Escape into Aintree

AintreeI’ve been working on an article about the Grand National for Grantland, which involved spending a few days up at Aintree earlier this month. I stayed at a cheap hotel by the docks and was woken up each night by senseless shouting in the corridors, the bleary hysterical voices of people who been drinking and gambling and gambling and drinking until they had come to a stop, at 4am, faced with a closed door and some intractable problem. Anyway. When I arrived at Aintree each day around lunchtime, it was my pleasure, my escape, to get out into the middle of the track, which is an ignored netherland of coaches, roads, a golf course, and traffic lights with buttons raised for the convenience of people on horseback. I got chapped in the wind and the sun and saw some wonderful things:

“I walked out in the middle of the course. One of the unchanging things about Aintree is its preposterous size. The populated part of the course is still clustered around a single corner of Lynn’s triangle, and the northeasterly wind quickly scattered the drone of the Tannoy. Out in this strange, inland territory there were ponds, bits of gorse and scrub that have been here since Sefton’s day, and men wearing bibs that said “Horse Catcher.” I was out there at 3:40 p.m. for the Fox Hunters’ Chase, one of two races run over a single circuit of the National fences days before the big race on Saturday. The Fox Hunters’ is for amateur and younger riders (one of Lord Daresbury’s sons was competing), and I went and stood by The Chair, the largest jump on the course. It looked like it had been built to hold back a river. It was the first time I had ever seen a Grand National fence jumped at close quarters, and as the 24 horses approached — the 96 hooves, the 12 tons of muscle and bone — I felt a shuddering sense of time and ground shortening. Then they cleared it. Actually, they smote it.”

Here is the article.

Gore Vidal and the death of obituaries

I realised, while reading The New York Timesextremely good obituary of Gore Vidal, that I have stopped reading newspapers. I still read magazines; I still read the news; I am still saving up for an iPad; but I have stopped reading the news-papers. I’ll buy one every now and again, but it’s so rare now that I can’t pretend that I am a paper buyer. It must have happened during the last year. I probably held out longer than most. I am a journalist, for pete’s sake.

I knew it for sure while I was digesting Vidal’s wonderful life because I realised that I had not read an obituary for a long time – months, probably. Obituaries are among the first thing I turn to in a physical paper. They are a convenient length – a tube stop or two – normally well written, and, unlike the news most of the time, provide such a natural weight and form of information. There must be something inherently absorbable about the story of a human life. We are attuned to take it in. There is nothing quite like it: the uncoiling of love (or its significant absence), the way they came to learn about the world and, almost always in the case of the obituarised, some satisfying portion of success. You very rarely come across a obituary with nothing remotely admirable in it, and usually it is the absolute opposite. Here is an all-time favourite: Tickets please, Werner Heubeck.

Obituaries also say something about community. They are survivors from the 19th century template of what a newspaper, and a nation, should be. The selection from the waves of passing dead reflects the standards, the aspirations, the interests that bind living readers. British newspapers have their distinct tastes: The Guardian‘s apparently inexhaustible hunger (really?) for minor jazz musicians and recording artists (JD Smith, the finest session alto-saxophonist in late 1960s Louisville, he once shared a cab with Count Basie) vs The Daily Telegraph, with the “last Telegraph Services obituarist to have served in the Second World War” (my grandfather).

Dead Vidal made me think more carefully than normal about obituaries because they have also been a way for me to discover writers. I know the death of any artist revitalises interest in their work, but I am also talking about coming across writers for the very first time about a week after they died. I remember reading the obituary of Sybille Bedford and deciding to read her books, and George Psychoundakis (more of a runner than a writer, to be fair). For the better known and who are in the always-accumulating queue, like Ryszard Kapuściński (in 2007) and Vidal last week, their death has acted as a quiet signal, an end to excuses, a move to the front, and then I have begun to read and to become immediately and irrationally sad for the writer I never knew and only now know because they are dead. I have that now with Vidal after “Coached by Camelot” (so fine) and I am sure the feeling will grow. But without obituaries, without news-papers, how will I find the rest, the quieter passers? What is the digital answer; what is our digital mourning?