Why I can't stand Clare Balding

Will Self's "Madness of Crowds" column.

Clare Balding. Photograph: Getty Images

A friend in the publishing business told me that Clare Balding’s “memoir”, My Animals and Other Family, had sold a quarter of a million copies in hardback and was rising 60,000 in paperback. It had also won the National Book Award for autobiography or biography. A normal multiplier for hardback to paperback would be about 12 so, in the next year or so, Ms Balding should shift around 750,000. That’s a million books, plus ebook sales, which must be at least a third again. Even allowing a modest RPC (readers-per-copy) figure for her parvum opus, a conservative (and this, surely, is the mot juste) estimate would be that, by this time next year, one in every 15 adults in the country will have absorbed sentences such as this: “She licked my mother’s face and then pressed her velvet head into the soft part of my mother’s neck, just below her jawline.”

No, this isn’t a description of trans-generational girl-on-girl action – which might be interesting, if better written – but Ms Balding’s imagining of the meeting between her mother and Candy, a boxer puppy that grew up to become the infant Clare’s staunchest protector. Does it matter, I hear you cry, that a cliché-ridden book about a TV sports presenter’s horsey-posh upbringing (think Downton Abbey with a commercial racing stables tacked on the side) should appeal to 7 per cent of the book-buying population?! I mean – you’re still crying – haven’t you got anything better to bother about!? True, I undoubtedly do have better things to bother about but once the Balding facts were laid before me I felt a duty – as your correspondent on the follies of mass behaviour – to interrogate them. It’s a stubbly job but someone has to do it.

I was barely aware of Balding until these sales figures came up, not being either top drawer or locker room. I had heard, vaguely, that there was this gay woman sports commentator whose performance at the Olympics was held to have somehow elevated her to the status of “national treasure” but I didn’t let it get to me – ours is a senescent society and, like all the old, it has a tendency to gloat over things it imagines are valuable but are only tat picked up from a cultural car boot sale. With Liz Windsor as the coveted bauble-in-chief, it’s inevitable that the family silver will mostly be electroplated.

Then I realised that Balding also presented a Radio 4 show I used to hear, Ramblings. The conceit of Ramblings is simple: Ms Balding – for it is she – goes for a walk with someone, either in a locale known to them or one that’s significant for them in some personal or professional way. Armchair walking – what’s not to like? Especially if, like me, you’re keen on the upright version as well. Ramblings is, as I recall, a thoroughly amiable affair: the walks are usually in areas of tolerable – if not outstanding – natural beauty and the chit-chat flows like milky-sweet tea from a Thermos flask.      

I said above that I used to hear Ramblings, because once I began listening to it – having made the mistake of downloading a podcast – I was revolted.

Those on the right are always claiming the BBC is a hotbed of leftist, subversive fifth columnists – but, really, they should stay in more. The truth is that the Home Service (as I can’t help but think of it) is dominated by programmes of the Ramblings phenotype: thoroughbred winsomeness out of Down Your Way by Saturday Live (see Madness of Crowds passim).

This is a direct function of the BBC being a state broadcaster – try as they might (and some do try extremely hard), its functionaries cannot escape the necessity of kowtowing to their pooh-bah paymasters in parliament. One form this takes is an excessive amount of mittel-Englandry of the leather-on-willow, cask-aged-bitter, spinsters-cycling-to-evensong variety. If you spend a whole day listening to the station, you begin to feel as if you’re tucked under John Major’s capacious top lip – or possibly Nigel Farage’s bottom one.

Balding is a natural for this sort of thing. She comes from that stratum of the British who seem to love their dogs and horses more than their children and certainly a great deal more than the working class. I may well be doing Ms Balding a profound disservice – I only read the first chapter of My Animals, which I got as a free sample. The rest of it may be page after page of pellucid and illuminating prose, animated by a searching and fearless intellect. Let’s live in hope, shall we?