Reviewed: Blood Horses - Notes of a Sportswriter’s Son by John Jeremiah Sullivan

Days at the races.

Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter’s Son
John Jeremiah Sullivan
Yellow Jersey Press, 272pp, £12.99

Hippophagy has always had a bad rep but this hasn’t prevented the occasional modest proposal promoting the consumption of horseflesh. As John Jeremiah Sullivan writes in Blood Horses:

A movement to make it acceptable sprouted in England and France in the mid-18th century, led by social reformers who went so far as to stage elaborate “horse dinners” in Paris and London, serving “chevaline” to hundreds of unsuspecting guests, but in many places . . . the taboo held firm – not as a crime but as a social prejudice. 

The realisation that we may all have been unwittingly consuming horse meat in our Findus nag-lasagnes is disconcerting primarily because it exposes the terrible economy that underpins our relationship with horses. It has become uncomfortably clear that old thoroughbreds run to pieces on the track aren’t put out to pasture at the end of their careers but are sold to shady butchers for €5 apiece. “A third of all US horses sent to the ‘processing plants’ in a given year come from racetracks,” Sullivan writes. “It is said that the ‘bone men’ will, if summoned, come directly to the track.”

Part memoir, part essayistic trot through equine history, literature and mythology, Blood Horses is full of disconcerting nuggets of this sort. Published in the US in 2004, it is Sullivan’s first book but his second to come out in the UK. Its release follows the success of Pulphead, a collection of essays published last year to great acclaim. Pulphead was astonishing: a series of empathetic, delicate but unsparing portraits of modern America. Blood Horses is more personal in its concerns and local in its scope and reads as what it is: a great first book.

The focus of Blood Horses is Sullivan’s relationship with his father, a poetically inclined sports journalist who spent his days “pecking out strange, clever stories about inconsequential games” while he smoked and drank himself to an early death. His father’s deathbed description of his greatest sporting memory – watching the horse Secretariat win the 1973 Kentucky Derby before going on to complete the “Triple Crown” (a racing treble that hasn’t been achieved in nearly 35 years) – haunts Sullivan and his quest to witness a similar spectacle provides the loose structure for what follows.

Interspersed with this story are reflections on horse lore and readings from the equine canon. These prompt thoughts of horses as links to the past. “A person today who knows horses, really knows them,” Sullivan writes, “understands more about what it meant in the past to be human than the most knowledgeable historian.” Lineage, breeding and tradition, themes that were developed in Pulphead in a national context, are in Blood Horses linked to more familial concerns. From the beginning, horse breeders were attempting to create a science of bloodlines and genetic inheritance. James Weatherby’s General Stud Book “preceded the first edition of Burke’s Peerage by 35 years,” Sullivan writes. “There was, in other words, an official registry of equine aristocracy before there was one for human beings.”

Sullivan’s own bloodline is as true as any Kentucky Derby winner’s and his privileged background is the source of much gentle selfflagellation. His family are the descendants of slave-owners and have a long-standing connection with the Bluegrass. Horse racing is still predominantly a white sport and the trade in horses has uncomfortable echoes of the slave trade. The only black faces in the paddock today, Sullivan observes, belong almost exclusively to rappers.

Because of the publishing delay, some parts of Blood Horses feel rather dated. The events of 11 September 2001 are a pressing and recent concern. All modern thoroughbreds are descendants of three Arabian studs and Iraq, we are told, is “the ancestral home of the Arabian horse”. We learn that a horse auction was suspended in the days after the attacks on the World Trade Center but only after a Saudi prince had bought several expensive yearlings, to general Kentuckian muttering.

Sullivan’s pop-cultural references can also feel slightly stale and the book is populated by celebrities many of whom have returned to obscurity. Who but the most devoted fan now remembers ’N Sync’s Joey Fatone or the Backstreet Boys’ Kevin Richardson?

It is a shame, therefore, that British readers have been slightly spoiled by encountering Pulphead first, because although Blood Horses is a meaty book, it does contain the odd unclassifiable lump. Parts of it feel past their sell-by date and the threads of Sullivan’s larger story don’t always come together. Not quite a thoroughbred, then, but Blood Horses does contain much of what makes his later essays so compelling.

The "Triple Crown" winner Secretariat, June 1973. Photograph: Bettmann/Corbis

This article first appeared in the 11 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The audacity of popes

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Man alive! Why the flaws of Inside No 9 only emphasise its brilliance

A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking.​ ​Even as my brain raced, I was grinning.

At the risk of sounding like some awful, jargon-bound media studies lecturer – precisely the kind of person those I’m writing about might devote themselves to sending up – it seems to me that even the dissatisfactions of Inside No 9 (Tuesdays, 10pm) are, well, deeply satisfying. What I mean is that the occasional flaws in Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s cultish series, those unlooked-for moments when nothing quite makes sense, only serve to emphasise its surpassing brilliance.

At the end of the final episode of series three, for instance, there came a discombobulating twist. A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking. How had this happened? Were the preceding 28 minutes only a dream? Even as my brain raced, I was grinning. That line about Ron Mueck! In a piece that seemed mostly to be paying topsy-turvy homage to the camp 1973 horror flick Theatre of Blood.

Pemberton and Shearsmith are all about homage: a bit of Doctor Who here, a touch of Seventies B-movie there. Inside No 9’s format of twisty one-offs is a direct descendant of ITV’s Tales of the Unexpected. And yet it is so absolutely its own thing. Only they could have written it; only they could ever do this much (stretch your arms as wide as they’ll go) in so little time (half an hour).

In the episode Private View, guests were invited to the Nine Gallery in somewhere Hoxtonish. This motley crew, handpicked to represent several of the more unedifying aspects of 21st-century Britain, comprised Carrie (Morgana Robinson), a reality-TV star; Patricia (Felicity Kendal), a smutty novelist; Kenneth (Pemberton), a health and safety nut; and Maurice (Shearsmith), an art critic. Hard on their heels came Jean (Fiona Shaw), a wittering Irishwoman with gimlet eyes. However, given that they were about to be bloodily picked off one by one, at least one of them was not what she seemed. “I’m due at Edwina Currie’s perfume launch later,” Carrie yelped, as it dawned on her that the pages of Grazia might soon be devoting a sidebar to what Towie’s Mark Wright wore to her funeral.

Private View satirised a certain kind of contemporary art, all bashed up mannequins and blindingly obvious metaphors. Admittedly, this isn’t hard to do. But at least Pemberton and Shearsmith take for granted the sophistication of their audience. “A bit derivative of Ron Mueck,” said Maurice, gazing coolly at one of the installations. “But I like the idea of a blood mirror.” The duo’s determination to transform themselves from episode to episode – new accent, new hair, new crazy mannerisms – calls Dick Emery to mind. They’re better actors than he was, of course; they’re fantastic actors. But in the context of Inside No 9, even as they disappear, they stick out like sore thumbs, just as he used to. They’re the suns around which their impressive guest stars orbit. They may not always have the biggest parts, but they nearly always get the best lines. You need to watch them. For clues. For signs. For the beady, unsettling way they reflect the world back at you.

What astonishes about this series, as with the two before it, is its ability to manage dramatic shifts in tone. Plotting is one thing, and they do that as beautifully as Roald Dahl (the third episode, The Riddle of the Sphinx, which revolved around a crossword setter, was a masterclass in structure). But to move from funny to plangent and back again is some trick, given the limitations of time and the confined spaces in which they set the stories. In Diddle Diddle Dumpling, Shearsmith’s character found a size-nine shoe in the street and became obsessed with finding its owner, which was very droll. But the real engine of the piece, slowly revealed, was grief, not madness (“Diddle-diddle-dumpling, my son John”). You felt, in the end, bad for having sniggered at him.

If you missed it, proceed immediately to iPlayer, offering a thousand thanks for the usually lumbering and risk-averse BBC, which has commissioned a fourth series. One day people will write learned papers about these shows, at which point, jargon permitting, I might discover just how Maurice managed to live to fight another day.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution