“They went on waiting until the old man, the timber worker and part-time owner-trainer, had spent the measure of his grief,” concludes one of the outstanding memoirs of this or any other year, by a writer little heard of outside his native Australia, whose story, like that of Sir Flash in Chapter 22, is simply told, and yet with an elegance to do justice to his life long passion for horse racing.
Lord Pilate and Bill Coffey is the most moving conclusion to any book I have read in a long time, the denouement perfectly weighted by a craftsman who makes writing look easy, a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, but oh what an end, an ending to make you wish you had somebody to share it with.
But reading is a solitary act, most of the time, and for most of his sporting life, Murnane, who has the gift of being droll, candid and moving in one sentence, was a solitary presence at race meetings. His passion for the turf – his father was a gambler – became an obsession before he had ever seen a horse gallop, a marriage ignited by the incantation of horses’ names in a broadcast.
He regales in his lack of connectivity in the modern world (his mobile phone has been in the boot of his car for fifteen years, and he has never been on a plane) but horseracing is one of the few sports, including bullfighting, which has not radically changed in a century. But reporting of it has, and as fewer meetings appear in the Australian press, Murnane fills in the gaps by listening to the radio.
“The images are accompanied by feelings, some easy to report – such as my willing one or another horse to win – and others difficult indeed to describe,” he admits. Murnane never met anyone whose interest in the sport matched his own and although he has enjoyed the company of mutual enthusiasts, racing was and remains something he could never wholly explain to anyone else, wife and children included.
Something For The Pain, however, goes someway to bridge that gap. It is also insightful into his background – the gambling dad, the Catholic upbringing (his idea of holiday relaxation is to visit a cathedral from his childhood in Bendigo), the merry go round with booze, education – a melting pot of occasional low-grade misery (when he was alone) which sires teeming lines like this: “During the seven years between my leaving school and my meeting up with the young woman who was later my wife for forty three years, I had only three girlfriends, and the total length of time during which I was thus provided was about six months.”
We would all like to know better the secrets of human nature, who we are, how we think and what we do: Murnane once explained that what did affect him was not some actor wailing on stage but the sight of a trainer leading back towards the saddling paddock his only horse and breadwinner who had come close to winning a big race, only to fade in the straight for a minor prize. “Fate, through the agency of horse racing, was leading him on, treasing him, seeming to promise what it might never deliver.”
Worth buying for that sentence alone.