I’ve had various ailments during my first 74 years — the worst being those induced by smoking, such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis — but never before have I suffered from back pain. I know many people who have, and I have witnessed the miseries they have suffered — their months spent lying on the floor, their desperate search for suitable treatments, their failed operations. I had begun to think that I might be immune to this particular affliction, attributing this to the fact that I have rather a short back. But suddenly, before Christmas, my back started to ache when I got up from a chair, and soon afterwards there was a shift of the pain from the middle of the back to the left-hand side, and from there down the whole length of my left leg, the calf being the achiest part of all.
It occurred to me in a bleak moment that I could be a victim of the Curse of Gnome, as Private Eye used to call it; for Richard Ingrams, when I succeeded him as editor of The Oldie after he resigned last summer, bequeathed me a wobbly chair with only one arm that would probably do in anyone’s back. But I don’t think that Richard, even if it were within his power to do so (which it surely isn’t), would have wished to inflict such a misfortune upon me. For I have come to realise how demoralising a back problem can be. It makes you feel terrifically old and tired; it is not relieved by any normal type of painkiller; its causes are usually obscure; and the best ways of treating it are also unclear.
That’s why others who have suffered from the problem thrust much conflicting advice upon you. One knows a marvellous physiotherapist; another an incredible chiropractor. One recommends acupuncture, another cortisone injections. So far I have only consulted a much-respected osteopath, who has felt my back, beaten me up a bit, and concluded that the problem with my leg is ‘referred’ pain from the back rather than a trapped nerve. But then even he says that he could be wrong.
My problem is clearly minor compared with some people’s, but it isn’t nice. It causes constant pain when I am sitting down, especially when I am sitting in a car, and keeps me awake for much of the night. It’s only when standing up that I feel reasonably comfortable. And as a result I had to withdraw from several pre-Christmas events that I had much wanted to attend — Sir George Christie of Glyndebourne’s magnificent, music-filled memorial service at St James’s Piccadilly, a performance of Tristan und Isolde at Covent Garden, and a Brahms concert with Daniel Harding at the Barbican among them.
But there was one event that I did attend and at which I was able to forget about my leg. This was a glittering occasion in my hometown of Towcester in Northamptonshire, a place not famous for its glittering occasions, the gala opening of England’s first new greyhound racetrack in nearly 20 years. Towcester has long had a horserace track within the magnificent park of Hawksmoor’s Easton Neston House, often described by the late Jeffrey Bernard, columnist of this magazine, as the most beautiful racetrack in England. And the greyhound track, built last year at a cost of nearly £2 million, is strikingly beautiful, too, brilliantly floodlit on a clear winter’s night.
Greyhound racing arrived in England from the United States in 1926, the first track opening in Manchester. Only two years later, there were 68 tracks around the country. Today there are only 25. After the war, there were 33 dog tracks in London alone; now there is only one, in Wimbledon. So the opening in Towcester in December deserved all the glamour bestowed upon it by its owner, Lord Hesketh, who entertained his guests, of whom I was lucky to be one among many, with Dom Pérignon champagne and lashings of the best caviar.
It was for me my first experience of the dogs; and for my nine-year-old daughter Freya, whom I took with me, her first of caviar, to which, I am sorry to say, she took an instant liking. But the great thing for me was that I was always on my feet. As I stood on the upstairs terrace of the grandstand, watching excitedly as the greyhounds hurtled round the track, my leg felt perfectly fine. Maybe more greyhound racing would be the best cure.