I wrote this for 'Notes from Underground' magazine.
The National Union of English, Irish, and Guernsey Horses ( N. U. E. I. G. H.) had declared a strike. There was to be no more horseracing until their demands were met.
They had issued a proclamation, which they had written with their hooves on an
unusually large carrot.
All the leading newspapers, seeing that a crisis was imminent, published it forthwith.
This is what it said –
We, the horses of England, Ireland, and Guernsey, have had enough.
No more, humans!
Unless you meet our demands, we will go on strike, and there will be no horseracing for any of you.
These are our demands -
1. LIGHTER JOCKEYS – The average weight of the British jockey is going up and up. Tell them to stop drinking beer and eating pies.
2. JUMPING TO BE VOLUNTARY. Have you SEEN how tall those things you make us jump over are? You should try it some time! Go on – just try!
3. SOFTER WHIPS. I can’t imagine you’d like it if every time you were trying to concentrate someone hit you with a whip!
4. POLOS INSTEAD OF HAY. Just because.
5. BETTER PENSIONS. After a life racing as fast as we possibly can, you just shove us in a field and forget about us. Well, we want better – a nice retirement home somewhere hot. Majorca maybe.
If you do not comply, we will strike, and we will not feel sorry for you.
N. U. E. I. G. H.
N. U. E. I. G. H. was an organisation elected by horses throughout England, Ireland, and Guernsey, in a yearly postal vote. The horses of Wales, Scotland, and the Island of Jersey were represented by a different union – The Welsh, Highlands, and Island of Jersey National Nags Institute Elect (W. H. I. J. N. N. I. E.). They took very different attitudes to the situation of horses in the United Kingdom. While W. H. I. J. N. N. I. E saw their human masters as basically fair, N. U. E. I. G. H. saw them as oppressive, corrupt, incompetent, badly dressed, and cruel. While W. H. I. J. N. N. I. E just existed to make sure things didn’t get any worse, N. U. E. I. G. H wanted to do whatever it took to make things better.
This was their big plan.
The following day, all the jockeys turned up at the racetracks all over England, Ireland, and Guernsey, to find the horses lying on their backs, drinking tea, eating biscuits, and looking hostile.
Try as they might, the jockeys could not make them race. They pleaded. They shouted. They threatened them with spades. But it was no use – the horses simply shook their heads, and said,
“I’m on strike, mate. You race.”
It was hopeless.
That evening, the jockeys went to their pubs up and down the country, and tried to make themselves feel better by drinking beer and eating pies. Then they went to bed, certain that the following morning the horses would have calmed down.
But the horses were even more uncooperative. They’d put up banners, and found board-games to play while they sat around.
The jockeys didn’t know what to do – people were turning up at the track, expecting to see some racing, and they were kicking up a terrible fuss. They stood outside the gates screaming and jeering.
“What’s the problem? Why can’t you make the silly animals race? They’re only horses, aren’t they – it’s not like they’ve got guns!”
The jockeys felt very embarrassed – but what could they do? A horse is at least fourteen times bigger than a jockey.
They decided to hold their own meeting, to work out what to do.
“I say we buy some flamethrowers!” said a very bad-tempered jockey called Nigel, who was wearing a black silk top with green stripes. “You can’t argue with a flamethrower.”
Mostly everyone else thought this was going to far.
“Why don’t we just do what they want – they seem very determined”, said a soft-spoken, gentle jockey called Fergus, in a pink top with blue sleeves.
Nigel laughed heartily, whilst brushing dust vainly off his lovely green stripes.
“My dear Fergus, that is balderdash – how on earth can we afford to feed them Polos all year round? Not to mention how angry the crowds will be when the horses don’t go over the jumps anymore! No – what this situation requires is a firm hand!”
“Yes – perhaps you’re right.”
Fergus had been made very sad by the whole business. He loved his horse dearly, and a day when they didn’t go out racing together was a day wasted. She was called Koala Portobello Gumdrop, and she was a dappled grey horse with a sweet disposition. All he wanted was for this whole mess to be over.
Nigel was still shouting.
“So – flamethrowers it is, then!”
Suddenly another, very energetic jockey spoke up. He had a large ginger quiff, a curly ginger moustache, and a white top with purple spots.
“Lads, lads, lads – there’s no need for violence. Why, this isn’t even a problem at all – it’s an opportunity!”
Everyone found this very confusing.
“An opportunity, you say?” said Nigel.
“That’s right! Who wants to race on boring old horses anyway? This could be the future – we can race on anything we want!”
Everyone stopped, and thought for a second. Anything they wanted?
“All we have to do is find animals whose situation is worse than that of our horses – endangered animals for example, or animals that get hunted for their fur, or animals that live in horrible swamps. They’d do anything to come and live in a stable and eat hay. All we have to do is advertise!”
So that became their big plan.
The following day, in newspapers all over the world, in hundreds of different languages, an advert appeared. It said –
Animals for racing.
Have you ever thought of living in the United Kingdom? It is very nice here. We are offering jobs as race-animals. We will give you a stable to live in, and hay to eat. Auditions will be held in London next week.
The following week, in a large covered market near London Bridge, the jockeys gathered to look over the applicants.
They had come from all over the world, and they were all desperate for a job.
The ginger haired jockey, whose name, as it turned out, was Ricky Flunch, stood on a podium, and organised the animals into groups. Each group had a race, to give the jockeys an idea of which animals would be best.
It wasn’t easy to decide.
All the different animals presented different problems.
The jockeys wrote a list of all the animals, and reasons why it might not be a good idea to race them.
This is what it said –
PORCUPINES – uncomfortable.
WARTHOGS – weird smell.
GOFERS – too small.
LEMURS – easily distracted?
PANDAS – lack motivation.
MEERKATS – don’t like the way they look at us. Rude.
TORTOISES – potentially smarter than we are?
MOOSE – hard to say why we didn’t hit it off. Something sort of boring about them. Feels like it would be awkward spending time with them – language barrier/different sense of humour etc.
BEARS – might eat us?
Just when they thought it was no good – when they were about to give up and go home – a very special animal turned up at the market.
It leaned against a notice board, and smiled charmingly.
“Perhaps I can be of some assistance?”
It had incredible, fast-looking, black skin on top, and smart, stylish, white skin underneath. It was just the right size for riding. It had a giant, crazy mouth and no discernable face. It had wings.
It was a giant manta ray.
All the jockeys cheered. They knew, just by looking at it, that their prayers had been answered.
Fergus sighed a heavy sigh – which was something he’d been doing a lot of recently. It just wasn’t the same. He missed Koala Portobello Gumdrop, and even if this giant manta ray was the best racer ever, and the crowds adored it, and the jockeys all made millions of pounds, he would still rather be racing with his friend.
The following week, the whole nation was desperate to know what was going to happen at the big race. The manta ray had brought a hundred of his friends over from the sea, and they had moved into a nice lot of stables near Epsom. The racetrack had been dug up, burnt, and replaced with seventeen Olympic swimming pools stuck together. Millions of spectators had turned up, with handfuls of money to spend in any way they could.
Ricky Flunch was swaggering around, taking all the credit.
Nigel was furiously tightening his giant manta ray’s saddle, determined to be the first person to win a manta ray race.
Only Fergus was unhappy.
The horses didn’t know what to do. They had gathered outside the racetrack, waving signs, singing angry songs, and showing people videos of how uncomfortable it was to fall over a really big jump.
But the crowds of excited spectators didn’t seem to care.
“Well – there’s only one thing for it – we’ll have to take more extreme measures!” said a very aggressive brown horse called Unexpected Smack In The Face. “Does anyone know where we can get some flamethrowers?”
“No, no, no!” piped up a peaceable, yoga-loving horse called Brian Ferry’s Silver Hipflask. “We’ve got to turn the other cheek – however badly they behave, we must sit here, non-violently, and show them that there is a better way to live!”
“Nonsense! That’ll get us nowhere – actions speak louder than words!” retorted Unexpected Smack In The Face contemptuously.
Koala Portobello Gumdrop said nothing during all of this.
She agreed with the strike – and wanted fair treatment for all horses. But she also missed her jockey, Fergus, terribly. She looked sadly to the race-swimming-pool, and wondered what he was up to.
At the start of the giant manta ray race, the Queen stood up and read a short speech.
“I, as your monarch, would just like to say how very proud I am of my nation’s jockeys for this innovative idea of theirs. I am sure it will be much better than those stupid old horse races, which I never really liked anyway. I do not pretend to know what a manta ray is – but I am sure they cannot possibly stamp, and complain, and poo all over the place like horses do. Let the games commence!”
She nodded to the man with the starter gun, he nodded back to her, and then he fired into the air.
Fergus, Nigel, Ricky Flunch, and ten other jockeys shot out of the starting pens on their massive, aquatic beasts.
It was chaos.
Thirteen giant manta rays is far too many giant manta rays to race at once.
The saddles were badly designed, and quickly tangled the jockeys to their rays so firmly they could not move.
The rays bashed into the concrete sides of the swimming pools, and suddenly found themselves very panicked.
They started screaming, and flapping, and swimming in all different directions.
Then they forgot that the jockeys could not breath.
They vanished to the bottom of the swimming pool.
The whole crowd started shrieking.
“Oh no! What on earth is to happen to my jockeys!” yelled the Queen.
Now, when someone is on strike, they are not supposed to stop being on strike, because if one person stops, then everyone might stop, the bosses won’t have to give in to any of the demands, and the whole thing will have been pointless.
If you break the strike, the other strikers might call you a ‘scab’ – which isn’t a nice
thing to be called at all.
Koala Portobello Gumdrop decided to break the strike.
Unexpected Smack In The Face did indeed yell ‘scab!’, as did many others – but Brian Ferry’s Silver Hipflask couldn’t help but feel that it was the right thing to do, all considered.
Koala Portobello Gumdrop ran as fast as she could (which was very fast) to the swimming pool and jumped in with a great splash.
There is nothing quite so fearsome as an angry horse.
She bristled, and snorted, and stamped the bottom of the swimming pool, and said, “Now look here, you manta rays – I know you’re scared and confused – but if you don’t swim up to the surface right now, the jockeys will drown, and if that happens, then I WILL KICK ALL OF YOU VERY HARD!”
Well, that told them.
The manta rays hurried to surface.
The jockeys gasped for air.
The crowd went wild.
The Queen cheered.
Fergus threw his arms around Koala Portobello Gumdrop and wept.
“Oh, KPG, I’m so sorry! What fools we’ve been – you horses are our best friends, and we gave you up over a silly argument! Well enough is enough – you can have all your demands! I’ll even try to drink less beer and eat fewer pies!”
“Oh, Fergus, how I’ve missed you!” sobbed Koala Portobello Gumdrop.
The strike was over. The horses had got what they wanted.
The Queen instantly decided to give Koala Portobello Gumdrop a medal – but first she turned her attention to the giant manta rays, who were looking very frightened.
“Manta rays, I am very disappointed in you! You almost killed my jockeys! What do you have to say for yourselves!?”
The leader of the manta rays swam forward, shaking with fear.
“Please – have pity on us, your majesty! We are so far away from home. Our waters are being polluted, and we desperately needed to find a new home – but we are not used to racing, or strikes, or swimming pools! We love this nation of yours – and we would love to stay, if you will let us.”
The Queen was not impressed.
“Well, that’s all very well, but what am I supposed to do with you all?”
The manta ray coughed nervously.
“Well – back in my own country, I’m actually … um … a qualified neurosurgeon – so if you need any of those …”
The Queen gasped with delight.
“But this is wonderful news! The National Health Service is understaffed!
Neurosurgeons is the very thing we need!”
So it all ended happily: the horses got a better deal – with lighter jockeys, and no jumps, and buckets of Polos; the jockeys started their horse races, and the crowds all came to watch; the NHS got a welcome injection of giant manta rays; and, most importantly, Fergus and Koala Portobello Gumdrop were friends again.