Wensum, by Jim Harding, November 4, 2014

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It was wonderful to be back at our racecourse for the first meeting of the season after the long summer break. Hard to believe that the last action here had been on June 1.

Perhaps it was the early break-up for school half-term holidays which made the difference, but the attendance was way above the norm for this particular opening. That in itself was great news for benefiting charity Norfolk Hospice, Tapping House who must have been thrilled by the turn-out. Kettle Chips were the major sponsors and were handing out their tasties in return for contributions.

With plenty of other buckets doing the rounds the final total might even have exceeded the pot achieved when Tapping House last came here a couple of years ago. The weather forecasters had promised us rain but in the event there was hardly any and the going was good rather than soft.

It was one of those meetings when everyone stood a good chance of picking a winner or two. In other words, very open, with just a couple of favourites getting home.

I’ve said it before, but it’s worth saying again. As a sporting day out, top class racing has a lot going for it. The basic entrance at Fakenham is just £8 with accompanied children under 17 getting in free. The whole atmosphere is very family friendly and should you feel so inclined you can even take the dog as well. Few other tracks permit that. Jockeys walk through the crowd to get to the enclosure prior to each race and are always willing to sign race cards when requested. Where else would that happen?

These athletes are certainly not prima donnas despite participating in a dangerous and highly-skilled sport. They just get on with it and accept the thrills and spills in equal measure. Before the year’s out we are fortunate to be hosting three more meetings – this Thursday first race 1pm; Tuesday, November 18, 1pm; and Sunday, December 21, 12.25pm. I shall be at all of them with my notebook and camera, extending an association which stretches back to the period even before A.P.McCoy first became champion jockey in 1996. He’s now well on his way to his 20th successive title, by the way, with 150 winners in the bag as I write. What a phenomenon.

I know this is hardly the place for a book review but I must share with you my enthusiasm for this year’s Booker Prize winning novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan. It has gripped me over the past few days, almost like a horror story in the company of dozens of Australian POWs captured by the Japanese to build the so-called death railway from Thailand to Burma in the Second World War.

In my late teens I had a daily routine of running to my local open-air swimming pool in Woking to join the lifeguard there for a workout which always concluded with a dip come rain or shine, ice or snow. Yes, we were considered a bit bonkers.

I knew that Wilf had been a prisoner of the Japanese in Changi Jail on Singapore island and had been one of those shipped north as slave labour to work on the railway. He hardly ever referred to this awful experience except for the occasional aside and I never really knew how much he had suffered. There was no doubt that at least physically he had made a remarkable recovery.

When in later years I travelled to Thailand I kept a promise to him by visiting the Bridge on the River Kwai and the nearby cemetery at Kanchannaburi with its hundreds – if not thousands – of white gravestones chiselled with the names of so many young soldiers. Now as I read this brilliantly-written tale – dedicated to the author’s father who was one of those who laboured on the railway and survived – I find it impossible not to see the figure of my friend Wilf in just about every chapter.