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Clare Balding: When I was 10 I watched Shergar win the Derby, he was a real pin-up racehorse, I felt like I knew him

 

The BBC presenter tells Kate Whiting about her latest children's book - which was inspired by the infamous IRA kidnapping of the Irish racehorse - and why she'd find it tough to write for adults.

Clare Balding's second book for children is based on the true story of Shergar, the retired racehorse who was kidnapped in 1983.

The tale of what happens to Noble Warrior after he wins the Epsom Derby is thankfully not quite as distressing - or inconclusive - as what happened to poor Shergar, but the impact is just as powerful.

"It was based on my real reaction to that when I was 12," says BBC Sport and Radio 2's Good Morning Sunday presenter Clare, whose dad was a racehorse trainer.

"When he won the Derby, I was 10 and it was the first Derby I really remember watching.

"Dad had a runner and his horse was second to Shergar, who won by 10 lengths - it was extraordinary, so, he was a real pin-up racehorse. And for this to happen, I kind of felt like I knew him."

Here Clare (46) reveals the inspiration behind her savvy female heroine, and Noble Warrior's young trainer Charlie, and her memories of reading growing up.

Is your heroine Charlie Bass based on anyone in real life?

"She's based loosely on my niece, Flora, who's got two older brothers who tease her about her powerful legs. You can see how boys treat girls as if they're different and I want to slightly challenge that and give Charlie the power, so she's the team captain.

"I can't believe how rare it is to have a female heroine who's not a victim. She's not flawed, she's not a ballet dancer, she's not a princess and she hasn't got long hair. I never knew that was going to be such a rarity. It does celebrate difference and I think that will help a lot of girls feel it's okay if they don't fit in because, frankly, I think we all feel like that."

How do you go about writing for children?

"I don't talk to children as if they're any different from adults. I speak to them all the time. I've been asking Flora since she was three what her career plans are. She looks at me a bit confused, but I want her thinking that's a legitimate question and that she doesn't have to come up with the answers. I just want her to know that she can do great things if she wants and to be ambitious and think big. I talk to all kids as if they're adults - I don't know any other way."

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The Racehorse Who Disappeared by Clare Balding

Would you write a novel for adults?

"I interviewed Jilly Cooper at the Cheltenham Literary Festival and she was saying to me, 'Oh, when are you going to start writing adults books?' And I said, 'Jilly, I can't write about sex, I just can't, I'm such a prude'. And she said, 'Oh, for God's sake, girl, just lie back and think of England'."

What are your earliest memories of reading or being read to?

"I remember my mum reading to me and then starting to read on my own and how exciting it was to be able to escape into this world that nobody could touch. You're just lost in your imagination and it's you creating pictures and giving people voices. I had a very vivid imagination, so anything that I was reading I probably overplayed, whether it was Roald Dahl or Enid Blyton. I read Michael Morpurgo now and he wasn't around when I was a child, but I wish he had been - my nephews and my niece love reading him. He does human and animal relationships really well."

What was your favourite book as a child?

"The first book that really made an impact, when I was about 10, was Black Beauty, the only book Anna Sewell ever wrote. It's a big old tome written from the point of view of the horse and it's just incredibly moving. A lot of it is about cruelty to animals and I didn't know some people were cruel to animals until I'd read it, because I'd never seen it. The environment I grew up in was all about protecting them and mollycoddling them and racehorses are pampered like kids or athletes, so it was a real eye-opener and it made me cry a lot."

Did you have a special place to read?

"As I got older and discovered the joy of the beanbag, where your back would be supported and yet your feet were on the ground, I would sit in my beanbag and read for hours. The connection to my childhood has been threefold: animals, so horses and dogs, reading and walking. These are the things that I still do as an adult that make me feel like a kid and (it's about) keeping that tie with the stuff you know is you and has been forever."

What do you read now as an adult?

"I do a lot of reading for my Radio 2 show, so (guests') biographies or books about the mind or motivation, and I mix that up with fiction. We had four days' break in Italy and I was reading JoJo Moyes' Paris For One, which is a sort of novella, and then some short stories. I love JoJo, she's great. And I've read all the Elizabeth Strout books - I Am Lucy Barton is fascinating and so distilled. Her writing style is so concise and her observation of human frailty and what we hide and that game of one-upmanship that a lot of people play ... she's very aware of that. (I read) a real mixture."

The Racehorse Who Disappeared by Clare Balding, illustrated by Tony Ross, is published in hardback by Puffin Books, priced £10.99. Available now

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