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‘I have a very strong belief in women’s sport being important – not least in increasing confidence’

Features | Published:

By David Edbrooke

Clare Balding: ‘I was really inspired as a child by Gerald Durrell and James Herriot – it’s that idea of a being a child who feels much closer to animals than they do to human beings’

PIGEON-HOLE Clare Balding at your peril. Sports presenter, television and radio personality, women’s rights campaigner and best-selling author – she embodies success on a broad scale.

A Cambridge graduate whose father was a champion race horse trainer, Clare distinguished herself as a leading amateur flat jockey in 1990 when she became Champion Lady Rider.

Although she subsequently left the saddle to begin a career with the BBC, success has continued to come at a canter.

Just two years in, she worked at the Atlanta Olympics Games for BBC Radio 5 Live, and in December 1997 she became the Corporation’s lead horse racing presenter, going on to win the Royal Television Society’s Sports Presenter of the Year – and Presenter – as well as Racing Broadcaster of the Year, twice.

She has covered a whole gamut of sports, from racing, tennis and football to rugby league, and has established herself as a household name even in the homes of Britons for whom sport is a mere curiosity, courtesy of her commentaries on Trooping the Colour, New Year’s Eve, Crufts and her Radio Four series, Ramblings.

Undoubtedly, however, she is most well known for her prowess presenting major sports events – but perhaps not for long.

Clare’s first children’s novel, The Racehorse Who Wouldn’t Gallop, ironically flew off bookshop shelves faster than an Epsom Derby winner, and thousands of her young fans know her, first and foremost, as an author.

Her follow-up novel, The Racehorse Who Disappeared, is due out in five days’ time, and Clare is coming to Jersey to discuss it at the Jersey Opera House on 29 September.

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In keeping with the first book, her latest story centres on the adventures of a central female character called Charlie.

Charlie’s horse Noble Warrior has been stolen by thieves from her family’s farmyard late at night, but the police are baffled. With no trace of the thoroughbred to be found, Charlie opens her own investigation.

‘She’s dealing with real problems of anger and trying to remain calm under pressure,’ says Clare, who wrote the book in intense bursts over the course of six months.

‘She’s trying to solve a mystery, too – this book is much more of a thriller than the first.

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‘It was great fun to write and the feedback I get from girls is that they love it – they love seeing a girl in a position where she’s leading the team and she’s trying to get the better of her brothers.’

How important is it for Clare to put a female at the centre of her books?

‘Absolutely crucial,’ she says without hesitation. ‘I wanted to have a female heroine and I wanted to make her strong and a little vulnerable.’

Although she feels there are ‘probably not’ enough female heroines in children’s literature, Clare hopes her efforts will go some way to redressing the gender imbalance.

‘The one thing I can do is write my stories, create my heroine and, I hope, help girls believe they can achieve anything.’

The best children’s literature weaves life lessons into the overarching narrative, and Clare says her new novel contains empowering messages for young girls – and boys.

‘I hope it’ll make them laugh and I hope they enjoy it as a caper, but there are also some quite serious messages about not being frightened of being different, about being active and imaginative, and being brave.

‘There’s a lot in there about working together as a team, too.’

Unsurprisingly, given her background as a television and radio sports broadcaster, she has included numerous references to Britain’s Olympic achievements, including the GB women’s hockey team winning Olympic gold in Rio last year.

‘I have a very strong belief in women’s sport being important for lots of reasons, not least in increasing confidence in women to get on and do things that might push them out of their comfort zone, and not to be afraid to fail – sport teaches us that more than anything.’

How she finds time to pursue a successful writing career in between her broadcasting commitments is anyone’s guess, although she tells me that she keeps her writing days ‘precious’.

Clare’s best-selling autobiography – albeit a work that covers her life up to the age of 20 – is entitled My Animals and Other Family, a twist on the title of the much-loved book by Gerald Durrell, My Family and Other Animals.

Suffice to say, the 46-year-old describes herself as ‘very much a fan’ of the books by the late Islander and founder of the wildlife sanctuary at Durrell, known as Jersey Zoo.

‘I was really inspired as a child by Gerald Durrell and James Herriot – it’s that idea of being a child who feels much closer to animals than they do to human beings.

‘I came to Jersey before to give a talk to Jersey Race Club based around Les Landes and they asked me what I wanted to do while I was over.

‘I said I would love to go to Gerald Durrell’s conservation park so they took me there and I met his widow Lee Durrell. I said to Lee, “I’m writing this memoir and one of the titles I’ve been considering in my mind to flip around is My Family and Other Animals”.

‘So I asked, “Would it be possible to call my book My Animals and Other Family” and she replied (Clare affectionately adopts a mock American accent to impersonate Lee) “Oh my gosh, you got it”.

‘Bless her, she even wrote me a letter to confirm it.’

Clare may have been making her debut as an author, but her tender memoir about growing up in an eccentric household with more than 100 thoroughbred racehorses, mares, foals and ponies ensured she won the National Book Awards’ Autobiography of the Year in 2012.

She is seen by many as a national treasure, and that year had a golden hue for Clare and country.

One of the lead presenters of BBC Sport’s coverage of the London Olympic Games and the main presenter of Channel 4’s coverage of the London Paralympic Games, she won the Special Bafta and the 2012 Sports Journalist Association’s Sports Broadcaster of the Year.

‘I absolutely loved covering those events and I don’t think I’ll ever do anything like that again,’ admits Clare, who has covered six summer Olympics in total. ‘I was just the recipient of awards that really were about a feel-good factor for people who loved the Olympics and Paralympics.’

Her broadcasting efforts were also recognised at that year’s Women in Film and Television Awards, where she scooped the Achievement Award.

A strong promoter and defender of women’s rights, Clare insists there is a way to go to achieve fair recognition for the work women do.

‘It’s not about sparring for a fight, it’s about being sensible and practical, and realising what is better for us as a human race – it’s never a good thing to undervalue any section of society.’

In July, the BBC revealed what it paid 96 of its most high-profile presenters in 2016 who earned above £150,000, and women made up only one-third of the list.

Top of the chart was Radio 2 breakfast presenter Chris Evans at £2 million, and second on the list was sports presenter Gary Lineker (£1.7 million). Clare, for her part, was paid £150,000.

On Wednesday last week, several high-profile female stars who work for the BBC, including Clare, Newsnight’s Kirsty Wark, newsreader Fiona Bruce and Radio Four Woman’s Hour presenter Jane Garvey increased the pressure on the broadcaster over pay, by demanding it ‘rectify injustices’ by the end of the year.

Clare, who was made a member of the Order of the British Empire in 2013 for services to broadcasting and journalism, says the pay dispute is not just about salaries per se, but a wider issue regarding women’s rights.

‘We can make sure women coming into the industry are treated fairly and have equal pay for equal jobs. It’s about culture as well and the way people behave. There are some industries that are much more female friendly and as we know from lots of research, businesses benefit from it.

‘To be fair, BBC Sport is a very strong example of women being allowed to have high-profile jobs and therefore gaining a lot of experience – whether it’s me or Sue Barker, Hazel Irvine or Gabby Logan, between us we have done an awful lot of major events and in many cases, we are the most experienced people for certain jobs.’

I ask her whether she recalls a radio conversation that I, as an avid fan of BBC Radio 5 live, recall. It was the late 1990s and Clare was reporting from a tennis event in which Magnus Norman, then the boyfriend of world No 1 Martina Hingis, was playing.

The radio anchor asked Clare what Norman looked like, and she responded by describing the aesthetics of his game, rather than his appearance.

The radio anchor persisted, so she said: ‘Well, he’s quite blonde, blue eyes… if that’s your type.’

Asked if she recalls that misogynistic line of questioning, she confirms ‘I do’.

Clare believes such attitudes are not confined to the world of sports broadcasting.

‘People can be quite misogynistic full stop. I do think and hope the world is changing though.

‘A lot of it is about visual judgement and I’m very keen, particularly with girls, that they don’t worry what they look like, which is a theme I return to in both my children’s books.

‘I do think we get hung up on that a lot – and that [the Magnus Norman exchange] is a very good example of a line of questioning that is all about visual judgement and utterly irrelevant to his tennis.’

Tennis is a sport that shapes Clare’s summer. The presenter of BBC TV programme Today at Wimbledon, which runs each day during the tournament fortnight, she says 19-time grand slam champion Roger Federer has been her all-time favourite interview thus far.

‘I interviewed Roger Federer for the first time this summer and I was so impressed, oh my god! Someone said to me at the time, “I think he might be the single most impressive human being I’ve ever met”, and I think that’s a fair comment! He’s amazing, wonderfully polite, very patient and just lovely.’

Neither is she in any doubt as to who was the toughest interview: former heavyweight champion boxer and convicted rapist, Mike Tyson.

‘It was quite intimidating and I had to ask questions about Tyson’s past outside the ring, which was the really difficult bit, as well as his actions in the ring [he bit off part of fellow boxer Evander Holyfield’s ear in their rematch of 1997].

‘But I don’t regret interviewing him, and if I got offered the chance to interview Lance Armstrong, I would interview him too – and I would want to – but I know it wouldn’t be easy.’

She thrives on the unpredictable nature of sports broadcasting.

‘I love the fact that you cannot write a script beyond the beginning and the opening of your introduction. As soon as the action starts, you throw the running order out of the window.’

Clare, who married her long-term partner Alice Arnold in 2015 and was named in the top ten of the World Pride Power List three years ago, is happy to hear that Jersey held its third pride march last weekend – the Channel Islands Pride Festival.

‘I’m thrilled Jersey has a pride festival,’ she enthuses. ‘All power to it, I must come back when pride is on.

‘You often find that countries, cities or people who are “late” to the party are the ones who party harder and make it more colourful, louder and more wonderful than anybody else’s.’

She believes such festivals are important vehicles through which to promote freedom of expression, and bemoans the fact that from an early age, people are taught to conform to accepted convention.

‘I go to a lot of schools to do book readings and there are very few girls who don’t have long, straight hair. It’s the norm to have long, straight hair from age five to 25.

‘That’s fine but I would argue that in some situations, people do things to fit in with the standard practice and I would like a society where we celebrate diversity and difference.

‘If you take that attitude, prejudice stops existing because prejudice is based on ignorance and fear of difference and ‘the other’. It’s a much healthier society when everyone can look, speak and act differently.

‘And that’s not about being exhibitionist or being different for the sake of being different, this is about saying “this is humanity, we’re not all sheep dogs, why would you want to be?”’

The epitome of a successful 21st century woman, Clare’s achievements have not eroded her ambition.

‘There are factual documentaries I’d like to make, drama series I’d like to write, programmes I’d like to present and more Olympics I want to work on. I’m never short of motivation.’

nThe Racehorse Who Disappeared by Clare Balding, illustrated by Tony Ross (Puffin), is out on 21 September. Clare Balding will be giving a talk at the Jersey Opera House on Friday 29 September at noon as part of the Jersey Festival of Words. For more information visit jerseyfestivalofwords.org.

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