My Animals and Other Family, by Clare Balding: Acclaimed Olympic broadcaster reveals talent for writing in charming but frank childhood memoir

Clare Balding is hardly new to television, and hardly new to winning television awards.  She picked up her first in 2003, when she was named Sports Presenter of the Year by the Royal Television Society, by which time she was long established as the face of BBC's horse racing coverage and was looking ahead to her third Olympics, having covered Atlanta for BBC radio and Sydney for television.

Since then she has become a popular and authoritative voice at Wimbledon for 5 Live and has embraced rugby league, of all sports, with the same enthusiasm and professionalism that characterises all her work.  Drafted in to help with the BBC's Diamond Jubilee coverage, she met the challenge with seemingly effortless aplomb.

Yet London 2012, her fifth summer Games, has somehow elevated her from admired and respected -- a description, you suspect, with which she would have been entirely satisfied, even as an epitaph -- to the status of national treasure in the echelons of broadcasting.  In the broader scheme of the BBC's Olympic coverage, Balding's role as swimming anchor was some way down the credits from Gary Lineker and Sue Barker but columnists were quickly falling over one another to join in a chorus of praise.   The Guardian described her performance as 'Olympic gold'.  The New Statesman agreed that she was 'witty, empathetic and charming to viewers and interviewees alike' and also admired her for deploying 'knowledge and expertise in a firm but friendly manner – never overwhelming you with statistics, but always telling you things you didn’t already know.'

In the Daily Mail, the frequently acerbic and often unforgiving Jan Moir wrote an entire piece under the headline 'Why Can't Everyone Be Clare Balding?', without even the smallest trace of irony.  Moir laid into Lineker, writing that 'his flinty self-interest and laddish reactions were brutally exposed' but described Balding as 'a broadcaster with such an exceptional skill set she makes everyone else in her orbit seem third rate'.

Could there be a more opportune moment, then, to launch an autobiography?  The release of My Animals and Other Family is timed perfectly to ride this wave of popularity and has leaped to the top of the bestseller lists within a week of publication, although anyone tempted to raise an eyebrow should not really need reminding of how long it takes in publishing to be an overnight success.

Clare signed her deal with Viking in June last year, by which time the story of her childhood was already a manuscript.   When she first picked up a pen and began to jot down ideas, she would have felt it presumptuous to assume she would be involved with London 2012 let alone emerge as one of its stars.

My Animals and Other Family will not dilute her popularity.  On one hand it is a tale of privilege, of a girl born into wealth, descended from nobility, the daughter of a handsome racehorse trainer brought up in a vast house where The Queen would drop in for breakfast.

On the other, while it was hardly intended as a misery memoir, it is one that engenders sympathy in that hers was a childhood that began with Balding's matriarchal grandmother consoling her mother for not having given birth to a boy.  For most of the subsequent years, struggling for approval and acceptance, she worried constantly about what other people would make of her appearance, her character and, latterly, her sexuality, while growing up in a male-dominated world she would in some ways come to hate.

Yet she overcame the hurdles, metaphorical and well as literal, that were in front of her.  Where her mother had been denied the opportunity of an education by a family who did not think academic attainment to be a suitable ambition for a girl, Clare studied at Cambridge and returned with a 2:1 in English.  She was also a champion amateur jockey and worked her way up the broadcasting ladder from humble trainee.

The most affectionate memories are reserved for the animals of the title, a succession of dogs and horses that each had significance for her during the first 20 years of her life.  Beginning with Candy, the chestnut-and-white boxer dog who took it upon herself to be the baby Clare's companion and protector, the story moves on to Mill Reef, the Derby winner on whose back she perched, with no saddle and certainly no helmet, aged just 18 months, without an adult in sight.  She describes these relationships with wit and charm.

As an adult, Balding has been successfully treated for cancer, been proudly open about her homosexuality -- she lives with the BBC newsreader Alice Arnold, with whom she was joined in a civil partnership in 2006 -- and has railed against bigotry, successfully complaining to the Press Complaints Commission over an article written about her in the Sunday Times, in which the writer A A Gill was ruled to have referred to her sexuality 'in a demeaning and gratuitous way'.

Those topics will presumably be developed in a second volume.  The deal signed with Viking last year was for two books.

Buy Clare Balding's My Animals and Other Family direct from amazon.co.uk


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