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. 

Friday, 26 January 2018

Emeralds in Dung Heaps

This week has been a tough week. I got bruised and wounded and suddenly missed my mother so much that I found myself one night in the kitchen at eleven o’clock, swamped by Railway Children tears. If you asked me, I would have said I did not get much done. I survived. I was hanging on by my fingernails.
Writing is a dangerous job, because you can always make excuses. Your hours are flexible. It’s tempting to say that you are simply not in a sane, productive frame of mind, so you will do other things. You’ll do what you grandly call research, which generally means wandering about the internet, being distracted by fascinating but entirely irrelevant pieces of information. (This week, for instance, I discovered a tiny village in Russia where the temperature is minus sixty-two and the women have icicles on their eyelashes. It was actually rather a groovy look.)
I did not feel at all productive. I felt a bit battered and a bit flattened.
However, I’m starting a new project and I laughingly think of myself as a professional, so I set  my timer and forced myself to get some words on the page. Because of my scattered frame of mind, I convinced myself that I had not done much, simply spun my wheels.
This afternoon, I did a word count. I wrote eleven thousand words this week. Life had taken me out behind the woodshed and duffed me up, but there are those dear old words, existing where there once was nothing. I’ll have to go back and cut and refine and rewrite in the second draft. Many of those words will disappear again. The dead darlings will litter the stage like the bloody corpses at the end of Hamlet. But there are those words, and nobody can take them away from me.
I worked my horses. My five-year-old great-niece came and rode my red mare and smiled with joy and waved her arms in the air as the grand old duchess walked gently round the field. Someone gave me a compliment. I talked to a kind woman about the thickets of psychology and she smiled and said, ‘Thank you, that was really helpful.’ I thought I was banging on, but I had been helpful. Sometimes I think all I want to do now, in this strange time of middle age, is to be helpful. I used to want to win prizes and see my name in the paper. How one’s ambitions change.
I made someone laugh and I paid someone a compliment and I spent one whole evening running round the internet leaving kind comments with little lovehearts under every single photograph or post that made me smile. I quite often do this when I’m feeling doleful. I have this weird theory that when you feel you’ve got nothing left to give, the best thing to do is to give something, even if it is just a little red heart on Facebook. It’s not much, but it is a kind of offering. It's a tiny act of hope.
This is my bad week. The power of the negative internal voices can be so strong sometimes that they wipe out everything else. They are like Donald Trump shouting ‘Fake news.’ They loathe the truth. They are the evil emperors of confirmation bias. They see only what they want to see. I’m damned if I am going to let them win.
So I write down my small things. My good things are all very, very small things indeed. But the small things add up. It was a bad week, and it was a good week. It was a human week. Everybody gets duffed up, from time to time. Everyone feels vulnerable and bruised and wrong. There are mistakes and regrets, searing moments of doubt, the stumbles and the falls.
There are the emeralds in the dung heap, shining in the muck. The dung heap will always be the dung heap, but oh, oh, those glorious, glittering gems.

I suspect that there may be something good in every bad week. It’s just that sometimes you have to dig it out with a pitchfork. I think it is worth the effort.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

The Poppy

This year, somehow, the poppy got complicated. I heard a few pious people rather ostentatiously saying they were not going to wear one because a poppy glorified war, or some such thing. These people, I noticed, mostly lived in north London and would not know a firefight in the Helmand Valley from a hole in the ground, although that has nothing to do with anything except for the mazy workings of  my own mind. Luckily for them, millions of men and women fought and died so they did not have to live under fascism and so they can say what they damn well please. Luckily for me, so can I.
The poppy itself does not care. It exists in its own inanimate universe, accepting whatever meaning humans care to give it. It means something different to everyone who wears it. The old soldiers, who are not pious or ostentatious, who never speak about the war, who fought them in the fields and on the landing grounds, wear it, I suspect, for their comrades. I think they wear it for the ones who did not come home. They might wear it for their blood brother or their battle brother, for whoever fought with them on that day was their brother. Some of them wear it with pride and some of them wear it with a sorrow that goes beyond human words. Some of them wear it to staunch the slow act of forgetting; some of them wear it from simple respect. I will never know what they are thinking as they march up Whitehall, those old warriors holding themselves tall, perhaps for the last time. But I know that they are not thinking about the glory of war, because glory is not a word that veterans use.
I once heard a war widow say that when she sees people on the streets with a poppy in their lapel she feels that they are remembering her dead husband and the son he left behind. Of course she understands that most people have no idea about her beloved, but that is what she feels.
Some people wear the poppy with the very specific thought of the Flanders fields where the flower of a generation was cut down. Some people wear it for all the soldiers and sailors and fliers, in every conflict in every generation. Some people wear it because they don’t want to forget; some people wear it because they hope that never again will the best and the brightest be hurled, pointlessly and madly, into the canon fire.
I wear it for all those reasons. I think a lot about those boys of the First World War, and so many of them were no more than boys. I think about the girls too, the ones they left at home, the ones who nursed the wounded and ploughed the fields and kept the home fires burning, and who found, at the end of four bloody years, that everyone they ever danced with was dead. I think about the horses who strained and struggled through the mud, and who lay where they fell because nobody, in that filthy hades, had the time to bury them. They were athletic hunters and faithful farm horses and they must have been puzzled and frightened to find themselves in a place where there was no grass, no trees, no birdsong, but they went on doing their best until they could do no more.
And then I go forward in history, and think of the second great war with its millions of losses and its unmarked graves and its strafing and bombing, the mass killing that technology made possible. I go on through the later conflicts, in the Falklands, in the Middle East, in Afghan. I work, in a small way, with veterans, and they never pull rank because they have seen things that I cannot imagine and done things which I would never, in a hundred years, have the courage to do. They took me in and laughed at my jokes and my hats and my habit of hurling myself to the ground to get a good angle when I’m taking their photograph. Because of them, I know something about comradeship, and when I wear my poppy I think of them all.

I don’t wear my poppy with pride. I wear it with humility. I wear it for people who had, and have, a bravery of which I dare not dream. I wear it from respect. I wear it for memory. It’s a tiny act, once a year, but it means something to me. I am free to sit and write these thoughts in a liberal democracy with no secret police knocking at my door and that is, in part, due to the dauntless generations of fighting men and women who went before me. I wear the poppy to say thank you. 

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Fuck the Sock Drawer

I ring the Oldest and Dearest Friend. ‘This menopause,’ I say, as the dogs gambol in the meadow and drink from the burn, ‘how big do you think it is?’
She pauses for a moment. I can hear her thinking. ‘Well,’ she says at last, ‘it did send our mothers mad.’
‘I suppose it did,’ I say, rather mournfully. ‘Magsie went mad for years. Although,’ I add, ‘she was very eccentric by that stage so sometimes it was hard to tell. There were,’ I say, ‘a lot of specialists.’
‘Specialists,’ says the Oldest and Dearest. ‘Do you think that is what we will have to have? But think,’ she says, ‘of the power of hormones. Think of testosterone.’
I do think of testosterone, quite a lot .Years ago, a very wonderful man called Anthony Clare wrote a book about men. He was troubled by what he called ‘masculinity in crisis’. I remember some terrifying statistics about prison populations and violent crime – all the huge percentages were young men, under, I think, the age of twenty-seven. Clare thought that this could not be put down to societal problems or even psychological causes. He thought it was the shattering effect of testosterone. Testosterone gets boys into fights and crashes cars and puts tempers on a hair trigger. Much later, after the financial crash of 2008, there was a study which showed that these same young men, with their driving hormones, were much more likely to make highly risky investments than women or older men.
But then, I think, testosterone was probably what helped the species survive. It drove off the marauding tribe over the hill and killed the woolly mammoths and hunted for food. Testosterone flooded the battlefields of both world wars. The young men who took to the air and poured off the landing crafts and manned the capital ships saved the democracies in 1945.
Hormones, I think, are absolutely terrifying.
The Oldest and Dearest Friend and I compare notes. We both get days when we can’t see the point of anything, when we struggle even to do the washing up, when we want to shut the door and make the world go away. I’ve just had two of those in a row. The Oldest and Dearest tells me of a beautiful woman we both know who appears on paper to have a dream life, with everything one human could wish for, and who sometimes feels so lost that she hardly knows what her name is. This middle of life, we think, may be more complicated than we thought.
The Oldest and Dearest is, like me, a little bit muddly. There are days, she says, when she looks in sorrow at her bedroom and cannot even face doing the sock drawer and wishes instead that she could have a nice lie-down. ‘Well,’ I say, ‘that would be very sensible. Churchill insisted on a rest every afternoon when he could not be disturbed. A nice kip after lunch.’
She suddenly laughs. ‘Yes, yes,’ she says, ‘winning the war is much more important than tidying the sock drawer. Fuck the sock drawer.’
For some reason, we find this blindingly funny. We become breathless and speechless with laughter. ‘Fuck the sock drawer,’ we stutter at each other.
And, just like that, everything is all right. The wisdom and sweetness and funniness of an old friend is stronger than any hormonal hijack. I don’t know what is going on in my body at the moment but I think it is big. The sympathetic heart of my friend is, however, bigger. The blah menopausal mood, thick as fog, heavy as cement, demoralising as failure, is utterly driven away.
I put away the telephone, still laughing, amazed that I feel so much better. I get on my red mare and pony my little bay mare out into the meadows and look at the autumn trees. Mares are often accused of hormonal lunacy but these two are as soft and steady and calm as Zen mistresses. I ride with one finger on the rein and gaze at the beauty, of them, of the trees, of this dear old Scotland.

You can’t do everything on your own, I tell myself, sternly. Sometimes you have to reach out for help. You have to admit to weakness or frailty or simply being human. And then someone you love says ‘fuck the sock drawer’ and everything is all right again. 

Friday, 27 October 2017

I Will Show you Fear in a Handful of Dust

Not that long ago, I wrote a book called Seventy-Seven Ways to Make Your Life Very Slightly Better. Nobody read it, not even my agent. I published it myself but had no idea how to promote it, so it sank, very graciously, into the vast uncharted sea of the internet.
The funny thing is that I was really proud of that book. It came out of an idea I had in the week of my father’s funeral. I wanted to write a book called What to do When Your Dad and Your Dog Dies. (You can see I am all about the snappy title.) I wanted to write that book because I wanted to read that book and I found out, to my surprise, that nobody had written it. I’ll  have to write the fucker myself, I said, furiously.
I didn’t write that book, but after my mother died I wrote the equivalent.
The reason I’m proud of it is not that it is filled with shimmering prose, but that it is filled with some really quite decent ideas. I have to tell you, in a most vulgar way, that I surprised myself with my mid-life wisdom. It turned out that all those books I had read and all those sage friends I had talked to and all those thoughts I had thought had really produced something. I knew some stuff.
I do know some stuff. Here is the lovely thing about being fifty: you accumulate, over the years and years, some excellent stuff. You have learned from experience and mistakes and griefs. You get your priorities straight. (Mine, obviously, are love and trees.) You understand about the power of kindness and the importance of trying to behave well, even if you don’t achieve it all the time. If you are me, you write all that down and you astonish yourself.
Then, if you are me, you get to a point when you start stuttering and you realise, with a rather nasty shock, that there is a yawning gap between theory and practice.
I am shit hot at theory. Ask me anything. Ask me anything and I’ve got a theory for you. I know about cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias and projection and displacement. I really have read some books. I am, I discover, F for Fail at practice. It drives me nuts that I can know so much and still run into the sands when it comes to actual life. I keep thinking that I wish someone had written a manual about how to do life and then I realise I wrote that damn manual and it still isn’t enough.
I’m thinking at the moment about fear. I’m psychologically stuck just now, and I haven’t been able to work out why. I’ve been fooling myself because I can do the simulacrum of the high function. There are a lot of things in my week that I do well, that bring me joy, that give me a sense of achievement. I write about all those things and put them on Facebook. I take pictures of those things and make videos of those things with jaunty little soundtracks over the top and post them into the ether, saying, tacitly: look, look, look at me with my jazz hands.
Those things are good things, and I don’t denigrate them. They mostly take place outside, in the bright Scottish air, because they all have to do with horses. The problem is that I then go back inside and get stuck.
It’s fear, I finally tell myself. It was the second anniversary of my mother’s death this week so I was thinking about grief. I was thinking about the last six years and all those Dear Departeds – my mother, my father, my godfather, my dogs, my little Welsh pony, my friend, my cousin. I was thinking of the more distant relations and the old friends of my father, all of whom fell off their perches one after the other, so that it seemed an entire generation was going gentle into that good night. I thought: there is a lot of fear in grief.
Or, at least, there is a lot of fear in my grief. I hate to admit this but it is true. There is fear of mortality: everyone, including me, is going to die. There is fear of abandonment: everyone is going to die and leave me all alone. There is fear of failure: I shall never write the dazzling book of which I dream and then I shall die.
There is fear as I go down to the field and bask in the glory and might of my red mare, the beat of my heart, the light of my life. Some horrid, creaking voice in the back of my head says: don’t love her too much because she will die and you will be destroyed. The loving her too much ship has sailed, and it fills me with terror.
Another voice fires up. It says: why are you telling them all this? The Why Are You Telling Them voice has been yelling at me a lot lately which is why I’ve been off the blog. My tiny one-trick-pony frets and concerns and daily pleasures are too mundane and boring to make a blog, that voice says. I live a small life and I love that small life but I suddenly decided, as the fear got me, that it was too catastrophically dull to record. (It’s fascinating to me, but I thought it was not really fascinating for anyone else.) That’s why I started making the videos with the jazzy soundtracks.
I address the critical voice. I say, sternly, ‘I’m telling them all this because the only thing to do with fear is admit it.’ Write it down, write it down, says a benign, sing-song voice; that is a kind voice and it knows that everything is better when it is written down.

I have no buggery idea what to do with all these fears. I think they are a part of grief and I think they are a part of the middle of life and I think they are a part of being human. I can’t fix them up and pack them off. I can’t put them in a nice parcel and get lovely Pearl the Postwoman to take them down to the depot. I think I have to look them in the whites of their eyes. I think I have to keep staring at them until I have their measure. I think that I have to confess to myself that I am only human and humans get frightened sometimes. And perhaps then I shall stop being stuck. 


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