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Autobiography
My Animals and Other Family
Clare Balding (Viking, £20, *£16)

The broadcaster Clare Balding may be fast approaching national-treasure status, but, when she was a new baby, the lurcher cocked his leg dismissively on her basket and her grandmother said: ‘Oh, it’s a girl. Never mind, you’ll just have to keep trying.’ The only one who seemed really pleased about the new arrival was Candy, the boxer. The dog became so devoted that she leapt 20ft out of a bedroom window to keep up with the pram.

Gerald Durrell’s widow allowed the title of his most famous work to be flipped, and this is another compelling tale of a happy childhood defined and comforted by animals. They were certainly more attentive than some of her family at times. On the rare occasion Clare’s charismatic, competitive racehorse-trainer father Ian spent time with his children, something usually went wrong. When Clare was two, he abandoned her and her Shetland to a sulky stable lad; the result was a broken collarbone. Her stoic mother left a note: ‘Make your own lunch. Gone to hospital with Clare. PS: You are an idiot.’

One snowy day, he tied Clare and her brother Andrew’s sledges to the back of a truck, promising them ‘the best fun ever’; as he tore off downhill, Andrew fell off (it was a mile before Ian noticed) and Clare feared she would ‘end up as mashed potato under the exhaust pipe’, but their father was too entranced by his own speed. He was maddened by her lack of competitive spirit, but thrilled when, aged nine and watching the cricket, she observed: ‘Boycott’s out. No great shame as he was scoring so slowly.’

Reading this book on the train, I could barely suppress my laughter, but for all the comedy, the deft dialogue and the self-deprecation, there is the anguished voice of one who couldn’t share the
family joke that ‘women ain’t people’. Clare could be uncouth, she stole to curry popularity at school, although she didn’t betray her mates-take note, Snorter, Bear and Pickle, wherever you are-and when, as a teenage amateur jockey, she finished second in a race, a punter shouted: ‘Less pies next time!’ The end is uplifting-a place at Cambridge and acceptance of her individuality-but the story isn’t over. Let’s hope we get the next 20 years soon.

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