My Animals and Other Family by Clare Balding
23rd Nov 2012
From the boxer called Candy who acted as her nanny, to Respectable Jones on whom she won the Ladies’ Jockey Championship in 1990, she tells the story of her life up to the end of university through the animal who meant most to her at the time. Each animal’s chapter is beautifully illustrated by Gill Heeley.
Growing up around animals is not unusual. Clare Balding’s childhood relationship with animals, however, was exceptional.
Living on her father’s (champion trainer Ian Balding) yard in the Hampshire downs, she grew up with 100 thoroughbred race horses, and the foals, ponies, boxers and lurchers were not just her childhood companions but also her best friends.
Clare (her warm presenting style inspires you to feel you are on first-name terms) has been one the BBC’s lead sports presenters for several years, and has presented Radio 4’s Ramblings for over 12 years.
It was not from her family that she learned her trademark empathy and warmth from her family, however, but from the animals who shared their lives.
She learned about sexuality and hormones from watching the behaviour of the horses and dogs.
She acquired her compassion and commitment by feeling the horse beneath her give its heart to help her achieve what she was asking of it. Her teenage lessons in manners and decency from horse Ellie May were brutally effective!
The Balding household had a strict pecking order. At the top were racehorses, followed by male adults, male children, dogs and only then came female adults and lastly female children.
Her father’s and more surprisingly, her grandmother’s, misogyny is quite breath-taking. Grandma’s comment to her mother at Clare’s birth, “Oh, it’s a girl. Never mind, you’ll just have to keep trying”, among other gems, served to light in Clare a feminist fire which saw her study English at Cambridge with Germaine Greer and persistently (and fruitlessly) challenge her father’s ideas.
Clare Balding paints a picture of herself as large and clumsy, always saying and doing the wrong thing – she manages to offend both the Queen and Princess Anne in two very funny episodes – but also spirited and committed and ready from an early age to be her own person. Her stories of races and animals are brilliantly observed and beautifully told, and the close relationship with her brother is a delight.
The only slight disappointment is that, for someone clearly so free-thinking and well-educated, the book is rather light. It gives the impression that it is merely setting the scene, showing her many fans across all sections of society where she has come from but it does not say who she is now.
The book stops at the end of university, when she is still going out with boys. An epilogue tells only a little of her life now. I found myself thoroughly looking forward to a more introspective sequel in years to come where she turns her kindness and wit towards human beings. In the meantime, we have a charming memoir filled with warmth and love.
My Animals and Other Family is out now in hardback from Viking, available at Foyles, Amazon or your local independent bookshop, priced at £20. A Kindle version (which includes the illustrations) is available priced at £9.99
Recommended for: Anyone who loves Clare Balding, horses or dogs, and light-hearted memoirs.
Other recommended reading: For horse-related books read Jenny Pitman’s self-titled autobiography. Polo, Riders or more recently Jump by Jilly Cooper are always fun. Dawn French’s memoir Dear Fatty was the inspiration for the format.