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

Show Hide image

Broken and The Trial: From Sean Bean playing a priest to real life lawyers

A surprisingly involving depiction of a clergyman provides the saintly contrast to the sinner being judged by a real jury.

I was all set to scoff at Broken, Jimmy McGovern’s new series for BBC1 (30 May, 9pm). A drama about a Catholic priest and his impoverished parish in a “major northern city”, it sounded so hilariously McGovern-by-numbers (“Eh, lad, give us the collection bowl – the leccy wants paying”) that on paper it could pass for a spoof. Even funnier, Sean Bean, late of Game of Thrones, was to play the clergyman in question.

Naturally, I adore Bean, who comes from the major northern city that is Sheffield, as I do, and who is so terribly . . . virile (though when I interviewed him in a car park behind King’s Cross Station a few years ago, and a security guard in a high-vis jacket approached us furiously shouting the odds, he ran and hid in his trailer, leaving yours truly to face the music). But let’s face it: he’s not exactly versatile, is he? The idea of him in a cassock, or even just a mud-coloured cardigan, made me laugh out loud.

Settling down to watch the series, however, I soon realised that no scoffing would be taking place. For one thing, Broken is hugely involving, its Dickensian plot (no spoilers here) as plausible as it is macabre. For another, in the present circumstances, its script seems to be rather daring. Not only is Father Michael Kerrigan shown – cover my eyes with the collected works of Richard Dawkins! – to be a good and conscientious priest, but his faith is depicted as a fine and useful thing. If he brings his besieged parishioners solace, he is sure to be carrying vouchers for the food bank as well.

The flashbacks from which he suffers – in which his mammy can be heard calling him a “dirty, filthy beast” and a spiteful old priest is seen applying a cane to his hand – are undoubtedly clichéd. But they are also a device. Forty years on, he is happy to nurse his dying mother, and his love for God is undimmed: two facts that are not, of course, unrelated. How weirdly bold for a television series to set its face against the consensus that denigrates all things Christian as it never would any other faith.

I don’t for a minute buy Anna Friel as Christina, the gobby, broke single mother Kerrigan is determined to help. Even when covered in bruises – a bust-up at the betting shop – Friel manages to look glossy, and she never, ever quits acting (with a capital A), which is a drag. But Bean is such a revelation, I was able to ignore the voice in my head which kept insisting that a Catholic priest as young as he is – in this realm, “young” is a couple of years shy of 60 – would surely be Polish or African (I’m not a Catholic but I am married to one, for which reason I occasionally go to Mass).

He plays Kerrigan, whose overwhelming desire to be kind sometimes makes him cack-handed, with great gentleness, but also with an uninflected ordinariness that is completely convincing. Part of the problem (my problem, at least) with Communion is the lack of rhetorical passion in most priests’ voices, something he captures perfectly. One other thing: Line of Duty fans need to know that Adrian Dunbar – aka Ted Hastings – can also be seen here wearing a dog collar, and that he looks almost as good in it as he does in police uniform.

On Channel 4 The Trial: A Murder in the Family was an experiment in the shape of a murder trial in which the defendant – a university lecturer accused of strangling his estranged wife – and all the witnesses were actors but the lawyers and “jury” were real. Over five consecutive nights (21-25 May, 9pm), I found it pretty tiresome listening to jury members tell the camera what they made of this or that bit of evidence.

Get on with it, I thought, longing again for the return of Peter Moffat’s Silk. But I adored the lawyers, particularly the lead ­defence barrister, John Ryder, QC. What an actor. Sentences left his mouth fully formed, as smooth as they were savage, his charm only just veiling his mighty ruthlessness. Drooling at this performance – which was not, in one sense, a performance at all – I found myself thinking that if more priests came over like barristers, our dying churches might be standing room only.

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 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

0800 7318496