Most of us had a realisation or two during the pandemic. One of Clare Balding’s was this: she doesn’t “need to be on television.”
Not that she doesn’t love her jobs presenting major sporting events for the BBC, Channel 4 and BT Sport. But for Balding, it’s all about the storytelling and being at the heart of it – the fact there are cameras is by the by.
“I think last year was a fantastic opportunity for me to have a sabbatical from television, which effectively I did, because all the events I was meant to work on got cancelled. And in my head, it triggered something, which was I really don’t need to be on television to have any sort of self-validation,” she explains.
“If I’m doing it, it’s because I love it and I love the event – it’s not about me being on television. It’s about me working on the Olympics or working on Wimbledon and getting an opportunity to go, ‘Look at this player Emma Raducanu, she’s amazing!’ I see it as a storyteller’s role on telly, and that I just happen to be seen, unfortunately.”
It’s why she finds switching gears between broadcasting, podcasting and writing a lot simpler than it might sound. Hampshire-born Balding – whose sporting career began with an early stint as an amateur jockey, before starting as a BBC trainee and weaving her way up to become one of the country’s most high-profile female sports presenters – already has eight books out, with more on the way.
These include her bestselling autobiography My Animals And Other Family, and kids’ books The Racehorse Who Learned To Dance and – her latest – Fall Off, Get Back On, Keep Going.
“All through the Paralympics, I’m trying to get [the athletes] to share their story. That’s what I love about it. So the way I work on television or radio, it’s pretty much the way I work on a book, really – I love hearing different voices, and I love being able to make people interested.”
She also admits writing “saved me in lockdown, to be honest, being able to have that structure that still felt like I was doing something”. And structure is a vital part of the writing process for Balding, whose approach is to “block out days in the diary”. There’s always coffee in the morning (“I love my coffee”) then she’ll sit down and start, and go for a walk if she’s “struggling with creativity”.
She says: “If I sit and it comes, I’ll write. If it doesn’t come, I’ll walk, and then I’ll come back and write.
We don’t have a dog anymore but I used to walk Archie first (Balding and her wife Alice Arnold lost their beloved 15-year-old Tibetan terrier Archie last summer).”
It clearly works: she completed two books in the pandemic and will soon be cracking on with another.
First though, she’ll be busy reading in her new role as celebrity judge on the Kindle Storyteller Awards.
There’s a 20k prize up for grabs, but Balding is also excited by the prospect of highlighting Kindle as an avenue for self-publishing and what that means in terms of getting “different voices” out there.
“I talk to a lot of people who are writing stories, and I know from my own [writing], the challenge is to get a publisher interested in the story, but quite often it’s difficult to do that by just giving them an outline.
For a lot of authors, that is the real battle and it’s exhausting trying to get published.
With Kindle Direct Publishing, that battle is won, you’ve got it, and then people can read the whole story. What prizes like this do is really animate the market, they can encourage people to be brave.
“I really genuinely like reading other people’s work, I like seeing fresh talent and working with new talent,” she adds. “I find that very invigorating; it gives me fuel and makes me think more adventurously.”
What ‘gives her fuel’ is another thing that has evolved for Balding as life’s gone on. In her autobiography, she wrote of early struggles as a young woman whose body was larger than the ‘norm’ in the very weight-focused world of horse racing.
And while Balding is arguably at the top of her game and damn good at what she does, she is a woman, in a same-sex marriage, in sports – a world rooted in sexism and which, until very recently, had no acknowledgment of its LGBTQ members.
A lot of her energy has gone into championing and levelling the playing field for women’s sports – a goal she still holds close – and she has clear criteria when it comes to choosing what project to do next, and just going for things.
“I’m very conscious of trying to get the most out of life, generally. I want to have new experiences, fresh experiences, I want to be challenged. So my rules are: is it exciting, is it interesting, will I learn something, and will I have fun? And if those are affirmative, I will do it.”
That doesn’t mean Balding is a stranger to imposter syndrome and never gets scared. She cites a quote by the “amazing surfer” Bethany Hamilton, who lost an arm in a shark attack: ‘Courage doesn’t mean you don’t get afraid. Courage means you don’t let fear stop you.’
“I’m not trying to prove anything,” Balding reflects. “I think definitely in my 20s and 30s, you feel like you’re scrambling up a mountain and you need to keep pushing and pushing and pushing.
And of course, you’re going to make mistakes and slip, but from my point of view, and I think it’s true for a lot of people, you are really, really driven by this deep desire to prove either other people wrong, or prove to yourself that you can do this.
And then you come to a point where you think, ok – it’s not an attitude of ‘I’ve got there’ in any sense – it’s more a sense of, ‘I’m 50 now, what do I want?’”
Balding turned 50 in January. But it’s not just age that’s shifted her perspective. Have there been ‘penny drop’ moments too? “There have been a few moments,” she says, “where you kind of, you know…
I wasn’t very well in 2009 [Balding had thyroid cancer] and that was a big wake-up. I didn’t for a second think I’m going to die or anything like that, but I did think, ‘Gosh, I really do need to make sure I make the most of this’. Just that, just keep doing new things. That was a bit of a gear-changer.”
The Kindle Storyteller Award celebrates independent and newly published work in the English language across all genres. The shortlist will be announced in September and the winner later this year. Visit amazon.co.uk/storyteller.