Tuesday, 16 April 2019

A Big Day

Today, I sent off a manuscript to my agent.

I’ve had so many crashes and smashes in my writing career that I had almost given up on the traditional publishing route. I could not deal with the whole dog and pony show, the reliance on whim, the alarming shifts of the market. One day, what you are writing is in fashion; the next, everyone wants something and someone quite else. The endless returning of each manuscript for the endless rewrites started to feel not like work, but like purgatory.

So I thought I’d be a literary entrepreneur. I started publishing my own, idiosyncratic horse books on Amazon. I would press the miracle button and my books would be amazingly available from New Mexico to New Zealand. I began an online writing service, where I acted as a coach and mentor and editor. I could reinvent the entire process, and I would never, ever have to have a meeting again. (I am a fairly extreme introvert, so I absolutely loathe meetings. I am crap at jolly working lunches. I am catastrophic at selling myself in any way.)

And then, out of the blue, my agent suddenly got in touch and asked about the novel for which I had entirely given up hope. It sat, huge and pointless, in my bottom drawer. It had been rewritten so many times, but it was never quite right. 

Astonishingly, she had not forgotten about it. She had been talking of it to complete strangers. Incredulous and invigorated, I got it out and dusted it down and had a look at it. 

Usually, when this happens, the book feels old and stale. It had its moment, and it missed it. This one, however, still hummed and thrummed with life. I could see the places and see the characters and see the slightly eccentric world I had created. I fell in love with it, all over again. As I worked it and worked it, I felt hope rise in me. When I got to the last chapter, I made myself cry. 

Well, I thought, if it makes me cry, then it might make the Dear Reader cry too. 

For four days after finishing this latest edit, I sat with my bad critics, my voices of fear, the gremlins in my head. They had a tremendous party. They told me that it would be the same old, same old. It would be the burst of hope, followed by the crash of disappointment. The complete strangers would have met another agent, with a more thrilling manuscript. The market would shift, yet again. The manuscript would be sent back. My heart would break. The window of Waterstone’s would seem like a bitter dream. 

Don’t expose yourself to that, said the gremlins, shrieking with drunken laughter. Do you really want to fail, for the hundredth time? Run back to your comfort zone, and stay there, with a nice bottle of gin.

Finally, I summoned the Fuck It voices. I love these voices. They really don’t give a stuff. They say, ‘Fuck it, if you don’t try, you’ll never know.’ They say, ‘Sod the world, it’s your book, and it’s beautiful, and you love it, so send it.’ 

So, half an hour ago, I dug myself out of my hole, put my Fuck It hat on, and pressed send. 

Off it has flown, my great big book, into the open spaces where critical eyes may gaze upon it. It’s galloping now, over the prairies, across the Steppes, and who knows where it may find itself? 

And what if the worst comes to the worst? What if the computer says No? Well, I can still press the miracle button and some lovely reader in Albuquerque will be my very own Waterstone’s window. 

Wednesday, 27 March 2019

The Gift of Helpless Laughter.

One of the oldest and dearest friends rang this morning. She is the Indispensable Friend. There are a very few that I absolutely could not do without and she is one of them.

We talked about many things. Then we recalled one of the more absurd stories in our past. She had met a tremendously dull, slightly creepy European aristocrat. He was one of those ones whose family takes up about six pages in the Almanac De Gotha. He almost instantly proposed. (We were in our twenties, and we would do anything in those days, but this was quite weird, even for us.) The Almanac De Gotha is not her book, and he was not her person, so she politely said no.

A while later, she was having lunch with a tremendous old gentleman who really did adore the Almanac De Gotha and dreamed of having forty-seven quarterings. I never quite worked out what quarterings were, something to do with very grand coats of arms, but this gent knew all about them and loved them. 

My friend told the story of the creepy aristo and the proposal. The old gent sat bolt upright. In our memory, he banged his fist on the table. ‘You must marry him at once!’ he cried, as if refusing such an offer meant the end of the world as we know it.

We laughed a lot as we remembered this. My friend said, ‘Just imagine if I had married him. My poor children would have spent the rest of their lives looking for their chins.’

This is not funny on paper. In life, it was hysterical. The thought of those poor chinless half-Euros tickled us until we could hardly speak. We took the joke and ran with it. We went through every single lost item scenario and applied it to the search for a chin. ‘I know I had it somewhere,’ we stuttered. ‘Now, what did I come in here for?’ we said, imagining that moment when you walk into a room and you can’t remember what you were looking for. Oh, yes: chins. 

See? It’s just not funny. But it was so funny to us that we wept with laughter. And I came inside after my walk in the woods and thought: write that down. I want to write it down because my memory is shot and I won’t remember it in five minutes, let alone in five months. I want to write it down because that kind of helpless laughter at a not funny joke is the absolute crest and peak of perfect friendship. 

I often vaguely take it for granted, thinking that everyone has it with everyone. But they don’t. It’s rare and precious. It’s that melding of minds, that finishing of each other’s sentences, that starting to laugh before the line is half-uttered. It’s the thing that can pull me out of the doldrums, give me sunshine on a rainy day, allow me to survive the Brexit madness. Whenever things seem too mad and bad, I can pick up that telephone and hear that voice and the world steadies on its axis.

That’s a gift. It’s the gift of laughter and joy and complete understanding. I write it down because I want to put it in the box where the cherished things live. On a dark day, when I can’t find the light, I can come back to this and read and smile and be reminded.

Friday, 1 February 2019

The Art of Photography

I absolutely love taking photographs. I feel a bit naked and slightly panicky if I go somewhere without a camera, in the same way that I feel profoundly uncomfortable if I go out and find I’ve left my notebook behind. (This is why I have unfeasibly big handbags, the kind of thing that would make Lady Bracknell have kittens.) But I can’t, hard as I try, learn how to master the art of photography.

I really have tried. I have asked kind and brilliant friends. The amazing Fay Vincent told me some gloriously clever things. Generous people write long essays on Photography for Beginners on the internet. And yet none of it goes in. 

I can’t even understand the Rule of Thirds. This is possibly the most basic rule of photography. It’s the visual equivalent of the simple declarative sentence. I know the simple declarative sentence like I know how to breathe. I’ve been learning it since I wrote my first novel at the age of fourteen. It is my comrade in arms and my old friend. 

I sometimes say, slightly fancifully, that Churchill won the war with simple declarative sentences. This of course is not quite true. But he did rally a desperate nation with them, and gave battered, bewildered Britons the gift of hope. 

‘We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.’ 

There is nothing more simple or more declarative than that. 

There is not a single word that you have to look up in the dictionary. This is language a child of eight could use with confidence and delight. Yet those lines thump into the heart with the power and accuracy of an arrow shot from an archer’s bow. 

But I can’t get the Rule of Thirds. What third? Where? And how? 

The moment the language of photography gets at all technical, which it does very quickly, my brain becomes befuddled and mildly resentful. It’s like string theory to me. I have a friend who does string theory, and for him, it’s like reading Enid Blyton. It’s so obvious and wonderful and true. He’s a musician as well, and he thinks of physics like music. To him, the universe vibrates with music, as if the vast spaces of the cosmos are playing Mozart sonatas. Imagine that. I hardly can.

So, I’ve decided to stop torturing myself. The language of light and composition is not a language I shall ever speak, just as I shall never speak Mandarin. I shall go on snapping, in my amateurish way, for sheer pleasure. I look and squint and try to find something interesting. I hunt for beauty as a truffle hound hunts for truffles. Sometimes, I find it. Sometimes, I get lucky. There is no skill in my pictures, but there is an awful lot of love. And that gets me far enough. 

But I do take my hat off to those people who do it properly. It is a great art, and a science too. Behind the charming ease of the finished product is years of knowledge and learning and practice. When I see a great photograph now, I don’t take it for granted. I know what it takes to achieve that kind of consistent greatness. I have scratched around the edges, and I see the devotion and the conviction and the hard work that is required. Someone has done something marvellous, and respect is due. 

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

The Making of Mistakes

‘Make mistakes,’ is one of my war cries. Embrace your mistakes, cherish your mistakes, lean in to your mistakes, because it is only by bogging up that humans learn anything. 

I work with horses and I write books. In horsing and writing, mistakes are crucial. If you try to avoid errors, to be perfect, then you never achieve anything because you are always holding back, afraid you will get bottom marks. You only get top marks by daring, sometimes, to risk tumbling to the absolute rock bottom of the class.

I know this. I say this. I write this.

But I can’t always do this. 

The bloody, buggery gap between theory and practice sneaks up and whacks me round the chops. The internal voice in my head wails, ‘Why? Why? Why do you have to make all these bogs? Could you not just concentrate better and try harder and stop being such a screw-up?’

There, there, is the voice of shame. This voice does not say, ‘Well, you screwed up because you are human and all humans do this and you know that mistakes are marvellous opportunities for learning and you can shake it off and make it right and start again.’ No, no, the voice of shame says, without hesitation, ‘You are a screw-up.’ The voice of shame adores labels, and plasters them on everyone with hilarious gaiety. 

I made a huge mistake this morning and I upset someone I love the most in the world. I had gone into tunnel vision, and I did not see the upset building, until it spilled over. There it was, and I had done it. ‘Ha, ha, ha,’ said the voice of shame. ‘You think you are all that and just look what you did.’

I apologised. Of course I did. I said we would do things differently in the future. I said I would pay more attention. I did all the things that you are supposed to do, if you are a half-decent person. 

But still, I would have bitten my arm off to have taken that moment back. I would have paid all the money in the world to have rewound time to five minutes before, when I could have seen what I was doing and simply stopped.  

When I write stuff like this, people often say, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t beat yourself up.’ They are right. But it’s not as simple as that. Someone can’t merely say, do this, do that, and then it’s all bluebirds and butterflies. It’s that pesky theory and practice again. Complex emotions require complex processing. I wish I could simply snap my fingers and apply a glorious act of will. I will not feel remorseful, I will not feel stupid, I will not stumble into the pit of self-laceration. Because, after all, what does that achieve? 

And yet, like a stately ocean liner who takes a while to change course, I have to honk my horn and make my slow circle. This is the circle back to reality and sanity, where one error does not cancel out all the good things. One mistake does not make me a terrible person. (The voices of shame are laughing their arses off now.) My theory is right: mistakes are good. Mistakes are opportunities, little motherlodes of information, signposts back to the Road of Goodness. Just at this very minute, my irrational mind does not believe that. I have to ask it to hush. I have to let the rational mind, which is not nearly so shouty, be heard. 

I tend to write these kinds of posts for two reasons. One is that I need to get all the tangled, jangled emotions out of my head and on to the page. But there is also the suspicion, the fluttering hope, that there are lots of other flawed humans out there, just like me. They are putting on a good front and putting their best foot forward and putting on their game faces. Like me, they don’t want to admit to the messy, muddly parts, because they don’t want to be a bore. They don’t want people to feel sorry for them or tell them what to do. So they fake it, just a little. I’m fine, they say; watch me, being fine. 

In the age of social media, there is a premium on perfection. Look at all those glossy lives, out there on the internet. Regard, say the Instawhizzes and the Facebook fabulosos, our charming children, our delicious recipes, our adventurous travels, our elegant homes. Watch us being organised, and Zen, and in tune with the universe. See our shoes! 

Nobody’s life is really like that, but the irrational mind thinks it is. They don’t make bogs, says the irrational mind. They don’t forget to answer emails and lose their keys three times a day and sometimes, despite all their best efforts, swirl into a spiral of shame. They really are fine. Why can’t you be fine? All the time?

So I sometimes write about my bad days and my mad days and my absolute fuck-ups because I hope that, somewhere out there in the dark, someone might read my words and sigh a sigh of relief that they are not alone. 

And, even more lovely, sometimes they leave a little word or a smiley face or a scarlet emoticon heart to tell me that I am not alone either. The one thing that self-laceration cannot stand is empathy. The moment someone walks in your shoes and you walk right back in theirs, the consoling thread of connection is strung from one human heart to another. And the theory stops being just theory, and becomes practice, and the world steadies on its axis and makes sense again.

Saturday, 24 November 2018

A Day of Love

All over the country, lovers of racing will be studying the form. They will be looking at stats and speed figures and ratings. They will be considering the ground, the track, the merits of speed and stamina. 

This is because two of the titans of the steeplechasing game are coming out today to flex their steely muscles. Not only is it the first time their admirers have seen them since their summer holidays, but they are going head to head in one of the most storied races of the calendar. (It was on this day, seven years ago, that Kauto Star roared back to form to win the Betfair with one of the most dazzling rounds of jumping I’ve ever seen. Many people said he was finished. He had something to say about that and he said it and everyone with a heart cried tears of joy, mostly me.)

Today, Native River and Might Bite, the first and second in last year’s Gold Cup, renew their heroic rivalry.

And as everyone studies the form, I am thinking about the love. Because in races like this, with horses like this, statistics and figures mean nothing to me. It’s all about the love. It’s about admiration, for the talent of these horses, for their honesty, their beauty, their sheer guts. It’s for their authenticity and brilliance. It’s for the fact that they live across the species barrier, on a mysterious plane of their own, where humans can only visit. These thoroughbreds graciously allow us two-leggeds to touch their world, but they still keep many of their secrets. It is perhaps that mystery that makes the relationship so magical. 

My love for Native River is very straightforward, because he is a straightforward gentleman. He’s willing and tough and he gallops and jumps, gallops and jumps. If he were a person, he’d be the sort of fellow who you’d ring at midnight when your car had a flat tyre. He’d be there in a flash, with a jack and a spare and a smile. 

Might Bite is altogether different gravy. He’s a vast, shining, peacock of a horse, almost too handsome for his own good. When he was younger, he had famous quirks. He used to run across the track in comedy hour tangents, once almost throwing away a race at Cheltenham before he gathered himself and charged to the line. People made jokes about him going to have a quick pint in the Arkle Bar before returning to the winning post. 

In some ways, it is this quirkiness, this character, that makes him so lovable. If he did not have his idiosyncrasies, he would almost be too perfect. Now, he’s all grown up and he runs in composed straight lines, but the memories of those early jokes die hard. And it did feel to me as if he was having a little joke, laughing at his own brilliance.

And then there is the third love, which is Thistlecrack. In his hurdling days, Thistlecrack was like a finely tuned machine. He was all arrogant power, beating everything for fun. You could set your watch by him. As he got the hang of chasing, he had his heart-stopping moments, making novicey, too bold leaps, pulling for his head, wanting to go at a hundred miles an hour, but it looked as if he would go on to do to chasers what he did to hurdlers. And then he picked up injuries. They could not get him quite right. The shining star faded. The high hopes had to go back into their dusty cupboard. Today, he comes back, and nobody knows how much of the soaring sparkle remains. 

My love for him is the love for absurd talent, for roaring power, for a singular athleticism.

Any of them could win. You could write each of them their own story, and all the stories would make sense. I am not putting money into this mix, because this is not a betting race. It’s a heart race, and I have to work out who is going to carry my heart. It’s an almost impossible conundrum. 

In the end, I think the Might Bite love just shades it. There is an otherness about him, some sprinkle of stardust, some whiff of myth. It’s to do with his huge frame, his elegant tallness, his film star handsomeness. He looks out on puny mortals as if he is among them but not of them. He has an effortless way of flying over vast fences as if they were cavalettis. He does not knuckle down as Native River does. He floats, on a cloud of his own. Yet he does have courage, and he can scrap for it if he’s offered a fight. In a way, he is the most mysterious of them all, as if he is has been sent by the racing gods for his brief visit to the realm of the ordinary, like a meteor or a gift or a promise. 

I love them all, and I hope they all run their race. But there is a part of me that would love to see Might Bite come to the last on the bridle, flow over it with his trademark dismissiveness, and take flight for home. I think he’s one of the rare ones, and I feel privileged to gaze on his brilliance and beauty.

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

The Smallest of the Small Things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 14 August 2018

Sheltering from the Storm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am not waving, but drowning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 13 August 2018

The Big Think

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 10 August 2018

Everyone has Been so Kind.

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

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

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

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

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

It makes no difference and it makes all the difference.

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

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

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

She looked at me in surprise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I said goodbye and walked out of the silent house.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'Everyone has been so kind.'

Friday, 16 March 2018

A Price Worth Paying

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Bryony and Blackie: a Partnership for the Ages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 9 March 2018

Good Stuff: Day Nine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Good Stuff: Day Eight.

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Good Stuff: Day Seven.

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Good Stuff: Day Six.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 5 March 2018

Good Stuff: Day Five.

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

Friday, 2 March 2018

Good Stuff: Day Two

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

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

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

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

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


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