21 NOVEMBER 1992, Page 46

Tales of a Senior Steward

John Oaksey

IF EARLS HAVE PEACOCKS by Lord Howard de Walden Haggerston Press, 38 Kensington Place, London W8 7PR, £17.95, pp. 137 Never mind the peacocks. This is a happy dragonfly of a book. Lord Howard flits and skips so lightly from person to per- son, country to country and tale to tale that almost every page leaves one asking, Why? How? Who? What on earth happened next? What became of him or her? and, most of all, What effect did all this have on you, the author?

The answers, when they come at all, are brief, self-deprecating, often funny, almost always incomplete, but very seldom dull. You can expect no introspective character examination here — just a sketch of a clever, cosmopolitan, drily humorous man who has never allowed extreme wealth, some power, a good deal of privilege and a large number of famous friends to exagger- ate his sense of self-importance.

The whimsical style will come as no sur- prise to anyone who has had dealings with this three-times Senior Steward of the Jockey Club — 'so laid back', a junior colleague once told me, 'that he is some- times practically horizontal.' Himself an extremely successful breeder of racehorses, Lord Howard 'doubts whether I would have chosen my parents as a combination had I had such a choice'. On the other hand he admits to 'a tempered belief in heredity' and his own pedigree —; by 'a shy man with great all-round ability out of an efficient, strong-willed, half Jew- ish lady who 'did not know the meaning of warmth in human relationships' — has quite a bit in common with that of his Derby winner, Slip Anchor, product of an Anglo-German `outcross' intended to pro- duce 'hybrid vigour'.

Lord Howard's father was, among many other things, a world-class, ambidextrous fencer, poet, playwright, Byzantine scholar, painter, political philosopher, omnivorous reader, speedboat enthusiast and munifi- cent patron of the arts. His mother was a singer with perfect pitch who played the violin, set up wartime hospitals in Egypt, invented Queen Charlotte's Ball, learnt to fly in her fifties and, when even older, insisted on turning cartwheels on the bat- tlements of their Welsh Border castle home. It would be hard to imagine two much better sources of 'hybrid vigour'.

The wide range of the author's interests, acquaintances and (often disastrous) trav- els make this an easy book to read. But oh, how you long for a bit more detail and another name or two, although, God knows, there are plenty and the dropping of them is the greatest fun. How many other Senior Stewards, after all, can claim to have run over Hitler, spent the first night of their honeymoon in the same hotel as Rudolph Hess, watched Joe Louis knock out Baer, seen Dominguin's mano a mano with Ordonez, gone through Chattanooga in a Choo-Choo and been taken racing by Bob Sievier, gambling-mad owner-trainer of the immortal Sceptre.

Some of the left-out names are easy, others scarcely believable. Did he really never bother to find out the name of that Fairy Godmistress who came, unbidden, to his rescue and bed in New York?

No racing man with an adequate memory will, on the other hand, find it hard to iden- tify the subsequently all-powerful member of the Jockey Club whose election caused Lord Howard's father to resign. I certainly can — since the same pillar of the aristoc- racy did his level best to get me sacked from the Daily Telegraph for using an unflattering, but strictly truthful, adjective about a filly he wanted to sell. A friend of mine was deprived of a seriously desirable job on similar grounds. Lord Howard apparently succumbed to the charm of which this ruthless old tyrant was alleged to be capable. I never saw it myself and agree wholeheartedly with the author's father.

The other day the Director of Channel 4 racing was filming the presentation of a prize when Lord Howard, receiving it, moved across the line of shot. 'Get out of the way, you boring old fart. This isn't Help the Aged.' The director inadvertently left the wrong switch up and his words, intend- ed only for himself and the crew, echoed round racecourse and country.

He could not have made a better choice of target. Lord Howard roared with laugh- ter when he heard and occasionally now announces himself with 'Here comes the boring old fart.' If this book does nothing else it proves the undeserved and slander- ous nature of that description.