David Parkin on feeling the fear

WE’VE all been there.

You walk into a business event or function and realise you don’t know anyone in the room.

You grab a drink, gulp it down a bit too quickly as something to do, and wander about desperately looking for a familiar face or a stranger who might be open to chat.

I’ve lost count of the number of times it has happened to me. (Mind you, in my case people I do know actually ignore me too.)

Other than public speaking, I’d imagine it is one of the things that terrifies many people most.

We are naturally sociable creatures and we all feel comfortable with familiarity so walking into a room full of people you don’t know who all appear to know each other feels like the social equivalent of a non-swimmer being thrown in at the deep end.

It happened to me on Wednesday when I accepted an invitation from the National Horseracing College (NHC) to a charity race day at Pontefract Racecourse.

I know the NHC chair Gerry Sutcliffe, the former MP and Minister for Sport, but couldn’t see him when I arrived in the hospitality box.

I didn’t recognise anyone there, so grabbed a coffee, did one more sweep of the room and the balcony to make sure I hadn’t missed anyone and then approached someone to ask who I could speak to from the NHC to thank them for the invitation.

One of Gerry’s colleagues, Georgina Ridal, immediately jumped up from a nearby table and warmly welcomed me.

I helped myself to a plate of food and sat out on the balcony taking in the sweeping view of the impressive racecourse at Pontefract and beyond it the majestic vista which includes the M62 motorway, Junction 32 shopping outlet at Castleford and several massive logistics and distribution sheds.

Gerry then appeared on the balcony and took the time to introduce me to several key figures involved in the NHC including chief executive Colonel Stephen Padgett and finance director Nigel Hansford who Gerry told me spent 20 years working for the late corporate titan Tiny Rowland at Lonrho.

Before joining the NHC, Stephen spent 36 years in the British army, serving in Northern Ireland and Afghanistan and finished his military career running Catterick Garrison in North Yorkshire, then the biggest army camp in Europe where more than 20,000 people are based.

He and Gerry told me more about the work of the National Horseracing College, which is based in South Yorkshire, between Doncaster and Bawtry and provides a centre of training excellence in the North for young people to find jobs in the racing industry.

That training clearly works because 94% of the young people who take the NHC’s 12 week foundation course go on to exciting careers in horse racing.

That’s not just as jockeys, but as stable staff, trainers and administration roles within this thriving sport.

A number of the students from the college were at the event and Gerry took them to the parade ring and winning enclosure where they chose the best turned out horse and presented the prize to the winning jockey in one of the races.

As we walked down to the parade ring, Gerry introduced me to the long-serving chief executive of Pontefract Racecourse, Norman Gundill who was talking to a man I didn’t know but whose name I knew well from my Yorkshire Post days, Graham Orange.

Graham used to be the PR man for Go Racing in Yorkshire and did a great deal to promote the nine race courses across the region.

Norman and Gerry told me that Pontefract used to be unique among British racecourses in that its afternoon meetings always started at 2.45pm rather than the traditional time of 2pm.

“That’s because the miners at the nearby Prince of Wales pit didn’t finish their shift until 2pm so it gave them time to shower and change and get to the races!” Gerry told me.

“Father was always insistent that happened, so they could enjoy their afternoon,” said Norman, whose father before him ran the racecourse.

I had a few small bets during the day but only managed to get a second place on an each way punt.

The last race of the day was The National Horseracing College Equality & Diversity in Racing Handicap Stakes but I avoided placing a bet as it looked a bit of a cavalry charge with 15 runners.

A horse called Divine Connection won it which someone then told me was trained by Craig Lidster at Easingwold who is a graduate of the NHC.

So I missed my chance of a winner.

But on reflection I didn’t.

The big winner on the day was the NHC being able to promote its great work.

And I was a victor too having started the day knowing no one and ended it having met plenty of people and learned a lot too.


GERRY offered to give me a tour of Pontefract Racecourse and on the way around I spotted a familiar face outside the Owners & Trainers Bar.

It was race horse trainer Scott Dixon who I had been introduced to at the annual sale of two-year-old racehorses at Doncaster last year by serial Yorkshire technology entrepreneur Simon Chappell.

After watching the annual Goffs UK Breeze Up Sale which features horses who are run and timed over two furlongs on Doncaster Racecourse before being sold at auction, we retired for the afternoon to the lawn outside the bar and sat drinking bottles of a cheeky rosé wine.

“I remember that! We were fully rosé’d up with Mr Chappell!” smiled Scott.

I texted Simon to say I’d bumped into “Dicko” and he replied asking whether the trainer had told me that they had just named a horse “Rose’aid”.

I look forward to celebrating its many triumphs.


WHEN I reached the front of the main stand at Pontefract there was a line of bookmakers looking rather chilly and a bit downbeat.

One told me it was a quiet day on the course.

Things were livened up by a couple of well lubricated punters conducting a conversation about which horses to back at the top of their voices.

From their chat, they didn’t seem to have too much fondness for the bookies.

One of the men, with a flat-top haircut and bomber jacket, turned and lurched towards me, asking if I had a light.

I didn’t but that was enough for him to start a conversation, explaining they had had a fun day drinking large quantities of brandy.

I’m glad I didn’t have a light because every time he leaned in to talk to me, the unlit roll-up cigarette in his mouth hit me on the nose.

My new friend explained how he enjoyed going to the races but hadn’t been to as many meetings as he would like because he had spent three years “inside”.

“It actually turned into six-and-a-half because of a bit of bother that happened in there, do you know what I mean?”

I nodded sagely and started to construct a strategy to make myself scarce sharpish.

Pointing at his friend, he said to me: “Do you know he’s the best chainsaw man in the business, aren’t you Rocky.”

By this point I thought I had stumbled into a remake of the film Snatch.

However it turns out that Rocky worked on the Duke of Devonshire’s estate cutting down trees.

“He lived on the Bolton Abbey estate you know? I lived there too, have you ever lived anywhere like that?”

Gerry and I agreed that neither of us ever had.

Flat-top then leaned towards me, hitting me with his roll-up for the umpteenth time and whispered: “Mind you it was in a caravan and it were bloody freezing.”


THE BBC is often accused of “dumbing down” in a desperate attempt to attract a more youthful audience.

There are a few examples of that such as the painful Match of the Day meets Playschool mash up called MOTDx.

But I wouldn’t say this urge to attract younger listeners and viewers has seeped into every area of the BBC.

Until yesterday.

The last time I heard BBC Radio Four’s Prayer for the Day it was exactly what you might expect: a solemn invocation by a veteran clergyman.

Up at cock’s crow yesterday morning, I happened upon Prayer for the Day which runs just after the morning headlines at 5.30am and just before Farming Today at 5.45am.

The man of the cloth presenting it sounded rather youthful and confirmed that when he said the last time he travelled abroad was to go and see the rapper Stormzy performing in Paris in February 2020 just before the pandemic led to several lockdowns and international travel being put on hold.

With great excitement he explained that next week he is travelling abroad for the first time since then.

He told listeners that he is off to see pop star Dua Lipa who is playing the latest leg of her world tour in Antwerp in Belgium.

With that preamble he then launched into the daily prayer.



FAREWELL then Harry Patterson, one of the most successful British novelists ever.

What do you mean you’ve never heard of him?

He wrote 85 novels which sold more than 250 million copies and have been translated into 55 languages.

Still no idea?

I hadn’t either until the obituary I read mentioned his pen name – Jack Higgins.

His best known novel, The Eagle Has Landed, was published in 1975 and made into a blockbuster film the following year starring Michael Caine, Robert Duvall, Jenny Agutter and Donald Sutherland and was the last film directed by Hollywood great John Sturges – who was behind the camera for The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven.

The film is about a fictional German plot to capture Winston Churchill and unusually, all the male stars play the “baddies”.

Another 10 of Higgins’ books made it to the big screen, but never achieved the kind of success of The Eagle Has Landed.

What interested me was that although Harry Patterson was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne he spent his early life in Belfast before his mother remarried and moved to Leeds.

There he won a scholarship to Roundhay Grammar School for Boys but left with few qualifications and stayed in the army after his National Service, doing security work on the East German border.

After leaving the army he returned to education at Beckett Park teacher training college in Leeds (now Leeds Beckett University) and then taught at Allerton Grange School in the city before moving to teach liberal studies at Leeds Polytechnic and education at James Graham College, which later became part of the poly.

His time there even inspired him to use the pen name ‘James Graham’ for several of his novels.

While he received a cheque for £75 for his first novel, it was The Eagle Has Landed that made him a fortune and ensured Jack Higgins’ books would be on the shelves of airport bookshops across the world.

He died, aged 92, earlier this month at his home in Jersey, where he had moved to as a tax exile.

I never realised such a successful author spent his formative years in Leeds and I’m not sure how much the city has ever really celebrated that, which seems a pity.


I RECEIVED an email the other day with the subject: “Can you help my client in Harrogate, looking for a Clown?”

Opening the message, it said: “Hello, I work for a company called Bark, connecting customers in need with businesses that can help. A new client in Harrogate, HG3 came to Bark to find a Clown.”

The message went on to tell me the clown was needed for a birthday party in July for between 20 and 49 guests aged between seven and 10-years-old.

“I found your business online, and think you’d be a good fit for what my client is after – can you help?”

Well they clearly don’t have a clue do they?

What research have they really done?

And how insulting is it that they should approach me with this request?

Actually since the pandemic work hasn’t picked up as strongly as I hoped.

And I’m not doing anything on that particular Saturday in July.

Hang on, where did I put my big shoes and red nose?

Have a great weekend.

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