They're a pretty mercenary lot the Summerhill crowd, or at least my PA Amorette. I was innocently looking through my briefcase in preparation for the arduous journey to Kokstad at dawn tomorrow, when I found an exam pad marked "Blog: at least one a week, please". No computers here, no TV, no cellphone signal, no radio reception, no nothing. Just on old Bic ballpoint and a fresh new exam pad: so here goes.
I've written before from the Wild Coast, quite the most ruggedly beautiful seascape in creation, devoid of people, packed with fauna and endemic flora numbering in the thousands, and teaming with fish (bronzebream), candles and a chilled bottle of 2014 Crystallum for dinner. To add to my sentiment, place of my birth.
You'd think the emptiness of the Wild Coast (I mean lacking humans) would make it a lonely place, but it's quite the opposite. You may be alone in your space, but you're never alone in your thoughts because of all the places in the world, I know none better than this one for reflection. On top of which I've had Henry Kissinger (World Order); Boris Johnson (The Churchill Factor); Medicinal and Charm Plants of Pondoland, and the Tamarind Seed's scribe, Evelyn Anthony's The Silver Phantom, as companions. All at once. The latter read is especially apt: it's a sort of Dick Francis forerunner about racing which acknowledges Peter (later "Sir") O' Sullevan, and is one of a multitude of Author "specials" that kept the ladies' book clubs of Cheryl's time in rapture. I don't normally enjoy fiction, but this one caught my attention on my wife's recommendation because of a "Summerhill" connection; while it's a bit of a long shot "claiming" it for the farm, Evelyn Anthony is still kicking close to 100, is the mother of Barley Ward-Thomas, who as a top man at Darley Australia, held our Winter Workshop in the School Of Excellence in thrall a couple of July's back, and has since initiated a scholarship programme Down Under for our staff. Besides, if you're going to drop a name, you may as well drop a good one!
One item that regularly invades my thoughts is the Internet; as much for my technical ignorance as anything else, these columns have more than once lamented the damage this new revolution has wrought on good writing. For all the great and indispensable achievements the Internet has brought to our lives, its emphasis is on the actual rather than the contingent, on the factual rather than the conceptual, on values shaped by manufacture rather than by introspection. Knowledge of history, culture or the spirit of our sport is not essential for those who evoke their data with the touch of a button. The mindset for walking the lonely paths of the Wild Coast, may not be self-evident to those who seek confirmation by hundreds, sometimes by thousands, of "friends" on Facebook.
Philosophers and poets have long separated the mind's processes into three components: information, knowledge and wisdom. The Internet focuses on information in response to questions of fact, and in my limited understanding, I'm entranced by the increasing speed with which "search engines" manage increasingly complex enquiries. Yet, it seems to me that a surfeit of information may paradoxically inhibit the acquisition of knowledge, and push wisdom even further away than it was before.
As a junior certificate learner at my alma mater Durban High School, our inspirational mentor Railton Loureiro, introduced us to the works of T.S. Eliot who better captured the essence of my dilemma in "Choruses from the Rock":
"Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?"
As ever more issues are treated as if they are "facts", the Internet claims researchable answers, where problems and solutions are not so much thought any more thought through as they are "looked up". Reading as a means of gaining knowledge, on the other hand, is different. Because it's time-consuming, style is important, and because it's not possible to read all books, learning from them demands a premium on good thinking. At the same time, style propels us into a relationship with both the writer and the subject matter. All the while, journalists adopt the persona of the internet, devoid of colour, character and charisma.
Of course, nothing beats a good old "natter" as a means of getting the "latest". For millennia, personal conversations have been the cornerstone of the exchange of information, imbued as it is with conviction as well as personality. Yet here again, technology has become the imposter: the culture of texting encourages reluctance to engage in face-to-face conversation, and robs the correspondence of those two essentials of personal interaction.
Sitting here at the Wild Coast, quite South Africa's remotest setting, telescopes the contrast between the time at my disposal for thought and the speed at which the Internet processes the "answers". Which only serves to highlight the speed by which tipsters, trainers and jockeys face the judgement of punters at the races: the vocally ardent "labeller" of a runner is shot down the instant his fancy fails to find a place, without so much as a few minutes to conceive of an excuse! The adage that prophets are seldom recognised in their own time was true, in that they used to operate beyond conventional thinking. That is what made them "prophets". In our era, the lead time for prophets may have disappeared altogether, which is probably good news only for bookmakers.
While you might like to think that all this is a lame reason not to write a blog, it isn't that as much as it's a question of whether these stories are worth the repetition, since much of their content is likely to be found on the Internet. The fear of violating the "Blog" instruction on the exam pad though, compels me to add something of anecdotal value as a footnote to these thoughts. Cheryl and I flew to France last year to pay our respects to the man I've always thought was the most complete horseman of our time. As a former champion jockey, champion trainer and master breeder of racehorses, there was little left for Alec Head to achieve in the realms of the Thoroughbred as he celebrated his 90th birthday. Yet it was typical of the man we've come to know, that, sitting in his chateau, so spectacular it had served as the headquarters for the German high command in wartime occupied France, he foreswore his place at the top of racing's table of celebrities in favour of Aly Khan, elder son of Sultan Sir Mahomed Shah, Aga Khan III. In our game, coming from Alec Head, there can be no higher praise than to be called the "most accomplished horseman I ever knew", and Alec was quick to add that as a tutor in the ways of the world, Aly knew no seconds.
While there's an irresistible temptation to quote our own versions, Graham Beck, Laurie Jaffee and Cyril Hurwitz with the character of Aly Khan, it was probably in this latter respect that the "old" Aga saw fit to bypass his eldest son from contention for the title of spiritual head of the Ismaili muslims in favour of Aly's eldest, Karim, the present "Aga", whose bloodstock enterprise knows few bounds to its success in the modern idiom.
Yet it was the father Aly so greatly admired, whose pragmatic approach to life included the employment of a wise old Persian to provide his offspring with sophisticated sexual instruction at an appropriate age. No surprises then, at the direction Aly's life took and the concomitant fact that once the media typecasts an individual the role is immutable. Aly was represented exclusively as a playboy which, of course, he was. But not exclusively. Those that knew him, as Alec did, will tell you that he had the natural gift of making everyone with whom he came into contact feel better for the encounter, which means that it was not the sole preserve of women and bookmakers, and, to illustrate the point (with apologies to Kipling,) he walked with kings, but never lost the common touch. One of his great mates according to Alec, was Crete-born George, the concierge of the London Ritz and universal confidant, who was the repository of more secrets than MI5, and a lot less leak-prone.
When Aly Khan crashed finally and fatally in the company of an Italian ballet dancer in a Paris suburb, there ended one of the most consuming lover affairs of the century - between Aly and life. The "Golden Prince" of the headlines loved and was loved by many women, of course. But it was his passionate, restless, zest for living that made him the most compelling personality of his age.
One of his regular haunts was said to be the Traveller's Club in Paris, not that he was a member there; he did not care much for men's clubs. Though he always said he wouldn't turn down an offer to join a women's club. His dates were always made with the caveat "If I can make it," including those to play bridge, which he did for the highest stakes possible till 3 or 4am without a drink or cigarette.
"If I can make it" he would say, like the time he invited his second wife, the movie star Rita Hayworth, to overcome her fear of air travel and fly to Nairobi immediately, only to arrive at the hotel to find a note saying he'd had to leave in a hurry for a week's hunting in the Mara.
The source of his restlessness and a notorious need for speed was probably his lack of a home life after his mother, also an Italian ballerina, had died when he was just 15. Aly Khan never went to school. "The stables were my school" he claimed of his adolescent life, when at 17, he would visit Dick Dawson's fabled yard at Marlbourgh where he accumulated the "know how" that gave him more than 100 winners as a rider and steered him in the direction of the world's greatest racing empire to that point in history: fourteen stud farms in five different countries.
There was no need for Aly to gamble, no need for speed. But from the day of his "twenty first" when he promptly bought an Alfa Romeo, he set about making personal records. From the London Ritz to Newmarket in an hour. From Paris to Deauville (130 miles) in 89 minutes. They said Aly always had time for everyone, and every one aspired to be his friend. But let's face it, only his women and his horses really knew Aly Khan well.
He took impish delight in his fantastic gambles, which also caused him no slight embarrassment at times. According to "George", he left the Derby meeting at Epsom with a handsome credit (by the standards of the time) of £26 000, (courtesy of a big bet on the fabulous juvenile filly and subsequent broodmare, Palariva) only to be £32 000 in the red a fortnight hence at Royal Ascot. "Please don't report the figures" he would implore his friends in the press, "not till I'm dead!".
In the middle of a bad run, which necessitated stripping the walls of his paintings in his Paris home, he would ask "Beau" Goldsmith, M.D. of Jack Wilson Ltd, to whom he'd "pawned" them, to "hang on till Christmas, I'll have money then". And contrary to the rumours at the time, he always paid every penny. Or so said Mr. Goldsmith. "I've always been lucky" Aly confided to his close pals under the chestnut trees at Longchamp the Sunday before his death, as he fidgeted restlessly with the clothes he wore like they were a tiresome restriction on activity, "but my luck may be running out this season." He liked to bet a long way ahead to prove his judgement to himself. This year he'd placed a tidy sum on Charlottesville for the Derby, only to be met with a setback which would prevent the horse from running.
Death cancels ante-post bets. Only Aly Khan would've appreciated the irony that he had to die to get out of his last bet. I bet you won't find this one on the Internet.
Editor's Note: For those who are celebrating it, the merriest of Christmases, and to all our friends, customers and readers, the best of New Years.