All I wanted was a father to look up to, by Willie Carson's lovechild
03rd October 2009
Jackie Schollar is the first to admit that she's not a 'horsey person'.
Save for an occasional jaunt to the races, she has very little to do with them, while her eldest daughter Susanne is severely allergic. 'Ironic really,' as Jackie puts it with a wry smile.
That's one word for it. For Jackie's father - and Susanne's grandfather - is Willie Carson, one of Britain's most successful and well-known jockeys, a five-time UK champion who has ridden more than 3,000 winners and, for a time, was Royal Jockey to the Queen.
Yet Jackie has never met him, or received a single birthday or Christmas card in all her 47 years.
Carson knows she exists, but has never felt the need to acknowledge her, apart from a brief, dismissive line in his 1993 autobiography. By his own admission, he has all but blotted her out of his mind.
More recently, however, it seems Carson, 66, has had some cause for regret. In a radio interview broadcast earlier this week, he admitted he has asked himself a number of times whether he was 'right or wrong' to so resolutely turn his back on the daughter he sired nearly half a century ago.
Nonetheless, he has still not felt the need to pick up the phone. Certainly Jackie and her mother Irene Jefford, who was abandoned by Carson as a vulnerable, pregnant 17-year-old in the early Sixties, have had time to reflect on their regrets.
Now herself a mother of three grown-up children - Susanne, 29, Michelle, 26, and 24-year-old Craig - Jackie remains bewildered by her father's ongoing coldness.
'As a mother, you just can't imagine turning your back on your own flesh and blood,' she says. 'It's not just me, he has grandchildren who would love to meet him - he's part of their family, too.
'I just feel very sad that he doesn't feel he can get in touch with me. I've had a long time to accept the situation and I can't spend my life dwelling on it. But I would very much like to meet him face to face and look him in the eye.'
If that should happen, Willie Carson would find the physical resemblance to his daughter - the eldest of his four children - startling.
Petite and fine featured, Jackie shares both his physique and the 'fat bottom lip' which, she says, is known as the 'Carson lip'. Her mannerisms are eerily similar, too. When her daughter giggles, Irene says it is as if her father is in the room.
In fact, Jackie and her father have never been under the same roof, other than by accident. Two years ago, she saw her father standing feet away from her at Royal Ascot, where he was working as a commentator, but couldn't bring herself to say hello.
'I was a stone's throw away from him, but if he saw me he didn't recognise me. I didn't introduce myself because I wouldn't want to embarrass him or cause a scene,' she says. 'It was an odd feeling.'
Not causing a scene, in fact, could be said to be the motto of Irene and Jackie, who by and large have dealt with their estrangement from Carson with remarkable fortitude.
Today Irene, 66, still lives in the small but comfortable three-bedroom house in Leyburn, north Yorkshire, where she was brought up - and where, three or four times a week, the teenage Willie would come for his tea during his 18-month courtship of Irene.
Irene Rushworth - as she was called then - was just 15 and working in a butcher's shop in Leyburn when she met the teenage jockey on bonfire night in 1960.
At 18, Carson had come to Yorkshire from his native Scotland to embark on his jockey apprenticeship at the race-training village of Middleham, and though he was three years her senior, they immediately became an item.
'He was funny and down-to-earth,' she says. 'He was always giggling, never miserable and he loved horses. All the lassies liked him. Sure he was confident, although he wasn't particularly clever.'
To begin with, their romance was an innocent teenage affair, unfolding amid chaste dates at the pictures and evenings in watching TV.
'That's what kids did in those days,' she says.
It was some time before the relationship became sexual, although it did so in 1961, by which point Irene was considered sufficiently important in Willie's life to be invited to spend Christmas and New Year with his family in Stirling.
It was during that trip that Irene discovered she was pregnant. 'I didn't feel good, so I went to see a doctor and he said: "I think you might be pregnant",' she recalls. 'Willie was quite casual about it, although he didn't tell his parents.'
On their return to Yorkshire, Irene insists Carson's thoughts had even turned to marriage. 'I was at a girlfriend's house and standing in front of a mirror, and he said to me: "If you wear flat shoes, it won't look so bad in a wedding photo, will it?"'
'But everything changed when Carson's parents arrived from Scotland after being told the news early in 1962.
While Irene recalls Carson's father as a sweet-natured man, she remembers his mother May as a domineering social snob who was insistent that nothing get in the way of her son's budding horse-racing career.
'All hell broke loose and I wasn't allowed to see him,' Irene recalls. 'I think she had decided the baby was going to spoil his life and she was determined that nothing would stop her son forging a successful career.
'I don't think Willie knows half of what went on, but he was dominated by his mother.'
And when he disappeared, Irene sensed May's hands at work once more. 'By April, Willie just vanished,' she recalls. 'He never tried to contact me and I never tried to contact him, because I knew it wouldn't do any good.'
Heartbroken, Irene was left to confront the harsh reality: at 17, she was pregnant and alone. 'I sobbed my heart out. But what could I do? I had to get on with life. I wouldn't have held Willie back. I could have lived in a caravan with him, it wouldn't have bothered me.'
Moreover, while the Sixties may have been swinging in London, in Yorkshire the fact that a teenage girl was pregnant out of wedlock was enough to bring immense shame on the family.
'I felt ashamed and it nearly killed my grandmother, she was never the same after that,' Irene says.
As was customary at the time, arrangements were made for her to give birth in a home for pregnant teenagers, in Leeds, where, in August 1962, Jackie was born.
One month earlier, her baby's father secured what would prove to be the first of many victories, romping home on Pinker's Pond in a seven-furlong Apprentice Handicap at Catterick.
It was a world away for Irene, who stayed in the home for three months before returning with Jackie to her parents' house.
'I didn't get over it for a long time. I didn't watch racing on television in case he was on and if I did see him I had to turn the TV off,' she says. Willie's career had gone from strength to strength and Irene did pursue him for maintenance through the courts.
'It was set at 10 shillings a week, which continued until Jackie was 16, by which time I was receiving 12 shillings and six pence weekly,' she says. 'When I asked for more, I was told that he couldn't afford it.'
Irene settled down at 21 with a local boy, Brian, giving birth to five more children. As the eldest of this rowdy brood, the young Jackie grew up initially believing Brian was her father, only learning the truth at the age of 12.
Taking up the story, she recalls the shock of discovering that the man she called 'Dad' was not her real father.
'We were watching This Is Your Life on the television and Willie was the subject. I remember my mum said she had something to tell me, and that he was my dad. I couldn't believe it,'Jackie says. 'I felt so proud. I couldn't believe that someone so famous was my own flesh and blood.'
Even then, Jackie showed some of the remarkable stoicism that has characterised much of her adult life. 'Mum didn't seem to want to talk about it, and I didn't ask too many questions. It wasn't in my nature to be pushy. I remember thinking if he wanted to see me, then he could come and find me. I wasn't going to go looking for him.'
Nonetheless, there were times when she felt desperately unhappy at her father's lack of interest. 'I did get upset thinking of my father and how things could have been,' she says.
'Like any girl that age, I wanted a dad I could look up to. But the sorry truth was that I got shoved to the back of his mind because of his career.'
After leaving school, Jackie took a job at a factory. At 19, she married Derek, her childhood sweetheart, and they settled down to raise their daughter Susanne.
Unsurprisingly, Willie Carson did not attend the wedding, despite receiving an invitation from Irene. 'I didn't expect him to attend in a million years,' says Jackie. 'He'd shown no interest until then, so why would the fact I was getting married change anything?'
Two more children, Michelle and Neil, followed, and Jackie knuckled down to parenthood.
'In a funny way, my dad and I are quite similar. We're both grafters, and we both worked our way up from nothing over the years,' she says.
Certainly, Jackie has done well for herself. Now divorced - amicably - from Derek, she lives with her new partner, Keith, in a lovely barn conversion outside Ripon set amid two acres, and runs her own coffee shop.
Carson, however, has gone on to accrue considerably greater riches, including a state-of-the-art stud complex near Cirencester. Yet his money is of no interest to Jackie and her mother. 'The money side of things is one of the reasons I've held back from making contact,' Jackie admits.
'If my father was an ordinary Joe Bloggs down the street I would have probably knocked on his door by now. But he's a wealthy man and I couldn't bear to be thought of as a gold-digger.'
Nor, it seems, has Carson's wealth brought particular happiness to his other subsequent children, Tony, 46, Neil, 43, and 41-year-old Ross. Only a few months after abandoning Irene, Carson had met another teenage girl, secretary Carole Spares, who also became pregnant.
This time, however, he did the decent thing. The couple married in 1963, but the marriage ended in divorce in the late Seventies after repeated infidelity on his part.
In his 1993 autobiography Up Front, Carson criticised his first-wife for having 'no pride in herself' and denounced his sons as 'stupid'. She in turn told the Mail this week that she felt 'used' by Carson, who had viewed her as little more than a springboard for his career.
In the same book, he also made a dismissive reference to his illegitimate daughter and her mother's pregnancy, of which he wrote: 'From the very start I decided to wash my hands of it.'
Back at her home in Yorkshire, the then 31-year-old Jackie could only learn this with sadness. 'I read it because I wanted to know about my family,' she says. 'But I wasn't upset by what he wrote. I'd been pushed aside from the beginning, so it was entirely in keeping with the way he'd behaved.'
But the book was to prove a prompt for one unexpected contact: on a warm summer evening that year, Jackie received a telephone call from Neil, Carson's second son from his marriage to Carole.
'The book had stoked his curiosity. He wanted to meet his half-sister,' she says. 'I invited him to stay and we talked for hours about our childhoods. Neil had had everything I hadn't - money, holidays on yachts, but it wasn't all it was cracked up to be. I got the impression it didn't seem to have made him any happier.'
The pair hit it off, and Jackie even went to stay with Neil and his girlfriend for a week, although the budding friendship fizzled out. 'I think in the end we were just quite different people,' she says. It was to prove the last contact she has had with her paternal family.
Irene, meanwhile, has seen Carson in the flesh only once since 1962 and that was earlier this year when, accompanying one of her sons as he delivered a horse to a stud farm, she realised at the last minute the property belonged to the jockey.
'I didn't get out of the horsebox to look him in the face, but from what I did see he looked like an old tramp,' she says. 'I don't think he saw me or realised who I was.'
These days, for Irene, the events of the Sixties are something she has learned to live with. Nonetheless, she is clearly offended by his reference to her in his recent radio interview as a 'girl'.
'He knows my name,' she says. 'He makes it sound so casual and it wasn't, that's what annoys me.'
Carson's daughter Jackie, for her part, says again that she feels not anger, but sadness. 'I was gobsmacked by what he said this week,' she says. 'If he feels that way then why doesn't he just come and knock on my door?'
Her own children remain equally baffled and upset by their grandfather's continuing absence.
'They can't really believe it. They're so close to their own father and they don't understand how their grandfather can't be interested, especially when they know that I'm so passionate about my children.'
What a pity that her famous father doesn't share that sentiment.