14 April 2022
An Amateur Hero
A toast to Waley-Cohen.
By Robert Kilconner
We all love an outsider and the 50-1 victory of Noble Yeats in the 174th Grand National has warmed the nation’s hearts. But the best thing of all, in these days of professional sportsmen, was that it should be won by an amateur. Not any old amateur, to be sure. Sam Waley-Cohen’s family is very well connected and their wealth has given him access to excellent horses. But still, he is a fearless rider and an unpaid one to boot, and that touches a particular cord in the minds of the British.
Amateurism is an important part of our culture. Men and women who do things just for the sake of doing them have always excited the public imagination. Perhaps the fascination began in Victorian times when many sportsmen or adventurers would have been sufficiently wealthy for pay to have been redundant, but since then it has rumbled along beneath the surface. Take Dorothy Sayers’s detective hero, Lord Peter Wimsey, as an example. Too rich to have to earn a living he is simply good at everything he does. A fine war record, a top-class cricketer, a first rate classicist, a connoisseur of music, an expert on old books, one of the best palates in Europe and a brilliant unpaid detective, all done on natural ability without any need to practice. Thank goodness he wasn’t riding in the Grand National or Waley-Cohen would have had a problem.
Of course Lord Peter is fictional but the admiration which we as a race feel for talent is not. When I was at university it was unfashionable to be seen as too hard-working. The ideal was to skip lectures, to spend the day on the river or with young ladies, to drink into the night and then to walk off with a first at the end of it. To say that someone “worked hard for his degree” was less of a compliment that it should have been.
Of course this was again fiction rather than reality. Most of us worked furiously to try and keep abreast with our fellows. It was just that one didn’t want to be seen doing it. “Haven’t really had time to look at my notes” was the cool thing to say as you walked into an exam.
In the end this attraction to amateurism has frequently let Britain down. In management and in sport an assumption that character rather than training was what was required has often left us behind our competitors. It was Gary Player, the great South African golfer who, on being told by a fan that he was very lucky to have sunk a long put, agreed but then added:
“The more I practice the luckier I get.”
I know that is true, that professionalism and dedication make champions, that the great era of talented amateurs was merely an era when some people were too rich to be paid, that Sam Waley-Cohen’s triumph would not have occurred without hard work as grinding as that put in by the professionals. Yes, the world in which talent dominated training is a cosy illusion. But it is a British illusion for all that so, even though I did not have the foresight to bet on his horse, I have raised a glass to Mr Waley–Cohen as a great amateur champion.