Archive for the ‘Michael’s Latest Gambling Yarn’ Category

The Ghostly Lieutenant

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The Ghostly Lieutenant

Father Perry Green and his housekeeper, Emily, having spent the morning taking down the Christmas decorations, were carefully wrapping the crib figures in tissue paper and boxing them up for next year.

The tree had been a bit of a problem – an artificial, three-part, screw together, measuring eight feet high. Not Father Perry’s idea, but Emily had insisted, “I haven’t time to hoover up pine needles for the twelve days of Christmas.”

So now, having forcefully crammed the tree back into its original box, it joined the other packages on the landing, waiting for Father Perry to put them in the loft.


A few days later, not having visited the loft since moving into his new residence, Perry was keen to tell Emily what he had found up there.

  “It’s terribly dusty, nothing has been disturbed for years – rolls of carpet, tatty curtains, old picture frames; no lights of course, but there is a skylight window and under it, there’s a card table, a wicker chair and a pile of old newspapers. It looks as if many years ago someone went up there to study. Oh, and I think we might have mice too. I will have to ask the council to send around the pest controller.”


The following Saturday, there was jump racing at Ascot on TV.

Father Green had come back with the Racing Post and was looking forward to studying the form. However, no sooner than he had summed up the first race, Emily’s brother, Donald, arrived to tidy the garden, rake up the leaves and burn them.

Perry became restless and felt guilty reading the racing pages while Donald was working, so to ease his conscience, he went out to make himself useful.

An hour or so later, with Donald gone and the leaves gently smouldering at the bottom of the garden, Perry thought he just had time to find a winner.

  “Have you seen my Racing Post, Emily?”

But no, she hadn’t, and after he had made a thorough search, his frustration became evident when, on turning on the TV, he learned that the only horse

he had picked out – Mark Pitman’s Hitman – had won at 20-1.


That night, while lying in bed, Father Green was disturbed by a scampering in the loft, not much and not often, but just enough to add to his irritating day.


Monday morning, after mass, Father Perry went out to buy four mouse-traps and on returning, climbed up into the loft to prime them with Sainsbury’s mature cheddar.

The manoeuvre to set the first three entailed Perry crawling around on his knees with a torch for ten minutes. But then, with a touch of flair, he planned to set the final trap on the table under the skylight.


Approaching the dusty card table his eyes fell upon a half-opened Racing Post. He checked the date – it was Saturday’s.

“That’s impossible,” he uttered, then, instinctively, he turned the pages to the Ascot form, and instantly recognised the circle he had drawn around Hitman.

Trembling slightly and feeling angry, he tried to reason how the newspaper he couldn’t find on Saturday had now appeared in the loft.


After priming the fourth trap, Father Perry descended the ladder still in a state of bewilderment. Then, sitting down heavily on a kitchen chair he told Emily of the mystery.

Whilst making the tea she shot him an old fashioned look, before posing, “Are you sure you didn’t go up there before Donald came; you’ve been going on about those mice for days?”

 Still a little confused, Father Perry knew he hadn’t and didn’t bother to answer.


The next day, as soon as Emily went shopping, Perry decided to take another look in the loft. He had told himself it was to see if the traps had bagged a mouse or two, but in truth he was still mystified by the reappearance of his Racing Post.  

Taking a torch, he checked the first two traps – one tiny mouse.

“Looks like they’ve started breeding up here,” he thought. Then, glancing across to where the light partially covered the table, he thought he could dimly make out a figure hunched in the wicker chair. He took a half step and leaned forward, to be sure. Suddenly, the chair creaked and a figure in a military uniform half turned his head to gaze in his direction. Perry recoiled in horror. Half of the man’s face had been shot away, there was no blood, but the face had a grey ghoulish look. Father Green, now transfixed four yards from the vision, spoke out – his faltering voice sounding distant and hollow.

“Who are you, and, and w-why are you here?”

The man then got to his feet and slowly raised his arms above his head, as in an act of surrender. Perry, mesmerised, focussed all his attention on the image in an attempt to remember every detail, but then, after six or seven seconds, the man whose uniform Perry now recognised as an army Lieutenant, slowly faded away.


“Father, are you in the loft, Father?”

Emily had returned laden from the shops and called up for some help to put the groceries away.

When Perry came down, he said nothing, putting away the shopping as if in a trance. Meanwhile, Emily, sensing that he was preoccupied waited, until eventually asking, “How are the mice up there – still running around?”

Perry remained pale and preoccupied.

Then putting his hand on her shoulder said, “Sit down a minute Emily.”

They both sat down.


 “Look, I don’t want you to think I’m going mad, but, I have just seen what I think was a ghost in the loft – a military man, badly wounded.”

  Perry held the corner of the kitchen table for support while he continued, “I believe he might have been a Lieutenant in the First World War.”

  Emily listened, reserving her credence and watching poor Perry’s face while he tried to make sense of what he had just seen. And although they both made an effort to normalise the rest of the day, the thought of the ghostly Lieutenant returned in every quiet moment.


The next morning, soon after Perry had gone out for his Racing Post, Emily, courageously pulled down the loft ladder, “To see for myself,” she mused.

“Father Perry was right about one thing,” she thought, “it was terribly dusty.”

Then, flashing a torch about her, she saw the dead body of a mouse caught in a trap.

“Yuk!” she recoiled.

Seconds later, she heard a rustle of paper and instinctively thought it was another mouse, or worse still, a rat. But slowly, almost unwillingly, her eyes went to the far end of the loft. And there, under the murky skylight, she saw him. Dignified in appearance and in his mid-thirties, he took no notice of her and carried on reading his newspaper.

“It was true, he was wearing a military uniform,” but then, after remaining motionless for what seemed like a full minute, she nervously called out, “Can I help you, Sir?”

He neither moved, nor spoke.

Then, as he slowly faded before her eyes, she had the strangest feeling that he belonged there.

Carefully, she made her way back and down the ladder. Where feeling numb from the experience she flopped into a chair and gazed blankly out of the kitchen window.

  “So it really was true,” she told herself, “Just as Father Perry had said.”

Slowly, her validation of the vision led her on, and Emily, being Emily she soon became troubled with the responsibility of it.


While waiting patiently in the kitchen her mind darted to and fro over her experience, honing it in order to add to Father Green’s first encounter. But where had he got to?


When eventually Father Green came through the door, he sensed from Emily’s expression she had been waiting for him. Apologising and explaining that he had dropped in on a sick parishioner, he put the kettle on, while Emily, anxiously at first, told him her story.

After a while, when she had run out of things to say and Father Green had nothing more to add, they agreed that a drive and a walk around Victoria Park would help them put things into perspective.

  “Blow the cobwebs away,” said Emily, taking charge of the situation, “You’ve been too long worrying about St Joseph’s and that silly diocesan survey, and now this. A good long walk in the fresh air is what’s needed. I’ll put together a picnic.”


Vicky Park, as it is known locally, was bathed in a watery sunlight and sitting on one of the benches by the lake, Father Green and Emily ate their sandwiches and fed the ducks. Oddly, they took on the appearance of a married couple after a disagreement, however, there had been no disagreement, only disbelief.

They spoke very little, each in their minds revisiting the appearance of their ghostly lodger.

There were very few people in the park that day, but Father Perry commented on the two soldiers taking a stroll.

  “You know, there can be very little peace in an active soldier’s life and those who fight in close combat must remember those violent images for the rest of their lives.”

Then as an afterthought, “And what of the loved ones left behind?”

Suddenly, he recalled the childhood memory of the framed blood stained photograph on the mantelpiece of his great aunt Maud. Once she had told him that her husband, Walter, when fatally wounded in the trenches at Mons, had held it up in front of him, before he died.

  Father Perry, a very gentle and fearful man, told Emily, “I would surely have suffered nightmares if I had witnessed those bloody battles at close hand.”

Emily, touched by his sentiments, supported and sympathised with him, until finally, she diverted the topic to her idea that perhaps, the ghostly Lieutenant had lived in the house some years before.

  “We could check on that, I suppose,” said Perry, thoughtfully, “I’ll go to the Council Offices tomorrow, and ask if they have a record of past occupants.”

“While you are there,” lightened Emily, “would you ask them to send a pest exterminator – who knows how many mice we’ve got up there now?”


Father Green’s enquiries were absorbing. In fact, he was soon spending more time at the Council Offices than at St Joseph’s. Nevertheless, with time put to good effect, he had made steady progress.

Apparently, a Mr and Mrs Henderson-Bell had lived there with their son, Roland, until 1913. They then went to live in Canada, leaving Roland behind, until he joined the Army a year later. Further records showed the house as purchased by the Army in 1919.

Then, suddenly remembering the ever-growing patter of tiny feet in the loft, Perry made an appointment for the pest exterminator to call.


A week later, a ring at the front door brought in Mr Horatio Smallwood, the tall, thin, weasel-like, pest exterminator from the Council. His ID checked, Father Perry welcomed him in, introduced him to Emily, then took him upstairs to the loft ladder. Neither Father Perry nor Emily made any mention of their ghostly lodger, and once Mr Smallwood was in the loft, Perry, rather than accompanying him, nervously hovered at the foot of the ladder, praying that the Lieutenant would not put in an appearance.

After what had seemed the slowest 20 minutes in Father Perry’s life, Smallwood, having replaced the traps with rat poison, descended. Whereupon, Perry, after scrutinising the weasel’s face for signs of a sighting, gave grateful thanks. In the meantime, Mr Smallwood washed his hands, asked for a ‘job done’ signature and, before Perry’s heartbeat had returned to normal, was gone.


Having as he thought, his obsession with the spectre under control, Father Green returned to the loft the following week. Sure enough, there was no sign of mice. Mr Smallwood had told Perry that when the mice ate the poison they would scuttle back to their holes to die.

However, the question that had troubled Perry’s mind was silently answered when, under the skylight all that was visible was an empty table and chair. Still requiring proof, he again looked hard, looked away and refocused – nothing.

For a moment, he stood there bathing in the relief. Then, torch in hand, he walked across to where the spectre had been. His old Racing Post was still there, but with it, he found a pile of very old newspapers, some racing. He looked at the dates – all were between August and November 1917. The front pages gave reports of the Battle of Passchendaele in Belgium, one newspaper, however, was folded to the racing news. Perry scanned the page – it gave the result of that year’s St Leger and on seeing the name Gay Crusader, he was reminded of that great horse’s Triple Crown victories.

When later, he tossed the paper back onto the table, he caught sight at the foot of the wicker chair, what looked like a ladies prayer book.

It was, and inside the front cover, he read the inscription – “To Rosemary, with fondest love, Roland.”


“Strange,” he thought, “Perhaps he never gave it to her? Unless, that is, she sent it back!”

Finally, carefully folded into the back of the prayer book, he found a cutting from the local paper, telling of the bravery at Passchendaele of Lieutenant Roland Henderson-Bell.  


When Father Green and Emily did their big loft clear-out, they vacuumed up all the cobwebs and dead insects and took down the tatty curtains and rolls of carpet. Lastly, it came to throwing out the Lieutenant’s card table and wicker chair. Still haunted by his memory, Perry deliberated with mixed feelings. Nevertheless, it was Emily who insisted, “The past is past Father, let’s now have a nice clean loft.”

So, as usual, in household matters, Emily had her way and everything was taken to the local waste disposal.


Returning from the tip, Father Perry was forestalled outside his house by a very old man.

“I saw you throwing out the last of Roland’s furniture,” he said inquisitively.

“You knew him?” replied Perry, stunned.

“Oh yeah, we all knew him round here years ago. Everybody gave him money you see; after all, he was so horribly wounded.

Mind you, that was before we realised he was gambling everything away on the horses. I was only a small boy at the time,” he said reminiscing, “but my Mum and Dad were very angry when they found out.”

“That said,” he continued, “I always had a soft spot for him – he used to call me little Tommy Atkins and on one occasion he showed me his medals and his officer’s revolver.”

“Sadly, what finished him was when his lady friend broke up with him.  Soon after that, he died, suddenly like.”

“I shouldn’t be telling this to you Father,” he said, lowering his voice, “but I heard say she lost a child – whose, I couldn’t say. But you shouldn’t listen to rumours, should you?”


Father Green, however, felt compelled to keep the ladies prayer book and later that month, invited little Tommy Atkins to attend a belated Mass at St Joseph’s for Lieutenant Roland Henderson-Bell and his fiancé, Rosemary.

Very few attended, but Emily and the old man went along and sat near the front, where they saw Father Green put Rosemary’s prayer book on a corner of the altar. The Mass progressed through the usual rituals and concluded with the final blessing.


Afterwards, outside the church, while Father Green was conversing with his parishioners, he suddenly remembered he had left Rosemary’s prayer book on the altar. Excusing himself he hurried back through the empty church – it had gone.

For a moment or two, he felt confused, until believing that Emily must have picked it up. Then, while still a little unsure, he heard the scraping of a chair in the darkened Lady Chapel. Peering through the shadows, he could just make out the veiled outline of a young woman holding the hand of a child in school uniform. With caution, he slowly moved towards the figures, already knowing it was useless, as they became fainter and fainter until, on setting foot inside the Lady Chapel, he was just in time to catch a glimpse of the little girl turning and waving goodbye.


Father Green never told anyone of his experience and despite all his efforts, he was unable to recover Rosemary’s prayer book.


For more racing history see Michael’s Books for Sale. 

Tudor Minstrel’s Year

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Tudor Minstrel’s Year

A short Story from Ripping Gambling Yarns

Tales of a Misspent Youth



One summer holiday of which I have a vivid recollection was in 1947, known in racing circles as ‘Tudor Minstrel’s year’.


Travelling from Woking to East Wittering by train and taxi, Mum, Dad and I, together with my Grandmother (Nan) and her sister Kate, settled into a smallish bungalow, just off the main road a few minutes walk from the sea, shops and the Royal Oak.

Holidays then ran from mid-day Saturday to Saturday, and the last Saturday of our fortnight was Derby Day.  This was the first peacetime Derby run on a Saturday and the date, June 7, was therefore not known to my parents at the time of booking, but they were soon made aware of this oversight by my constant protests.  For not only would I miss seeing the race, but our return train schedule meant I would also, in these pre-transistor days, be unable to hear the radio commentary.


Nevertheless, every morning I would get up early to walk our terrier Judy to the Newsagents for the papers.  Back at the bungalow I would cut out all the news and photographs of the Derby horses, in particular from the Daily Graphic which had a photograph and form guide to a different Derby contender every day.  These I pasted into a scrapbook with loving care.


At this time it seemed almost everyone had a shilling each-way on their fancy in the Derby.  But since betting was then illegal, unless on the course or with a credit account, our family and everyone we knew placed their bets through an assortment of bookies runners, milkmen, hairdressers and publicans.


Gordon Richards, then the perennial champion jockey, had ridden the winners of every Classic race except the Derby. Having continually chosen the ‘wrong horse’ when his retaining stable had more than one runner, he was thought by the superstitious to have a Derby jinx.

This year however, was deemed to be ‘Gordon’s year’, for his Derby mount was the brilliant Tudor Minstrel.  Top of the Free Handicap the year before, Tudor Minstrel had recently won the Two Thousand Guineas by eight lengths in a canter from Saravan and Sayajirao.


On reaching the age of 11 earlier that year, I had got a job as a newspaper boy, and remembered the headlines ‘Horse of the Century,’ with further superlatives written around photographs of Tudor Minstrel, with arrows pointing to various parts of his anatomy.


Now certain to start at odds-on for the Derby, stories abounded about punters who had waded in to win fortunes before the Guineas. And such was the charisma that surrounded the horse and the Derby of that year, that 30 years later, after having my appendix removed, the man in the next hospital bed told me that he had taken 7-1 to a week’s wages about the horse, more than a year before the event.


All this hype however, had made very little impression on Aunty Kate, who insisted that Saravan would turn the tables on Gordon.  Mum liked to back a grey, so chose Migoli, Dad followed the Australian jockey Edgar Britt and hoped Sayajirao would win.  Nan fancied the Irish horse Grand Weather, on the grounds it had been the hottest week of the year, with people frying eggs on the pavement!


It was also decided that the dog should not be left out of the excitement and Merry Quip was chosen to be her runner. As we would not be back in time to get our bets on with our local hairdresser, a shilling sweep was arranged. But due to the considered reasoning that had gone into our selections, everyone wanted to keep the horse they had chosen, rather than risk the hazards of an orthodox sweep. And in view of my protest at missing the race, I was allowed to have Tudor Minstrel, but I had to put in the dog’s shilling to level up the odds.


The holiday continued in the usual tradition with trips to the beach where I played French cricket, made sandcastles and splashed about in a car-tyre’s inner tube for, despite the patient efforts of my father, I never learned to swim.


Returning to the bungalow in the evening, Mum and Nan would cook up some beans on toast, followed by tea and cakes. Dad and I would wash up and later a green baize cloth would be thrown over the table for a game of cards or dominoes.  Cards were a particular feature of our family evenings, with games such as Whist or Solo and, if there were more than four players, Switch, Newmarket, Race the Ace, Pontoon and Banker. These games were always played for small amounts of money to keep the interest alive.


On this and some other holidays, Auntie Mary, Uncle Henry and Cousin Peter would arrive for the day but stay over-night, sleeping on settees and in arm-chairs, to return the following day.  But always there would be cards in the evening.



One morning, Auntie Mary, seeing me pasting cuttings into my scrapbook, asked me who I thought would win the Derby and, on hearing of our sweep, wanted shilling tickets for herself, Henry and Peter.  However, on learning that all the fancied horses had already been taken, she had to be persuaded into taking two outsiders for the price of one.  She chose the two streets, Tite Street and Castle Street, ahead of Henry who picked two French horses, Cadir and Parisian. Henry had always wanted to go to Paris and, as he was on holiday, thought it a lucky omen.


When Peter, (aged seven), came in from the garden, he was asked to pick two horses from the remaining five.

“I’ll have Firemaster, ’cos I pass the Firestation on the way to school.  And has Merry Quip gone?” he chirped.

“Has it?” enquired Mary.

“Yes,” I said, “We picked that one for the dog.”

“Can you change it?” Mary asked anxiously.

“Not really,” I said, “We have written it down now and we don’t want to disappoint her.”

Peter, a stubborn little blighter, wouldn’t budge, for apart from liking the name he had been told at school that Tommy Weston, the jockey, had great faith in the horse.  To avoid tears, a compromise was agreed –  Peter was to pay sixpence and share Merry Quip with the dog.  Further discussions went on when it was known that I had already paid the dog’s stake, but no refunds were made.


As the holiday came to an end, so Derby Day loomed nearer.  The cases were packed, Judy given her last walk and the sea was said goodbye to for another year.  On the train journey home, no one spoke of the Derby.  But from 2.30 onwards, I began checking the time at ten-minute intervals, imagining first the saddling up, the paddock scene, and then the parade, followed by the canter to the start.  As the train pulled into Guildford Station I knew the race was over.  I now dreaded overhearing the winner’s name from a passenger’s casual conversation.

On arriving at Woking Station, we took a short taxi ride home.  Without any explanation from me or comment from my parents, I asked to be dropped off at Charlie Young’s Hairdresser’s Shop at the corner of our road.


Pushing into the smoke filled back-room where all the bets were taken, I blurted out to Charlie’s wife “Who won the Derby?”

“A French long-shot, Pearl Diver, 40-1,” came the reply.

“Second and third,” I squeaked.

“Migoli and Saya-watsit,” she responded.

“What happened to Gordon?”

“Led at Tattenham but didn’t stay; finished fourth”.

“Charlie won a packet on the race – says there’s a jinx on Richards in the Derby!”



For those who like a tidy finish, the sweep, not won, (Pearl Diver was the only horse under 200-1 that we hadn’t picked), was carried forward to the following year, when  Nan picked and backed the Aga Khan’s  My Love at 100-8.  As for my torture of missing the Derby, this only recurred twice in the next 53 years.


For more racing history see Michael’s Books for Sale

A Tale of Two Cup Finals

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A Tale of Two Cup Finals

This is a tale taken from my second book of short stories Born to Bet.



Uncle Charlie pulled his chair closer to the fire; the tale he told me seemed to come from the realms of fantasy, but he assured me it was true – it was of the events surrounding the 1923 F.A. Cup Final betweem Bolton Wanderers and West Ham United, the first at Wembley.


Arriving at the stadium early, Charlie and his brother Ernie were told the ground was full and the turnstiles closed.  However, along with thousands of others, they made their way into the ground illegally – in their case, up a very tall drainpipe and over a wall.


There was still an hour before kick-off, but when they got down the other side onto the terraces, they couldn’t move; 200,000 people the papers said, twice the ground capacity. Ernie had to get on Charlie’s shoulders to see what was going on; he said he couldn’t see the pitch for the weaving of heads, like bees swarming, but he could see, far away, a white horse.


The copper riding Billy, as the horse was called, went around telling everyone to link arms and push back.  Forty minutes later, he and a squad of other coppers, some on horseback, had cleared the pitch, but only taking the spectators back to the touchlines.  In the meantime, Charlie said it was murder on the terraces, and when the game eventually started, he and Ernie had to take turns on each other’s backs to watch the game.


Charlie took up the story:

“We missed seeing the first goal completely, but the papers said that David Jack hit the first for Bolton with such force that it knocked a bloke over standing behind the goal who, in turn, knocked over a whole row of spectators like skittles.  And that wasn’t all. In the lead-up to the first goal, the West Ham right back, Tresadern I think it was, got trapped in the crowd after taking a throw-in, and while he was fighting his way back through the spectators, Bolton scored.”


At half-time the players were compelled to stay on the field, and around 10 minutes after the re-start, Bolton scored again.  But what a to-do! Vizard of Bolton received a pass from a spectator standing on the touch-line, before centering the ball to Smith, who vollied it so hard into the net that it hit a spectator behind the goal and bounced out again.  West Ham claimed it had hit the crossbar, but the referee gave the goal and Bolton won 2-0.  What King George thought of it all I don’t know, but I bet it didn’t take him as long as us to get home – just before ten o’clock, my Mum said !


Charlie’s colourful description of the match buzzed around in my head for days, until one wet games period, when Bill Long, our Games Teacher and incidentally Captain of Woking Football Club, asked if anyone would like to talk about a sporting event they had seen. No-one put their hand up, so I bravely asked if I could relate my Uncle Charlie’s account of the first Wembley Cup Final.  Long agreed.  I said bravely, as having a stammer, B-B-Bolton and Wer-West Ham were not for me the easiest of teams to pronounce.


The events of the game produced outbursts of laughter from the class, with Long occasionally interrupting my flow with,  “Is this true Church?” and  “Are you making this up?”  Well, I might have exaggerated the spectators collapsing like a row of dominoes, but I think my mates enjoyed it.


Two weeks later, there was a knock on our front door; it was Clarrie Jarman, a school-board inspector and the Secretary of Woking Football Club.

“Come inside Clarrie.”

Dad, a lifelong supporter of the club, welcomed him in, calling down the passage to my mother, “It’s Clarrie, Dorothy – put the kettle on.”

“No, no,” protested Clarrie, “I won’t stay long; it’s just that one of our Committee has returned his two Cup Final tickets and, I know it’s short notice, but I thought you and Michael would like to go.” He handed Dad an envelope.

“They’re not too expensive; three shillings (15p) each. It’s Manchester United and Blackpool on Saturday,” he added unnecessarily.

“By the way,” he told Stan, going to the door, “I hear young Michael gave a great account at school of your brothers’ visit to the ‘White Horse Cup Final’.”


Next day at school, I could think of nothing else, but fearing a jealous reaction, I decided not to tell anyone.  Then, after the last lesson on Friday afternoon, I went back to my classroom to collect my satchel. Bill Long was there, busy wiping off the blackboard with a duster, until interrupted by the Science Master, who came in to wish him a good weekend.  Glancing up, I noticed the blackboard now read “B—–2 and underneath MU—–4.”  Obsessed with thoughts of the Cup Final, I interpreted this as Blackpool 2 Manchester United 4 – an omen.  When I drew Long’s attention to it, he laughed, saying, “No, no, no, that was Biology – period 2, Music – period 4,” adding, “Anyway Church, have a nice weekend and you can tell us about the game on Monday!”


Returning home, I sensed the excitement was building up.  Mum had bought my first pair of long trousers, and Nan produced a new thermos flask – a tartan one from Woolworth’s – for the journey.  After tea, Dad propped the two tickets up either side of the mantlepiece clock.  We looked at them long and hard – the date read 24th April 1948.


In the morning, Dad went out and bought all the newspapers for my scrapbooks.  I was at this time a follower of Blackpool and of their international stars, Stanley Matthews, Stan Mortensen and Harry Johnston.  Naturally, Dad and I had a few bets on the correct score.  I had two shillings on Blackpool to win 2-0 and 3-0, but after telling Dad about the blackboard omen, we felt it prudent to have two bob each on Man U. to win 4-2. The odds were 50-1.


The first half of our 40 minute train journey was taken up with Dad helpfully trying to pin an orange and white rosette securely onto my coat. Alighting at Waterloo, he was approached by a spiv ticket-tout, who offered him £5 each for our three-bob tickets – more than thirty times the price.  This took Dad by surprise and for what seemed an age, he stood dithering in shock until, after looking across at me, he sent the tout packing.  I later learned that Dad’s weekly wage was £9, so the tout’s offer was a massive temptation.


Inside Wembley stadium we located our position on the terraces – high up, overlooking one of the corner flags. The whole area was uncovered and the Tannoy system was difficult to hear, but I do remember the famous Arthur Caiger, in a white boiler suit, standing on a rostrum in the centre circle conducting Abide With Me, after both sets of supporters had given a full throttle rendition of Lassie from Lancashire.  Finally, we were all asked to wave our song sheets for the cameras, a shot that the newsreels repeatedly used after a goal was scored.


Compared with Cup Finals today, it was a very strange experience; being so high in the crowd with only the sky above, it was comparatively quiet. There was no chanting and singing during the match as today, but the more dedicated fans would have wooden ‘air-raid’ rattles and some would have hand-knitted scarves with their players’ names stitched onto them.  Most of the men, and they were more than 95% of the crowd, would shout out in desperation phrases like “Unload him Harry”, or “Fire it over”,  “Let him have it”, or  “Shoot” – all echoes of the recent war.


Up the other end, about a mile away, Blackpool scored from a penalty, but from where we stood, it seemed to happen in an eerie silence.  I, of course, shouted “goal!” and jumped up and down, but there was little emotion around me and I remember how surreal the experience felt.  In those days, almost two-thirds of the tickets went to clubs that had taken part in the earlier rounds, right down to the amateur clubs like Woking and Corinthian Casuals, so the strong partisan feelings of the teams supporters were confined to certain areas.


History has it that Jack Rowley of Man U. equalised after 27 minutes, before Mortensen, courtesy of a Matthews free-kick, put Blackpool 2-1 up at half-time.

It was difficult to sit down on the terraces, but we managed it, eating our sandwiches of corned beef and lettuce from the garden, washed down with tea from our new flask.  Meanwhile, the breeze blew in an occasional piece of music from the brass bands playing below.  Dad said he recognised his old favourite,  “The Standard of St George”.


Blackpool’s lead evaporated in the second half, and I remember the men on a gantry, way up behind the goal, changing the enormous placards against the teams’ names to 2-2, then 2-3 and finally 2-4 for United.  One lasting memory was of United’s Charlie Mitten, racing down the wing and repeatedly crossing the ball into the Blackpool goalmouth.


Eventually, we all drifted away. I felt very dejected, but Dad did his best to cheer me up.  Then suddenly, I checked my betting slip and saw: Man U. 4-2 at 50-1.  It seemed like a light in a dark tunnel – brilliant!  Walking back down the Wembley Way, we checked our winnings – £5 each – the same amount the tout had offered us for our tickets.

Dad thought it was an amazing coincidence, and so did I.


Ascot’s Festival of Britain Stakes 1951

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The Festival of Britain Stakes


 With the Investec Derby, Oaks and Royal Ascot behind us, I’d like to tell you a short story about my train trip to the first running of Ascot’s King George. Billed as the Festival of Britain Stakes, with more prizemoney than the Derby, it was heralded as the race of the year.  


Amid the noise and excitement, a crowded train pulled into Clapham Junction; it was one of many that day leaving for Ascot races.  This was Festival of Britain year 1951, and racing’s contribution to the festivities was a new race – the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Festival of Britain Stakes. Everyone seemed to be talking about it and everyone wanted to be there.  On top of that, it was one of those days of characters and mysteries that were to sink sublimely into my youthful memory.  Clambering aboard, I squeezed into a train filled with cigarette smoke and swaying bodies.


“There’s room for a nipper over here,” a large lady beckoned – I squeezed in. Her bright blue turban and flowered print dress contrasted dramatically with the sombre utility suits of the four men facing me. Directly opposite was a pale-faced man, fortyish, with dark crinkled hair, who I later learned was Mori. Turning to his neighbour, who looked ex-RAF and sported a ginger moustache, he said, “I’ve got a jacket at home that will fit you perfectly.”

“Sounds good,” said the moustache. “How much do you want for it?”

Mori paused, “If it fits you, it’s yours, free, gratis,” adding, “when you’ve had a winner you can pay me for it.”

“You see John’s jacket,” he continued, turning to the battered trilby on his right, “that’s one of mine. How long have you had that John?”

John frowned and took a sharp intake of breath.

“Must be 25 years now.”

“You see – quality,” beamed Mori. “Your brother’s got a similar jacket hasn’t he John?”

“Yes, he has sometimes.”

“What do you mean sometimes,” retorted Mori, now fully in command of the quartet.

“Well, he has it when I let him borrow it,” said John.

“You and your brother are a mystery to me,” continued Mori.

“Tell me, how is it you’re 50 and your twin brother says he’s nearly 60?”

“Ah,” said John, “He lies about his age!”



At this point, Reggie, their fourth member – egg-stained tie, and pebble glasses – looked up from his window seat, where he had been engrossed in The Sporting Life.

“Er John, isn’t that the jacket that your Mum wanted to bury your Dad in?”

Richmond – Twickenham – Feltham, the train was now heaving and a further gaggle of passengers stood between the two rows of seats in our carriage, temporarily depriving me of this surreal banter. And it was not until two of them found room in the corridor, that I tuned in again to the moustache opposite.

“Flat on the floor I was, threatened with a shooter – then they blew the safe – I couldn’t stop shaking, but when they opened it there was only a monkey inside.”

The blue turban chuckled and her fag-ash went all over my lap.

“Sorry darlin’,” she exclaimed, “but you gotta laugh, ain’t yer?”  And she did, like a drain.


At Staines, two bottled beers got in, and after passing the Daily Herald to and fro, a Fairisle pullover enquired of Mori, “Er, mate, lend us a pen for a sec.”

“Sorry,” said Mori dismissively. Whereupon, the Fairisle bothered everyone in turn for something to write with.

Finally, the blue turban offered him a crayon, which she later told me she had used to draw stocking seams on the back of her legs. Meanwhile, it was obvious, even to me as a 15-year-old, that the two bottle beers were a con-act, supposedly marking in that day’s stable whispers.  And sure enough, as soon as we were pulling into Ascot station, I heard the Fairisle say to the ginger moustache, “Five bob and I’ll mark yer card.”

Hastily grabbing my brown paper bag from the luggage rack, I didn’t look back to see if the fish was landed, as by now, I was being swept along the platform by the crowds that spilled out from every door on the train.


Down the underground tunnel and out into the light, we were met by all manner of tipsters, vendors and entertainers along the footpath to the racecourse. And it was not until I had reached my vantage point in the middle of the course that I stopped to unpack my lunch: two loose bananas, The Sporting Life, a bottle of Stout and, a pair of pyjama bottoms – I had grabbed the wrong bag!   Always the opportunist, I managed to make use of the first three items, but I had to admit the fourth had me stumped.  More importantly, who had got my mother’s Opera glasses and the cheese and pickle sandwiches she had so lovingly packed? My mind went back to the carriage; which of them was likely to take pyjamas to the races?


But now there were more important riddles to solve, as 18 two-year-olds went to post for the first, over the straight six furlongs. Soon after, Gordon Richards came back to tremendous cheering on the favourite, Olympic.  Half-an-hour later, Scobie Breasley did favourite backers another good turn, when the filly, Verse, won in a photo finish.


Moving over to a spot opposite the paddock, I watched the best horses in Europe filter out on to the course, for what was to be the first ‘King George’. Its prize of £25,000 was the richest ever for a British race.

The favourite was the Derby winner Arctic Prince, while the opposition included Tantieme (Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe), Scratch (St Leger), Supreme Court (King Edward VII), Belle of All (1,000 Guineas), Ki Ming (2,000 Guineas), Sir Winston Churchill’s grey, Colonist, and the temperamental  Zucchero with the 15 year-old Lester Piggott aboard.

Nineteen runners went to post before a crowd reported to be more than 100,000.

I had taken an array of bets from my school-mates on the race, including two doubles running-on from Olympic to the long-shots Belle of All and Ki Ming, but refusing to hedge-off, I stood my ground.

Without a public commentary, or my Mum’s opera glasses, it was hard to know what was going on, but a tall man standing on a hillock nearby shouted out that Wilwyn and Belle of All were leading, and even I could see the grey, Colonist, up with the leaders.  But along the home straight, two horses pulled away from the rest – the electric atmosphere and the tremendous roar from the crowd gave me the feeling of being in the middle of a great storm, although in reality it was a bright sunny day.

Finally, I could see Charlie Elliott in the colours of Supreme Court – scarlet with a white V – get the better of young Lester on Zucchero. Both horses broke the 30-year-old course record.

Having weathered the storm, I realised that no-one at school had backed Supreme Court, so, to celebrate I bought a jumbo ice-cream cone and washed it down with the bottle of stout. Nevertheless, still in the possession of an unwanted pair of pyjama bottoms and, without an immediate use for them, I decided to let them loose in the makeshift lavatories.  On my way out, I saw a huddle of men gathered at the exit.  Not the usual ‘Find the Lady’, but Banker!  Suddenly, I was joined by the Fairisle pullover.

“Had any winners”, I piped up.

“Oh, hello titch, weren’t you on our train?”

“Yes,” I said, then pressing, “How are your tips going?”

“Oh, those,” he grinned, “just out to make a bob or two, you know.”

“Were they really stable whispers?” I persisted.

“Nah – just a couple of favourites and some my old Mum picked out – double-barrelled names with the same letter, you know, Fast Fox, that sort of thing,” he said with surprising candour.


Spilling out into the light, I was confronted by a cockney balloon salesman.

“The more yer blow, the bigger they grow,” he proclaimed. And then, as a small gathering of children surrounded him, he proceeded to make a series of giraffes, poodles and dachshunds from blowing and twisting balloons.

“One shilling for a giraffe,” he announced, “start your own zoo today.”


A further two races passed – Fast Fox 7-2 and Lancashire Lassie 13-2.  The Fairisle’s Mum certainly knew a thing or two!

Drifting through the crowd and feeling a little thirsty, I went into the beer tent to try and get another bottle of stout, but after standing on tip-toe for five minutes in front of a bar, now five deep, I heard a voice behind me say: “You’ll be lucky, nipper.”  It was the blue turban, who surprisingly had linked arms with the ginger moustache from our carriage, introducing him as Ralph and herself as Betty.  Both seemed very jolly, as Ralph, having paid five-bob for the Fairisle’s tips, had backed three winners. Betty snuggled up to him and told me she was going to help him spend it.

Eventually, Ralph got to the front of the bar and ordered me a beer. Standing in a corner of the tent, Betty mused, “I brought a bottle of stout with me, but must have picked up the wrong bag – still the sandwiches came in handy.”

What could I say? I couldn’t ask her about my Mum’s opera glasses, or the subject of the pyjama bottoms would crop up. I didn’t feel equal to that discussion, so I kept quiet, but my mind ran riot with bizarre images of their employment.

After another round of drinks, courtesy of Ralph’s success, we dashed out to back the favourite in the last. Wanting to look big, I had a £1 on it, while Betty was urging Ralph to double his stakes. Inside the final furlong, the favourite Pares, and Red Linnet (the danger), were up-front going hammer and tongs. I confess I had to look away, but I could hear Betty screaming and then noisily kissing Ralph.


It had been a great day for all of us. We collected the cash and walked back to the Railway Station, where we met up again with Mori. He seemed a little quiet however, and declined the offer to accompany us to White City dogs. Ten minutes later, having talked about our varying degrees of success, we boarded the London train together.

Mori looked tired, and sank back into the corner seat. After a few minutes of staring blankly out of the window, he sighed and said,

“Life’s like a game of poker you know; most people are dealt a hand for life – I think mine was a pair of Jacks.  Not great, but when the opposition is weak or they hesitate, you can pick up a few quid. Some good times, some bad and, if you like what you’re doing, even the bad times are good.”

We all nodded respectfully at his obscure soliloquy. I guessed that Mori was coming to terms with a very bad day.



One Ghost too Many – a tribute to Jimmy Wilde

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One Ghost too Many


 This is a true Christmas ghost story from my childhood days.

Which in fact is a tribute to Jimmy Wilde,

the Flyweight Champion of the World,

known as “The Ghost with a Hammer in his Hand”



“Is this a dagger which I see before me,

   the handle towards my hand?

  Come, let me clutch thee:

  I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.”

{Extravagant and prolonged off-stage thunder follows.}


   “No, no, no, Church you’re hopeless!” shrilled Miss Powell in exasperation.

   “You’ve done your thunder effects at the entrance of the three witches; now go and sit down.”

   “But Miss,” I protested, “I think it adds to the d-d-drama.”

   “You think, you think!” she exploded, “I think Shakespeare knew how to write Macbeth without your help.”

   The cast enjoyed the opportunity to laugh, while smouldering with resentment I put down my large sheet of tin and removed the wicket-keeper’s gloves lent to me by Towser Bailey to protect my hands.

   In my eyes, it was yet another instance where teachers would never let you do anything that hadn’t been done before.


   I quite liked the slender Morag, Miss Powell, ‘Miss 1485’; I had really wanted to be in the school play, but Miss Powell, witnessing both my stammer and my cavalier improvisation on the text, had reluctantly put me in charge of sound effects.

   We called her ‘Miss 1485’ because, as our History teacher, she would stand in front of the class and proclaim in lilting Welsh rhetoric that: “Modern History started in 1485 with the House of Tudor; remember the date, write it in your books, and let it permeate your brain,” her accent tripping over the syllables to give it a lyrical effect.  This proclamation was always delivered with a Welsh passion, and by the end of term we had heard it so often that the class could be seen silently mouthing her words in unison.


   Over the next three weeks, rehearsals for Macbeth seemed to be coming along quite nicely.  I had kept a copy of the play, even though I was no longer involved, but towards the end of Act III, where there is more thunder for the witches, I asked Miss Powell if I could ‘ply my trade.’

   “Certainly not Church – enough is enough; you never know when to stop.”

   My creativity rejected, I wandered off down to the props cupboard at the end of a darkened corridor.  It was there I had what I thought was a brilliant idea. Folded up neatly in the corner of the cupboard was a large white sheet. I opened it out.

   From the other end of the corridor I heard Macbeth’s lines,

   “… Shall Banquo’s issue reign in this Kingdom?” Morag raised her hands to stop the play and ask:  “Where is Banquo’s ghost?”


   At this point, no doubt, a picture is emerging in the reader’s mind, and I will therefore fast-forward to the Headmaster’s Study, where, from a cane of my own choosing, “not the flimsy one, Church,” I received three brisk strokes for the disruption of the Drama class.  And that, I am sad to say, drew a veil over my theatrical aspirations.


   Redirecting my thwarted but relentless enthusiasm, I turned my attention to another form of education – cigarette cards! These were always popular at Goldsworth School, and the game most played entailed flicking the cards between your first and second fingers against a wall about six foot away. The cards stayed on the floor until a player covered one with another card, at which point he picked them all up.

   Down one side of the playground there were two large covered alcoves for children to shelter under in bad weather and these made ideal pitches for fag-card contests.  Most of the boys held a stock of around 100 cards and some had a few sets, often given to them in albums by their parents.


   On one particular play break, during squally conditions, I was engrossed in a game of fag-cards with two other boys – Peter Hapgood and Alfie Parker – otherwise known as the ‘conker kings’. But this being February and with not a conker in sight, they had decided to inject a bit of pace into our sport by lobbing in thruppence a game.  As fate would have it, Miss Powell was on playground duty that day, and seeing the three of us settling our bets, came over to investigate.


   Now whether Morag was from Chapel stock, I cannot say, but she took a dim view of our sporting activity, equating it to gambling. Calling the three of us together, she asked to see the cigarette cards.  Peter and Alfie seemed to have a number of trees and wildlife on their cards, and cheekily, I suggested it helped them with their Nature Study.   Unfortunately, mine were predominately jockeys and boxers.


    “You’re not going to learn a lot from those Church,” she frowned, and I feared she might confiscate my pack.

   “They’re all part of history Miss,” I protested. “Take this one, Jimmy Wilde – World Flyweight Champion – one of the bravest men ever to come out of the Rhondda Valley, and only 7 stone 2 lb.”  I prayed that the Welsh connection would get me a reprieve.  Surprisingly, she picked up on the history connotation.

   “History is it now Church?  Well, next History lesson, for the last five minutes only look you, you can give us a talk on Jimmy Wilde – all right?  I’ll keep this card of him to remind me to ask you.”



   To tell you the truth, all I knew about Jimmy Wilde was written on the back of that card. I now had until Thursday afternoon to get the low-down on him. Perhaps Dad or one of my Uncles could help me?

   It turned out that Uncle Arthur – the ex WW1 Sergeant, with bushy eyebrows and a shell-shocked stammer was best informed.  And so with patience, a pen and notepad on my part, and a glass or two of Nan’s Sandiman’s Sherry on his, I learned enough of the man to last five minutes.


   To begin with, I was very nervous, but apart from Miss Powell, ‘Miss 1485,’ who had the cigarette card propped up on her desk, no-one else in the class knew much about Wilde. However, they were as usual eager for any diversion, and when my palms stopped sweating, after a while I was able to link up some of the facts and stories surrounding the man. I invited the class to visualise this tiny boxer in singlet and tights, fighting up to 25 bouts a day in fairground boxing booths, eventually to become the Flyweight Champion of the World.  Thoroughly warming to my subject, I ended with a spirited demonstration of shadow boxing, telling them that he was known as ‘The Ghost with a Hammer in His Hand’.


   “Was he Banquo’s ghost?” chimed in Peter Hapgood.

Laughter and some applause followed, with Morag promptly ending the lesson and giving me back my cigarette card – Number 39 of Churchman’s Boxing Personalities.


   Twenty years later, scanning the sports pages one morning before going to work, my eyes were drawn to the heading “Jimmy Wilde – World Flyweight Champion Dies”.

   It went on to report that Wilde started out as a coal miner in the Rhondda Valley, but at the age of 16, he began fighting in boxing booths, usually against much heavier opponents.  In a professional career spanning 13 years, he won a remarkable 146 of his 149 fights, 99 by knockouts.  He died aged 77.  This pale and frail looking man concealed so much strength he was known as ‘The Ghost with a Hammer in his Hand’. It all sounded so familiar. There was no picture accompanying the report, but I remembered exactly what he looked like – a ghost from the past.


This story is taken from Michael’s book of short stories,  Born To Bet,

available with a few of his other books under Books For Sale.

Silver and Gold

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Very soon all roads will lead to Cheltenham. However, many of those who make their annual pilgrimage to the jumping Mecca, will have had to reshuffle their commitments.

Father Green, travelling from his East End parish, was one such enthusiast, borne on by the hope of an anti-post double, then dragged back on the wave of conscience.

This story is taken from,  The Gambling Adventures of Father Green.

Silver and Gold

Father GreenFather Perry looked out on the paddock at Cheltenham; it was Thursday, March 18, 1982 – Gold Cup day. The answers as to how he had got there and what the repercussions would be, he preferred not to think about, at least until after the Gold Cup.

Just before the King George on Boxing Day, he had placed a tenner bet on Silver Buck at 3-1, doubling it with him winning the Gold Cup at 12-1. A copy of his bet, still intact after the first leg, and showing £510 to £10, was safely in his trouser pocket.

He checked his watch, 3:15 – 15 minutes to post time. Time to look at the principals, as the field of 22 runners encircled the paddock.

And what a star-studded field it was. Night Nurse, twice a winner of the Champion Hurdle, heading the market at 11-4; Diamond Edge (Hennessy Gold Cup), Tied Cottage (the disqualified 1980 Gold Cup winner), and a host of other fancied contenders – Captain John, Grittar, Venture to Cognac, Royal Bond and Silver Buck’s stable companion Bregawn – a veritable who’s who of steeplechasing.


As the runners filed out onto the course, Father Green made haste to find a vantage point, but he had left it too late. Every step with a view was taken, and so reluctantly, he stood at ground level, mid-way between the last fence and the winning post and relied on Peter O’Sullevan’s commentary.


From two fences out, Perry could hear that four horses – Silver Buck, Bregawn, Sunset Cristo and Diamond Edge, had the race between them. Then, over the last, Silver Buck went on from Bregawn, Perry, now unaware he was shouting and jumping up and down in pogo stick fashion to catch a glimpse of the final yards.

He will tell you that what he saw – Silver Buck’s two-length victory over Bregawn – would stay with him for the rest of his life.


It was 4 o’clock before his elation subsided.

“Four o’clock, yes, 4 o’clock, I must get a taxi quickly.”

He hurried through the crowds to get to the carpark in the hope he would be lucky.

“Let me see,” he thought, going though his pockets for the symposium programme, until finally pulling it out with his anti-post voucher.

“Here we are….ah yes, 2 o’clock ’till 4, a lecture on the Early Popes, then 4.30 to 6.00 – Reincarnation and the Progression of Past Lives. Must try and get in for that during the interval,” he thought. And he did.

Directing the cab driver to the Holy Name Hall, an offshoot of St Gregory’s Church in Cheltenham, he breathlessly rejoined the other Catholic priests. For this was a three-day symposium, run by the Dominicans, with the benefit of a Buddhist monk guest speaker.

Father Perry, having successfully slipped in during the interval, was now gasping for some refreshment. However, after being introduced to the Lama, he was taken to a table offering the choice of some unusual vegetarian dishes and a selection of herbal teas.

Deeply frustrated by drinks he could never understand or condone, he enquired if they had anything stronger, whereupon he was offered a brew of Chinese Oolong tea. Although at pains to graciously accept, he still found it necessary to discreetly add some brandy from his hip flask.


Five minutes later, he joined conversation with the Dominican Father Matthew, and to his credit kept a straight bat by remembering the life of Pope Adrian, the only Englishman to occupy the papal chair, 1154 – 1159.

Father Matthew had encountered Perry in the past and always regarded him with baffled suspicion. However, Father Green knew that the good priest was valiantly trying to understand his eccentricities.

Sadly, after indulging in one or two more cups of Oolong a la Perry, he slept soundly through the lecture on reincarnation, only to be woken, by the rousing round of applause for the Lama at the end of question time.

Still feeling drowsy, Father Perry felt the need to excuse himself from the friendly, but dogged Father Matthew, who pursued him for his thoughts on reincarnation. Suddenly, Perry felt the instant need of some fresh air, and so, walked out to the front of house, still accompanied by Father Matthew, who seemed to relish a debate ‘on the hoof.’

At that point, a taxi driver pulled in to inquire if Father Green was his pre-booked fare – his face looked familiar,

“Oh, hello Father, did you get to the racecourse in time to give that old gentleman the last rites?”

Earlier, having flown by the seat of his cassock to fast track to the racecourse, Perry was now on the spot for an ingenious reply.

Miraculously, he was saved by the taxi driver’s knowing expression and exaggerated wink.

“Oh yes,” he replied, returning the wink on Father Mathew’s blind side, “but the rites were not strictly appropriate, as I saw him later in the Tote queue!”

Then, assuming the ride, Perry gratefully clambered aboard, turning to wave a cheery goodbye to the open mouthed Father Matthew.


Copies of Michael’s other books available

can been seen under Books for Sale





The first Derby photo-finish

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The first Derby photo-finish

1949 Derby photo-finish

The first photo-finish for the Epsom Derby was in 1949.

The race was the focal point of the racing year and I was determined to be there.

Here follows an account of that day from the tales of my misspent youth.


“Are you going to the Derby next Saturday, Michael?”  Don called across the smoke filled snooker room.

“Is the Pope Catholic?” I retorted, breaking off from lining up a red.

“I’ve got space in the old Humber,” Don added graciously. “I’ve just asked your Dad; he says it’s OK if I keep an eye on you.”

“Sounds super,” I replied, “much better than getting the coach.”


Just then, Master of Ceremonies, Bernie Stevens rang his bell, calling everyone back for the second half of the Whist Drive.  This was Woking’s ambiguously named Railway Athletic Club, where, in these pre-bingo days of 1949, their Saturday night big-money drive was, along with the Atalanta ballroom, one of the two hot spots in Woking.  My Father, Mother and Nan obviously preferred the Whist Drives: jitterbugging was never their strong suit, where as playing cards was as much a part of their life as queuing at the Co-op.


The Whist over, I got the Derby details from Don – pick up opposite the Railway Station, 10 o’clock sharp. Vicky, his fancy woman, (as Mum called her, among other things) and the Giant, were to be the two other passengers.


At this point, I must fill you in on my fellow travellers.  Don was an ex-Guardsman, handsome, middle-aged and dashing. Vicky was four feet something, 40 going on 20, full of fun and covered in jewellery.  Both were divorced and lived together in digs – this in the late 1940s was not only risque, but gave them a touch of celebrity.  The Giant on the other hand was grotesque. Seven feet tall, and in his younger days a sparing partner to Primo Carnera, the 18½ stone Italian, who later became the World Heavyweight Champion. But now, bent almost double with arthritis, his face bore the scars of his profession and he was often referred to as Boris, after Boris Karloff of Frankenstein fame.


In spite of the journey being only 17 miles, it took us almost two hours to get to Epsom, and another half hour to park, this with every road jammed and crowd estimates of half a million people covering the Downs.  Boris, for reasons of convenience, went straight into Tattersall’s, where he would sit high up on the steep terraced steps to watch the afternoon’s events, while Don, Vicky and I sallied around the funfair.


Don was drawn towards the rifle range where, after examining and changing his rifle, he hit four consecutive clay pipes.  Vicky was delighted and so was I, although I respectfully declined the privilege of carrying the prize of a very large stuffed donkey around with me for the rest of the afternoon.  We then had a go at the coconut shies, hoopla and rolling pennies down a shoot, but nothing doing.  Vicky insisted that we all went on the Chairaplanes – rows of swings that rotated at speed.  Don said that he and Neddy preferred to sit this one out, but asked me to accompany Vicky.

Once the wheel got up speed, all the chair-swings fanned out over the crowd; Vicky was shrieking and waving down at Don, but to me, it was terrifying.  I seemed to remember reading about a young boy who had been flung off at a fair and killed.  “What a way to go!” I thought, “and on Derby Day.”  Eventually, when all the swings returned peacefully, Vicky was still in a state of high excitement, and bought us each a stick of candy floss.

“You look a bit pale Michael,” she said mischievously. I tried to grin, but felt as if I had passed through a near-death experience.


As we moved through the crowds, we saw an escapologist at work, an elderly man, thin but wiry looking.  He was wrapped in chains, handcuffed and then put in a canvas sack, which was then padlocked.  We watched and waited.  From time to time we saw the sack wriggle about as crowds pressed in on all sides and the barker entertained the crowd with details of The Great Murcurio’s past feats.  Then, slowly, a hush fell over the crowd, the sack was still.  People began to murmur their concern; one woman shouted across to the barker,

“You’ve killed the poor old bugger, you rotten sod.”

To allay everyone’s fears, he went over to the sack and shouted,

“Is The Great Murcurio all right in there?”

There was no reply. The woman shouted out again, “Now you’ve done it, you rotten bugger, you’ve killed him, and all for a few bob.”


Don dashed off to find a Red Cross man, but no sooner had he gone, than the sack started to wriggle again.  The barker wiped the sweat from his brow and by now the onlookers were pleading with him to open the sack. Then, as he removed the padlock, the old man sprang out of the sack like a jack-in-the-box.  There was much cheering and great relief all around.  Needless to say, the barker’s collection yielded a shower of silver and not a few ten-bob notes.  When Don did get back, he said the Red Cross had been called every half-hour since nine this morning with the same story!


Vicky looked at her watch; it was one o’clock. The first race was in half-an-hour, so we scuttled off to squeeze into the old Stewards’ Stand opposite the main grandstand.  Although you looked head-on down the course, it was a great place to watch the race from, and by now we were all pleased the enclosure had its own toilets.


Don and I were Gordon Richard’s fans, but Vicky just went by the horses’ names.  Saucy Boy, ridden by an apprentice, caught her eye, and it caught the judge’s eye too, romping home at 6-1, while Don and I searched in vain for Gordon at the tail end of the field.


In the next race, another five-furlong sprint, Gordon rode the Aga Khan’s Malindi, which Don and I both backed, in spite of the odds-on Lightning Sketch.  When I say we both backed, in reality it was Don who put the money on, as a skimpy 13-year-old would have been, rightly or wrongly, turned away.  Anyway, Malindi won at 7-2, with the favourite finishing last of five.


There was now an hour before the big race, the sun was shinning, there was just a slight breeze, and then as now, there is no finer place to be than on Epsom Downs on Derby Day.


In order to see the parade, we squeezed in on the terraced steps as the 32 runners filed before us.  To make the most of this occasion, I had painted their colours in a little notebook, as racecards of the day were printed in black and white and had no pictures.


Having had an ante-post bet on Lord Derby’s Swallow Tail after he had won the Chester Vase, I was content to have a saver on Gordon, who was riding the 9-2 favourite Royal Forest.  Don also backed Royal Forest, but Vicky, being an admirer of the glamorous Suzy Volterra, backed her husband’s horse, Amour Drake.  Also fancied was the Two Thousand Guineas winner, Nimbus, owned by Mrs Marion Glenister and ridden by Charlie Elliott.


Unable to get to the top of the terraces, we got our first glimpse of the race as the runners came around Tattenham Corner. Nimbus and Swallow Tail were clear.  Inside the final furlong, Swallow Tail gained the advantage. But Nimbus, on the rails, gamely fought back, before tiring and drifting across towards the stands, taking Swallow Tail with him.  Meanwhile, Amour Drake, having been 10 lengths adrift earlier in the straight, came storming up the centre of the course on to the heels of the front two.  His jockey, Rae Johnstone, finding his path blocked, had to switch Amour Drake to the rails, losing both ground and momentum.  A desperate battle ensued over the last 50 yards with all three contenders crossing the line together.  “Photograph, photograph,” it was to be the first in the history of the Derby.


I was sure Nimbus had won, but many around me thought Amour Drake had; further down the terraces, would be those who thought Swallow Tail had held on.  And although the race was over and I had lost my bets, I immediately saw an opportunity of making a profit on the Derby.  Urgently, I persuaded Don, another man of chance, to walk ahead of me along the first two rows of the terraces to call out, “I’ll lay evens Amour Drake and 3-1 Swallow Tail.”

Those around us were keen to hedge their bets and some were confident of their eyes.  As Don took the money, so I wrote the bets in my note book, adding the punters’ names, for we had no tickets to give out.  The result of the photo took so long that Don took about two dozen bets, mostly pound notes.

“I hope you’re sure about this Michael,” said Don, realising we might not have enough money to pay out if I’d got it wrong.


I didn’t have to answer; suddenly the result frame was being hoisted up, and at the top was number 13, Nimbus; 26 Amour Drake was second and Swallow Tail third.


1949 Derby photo-finish


“How much have we won?”  I said excitedly.

“Well done,” replied Don, “I was beginning to get worried; it took so long.”

“How much,” I persisted.

Don gave way and emptied his pockets.

“Twenty-two pounds. How do you want to split it?” he said.

I paused, “How about a tenner each, and two quid for a slap-up supper?”


Soon a rumbling roar went up over the Downs, as various sections of the crowd were relayed the result.

I tugged on Don’s sleeve: “Come on, we’ve got to get out of here, in case someone has reported us to the ring inspector.”

Fortunately, many others were leaving the enclosure at the same time, so our exit was not conspicuous. Very soon, my 13-year-old brain was buzzing with the potential betting opportunities surrounding this new technology.  What a wonderful thing this photo-finish is!


We decided to join the Giant and, in spite of the gateman’s reservations, Vicky and her donkey charmed us through the entrance.  It was more crowded than the enclosure we had left, but we knew roughly where the Giant would be and he wasn’t difficult to spot. Vicky saw him first, towering above the rest, eating a tiny ice cream cone like a big kid. I’m sure, if he had wanted to, he could have held a dozen cones in one hand.

“Back any winners Boris?” Don asked, as the runners went down for the next.

“Not yet Don, but you’ve just missed the sight of the afternoon – Rita Hayworth.”

Vicky was all ears.

“You know she married Prince Aly Khan earlier this year? Well, he bought her a horse as a wedding present – But Beautiful – it’s running in the next. I watched her walk down the line of bookmakers; everyone was speechless, not a word and, no-one struck a bet.”

“Well someone’s backed it,” I said. “It’s showing odds of 4-7 now.”


A minute later, But Beautiful and the Duchess of Norfolk’s Suivi headed the field at the furlong marker and, after a thrilling finish, passed the post together – another photo finish.  Not so long to wait this time; first Suivi.  We decided to stay put for the rest of the afternoon, sitting on the terraced steps.  Favourites won both the last two races, with ‘Last race Cook,’ living up to his monicker and coasting home four lengths ahead of Doug Smith.

There were many unseen dramas that followed that afternoon, some we heard of in days, others months and one, over three years later, when Mr Henry Glenister committed suicide in his car in Sussex.  Glenister was an employee of the Midland Bank when he paid 5,000 guineas (equal to £190,000 today) for Nimbus as a yearling, as a present to his wife.  Later, the inquest revealed that Glenister had defaulted on ‘a considerable sum’, although the extent of the fraud was never made public.


A more poignant end had taken place the day after the Derby, when Suzy Volterra returned to her dying husband in Paris.  Leon, whose health had suffered during wartime internment by the Germans, had been too ill to listen to the broadcast, and so, before his death, his wife allowed him to think his colt Amour Drake had won the Derby.

1949 Derby racecard Nimbus

This account of the 1949 Derby

comes from Michael’s book of short stories

Born To Bet

To see more of Michael’s books go to Books For Sale

West Brom 2 – Woking 4

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West Brom 2 – Woking 4


With the F.A. Cup once more upon us, the BBC football website is showing the best 50 goals scored in the competition. High on the list is Tim Buzaglo’s third goal for Woking against West Brom. So needing little encouragement, I have revised my short story from Born to Bet. It was a memorable day for both me and my family, so I hope you enjoy it.


Most good F.A. Cup stories involve giant-killers. This one in 1990 is no exception, and was one of the biggest upsets in the history of the competition. West Bromwich Albion manager, Brian Talbot, hitherto not known for his psychic powers wrote in the match-day programme:

“There is no worse feeling than being the slain giant” – and so it came to pass.

To put things in perspective, Woking, in their 102 year history, had never beaten a Football League team. At this time, they were playing in one of the three feeder leagues below the Conference, but in the previous rounds of the F.A. Cup had beaten three Conference Clubs successively – Bath City 2-1; Kidderminster 2-1 (after two replays) and finally Merthyr Tydfil 5-1.

After the draw for the third round, which sent Woking to West Brom, Geoff Chapple, the Woking manager, was besieged by the press for his comments.

Woking- Geoff Chapel  “Let’s face it,” he mused, ” on paper we’ve got no chance, but fortunately for us, the game isn’t played on paper.”

All of my family agreed with Chapple, and we readily took the 11-1 odds available for a Woking victory. In fact our optimism ran so high that more than £50 was placed on Woking to win 3-1 at odds of 100-1.

At this point, I think it only fair to tell you the source of our enthusiasm. Stan, my father, had loyally watched Woking from 1911, until his death in 1989 (sadly 18 months before this match), and had started my obsession with the Cardinals or Cards, from my first home game at Christmas in 1945. But that explained, we are now driving in cavalcade, red scarves flapping out the windows, to Birmingham – The Hawthorns – West Bromwich.

Having parked our car 100 yards from the ground (a considerable achievement) on tarmac an inch under water, we went in search of a toilet, a pub and a sandwich, in that order. After a quick recce, it looked impossible to achieve the treble under one roof. The two pubs we passed had more than a hundred fans standing outside and they seemed to be getting their beer passed through the windows. The supporters’ club-rooms outside the ground needed a membership card, but half a mile away, a locked up garage allowed us to buy some snacks through a security hatch. As for the toilets, well, we managed with a little improvisation.

Forty minutes or so before kick-off, we climbed the steps to the away-end terrace turnstiles. Here we were searched for weapons and alcohol (usual practice), but whilst my family and friends were allowed to proceed, I was taken to one side and questioned about my hip flask of gin (a constant companion at all sporting events and funerals).

“For medicinal purposes is it sir?” A bean-pole of a policeman going on 19 towered above me.

“Y-y-yes, it calms me down,” I said feebly.

“Look here,” he said, “I have to confiscate this to get you through the barrier, but when you’re through, stand over there by the railings and I will pass it back to you!”

And he did.

To say that policeman, or more directly the flask of gin, was crucial to my afternoon might be pushing it, but I was deeply grateful for its soothing qualities at times of intense stress.

Our allotted enclosure (from the far left of the goal to the corner flag), had not got the best view of the pitch, but the 5,000 or more Woking fans wearing red and white Santa hats, scarves and carrying banners and flags, made that corner of The Hawthorns their own.

Football fans amongst you will appreciate our novel chants of “Give us a Wubbleyou,” “Woking, Woking, boing, boing,” (accompanied by manic synchronised  leaping) and “When the Cards go steeeeeaming in,” (When the Saints Go Marching in).

But for all that, we were one down at half-time; Colin West heading the Baggies ahead from a Craig Shakespeare corner. By now it was bitterly cold and a sharp wind swirled around our corner of the ground – time for another gin. The strains of the pop instrumental “The Liquidator” welcomed the teams back on the pitch. Woking were kicking towards us this half – dare we hope? Woking - Bazaglo 2

For me and those loyal 5,000, the next 14 minutes and the name of Tim Buzaglo will probably be among the things that flash before our eyes when we are about to die.

Buzaglo’s hat-trick kicked off in the 59th minute with a precision left foot curler. six minutes later, he ran through two defenders and the goalkeeper, to head Woking into the lead, then, on 72 minutes, he sealed his place in history with a diagonal left-foot drive.

Woking - Tim Bazaglo  West Brom were truly in tatters, my flask was drained and rumour’s of the Church family’s correct score coup began to circulate. But it was not to be. Terry Worsfold, an 87th minute substitute for Woking, who incidentally lived in the same road as my Dad, scored a minute later – 4-1. Suddenly, reality replaced our suspended belief; we really were going to win. Wildly abandoned singing, dancing and laughter lit up our corner of the stadium. But, at the other end, there were very different emotions.

Disillusionment, discontent and anarchy broke out from their Birmingham Road End.

“Sack the board, sack the board, Talbot out, Talbot out.”

The Brommie fans’ chants grew louder and louder, so loud in fact, that no one noticed or cared that Darren Bradley had made it 4-2 a minute from time.


I had never before, or since, witnessed scenes like those that followed. On the final whistle, the West Brom fans invaded the pitch, not to cause trouble, but to congratulate the Woking players and their fans, especially Tim Buzaglo, who they lifted up on their shoulders and paraded in front of the stands to taunt their board of directors.

From these amazing scenes we left the terraces and made our way back to the car. Moving bumper to bumper along the road that runs parallel to the stadium, our red scarves trailing triumphantly out of the windows, we were suddenly surrounded by West Brom fans banging on our windows. Fearing the worst, I cautiously wound down mine an inch. Woking - celebrations

“It’s all right mate, you lot were brilliant. We just want to swop scarves and hats.”

And so we did, and wore them as trophies for the rest of the season.

After the match, it was reported that up to 4,000 WBA fans took part in a 40 minute pitch demonstration, calling for the board and their team manager, Brian Talbot, to be sacked. There was no violence.

The West Brom Chairman, John Silk, stated that, in view of the result, his board would discuss Talbot’s position over the next few days, adding, “It is best to look at these things dispassionately. And we will do that when things have calmed down.”

Talbot was sacked within 24 hours.

That evening, Tim Buzaglo (a computer operator) appeared as a guest on BBC’s Match of the Day programme. Des Lynham commenting on the events in and after the game, said to Tim, “See the trouble you’ve caused today? Terrific.”


POSTSCRIPT: “Are you West Brom in disguise?” So sang the Woking fans at Everton in the fourth round of the F.A. Cup. But sadly, here the dream ended. Woking going down 1-0, before a crowd of 34,724, which included over 10,000 Woking supporters.


Percy the Watchman

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Percy the Watchman

  Uncle Percy was a remarkably jovial fellow, despite having a leg amputated after the Battle of the Somme, and then later, losing the sight of one eye in curious incident with a magpie. The latter, finally putting an end to his career as a watchmaker.

  Percy was married to Mitzie, a small vivacious lady, now grown buxom with age. She had often recalled her life as a chorus girl in the music halls, before she became part of a novelty act – plates on bamboo poles and that sort of thing – often footing the bill at the Kingston Empire.

  One Sunday, back in the mid-sixties, my wife Pat and I took a trip on our Lambretta scooter to the Devil’s Punchbowl – a well-known beauty spot near Hindhead in Surrey. And, it was whilst hiking near the top ridge I remembered that Uncle Percy, one of my maternal grandmother’s seven brothers, lived on the rim of the Punchbowl.

  Eventually, for the path was both narrow and rough, we spotted a bungalow above us. Venturing forth, I recognised Percy (eye-patch and limp) out in the garden. I called out my name and introduced him to Pat.

  Very soon, we were seated around the fireplace with mugs of hot tea and buttered scones. Percy asking after his younger sister, Alicia Margaret (Nan), who lived with my parents in the centre of Woking, while Mitzie took over Pat with questions about our new house in St Johns and our scooter, which we had parked a little way off. Our lively conversations, however, were punctuated by another voice – that of Henry, a large white parrot with a plumed head, who had settled on the back of Percy’s chair. Alas, his profanities overtook our pleasantries and Mitzie swiftly returned him to his cage.

  After a while, I told Percy of my new job at the Horserace Betting Levy Board and to my surprise, found him to be both interested and knowledgeable on racing. It seemed he had an old friend connected with Staff Ingham’s yard in Headley and occasionally had a bet on, “Something a bit special.”  

  Later, we bade farewell and promised to keep in touch. However, nothing ever came of it – that was, until two years later, when one night, quite late, I had a call from Percy.

 “Michael, how are you? You remember us talking about Alec, a contact of mine with Staff Ingham at Thirty Acres Barn.”

 “Yes,” I answered cautiously, wondering what was to come.

 “Well, I’ve got some news of a smart two-year-old; finished second at Lingfield, and they are taking it to Windsor for the ‘Star and Garter’ on Saturday.”

  Continuing, his voice now wavered with anticipation, “Would you like to be there and help me get some money on? Everything’s got to be hush-hush you understand.”

 “Yes, sounds exciting,” I replied.

 “O.K., meet me in the Members Bar under the grandstand before racing.

 “Percy, what’s the name of the horse?”

 “Oh yes, Watchman, good name for me eh? They’ve booked Geoff Lewis to ride.”


  That Saturday, with Pat heavily pregnant with our second child, Sarah, and me a non-driver, I set out on the convoluted journey from Woking to Windsor racecourse – two trains, sometimes an hour apart, and a boat trip. The latter, a tourist attraction, which had the ill-founded reputation for being quicker than the local bus.

  Windsor RacecourseArriving 20 minutes before the first race, I quickly spotted Percy – county tweeds, eye-patch and walking stick. He told me he had spoken to Alec, and learned that Lewis had picked up a full book of rides and, apart from Watchman, Kitty’s Grey, trained at Epsom by ex-jockey Kenny Gethin, “Should do the business.” Percy’s passing shot as he went to the bar to order our lunch was, “A monkey each on Watchman and I’ll look after Kitty’s Grey myself – alright.”

  Whilst devouring the sausage sandwiches, Percy revealed he had recently sold a prize antique grandfather clock and, as yet, had not been able to bank the £1,500 in cash!

  Just before three o’clock, Percy went off in search of a price against Kitty’s Grey in the five-furlong Maiden. He returned saying he had just had a small bet, but I noticed, meanwhile, the price had gone from 2-1 to 7-4.

  Off and running, Hen-Pecked (far from Percy’s predicament), went straight to the front and stayed there. However, soon after passing the post, the Tanoy announced haughtily, “Objection to the winner by the second,” followed by “Stewards enquiry, stewards enquiry, please retain all betting tickets…..”

  Percy later learned that Geoff Lewis had objected to the winner for crossing and, in the jockey’s words, “Cutting him up.”

 In the ensuing delay, bookmakers took the opportunity to make a little extra or, as they would suggest, to allow punters to hedge their bets.

  Percy felt he was now between ‘the devil and the deep blue sea’ – he could back Hen-Pecked and so negate most of his winnings, or do nothing and hope the result didn’t reduce his intended stake on Watchman.

 As the runners for the next race were going down, a crackly Tanoy interrupted with authority, “Objection sustained, objection sustained……first Kitty’s Grey, second Hen-Pecked, third…..the rest was drowned by Percy’s cheering – more than usual for “Just a small bet,” I thought.


 Time for a celebratory drink, before Watchman’s race at four o‘clock.

  Percy, flushed with excitement, insisted we both downed double whiskies, before dividing up his grand into two five-hundreds for us to bet on Watchman.

  I knew there were only five runners, but the odds of 8-13 were disappointing; worst still, by the time we went forward, it had gone to 4-7. However, we got on at opposite ends of the line at exactly the same time to get £285 to £500 twice. 

 The race was a complete joy. After settling Watchman down, Lewis took him to the front and won in a canter by six lengths.

  From then on, we planned to spend the rest of the afternoon in the bar, rather joyously, I’d hoped, but strangely, not so.

Suddenly, Percy caught sight of Alec hovering in the doorway and after quickly pushing back his chair, he said nervously, “I need to disappear for a while; I think Alec’s come to put the bite on me.”                                                 

  “Perhaps I can help,” I feebly suggested, “I’ll, I’ll, h-hold him up for a w-while,” I stammered. But Percy was in full flight now, leaving me to choose whether to hold-up or not to hold-up – that was the question?

  Out of family loyalty to Percy, I made the effort and while Alec was furtively scanning the room for Percy, I approached.

  “Excuse me,” I politely asked,“Who won the last?”

  “Err Watchman, Geoff Lewis up,” he replied.

  “What price was that?” I persisted.

Alec, now looking agitated, ignored me, until….

 “Haven’t I seen you with Percy,” he questioned – he’s got an eye-patch and a bit of a limp?”

Still giving Percy a chance to get away, I replied, “Was that one eye patch or two?

  Alec looked angry and I thought at one point he was going to hit me, but he didn’t.

 “If you see him,” he said, scowling, “tell him, Alec would like a word and, odds to a ton – tell him.”

 “Bloody hell,” so that’s why Percy wanted to scarper. Even so, a ton at 4-7 wasn’t going to hurt him, but, if Kitty’s Grey was part of the deal, then that was a different kettle. Meanwhile, Geoff Lewis continued his rich vein of form winning the next race at 6-1 and so, landing me three S.P. doubles. But was that another of Alec’s tips, I wondered?

  Needing to allow time for the situation to resolve, I went out to the paddock and then watched a race from the terraces. When I returned to the Members Bar, Percy had got there before me and, had continued with the double whiskies.

  Strange as it may seem, this turned out to be a blessing for all concerned. For soon after insisting that he drove me back to Woking, Percy slumped forward onto the bar and passed out.

  At that moment, I caught sight of Alec enquiring at the other end of the bar. Thinking quickly, I called him over. He surely couldn’t put the finger on Percy in this state and, it might defuse an ugly confrontation.

  “Is he alright?” Alec enquired, looking down at an unconscious Percy.

I gave him a look of disbelief.

 “We’ve got to get him home,” I said.

 “You knew him after all then,” Alec said, revising his take on the situation.

 “Who, Percy?” I retorted, still hoping to buy some time.

  In the end, I came clean with Alec and to my surprise, he came clean with me.

  “Look, I don’t know your connection, but Percy and I go back a long way. Leave him to me, I’ll run him home.”

   “But why was he worried about paying odds to a £100?” I asked.

 “No, that wouldn’t bother him. He’s been desperate to avoid me because he knows he sold me a fake antique grandfather clock – the bloody thing’s quartz.”


  I helped Alec drag Percy back to his car. Percy suspended between us with his arms drooped round our necks.

  After propping Percy in the back seat, Alec said, “Don’t worry Michael, I’ll get him home alright.”

  I was in no position to argue, but I dare not tell Alec, that not only had Percy won around one and a half grand, but he also had his pockets stuffed with the fifteen hundred that Alec had given him for the clock!


  The following day, I telephoned Mitzie to find out if Percy got back all right.

 “Oh he’s fine, thankyou.” she said breezily, “He’s out celebrating with Alec at the moment,” and put the phone down.

  Celebrating, celebrating – no mention of the clock – and sadly, there never was, because to this day, I never, saw or heard from either Percy, Alec, or Mitzie, ever again.


This short story is from Michael’s book Black Horse – Red Dog ,

of which he has a few signed copies for sale.





Mary’s Boxing Day Bet

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Mary’s Boxing Day Bet


  Christmas Day was always kept at home with the family; Mum, Dad, Nan, Judy the dog and me. With similar regularity, on Boxing Day, we walked from our little bungalow in Clarence Avenue, Woking, to Auntie Mary’s terraced house in Church Street, a distance of 500 yards exactly.

   I was quite sure of that, having regularly paced the journey to visit my cousin Peter on Sunday mornings. And, significant to me, a 14-year-old boy on the slippery slope (see below), as the standard distance at Wimbledon dog track.

  Young Churchy

   Greeted at the door of 199 by Mary, Henry and Peter, we were shown to their front room. A welcoming sight, with its colourful paper chains, large paper bells, sprigs of holly and a small artificial tree covered in lights.

  “Henry fixed the lights just an hour ago,” Mary said joyfully.

  “One of the bulbs had worked loose, but we didn’t know which one!” her voice booming with the sense of occasion.


   To cross the room, however, was in truth, akin to crossing a minefield, for another of Dad’s brothers, Albert, owning the property and renting it to Henry, had done nothing to repair the dry rot that lurked perilously beneath the freshly hoovered carpet.

  “Mind how you go Stan,” Mary cautioned, shepherding in Dad like the usherette she once was.

  “The seat over by the fireplace is quite safe, and Dorothy, if you sit on the settee with me.” Then in a hushed and dignified tone, added, “We put two large metal trays under the casters to save us falling through.”


  Warming to her roll as hostess, Mary directed, “Oh Henry, go into the kitchen and get us all a cup of tea and a mince pie, and Nan, there’s a wicker chair for you under the radio.”

  Peter and I, a little squeezed for room, were told to play in the kitchen, “You know, the game you like to play on Sunday mornings,” Mary continued, tirelessly, “Guessing the football crowds in the paper, I’ve saved last Sunday’s News of the World ‘specially for you.”

  Hardly a school certificate subject, but perhaps it should have been, since we both excelled at it. Anyway, true to form, Mary had put up a children’s see-through Christmas stocking as a prize for the winner – the ones with chocolate money, sugar mice and those tiny packs of playing cards with Scotty dogs on the back. Oh, and those small tin scales to weigh sweets on. Not much for a 14-year-old boy you might say, but then, Mary called out from the front room that she had included Old Moore’s Almanack.

  “It usually gives some veiled hints for next years Derby and Grand National. And somewhere in there,” she enthused, “there’s trap numbers to back in reversed forecasts for all the London dog tracks!”


   An hour later, I was enjoying a thumb through Old Moore’s, a little guiltily I must confess, since it had fallen to me to guess the Blackpool home crowd, which as every schoolboy knew, was invariably a capacity 30,000 – like taking a penalty kick really.

  Anyway, Henry topped us up with more tea and mince pies on yet another tin tray – The Laughing Cavalier this time. If there was one thing Auntie Mary had in spades it was tin trays – multi-purposed in her house!  

     Meanwhile, spirits were high in the front room, with Mary telling Mum how her friend Phyllis, had, during the war, seen the King and Queen inspecting the bomb damage in the East End of London.

  “They were very friendly, Phyllis told me, and she gave me the cuttings out of her News Chronicle – for my Royal scrapbooks you know.” 

  Auntie Mary was a devout Royalist; she had dozens of these scrapbooks, allegedly, full of Royal births, deaths and marriages, even pictures of past Royal Ascots – so she said.

  However, mysteriously, as yet, we had never seen any of them, and, despite our enthusiasm, we didn’t see them today either.


   Suddenly, there was a knock at the door. Mary, peering round the aspidistra and, slightly twitching the net curtain, “Bloody hell it’s Albert, surely he hasn’t come for the rent on Boxing day?”

  Uncle AlbertAlbert entered with his usual cocky smile, to produce from behind his back with a flourish, a bag containing a bottle of Sandiman’s port, a Christmas pudding, laced with brandy and a wrapper containing 200 Craven A ciggies, the ones with the black cat on the box – the latter a life or death line for Mary and Henry. Then, going back to his Fish van, parked across the road, he returned with an oblong wooden box – a top grade Scottish salmon – “A rarity, even among the gentry,” said Albert with another broad grin. And, no, he hadn’t forgotten Peter either, who disappearing into the scullery with a brown paper parcel joyfully unwrapped a bright new red and white Woking football scarf.

     Mary seemed a little flummoxed at Albert’s sudden generosity and for once, untypically, steered him clear of the dangerous carpet zones.

   In the meantime, my dad, oblivious to the latest turn of events, inevitably redirected the conversation to Woking’s recent 3-0 victory over Wimbledon, “Alfie Welland scored two and …” his account was suddenly interrupted by cheers of relief at Peter’s perfectly timed entrance in his pristine scarf.

  Mary, meanwhile, was disappearing upstairs, when Albert, anxiously fearing that the weight of the gathering might prove costly, nervously called after her, “I can’t stay Mary, I’m just going to pick up Charlie; we’re going to Kempton.”

   Mary returned, slightly out of breath, to ask in a confidential whisper,           

  “Do you know anything good?”

  “Well, Charlie says the Queen’s got Manicou in the ‘King George’ and, it’s a live’un!”

  Mary thrust a small white envelope into Albert’s hand, “Two weeks rent, Albert. Sorry for the delay, but it’s Christmas yer know.” She followed him out to the van.

  “You’re a real brick Mary,” Albert said earnestly, turning to meet her face on, “That’s very much appreciated,” he said with a wink, “It’ll make my day!”

  Mary started to hover from one foot to the other, like a little girl.         

  “Albert, that Queen’s horse Manna-something or other, would you put a bit on for me?” Albert nodded and with that, she slipped something into his overcoat pocket.

  “Must fly now Mary”, said Albert, “Enjoy the salmon,” and with that, his fish van disappeared round the corner and out of sight.


    Kempton was cold, bright and sunny and, there was a feeling of optimism amongst the packed crowd. The first three favourites had all gone in and now, the seven runners for the King George were making their way to post.

  Albert, who had the questionable system of backing horses with the initial letters of A, C, and E in a treble, had already landed the first two legs with Easy Winner and Attentif, and was now sweating on Coloured School Boy in the big’un.

  Just as the field came into line Albert remembered Mary’s bet and, thrusting his hand into his overcoat pocket, rushed up to Stringer’s joint in the front row and pushed the bet into his hand, shouting out, “Manicou, on the nose.”

  There were no ‘big screens’, or even commentaries on racecourses in 1950, so binoculars of all shapes and sizes were trained up the home straight. First round the final bend was the ‘Blue; buff stripes, blue sleeves and black cap’ of Queen Elizabeth’s Manicou, who, although joined two out by Silver Fame (ridden by the future crime writer, Dick Francis), drew away to win by three lengths.

   After the race, Uncles Charlie and Albert met up in front of the bookies. Charlie had collected a nice touch, while typically, Albert, having stayed faithful to his ACE system, had nothing to collect from third placed Coloured School Boy. Then, almost as an afterthought, he remembered Mary’s bet on Manicou, and rummaging in his pocket for the ticket, gave it to Charlie to collect.

   Returning a few minutes later, with an expression of veiled incredulity, Charlie enquired cautiously, “How much did Mary have on that Queen’s horse?”

  “Don’t know, exactly,” Albert said, “Stringer did say, but we were both in such a hurry I didn’t catch it,” continuing, “She had it wrapped up in an envelope.”

  His hand slid back into his pocket and as it did, so Albert’s expression changed. Pulling out another envelope, he opened it – a ten bob note!

  Mary’s two weeks rent had amounted to £6 and now, at 5-1 …“Blimey, I’ve put the rent money on,” Albert exclaimed, his conscience suddenly working overtime with the thoughts of, “If only I had collected the bet myself.”

   Albert thrust out his hand to Charlie, “Give me the money, I’ll deduct the rent and pay Mary her winnings.”

  “OK,” said Charlie, but knowing Albert of old, added, “But won’t Mary be delighted when I tell her she’s won £30. I’m sure she’ll forgive you the cock-up.”  

  Albert’s face was a study; for once, he had been completely thwarted,


 The story of Mary’s Boxing Day bet was often recalled at Christmas and on family holidays – see below, Mary, Henry & Peter, a few years later, on Brighton Pier.


Mary,Henry and Peter on Brighton Pier 

This story comes from Michael’s Black Horse – Red Dog,

of which he has a few signed copies for sale.

See also his list of books for sale by clicking on Books for Sale

at the top of the page.