Regular readers of this part of the DCMS website will have noticed that, for the most part, I use this blog to bang on about issues in the tourism and heritage world.
There’s a reason for this. And if you’re not clear what this might be, you’ll find a fairly substantial clue to it in my job title. But they are not the only subjects in my portfolio (a gloriously dated expression which is better, but only just, than the alternative; the perennially snigger-inducing ‘briefs’). I’m also responsible for entertainment licensing, ceremonial things, gambling and horse racing.
Bite at one end, kick at the other
Have you ever been to a race meeting? If you haven’t, you should. They provide entertainment, spectacle and excitement in equal measure and, these days, the management bend over backwards to provide a family-friendly experience. Weather permitting, it really is a great day out. It was once wisely pointed out that horses are animals that bite at one end, kick at the other and are generally pretty uncomfortable in the middle. But another great thing about them becomes clear once you see them up close in a race course parade ring before the off. And that is that when they’re in top racing condition, they’re lean, magnificent creatures, and standing near the rails as they come to the finishing line you get a sense of just how brave and maybe – for those watching, at least – foolhardy the finest jockeys must be.
So, for me at least, watching it all take place in the flesh is the best way to savour it. Seeing it on television really does sell the experience short, because when you’re there in person, the sights, the smells and the sounds mix together to make a whole that TV simply can’t do justice to. Part of the reason, of course, is that television coverage is focused, understandably, around racing as a thing that people place bets on. So the broadcasters’ main purpose is therefore to deliver a televisual equivalent of that short but nail-biting period in roulette after the croupier feeds in the ball, but before it finds its final resting place adjacent to a number in the wheel. Yes, the telly shows you the horses warming up and yes, there will be occasional shots of the crowd, but in the end it all comes with the emphasis firmly on form and starting prices, and sage comments on the ‘going.’
The Sport of Kings
So horse racing and gambling go hand in hand, and that’s why the ‘Sport of Kings’ is within my bailiwick (better than ‘portfolio’ do you think?’ – no, me neither) rather than that of the Minister for Sport. And if you’ve followed me so far with this, and furthermore can accept that it is the proper business of Government to keep an eye on horse racing with a rather beadier eye than we might use for, say, show jumping, you might – for all this – still wonder why the government also owns something called the Tote which is, when all’s said and done, its very own bookies. Or ‘turf accountants,’ to use the expression invented when book makers were first allowed on the high street and felt they needed a ‘respectable’ sounding title. Well it made no sense to us in Government and it was that thought which was behind the Government’s decision to find it a new owner – a decision that came to fruition last week with its sale to Betfred for a headline price of £265 million.
Incidentally, we decided to put the Tote on the market a little under a year ago, although the idea first saw the light of day 21 years previously in 1989. Our success this time was, in fact, a case of ‘fifth time lucky’ by all accounts. With that kind of record, you can imagine I’m very pleased indeed to have been successful, and to be able to say that I’ve presided over the first asset sale of this administration. So gold stars to all the civil servants and advisors who worked long and hard to help make it happen and a good-natured nose thumbing to my ministerial predecessors, too numerous to mention, who didn’t quite manage to do it themselves.
A quick word in passing about something else within my purview (and, yes, ‘portfolio’ is suddenly starting to sound rather good): the work of English Heritage. They were good enough to invite me down on Thursday to the opening of the new visitor experience at Dover Castle, which brings to life the detail of ‘Operation Dynamo’ the rescue operation to evacuate our troops from Dunkirk. The army operations rooms have been re-presented so that visitors can now see exactly how it would have looked at the time, as well as being able to walk through the secret wartime tunnels and get a sense, through very impressive sound effects and film projections, of how it would have felt on the beaches themselves. It’s all very cleverly done and is a fine example of how English Heritage has come to be so good at bringing history and heritage alive. The exhibition also pays a fine tribute to a largely forgotten hero of the war, Vice-Admiral Bertram Home Ramsay, who quietly and efficiently masterminded the entire exercise. A sense of his achievement is hinted at in a letter he sent to his wife just after coming out of retirement to take charge there: ‘We have no stationery, books, typists or machines, few chairs, very few tables, maddening communications and nothing but long-retired officers or volunteers.’ It’s absolutely right that he should be properly recognised at Dover, and it’s great that English Heritage have done so.
Finally, a quick plug for Twitter’s #londonliesfortourists which is a new take on an old gag. An old gag, in fact, which I mentioned in passing in this space back in August of last year. Essentially, the idea is to suggest incorrect, unhelpful – and downright bonkers, in some cases – advice for visitors to the capital. It’s all in good fun, of course, and a nice example of our fondness for self deprecation, and all things absurd, I think. Two new ones caught my eye: ‘the Olympic village in Stratford is where Shakespeare was born,’ and my particular favourite ‘Take a jacket with you on the Victoria line, it’s known for getting quite chilly down there.’ Excellent stuff.
Operation Dynamo – the Dunkirk Experience at Dover Castle is now open. See the English Heritage website for visitor information.
Epsom Derby image courtesy of monkeywing on flickr. Some rights reserved.
Dover Castle, ‘Operation Dynamo’ image courtesy of English Heritage. From left to right: Tracey Wahdan, Visitor Operations Director for the South East, English Heritage; Major General Charles Ramsay, son of Vice Admiral Betram Ramsay (mastermind of the Dunkirk evacuation); Baroness Andrews OBE, Chair of English Heritage; Charlie Elphicke, Conservative MP for Dover and Deal; and John Penrose, Minister for Tourism and Heritage.