February 29, 2020

Gordon Barlow:The last surviving player


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By Gordon Barlow

Gordon Barlow

Reminiscences come easily when you’re old. “When I was a boy…” and all that. I reach back to my childhood in the Australian bush from time to time, and I swap memories with my brothers. Between us, we arrive at the truth, eventually – and sometimes we just work it out alone. That’s what I’ve done in this essay now.

At age ten, I came second in a children’s trotting race at the Hannaford Gymkhana; the prize was five shillings and a red sash. My horse at the time was a natural trotter, and it was the devil’s own job to kick her into a canter at any time. I hated her with a passion, but, well, five bob was not to be sneezed at.

Gymkhana is an old Anglo-Indian word meaning a country fair. It was an annual event in Australian bush communities – food stalls and shooting galleries and the like outside an arena where horsemanship was shown off and polo was played.

The polo ground was a far cry from the clipped lawns of Windsor Great Park, the home of the game in England. There, the beau monde bring their stables of thoroughbreds and Argentinians, and sit around sipping Pimm’s, and a spectacular festival it is. In Australian bush communities, sheep farmers and their station-hands charge up and down on work-horses trained to keep sheep in a bunch, and toss down gallons of beer that are tossed up again in due course. One year, two station-hands got into a fight over a girl who had been in my class at the local school; one of them forced strychnine down the throat of his rival, and sat on his head until he died.

The patrons of Windsor Great Park would never have countenanced such behaviour. They kept the riff-raff out altogether, and it was only as the friend of a friend that I was there. I put on the poshest English accent I could manage, and didn’t mention The Geebung Polo Club.

The Geebung Polo Club was a fictional up-country bush club invented by Banjo Paterson, Australian poetry’s answer to Lord Tennyson. The poem was not quite The Man from Snowy River, but equally dramatic, in its way:

    They waddied one another till the plain was strewn with dead,

     While the score was kept so even that they neither got ahead.

     And the Cuff and Collar captain, when he tumbled off to die,

     Was the last surviving player – so the game was called a tie.

The Windsor polo was not the only horsey event that I ever attended in England. Besides the racing at Chepstow with local friends, there was “the following of the hounds”. My father’s cousin Lucy introduced me to that during our visit to the village where my English grandfather was born and raised. Her piercingly loud voice made her famous in her part of England as a deranged follower of the hounds at the local hunts, and she dragged me excitedly from fence to fence in borrowed Wellies watching one of the local “hunts” do its thing.

Following the hounds is a grand old English tradition, and a surprisingly democratic one. Peasants, townsfolk and sundry others wade through the mud in a mad dash to see the horse-owning gentry and nouveau riche gallop up and down pretending to care whether their dogs caught and killed a fox or not. After the fox eventually meets its doom, all the survivors retire to their cars and eat picnics. Jolly good fun or incredibly boring, according to taste.

But it has always been flat-racing that captures Australians’ hearts, not any other horsey events. Champion horses became household words, and jockeys, folk-heroes. “You’re better stayers than Tulloch”, the father of a friend grumbled one night when we overstayed our welcome – Tulloch being a horse that had led the field from start to finish for the whole two miles of the Melbourne Cup a few years before.

A friend of my Dad’s took me aside at a party just before my upcoming round-the-world trip in 1963 and solemnly warned me against coming back home via the USA as I intended. “The thing is, you can’t trust the Yanks, Gordon. The bastards killed Phar Lap, remember.” As indeed they had, in 1932, in California where the legendary Australian racehorse (yes, another Melbourne Cup winner) was in training to show the effete American horses how to gallop faster.

Australian doctors today are still to this day debating who could have fed him the arsenic.

Gordon Barlow

Gordon Barlow has lived in Cayman since 1978. He was the first full-time Manager of the Cayman Islands Chamber of Commerce (1986-1988)- a turbulent period as the Chamber struggled to establish its political independence. He has publicly commented on social and political issues since 1990, and in 1998 served as the secretary of two committees of the ‘Vision 2008’ exercise. He has represented the Chamber at several overseas conferences, and the Cayman Islands Human Rights Committee at an international symposium in Gibraltar in 2004.

You can view all his blogs at: https://barlowscayman.blogspot.com

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