Friday, 27 May 2016

The spirit of William Morris.

‘Never,’ said my landlord, who is also my much-loved relation by marriage, ‘have anything in your house which is neither beautiful nor useful.’
            We were having dinner last night and he was quoting William Morris but he did not know he was quoting William Morris. The saying has survived, but the man himself is often forgotten.
            ‘Yes, yes,’ I said, agreeing so much that I practically fell off my chair. ‘William Morris. That is William Morris. He was so right.’
In the spirit of William Morris, I am going to tell you something useful. If you should ever wake up in one of those inexplicable bad moods which make you want to shout fuck at the radio and kick inoffensive bits of furniture, here is what you do. Pick up some dung, ride a good horse, and make someone laugh. I think you will agree that I have now fulfilled my remit. Here is easy, practical advice that absolutely anyone can follow.

Actually, I’m only half joking. Obviously not everyone has a horse, but there is the metaphorical riding of the horse – something you love, something you can do outside, something physical, something that stops you thinking of your own idiotic frets and strains.

The inexplicable mood which crashed on me this morning was an old friend. I don’t know when I shall learn. I had had far too good a time in the last two days. I did horseback archery on my mare, and I took her to a place where everyone admired her and she was queenly and immaculate and stellar. Then my family arrived from the south – my adored niece, her very dear husband and their enchanting little boy, who is ten months old and is funny and jolly and entirely at one with the world. I had, as a Texan I once knew used to say, too much fun.

I get so involved and excited when glorious things happen that there is always a crash afterwards. I need to develop an emotional thermostat, a steady barometer, a Goldilocks not too hot not too cold metronome. I think it is good to have passions, but I have to think that, or it would be all up with me. But I also think that there needs to be a sturdy fulcrum which stops one swinging too far in each direction.

The mood snarled at me and I thought everyone on the Today programme was an idiot. I went crossly down to the field, almost resentful that I had to feed the horses and groom the horses and generally look after the horses. Then I did the required physical work, still muttering like Muttley, and then I got on the red mare and we cantered about as if we were in the Wild West and the snapping, snarling voices in my head grew fainter, as if they were starting to get bored.

I went up to my dear Stepfather’s house and showed him how to cook an omelette with herbs from his garden. He had asked me to do this and in my initial grump I had thought I would put it off, do it tomorrow. But it was such a small thing that I just did it. The growling voices were deathly fed up by now, and I could hardly hear them. Then I made quite a lot of entirely random jokes, as if I were throwing little comedic darts at a dartboard, hoping one of them might hit. Something smashed into the bullseye, and he laughed so much that tears came into his eyes.

My remit at that house, still so empty without my mother in it, is to fill it every morning with light and laughter. The stepfather is old school, and does not speak of his emotions, but I know he misses my mother with a great and enduring ache. I can’t cheer him up, precisely, but I can do what I can do.

When I saw him laugh like that, the last of the stupid voices took themselves off, to torment someone else. The mood ran for the hills. I could come home, get on with writing, address my day in a reasonable manner.

In the end, I suddenly realise, as I tell you this little story, I got myself back to a state of respectable humanity by being useful. I have had a theory for a while that if you want to make yourself feel better, you should do something for someone else. If you give a little of yourself, then you get yourself back. It’s a beautiful, virtuous circle. This morning
it worked, and I was glad.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

We are archers.

This morning, I took a bow, got onto my horse, rode down a track, and shot an arrow straight to its target.

This is not a sentence I thought I would ever write.

The mare was mighty, and I whooped so loudly that they must have heard me in Inverness.

As I got back to my desk, the first thing I wanted to do was to tell you about this remarkable story. I am so filled with amazement and delight that my fingers are going like the clappers over the keyboard. Then, I paused. I got to thinking. Even when I have done something entirely physical, I always, always get to that damn thinking.

I thought of fear.

For two days, I have been looking fear in the whites of its eyes. It really has not been much fun. I don’t know where it came from or why it is hanging around, but it is. I’m generally quite strict about not doing pointless worry. I remember that great Mark Twain quote: ‘I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.’ But this time, despite my best intentions, the bastard got the better of me. It was that kind of beastly existential fret, which catches me in its crocodile jaws and throws me about the room. It was the ‘what if?’ worry. What if I break my leg or never get my damn book published or end up destitute? You know, the stupid, mid-life, help help help I don’t know what is going to happen terror. The kind that swamps you and leaves you feeling battered and stupid.

This morning, I rode my thoroughbred mare down that track and shot the bow and arrow from her majestic back and shrieked with such triumph that I startled the humans who were with me. The mare herself, entirely used to my noisy whoops of joy, did not turn a hair. 

The odd thing was that on the Today programme this morning I heard a woman say: ‘I’m frightened of horses.’ I don’t know where horses came into it, as she was being interviewed about the Europe referendum. But it struck me, because horses are the one thing I am not frightened of. Logically, I probably should be frightened, just a little, of having a half-ton flight animal under me, one who was bred for speed and strength, with not so much as a finger on her rein and a twanging bow held in the air, just in her blind spot.

The champion archers who instructed me this morning are poetry to watch. I have seen them before, and I remember thinking: I could never do that. They make it look easy, but it’s not easy. I thought their skill and their ability and their ease went into the category of Things I Could Never Do. But they were so gentle and sure and encouraging and persuasive that I discovered the impossible was possible.

The thing that fascinated me was that I found the whole bow and arrow thing very hard on the ground. It went against all muscle memory. I could not work out where to put my thumb or how to move my shoulders in the correct way. My body was saying: what, what? I had a go, said thank you very much, and rather accepted defeat. The archery course was going on for a week, but I could only take enough time off work to do a single morning. A morning was not enough. I’ll just let everyone else get on with it, I thought, and go and play with my pony.

Later, the brilliant arching lady looked up at the red mare and said: ‘Why don’t we just desensitise her to the bow?’ It would have been rude to say no, even though I had written the whole thing off. Within fifteen minutes, I was arching. Because the moment I was on that horse’s back, the whole thing came easily. My body stopped saying what, what, and said yes, yes. I hit the target three times in a row. Admittedly this was in a walk, and the moment we got to cantering I could not control the arrow and it jiggled about and fell sadly to the ground, but still. It felt like victory to me.

The arching champion smiled, as I jabbered at her in amazed delight. ‘Well,’ she said, kindly, ‘on the ground, you were over-thinking it. Once you got on your horse, you just did it.’

I had feared that this was one of the things I would not be able to do. I did not feel humiliated precisely, but rueful and chastened. In the end, all it took was a little human encouragement, and the confidence that this mighty horse gives me, and the fears ran for the hills. I stopped thinking, and just did it. That felt like a profound life lesson.

I quite often say that this mare brings out my best self. She is a stern professor, and she really hates the second-rate. She expects the best and she requires the best and if she does not get the best she becomes insecure and cross. It was because of her vehement demands that I took myself back to school, sharpened myself up, and polished myself into the human she desired. When I am on her, I fear nothing. ‘You really trust that horse,’ someone said. I do trust her. I believe in her. She is my touchstone. When I feel my puny human body become one with her mighty thoroughbred body I cannot feel sadness, or regret, or terror, or angst. I feel whole. I feel as if I have come home. That is the gift she gives me, and it is worth more than rubies.

Now I just have to learn to take that feeling from the mare to the rest of my life. That is my mission and I choose to accept it. We are archers, after all. We laugh at fear. We are afraid of nothing. We cannot stand still when the trumpet sounds.

Today's photograph was taken by my kind friend Cathy, whom I thank. It was before the arching, when we were playing in the round pen. You will be very glad to see that I am wearing a special new hat, bought for four pounds in the village shop. It has the red mare's official stamp of approval.

Friday, 20 May 2016

A little bit of bunting.

The rather amazing thing is that all that wild yelling yesterday did the trick. The wounding blow has now shrunk to a humming bruise. It is still there; it still exists; but I have perspective now. I am back on my feet.

I have a growing suspicion that this is what happens in middle age. Life gets very whackish at this time. It’s always biffing you and bashing you and smashing you to the ground. The biffs and bashes may be so small that they are hardly visible to the naked eye. They may be profound and oceanic, so that you feel as if you must drown. They are sometimes nothing to do with you. They are not personal, but out in the world. You turn on the news and there are stories of such sorrow and pity that your heart aches in your chest, in a sort of furious, regretful impotence. I sometimes think that all I am doing is falling down and getting up again. I sometimes wonder how I get any work done at all.

Yet, amazingly, in all this tumbling over and getting up, I have managed to finish my Secret Project. There are 98,000 words where there are none. I cannot yet tell whether they are good words, but they exist. I have to put them aside for three days and then do a paper edit, where I print out the manuscript and read it on actual paper. (The brain responds differently to words on paper and words on the screen, which is why this printing out is vital. You suddenly see glaring errors which were not visible before.)

Even if the words are not much good, I still feel quite proud of myself. I am a huge believer in buggering on, in not giving up, in putting one weary, stompy foot in front of the other. There were days in this secret project when I missed my mother so much that I felt my heart would crack into a hundred pieces, when the weight of grief was so heavy I did not think I could carry it any more. I felt stupid and lost and overwhelmed. But somehow I trudged to my desk and made my fingers tap tap tap over the keyboard. There must be words, and there were words.

There was nothing, and now there is something. I can’t quite believe it. I’m not exactly putting out more flags, but I’m damn well going to allow myself a little bit of bunting. 

Thursday, 19 May 2016

The kindness of strangers and a bit of a blow.

Oh, the dear Dear Readers. You are mighty battalions of loveliness.

Whenever I write a particularly revelatory post, especially one that carries a humming freight of absurdity, I am caught by the snapping crocodile jaws of angst. Am I about to be arrested by the Too Much police? Have I been a crashing bore? Did you really need to know all that?

One of the things that drives me nuts is the Shiny School. There is a lot of this on the internet. Look at me and my fabulous life. Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair. So I get this nutty idea that if I share the imperfections then that is somehow a good thing in itself.

My instinct is often to put on a fine front. Be amusing, be ironic, don’t frighten the horses. When I rip that front off, I feel a bit frightened, even though I have an incurable conviction that the more ripping there is, the better everything shall be.

But you came up trumps. Nobody said: oh butch up and put on your big girl’s pants. Everyone said a version of two of my favourite words in the English language: me too. Thank you.

The odd thing was that after all these layers of slightly pointless angst, something really sad happened last night. I got a fresh blow on an old bruise, and fell reeling backwards. I was like George Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle: against the ropes, baffled and bewildered. I had to go down to the field this morning and do a lot of mad singing and wild weeping to get the sorrow out. (I find really loud and heedless singing is amazingly helpful in this kind of situation.)

The sweet mare kindly watched, unruffled, and fell back to grazing. She does not mind me excavating emotion as long as I do it at a safe distance. Once I got all the shit out, in a very noisy and messy way, I was calm again for a moment and I got on her dear back and cantered around without caring a straw for what I looked like. I needed to be at one with her and I was. Her great, beautiful, thoroughbred body is my safe place. It is the only place in the world where I am constitutionally incapable of feeling miserable. I don’t know how she does this, but she does.

This new sorrow has ripped the scars off the old sorrow and I shall have to put on my grown-up hat and be sensible and stoical and look the damn thing in the whites of its eyes. I sometimes wish I did not have to be the grown-up, but if wishes were horses we would all be Lady bloody Godiva. The wailing six-year-old in me has to come out and have her wail. The sweary, furious, wounded self has to have her own shout. Fuck, bugger, bollocks, shit and arse goes the cry. This is when I feel very, very lucky to have a hidden field, so that the bawling and hollering can fly harmlessly into the bright air.

And then I go back into the world, where life is earnest, life is real, and actual tragedies are being reported on the nightly news, and you really can’t go around cursing like a longshoreman just because your heart got a bit cracked. I am wearing a literal hat, which is not in fact very grown up, but does keep off the drizzle. (The hat has been sat on by the dogs, got lost under twenty bales of hay, and been trodden into the mud, so it is entirely squashed and misshapen and mapped with Scottish earth. Yet it still does its job. Which feels almost like a parable to me.) The metaphorical grown-up hat will be firmly put into place as the hours go by. I’ll get the measure of the blow, let reality bite, hunt about for the silver linings like a pig hunting for truffles. I’ll ring up the Beloved Cousin, who always knows what to do, because she is so good and wise. In the meantime, I’m sitting quietly in my room and recruiting my strength. There will be green soup and iron tonic and then I’ll get myself back up off the ropes and live to fight another day.

PS. Today's picture is of the red mare having her feet trimmed. This is a sight guaranteed to lift my spirits, so I am squinting at it very hard. 

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

A cautionary tale about illusion and reality. Or, twelve hours on the ceiling.

Warning: this is a very silly story. Occasionally, I am driven to share silly stories with you. Nobody really knows why.

Yesterday was a really good day. The farrier came, which is always a delight. The horses love Wendy the Farrier and so do the humans. Everyone ends up happier, and with very smart feet. I rode the mare and she was funny and dancing and fine and the dear Stepfather came and took some photographs of us. The dogs were in a good mood and I wrote 2455 words. This was especially gratifying because it was supposed to be an editing day, so the words were a flying bonus.

At about four-thirty, I discovered, to my intense shock, that I was in a perfectly filthy mood. I could not understand how I could have had a good day and be so cross. I was far too furious to excavate the muddled moody feelings and see what they were really about so I ruthlessly ignored them and then dreamt all night of death and disaster. I even had a finals anxiety dream, which I have not done for twenty years.

This morning I faced the dirty truth. I can hardly write this, it is so shaming. I was cross because of those damn photographs.

I have been reading a lot lately about very brilliant horsemen and women, and I’ve been watching very brilliant horsemen and women. I've been inspired recently by Ingrid Klimke and Michael Jung. I've been very proud of the red mare and getting more ambitious for her and I watched the dazzling horses and riders and dreamed dizzy dreams. I think I thought, in the very bonkers recesses of my brain, that we were Michael Jung and Roxie.

That was why I wanted the pictures.

I got home, looked at them, and felt my heart sink.

This was entirely irrational. They were charming pictures. There were some lovely bits, but I was blinded by the thing I know most surely is fatal to peace of mind, which is: false expectation. I felt like a world-beater, but I looked like what I am, which is a middle-aged amateur. The truth is, the mare and I have both taken ourselves back to school and learnt a completely new form of horsemanship from what we grew up with. We are both ladies of a certain age and going back to the beginning was always going to take time. We don't look like Michael Jung and Roxie, whatever I have in my head. We look like what we are: a slightly goofy pair of beginners.

The second heart-sinker was much, much more embarrassing. I had a picture of myself in my head not just as a Badminton-level rider, but as a slender, fit person. I pretend that I have no vanity and that I don't care about body shape. (I almost believe this.) I refuse to go on diets on principle and don't weigh myself. All the same, I believed that I thought I was going into the thickets of middle age in pretty good shape. I’m always doing stuff, after all, humping about hay bales and walking dogs and riding horses. I must have a muscle or two.

There, in the pictures, on the elegant red mare, was a rather dumpy person. DUMPY. I stared in amazement. I thought: who is that woman? I had an athlete in my head, all sinew and muscle. This person looked as if she spent quite a lot of time eating cake.

But what about all my cherished feminist, humanist, and every other bloody -ist principles about it not mattering what you look like? What about the fact that it is your good heart and your questing mind that matter, and not your damn hips? Turns out my principles aren't so cast iron as I had thought. For half a day, I felt like a wailing child. I really wanted to look sharp, and instead I looked blurry around the edges. I was that superficial.

This morning, finally understanding what the shit storm had been about, with all the stupidities dissolved after a night's sleep, I stood in front of the glass and looked down the barrel at my body. Sure enough, it is not the body of an athlete. There is a little curving about the middle. But you know, it's not bad for that of an old girl. I looked at my body and saw it as it is and I was not ashamed.

It makes me want to cry that so many women are taught to hate their bodies. I don't know what it is like for men. I suspect not quite so extreme. The women are bombarded, every day, with images of the perfect. I had thought I knew better than to fall for the con; I thought I was immune. I thought I was above all that. Serve me right for being so damn smug. Those photographs from yesterday and the lunatic reaction I had to them showed me I was not as safe as I had thought. Those haunting visions of perfection had crept into the darker parts of my brain, for all that I think I avoid them and their cunning plan. I wanted to look like one thing and I looked like another. That was a more severe crash than I like to admit. It took me 12 hours to talk myself down off the ceiling and face reality and remember about the fatal tendency of false expectations. It took me 12 hours to feel again at home in my own skin.

The red mare is not a championship horse. I am not a championship rider. She is the horse of my heart, the one who drives me on, teaches me lessons, and gives me joy. I love her so much it hurts. I am the human who is good enough for her, who keeps her happy and makes her feel safe. We don't look like something out of a magazine. We are not poster material. We are what we are: two old girls, in a Scottish field, finding something a little bit beautiful in every day. It does not have to be perfect. It just has to be ours.

I’m slightly embarrassed that I had my wig-out and that it took me half a day to understand this. But I got there in the end.

Monday, 16 May 2016

A slightly surprising Monday.

 I had to do the kind of work today that was quite technical and boring and logistical and serious. I was not running away with the smoothing iron. I was not letting the words pour out. I was not telling myself to let rip. I had to put my stern hat on and turn the dial to Rigorous.
            I was rather dreading it. It’s a Monday, I thought, and this is real, trudging Monday work.
            In the end, I had a nice surprise. It turned out I quite enjoyed the stern hat. I am better at rigour than I thought. I was expecting that I would see acres of mistakes, feel a little chagrin, even bore myself, as this is my fourth edit and I know half of this stuff by heart. Instead, I found some sentences were better than I remembered. In places, the prose danced. I even occasionally found something quite wise, even though most of the good stuff was shamelessly borrowed from people much, much sager than I.
            It was really not at all bad.
            I like to think I know all about expectations. I’ve been thinking about them a lot lately. I understand that the road to hell is paved with false expectations. Yet, I sat down to that work with a whole boatload of expectations. Luckily, this morning they worked for me rather than against me. I was expecting crap; I got daisies. This week, I thought, amazed, is kicking off on the right leg.
            In the field, before work, when I was thinking only of my sweet mares, the woodpecker was pecking, making his whirring, rumbling tap tap tap. The first swallow has arrived, and was making his initial exploratory swoops. He’s on his own, and I don’t know how that works, whether he’s left the wife behind to come after him with the heavy luggage or what. There is a sweet jenny wren who is a new visitor, and a dear old robin who stuck with us all the way through the winter.
            I looked at my little bit of wildlife and thought how lucky I was. I would not get all this, I thought, if I lived in the middle of Wolverhampton.
            There were dear birds; there was a glorious thoroughbred canter; there was sunshine; there was good conversation. And then there was proper work.

            Monday, which I thought was going to be a bore, turned out to be fine. 

Sunday, 15 May 2016

The niceness of niceness.

I just heard something extraordinary.

I was in the kitchen making a lovely little brunch. The Food Programme was on Radio Four, and Sheila Dillon was talking about the Food and Farming Awards. This is a wonderful scheme where she and various judges go round the country and visit small producers and find hidden wonders. They discover everything from cider to chutney to cheese. In this programme, they were talking to British charcutiers.

This was glorious enough. There was so much knowledge and enthusiasm that I started to feel happy. But then a gentleman came on and was utterly, wholeheartedly nice for three minutes.

I fell into a sort of trance of pleasure. At first, I could not quite work out what was going on. Why was this three minutes of radio making me feel like singing? Was it that the speaker had a delightful voice? (I discovered afterwards that it was Yotam Ottolenghi. I don’t think I’d ever heard him interviewed before, and he does indeed have a shining radio voice.) Then I realised what it was. It was the pure niceness.

He had been to meet many people who were passionate about what they do, but he was not passionate as he talked. It was not that. He was not transfigured with enthusiasm or doing the vocal equivalent of cartwheels. He was quite calm. He was not flinging himself about the studio, or gushing, or, as the Americans so vividly say, blowing smoke up anybody’s arse. He had found food and people he admired, which gave him pleasure, and he was communicating that pleasure. There were no buts or maybes; no comparisons or doubts. It was all good. He expressed this with humming, fluent niceness.

I stopped. I thought. (I spend a lot of time stopping and thinking.) I realised that this is rare, in radio. I listen to Radio Four all the time, and a vast amount of what I hear is not very nice at all. People are always accusing people of something: iniquity, stupidity, acting in bad faith, hiding the truth. There are often those sly digs that the British love so much, the ones that are picked up by the advanced irony radar that every citizen of these rocky islands are given at birth. It’s funnier and more diverting to be a little naughty, a tiny bit bitchy, to get out the rapier and insert it cleverly under the third rib. Niceness is considered a little sad and bland.

This was not bland. It was glorious. It was like a spring rain after a dry spell. I listened; I stopped; I thought. I felt happy. It was dear old radio gold.

Friday, 13 May 2016

That person. Or, I have absolutely no idea what I am talking about.

 This morning, I took some delightful pictures of Stanley the Manly and Darwin the Dog. At once, I had of course to put them on the Facebook. There are people out there who really love Stan and Darwin and I must not disappoint them. (This is how bonkers the internet mind can get.)

I thought of various captions. At first I was going to write: ‘In order to achieve this I have to bellow WAIT like one of those terrifying county ladies who have voices which can carry over three fields.’ Then I was going to ask whether the Dear Readers liked my new wheelbarrow. It is green, my favourite colour, and I rescued it off a skip. I can’t tell you the satisfaction this gave me.

Then I thought: does everyone really need to know all this?

Of course, nobody needs to know anything. Nobody needs to know what Thomas the Tank Engine did next or what Tolstoy thought about the revolutionary wars. Lots of people survive perfectly happily without reading at all. In a way, instead of worrying what people might think about my too liberal sharing of information, I should simply think that I don’t need to write anything, and nobody needs to read anything, and that way we can all get along splendidly.

Sometimes, I do get crazy nuts in the head about something somebody writes. I shout, like a furious sergeant-major - that’s so intellectually lazy, or so banal, or so circular, or building up so many straw men, or so stupid, or so self-regarding, or so boring, or so riddled with category errors, or so unkind, or so flat-out cruel. I want to throw the book or the magazine or the newspaper across the room. I don’t need to read any of those maddening articles, so I suppose, in a strict sense, I can’t get too cross. But I do.

That’s why I sometimes think twice about what I commit to print. I quite like the idea of letting oneself go, of simply turning on the taps and seeing the water run. On the other hand, I live in a real world with real humans in it. I have, in ways I am not always very proud of, some amour-propre. I don’t want to be that person. You know the one. That person, whichever one is your bugbear that day. Everybody has a person they don’t want to be. I think: I don’t want to be the person who bangs on, and on, and on, on the internet, although I quite often do. I don’t want to be the person who always says no, but I am having to say no a lot at the moment. I don’t want to be the sad person, although I have been broken-hearted for many months. I don’t want to be the person who entirely wrecks the European project, which is why I am voting to stay in, although I understand all the arguments about the democratic deficit. I don’t want to be the lunatic horse person, but that ship has sailed.

In the end, I simply put up a picture of the dogs with their names. There really are people on the internet, people I have never met, who love those dogs. I love that they love those dogs. So they get the pictures, without the blether. And I come here instead, and write it all down, and wonder whether any of it makes any sense. But I know that there must be words, after all. Because I am that person. I am the person who has to write the words. And there is nothing I can do about that.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Lost and found.

The sun shone and I rode my red mare and I had a long and happy talk with my friend in the field as we basked in the warmth and I watched the dogs race along the burn and I made breakfast for the dear Stepfather and discussed the knotty problems of the Euro-decision.
            Then I went home and wrote 1916 words of Secret Project. I was supposed to be doing editing today, and I did, forty pages of it, so the 1916 words came as a lovely surprise, a sweet bonus, a gleaming cherry on a dear old cake.
            All good. There has been a lot of good lately.
            Because my mind is a contrary, labyrinthine thing, good is not always unalloyed. It’s Tuesday, and I have not written this blog for five days. Why could I not just tell you about the good, about the sunshine, about the dear animals, about my dear family? I’m supposed to be cataloguing the last year of my forties, for some idiot reason of my own, and there were fine things to record. Last Friday morning, I found myself dancing and singing in the field. I really wanted to tell you about that. It was such a glittering, absurd moment; it was a true sign that I was coming out of the gloomy tunnel of grief.
            Dexy’s Midnight Runners were on the radio with Chris Evans, and did a live version of Come on, Eileen. When I was in my teens, every single party I went to ended with that song, and the crowd went mad. It was a great version, all these years later, and it took me right back to those wild, heedless, carefree times, when all I had to do was dance my arse off and find someone nice to snog. I turned it up to full volume, and forgot that I was forty-nine, and jumped about like a maniac. The mares politely pretended not to notice.
            I really, really wanted to tell you that story, but I did not.
            I know, intellectually, that goodness and sadness do not fight each other, or cancel each other out, but trot along like a pair of the Queen’s matched Windsor greys. In my fearful, irrational head, I find them difficult to reconcile.
            The dear Stepfather has been to the south and found his new house. After I drove him to the airport, I went back to the house he shared with my mother, the one I visited every morning to make them breakfast, the one I still visit to make eggs for two instead of three. Many objects have gone from that house now, as he prepares to leave it. Huge pictures, lovely pieces of good furniture, a whole collection of books – all have been driven off to auction. There are actual spaces to go with the emotional space where my mother used to be. The house has a forlorn aspect, as it gives up its life, its memories, its ghosts.
            I find this unbearably sad.
            But I am not accepting the sadness, as I know I should. I am fighting it, tooth and nail. Look, I yell to myself – there is the sunshine, there are the dear ducks, there are the dancing dogs, there are your 1916 words, there is the dazzling, powerful canter of the red mare. Look at that, I tell myself, furiously. Choose, I say, stupidly, even though I know it is not a choice. Choose life; choose happiness; choose sunshine.
            And that is where the cognitive dissonance comes in and stops me writing the blog because I feel oddly dishonest. I pride myself on authenticity, and I am not quite being authentic.
            And then the kind voice gently says its piece. It’s all right, says that voice. You are only a human being. You can’t get everything right all the time. You can be sad and you can be happy; you can be empty and you can be full; you can be lost and you can be found. All at the same time. That’s what human beings do.

            Finally, because of that dear, sensible, human voice, I can write the blog. 

Thursday, 5 May 2016

Interesting humans.

Yesterday, I wrote about my quiet, small, ordinary life. Today, I went out of the house and met remarkable, interesting humans. One old friend drove me to see other old friends. We went to do a job, but we had many minutes of antic and delightful talk too. It was that kind of talk where you jump about from subject to subject, thought to thought, laughter to laughter, in the way you can with people you really, really like.

Then, my good deed for the day done, I went up to HorseBack and saw two of my familiar veterans who are dear to my heart, met a whole bunch of new ones who had arrived for the first time, was introduced to the head of Riding for the Disabled who had come for a visit, and said a happy hello to a member of the American Special Forces who comes to see us from time to time. 

I never quite know whether, officially, he is allowed to exist or not. ‘Can I take your photograph?’ I always say. ‘Or are you under deep cover?’ He has grown some tremendous facial hair since we last met, and was twirling his moustaches like Terry Thomas. ‘That is one hell of a moustache,’ I said, in awe. He twinkled his eyes at me, then assumed his most deadpan look. ‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘I just woke up like this.’ Clearly he is about to go on a secret mission that requires him to look like Hercule Poirot.

Then I went back to my desk and drank a lot of strong coffee and wrote one thousand words about the power of words. This is my favourite subject and I enjoyed myself vastly. Although I was back in my small, ordinary day, my known, regular routine, the galvanising effect of having talked with interesting people, old and new, known and not known, lived in me. The ordinary was illuminated, and made extraordinary.

I always like getting back to my quiet room. I need my quiet room. I crave solitude like a drunk craves whisky. But it’s lovely to know that I can still go out into the world and get a dose of the absolutely fascinating from time to time.

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

I'll take decent.


The weather turned surly again after yesterday’s dancing sunshine. The horses, however, did not care, and there was a lot of morning sweetness in the field. The dear Stepfather and I discussed the education system at breakfast, because that is the kind of thing we like to talk about. And then it was work, work, work, work with a quick break to watch the incomparable Ryan Moore win the Cheshire Oaks.
            My days are in a very steady, ordinary pattern at the moment. Dogs, hill, mares, family, work. I am not doing anything remarkable. I’m like an old staying chaser: not one of the great storied stars, but a reliable handicapper, plugging on with my head down. I quite like this. I have not been known for steadiness, and I like that there is a routine and there is a lot of getting things done. My domestic life suffers a little – the house teeters on the edge of muddle and my garden runs wild. All energy goes into the work. I am going to get this secret project finished if it kills me.
            I think, slightly ruefully, I used to have Deep Thoughts, for the Dear Readers. Or did I? This might be a fantasy. Quite often, I suspect, I believed I had a deep thought but by the time it got to writing the blog I had forgotten it. I have a vague memory of apologising to you for the errant deep thought, which had escaped into the wild.
            Make some more jokes, say the cross voices in my head. If you can give them a meditation on the human condition, at least do a couple of gags. Do a tap dance, do some jazz hands, turn a cartwheel. But by the time the work is done, my brain turns itself off as if someone has thrown a switch. There are no cartwheels to be had.
            I like the ordinary. I used to yearn always for the extraordinary. Now I find the ordinary soothing and consoling. It’s just that sometimes, when I write it down, it reads a little flat. Is that all there is? Well, yes, that is all. It’s small, and it’s mine, and it will do. These are not dazzling days, but they are decent days, and, after six months of intense grief, I’ll take decent. 

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

A good day.

The sun shone and I rode the red mare with joy in my heart and I made breakfast for the dear Stepfather and spoke to the vet and had a lovely chat with my friend The World Traveller and went into my mother’s garden and looked at the daffodils she planted before she died and talked about sheep to the kind gentleman who keeps it all going. He used to work with livestock before he was a gardener and he knows a good ewe when he sees one. I watched the dogs lark about in the light and drink from the burn and then I went home and wrote 2000 words. I edited and collated and looked things up. I worked and worked and worked and now I have no words left. But it was a good, good day. 

Friday, 29 April 2016

The joy of friendship. Or, how one human can make the sun come out.

Everyone is talking about the weather. It continues bitter and bleak and bolshie. It is almost May, and humans and horses are rugged up as it if is deep mid-winter. The sky is the colour of shattered dreams and everyone I meet sighs rueful, resigned sighs. We must bugger on, but, like an old mare out at pasture, we long for the sun on our backs.

The Beloved Cousin calls, and, in my heart, the sun comes out.

I wonder about the power of friendship. Does it mean more now because I am deep in the woods of the middle of life? Is there something about heading towards fifty that makes a human cherish the kindness, laughter, wisdom and general loveliness of someone known for thirty years? Do I feel a passionate gratitude for those staunch friends because I know now how rare a gift they are? Or is it that the accumulation of memories, happy and sad, comical and tragic, build up into a soaring cathedral of wonder? Perhaps it is all those things.

We make plans. We love the plans and grow as excited about them as if we were girls. She tells me a funny and naughty story which begins with the thrilling words: ‘You must never repeat this.’ (We have kept many, many secrets over the years.) We range over some mutual friends. So and So gave a party; Such and Such has an enchanting new girlfriend.

We discuss the Euro-argument and the anti-Semitism row in the Labour party. We contemplate, rather gravely, whether the slow-down in China is going to capsize the world economy.

We fall into an antic, delighted, passionate gallop through Pride and Prejudice. We both love Jane Austen like a sister, and I am re-reading Pride and Prejudice for the second time in six months. ‘It’s like having your best friends to stay,’ I say, laughing. ‘I love spending time in their company. It’s like having you to stay. I breathe a huge sigh of relief and pleasure.’ We delve deep into the psyche of Mr Darcy. It’s not just pride, we decide, it’s that he is a classic introvert. We run through two or three of our favourite scenes. Some of them we can repeat word for word. ‘We are such geeks,’ she says, gusting with laughter.

Then, just for fun, we have a quick canter through Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights and the Sword of Honour Trilogy.

She tells me something perfectly adorable which The Smallest Cousin has said, and I am so shaken with hilarity that I can’t speak, but just gasp with laughter down the telephone.

We run through a thorny problem I had not long ago which has turned out to lead to something much, much better than I could have hoped. ‘It’s so funny,’ we say, ‘how those things which you think are disasters so often end up being the best thing that could have happened.’ We are old ladies, and we have learnt a lot of life lessons, most of them the hard way.

Imagine that, all in one conversation.

As always, she leaves me better than she found me. She lights up the day, so I don’t care any more about the horrid weather. She has the amazing talent of growing more wonderful with every passing day. She is not static or stuck; she does not rest on her laurels or grow complacent. She’s always thinking of new things and figuring out the conundrums of the human condition and wading into the thorny reaches of the psyche. She always has a new theory for us to ponder, or has refined an old one and given it a little lemon twist. She is a remarkable human, and she is my friend.

That is sunshine, indeed.

Thursday, 28 April 2016

The pin.

This week the weather blew in again from the Arctic and spring was vanquished. There was some sun, but there was snow too, horrid bitter blizzards, messy and bleak. The wind howled down from the north, mocking my puny plan. I felt furious and defeated, stumping through the mud to tend to the mares, crossly racking up my daily word count, so grumpy that I refused even to write the blog. You all have weather, literal and metaphorical; I was not going to add to it.

Then, today, something wonderful happened. Within a single hour, I whooped, I wept, and I laughed for sheer happiness. All human emotion was there. I was alive again.

It is quite rare that the weather defeats me, and of course it was not just the weather. I am a countrywoman, and I have an array of absurd hats. I have spent the last four months covered in mud, cracking the ice on the water trough, leading the horses through once-in-a-century floods. I believe in stoicism and buggering on.

The weather defeated me I think because I was faking it, a bit. I had got myself lost in the maze of false expectation. I was expecting spring, and for a moment it glimmered with promise, and then it was snatched away. At the same time, it was six months since my mother died, and I had been getting glimpses of normality. I could go in and make the dear Stepfather his breakfast and cheer him up without having to put on a false front. I could make normal conversation and laugh in an unforced way. I could, once more, see the beauty without squinting for it. I was expecting that this new normal meant the storm was over.

When the literal storms came back, a metaphorical storm returned. Things are going, from the house my mother and stepfather shared. Each day this week, I would go in, and there would be another blank space on the wall. The chair that she sat in, which always had on its arm a delicate Kashmiri shawl I had given her, had been shipped off to auction. There was just an empty space where it had been, with only four melancholy dimples in the carpet to mark its place.

I wanted to cry, but I was not going to cry, because of the new normal, because of the stoicism, because of the expectations. It was six months on and I had work to do and I don’t want to be one of those people who are always leaking like a watering pot. On I stumped, furious at the weather, averting my eyes from those empty spaces.

The sun came out this morning and something was released. It started with the red mare. She let all her thoroughbred glory shine in the light. We cantered round in a vast circle, mapping the set-aside, gathering power and speed, rolling in harmony. Her Aston Martin engine purred beneath me. She was on a loose rein, entirely in command of herself, all poise and elegance, but I let her go on a little, and we picked up speed, and that was when I felt the power and the glory. That was when I whooped out loud into the bright air.

Then I went to cook the breakfast. The dear Stepfather had a little collection of things out on the table. ‘The moving men found this,’ he said, pointing. ‘When they took away the chest of drawers.’ I thought we had done all the stuff. (They are only things I kept telling myself, but some things are more precious and meaningful than others.) I looked, and looked again.

‘Oh,’ I said, my voice coming out in a dying fall. ‘I know that box.’

It was a small, leather, dun-coloured jewellery box with my great-grandfather’s initials on it in faded gold. I did know that box. When I was twelve, I used to open that box every Saturday in the winter and sometimes on Wednesdays too. I opened it now, hardly able to believe that it would still have the thing I remembered in it.

But there it was. It was my mother’s stock pin, a simple, elegant item in low gold, with the familiar dull gleam of use on it. ‘I used to wear this,’ I said to the dear Stepfather. ‘On my pony, Seamus.’ Seamus was the forerunner, the first great love of my life, the one that paved the way for the red mare.

And that was when I burst into tears in the middle of the kitchen.

The dear Stepfather bore it very well. I mopped my eyes and made a joke and we talked of other things. I think that perhaps he quite likes the odd bit of weeping, despite the fact he is a stiff upper lip sort of gentleman, because there it is – a living proof that someone else misses her too.

I cried because six months means nothing, because the new normal comes and goes like radio static and is as impermanent, because stoicism only gets you so far. I cried because this person I loved somehow managed to hold on to that precious object, in its little box, through moves from one side of the world to the other, through a catastrophic fire which took almost all our belongings, through divorce and despair. I loved that pin and I wore that pin on some of the happiest days of my life. And there it was, nearly forty years later, like a dear, shining miracle.

The chair is gone, but the pin is still there.

And then I ate my eggs and drove up to HorseBack and watched some veterans ride their good horses with joy and determination and it was such a happy sight that I exclaimed in delight and shouted ‘Well done, good work, look at you all,’ and took my pictures and came home and wrote 1399 words of secret project and felt like a human being again.

The mare started it. She nearly always does. She has the gift of giving me back to myself. Yesterday, I stood with her in the field, in that bitter, whipping wind, her head on my shoulder, and I said to her: ‘You got me through this, you know.’ She is a horse. She does not know. But perhaps, in some tiny, mysterious part of her, she does know, just a little. 

Everyone needs something, someone to get them Through This. It does not matter if it is a human or a place or a passion or a tree. It can be a belief or a view or a dog. Everyone needs something. I got a horse. I got a horse of such beauty and grace and shining authenticity that she lifts me up and gently sets me back on my feet again. I don’t know how she does it, but she does.

Friday, 22 April 2016

A good week.

A most enchanted morning. The sun shone and the high clouds sailed across the sky and one of my very favourite members of the extended family came to help me with the horses. I wanted to get my little brown mare out for a nice walk, to start getting her back to herself after her horrid operation. We took her and the red mare out in hand, through the marvellous trees, along the burn, past the sheep, by the blue hill, back down the shady drive to the field. The mares pricked their ears and had a swing in their step; the humans talked and talked and talked and laughed and laughed and laughed. There was a huge amount of sweetness. It was a glorious way to start a day.

I think a lot about gratitude. Although I sometimes get a bit scratchy and grumpy with those blissed-out Zenny types who bang on about gratitude lists and Welcoming the Abundance, I do know they are right. Gratitude for all the small, lovely things that are sometimes taken for granted is very important, I believe. As we walked, my beloved relation and I said to each other, in slight wonder: ‘Aren’t we lucky?’ We looked at the trees and the hills and the sky and the lambs and the beautiful mares, walking sweetly behind us, and felt that amazing luck.

Not everyone wants this. A lot of people love the hurly and burly of urban life, need the shot of worldly sophistication that cities bring, thrive on the crowds and the culture and the antic street drama. We are two old countrywomen, brought up with horses and livestock and earth and weather. To us, the trees and the hills and bright air are as majestic as a cathedral.

I was still smiling when I went to HorseBack, and there I smiled some more, as I watched a group of young people rise to a whole set of challenges with enthusiasm and grace. They were inspiring, and I was inspired. I went home and did a whole lot of HorseBack work, whilst sneaking a peak at the charming Perth festival, one of my favourite race meetings of the year. My veteran friend, who was at the course, sent me increasingly jubilant messages as he backed every winner on the card.

Then I wrote some of my secret project. I have written many hundreds of words this week, and I suddenly look up and realise, rather to my surprise, that I have a book-length manuscript on my hands. I don’t quite know how that happened. I sat down and put my cussed hat on and gritted my teeth and said fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke and took a risk. It’s the most speculative of secret projects, and it could be a blinder or it could crash and burn. But I am in the home straight now, and I feel a little glow of pleasure and pride and rank astonishment. (All those words; where did they come from?)

Even more to my surprise, I realise it has been a good week. It was good not because I was straining every sinew to make it good. The stars aligned. I worked hard and I felt the sun on my back and I laughed at the dogs as they played in the long meadow and I greeted the new lambs and I wished the Queen a happy birthday in the privacy of my own head and I smiled as the reluctant daffodils finally came out. The red mare was at her most mighty crest and peak of sheer, raging loveliness. The little brown mare is healing, and her sweet spark is returning. I spoke at length to the Beloved Cousin, which always makes any week better, and discussed Europe with the dear Stepfather. I read a fascinating book about the Second World War and watched some old episodes of the West Wing, my standing treat.

I am learning to live without my mother. I miss her all the time, but that missing no longer tears my heart from my chest. I remembered my glorious dad, who died five years ago yesterday. I remembered him with love and pride and pleasure instead of the haunting shades of melancholy. I miss him too. I wish they were both still here, but I have them safe in my heart. They go with me now.

So, what with one thing and another, a good week is not something I can take for granted. It feels like a bit of a present, as if someone wrapped up something charming in a brown paper parcel and sent it by the post so that Pearl the Postwoman would have to knock on my door and get my signature. A good week is quite something. 

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Our own dear Queen.

The sun shines this morning, and I look at pictures of the Queen in the paper. She looks very elegant and calm, like a majestic ocean liner. Gor bless her, and all who sail in her. In a way, she is the British ship of state, and she does sail serenely on through turbulent seas.
            I shall never meet the Queen, I think, a little regretful. Lots of people do meet her. They meet her at flower shows and Lord Mayor’s banquets and garden parties and I don’t know what. They meet her when she opens a hospital or inspects the troops. They shake her hand and they don’t forget it.
            I did see her once, in a room. I was just arriving and she was just leaving. There was a murmur and a rustle of evening dresses as the women curtseyed while she moved past. I flattened myself against a friendly wall and stared. She has an incandescence which does not show in photographs, as if she is lit by some inner light. Also: she glides. A flash of diamonds, a beam of that famous smile, another murmur, another rustle, and she was gone.
            At this stage, those who believe in a republic will be chewing their arms off. This week must be agony for them. Our own dear Queen is about to be ninety, and all those who admire her will be getting misty-eyed. This outpouring of affection drives the anti-monarchists bonkers.
I used to be one of those old bolshies. I thought it perfectly absurd that a mere twist of birth led to someone ruling a kingdom and wearing a crown. It made no sense, not in this modern age.
            As I have grown older, I see that it is one of those things that is indeed absurd, but also, oddly, works. (I love things that work.) The doughty traditionalists' argument of continuity and steadiness has some validity. But really, it is not a question of a rational argument, of who is right or wrong. It’s a question of love.
            What the most strident Queen-bashers don’t understand is that they are at risk of sounding like crashing snobs. The crossest republicans are mostly metropolitan chattering classes. I used to be one of them, with my urban, bien pensant, liberal bleeding heart, so I know what I’m talking about. When they sneer at the Queen and at the monarchy and at the whole royal family, they think they are being tremendous femmes and hommes du peuple. They seem to believe sincerely that they are speaking up for the man on the Clapham omnibus, the woman in the street. They are taking a stand against those ghastly posh people, with their green acres and their huntin’, shootin’, fishin’, their stately piles and their family jewels. They are fighting for the Ordinary Decent Britons, who shall never wear a tiara or sit on a throne.
            In fact, the irony is that it is those very Ordinary Decent Britons who love the Queen the most. It is not posh people who adore the Queen. The posh people say things like: ‘Oh, the Queen. Don’t know how she does it. Marvellous.’ And then they go back to contemplating something much more important, like Labradors or the 3.30 at Sandown. They are not the ones who line the Mall on state occasions to watch the carriages go by, or buy commemorative plates, or queue up to look round Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle. They don’t wave Union flags joyfully below that famous balcony or wait outside Crathie Church to see the royal party emerge or send off for special coins from the Mint. No, the people who do that are the very people that the furious anti-Queenies insist they are speaking for.
            Ah, say the republicans, clearing their throats; well, you see, false consciousness. I am relieved to admit that even at the height of my own chattering class, bleeding heart pomp, I never uttered those words. They are so bloody patronising that they make me want to punch someone in the nose. Here, little people, you think you love the Queen, but you don’t really, because she is the one who is Keeping You In Your Place. Every time you wave your stupid flag, you are instrumental in your own oppression. We, however, we clever, right-thinking republicans know what is good for you better than you know it yourselves.
            Can you imagine anything more snobbish than that? It puts the most patriarchal old Tory in the shade.
            I do love the Queen. I love her steadiness and her sense of duty and her thriftiness and her passion for horses. I love that she knows the stud book back to front, and can confound the most storied breeders of racehorses with her encyclopaedic knowledge. I love that she understands, better than anyone, the glory and might of the thoroughbred. I love that she wears sensible shoes.

            It may not be cool or hip or fashionable to love the Queen. How the sneerers would curl their lip if they could see me stand to attention when the National Anthem is played as I watch the racing at the Royal Meeting. I don’t care. I am an ordinary Briton, and I wave my little flag.  

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

The beautiful books.

The sun shone. All the daffodils are out now and the tiny new-born lambs are skipping in the fields, watched over by their serious mamas, and it feels as if spring is coming. The kind gentleman who has always tended my mother’s garden and who tends it still, as if in memory of her, looks up at the sky and says: ‘But they say another late snow is coming.’ This morning, snow feels far away.

The dogs splash in the burn; the little brown mare does polo turns and rodeo tricks by herself in her paddock; the red mare does a dreamy dressage canter with me on her back. Yesterday, I wrote 2951 words of secret project; today, there were another 1904. I am bash, bash, bashing away.

I spent yesterday among quite another kind of book. The dear Stepfather has been collecting books for thirty-five years. He once worked in the book trade, and he is a connoisseur of the first edition. He has first editions of Osbert Sitwell and Anthony Powell and other fine 20th century writers, but his great collection is of Evelyn Waugh. The funny thing is that Evelyn Waugh is one of the people who made me want to be a writer. I read Vile Bodies when I was sixteen, and I wanted to write a book exactly like that. Thirty-three years later, I stand in a sun-lit room, looking at a pristine first edition of that novel.

The collection is moving on now. It is going to be sold. The beautiful books, with their inscriptions in Waugh’s hand, and their book plates, and their provenance, will go on to delight other humans.

It’s a bittersweet moment. I’ve loved those books. Quite often, I make the dear Stepfather take one down from the shelf and tell me about it. I heft the lovely object in my hand and think of its history and admire its design. I was so used to going into the house and casting my happy eyes over that cabinet of delights.

Yesterday was our last day with them. We played with them like children, got them out and turned the leaves and exclaimed over them. ‘Tell me about this one again,’ I said. ‘And oh, look, this one.’

This morning, they are gone, on their long journey south. A nice young man with a beard came and packed them up and drove them away. There is a space in the cabinet, where all the glory used to sit.

They were only objects, after all. It is right that they go out into the world to give pleasure to others. But I shall miss them very much. It was a rare privilege to know them. 


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