This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 5th January 2018, & the Gazette & Herald on 3rd January 2018.
So the new year has begun (Happy 2018!) and I have put away the last column from Dad’s 1976 archive, his first year of writing Countryman’s Diary. I’ve now moved on to 1978, exactly 40 years ago, which is how I had originally started last June, i.e. using a column from the corresponding week in 1977. But I had to change tack when I discovered that a strike at the Darlington and Stockton Times meant that Dad hadn’t contributed any columns for the latter part of 1977. So I moved back 12 months to his very first year, which seemed the most appropriate choice as it was my first year in the job too.
So now we move forward to 1978, and in his first column of the year, dated 7th January 1978, Dad talks about having to pull over to the side of the road to make way for some cows that were returning to their field after being milked. He was curious that they were accompanied by a little donkey, who seemed to behave as if she was a cow herself, and so he presumed she must have been raised with the herd.
This strange companionship brought to mind the story of 1967 Grand National winner Foinavon who had his own unusual special friend. Through good luck at the expense of others’ misfortune, Foinavon won the race despite being a 100-1 outsider. There was an almighty pile-up at fence 23 after a horse refused it and unseated its own jockey. Other horses followed suit, crashing into the fence and throwing off their riders, or turning tail and running back the wrong way. It was a complete catastrophe and affected every horse, apart from the fortunate Foinavon, who was so far off the pace that he managed to avoid the melee, jump clear and into an unassailable lead from the few who managed to remount and carry on.
He became instantly famous, and so too did his odd little chum, a nanny goat called Susie. Susie travelled everywhere with Foinavon, and they were practically inseparable. She was brought along because she had such a calming influence on the highly-strung thoroughbred. She even walked alongside him in a parade before Buckingham Palace to ensure he behaved himself in front of the Queen.
As I discovered, goats are pretty well known for their calming influence on skittish racehorses, and to this day can often be seen wandering around yards and sharing stables with their equine buddies.
According to some sources, it is where the phrase ‘get my goat’ comes from, which means to irritate or annoy someone. Apparently, unscrupulous rivals would steal the goats the night before an important race to unsettle the horse in the hope it would perform badly the next day. However this might not be true, as there seems to be no firm evidence to support it, and according to historical English linguistics expert Professor Tim William Machan in a 2015 Huffington Post article, there is no etymological evidence to support the theory.
I began to wonder if the reason why goats were chosen as military mascots was because they were believed to have the same calming influence on soldiers going into battle. But it seems not. Apparently, most regiments and battalions have their own mascots and traditions, and animals chosen include not only goats, but rams, ponies, dogs, and even antelopes and ferrets.
Possibly the most well known would be the goat mascots of 1st Battalion of the The Royal Welsh regiment. The tradition dates back to 1775 when a goat ran on to the battlefield during the American War of Independence. He was adopted by the soldiers and led the regimental colours off the field after the Battle of Bunker Hill. Since then, a goat has always served with the regiment and in 1884, Queen Victoria presented the Royal Welch Fusiliers (as they were then called) with a Kashmir goat from her own herd. It is a royal custom that continues to this day.
Military mascots are considered serving soldiers and given a ranking and a title. Lance Corporal William ‘Billy’ Windsor became quite famous, but not for the right reasons – he was demoted in 2006 after he disgraced himself during the Queen’s birthday parade by breaking rank and trying to head-butt the drummers. Thankfully, according to the National Army Museum website, after a period of good behaviour, Billy was restored to his original rank and retired with full honours to Whipsnade Zoo in 2009.