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One of the things I love about horseracing, secondarily to the horses of course, is the characters in the sport; they're a fascinating bunch, some of them barely believable, and the whole mixture offers so much to observe that Sociologist Kate Fox once immersed herself in the sport to write the observational book, "The Racing Tribe" (that's a review for another day).
At the other end of the scale of reading material on the subject of the wonderful characters in the sport is this, the second of two books by Marcus Armytage which pulls together the best bits of his social observations and snippets of amusing happenings from his "racing diary" which he writes for the Daily Telegraph. Whilst Fox's work was a serious social observation work, Turn Me On Guv - 'Tails' From The Racecourse is an irreverent, highly amusing collection of short reports on the funnier side of all things horseracing. However, if you're not an enthusiast don't instantly dismiss it - as the introduction on the dust jacket states, "Racing is merely an incidental backdrop, like the wallpaper in the downstairs loo - which is precisely where this book should have a permanent place in your home".
Well, it doesn't live in the loo but this book was a great read and lays bare the spectrum of characters and sometimes downright bonkers situations that they can get themselves into in a way that can raise a laugh for anyone, not just horseracing fans like myself.
***THE USEFUL STUFF***
Turn Me On Guv can be bought (hardback) via Amazon for just over £12 new; there are also plenty of second hand copied available for much less. RRP is £16.99.
Published in 2009 by Racing Post Books.
***ABOUT THE AUTHOR***
Marcus Armytage remains the last amateur jockey to win the Grand National, having taken the epic race in 1990 on a horse called Mr Frisk. Whilst that was of course his most famous victory, he also partnered Cheltenham Festival winners and retired after winning his 100th race and remains part of the racing scene. Since hanging up his boots he has contributed to the Daily Telegraph and Horse & Hound, and has his own website, ww.armytage.com.
From a horsey and racing-related background and Eton-educated with the likes of David Cameron and Boris Johnson for company, Armytage has an intelligent and dry observational wit which puts him in good stead as a writer in this style; indeed his own introduction on his website noted that his sister Gee, herself a top amateur jockey, "became the darling of National Hunt racing while Marcus was still getting buried round Plumpton".
***AND ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR...***
That would be Mark Huskinson; "it can be said that what Michelangelo did for the Sistine Chapel, Mark Huskinson has done for the Loos of Britain!"
That fun claim exists on Huskinson's website (www.markhuskinson.com) due to the Duke of Bedford's fascination with his charming cartoons, which apparently is manifested in a desire to decorate the powder rooms of Woburn Abbey with the originals!
Huskinson is an established cartoon artist who charmingly captures the English sporting life, exhibiting at equestrian events regularly; I thoroughly recommend taking a look at his website to see for yourself the charming, quirky and amusing way in which he captures some of the most quintessential English aspects of life. Fun, informal and very amusing, they perfectly complement Armytage's anecdotes in this book.
***SO, WHAT'S IT LIKE?***
As I mentioned, this is actually the second collection of Armytage's observations; the first, Hot Cherry, I found hilarious as a collection of (sometimes very) short stories which would have made me laugh if I didn't enjoy racing but, as a racing fan, also offered a really funny insight into the characters I was already familiar with.
I had always enjoyed Armytage's contributions to Horse & Hound but would often miss out as the magazine is a bit pricey when 85% of it is not of interest to you, so I was delighted when the first collection came out and, a few years on, was even more delighted that Turn Me On Guv (the title is explained in the book!) was to follow.
My sadly now ex-boyfriend was never interested in horseracing before we met and my passion for it piqued his interest, as he wanted to try to understand why I was so passionate about it. He didn't read this book but now that he too is hooked I really should lend it to him as I feel that it's perfect for people who might have a passing interest in racing, maybe recognising a few of the names, or maybe interests in other equestrian sports or just horses in general, or even just sports fans who have a curiosity about the characters who undertake these careers.
The structure of the book is very simple; basically there's short stories and then there's short stories...and then there's this! Some of the anecdotes literally are just a paragraph long, although each merits their inclusion, as the author's dry, sharp style of writing and condensing the important aspects of the anecdote to maximise the amusement that can be taken from it is shown to great effect. At the longest some of the inclusions are about a page and a half, but none suffer for it, rather the book as a whole is one long, fast-moving fun read.
This was published in 2009, but as with Hot Cherry, it doesn't age as even though some of the characters may retire or pass away, their actions, altercations, high jinks and attitudes to life are still amusing even if they are no longer with us; another testament to how this book can just be taken as a collection of funny 'tails' for any reader with an irreverent sense of humour and love of life.
The short (and entirely true) stories are grouped together in nine chapters - with titles such as "You Don't Have To Be Mad To Work In Racing...But It Helps", "My Family And Other Animals" and "The Pastimes Of This Noble Breed", you can see where the tone is going! There's a real mix of goings-on, from dogs making off with the cleaner's wages (or £100 worth of fillet steak), trainer Michael Bell's near-miss in getting Cheryl Cole's phone number, awkward moments regarding questionable parentage and amorous intentions...anything goes with a social mix like this to observe over the years.
The way Armytage styles his writing and describes his characters make them sound like they are almost too larger than life to be real; that if they were in a fictional book you would almost think them too caricatured and overblown in some cases - but I can assure you from my years of following racing, I've yet to read a single character he has included be described in any way other than one I think is entirely accurate! Racing is a great sport full of fabulous characters from all walks of life and what really shines through is the good humour and approach to life that so many of them share; at the end of the day for all the highs are very high indeed, racing also requires the dedication and commitment to be up at 5am up to your knees in manure in all temperatures and weather conditions, and the lows can be seriously demoralising. What I love, aside from the scrapes, fixes and surreal situations chronicled here, is the enthusiasm for what they do, and consequently life itself, shown by so many of the characters.
In short I find this a heartwarming read, and the structure of it means that it is very easy to dip in and out of; maybe if you only have five minutes or have had a naff day and need a laugh before bed, you can pop back into this book on any page and almost immediately find something that will raise at least a smile and possibly a full on fit of the giggles. After all, sometimes it's good to read something that reminds you that there really is no point in taking life seriously. Where's the fun in that?