Friday, May 11, 2007

Mirth and Woe: Grand National

Mirth and Woe: Grand National

You know how these things get started.

Usually, there's some innocent explanation of how someone came out with some harmless idea that got hideously out of hand, and before you knew it one of our number was bleeding from embarrassing wounds in their private parts whilst onlookers are sick in a hedge. In fact, this was such a regular occurrence round our way, the hedges were all twelve feet tall, powered as they were by Miracle-Gro-powered vomit.

Good Lord, it only took a couple of words about medieval knights, and there we were riding full tilt at each other with pointy sticks over our bike crossbars until somebody got killed to death and onlookers were predictably sick in a hedge that was especially bussed in for that very purpose.

When would we ever learn?

Never, that's when.

It was one of those sunny April afternoons of the type that they always seemed to have on the day of the Grand National. You could virtually guarantee hot sun on Grand National day, all the better to watch a bunch of mad fool jockeys falling off horses, killing themselves to death and getting paid for it.

Back in those days, the National was one of those must-see events of the sporting calendar. You could look outside that afternoon, and there'd be not a soul on the streets - they had all done their shopping in the morning, whipped into the betting shop for their annual 50p flutter, and back home to watch the action. As the race finished, we would all emerge, blinking, into the sunlight to tell bullshit stories on how your mum had just turned fifty quid betting on the winner, and to discuss the comedy decapitations.

"It's easy," said John, who had never been near a horse in his entire life, "I could do that."

"Jimmy Hill, you could!"

"Piece of piss, and I'll prove it."

John had been, thanks to his excellent Dad, one of the first kids in Britain to get a skateboard during the 1970s craze, while the rest of us had to make do with a roller-skate nailed to a plank of wood. John's excellent Dad also got him an American bike, with the pedal-backwards brakes and a turn of speed that left our clunky monsters standing. John could stare fear in the face and laugh back. And he did. Often.

"How? Have you noticed we haven't got any horses?"

"Not a problem. We've all got bikes, 'aven't we?"

"And we haven't got a race course either, you spazzer."

This turned out to be no problem, either. John's spectacularly half-baked plan was to recreate the entire Aintree Grand National course out of scrap bits of wood, crates and planters full of shrubs "borrowed" from our back gardens. We would race round the course on our pushbikes, jumping over fences using makeshift wooden ramps, and it would be excellent, dammit. The only thing that would be missing would be actual horses, and a crowd of 200,000 Scousers.

One problem: the finished product all looked a bit tame, even by our standards.

"What about Beecher's Brook?"

"What about it?"

"We haven't got one."

Momentarily defeated, John paced around the cul-de-sac, opening and closing his fists, looking for a suitable fence of death. And there, at the end of Wonky Cerys' garden we found it. The six foot hedge separating our road from the school field. OK, it was six foot on our side. It was a ten foot drop on the other. A veritable Beecher's Brook, and the grand finale of our little Grand National. And the best bit was that Wonky Cerys and her family were away for the weekend, so we could smash their hedge to pieces all we wanted, and they'd never find out.

It took half an hour to rig up the ramp for the great jump. Luckily John's Dad was building a garage extension, so we snaffled away a few scaffolding planks and heaved them onto a couple of tea chests snaffled from Matty's gloriously stocked garage, and away we went.

Predictably, and even after giving us a head start, John led over the first fence, whooshing up the makeshift ramp and over my mum's best potted rhododendron and into the first bend. I huffed and puffed and barely cleared it, as did Nige and Matty.

John streaked ahead, and it soon became obvious that there would only be one winner, and that most of the plants "borrowed" from parental gardens were going to end up crushed beneath the wheels of those who followed him. So, knowing we were beaten, we gave up, and watched as John headed for Beecher's.

Coming into the behemoth as fast as he could, the world went quiet as he hit the ramp at full pelt and steamed towards the top.

Alas, the scaffolding planks buckled under his weight, and it became clear to those of us watching in awed silence that he was struggling to reach the top at anything near his desired launch velocity.

But would this horse refuse at his hour of victory?

Of course not, bravado and good old fashion British spunk powered him on, legs pumping like hell on the pedals as he reached the top of the ramp.

"MWAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARGH!" he shouted, the war cry of the utterly defeated, as he arched through the air, and disappeared into the Hedge of Doom.

We rushed over to find him upside down, half in the hedge, half out, his legs still pumping away at non-existent pedals, the bike on its side some twenty feet away in the school field, with its front wheel spinning slowly to a halt. Blood everywhere, but sadly, no sick in a hedge.

"Hey! What's going on?" someone said behind us as we dragged John to safety. It was Russ, with whom we had a hate/hate relationship, but his dreadful mum made us play with him.

"It's ...err... a Grand National race," we said, "50p for the first person to get over Beecher's Brook."

Oh, the tales we tell to inflict terrible pain on others. It was going to be Red Rum (anag).

Zimming down the hill on his shiny new Raleigh Chopper - a guilt present from his absent dad - we egged him on like the evil bastards that we were.

"MWAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARGH!" he screamed as he hit the ramp full on and sailed straight into the hedge and certain death.


No he didn't.

We gasped as the little squirt sailed over Beecher's and disappeared from view on the other side. That was 50p down the drain, and no mistake.

We rushed over, fully expecting to find Russ gleaming back at us, demanding payment.

Oh, sweet joy.

He was there all right, on the grass curled up in a foetal position, his bike next to him, the front wheel bent like a mad bent thing. Graham Norton's bottom, I dunno.

"Russ, mate - you alright?" I ventured.

"I landed on me plums," he eventually replied in a Joe Pasquale falsetto.

And: "Where's me money?"

That evening, Russ's mum came round our house to extract 50p from each and every one of us, the hard-hearted cow; and the price of a new front wheel from our dad. I believe he told her to sod off.

"I'll tell you what we missed yesterday," said John.


"The water jump."

No good came out of that, either.

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