Clare Balding: I’ve never been at home as much as this

Images above: Torin Douglas; Clare Balding

The Boat Race on Easter Sunday will be the first major sporting event Clare Balding has done for the BBC for over a year.

Normally jetting all over the world to cover sporting events, she talked about how a year full of lockdowns has been for her, in the first of the 2021 Spring Lectures for The Upper Room.

Torin Douglas, Director of the Chiswick Book Festival and former Media Correspondent for the BBC, interviewed her in the online event to raise money for the west London charity which supports people who are homeless. He asked her about how she had spent 2020, about her career and what it was like growing up around a racing stables, with the Queen popping in for breakfast.

Being at home has been “lovely”

“I’ve never been at home as much as this, which has been lovely” she told the audience. “I make sure I walk every day, so the tow path between Chiswick Bridge and Kew Bridge is very well trodden for me. I try and do five miles a day minimum … I understand much more now what I need to keep me on track”.

Clare, who as a broadcaster has covered everything from horse racing to rowing and Wimbledon to the Olympics, is not used to being home bound.

“Luckily for me, although a lot of the sports events I do were delayed or cancelled last year, because I do write as well, I could keep myself busy. I managed to write two books last year and I’m meant to be writing another one, but I’m finding it rather difficult to concentrate”.

Because she doesn’t have a regular show, she said she’s not hidebound by a regular pattern.

“I like variety. I like to be stimulated and I make decisions to do things based on the key questions: Will it be interesting? Will it be fun? Will I learn something? Will it be challenging? If those questions are all in the affirmative then I say yes, I’ll do it”.

Nervous about presenting the Boat Race?

The Boat Race on Easter Sunday will be the first major event she’s done for the BBC for some time. Out of practice doing major live events, is she finding re-entry a little nerve-wracking?

“I don’t think I did even a single day for BBC Sport last year apart from Sports Personality of the Year, so I’m really glad I have been doing other things, because otherwise I’d be so nervous.

“If you don’t do live television and you suddenly pop up and you’ve got a massive audience, it’s like getting back in the car and driving when you haven’t driven for a year, you do slightly think ‘can I still do this?’”

The Boat Race used to be a local event for her, but this year it’s taking place in Ely because of the pandemic, with the organisers wanting to avoid the London crowds, which she said was “sad for Chiswick”.

Prioritising women’s sport

She does a lot of broadcasting about women’s sport.

“When I stopped going racing, which was in 2016, I absolutely made a commitment to trying to do as much women’s sport as I could and making a positive impact in terms of promotion. So women’s football I do quite a lot of. I’ve got Women’s Championship League matches coming up.

“When I started at the BBC, it seems a lifetime ago now, but Grandstand was absolutely, the aim of every sports presenter was to present Grandstand and I was very lucky, I did that in my twenties.

“Grandstand doesn’t exist any more. It’s very much a world of specialists and I’m still a generalist and I like being a generalist, so there’s less on offer but when the big events come along like the Olympics or the Commonwealth Games, the Winter Olympics or the Paralympics, at the moment I do still get the call”.

Images above: Some of Clare’s books

Writing books

Clare has the perfect mix of being able to pick and choose what broadcasting she wants to do and being able to schedule her own projects in between.

She really enjoys writing and already has an impressive pile of books to her name, both fact and fiction. She started with an autobiographical account My Animals and Other Family and has gravitated towards writing stories for children. Her output from 2020 has been factual – one adult book about animals and one, intended for older children, about how to be self-confident.

“It’s fun to create something that’s a bit more long-lasting” she told Torin.

“You know this Torin. Everything we do in radio and television, it’s wonderful but it’s gone. As soon as it’s on air it’s gone. Unless you make a right mess up, in which case it seems to live a little longer”.

“It’s there forever” Torin agreed.

Talking about the isolation of lockdown, “I particularly feel for teenagers” she said. I think for teenagers missing a year … I really, really feel for them. It’s important to recognise it and address it and try and help and even though I don’t have children myself, I’m very conscious of the effect that you can have on kids when you’re not their parent and you’re not their teacher, but you say something that resonates with them”.

Fall Off, Get Back On, Keep Going

Her latest book is Fall Off, Get Back On, Keep Going – ten ways to be at the top of your game, aimed at 9 – 11 year olds.

“About that age when you’re moving school, when you’re going from primary to secondary … and I think you suddenly become terribly self-conscious.

“So there’s a chapter called ‘The Cloak of Confidence’ which is about taking that cloak out of the cupboard, putting it on and giving yourself a chance to feel stronger.

“But also one of my big theories in life is that if you can get yourself off selfie mode turn the camera out and look at the world and look at other people and you can be concerned for other people and you look to try and be a good friend or a good support, you actually stop obsessing about yourself and I think that can be quite helpful”.

Breakfast with the Queen

Torin asked how much was inspired by her own childhood, which was “unconventional”. Her father was a successful racehorse trainer and she was a leading amateur jockey before she went into broadcasting.

She has told the story many times of how she had gone out for an early ride and came back in looking for breakfast. When her father had owners visiting they tended to come early to see the horses exercising, and stay for breakfast. Seeing two men in the kitchen (the Queen’s protection officers) she didn’t think much of it and went skidding into the dining room in her socks and jodhpurs, focused on the prospect of a cooked breakfast. There sat the Queen.

“I panicked. I didn’t even curtsey, which I should have done, I was so surprised”.

She literally did fall off horses and get back on again from a very young age.

“Me and my brother grew up surrounded by dogs and ponies. We weren’t really allowed near the racehorses because that was serious business, you can’t have kids running round the yard, but dad said to us pretty early on, you have to fall off a hundred times if you were to be a proper jockey.

“So I learned how to fall off and that’s sort of what inspired the title. When you learn to fall off, you actually stop being scared of it and weirdly that makes you less likely to fall off and I’ve kind of carried that through in life.

“Fall is only one letter different from fail. We are all going to make mistakes and it is about how we are going to recover. And actually if you are so scared of making a mistake when you start doing something, you will come across as being terrified. Certainly in television people watching you will then be scared that you’re going to make a mistake and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy”.

Image above: Volunteers serving a meal at The Upper Room

Clare’s interview was the first of the Upper Room Spring lectures 2021.

The Upper Room offers homeless people a cooked meal. They also provide driving lessons for men who have come out of prison and are looking for work. They offer counselling and practical support with job applications and welfare applications.

During the pandemic they have been giving online workshops but have not been able to fundraise. Meanwhile homelessness and poverty has increased massively. The number of people claiming Universal Credit has doubled to six million.

£25 pays for a case work session, a counselling session or a driving lesson. Donate to the Upper Room here: theupperroom.org.uk/get-involved/donate

The next lectures in the series are Michael Frayn on 21 April and Jeremy Paxman on 19 May.

Book tickets

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See also: A year of the pandemic – how has Chiswick fared?

See also: The Upper Room ‘braced’ for more people needing help

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