Today’s audition was a positive fail.
‘He’s good, is he?’ Chris surmised.
‘Remember sitting on Salvinius for the first time when we were boys?’
Chris nodded. He did remember, even now. It had been that good. The only Derby winner they had ever ridden, but unfortunately not on the racecourse.
Terry’s smile broadened. ‘Well, you take him out in the morning and you’ll feel it again. This lad’s special. We’ve got a Derby colt, Chris. Guineas, Derby, no reason he won’t stay the Leger trip. We’ve got a Triple Crown horse!’
Chris leaned over and gave the yearling colt a hearty pat. ‘Should’ve guessed as much when they all wanted to get up on him.’
‘He’s an easy ride with a Ferrari engine. And we can’t keep him.’
30th August 2018
I usually find a good excuse for not updating my Diary and today it’s concussion! I haven’t been concussed, but do feel as though I have the same symptoms as I try to grasp the research into concussion and helmet design for a forthcoming article! I’ve really enjoyed chatting with experts, doctors, scientists and engineers and fully understand the 12,000-word feature I have compiled as a result. What’s causing the headaches, dizziness, lack of clarity and sleepiness, however, is whittling this down to the 3,000-word commissioned feature that everyone will understand!
27th August 2018
What a fantastic weekend courtesy of our friends in the band Snubbed, who not only entertained us on Saturday, but provided a bed so that PIL could entertain us on Sunday. Dublin would have been otherwise unreachable due to the road closures and traffic control imposed for the Pope’s visit. This did mean missing some top class Ballydoyle colts winning at the Curragh, but I had already formed a good opinion of them in their earlier races and Anthony Van Dyke comfortably vindicated that first impression.
19th August 2018
My Diary entries were wonderfully interrupted by my annual pilgrimage to the four-day punk festival Rebellion, which I first attended in 2002 and provides a welcome breath of friendship, social-minded politics and great music. Not to mention my morning rides on the North Pier carousel! Having quoted some revered authors here previously, I cannot hold up any better shining example of political writing than Dick Lucas and will endeavour to pick out his lyrics from Subhumans, Citizen Fish and Culture Shock for future Diary entries.
For today, however, I must quote the worryingly accurate words of retired trainer Bill O’Gorman, having just finished his book “A Land Of Lost Content – Some History Of Racing”: “The thoroughbred today represents the culmination of several hundred years at the whim of the English aristocracy, about two hundred driven by genuine competition, and now followed by several decades at the mercy of venture capitalists.” Something I see regularly in breeding stock sales, where a beautifully-bred middle-distance mare is offered in foal to the likes of Kodiac and Dark Angel. I despair.
31st July 2018
Having quoted Emily Bronte yesterday, I had to select another sublime example from a writer I love, of a different nature, as Bertie Wooster highlights the sheer silliness and fun of PG Wodehouse:
Bertie tells Jeeves of the latest hit song, "It goes: Oh, won’t you something something oranges, my something oranges, oh won’t you something something something I forget, something something something tumty tumty yet, oh - , or words to that affect. It’s a dashed clever lyric and the tune’s good, to0."
My family often have similar conversations! I frequently pose them “What’s that band that’s not Slipknot?” The answer, of course, is Korn…
30th July 2018
No lines from my own novels today, as it’s the anniversary of Emily Bronte’s birthday, 200 years ago. Those who have only seen the movie think Wuthering Heights is a love story and Heathcliff a hero! Read the book and you’ll find out otherwise. The beauty of Emily’s writing is not what she tells us, but what she knows to leave to our own imagination:
”I brought him down one evening and just sat him in a chair, and never touched him afterwards. In two hours, I called Joseph to carry him up again; and, since then, my presence is as potent on his nerves as a ghost; and I fancy he sees me often, though I am not near.”
And that is Heathcliff, speaking of his young invalid son, as chilling a villain as any that have since been crafted; and without the need to tell us more. Yet, because of Emily’s sneaky introduction and use of the narrating lodger, she tricks the reader into sympathy and fondness for him, before she and he betray us. Such clever writing.
24th July 2018
I must say, I enjoyed Nero Month, as it really made me sit down each day and write something. Now, I’ve slipped back into bad habits! Obviously I have written a lot, for several publications, and enjoyed another glorious weekend at the Curragh, which is such a lovely place to be in all its new glory. But remembering to update my Diary? Not a hope! So I shall call July and August New Novel Month and share some of the first chapter of my fifth novel, which I’m currently writing. So, to the opening lines:
‘We’ve got a problem.’
Jack looked through an intentionally long and unkempt fringe at the disinterested expression of the Deputy Head, which so perfectly matched the man’s tone of voice. The old bloke was probably aiming for calm, with the lure of confidante; the good cop without the bad cop, but acting wasn’t his forte. He couldn’t disguise the boredom.
Which made two of them. Reprimands were just as tedious from the receiving end. Jack was only fourteen, but he’d already had more than his fair share and usually undeservedly, he felt.
10th July 2018
Between football and horseracing and working and soaking up the rare sunshine, no wonder I’ve let the Diary slip again! Despite my favourite team, Germany, going home early, it has been one of the best World Cups I can remember, with some great matches. And who would ever have thought England would do so well and get so far? I’m far from patriotic, but it’s good fun to enjoy the party atmosphere if you can. Here in Ireland it’s not really possible, as it’s a nation of Abe’s – Anyone But England! Croatia will be as heartily cheered on as Sweden and Colombia, but no matter; we shall enjoy it anyway, it’s not that often we actually get a half-decent team to seriously cheer on.
2nd July 2018
What a fantastic Irish Derby Festival – huge thanks to all at the Curragh. They got heavily knocked last year by those insisting they shouldn’t have stayed open (but clearly didn’t go, as the temporary facilities were great), but this year the fruits of their labour are there for all to see. It’s going to be a great track for racegoers, superb. As was the weekend’s racing. Some choicely-bred two-year-olds making their debuts, about whom we’ll hear plenty more by this time next year. And Joseph O’Brien stealing the show with younger brother Donnacha, sending out the handsome Latrobe to deny their father Aidan an Irish Derby 1-2-3-4, against strong opposition. Yet more credit to the Curragh team for attracting a good field.
21st June 2018
The horses here at Ascot this week were expensive to buy and are expensive to own, but in first century Rome they were State-owned. Four chariots competed in each race, pulled by four horses, and they competed for four teams – the Blues, Greens, Whites and Reds, the horses wearing ribbons in the team colour, the charioteers in tunics of the team colour. Fans were obsessional about their factions and sported their team colour. Nero and Otho were Blues men. Some of the best horses came from Spain, but many, as today still, were bred on the British Royal Stud, then under the helm of Queen Boadicea. A four-horse team had two mares on the inside and a stallion on each outside, both skilled at taking the extreme bends at each end of the oval track, 14 circuits making up each race.
19th June 2018
I am currently working long, full days at Royal Ascot, these posts coming to you live from the press room, but mainly “Ballydoyle Corner” at the saddling boxes used by Aidan O’Brien, which affords the best view of the horses once racing starts. My job this week is to assess the horses, “paddock judge”, and only French colleague Dominique Boeuf ever joins me to do so, absent so far and much-missed. We get 30 minutes to assess from six up to 20 or so runners, generally before any numbers appear. You need to be able to recognise and remember equine faces, which I find easy. I’m hopeless with human ones, though!
Nero loved his racing, as did most Romans, and it was the fashion to display a portrait of a favourite charioteer in pride of place in every home. Frankie Dettori today would be like “the green lady” of the 1970s! Driving chariots at racing speed was a dangerous occupation and few charioteers lived to enjoy retirement. They amassed vast fortunes, but the most important part of their equipment was the knife on their belt, to cut the reins (wrapped around them for the race) free if they fell.
18th June 2018
Today is Royal Ascot’s opening day and I’m envying Nero’s title, which enabled him to wear his outrageous clothes whenever and wherever he wished. Of course, he didn’t see them as outrageous and I feel equally good in my own choice of clothing; but Doc Marten boots are viewed as outrageous at the Royal meeting and even the press must adhere to a strict dress code. My male colleagues will be in top hat and tails all this week, while I will be rustling around in stiff shiny fabrics and a hat. We will only have six races to enjoy per afternoon, but there were eight races per meeting in Nero’s time, which he soon extended to 12 and made a full day of it. After five days of six races, I’m stretched!
18th June 2018
As well as entering drama competitions, Nero competed publicly in chariot races. When the public had flocked into the Palace to watch his private races, the Senate could do little to prevent him from racing competitively outside of the Palace. While touring Greece, he competed successfully in the Olympiad, driving a 10-horse chariot, and was awarded the race despite falling from the chariot before the finish. Until that moment, he had believed all his cherished prizes had been won on merit – his own personal accomplishment, with nothing to do with his hated office. His prizes, and self-belief, were rendered instantly worthless. Within less than a year, he was dead. His final months were corrupted, not by power, but by the lack of power; with the realisation that he could never escape his title, nor use it for the better good.
17th June 2018
Day 17, and I’m of course forgetting Nero’s greatest sin of all – performing in public! It was one thing to enjoy the Arts, theatre and chariot racing, but quite another to participate. The stage itself was the preserve of the lower classes and though charioteers were the pin-ups in every home and earned huge amounts, it was no career for a nobleman. Nero had always yearned to be a charioteer, so set up a private course in the Palace grounds, soon opened to the public. His passion for theatre took him to the stage, too, and he invited fellow noblemen and women to act alongside him, which shocked and appalled many. He took his love of the Arts very seriously and entered singing and drama competitions; suffering from severe nerves at each contest and always surprised by his victories. It didn’t occur to him that he was awarded prizes simply because he was Emperor. When he found out the truth, it destroyed him.
16th June 2018
One of Nero’s greatest “crimes” came early in his reign, as a teenager who hated bloodshed. He had always been disgusted by Claudius’ passion for the amphitheatre, so one of his first acts as Emperor was to ban all deaths in the arena. Gladiatorial combats were reduced to “mere ballet performances”, according to the outraged nobility. Criminals were set to work on public projects instead of condemned to the arena. This really was seen as a threat to society. The people of Rome were taught to value and respect life by the life and death battles they witnessed in the arena. How better to understand the value of life than see a man fight for that very life? When Nero banned the killings, the fear for many was that future generations would have no respect for life. How different our perceptions have become.
15th June 2018
What did Nero do to become Enemy of the State? He allowed the destitute to take shelter in the Palace, as I recalled in 10th June’s Diary. He sold corn at a subsidised price to all citizens, averting a famine. And he nationalised the legal system; nationalisation still being a dirty word to the ruling classes even today. His good friend and Arbiter of Taste was the satirical author Petronius (I recommend his surviving book The Satyricon, an hilarious laddish adventure), who wrote the lines “what uses are laws when money is king, when poverty’s helpless and can’t win a thing. There’s no justice at law, it’s the bidding that counts, and the job of the judge is to fix the amounts.” Nero’s solution was to put all lawyers on a set State fee, so their services were freely available to rich and poor alike. By now, even his childhood friend Senecio was plotting against his life; Nero was a menace to decent society!
14th June 2018
Nero didn’t fiddle while Rome burned, but what other villainous acts did he commit, according to myth? Well, of course, he murdered his mother. In fact, she had made several attempts on his life and had tried to overthrow him when her influence over him waned. With every lawyer and judge in her pocket she was beyond the law, but Nero’s Commander of the Fleet devised a plan to drown her, by staging a shipwreck. Her time spent in exile, diving for pearls, stood her well and she was able to swim to shore. She despatched an assassin to the Palace, but he was caught, and Guards were sent to arrest her, with instructions to execute her should she resist. She asked that she be stabbed through the womb. When Nero learned of her death, he remained insensible with grief for several days.
13th June 2018
What attracted me to Nero was his Marxist policies, some 1,800 years before Marx. I only knew the Peter Ustinov Nero of Hollywood blockbusters, an insane tyrant, old, fat, bearded. The historical Nero, a young, blonde, clean-shaven socialist, swept me off my feet as I read Tacitus and Suetonius. Why did we not know this real Nero?! I had to tell the world! Of course, when I sat down to research his biography, I found four academic biographies already published, all telling the same thing. The real Nero was there, but not of interest to anyone other than academics. The sensationalism of the myths were what people wanted, not the facts. So I wrote the biography anyway, then used it as a frame for an “I, Claudius”-style novel, bringing Nero and his friends to life through the structure of fiction. Just like Nero, I fell for Marcus Otho, another unexpected nice guy in an otherwise greedy and corrupt imperial household. Only now, as I write these daily pieces, do I see so many connections – love of books, writing, music, horses, horseracing, outsider fashion… and Otho!
12th June 2018
We’ve seen some of Nero’s policies, but what of the young man himself? Let me draw you a picture. He was described as “pretty, rather than handsome”. He was of average height and build and had “a bull neck” of which he was very self-conscious and was never seen in public without a neck scarf. He had blue eyes and poor eyesight, using a large emerald as a magnifying glass. He was clean shaven, as was the fashion in First Century Rome, but wore his blonde hair set in curls and down to his shoulders, which was not the fashion, in Rome or Greece. Men kept their hair short as soon as they came of age, although certain male slaves were allowed long hair, if it was pleasing on the eye to their masters. Togas were worn only by Senators in the Senate House, the fashion in Rome being for knee-length tunics in plain colours. Nero preferred to dress in Greek style – short tunics in bright colours with bold floral prints. His favourite tunics were adorned with large embroidered poppies and on special occasions he wore fringed tunics.
11th June 2018
Another day, another Nero fact! A drought that wiped out crops for the year was bad news for those faced by famine, but good news for the merchants of Rome, whose grain stores were now about to make them exceptionally wealthy. They intended to sell corn at extortionate prices to those that could afford it. Famine was a regular cleanser of the over-crowded city and welcomed by some. Prevented from using State Treasury funds, Nero instead exhausted his private purse to buy all the grain supplies. To the disgust of all but the commons, he then sold the grain at a subsidised price, rationing it to sustain the hungry until the next crop was harvested. The wealthy therefore suffered alongside the poor and no one went entirely without. This was listed as one of Nero’s worst crimes; and when I read of it I recognised him as a hero and determined to write his biography.
10th June 2018
Nero didn’t “fiddle while Rome burned”, but he did throw open the grounds of the Palace to the destitute, personally helping in the provision of food, shelter and clothing. The Great Fire began naturally and spread rapidly throughout Rome, destroying 10 of its 14 districts, the Palace included. Nero was not in Rome at the time, but returned from Naples when he heard the news; as all others of his class fled the city to their country estates. Those remaining were the poor of Rome and Nero’s aid was viewed by his peers as a desecration of State property and unnecessary prevention of a much-needed ethnic cleansing of the city. It was yet another black mark against his name, though we wouldn’t view it as such today. He also personally designed the fire-resistant grid system, which now forms modern Rome and so many major cities around the world, including New York. That’s Nero’s own handiwork; though we know him better for “fiddling”.
9th June 2018
We’ve so far seen a glimpse into Nero’s childhood, adolescence and death, but what of his life as emperor? His 14-year reign was a perpetual battle with the Senate, steadily alienating himself from his peers until finally washing his hands of politics. The more he improved life for the commons, the more he earned the enmity of the aristocracy. He was finally declared by his successor to be an Enemy of the State, a reviled monster, and that has come down to us through the centuries. What’s interesting is that the atrocities of his day would today be seen as acts of great good. The fact that the commons mourned his passing and laid fresh flowers on his tomb every day, for 50 years after his death, also tells us more about his reign than the myths we now remember.
8th June 2018
Dead! And so great an actor! These are the final words often attributed to Nero, though they were said in the cheerier final hours, as he tried to keep up his spirits and those of his companions. His final words, recorded by his companions on 8th June AD68, were far more chilling. He had awoken that morning in a deserted Palace, all but his closest friends gone and his former troops preparing for the arrival of Galba, successfully marching on Rome from Spain. Nero's friends took him to one of their homes, on the outskirts of the city, where he was urged to take his own life rather than be publicly tortured and killed by Galba.
“No! My hour has not yet come!” he repeated, sobbing in the arms of Sporus. “Don't let them cut off my head, please don't let them cut off my head. Let me be buried in one piece.” He clung to Sporus tightly, pleading, “Promise to mourn me, weep for me when I am gone.” In Greek, he reproached himself for his fear, “Oh! Such cowardice! This certainly is no credit to Nero, no credit at all. Come, pull yourself together.” Yet he could not bring himself to raise the dagger given to him by Epaphroditus.
Suddenly, he sat up sharply and his face glazed with joy. “Hark! Hark to the sound I hear! It is hooves of galloping horses.” It was the approaching cavalry, sent by Galba to take him alive. He reached calmly for the dagger and raised it steadily to his throat, pushing it against the skin without drawing blood. His hand began to shake and Epaphroditus gently placed his own hand over Nero's; the blade was driven home. A centurion burst in and tried to staunch the gaping wound with his cloak, intent on returning Nero alive to Galba for public torture. Misinterpreting his action, Nero grasped his hand and his dying words were, “Too late! But, ah, such fidelity!”
If you would like a free copy of the book, Nero – The Last Caesar, simply send me an email from my website and the first five requests will receive a copy each!
7th June 2018
Tomorrow marks the anniversary of Nero's death, in AD68, and so this month I am celebrating his remarkable life. As of today, for the next six days only, my novel, Nero – The Last Caesar, is available free to download as an eBook from Amazon. The paperback is also available at a reduced price throughout June. There will be a special offer for anyone messaging me from my website tomorrow, so tune in!
Why celebrate his life? As you may have seen from the Diary this month, Nero was a socialist and fought for equality. Much of those beliefs stemmed from his unusual childhood. His close, lifelong, friends from childhood also influenced him. Stoic Seneca, his tutor and mentor; the slave Halotus; the ex-slave and Imperial Secretary, Epaphroditus; Senecio, son of an ex-slave; and Otho, a descendent of the Etruscan royal house, Nero's closest friend. Senecio was ambitious, but Otho and Nero (described by Seneca as “uncomfortably alike in character and attitude”) were anything but. Having inherited a great fortune, the equivalent today of €20m, Otho had spent it all by the age of 21. He had no interest in office, but, like Nero, became Emperor of Rome (in AD69) much against his will, during which time he completed Nero's projects and ensured lifelong safety for Nero's friends and staff. Before Imperial duty forced Nero into politics, the friends preferred to keep company with the commons, frequenting the markets and races instead of the Palace. Which is why Nero was loathed by his peers and that hatred has lived on in the myths handed down by history.
6th June 2018
Agrippina had tried to rule through her brother “Caligula” and had quite successfully ruled through Claudius and his Financial Minister – and her lover – Pallas, but when her grip over Claudius weakened it was time for Plan C. Nero's childhood came to an abrupt end at the age of sixteen, when his mother poisoned Claudius and he became Emperor of Rome. His initial reaction was to to abdicate and become a musician in Greece. His best friends, Otho and Senecio, and tutor Seneca, convinced him of the certain death resulting from such a move. Emperor was a shaky position and no successor would want a competitor left lurking in the wings. On the plus side, they argued, if Nero remained Emperor he could start to implement some of the radical ideas he had talked of so often at the races, when mixing with the poor of Rome. And so the world's first socialist leader stepped into power.
5th June 2018
Teen years are full of angst, with unreasonable demands to tidy rooms, being forced out of bed at unreasonable hours and the ever-increasing threat of terminal virginity. For Nero, the sudden promotion to heir to an Empire brought added pressures. At fifteen he became City Prefect, the youngest ever to be given such office, presiding over major cases at the Tribunal. He was also betrothed, against his will and hers, to his younger step-sister Octavia; the wedding set for when they both came of legal age and designed by Agrippina and Claudius to cement his position as Claudius' successor. He had already revealed his anti-Imperialist politics to Seneca and his best friend Otho and he frequently confided in both that he would run away to Greece to earn a living when the time came, rather than succeed Claudius. Claudius being far from old and infirm, that time still seemed a long way off; and Claudius' eight-year-old son Britannicus, they believed, would have more claim to the throne by then.
4th June 2018
Having earned a meagre living diving for pearls (which would later have a major impact on her destiny), Agrippina was restored to Rome when her Uncle Claudius succeeded Caligula as Emperor. Despite a massive age gap – and the incest laws that needed to be changed to allow it – she married Claudius and became Empress. Nine-year-old Nero was suddenly returned to the care of his mother and adopted by the Emperor. The renowned Stoic, Seneca, was hired as his tutor and noted of Nero that 'he could dash off essays with ridiculous ease'. Rather like myself throughout school, Nero preferred to 'etch drawings of racehorses onto his wax tablet' than concentrate on lessons, but, unlike myself, always answered correctly when pulled up on his apparent lack of attention! We also shared the practise of skipping school to go racing! Thankfully, I wasn't viciously flogged for it, though. Nero was not so lucky. Seneca remained a friend and advisor to Nero until his death, a little more than two years before Nero's own death.
3rd June 2018
Fortunately for Nero, and if you read yesterday's piece you'll understand why I say that, his father died when he was three and his mother was banished from Rome by Caligula. That left the toddler to be raised in the Palace by his paternal aunt, whose choice of tutors for him were a famed ballet dancer and her hairdresser, both ex-slaves. Their influence was lasting. His passion for the Arts was sparked, as was his disregard for class barriers; not to mention an interest in outrageous fashion and foreign shoulder-length hairstyles that later annoyed and distanced his peers. As a punk, I approved of his use of fashion to distance himself from – and antagonise – his peers. The common citizens approved, too; so already we see the future 'man of the people' emerging, thanks to an unorthodox early education.
2nd June 2018
Nero's birth wasn't one to be celebrated at face-value, yet another Caesar in a long line of scheming, ambitious would-be rulers. His mother, Agrippina; a sister of the reigning Emperor Gaius, better known to us now as Caligula. His father, Gnaeus; given office well away from Rome because the Emperor found him “too cruel and distasteful and rather frightening”. It didn't bode well and the writers of the day provided me with my opening lines for the biographical novel:
The baby's cries reverberated through the marble loggia as it kicked uncomfortably within the unfamiliar arms of its mother.
'Dash its brains out against a pillar,' Gnaeus Ahenobarbus advised his beautiful young wife.
She handed the child roughly to him.
'It's your son; you do it.'
He held the screaming infant at arm's length until Agrippina finally relented and took back her first born.
'I would have been thanked, you know,' Gnaeus reflected. 'Any child born to you and me is bound to have a detestable nature and to become a public danger!'
1st June 2018
8th June will see the anniversary of the Emperor Nero's death, when his friend and Secretary, Epaphroditus, helped him take his own life, at the age of 30, in AD68. In honour of his life, there will be several book promotions coinciding with that anniversary and visitors to my website may even be in line for a free copy of “Nero – The Last Caesar”.
Nero was born in December AD37, but I preferred to celebrate his life, rather than his birth. He was born just another imperial prince; maybe not destined for the throne, but destined to become another oppressing aristocrat. At some point early in his childhood it became clear that would never happen. It was his strong sense of equality and socialist policies that attracted me to him, and so I celebrate his achievements and legacy, 1,850 years after the aristocracy he despised and fought against finally drove him to an early death. Each day through June I’ll introduce you to the Nero you never knew (and not a fiddle in sight!) So tune in each day for a fresh fact and extract from the book, which is currently on promotion on Amazon.
31st May 2018
I had a very educational visit to a copyright conference in Brussels earlier in the week and I hope it will prove helpful in the Writers' Union fight to improve the rate of Public Lending Right, the amount compensated to an author for the loan of a library book.
Another big battle will take place at Epsom this weekend and it is one we Flat fans have looked forward to since last June – The Derby! It's exciting to have an idea of who will win it from around August or September, providing happy dreams for ten months or so. I hadn't particularly liked Saxon Warrior and hoped it might be the gorgeous Kew Gardens, or the handsome Masar, but Saxon Warrior has blossomed over the winter and might even kindle dreams of a Triple Crown. That would be so special and I still remember, almost daily, standing with breath held watching Camelot's St Leger attempt. Not sure I can stand that tension again, but we have The Derby to get through first!
24th May 2018
I'm greatly looking forward to representing the Irish Copyright Licensing Agency in Brussels next week, where I will be attending two days' of conferences concerning rights issues and collecting agencies. It will certainly be a busy two days and I hope to learn a great deal.
Obviously the two preceeding days will be fairly important, too! In terms of visiting horses and the bloodstock on view in the parade ring, I always believe the Curragh's Guineas weekend to be its best meeting of the year. I can't wait to see the new pre-parade and paddock areas. I never used the grandstand anyway, so I'm less concerned by the racegoers' amenities! As long as I can go from saddling boxes to parade ring to finishing post rails and back again, I'm happy!
10th May 2018
A big event for me last month was a visit to Aras an Uachtarain, the President's Mansion in Dublin. I was honoured to be part of a delegation of Irish authors, seeking the approval of President Michael Higgins for the Freedom To Write campaign. Many writers worldwide find their lives endangered because of their work and here at home the President reminded us of other challenges, such as the purchasing policy of national libraries, the threat to copyright, and the closure of independent book shops. We were also treated to a tour of the house, which included the opportunity to sit on Louis IV's couch, no less, gifted from Versailles by Charles de Gaulle!
Professional members of the Irish Writers' Centre now meet four times a year to promote Freedom To Write and lend our support to imprisoned writers internationally and I am grateful for the chance to be involved in such worthy projects, with such esteemed colleagues.
8th May 2018
A lot has happened while I've been away! I am so honoured to now be the Co-Chair of the Irish Writers' Union, together with Phil Mac Giolla Bhain. Together we hope to increase the profile and lobbying of the IWU. That should tie-in well with my position on the Board of the Irish Copyright Licensing Agency and on behalf of the ICLA I shall be travelling to Brussels at the end of the month to attend a two-day conference.
On the racing front, I am looking forward to seeing Kew Gardens and Flag Of Honour establish themselves at Chester, or possibly in the Dante Stakes, but their stablemate I've made no secret of disliking, Saxon Warrior, proved me wrong in good style in the Guineas! His form is now there, but to look at, he totally lacks class and presence. Very unusual in a Classic horse.
I will also be back hosting Creative Writing classes this month, so either I'll have so much to tell you about my Diary will be unusually up-to-date... or this will be my last posting for a few weeks as I get swamped! Watch this space!
22nd March 2018
I have just returned from a wonderful weekend in France, having been a guest at the festival of literature held in the south-west coastal town of Royan. Vent d’Irlande celebrated Irish literature and I was very honoured to appear at the impressive Palais des Congres, on the seafront, to speak about my work. It was a great moment to see Chantilly Dawns and Sainte Bastien nestling in such esteemed company.
A gala dinner was held on the Saturday evening and the local people entered into the full spirit of St Patrick’s day, dressing in green and gold and making a very good attempt at Irish dancing. The entertainment and company couldn’t be topped.
It was then my turn to take to the stage and translator Debbie Grascoeur did a marvellous job ensuring the audience learned about my work and influences and had the opportunity to ask me questions. It really was an enjoyable weekend and a credit to the Royan town council.
4th March 2018
Well, we survived
four days of being snowed in, having encountered the shock of empty
shelves in the Athy supermarkets last Monday, before even a snowflake
had appeared. I thought panic-buying only happened in screenplays and
sitcoms. But community spirit was in abundance when a neighbour
dropped my horse and bullock down a bale of hay, when the snow was at
I did enjoy the snow, as did all my pets, but now I'm
looking forward to some early sun, as I head to the Irish Literary
Festival at Royan, South-West France, 16th March. I am honoured that
Royan will this year feature my novel, Chantilly Dawns, but even more
exciting is to be invited onto the discussion panel which also
features short-story writer Claire Keegan and publisher Joelle
Losfeld, chaired by animator Brigitte Bastiat. That will be in the
Palais des Congres at 11am on Sunday 18th March.
At the end of
the month, together with a small delegation of Irish authors, I have
been invited to meet President Higgins to discuss the problems facing
Irish writers and our colleagues worldwide, many of whom risk
imprisonment for using their pen as a sword. It is heartening that a
prominent public figure is prepared to listen and, hopefully,
12th February 2018
news in today's Racing Post, which I suspect will be met with
negativity by most members of the press, but I live in hope. Jeremy
Wray has put forward a Team Series for Thursday (eg) nights in the Formula 1 and Premiership format, focusing on the characters of the sport. I have for long shouted myself hoarse to have betting removed from racing coverage, and this just might be a presentation package that makes this possible. Again, I live in hope...
If big brand sponsors come on board to have their teams of four jockeys and varied horses competing in their team colours in the series, it will be about the two athletes representing them, the horse and the jockey. If the televised package can focus on that, we won't need betting shows or pundits telling us the "value", simply experts analysing how each team may perform and what to look out for. This will engage new interest, not wasting time seeing where the money is going. Let's make racing a sport once more, not a betting app!
22nd January 2018So far this month I've had the pleasure of collecting some
fascinating readers' tales for The Irish Field Cheltenham magazine, as well as enjoying the delights of Ireland's
stud farms. I was most impressed by my first visit to Bridge House Stud, where the stallions live out with a group
of mares and all look incredibly well for it.
I also attended some authors' events at the Writers' Centre and
met new friends, which is always inspiring. Now I really MUST finish the novel-in-progress this year!
distracted by Marcus Otho, the AD68 Roman Emperor, with whom I had a fling while researching and writing "Nero"!
Sometimes characters haunt you and demand attention, so he had me writing a short story, just to shut him up!
Having dipped back into Suetonius and Tacitus and devoured two more John Green novels, it really is time to write,
8th January 2018
A very happy new year to you all, let's hope it's a good one with plenty of nice surprises. Mine begins with no surprises, but the usual delight of touring the country's stud farms, viewing stallions in advance of the breeding season, which kicks off appropriately on 14th February. Thoroughbreds are hopeless romantics! Their owners are certainly hopeless dreamers!
I'm particularly looking forward to seeing new horses and the younger stallions, to see how they've matured and grown over the winter. That will be my main concern come March/early April, too, when the chance to see the Classic generation of racehorses arises. Many people now are already wishing their life away, dreaming of Cheltenham, but I'm dreaming of the following week and a first look at the Ballydoyle superstars! Flag Of Honour and Kew Gardens remain my favourites, but it will be interesting to see Gustav Klimt. I'm not holding out much hope of getting my first 2018 surprise - a marked growth and improvement in Saxon Warrior. One to follow with caution, I think.
On the writing front, I hope this year to progress with the novel-not-so-far-in-progress. I raced along with it this time last year, before the day job slowed my progress. Still at chapter three, so I hope to add at least 15 more this year! I'm also hoping to attend the Irish Literary Festival in Royan, south-west France, where Chantilly Dawns may be making an impact. Who knows what fortune 2018 will yet bring, the beauty of a fresh year and clean page.
8th December 2017
I had a wonderful time at The Derby Awards in London on Monday and, even if you aren't one of the lucky winners, it's great to meet up and socialise and celebrate a fantastic year's racing. I feel so privileged to be in such good company. It's good to see the media's role in racing recognised, because the men and women of the pressroom help to keep important issues in the public spotlight, even if I do complain there's too much relevance placed on the betting side of the sport.
We then enjoyed Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park before the genuine winter wonderland hit us here at home! My retired racehorse, Leitmotif, loves frost and snow, so greeted me this morning with the biggest smile on his face as we awoke to snow. If Rudolph's busy this year, he may put himself forward for his dream job!
23rd November 2017
It has been a busy and fraught past few weeks, not all happy, but this week the Carlow Women's Network Creative Writing Group concluded its course with a wonderful evening of readings, which as always made me feel honoured to have encouraged such talented writers. I really am lucky to be able to facilitate classes for burgeoning writers and storytellers.
Saturday will see me graduate from my own education experience, the Transformative Community Education course that kept me busy and enthusuastic throughout the spring and summer. I so enjoyed it and I hope I can take what I have learned into the classroom and improve life for my own students. Now, what to wear under that cap and gown..?
The racing has finished for the year, but now comes the best part - dreaming of next year! My Derby colts are Masar, Flag Of Honour and Kew Gardens, while we have a wealth of talented fillies again here in Ireland. Who's to say we won't be watching Aidan O'Brien trying to beat his own record come next October and November?!
3rd October 2017
What a wonderful weekend of racing - oh to be in two places
at once! Enable established herself as a true champion, with victory never once in doubt and Frankie providing a
masterclass in riding Chantilly. That said, I enjoyed seeing a masterclass from one of my favourites, Stephane
Pasquier, and Maxime Guyon as they took a typically competitive spin round Chantilly for ITV! Newmarket on Saturday
clarified the One Thousand Guineas picture slightly with an excellent win by Clemmie. Wild Illusion's win on Sunday
looks more of an Oaks type, but Happily is another entering One Thousand Guineas reckoning. Masar, however, has
blotted his Derby prospects somewhat. I can't wait to see how my idea of a Derby horse, Flag Of Honour, runs
tomorrow at Naas!
And speaking of The Derby, I am delighted to have once again been nominated for Horserace
Writer of the Year at The Derby Awards, for the tenth successive year! Most people would wait and dine out on
winning, but I'm neither that optimistic nor blase, so I am content to view a mere nomination as my Derby! It's not
so mere a feat, either. It takes a lot to produce a body of work over the year and to complete three worthy
articles to stand out within that body. I'm so grateful to my editors for providing such taxing and interesting
topics, especially Giles and Oscar at Trainer Magazine.
6th September 2017
I'm greatly looking forward to one of our biggest events of the racing year, Irish Champions Weekend. There's such a feel good factor to it, a massive buzz about the place on both days. I think everyone gets such a huge kick out of seeing so many good horses assembled in one place. Even those you barely know give you a beaming “hello” like old friends, it's like the Festive spirit come early! Will we see next year's Guineas or Derby, Oaks winners on show? I have my doubts we'll see the 2018 Derby winner, he's elsewhere, but I hope to spot Classic potential there somewhere.
Here at home I'm kept busy by the patter of tiny (webbed) feet! We welcomed nine ducklings into the family last week and with Mum and Dad make up a football team! Lots of fowls mind you, pardon the pun!
I'm also back to work with Creative Writing classes and am enjoying my new group, so inspiring. I can't wait to start hearing their stories. I was a student myself during the year (and still have the Student Card to prove it!) and was delighted to pass with Credit a course in Transformative Community Education. I learnt such a lot and it was a lovely excuse to revisit Marx! I hope that will now benefit my new students.
11th August 2017
Just back from a
fantastic week at the Rebellion Festival, a four-day punk festival held in Blackpool's Winter Gardens. It did mean missing a lot of Goodwood, but the music
is great, the atmosphere even better and the people wonderful. So good to mix with people with such wonderful ethics and sense of brotherhood for all. It's
always sad to leave and return to a society that's largely quite narrow-minded and a prevailing "I'm alright Jack" attitude.
That said, my first two
jobs back in the real world were compiling an interview for the trainers' association and profiling the two new ITBA Next Generation apprentices, both tasks
so positive and enjoyable. It's good to know the people in power really care about horseracing and its employees and customers. It may not always show, but
they're working hard to correct faults and improve. The apprentices are going to have great support and education in their year ahead, another way the
industry helps. Like the punk ethos - stop worrying about yourself, help others and you'll be helping yourself in the long run.
13th July 2017
There is usually a great positive vibe at the racecourse or on farms and at industry meetings, but I’m sorry to say I felt quite sad for the racing community on two counts last week.
The first is my age-old bugbear, bookmakers. I have no objection to people gambling on horses, but it should never be tied-in as part of the sport. You don’t see odds interfering with any other televised sport and nor should they in horseracing. So when leading bookmakers took the Tote to task for one of its adverts, I was really annoyed.
People always say to me, Why can’t we have cheap entrance prices and better prize money, like they have in France? In France, there are no bookmakers, the Tote monopoly ensures funds are ploughed back into racing. We have the same opportunity here and I cannot believe that racing industry professionals, if choosing to have a bet, don’t support the Tote. So what, if your €100 yields 7/4 with a bookie but only 6/4 on the Tote – instead of profiting €175 you only profit by €150. And when you lose, which you’ll do much more often, it goes toward cheaper entrance prices and better prize money. Look upon what you lose out of your winnings (and quite often the Tote odds are better, not lower) as a charity donation to the industry. Better than the vast amounts you usually donate to a bookmaker!
Support the Tote, it’s one of our own. Unfortunately, the other sorry news item was the rekindling by the Racing Post of the whip controversy, where no controversy currently exists. There is little point preaching to the converted. If you go into a saddlery shop and pick up any unregulated whip sold to children for their ponies, which are used as punishment for “bad” behaviour, you’ll find a nasty little device for dishing out hurt.
If, however, you pick up a Regulated Racing Standard whip, you’ll have a soft, air-cushioned extension of an arm. Strike yourself as hard as you can with it, across your cheek or palm of your hand. Stop when you’re bored. It’s a tool for encouragement, like a pat on the back to keep going when you’re running a race. Think about it, folks, if it was a punishment, why would anyone punish a horse for racing, when that’s the whole point?! If it hurt, the horse would connect it with running fast and would stop. People still smack naughty dogs, kids still smack ponies they can’t control. In racing, working with athletes, we know that never works. We reward good behaviour and ignore bad behaviour. That works. But there’s no point telling the armchair viewer or the anti-racing people, because they’ll never go to a stable or pick up a racing whip. For them, ignorance is not bliss.
6th July 2017
The summer season of educational courses and workshops got underway at the Irish Thoroughbred Breeders Association (ITBA) this week and it’s a pleasure to be invited to take notes, so that educational booklets can be produced for ITBA members unable to attend. Sometimes it doesn’t sound such an obvious pleasure, writing about employment law or tax issues, but the speakers are so enthusiastic and knowledgeable that it does turn out to be a pleasure listening to them and I always learn something new, even if it’s a topic I’ve covered in the past. Thank you ITBA, what a great service they provide.
Other parts of my day job included gathering quotes on Ireland’s leading stallions, which included “he’s a horny little devil” and “he’s never had a bad word to say about anyone” and I couldn’t be in a better job, meeting such genuinely nice people and horses. The only problem is, racing thriller number four is still dormant at Chapter Two! And I’ve realised I don’t have a villain. Any volunteers?
4th July 2017
You can be certain by my absence here that June was a busy month. I successfully completed a course in Transformative Community Education, to complement my role as a creative writing facilitator. It was most enjoyable and highly political – I don’t usually get to quote Marx during my day job! The exam was taxing, my first in 37 years, but I was satisfied with 90%! 37 years’ of practice, perhaps!
Then came The Derby, Royal Ascot and the Irish Derby, a feast of beautiful equine athletes. The humans scrubbed up nicely for the occasion, too! At Ascot, even the press room had to abide by the strict dress code, but no complaints at rushing about in far from practical clothes in 34 degrees of heat, every minute was a pleasure. I can’t wait to see the two juvenile fillies Different League and September, and the colt Sioux Nation, graduate to even bigger and better things next year. The current stars are establishing a pecking order, but the hunt for next year’s Classic heroes has already begun. Exciting times…
18th May 2017
So, did I say if we get to the Dante without knowing The Derby winner then it must be the Dante winner? Maybe not this year. Permian may have boosted Cracksman’s form, but he didn’t look much like a Derby winner and there was only a short-head between them at Epsom. The most solid display might be Best Solution (there’ll be none happier than me, bar Saeed and the Sheikh himself should he win for Saeed!) and the horse most looking the part is Cliffs Of Moher, but they all have their question marks, as does Akihiro, who would come on for the firmer ground and distance if allowed to take his chance. I still like the somewhat disgraced Capri…
Hmmm… what an unusual Derby! There’s only one Derby winner born each year and it’s much more usual to know who he is from the moment he steps out in a paddock – even with his dam as a foal! Thankfully, my Transformative Education classes are a lot easier! Highly political and so far easy to relate to Marx, so I’m enjoying it, particularly the example of education set by the Zapatistas in Mexico. As an Anarchist I couldn’t have found a better course. Now to find The Derby winner!
15th May 2017
A hectic few weeks, as usual! On Thursday, I was privileged to attend a seminar on Equine Welfare and the speakers were fantastic, so hard-working and passionate. The Irish National Stud made everyone so welcome and it coincided with the visit of the Duchess of Cornwall, who I’m sure must have been impressed. Links to the Seminar Report are on my Facebook page and The Irish Field website.
Meanwhile the hunt for this year’s Derby winner is underway. We have Cliffs Of Moher, France may choose to send one of what appears to be a superior collection of colts and York’s Dante meeting will shed even further light. As usual, if we’ve reached this point of the year without knowing what will win The Derby, then it must be the Dante winner.
My final excitement, between also embarking on a 12-week teacher-training course on Transformative Community Education (no wonder my last entry here was March!), is the release at long last of the paperback edition of Sainte Bastien! It is being celebrated by my publisher with the re-release of Gala Day and Chantilly Dawns, so the whole trilogy is now available in paperback from Amazon and shops. Watch this space for launch news!
29th March 2017
The Flat season has opened here in Ireland and makes its delayed reappearance at Doncaster next week, and the mighty Ballydoyle string flexed its muscles on Monday. Churchill still looks like a Guineas winner, The Derby picture remains dependent on the forthcoming trials and whether André Fabre sends one over, but what is slightly different this year is the alarming change to Rule 212.
”Every horse must be seen, to a reasonable and informed member of the racing public, to have been run on its merits.”
As my primary journalistic role (and passion) is racing welfare, both for horses and those who care for them, this phrase hurts. Punters can bet on football without having any influence on a referee’s decision or a manager’s choices. Punters can bet on tennis without affecting an umpire’s decision. So why is a sport rewriting its Rule Book to allow for the opinions of punters?
It is already bad enough that stewards are non-professionals and often ignorant of the valid excuses jockeys and trainers present after a race. Now we are faced with jockeys having to be seen to achieve the best possible placing in a race – which is NOT achieving the best possible placing FOR THEIR HORSE. I hope you can appreciate the difference there. Because the new Rule 212 can potentially damage the welfare of a racehorse as well as the livelihood of its rider and trainer.
A top jockey can still nurse a young horse home in a race, giving it an educational day out and a happy experience in readiness for its subsequent career, because a top jockey can afford the fines and suspensions. A lesser jockey can afford neither. On the Flat, we have young horses making their debut and it’s crucial for their mental well-being they enjoy the experience. It isn’t crucial they win. Next time, they have already taken in the atmosphere and surroundings and will concentrate on the job in hand. This time it’s the happy experience that matters. In NH, a horse may have taken a few spills at home and needs a confidence booster. It isn’t about going all out for the winning post, it’s about restoring the horse’s confidence and ensuring he or she enjoys the experience. Rule 212 is clearly NOT about that at all.
It’s not safeguarding the horse, it’s just safeguarding the punter and I don’t think any decent-minded punter wants that sacrifice made on his or her behalf. Yours, Annoyed of Kildare.
26th February 2017
This week came the news of Thierry Jarnet’s retirement. My initial favourite jockey was Joe Mercer, very much of the old traditional British riding style, but like all my riding heroes a sympathetic jockey with beautiful hands and balance.
Once I started going racing in France and discovered Philippe Paquet, I had a new hero. Until 1990, the best jockey I was fortunate to see ride. Today, all great international riders have adopted that short style, but in the late 70s it was still frowned upon in Britain and the French riding style seen as something belonging in the circus! For me, it was the epitome of horsemanship and race-riding, to so perfectly match the horse’s point of balance and amplify the power of hands of silk. None achieved it better than Paquet.
And then one day in 1990 I spotted Monsieur Paquet circling behind the stalls at the start of a race! Impossible! But seeing Thierry Jarnet for the first time was like turning back the clock. I had a new hero, one I was lucky enough to meet and interview more than once. I have so many happy memories connected with Jarnet and they epitomise why we love horseracing, just as Jarnet epitomised what a good jockey is. I wish him as much pleasure in retirement as he provided us in his career.
22nd February 2017
At the weekend we enjoyed four days of good music and excellent company in Tufnell Park, London, for the four-day punk festival Another Winter Of Discontent. Such a pleasure to mix with top class bands, old and new, and like-minded people sharing such a great ethos. Also a pleasure to meet new friends and catch up with old friends. Discontent suits punks, but truthfully Contentment would be more apt!
10th February 2017
Adam Haslett recently wrote: “A psychiatrist friend once pointed out to me that one of the definitions of psychosis is a fixed belief in an imaginary world lasting months or years, which no one but the patient himself is able to perceive. He wondered aloud if this wasn’t also a decent definition of a novelist.” Like Haslett, I think he has a point!
So, psychosis is one of the prerequisites of being a good writer. The world you create has got to be real and the people inhabiting it equally real and an intimate part of your own life. Good fiction is all about creating real people in real situations. That’s why genuine real people in their genuinely real situations will never work in fiction! Too far-fetched to be credible! As I write this, spookily Bad Religion have just popped up on my random jukebox to tell me truth is stranger than fiction and life is the crummiest book they’ve read! How’s that for perfect timing?
I mention all this because I held a really enjoyable creative writing workshop during the week and the only lesson to be taught is there are no rules to creative writing. As long as you have a Beginning, Middle and End, introduce a character we can engage with and relay what that character wants and how they achieve it, you have a story. Go for it, folks!
1st February 2017
A new month and an exciting week. Tomorrow I shall be pitching one of my novels, Chantilly Dawns, to a film director and we’re hoping it translates well to screen. A previous novel, Nero, led me on a similar journey and that was such a good experience, introducing me to the different medium of screenwriting and lasting friendships among scriptwriters. I called on them for help with my pitch! Who said writing was a lonely experience?
Having spent a lovely morning yesterday at the Horse Racing Ireland offices with Aidan McGarry, introducing me to the great new initiative to support trainers, it was lovely to see the big Flat strings back in work on the Curragh, albeit still chubby and woolly! Our dog, who likes to run along with my own horse, barking wildly, was unusually quiet when faced with 30 of them!
On Friday, I shall be at the national horseracing industry seminar in Clonmel and the speakers will definitely have me scribbling capacious notes. Read all about it in next Saturday’s Irish Field! Needless to say, I’m still only 10 pages in to the new novel and that’s unlikely to change this week!
Looking back on 2011 there were highs and lows. We lost our beloved dog, but among the better surprises were the publication of Chantilly Dawns, my television debut as TV3’s ‘Equine Expert’, a 4th successive nomination for Journalist of the Year at The Derby Awards and successfully completing two courses, one at the National Stud Newmarket, one at RACE, Kildare - my first return to the classroom in over 30 years!
The next novel is underway (but don’t hold your breath, I’m STILL only up to page 8!) & I’m also enjoying the immense pleasure of working on a retired French Flat jockey’s autobiography, for so many years a hero of mine, his story is a real joy. So stay tuned!
You can hear me discussing Chantilly Dawns in a radio interview on the archives at www.askaboutwriting.net/radio.htm
The Crime Always Pays website for crime fiction has just posted a very good review of Chantilly Dawns, as well as my Q&A session, so check it out on Crime Always Pays