Derby Day Dozen.

Members' enclosure, Derby Day, Epsom, UK, 1991.Member’s enclosure, Derby Day, Epsom. © David Secombe 1991.

Interview with Alfred Hitchcock, New York Times, 19 March 1939*:

Apparently no Hitchcock interview is ever complete without Mr. Hitchcock’s latest idea for a picture he would like to make – some time. Today he has in mind a picture built around the English Derby – Derby Day. “Can there be anything more exciting or dramatic than a million people all gathered together in one afternoon – all sorts of people, from top to bottom – just to witness the running of a race? I always liken it to the Judgment Day. Well, I should like to sift, say, a dozen characters from that crowd and, within the limits of an hour and a half on that fatal afternoon, tell their stories, climaxed by the finish of the race.” It sounds like a great idea – maybe too great, because, unfortunately, Mr. Hitchcock never seems to get around to doing those pictures he dreams about.

Derby Day, Epsom, UK, 1991© David Secombe 1991.

Members' enclosure, Derby Day, Epsom, UK, 1991.© David Secombe 1991.

Royal box, Derby Day, Epsom, UK, 1991© David Secombe 1991.

Members' enclosure, Derby Day, Epsom, UK, 1991.© David Secombe 1991.

Derby Day, Epsom, UK, 1991© David Secombe 1991.

Members' enclosure, Derby Day, Epsom, UK, 1991.© David Secombe 1991.

Members' enclosure, Derby Day, Epsom, UK, 1991.© David Secombe 1991.

Derby Day, Epsom, UK, 1991© David Secombe 1991.

Derby Day, Epsom, UK, 1991© David Secombe 1991.

Derby Day, Epsom, UK, 1991© David Secombe 1991.

Runners on their way to the start, Derby Day, Epsom, Uk, 1991.Runners on their way to the starting gate, Epsom Derby, 1991. © David Secombe 1991.

DS: Tomorrow sees the running of The Derby at Epsom, the original Derby anything, founded in 1780, and still the richest horse race in Britain. Once run mid-week, since 1995 it has been a Saturday fixture, the rescheduling an indication of its decline as an event. No-one seems entirely sure why it has lost its popularity. Hitchcock’s comment reflects the notion of the Derby current in the Victorian and Edwardian eras: London on the Downs, the city decamping en masse for a day at the races. This was the Derby Day of Dickens, William Frith, or the doomed suffragette Emily Davison. As a schoolboy in Epsom during the 1970s, I recall the frightening volume of humanity that appeared on the first Wednesday in June … but that excitement and sense of occasion has simply withered. These images are of Derby Day in 1991, taken whilst working alongside Eddie Mirzoeff’s documentary team  (see below) and show only the elaborately hatted zone of the grandstand. The modern version of Frith’s Victorian painting is a glorious documentary by Charlie Squires of the 1970 Derby: I have hunted YouTube to locate this but to no avail. I would dearly love to see that film again: instead, here is footage of the 1970 race, won in legendary fashion by Lester Piggott on Nijinsky:

The 1991 Derby was won by ‘Generous’, ridden by Alan Munro. From Elizabeth R, prod. E, Mirzoeff, BBC, 1992 – video no. 3 in sequence:

* Thanks to The Hitchcock Zone.


Olympic Hymn. Photo & text: David Secombe.

Deptford. © David Secombe 1999.

From Barrie Keefe’s script for The Long Good Friday, 1979: 

HAROLD: I’m not a politician. I’m a businessman. And I’m also a Londoner – and today is a day of great historical significance for London. Our country is not an island any more – we’re a leading European state. And I believe that this is the decade in which London will become Europe’s capital. That, ladies and gentlemen, is why you are here today.

Tony Blair speaking at the ‘Beyond Sport’ summit in London, quoted in The Guardian, 26 July 2012:

Of course, £9bn is in one sense a lot of money but, in another sense, you’re regenerating an entire part of the country, creating thousands of jobs and there’s massive amounts of investment coming in. [Asked whether the same figure could simply have been spent on regeneration without the Games:] It’s not quite the same. You’ve got the Olympics! When people start making arguments like this I just have to say ‘Come on guys, this is the biggest sporting event in the world and we’re hosting it.’ A bit of pride there, I think.

From Team GB’s official website:


Send a message
of support to your
Team GB athletes


Show your support by
waving and wearing your
Official Team GB Scarf

David Secombe:

Anyone following The London Column recently will have detected a certain creeping cynicism amongst our contributors towards the looming Olympic bunfight. The naysayers in our ranks all have specific objections, but the consensus amongst our group of refuseniks is that the construction of the main Olympic site has obliterated a sylvan wilderness that was a genuine resource for locals; that the corporate stranglehold over any kind of local expression of dissent (or even unauthorised expressions of enthusiasm) relating to the sponsors’ involvement in the Games is anti-democratic and an affront to free speech; and that the militarised nature of its policing serves to emphasise that the host country has acquired a dodgy international reputation for itself. Orwell’s 1984 looms over the festival of sporting prowess and universal brotherhood: the Airstrip One Olympics.

For what it’s worth (and given that this is a site with only a few thousand readers, it may not be worth very much), we might as well ask a big and perhaps fatuous question: why does London need the Olympic Games?  The Olympic body has long been discredited by its willingness to accommodate totalitarian regimes (Berlin, Moscow, Beijing) or to ignore local tragedy in the interests of ‘higher sport’ (Mexico City, Munich); and the athletic ideal the Games ostensibly represent has for years been tarnished by the self-doping tactics of class-leading athletes desperate to stay at the top of their game. What’s left is sheer spectacle underwritten by a cold business imperative: so the drive to compete, to achieve upon the world stage is the language of corporations yoked inelegantly to the inarticulate nature of sporting endeavour. Thus the simple and elegant term ‘The British Olympic Team’ is reduced to the ugly signage of ‘Team GB’ – a change they were advised to make to foster corporate sponsorship (it worked). Promoters of the London Games use all the chilling cliches of contemporary corporate language; language which makes Barrie Keefe’s proto-Thatcherite gangster Harold Shand straightforwardly articulate when compared to the likes of Sebastian Coe or Tony Blair.

Speaking of Blair, it was he who gave London the Millennium Dome, a prime example of monumental gesture architecture in search of appropriate content: given the abject failure of that grand project, it is perhaps understandable that such a vain politician would wish to have another go at self-commemoration (‘If you seek my monument, take the Jubilee line to North Greenwich and Stratford’.) No-one could dismiss the Olympic Games as a non-event: but London is a Roman city, and without getting too psychogeographical about it, it’s worth remembering that Caesar also knew how to put on a good show, especially when times were tough.

You can see Richard Strauss conducting his Olympic Hymn for Hitler and the crowds at the 1936 Berlin Olympics here.

… for The London Column.

Before the Blue Wall. Photo: Homer Sykes, text: Henry Newbolt (1862-1938) (2/4)

Hackney Marsh sports field. © Homer Sykes 2006.

Vitai Lampada 
(“They Pass On The Torch of Life”: 1892)

There’s a breathless hush in the Close to-night
Ten to make and the match to win
A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
An hour to play and the last man in.
And it’s not for the sake of a ribboned coat,
Or the selfish hope of a season’s fame,
But his Captain’s hand on his shoulder smote
‘Play up! play up! and play the game!’

The sand of the desert is sodden red,
Red with the wreck of a square that broke;
The Gatling’s jammed and the Colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England’s far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks:
‘Play up! play up! and play the game!’

This is the word that year by year,
While in her place the School is set,
Every one of her sons must hear,
And none that hears it dare forget.
This they all with a joyful mind
Bear through life like a torch in flame,
And falling fling to the host behind
‘Play up! play up! and play the game!’

David Secombe: 

Henry Newbolt was a popular poet of the late Victorian and Edwardian era, and this once popular poem, with its image of sacrificial glory transferring seamlessly from the cloisters of Clifton College to the Sudan desert, was much reviled after the first World War. In his later years, Newbolt himself became embarrassed by it, but there is no question that in his prime he was the figurehead of nationalistic poetry in England. Its inclusion here was suggested by a poet friend, and she might have invoked it as a bilious response to the current move to incorporate ‘poetry installations’ into the Olympic theme park. Or maybe she was just in an elegiac mood.

Homer Sykes will be presenting a slideshow of images from Before the Blue Wall at the Green Lens Gallery, 4a Atterbury Road, London N4 1SF tonight – Wednesday 11 July – between 6 and 9 pm. Homer’s website is here.

Boxers of Bethnal Green. Photos: Alex Hocking, poem: Naomi Woddis. (5/5)

York Hall, Bethnal Green. © Alex Hocking 2011.

This Victory Means Something by Naomi Woddis:

Sometimes Jasmin stays up late
while all her school friends
are safely tucked up in dream beds
she watches the boxing with her dad

Scarlett says any woman
who loves the fight, has a man
in her family with gloves
her father, five uncles.

Fi’s boxed in the RAF.
She remembers the special time
by his side, witness to swinging
punches on TV, the Rumble in the Jungle.

All three learned early that this
victory means something.
The neat rules of a fight, what it is
to be invited, the chance of a win.

© Naomi Woddis. 

Boxers of Bethnal Green. Photos: Alex Hocking, text: Charles Jennings. (4/5)

York Hall, Bethnal Green. © Alex Hocking 2011.

Boxing: 1810 – a compilation by Charles Jennings:

 Gentleman John Jackson – Dear Jack, Byron called him…
Jackson, a former bare-knuckle champion, retired from the ring and started his own school at 13 New Bond Street…
Foreigners can scarcely understand how we can squeeze pleasure out of this pastime; the luxury of hard blows given or received; the great joy of the ring; nor the perseverance of the combatants…
A prizefight to be held in a country town, such as Grantham or Derby, would attract spectators from as far away as London or York…
A crowd of seven thousand…
The gentlemen of ‘The Fancy’…
a bit of muslin…
Not to have taken lessons from Mr. Jackson was a positive neglect of a gentleman’s ordinary education…
Bob Gregson, the ‘Lancashire Giant’, fifteen stones in weight and over six feet tall…
Exercise is good, and this the severest of all; fencing and broadsword never fatigued me half so much…
A fight could last up to fifty rounds…
Not a bad boxer when I could keep my temper, which was difficult…
Holding a man’s hair to keep him in place to be hit…
This cover-me-decently, was all very well at Hawthorn Hall, I dare say; but here, among the pinks in Rotten-row, the lady-birds in the Saloon…
the legs and levanters at Tattersall’s…
it would be taken for nothing less than the index of a complete Flat…
The Prince Regent withdrew his patronage, and refused to attend any further prizefights after a man he had promoted was killed in the ring

Italians stab their friends behind,
In darkest shades of night;
But Britons they are bold and kind,
And box their friends by light

 High Society: A Social History of the Regency Period; Lord Byron; William Hazlitt; and others.

… for The London Column.

Boxers of Bethnal Green. Photos: Alex Hocking, text: Joanna Blachnio. (3/5)

York Hall, Bethnal Green. © Alex Hocking 2011.

Who?  by Joanna Blachnio

Sometimes the din and tumult die down, and what remains is lines. Ribs, spine, jaw, clavicles –
and all that is before, behind, between, above, below. Other lines, too – the road in front of you, the
trees along the hard shoulder. Your fence, your gate. The trail of your dog in the snow. And in the
summer, sheets drying in the garden. The curves of her hips and belly. The long-distance phone call.
The cheque-book, waiting to be signed.
And the trajectory you must follow. The line you will cross, now.

… for The London Column. © Joanna Blachnio 2011.

Boxers of Bethnal Green. Photo & text: Alex Hocking. (2/5)

York Hall, Bethnal Green. © Alex Hocking 2011.

Alex Hocking:

I had never been into boxing. My granddad had been (“The fairest sport in the world,” I remember him saying), but my dad wasn’t and my mum thought it was brutal. I’d never really been into boxing films either. Rocky was too silly, with Stallone too incomprehensible and the outcomes too predictable. I preferred Raging Bull’s storyline, but didn’t consider it A Great Film because it was about boxing, a sport I wasn’t interested in. I came to see the appeal of boxing through the viewfinder.

Although I turned up at York Hall in Bethnal Green for aesthetic reasons I left with an appreciation of the sport and the atmosphere a good event generates.  From the edge of the ring, camera jutting between the ropes and elbows on the canvas, one can hear the difference between a body shot (hollow) and a punch to the face (quieter but sharper, slappier), one can feel the canvas move as the fighters advance, stumble or collapse. I saw blood drip from an eyebrow, land beside my camera and get smeared by a boot. Between matches, fights break out among the crowd and heavily made-up girls look on approvingly.

Fans spilling out from the neo-Georgian building’s small bar are ushered to the sides to make way for the boxers as they approach the ring, twitching and keyed-up, surrounded by coaches, medics and hangers-on looking for vicarious thrills. The crowd cheers or boos the glittering pantomime as they try to gauge the fighters’ disposition and energy. Is the outcome portended by the manner of slipping between the ropes? The small flurries of punches cast into the air as the music diminishes? The shimmer of an eye or the angle of a chin? Sometimes they walk nonchalantly, eyes untelling, others swagger top-hatted and confident.

Some fighters have a routine they go through before a fight, every step and gesture recreated so as not to risk offending the fates. Bounce off the ropes, dance to the centre with fists high, turn once then twice, pass the cloak to the trainer, skip on the spot to warm the feet.

Up on the balcony, flags are unfurled: Albanian Eagles, Irish tricolours, slogans of support and abuse.  The music ebbs away, lights drop, fighters bounce into their corners for a last minute pep talk. Gumshields go in. gloves are checked. By this point, some fighters will already know the outcome and are bracing themselves for noble defeat. Suits and sovereigns worn over crisp white shirts in the front rows, hushed predictions, t-shirts and last minute taunts from the cheaper seats, then a moment’s reverence before the cacophony that accompanies the first bell.

Watching boxers pummel each other made me feel a mixture of blood lust (I think I shouted for one guy to kill the other) and a kind of giddy revulsion, an awareness that I shouldn’t be getting an illicit kick out of someone taking punches. It’s brutal, but also fair and an accurate distillation of what all sport is at its core: opponents using everything they can to win, whether it is speed, composure, anger, fear, technique or strength.

Most interesting to me are the slower moments of pathos where the fighters slump into each others’ arms, sometimes in no hurry to extricate themselves as they agree to take a breather, or where a fighter sits sullenly in a corner, advice bouncing off him as he readies himself to go back for another painful round of inevitable beating. It’s in these moments rather than the sporty moments of competitors hitting each other that boxing gains its power and epic proportions.

 … for The London Column. © Alex Hocking 2012.