Wednesday, 15 August 2018

The Smallest of the Small Things.




Sometimes, I say to myself: oh, if only it could be easy. 

Is this a thing? Is the modern world so ravelled and inexplicable that millions of humans are out there, longing for simplicity? Is that why Instagram is filled with beautiful pictures of clean, white rooms in the Scandi style? (I have an absurd fantasy that everyone in Denmark is blissfully happy.)

I was thinking about this today as I was riding my grand red mare. People had been shouting at each other on the Today programme about terrorism and Twitter had been filled with angry bigots after the car crash in Parliament Square. Goodness knows what Donald Trump has been up to. It all felt too much, so I rode out along the valley for seven miles to escape the world.

This should be the most simple thing in my life, but it isn’t, quite. The red mare is a very emotional person. She has an astonishing array of strong feelings, and they are all on display at all times, as if she is hanging out more flags. She’s been upset lately because her little bay friend has had to go and stay at the vet. She loathes change, and she has abandonment issues all over the shop. (She is crazily like me.) When she gets unsettled like this, I have to do huge amounts of yogic breathing and get her to let go of all her jangles. We do a kind of Zen mistress dance together. This takes a great deal of time, and I don’t have much time, just now.

So the ride was a challenge. I had to draw on all my emotional and technical intelligence. With a sensitive creature like that, you can’t just kick on and impose your human will. You have to empathise and reassure and be clever and kind. You have to guide and soothe and reassure. I could not simply look at the slumbering hills and admire the wide, glacial valley. I had to concentrate. I had to work to get her to relax. I had to run the line of trust from my heart to hers. 

At one moment, I said to her, laughing, ‘Why didn’t I get an old push-button horse?’

‘I have absolutely no idea,’ she said. ‘But I’d like to have seen you try.’

There is no such thing as a push-button horse. There are some who are more straightforward than others. We have one in our field. She’s only four years old and she’s not long out of racing, but she’s so transparent and relaxed and easy in the world that working with her brings on an astonishing lightness of being. She does not become overwhelmed by her own emotions like my mare can. She thinks life is marvellous and humans are marvellous and every new day is marvellous.

I love working that horse, but she would have taught me nothing. The complex, demanding, fascinating, endlessly enigmatic red mare has taught me everything I know, about horses and about life. She has taught me rigour, and patience, and humility. I have to put my own frets and desires aside for her sake. If she needs to go slowly, I have to go slowly, for all that I yearn to go fast. I have to check her barometer every day, and adjust mine to match it. I have to put away my own needs and meet hers. She banishes ego with one wave of her duchessy hoof. 

And so there we were, out on the trail, and I couldn’t think about the bad news and the shouting people because I had to give my entire self to her. Gradually, she responded and became whole. She put her jangles away. She believed me when I told her that there were no mountain lions in the world. And I let the reins out and she stretched her neck and cantered along in her dear cowgirl lope. I’ve been watching clips of the Mongolian Derby, and I stood in the stirrups like those bold riders out on the plains, and lifted my hand high over her neck, and imagined we were riding, riding, riding, for hundreds of miles.

(I managed this for about five furlongs. I sat down in the saddle with new respect for the horsemen and women who are, as I write this, doing it all day long, on sturdy, determined ponies they have just picked out of a herd.) 

It was a dream canter and it was perfect because I’d had to work for it. When it came, it was simple, but it had not been easy. That’s the point, I thought: she makes me work for it. She makes me strive. She requires that I am better. She reminds me that I can’t tick a box and say my work is done. With her, my work is never done. If I give in to idleness or hubris or carelessness, she will throw her head about and become unhappy. When she rises to her finest, most glorious self, the feeling I get is like nothing else in the world because I had to put all my effort in to it. No push-button would give me that flinging sense of triumph. 

By the end, she and I were one, and I said to her: ‘Take me home.’ I dropped the reins. She knew the way. She turned left and turned right, as if following the north star. We saw two tiny children on the lime avenue, and she stopped to talk to them. They gazed at her in wonder and touched her nose tenderly with their minute hands. 

I looked at their beaming faces. It’s not easy, I thought. Nothing is easy. Perhaps that’s the point. But oh, there are rewards, if you throw your heart into something and refuse to give up. That gentle horse with those delighted small humans - that was my reward. I’m writing it down so I don’t forget. Sometimes, it is the smallest of the small moments that means the most.


Tuesday, 14 August 2018

Sheltering from the Storm.



I suddenly realised why I stopped writing the blog. It’s because of the bloody, buggery menopause.

As I write that sentence I feel fear. I want at once to go into my head. If I can run away into my intellect, I shall be safe. I was going to do a whole tangent on the word ‘menopause’ and all its cultural associations. (Which would, of course, be so fucking fascinating that you would all fall off your chairs in delight.)

I’m not going to do that. I’m going to stay with the emotion, which is so big it makes the Titanic look like a rowing boat. It’s vast, roiling, boiling rage. It’s anger so great I don’t know what to call it. There is no good word in the English language. It’s in every atom of my body and it’s all around me, as if the whole world is made up of red fury. It’s pushing at me and pulling at me and punching me and kicking me. It’s at everything: life, death, betrayal, muddle, unfairness, stupidity, selfishness. It’s at all human failings, most especially my own.

It came out of nowhere. Although I think perhaps it has been cooking for some time. It felt like it came out of nowhere, but I know it comes from somewhere. It started to grumble when yet another fucking doorknob fell off yet another door yesterday, and I had to make a ghastly telephone call I did not want to make, and my huge, brilliant idea that was going to change the world started to reveal itself as a very small idea that would need the kind of work that Sisyphus knew, as he pushed his stupid boulder up his stupid hill. 

It got grumbling because someone did something hurtful, a hurt that came on top of a whole lot of other hurts. It started stretching and sniffing the air because I am being, as always, absolutely useless with logistics and any kind of organisation and I’m fifty-one years old and when will I ever learn to make schedules and manage time and not be in a goofy mess? 

It received a voltage jolt when I spilt some water on my precious computer and the poor machine began wailing at me with agonised siren noises and even though I managed to rescue it, one of the shift keys now produces weird, hieroglyphic symbols instead of capital letters. (The other shift key, amazingly, still works, so I’m teaching myself to use my right hand for upper case, which means that instead of typing at ninety words a minute I’m having to stop and think and hobble along like a lame carthorse.) 

What the menopause does is take all the daily darts and stings and makes them into something huge. There is no perspective. A careless word, a tiny slight, a fleeting act of unkindness - all become the End of Everything. I want to tell everyone and everything to fuck off. Then I start behaving badly, and so, along with the undifferentiated rage, there is shame. Shame is the worst fucking party crasher in the world. It barges in, changes the music, eats all the food, spills drink on the carpet, and gets off with your boyfriend. 

I run around the internet, being all bluebirds and butterflies, because I’m trying to dedicate myself to positive thinking and gratitude and all the rest of the bollocks. I write little lines of inspiration and post adorable dog pictures and tell stories about the red mare. I scatter the pictures and posts of others with hearts and compliments, because the world is so dark and the news is so bad and I want to try and spread the love. And inside, I feel like the stupidest, angriest, crappiest person in the world because my hormones have gone bonkers and I can’t seem to go to bed at reasonable hour. 

I miss my mother so much it feels like someone is stabbing me with knives.

So that’s why I stopped the blog, because I did not want to be that person. I did not want to be the wailing person. I admire stoicism, and perseverance, and that grand, British, self-deprecating sense of humour. I like people who get on with it and don’t make a fuss. I loathe drama. (I adored drama when I was younger, and indulged in it often. Now I hate it with a deep disdain.) I wanted to be a ray of sunshine and I couldn’t be a ray of sunshine any more. That was not fair on the poor Dear Readers, who have enough troubles of their own.

I wanted to share beauty and truth, not fury and confusion.

The hormones don’t storm every day. There are mornings when the waters are calm and limpid and a light breeze gentles the land and it is clear sailing. It’s not so bad, I think, as I gaze at the horizon. And then the typhoon hits and the black clouds blot out the sun and waves as big as houses hurl me about a lost ocean. 

I am not waving, but drowning.

The irrational voices are the only ones that can shout loud enough to be heard over the tumult. They yell that I am a failure and a fraud, that nobody else gets this, that I don’t have the right stuff. And then, for a moment, the wind drops and I can hear the quiet, rational voices. They say I am a flawed human being, trying like everybody is trying; that everyone gets this, at one time or another; that maybe the right stuff is there, if I can dig hard enough for it. They say: you are not alone. They say: all humans have to sail a stormy sea, from time to time. They say: keep paddling, and you will stay afloat. 

They say: this too shall pass. They say, because they have been reading the magnificent Brené Brown: it’s good to be vulnerable, to show your true self in all its incarnations. They say: sunlight is the best disinfectant.

And then the dear old universe took a hand. Just as I wrote that last paragraph, the telephone rang. The steady voice of a writing friend came down the line.

‘Ah,’ I cried, before I even said hello. ‘The voice of sanity.’

The Voice of Sanity sounded slightly surprised, but he went with it. And he utterly was that voice: funny, understanding, wise, generous, empathetic and, at the end, suddenly and violently fascinating. 

The rage and shame could not stand up to that much human warmth. They slunk away into the shadows, vanquished by something as simple as a kind man. 

Shall I publish them anyway? I’ve got them off my chest by writing them down. I don’t have to tell you about them. You know them well enough for yourselves. I could press the delete button.

I think I shall publish and be damned. Because life can’t be all bluebirds and butterflies and I believe it’s somehow important to write the crappy parts from time to time. Not all day or every day, but sometimes. So that I can say I am not alone and you can say you are not alone. The storms blow into every human life, but the lovely thing is that they do blow out again. And the ship goes sailing on.

Monday, 13 August 2018

The Big Think


I call a friend in Wales. She is a horse person and we talk about our mighty mares.

It is 1pm. We discuss biomechanics for horse and rider. This is the Mary Wanless school. For anyone who wants to get better at riding, it's a riveting subject.

At 2pm, we are talking about creation myths, the collective unconscious, Jung, and the nature of molecules.

'Fuck,' I yell down the telephone, 'we've gone from Mary Wanless to Jung in an hour.'

I love stretching my mind around big ideas, even though I can feel my brain snapping and twanging with the effort. This friend makes me grasp for the big. I'm crap at small talk. I like trying to think higher, even though it makes me swear. 'Bugger,' I bawl. 'Sod it,' I shout. 'I'm bloody well going to look that up the moment I put the telephone down,' I cry.

Everyone should have a friend like that. Mortality is slinking around my heels, like a mangy dog. I'm motoring into the second half of life and my hormones are all over the shop and everyone is bloody dying. My defence against the stupid shortness of human life is to know stuff. I want to learn things and read things and discuss things. So, I have a friend who makes me strive and makes me stretch and makes me think.

At the end of the conversation, we laugh at ourselves. We are British, after all. We are not allowed, by law, to get too serious. We retreat into our safe space of the ironical and the self-deprecating. She goes back to putting out hay for the livestock; I return to my computer. My cognitive function feels as if it has been dancing round the ring like Mohammed Ali.

I should start every week with a big think, I tell myself. Even if it all goes to hell by Friday, I've aimed high. I don't want to fall into the dangerous complacency of middle age, where I believe that I know what I know and I think what I think. When I'm with my grand mare I keep challenging myself, because that's what she deserves. She loathes smugness and hubris. I can do it for her. Now I need to do it in human life as well as horse life. Open up that old mind, and gallop into the unknown spaces. Even if it does make me shout and swear.

Friday, 10 August 2018

Everyone has Been so Kind.



It is the dazed end of the hottest summer anyone can remember. Not far away, a good old man is dying.

Does it make a difference that he is good? Does that make it sadder?

Does it make a difference that he is old? Does that make it easier?

Does it make it more poignant that the hills and fields where he lives are dressed in their dramatic August livery of gold and blue?

Does it make it better or worse that he had a life well lived, that he was always joking and laughing, that he was brilliantly clever, that everybody who met him loved him? The memories will be richer; the loss will be greater.

It makes no difference and it makes all the difference.

I took soup. I made soup, last night, thinking of the dying, thinking of the living, thinking of the grieving. Today, I drove it up the hill.

Before I left, I talked to my dear friend. We've all known this family for twenty years. I don't know them intimately, but they are stitched in to the community. I see them at Christmas and at the Highland games and in the village; at dinners and lunches on high days and holidays. We smile and smile and talk of ordinary things.

'I'm making soup,' I said to my friend, 'because you can't be cooking and grieving at the same time. And,' I said, 'I'm making soup because it's easy. The speaking is hard. Because what do you say?'

She looked at me in surprise.

'But you,' she said, 'surely you know what to say?'

I knew that she meant: because your father died and your mother died and it's not that long ago. I knew she meant: surely you have the language of death?

I shook my head. 'Just afterwards,' I said, 'I was brilliant. Just after someone has died you are stripped of everything. You have no defences. You've lost a layer of skin. You are all authenticity. You can say anything then.'

I looked at the sky. I looked at the trees.

'You are in the zone,' I said. 'In the death zone. Then, if you meet someone who has suffered a loss, you know exactly what to say because it's all you can say. Death and grief and pain are your only language.'

'And then,' I said, 'you grow your skin back. You put yourself back together. You put on your defences again. After maybe a year, you are back to the very British thing of feeling embarrassed because you don't know what to say.'

The dear friend looked interested and relieved. I think she was relieved to find that she was not the only one. Because what do you say?

We parted with extra fondness, because proximity to death reminds you of how much you love the ones who are still alive. And I drove up the hill.

The long, low house, with Scotland draped around it in all her glory, was silent and wide open. I walked through the front door and through the empty hall and through the hushed drawing room. I saw, with gladness and sadness, the family photographs on every surface. Everyone was smiling. Everyone was young. Everyone was vividly living.

I had a horrible feeling that the good old man had died in the night and that I was crashing in on the moment of farewell.

Suddenly, a small, beaming figure appeared at my elbow. She was perhaps eight years old, and vibrating with life.

'Hello,' she said, in delight, as if all she ever wanted was a middle-aged woman in a hat to appear with a huge silver pot of soup.

Her cousin, older, upright, gracefully composed, walked down the corridor, taking over the situation.

I remembered her. She had been a little girl when I last saw her. Now she was on the edge of teendom, half child, half young woman.

Her grandmother, she said, was on an important call. I remembered the calls. There are so many people you have to speak to on the telephone when someone is dying.

'Don't disturb her,' I said. 'I just wanted you to have the soup. Heat it up gently,' I said.

She nodded gravely. She took the huge pot. She regarded me from eyes which were so clear and direct that I almost had to look away.

She said, with the politesse and poise of an ambassadress, 'Everyone has been so kind.'

I looked at her in awe. I wondered whether I would ever achieve that kind of graceful ease. Was she born with it, or had she learnt it somewhere?

I said goodbye and walked out of the silent house.

At the back, an ancient, stumpy apple tree was bending under the weight of its fruit. The apples were heavy and dense, as if they were about to burst their green skins. I wondered, with a fall in my stomach: will anyone have time to pick those apples this year?

To the north, there was a sudden call of geese. I could not see them, but they were shouting across the valley. It's too early for the geese, I thought. They don't usually come until the autumn, when they fly above us in great gangs, heading for their winter feeding grounds.

I looked at the view and thought of the good old man looking at the view every day of his life. He had something to gladden his eyes, I thought.

As I drove home, life and death singing in me so strongly that I could almost feel the atoms of my body moving and shifting, a pair of swallows swooped low across the road. They soared and rose, flinging themselves from one golden field to another.

They are making their goodbyes too, I thought. It is nearly time for them to make their great trek to Africa.

Write it down, write it down, said the voices in my head. Don't forget this day. Don't forget the gold fields and the green apples and the swooping birds and the blue hills.

Don't forget the young girl with her astonishing grace.

'Everyone has been so kind.'

Friday, 16 March 2018

A Price Worth Paying




I sometimes dream of those sanguine, swaggery people, who bowl through life, laughing at the blows. I wonder what it would be like to be those people. I yearn to be those people. I wonder: do those people actually exist, or are they only real in the winding corridors of my mind?


On Twitter this morning, someone called me prejudiced. I defended myself as politely as I could, but he kept coming. He was convinced that I was a prejudiced person, as surely as if he spoke to me every morning. He is a complete stranger. I have never communicated with him in my life. He got prejudiced from one jokey tweet.

Over the years, I’ve learnt some pretty good internet resilience. I have all kinds of mental tricks. I am sometimes quite proud of these. I am not sanguine or swaggery, but I had to teach myself to toughen up a bit for the hurly burly of social media. Today, all my good tricks deserted me. I felt profoundly shocked and hurt.

I was rather dismayed. Can I really be such a wimp and a weed? I was having a lovely morning, dreaming of Might Bite winning the Gold Cup, and I allowed one unknown human to wreck it. I felt shaky and hollow.

I took a deep step backwards. Perhaps I cared so much because he was secretly right. Perhaps I think I have this tremendous open mind, when in fact, as I get older, I am allowing calcified prejudice to snap that mind shut. Perhaps I have fallen into lazy thinking and cheap assumptions, all the things I hate. Perhaps I’ve been talking a good game all this time, and, underneath, nasty little bigotries have been making their smug and cosy nests.

I thought about this for a long time. I should be thinking about what is going to win the Foxhunters’; instead, I was furiously examining my brain for bugs. It’s exhausting. But perhaps I should thank that man for not letting me slide into complacency.

Perhaps the blow hurt so much because Cheltenham hurls me into a storm of emotion. By the fourth day, I have no reserves and certainly no defences. It always makes me think of my father, and miss him more than usual. My old uncle died on Saturday, and that gave the melancholy feeling of the end of an era. It was his time and he had run his race and he went in grand style, but it is very sad, all the same. 

It’s only the third Cheltenham without my mother. I used to collect her Racing Post each morning, deliver it to her, cook her a sustaining breakfast, and listen to her talk with joy of Ruby and Annie and all her other favourite horses and humans. She would tell me tales of Arkle, and Vincent O’Brien, and Michael Scudamore, and Fred Winter, and Dave Dick. She had known well the giants of the game, and she remembered them all with spreading fondness. One of the saddest days after she died was the day I went into the shop and told the sympathetic ladies that the Racing Post order was now for one.

It’s not just loss, this week. It’s that I can’t ever tell myself it’s only a horse race. I fall in love with these brave, beautiful, brilliant thoroughbreds as if they were my own. When Katie Walsh cried in front of the cameras as she spoke of seeing her brother with his broken leg, I felt her love and worry as if she were part of my own family. I feel for the small trainers, up against the big boys. Yesterday, the bonny Sam Spinner carried the flag for the little guys. He bowled along with his ears pricked, as if knowing that he was there for something special. When he was swamped by the chasing pack, my heart cracked. Yet nothing awful happened. He ran with honour and he’ll be home now, in his stable, happily eating his hay. He’ll be back. He is still a glorious horse with dazzling talent and courage.He'll fly the flag on another day.

I’m trying to teach myself not to mind too much. This lesson is not going that well. I have literally lost my voice from shouting my loves home, and I feel as if I have nothing left in the tank. I’m running on fumes. And this is my holiday. This is supposed to be fun. I’m going to need a holiday to get over my holiday. There will have to be medicinal amounts of green soup and iron tonic.

But then, I believe in passion. I believe in love. I believe in going all in. There’s a price to pay, in raw vulnerability, but I’m starting to understand that vulnerability is a good thing. It’s not an easy thing or a comfortable thing, but I think it’s an important thing. Caring about something with every fibre of your being is quite tiring, but indifference must be a long, slow erosion of the spirit. Perhaps the price is worth paying.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Bryony and Blackie: a Partnership for the Ages




In the world, there is a young jockey called Bryony Frost. Almost nobody outside of racing knows her name. In racing, pretty much everyone knows her name. On ITV, the commentators certainly know her name. They have started to say things like ‘Another big Saturday win for Bryony Frost.’ Another, in fact, has become associated with her name. ‘Another terrific ride from Bryony Frost.’ She’s not a fluke. She rides good races on a wet Monday at Plumpton and she rides good races on a dazzling Saturday at Ascot. She gives it everything, every time.

And when she finishes her race, her face splits into an almost disbelieving smile and the first thing she does is throw her arms round her horse’s neck. As she does her victory walk back to the winner’s enclosure and hears the applause, she points her finger at her horse. ‘Don’t clap me,’ she seems to be saying, ‘clap him.’

The horse, most often, is Black Corton. He’s quite small and absurdly determined. He’s a bundle of energy. He doesn’t know that he started off as a bit of a nothing horse. A summer horse is the faintly patronising expression, meaning one of those who is not going to be a winter champion, who can canter round on good ground and clean up whilst the superstars are having their holidays. The thing is, nobody told Black Corton. He just kept on winning. There was a point when he seemed to be running every week, and the more he ran the better he got.

Nobody told Bryony Frost either. Or, if they did, she knew better. She smiled her beaming smile and whispered in Blackie’s ear and off they went, to the big meetings, on the winter ground, when they were supposed to get found out. That fantastic run had to end some time. Except it didn’t, and this afternoon they line up on the grandest stage of all, with a fighting chance at the festival.

Bryony Frost is a properly good jockey. She works astoundingly hard. She takes the knocks and learns from her mistakes. Paul Nicholls, her boss, is not a sentimentalist. He did not give her a chance because he likes her smile. He gave her a chance because she earned it. She’s intelligent in a race and she is cool under pressure and she’s got beautiful hands and wonderful balance. More importantly than all that, horses run for her. It’s the gift all jockeys long for. Her horses give her that little bit extra.

I think it’s to do with belief. She believes in them, and they believe in her right back. The thoroughbred is so intelligent and so sensitive that it can almost feel intuitive. Bryony Frost sends her messages of belief down the reins and her horses hear them.

The partnership she has with Black Corton is one of the most touching things in racing. They adore each other. They have a harmony and an understanding that is poetry to watch. They are force multipliers: when they are together; the combination of their fierce fighting hearts adds up to something wilder and greater than the sum of the parts. I think he would jump the moon if he asked her to.

They are up against the big boys today. The form book says they probably won’t win. But just getting here is a championship all of its own. Whatever happens, you know they will acquit themselves with honour. If they must go down, they’ll go down fighting. But I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we see that streak of black courage storming up the hill, with Bryony crouched low, murmuring her words of magic in Blackie’s ear. My heart beats even as I picture it in my mind. Yet, in a way, hours before the race even starts, they’ve already won.

Friday, 9 March 2018

Good Stuff: Day Nine.





1. I finished the first draft of my new book. Sixty-six thousand words exist which once did not exist. I’ve gone so fast and hard at this one that my head feels as if someone has unplugged all my neurones. It’s like having extreme jet-lag. But I have the holy sense of achievement, which is like no other feeling.

2. The mares found some grass this morning, the first grass they have seen for two weeks. They were so elegantly and gently pleased. I watched them with absurd delight.

3. I’ve had a lovely time checking out the Cheltenham previews. The best one was the Nicky Henderson show. Of course it was not billed like that. There was a stellar panel, including Nico De Boinville, Jessie Harrington and Paddy Brennan, but Henderson stole the show. 

He’s the epitome of the old school of National Hunt trainers, the kind they don’t really make any more. He was a great friend of my father’s, and I remember him fondly from childhood days. 

In the world now, so many of the people who are the great, famous successes put on a polished persona, often speak in incomprehensible jargon, walk and talk with a swing and a swagger. Nicky Henderson does none of those things.

Henderson does an almost impossible job with what management types would call insane variables. A thoroughbred is not a machine, or a balance sheet. You can’t simply tick all the correct boxes and watch your share price soar. Those horses sometimes simply get out of bed the wrong side. They have moods and thoughts and feelings. Might Bite, Henderson’s Gold Cup hope, is such a famously complex character that nobody really knows what is going on in his brilliant head. 

And yet, as the festival approaches, with all its pressures and all its expectations and all its make and break, there is Nicky, making wry, dry jokes, mostly against himself. I love that someone can be so damn good at his job and so comical and authentic at the same time. 

He famously wears his heart on his sleeve. When he has a big winner, you can guarantee that the camera will pan to the stands and catch him with tears in his eyes. I think the tears are not just tears of victory, but of love and admiration for the brave equine athlete who has made his trainer's hopes and dreams come true. 

When I’ve done this amount of work in such a blast, all my own emotions are very near the surface. I have no defences, and no place to hide. Everything makes me laugh or makes me cry. So I find it oddly reassuring that there are other humans out there, at the top of their field, who find it impossible to put on a composed front. The things that matter, matter. And so there is the laughing, and there is the crying, and damn the consequences.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Good Stuff: Day Eight.




1. The sun came out and gentled the snowscape. The mares were goofy and comical and delighted. I took their rugs off for the first time in a week and they looked so gleaming and beautiful that I stood for twenty minutes, gazing at them with love and wonder.

2. I did the hard stuff today. I tackled the chapters that had not worked. I ran at the subjects that were so knotty I rather wished I had not started them. I made myself go far, far out of my comfort zone. I wrote 2509 words and edited forty pages. My entire body aches. But I have a holy, exhausted sense of achievement. I fucking well was a proper writer today. I didn’t busk it or fake it. I was all in.

3.  I made some chicken soup. I need chicken soup. It was really, really good chicken soup. It has spinach in it for strength and garlic in it for health and chilli in it for va va voom.

I love you for going with this Good Stuff challenge. I don’t have any idea what I’m doing at the moment. When I’m in a work storm like this, I can’t make sense of actual life. So this could be absolute nonsense, for all I know. I have no way of telling.

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Good Stuff: Day Seven.



1. 5066 words today. This is why the Good Stuff is going to be very pithy indeed. I’ve used up all my words. I have no words left. You shouldn’t really do five thousand words in a day. I think it buggers up your neuronal pathways. My brain is fizzing and snapping as if all the electrical circuits are shorting. But I’ve got to get this bloody book done and I’m motoring now.

2. It took me an hour to get the mares all settled for the night with their hay and their feed. This sounds like a bad thing, but in fact I choose it as a good thing. Even though I was stomping through the melting snow, which is still a foot high and almost impossible to walk in, making my middle-aged oofing noises, I suddenly felt that I was doing a proper job. This was some clean, tough physical labour. I’ve always admired people who work the land or work with their hands. I could pretend I was one of those people. It felt much more serious than sitting at a poncy desk writing poncy words. I liked that it was hard. I did a good job, for creatures that I love more than life.

3. I got my windscreen wipers fixed. This is huge. It’s the kind of errand I loathe and I was convinced there would be sucking of teeth and talk of getting parts from Aberdeen. Instead the lovely garage man laughed at my jokes, summoned James the Mechanic, and got the thing fixed on the spot. James had many special implements, mostly wrenches. I watched him in keen admiration, as if he were playing Bach or speaking fluent Russian. He knew precisely what was wrong with those damn wipers and which wrench to use. I loved him for that. ‘James,’ I said, slightly breathless. ‘You are an amazing man.’ And then they wouldn’t let me give them any money. That’s about four good things in one.

PS. The photograph is from Sunday, when the red mare went for a special snow walk with her friend Ellie. That was Good Stuff, turned up to eleven.

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Good Stuff: Day Six.




It was one of those bad snow days. The picturesque whiteness has been replaced with sloppy, slushy filth. As it was all starting to thaw, another huge dump came from the east. It was cross, wet snow, determined to make everything worse. Now there is grumpy sleet.

But, into every sleety day, a little sunshine must fall. And there were three good things.

1. I had a good meeting. I never have meetings. I am not a meeting sort of person. If I do have to have a meeting, I usually sit in the corner, feeling like a fool. But today’s meeting was with lovely people and I said at least two useful things.

2. The power has not gone off. I cannot tell you what a good thing this is. We are very prone to power cuts and I sit furiously in the freezing dark, covered in blankets like an Inuit, reading by candlelight, longing for soup, wondering how Jane Austen managed. The house is warm and dry and the lights are on and I have some of the carrot soup left. This is huge. This is like living in a palace. I will never be ungrateful for anything ever again.

3. One of the little girls from my Saturday posse came after school to help me feed the mares. She’s a very gentle person of eleven or twelve and the mares love her. She made up the feeds and strung up the haynets and then sweetly led the horses back down to the bottom gate. I was doing rather a lot of middle-aged huffing and puffing as I foundered through the deep snow but my young companion was smiling as if she were having a grand treat. She actually thanked me when her intrepid dad came to collect her, as if I had done her a huge favour. I felt very touched and rather humble.

Oh, and I did a shedload of work and some of it was even good work. There is more goodness in each day than I suspected. I am huffing and puffing, literally and metaphorically, and I am yearning for spring. My little snowdrops, which were just getting ready to flower, have disappeared under the ruthless drifts and the birds, which were singing, have gone silent. But three good things, three good things. They will keep me going until spring finally gets the memo.

Monday, 5 March 2018

Good Stuff: Day Five.




No sooner had I started my brilliant challenge than I went into a furious grump of a mood and refused to write down any good things at all. In fact, even in the grumpiness, there were at least six good things over the weekend. A lovely horse called Headway won in spectacular fashion with my money on his back and all the little girls came to play with the mares and I had a lovely chat with a friend and the mares and I went for an enchanted walk in the silent snow. But still, I could not possibly write those because I was far too invested in feeling like crap.
              
Today, the snow was still thick on the ground but the sky wept sullen sleety tears, as if in mourning for a spring that will never come. Everything is icy and slippery and dirty and messy. The horses have gone into their stoical, shut-down mode, when all they need from humans is food. They have no time for love in this sort of weather.
                
But I have scraped together three good things, even on the dourest and dreichest of Mondays.
                
1. The temperature has finally gone above zero and the water trough is no longer frozen. This means I don’t have to schlep back and forth from house to field with slopping buckets. I am more pleased about this than I can say.
                
2. I had a long and soothing conversation with someone I really needed to have a long and soothing conversation with.
                
3. I discovered that carrots are even better for you than was once thought. This pleases me for many reasons. One is that the Co-Op has just started selling ‘misshapen carrots’ which are only very slightly bent and are half the price of normal carrots. The second is that because of such a bargain I bought bags and bags and made them into carrot soup. The third is that I had forgotten how delicious carrot soup in fact is, and now I have remembered I am eating it for every meal, including breakfast. I adore soup for breakfast.
                
Let’s face it. March is turning out to be a load of buggery bollocks. The forecast is for endless sleet for another two weeks. There will be no riding and even walking is perilous, as the slush thaws and freezes and thaws and freezes so there is no safe place to put your foot. I can’t go all Pollyanna on your ass, because every time I turn on the news something perfectly dreadful has happened. The Leader of the Free World appears to have lost any senses he might have had. Evelyn Waugh was once asked about Ulysses and he said that he could hear James Joyce ‘going mad, sentence by sentence.’ That’s rather what I feel about Donald Trump. I hardly even dare turn on the wireless now. It’s too terrifying to think what he might have done next.
                
So it’s not all bluebirds and butterflies at the moment. But I think I am going to doggedly try for my three good things every day. It’s an act of faith. Or hope. Or something. It’s something.

Friday, 2 March 2018

Good Stuff: Day Two




I was so cross and singed today that I thought I would not be able to find three good things. But I dug about, and there they were.

1. Two of the red mare’s Saturday posse had a snow day, so they appeared at the field. These are the young girls who come and see us every weekend and work with my mares. I’ve collected them in an entirely haphazard way, and I teach them the foundations of horsemanship and it turned out to be one of the most rewarding things I ever did. They are all eleven and twelve and they make me laugh. These two pitched up, smiling and twinkling at the thought of spending time with the horses on a school day. They took the mares out into the snow and played with them and the thoroughbreds, who have been stuck in the field all week, blinked and sighed with pleasure.

2. I found an old letter of Scott Fitzgerald’s which I had completely forgotten about. It has some of the sagest writing advice I’ve ever read. It shook me out of my complacency and made me remember what you have to do to write well. I found it through the miracle of the internet and I felt very grateful for that miracle.

3. Galvanised, I wrote 2139 words. I felt so furious and stuck all day that I had convinced myself there would be no writing. I would do research, which is a euphemism for crossly reading books and pretending that is work. Thanks to dear, dead F Scott, I wrote and wrote and wrote until my head almost fell off.

This would definitely have counted as a rotten day, had I not written down the three good things. Even the sweetness of the young girls with the mares would not have been able to overcome the pervading feeling of rottenness. But now I've written the good stuff down, the shades are receding. Rottenness is not going to have me, not today. 


Thursday, 1 March 2018

Good Stuff Challenge 2018





I have a brilliant friend who runs a Facebook group. Last month, she asked the group to do a twenty-eight day Good Stuff Challenge. The idea was to write three good things, every day. No matter how rotten you felt or how crappy the day was, you could find three good things in it. You could dig them out with a spoon.
                
Today, I thought I would continue the challenge on my own. It’s over now, for that group. February is finished, and we all wrote our good stuff. But I loved it so much I want to see if I can do it every day for the rest of the year. It’s going to be my Good Stuff Challenge 2018.
               
I think it’s important because I’m flailing a bit, in this part of my middle life. I’m not drowning, but I’m not always waving, either. I feel the pressing weight of old griefs and future frets bashing down on my head. Three good things every day is a way of keeping my head above water.
                
I quite often start things like this and then let them lapse. Writing three good things every day is harder than you might think. But I’m going to try.
                
Today, my three good things were:

1. I had to ferry buckets of water from the house to the field to fill up the frozen water trough for the mares. This is quite a bore. But I decided to look at it as a privilege, not a chore. I had the arms to carry the buckets and the working tap at home to fill them and my dear old car to transport them, and I was keeping my mares alive. They seemed very pleased when I pitched up in my snow hat, huffing and puffing, to give them the precious water. It was a good job, and I did it.

2. I had a lovely chat with my friend George in the shop this morning. The light was just coming up over the snowscape and we talked about Cheltenham and our hopes for the festival. As we were speaking of Nicky Henderson and Willie Mullins, a very, very smart man came in. He was wearing a covert coat that would not have been out of place in Savile Row. I was covered in mud and hay from the horses. ‘Goodness,’ I said, involuntarily. ‘A clean person.’ He looked rather apologetic. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said. I smiled. ‘Don’t apologise,’ I said. ‘I am in awe of the clean people.’ He said he’d got halfway to Banchory before the roads got to bad so he was giving up. He was going to buy a bag of coal and go home and make a fire. I hoped that he would not get his lovely coat dirty.

3. I wrote 874 words and I made carrot soup and soda bread.

If you’d asked me, I would have said this was a fairly blah sort of day. But as I write down my three good things, I realise it was much, much better than I thought. Three good things. I think they may have a curious power..

Thursday, 15 February 2018

A Perfect Parade of Beauty and Love.



I have decided that living in the menopause is like living in an area at high risk of tornadoes. For stretches of time, everything is pretty normal. You occasionally catch an intimation of danger in a too-vivid sunset, or notice that the birds are doing something frankly peculiar. But you get on with your life, with your daily sorrows and joys and chores and pleasures. Then, wham, the fucker hits, far too fast and vicious for the early warning system. The people at emergency command don’t know what the hell to do. You dash into your hurricane shelter and batten down the hatches and exist on canned goods for the duration.
                
And then, one morning, you cautiously open your hatch and peer out. The sun is shining. The air is still. The livestock are grazing serenely. Your house is still standing. The storm has moved on, to ravage another town.
                
This storm was a bastard. It howled and wailed and moaned. It would not let me go. It lasted for four days. Today, the air was still again. I am still standing.
               
In the heart of the maelstrom, I posted a sweet picture of my mares, for Valentine’s Day. ‘My funny valentines,’ I wrote, the song playing in my head. Usually, on the red mare’s Facebook page, I tell endless stories of her charm and brilliance. I once did this in a slight spirit of show-boating. Look what I did with my grand thoroughbred! Then I started to see that I was writing the story of her life, of our lives together, so that when she gallops off to the great prairie in the sky, I shall still have her with me. I don’t do it now for claps on the back; I do it for its own sweet sake. I do it for love.           

I’m not very interactive. People come and leave kind comments and I have grown to recognise a few regulars, but I don’t really know much about my readers and I don’t ask them questions. I’m just glad and grateful that they are there. On the Valentine’s Day post, I most uncharacteristically asked for pictures. Show me the loves of your life, I said; I need photographs. I was so battered and gloomy that I thought a few nice horse pictures would cheer me up. I thought I might get about four.
                
The photographs came flooding in, the moment I stopped typing. I woke up this morning to find a hundred and thirty-five of them. Some were comical snapshots, a little blurred, some were photographs of rare quality and grace. They came from all around the world. There was the singed outback of Australia, golden and exotic in the sun. There were the lush hills of New Zealand, all blues and greens, speaking of life and growth. There was the sunset over the glittering ice of Norway, with a line of sharp mountains in the distance. There was the big country of America, the kind of country where you could ride all day and not see a human. There were the quiet shires of dear old Blighty.            

The horses came in all shapes and sizes. There were furry minis and giant workhorses. There were individual beloveds and happy herds. There were aristocratic Arabians and sturdy cobs. There was a Swedish warmblood and a ravishing Paint and a stylish Morgan. There were dappled greys and shining bays. There were adored veterans, old-timers in their thirties, dreaming their retirement away. There was Henry the Mustang, saying hello from Oregon.

There were horses on the beach and in the stable and grazing quietly in a lush pasture. There were roly-poly Shetlands and fine thoroughbreds. There was an ex-racehorse who had once run in the Melbourne Cup. There was a comical herd in Colorado and a dreamy show horse in England. There were groomed and gleaming ones and woolly and muddy ones. There were dreamboats who seemed to be posing for the camera and comedians who were larking about for the lens. There were glorious names: Atticus and Merlin, Zaf and Limerick, Beau and Ezra, Jasmine and Teazel. There was an Argentian polo pony, and a clutch of red mares.                

The cumulative effect of this was extraordinary. All these horses and all these humans had their own stories, their own characters, their own fascinating lives. The love poured out of each word, each picture. These were quiet, profound partnerships, where trust and understanding grew in green fields and hidden stables. They would not be seen on the front page of Horse and Hound; they were not headline acts. They were not famous horses, who could be seen on the television on a Saturday afternoon. But they were all the stars of their own movie, with their own talents and quirks, their own beauty and their own brilliance. They all made their humans’ hearts sing.

 From across the world they came, as if to a rally or a round-up. Here were the majestic creatures who comforted their humans in times of sorrow, who made the sun come out on a dour morning, who scattered the humdrum of daily life with a little glance of stardust.                

It was one of the best things I ever saw on the internet. The people who did not have horses sent pictures of charming dogs or dancing lambs. There were three mules, of such grace and loveliness that I caught my breath. Some people did not post a picture but left a message saying how much this parade of loveliness had cheered them up.
                
It cheered me up. It was so simple, so heartfelt, so human. It was a Best in Show of pure love.
               
I’m not sure why it moved me quite so much. Perhaps it was the generous authenticity. People were not shy. ‘Here is the love of my life,’ they wrote. The red mare is the love of my life and I sometimes feel a little foolish when I write that. She’s only a horse, after all. But this outpouring of pride and affection showed me that I am not alone, that there is no such thing as only a horse, that these joyous creatures who exist across the species divide, on their own mysterious plane, can lift the spirit like nothing else. They graciously consent to enter our human lives, to understand our funny little ways, to do the peculiar things we ask of them. They do flying changes and forge out into the hills like frontier settlers and leap over daunting obstacles. And when their work is done, they rest with us and give us peace.

               
It was a thing of absolute beauty, and I shall remember it always.

Thursday, 8 February 2018

The Glorious Power of Friendship

I woke rather grumpy and sluggish after a night of odd dreams. Four hairdressers were fighting over my custom. They were all gloriously camp and funny and I adored them all and did not want to hurt their feelings by choosing one over another. I have no idea what this can mean. I cut my own hair with the kitchen scissors and dye it out of a box from the chemist. Perhaps my subconscious is trying to tell me it’s time to go to a professional.
               
Sometimes, when I wake in a rotten mood, I write the day off before it has begun. I don’t know if this is a mid-life thing, my raging hormones getting the better of me. Perhaps it is just life. Anyway, today was going to be a written-off day. I could tell, as I brushed my teeth, that it was not going to come to any good.
               
I took the red mare out for a ride only because I am still determined to find my debit card, which I lost in the woods. But then the day started to change its complexion. My grand thoroughbred was at her most charming, fascinating, characterful best. She was being funny and interesting and my heart began to rise in my chest. Then my dearest cousin rang up. You should not really talk on the telephone whilst riding a half-ton flight animal, but the mare was going along on a loose rein like a trail horse so I took the calculated risk.
               
The conversation danced and sang. We told each other stories of the old days, which made me laugh so much I almost fell off. I talked the dearest cousin through the ride through the woods, so she could see it in her mind as she sat on her southern train. She was passing Swindon, I was telling her of the dappled Scottish sunlight in the mossy groves. She talked about Chekhov, which made me absurdly happy because I had not thought about him for a long time and I was glad to be reminded of how much I love that old Russian. (I rushed straight home afterwards and looked up three of my favourite of his lines.)
               
And there it was. The day was redeemed. One grand mare and one glorious human had put my scratchy, fractured self back together again. I went at once to my desk and wrote 1472 words. I felt galvanised and inspired. The world was possible again.
               
My life, this blog, everything I love – all are now composed of the small things. And in a way, a telephone conversation in a sunlit wood is a very small thing indeed. But having a friend who can put you back together with baling twine and glue is a vast thing. Having a friend who has known you for thirty years and seen you through all the deaths and all the despairs and all the heartbreaks is a huge thing. Having a friend who believes in you is an extraordinary thing.
               
It’s such a sturdy, delightful, enhancing love. It’s not the thing of hearts and flowers, of wild romance and high drama. It does not make headlines or get written into epic films. It’s the enduring love of someone who is on your side, in your corner. It’s the love that can banish grumpiness and self-doubt with a wave of its kind, generous wand.
               
It never ceases to amaze me, the friend love. It’s like the red mare, in that way. It’s a part of my daily life, so regular and usual that I could almost take it for granted. There is my grand horse, there is my grand friend. And without asking for anything in return, they give me glittering gifts beyond compare. 

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

In Which the Universe Sends me a Present. Or, Turning the Negative into the Positive.




This is a very, very long story. You might want to get a nice cup of tea.

Last week, my poor old car catastrophically failed its MOT. Luckily, the Garage Man is used to me and  my peculiar ways, and accept that I run my perfectly nice Audi as if it were an ancient Landrover. It goes across muddy fields and up potholed tracks and it is full of timber, hay, and horse feed. There are two dandy brushes and a rather nice leather girth on the front seat. It is not a thing of beauty, and but it’s got a lot of poke, and that’s all I care about. So he smiled with understanding and set about putting the jalopy to rights. This morning, I had to go and pay for it. At which point, I discovered I had lost my debit card.
                
The critical voices fired up in my head, high on gin. What an idiot, they said. How many more times are you going to lose that card? What are you going to do now?
                
The last time I lost the card was in the set-aside. Luckily, it had just been snowing, so the little blue bit of plastic showed up against the white. A new blizzard was blowing in and I found it just in time. Then, I promised myself I would never, ever again put that card in my pocket. Yesterday, for no known reason, I put it in my pocket. Now it was not in the pocket.           

I stumped down to the horses, chastising myself. A friend had come to take the mares for a walk. ‘Right,’ I said. ‘We are on a mission. We have to go to the woods and see if we can find my debit card.’ I had a picture of it nestling in some mossy grove, like Hansel and Gretel.
                
My friend took this on the chin.
                
Off we went to the woods, the mares moseying along behind us on their long ropes. We retraced my steps. We scoured the ground. We went up by the golf course and ran into the postie. I told him all my troubles. He took my number and said he would keep an eye out and call if he saw the errant card. That’s my village, I thought. Everybody is ready to help.
                
Of course there was no sign of the stupid card. The critical voices were doing their drunken cackle again when I suddenly looked at my red mare. She had her head up and her ears pricked. I suddenly realised where we were. We were looking at the Evil Golfers on the Hill of Doom.
                
The Evil Golfers on the Hill of Doom were the villains of my last horse book. They had become emblematic of everything I had not yet achieved with my horse. I wrote about them with as much raw honesty as I could, but I could not exorcise them. They haunted me.           

I’ve worked for four years to get my mare confident and relaxed. I’ve taught her coping skills. I’ve concentrated on getting my own head right so I can give her all the trust and belief that she needs. Working a horse in this way is not a technical thing. It’s not flying changes and kick on. It’s a soul thing. I’ve watched her go from an unsettled, uncertain, reactive creature who could not deal with a puddle to an easy, peaceful person who gives rides to children. I feel absurdly proud of this.                

But one day we went up to the woods by the golf course and she saw the Evil Golfers and she completely wigged out. I could not comfort her. Those damn golfers were had a cunning plan to kidnap her herd and she would not be reassured.
                
The Evil Golfers stayed in my head like a nemesis. They were the visible marks of how I had failed my horse. If I was good enough, if I was empathetic enough, if I was clever enough, I should be able to convince her that the golfers were just ordinary humans who had no intention of committing grand larceny.
                
Yesterday, on account of the car being in the garage, I rode the three and a half miles to do my work at HorseBack, a local charity for which I volunteer. It’s a long old trek, and the mare dealt with it pretty well. But on the way home, she suddenly had an Evil Golfer moment. She lost all her confidence. I still don’t know what it was that upset her, but the world was suddenly too much. I had to think hard and act fast. I tried a few things and I got her back, in the end. In the end, we cantered all the way home on a loose rein.
                
I should have been very happy about that and in some ways I was. She is a complex character and she always asks me for my best self. I was pleased that I had been able to set her to rights. But in the dim light of the evening, I started having the Evil Golfer angst. She should not be getting frightened if I am doing my job properly. I was missing something. I would have to go back to the beginning again.
                
I was also afraid that I had been quite hard on her. I had listened to her and I had been empathetic and steady, but I had also been very firm. Perhaps I had been too firm. Maybe we had taken a huge step back.
                
And then, this morning, she looked up to the Hill of Doom, the place that had once had her unglued, and pricked her ears and had a little think. I could almost see the thoughts running through her head. ‘Ah,’ she said. ‘This was the place where the Evil Golfers hatched their evil plots. But I don’t think they are going any of that nonsense now.’ And she dropped her head, relaxed her ears, wibbled her bottom lip, and went into her Zen mistress mode.
                
I stared at her in astonishment. Yesterday, her heart had been beating like a big bass drum at a phantom I could not see and now she could deal with the Evil Golfers.
               
I whooped. I exclaimed. I flung my arms round her neck. I told her she was the bravest mare in the world.
                
My friend watched this with polite interest. I told her the whole saga of the Evil Golfers and the endless chorus of the critical voices.
                
‘The amazing thing is,’ I said, ‘is that if I had not lost that stupid debit card we would never have come this way and I would never have known that the red mare has conquered the Evil Golfers. It’s the best present in the world.’
                
I felt like Charlotte Dujardin breaking another world record. It sounds a bit bonkers, but this is beyond question the greatest achievement in my horsing life. I felt like I could do anything.
                
The kind friend walked back with me and took me to the garage where she generously offered to pay the bill. ‘I have no card,’ I said to the Garage Man. ‘But I have a friend.’
                
He smiled at me. It was not a problem. I could come in and settle up when I was back to rights. He really does know my funny little ways. He’s a very nice man and I felt a warm feeling of belonging. People are talking a lot about community at the moment, and how it can literally save your life. It’s more important to life expectancy than eating well or laying off the hooch. There are TED talks about it.
               
I had so much community this morning. I had my kind friend. I had the lovely postie. I had my little herd, who do not fear the golfers. I had the understanding Garage Man.
               
‘I don’t think that would happen,’ I said to my friend, ‘if I were living in the Finchley Road. I am part of this village. They know me here.’

               
They know me, and my mighty horse knows me. She knows I won’t let the Evil Golfers get her. She could not have given me a greater gift than that conviction. 

Monday, 29 January 2018

The Smallest of the Small Things.




Today, I had to do a lot of very, very ordinary things. I did all those horrid jobs that I had been putting off, like getting all the final numbers for my tax return. I am the Queen of the Procrastinators. They should give me a special crown. I read all those articles about how to get things done, and obviously because I am reading about getting things done instead of getting things done I never get anything done. I have lately embarked on a classic mid-life crisis self-improvement programme. I’m really getting the trick of turning negative thoughts into positive thoughts and facing one’s human fears and all that malarkey. And yet I still seem incapable of getting off my procrastinating throne. This is a fairly melancholy reflection when I’m about to be fifty-one. Fifty-one. Surely I should be a grown-up by now?

Of course, the job that I dreaded most turned out to be perfectly easy and fairly painless. I got it done in about half an hour. I’d spend a month worrying about it and putting it off and then I took half an hour to do it.  The tax return had hovered over me like an evil spirit and then - poof! - it was gone. All that fuss, all that angst, and in the end it was just a bit of adding up. 

Anything to do with money makes me feel incredibly stupid and inadequate. I think of all the people out there who appear to understand it and who keep notes about incomings and outgoings and who are responsible about their bank statements. I just close my eyes every time it comes to paying the hay bill. So I dreaded the tax return like you dread the dentist. And then, it wasn’t so scary after all. My venture into self-publishing also turned out to bring in more than I had thought. Actual humans are out there buying my actual books, despite the fact that I have no talent for self-promotion and a morbid British fear of anything that might look like blowing one’s own trumpet. The hay bill will be paid for another winter.

The farrier came, which was the lovely part of the day. We stood outside in the bitter wind and the glancing sunshine and spoke about horses and hooves. The red mare, who does not need to be held for the farrier, whom she loves, stood immaculately, entirely untethered, and went into her little dreamy trance. I feel ridiculously proud when she does this. What a treat she must be for the farrier, I think, every single time. I don’t care about the mud and the cold and the hay bill, because I can watch this magnificent horse being her magnificent self, beaming her Zen waves of peace into a grateful world.

A friend came to help me pick up the piles of dung and we collected crap and talked about the meaning of life and laughed quite a lot.

And then I went home and wrote 2709 words of my new secret project.


It was the most unremarkable, most ordinary of days. I live a very small and ordinary life. I had rather stopped doing the blog because the smallness and the ordinariness seemed too absurdly unimportant to write down. Those poor Dear Readers, I thought. I must wait until I’ve got something big to say. The months and weeks went by. The Big remained elusive.


I’m returning now to the small. I like recording the tiny joys that nestle in the ordinary. My ambitions have changed so much as I’ve got older that now I think if I can make one person laugh on one day, then that day is not wasted. The farrier laughed, and my friend with the dung laughed, and the red mare would have laughed if she could. I bloody well got my tax return together. I wrote words which until this morning did not exist. 

Don’t write a day off, I think to myself, merely because it did not have anything vast or meaningful in it. I start to believe that finding meaning in the very, very small may be the secret to life. 

Saturday, 27 January 2018

For Whom the Bell Tolls





On Tuesday this week, the death was announced of Richard Woollacott. He was forty years old.

The Racing world went into shock. The last time most people who love racing had seen him was in the euphoric post-race interview after his game, bonny horse Beer Goggles had beaten all the big boys at Newbury. Nobody really saw Beer Goggles coming. He had come up through the handicapping ranks and he was sent off at 40-1. Beer Goggles did not know he was the outsider in a strong field. All he knew was that he felt powerful and confident and full of beans and he was damn well not going to be beaten. He stuck his head out all the way to the line. And his trainer, who had brought him so far, beamed his giddy, infectious smile out of a million television sets.
               
And now that smile would never been seen again.
                
The internet had one of its rare moments of good behaviour. The grieving family had asked for privacy, and the massed ranks of social media gave them privacy. There was no speculation. Instead, the tributes poured in, from people who had known him for years, since his pointing days, to people who had only watched him on the telly. ‘I will remember him for always having a big smile on his face,’ said Richard Johnson, the champion jockey who had ridden Beer Goggles to glory.
                
Then, Richard Woollacott’s wife Kayley put out a statement of heartbreaking elegance. Mental illness had got him. She said, with a generosity and grace that left me in awe, that it was too late for her beloved husband but it was not too late for others. Three days after she lost the father of her children, she was raising awareness about suicide, about the brutal ruthlessness of mental illness, and starting a fund in Richard Woollacott’s memory. Not only that, but she wrote of him with such lyricism and love, talking of all his talents, of all his shining lights, but not ignoring the darkness that took him in the end. It takes a very rare human to be able to do that.
                
Any death is a shock. In fact, it’s shocking how shocking death is, when it is the one fact of life that all humans know. But there is something peculiarly shocking about a suicide. From the outside, it can be hard to understand. I went to funeral of a cousin who killed himself and I remember the stretched, pale faces of incomprehension. Why did this happen? How did this happen? What could we have, should we have done? I remember searing guilt mingling with the grief. If I had only rung him one more time, got him round, really sat down and talked.
                
I think when people are that far into the dark, no light can penetrate. That’s what is so terrifying about mental illness. It is indiscriminating and it is relentless and it does not give a damn for the human heart. It is a wrecker, and it will smash anything in its way. It seems almost impossible that the brilliant, smiling man who had triumphed on that happy day at Newbury now no longer exists. And what he did was indeed brilliant. Beer Goggles did not start out as a star. Richard Woollacott turned him into one. He did that. He built that horse up and gave him strength and confidence and kept him sweet and kept him right so that by the time Beer Goggles faced his biggest test, he knew he could fly. Will he wonder, as he goes out today at Cheltenham in front of a crowd united in grief, where that human is, the one who made him believe in himself?
                
The crowd will be united. It will come together because racing does come together in times like this, as if it were a big family. Everybody knows each other and everybody sees each other every week, come rain come shine, come triumph come tragedy. Everybody knows how glorious it is and how tough it is. Everybody gets up at five in the morning and everybody cannot sleep until they’ve done one last yard check to make sure those equine athletes are dozing peacefully in their boxes.
                
The crowd, and the people watching at home, will unite to mourn a very special man, by all accounts generous and kind, a horseman and a gentleman. Everybody loved him. But they will also unite because the shadow of this illness has passed over almost everyone. It’s a brother or a mother, a friend of a friend, crazy old Uncle Bernie whom everyone laughed at until the laughter abruptly stopped. Mental illness thrives in the shadows. It feeds off shame. It is mystifying and people are often afraid to speak of it. What, after all, do you say? The incredible Woollacott family have taken the darkness and shone some light into it. They have asked that this race day be not only about their own wrenching loss, but about everyone who is struggling against this most pernicious of foes. That is an act of courage for which I have no words.
                
John Donne had the words. He wrote, many, many years ago:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
Each man's death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.


Nobody needs to ask today for whom the bells toll. They toll for everyone. But should the bright, bonny Beer Goggles roar up that Cheltenham hill and shrug off his challengers and race to the line, the bells will ring out in heartfelt, bittersweet glory and gladness. 

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