Frank Keating

Days of wine and oysters

Days of wine and oysters

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What with the frenzied finales of Six Nations rugby, Cheltenham’s four days’ hooley, and my own ruddy all-day asthma, I had to miss John Jackson’s 70th birthday banquet in the Gay Hussar. I suppose in the old days the Manchester Guardian and the old Daily Mirror were some sort of soulmates, and certainly JJ and I can dance back together into the mists. In fact, he goes back further. My first Olympic Games were Tokyo’s in 1964, John’s first five-ringed circus was Rome’s in 1960; my first World Cup was 1966, his in Chile in 1962. We both turned up for our inaugural Wimbledon on Monday 22 June 1964 and doubtless in his birthday speech Jacko mixed his irrepressibly abandoned true tales about Cap’n Bob Maxwell with some serious swipes at modern standards: ‘How can today’s so-called reporters gather real stories by continually staring at laptop or TV screens all day, rather than leaning at a bar, pint in hand but on the blocks poised to follow a good yarn, knowing that all gossip, tip-offs and top tales will pass that way?’

Is it Jackson hitting 70 or just springtime sparkling into life? But nostalgia rules. Two or three of you crept out to get in touch at my mention here of other scribbling veterans of old. Racing’s Jack Leach, for instance, former pro jockey who wrote dreamily good stuff for the Observer — like what to look for in the paddock (‘a real racehorse will have a head like a lady and a behind like a cook’) or describing a young Lester as ‘having the face of a well-kept grave’. For his stand-out autobiography, Leach came up with the winningly pointed title Sods I Have Cut on the Turf. A reader also questioned my whippersnapper’s manners a few weeks ago in recalling the ‘expenses and appetites’ of one of Leach’s successors, true great Richard Baerlein. I can only quote Richard’s obit in the Independent ten springtimes ago when Eton contemporary David McCall recalled meeting for lunch at Bentley’s Oyster Bar: ‘“Sorry, I’ve started,” said Richard, already having finished a dozen oysters and a bottle of best champagne. “I thought I’d best get going because I like at least three dozen at a sitting.”’ McCall said Richard then went on, lipsmackingly, to ravish ‘several large sole’.

Trusty cricket and rugger man whom, doubtless to add weight to his judgments the Telegraph invariably bylined ‘Colonel Philip Trevor CBE’ had been all over with the army, managed the MCC tour to Australia in 1907–08 (Jack Hobbs’s first), and was mentor of E.W. Swanton. He died in the saddle in 1933, by which time for a few seasons his eyesight had been so bad that his daughter, always beside him in the press box, would describe to him the action before, in turn, taking down his dictated, and often severe, opinions. But he could be prescient, all right. After a Twickenham match in 1913 the Telegraph’s Colonel raged, ‘At the end the crowd crawled to the railway station at an average of some 45 minutes for the half-mile or so. The popularity of rugby football is grievously endangered if no drastic step is taken to deal with congestion. It will need a bad accident — caused, say, by a restive horse or a careless chauffeur — to force action to be taken.’

Some prophecy. Nothing at all has happened. It is still chaos at a crawl, as any of Twickenham’s throng last Saturday, 92 years on, will testify. Bring on the restive horses.