Sunday, 11 August 2019

The Joy of Sleep




I had thirteen hours of sleep last night. Thirteen hours. I can’t remember the last time that happened. I woke briefly in a windy, blue, bleary dawn and rolled over and went back to sleep. I woke later in the morning, and, in a blinking half-doze, let the dogs out. They took one look at the Hebridean weather and came trotting back in again. Just a half hour more sleep, I thought. The next thing I knew it was lunchtime.

The good body, I told myself, really did need a rest. That must have been some sleep debt that I built up.

I thought of all the other people running around on not enough sleep and too much caffeine and that faint, humming sense of strain that comes from not listening to the good body. I reckon that’s pretty much everyone in modern life, except for those clever professors who do sleep studies. I thought: no wonder so many of us Britons are rowing about Brexit and shouting at each other on Twitter and forgetting our famous good manners. Our brains, not given enough time to restore themselves in the night, are stretched until they twang.

I am self-employed. I’m pretty rubbish at time management, so I always feel as if I am behind on my four jobs, but, theoretically, I could easily give myself eight or nine hours’ sleep a night. Nothing simpler. I’m not a junior doctor or in the emergency services. I don’t work the night shift or have a small, wakeful child. And yet I don’t. I rub along on about six hours, on average. Sometimes, I have as little as four. On the bad insomnia nights, which greet one in middle age, I battle through the day on two. 

This isn’t just bad decisions. (‘You could go to bed now,’ says my sane, adult voice. ‘Just look something vital up on the internet, or make notes for a dazzling new idea,’ says my irrational, luring, fatal voice, and then it is after 1am, and I know that tomorrow is already buggered.) I think it’s the culture. Life now seems about speed and flash and cramming as much in as possible. Sleep is for wimps. Those mistresses and masters of the universe are always telling everyone how they got to the top by rising at 4.30am. I read something the other day about Mark Wahlberg getting up at 2.30am to work out in his gym. And he takes millions at the box office. If I get up at sloppy seven, then I’ve already lost the race. 

This holiday, on the lovely, distant island of Colonsay, has been a revelation for me. I was supposed to come with friends, but they fell away. Although I was sad that I would not be in this ravishing place with my best beloveds, I was secretly thrilled at the idea of being on my own. 

I used to go away on my own when I was very young. In my twenties, I drove from Los Angeles to Seattle and back again all by myself, and once took the solitary scenic route to the South of France, spending two delightful nights in backwoods hotels off the beaten track, where chickens pecked graciously beside the breakfast tables and the other diners cast me furtive looks, half curiosity, half pity. 

I did not care. I ate delicious French food and wrote it all down in my Moleskine notebook and pretended to be a white Russian spy or an incognito film star. (I had rather grandiose ideas about myself in those distant days.) 

The first time I went to New York I was nineteen and all alone. I headed straight for the Oak Room at the Plaza, because that was where Scott Fitzgerald used to drink, and a barman called Mose with a W.C. Fields bottle nose made me the best bourbon sour I ever had. I made friends with a visiting professor of psychology from Florida, in town for a conference. When his  wife arrived to take him away for dinner, she gave me a kind, concerned look, and said, ‘You take care out there, honey.’ 

Later that night, I ate in one of those Jay McInerney sort of restaurants with a man called George Whipple the Third. (George Whipple III! How on earth did I even know someone with a name like that?) I told him about the kind wife and he shrieked with laughter so loudly that half the Brightness Falls clientele turned round to look. 

‘The Oak Room!’ He stuttered. ‘That’s where all the hookers go!’ The kind lady, we decided, was clearly worried that such a young Briton was already on the game. 

So, I have always gone away by myself, but not like this, and not for many years. And I’ve never gone anywhere where I could simply do nothing. I’ve sat on the beach, staring out to sea, and done nothing. I have luxuriated in my bed as the wind and rain whipped the little white house on the north of this tiny island, and done nothing. I have found a beautiful sun trap and rested in a creaking wooden chair overlooking the hills and done nothing.

Well, not quite nothing. I have read a lot and thought thoughts and cooked food and had two ideas for two new books. But there is nobody to say, ‘Let’s go here, or do that, or plan this.’ There is no rush or schedule or To Do List. 

And I have slept. I’ve slept and slept and slept. The good body cried, ‘At last, you are listening to me. And what I need is renewal and restoration.’ 
I think: perhaps I have been tired for the last seven years. Perhaps for even longer than that. Perhaps that’s why I’ve made some rotten decisions and inexplicable mistakes and felt like I am always chasing my tail. Perhaps that is why I have been mystified at all the things I have left undone, or been late about, or simply glossed over. Perhaps that is why I often feel baffled or disorganised or as if I am running on fumes.

Perhaps everyone, I think, should be sent to a Scottish island once a year, a place where there is hardly any internet, where clocks mean little, where doing nothing is a high art, where the good body can ask for a pause and be listened to. Perhaps it should be paid for by the government. It might save millions every year - the money squandered on lost productivity and NHS bills and unnecessary divorces. (It must be hard to be civilised in a relationship if you are tired all the time.) Perhaps a little island where nothing much happens is the answer to half of modern ills: a gentle place where harried humans can be reminded how to rest, and be themselves again. 




Thursday, 20 June 2019

The Story of Estimate. Or, In Which Dreams Do Come True.



The Gold Cup six years ago was one of high emotion and high drama. I wrote it all down, and I’m so glad I did. I’m reproducing it here, because the story of Estimate always deserves to be told. 
It’s an edited version of a much longer story. Before the Gold Cup, another wonderful filly, Riposte, had brought the house down by winning for Lady Cecil, the widow of the late, great Sir Henry Cecil, who had died not long before. It was the stuff of dreams. The idea that Estimate could then go and win for the Queen seemed a dream too far, on that fairytale day. And yet, in racing as in life, there really are sometimes happy endings. 

Here it is -

21st June, 2013.

The Gold Cup is the glittering highlight of the Royal Meeting of the week. It is two and a half miles, a colossal distance. Most flat horses are simply not bred to run this far. There was a huge field, although because of the fast ground runners were dropping like flies. The promising High Jinx was out; Dermot Weld decided he could not risk the delicate legs of Rite of Passage. At the top of the market, driven there by a combination of sentiment and hope, was the ravishing bay filly, Estimate.

Estimate belongs to the Queen. Last June, I was there to watch her win the Queen’s Vase to extravagant emotion, in the jubilee year. I fell in love with her then and I have followed her ever since. She is a lightly-built filly; she does not look like a mighty stayer. But she has a dreamy temperament and the will to win, and she is improving all the time.

On paper, she had something to find. The trip was four whole furlongs into the unknown; on strict official ratings, she was well down the field of fourteen. She would have to produce a rampant career best.

I resisted my stupid soft heart, and tried to find the rivals who would bring her low. Simenon was the danger, I decided, with proven form at course and distance, and the wizard that is Willie Mullins in charge.

But as the start neared, I gave in to the heart and bashed all my money on the little mare. Yes, she was up against the boys; yes, it was a fairytale too far; yes, she had something to find on the book. But blast it, I wanted her to win more than anything, and if anything could find that little bit extra for the big occasion, she could.

She is such a kind and genuine horse. Channel Four showed a clip of her in her stable, and she was as dopey and dreamy and affectionate as a dear old donkey, nuzzling up to her lass, making silly faces, soaking up the love of her faithful human. It made me more entranced with her than ever. Bugger the book I thought; this is my girl.

And I switch into the present tense, because it feels in my head as if the drama is happening all over again.

As Estimate goes round the paddock, with her owner watching intently, she shows all of her brilliant big race temperament. On a warm day, there is not a hint of sweat on her bay flanks. Then, suddenly, without in any way becoming flighty or over-wrought, she gives two little bucks. They are balanced perfectly on the fulcrum of exuberance and determination. They sketch an arching parabola of intent. My mother and I look at each other, hope rising in our eyes.

‘She’s ready,’ we say to each other, in trembling voices. ‘Oh yes. She is ready.’

The late cash comes pouring in, perhaps from the seasoned paddock watchers, perhaps from the sentimental royalists. Estimate shortens in to 7-2, veering violently from sixes this morning. I add my cash to the party. I’ve loved this horse for a long time; I damned if I am going to let my old loyalties lapse. I can see all the doubts for what they are. But my money must be where my mouth is.

Estimate comes out onto the course, all on her own. She canters down to the start with her head high and her ears pricked, collected and balanced, looking around her as if taking in every inch of the fine spectacle. She has a little white snip on her dear nose, and, in my fevered mind, it starts to blaze like a flashing sign.

And, they are off.

The sultry summer’s day turns misty, and, through a sudden murk, Estimate’s white flash shows brightly. She takes up a good position, one off the rail, four lengths off the pace. Ryan Moore lets her down and gets her beautifully settled, so her natural rhythm can assert itself. Her long, narrow ears go back and forth in time with her hoofbeats.

Past the packed stands they go. The faint sounds of whistles and applause can be heard, before they are off again into the country, where the race will begin to unfold.

The massive white-faced German raider is running strongly in front, tracked by the two staying stars, Colour Vision and Saddler’s Rock. Estimate is tidily tucked in behind. Into Swinley Bottom, she is perhaps the most well-balanced of the entire field, happy in her dancing rhythm.

Four out, the field bunches up. ‘There is Estimate,’ says Simon Holt, his voice rising, ‘with every chance.’

Jockeys are starting to crouch lower now, not yet kicking on, but indicating an increased momentum. Ryan Moore is rocking Estimate gently into a quicker pace. Colour Vision, who won this last year but has been disastrously out of form ever since, is suddenly full of running. The brilliant Johnny Murtagh is releasing Saddler’s Rock. Simenon is unleashing a withering run down the outside. In the midst of this, in a small pocket of her own, Estimate is quietly running her race.

And then Moore asks the question, after over two miles of searching turf, and Estimate answers. The answer is: 'Yes.'

She surges forwards, chasing the mighty grey in the Godolphin colours. She gets past him, inch by inch, but the race is not done. Two big fellas come charging at her: the Irish Simenon, the French Top Trip.

All three horses are now in full cry. They are so close together you could not put a cigarette paper between them. For a horrible moment, I think that the slip of a girl will be swallowed up by the roaring boys.

At home, in our house, with the indigo Scottish hills visible though the window and the bluebirds questing at the window, everything erupts. I am on my feet, bawling at the top of my voice. My old mum, who has seen Nijinsky and Mill Reef and the Brigadier, is shouting: ‘Come on, Ryan’. Stanley the Dog, who clearly believes we have suffered some kind of catastrophic event, is howling and jumping and barking his head off. Only the sensible Stepfather sits silent, riveted to the action, a small oasis of calm in the roiling storm.

I look away, unable to watch, convinced the brave filly is beat. It’s too much to ask; it’s too much to hope. She’s never been anywhere near this distance before; only the very best fillies are capable of beating the colts. She’ll fade, fold up, be done on the line.

But I turn back, and there she is, with her little head stuck out, her glorious stride lengthening, every atom in her body speaking of her will to win. I gather one last wild howl of hope.

GO ON GO ON GO ON,’ I shout, ignoring the family, ignoring the leaping dog, ignoring everything except the fierce battle of those last, terrifying strides.

Simenon’s determined head comes up to Estimate’s shoulder, the great momentum of his powerful quarters pushing him forward. Will the bloody finishing post never come?

Somehow, somehow, the good filly keeps going. It is as if she is saying to the others: 'No, boys, not today. Today is my day.'

And there, at last, is the line, and she has a precious neck in hand, and Ryan Moore is crouched up almost at her ears, carrying her over the finish.

’I CAN’T BELIEVE IT,’ I shout.

As if my entire family is deaf, I yell again: ‘I CAN’T BELIEVE IT.’

We hug, we jump in the air, we weep lunatic tears of joy.

It’s just a horse. It’s just an old lady in a lilac dress. It’s just a race. On a strictly rational level, it is hard to know which is more absurd: the racing of horses or the hereditary monarchy. But humans are not rational animals. Even in the most empirical of us, the magical thinking sometimes overwhelms. I can’t help it: I love the Queen. I love her for her dignity and restraint and good old British stoicism. I love Estimate, for her sweetness and strength and bloody-minded determination not to give up. I swear she had a Sod You, Boys look in her eye as she flashed past the post. And I love racing, where these beautiful herd animals may show all their mighty, fighting qualities.

And so I shouted and cried and leapt in the air, even though I am forty-six years old and I should know better.

The filly came back to the paddock, the Queen walked down to greet her, the crowd went insane. People did not know what to do with themselves. The gleaming golden cup was presented, and the Queen, who really has been around the block more than most, who has been coming to Ascot since the fifties, who knows all about the dreams of horses not quite coming true, stared at it as if she had never seen anything so lovely in her entire life. She looked as delighted and disbelieving as a child. Her fairytale had come to life.

And that, my darlings, was Ladies’ Day at Ascot, when four tremendous females, two equine and two human, wrote a story that will stay stitched into the memory of everyone lucky enough to have witnessed it.




Friday, 31 May 2019

My Day of Jubilee. Or, in Which I Finally Run Out of Fucks.



Today, my darlings, is my Day of Jubilee. It is my Independence Day. I have finally decided to set myself free.

I realise, at the dear old age of fifty-two, that all my life I’ve been skipping about trying to please people. This sounds rather lovely, but it’s actually ghastly. I worry about what those people think, most especially what they think of me. I empathise so hard with their feelings that sometimes I have to go and have a little lie-down. I try to be the grown-up, not for its own sweet sake, but so that people will say, ‘Look at her, being the grown-up.’ 

It’s not just near friends and relations. I worry about what complete strangers will think. I want people to like me, even if I think they are idiots. (That may be the very definition of insanity: wanting even the people you don’t like to like you.) I want people to like me on Facebook and Twitter. I want the people who read my books to like me. I want more of those insidious little thumbs-ups. I want huge red hearts for every single red mare post. If people don’t love the red mare enough, the world might stop turning. 

And this very morning, at about 6.22am, I realised that I’d had enough. With one bound, I was free.

Of course, it’s not quite one bound. There has been a lot of practice bounding. There have been tentative steps and small experiments and schooling runs. There has been a vast amount of processing of emotions. There has been gazing at the navel and contemplating the bizarre vagaries of the psyche and trying to answer the Universal Why. 

There has been a rather terrifying embrace of vulnerability. There have been admissions of shame. There has been a lot of asking for help. If you are going to change your entire life, I discover, you can’t do it on your own.

Today, the cumulative effect of all that came together in a glorious final act. I was liberated. I did not have to mind any more. I could let all the people - the Norma Desmond people, out there in the dark -  think exactly what they wanted to think. I could let them mock or disapprove or sneer. I could let them not like me. (Imagine that!) I could let them laugh at my absurd dreams, my wild passions, my intense loves. Because their dream is not my dream, and that is all right.

I’m so tired of the slightly sick feeling in the stomach and the ache in the throat when I think that someone is angry with me, or belittling me, or putting me down. I get a hollow feeling, and a pressing on the head, and I carry a low cloud of despair about for thirty-six hours. That is usually how long it takes me to talk myself down off the ceiling. I’m sick to the teeth of talking myself down off the ceiling. I could be doing so many more lovely things with my time.

Even if I turn myself inside out like a pretzel, I’m still not going to please all of the people all of the time. I know this is so Captain Obvious that the captain needs to be promoted to Brigadier, but it’s taken me a while to believe it, right down in my gut. I’m an optimist, so I think I truly believed that if I was fabulous enough, then everyone would get with the programme. It would be a festival of fabulousness and finally, finally, I would be vindicated. I would get the external stamp of approval, and everything would be fine, and I would never feel sick and stupid again.

I would not have the terrible crash when my mustang bursts of enthusiasm were met with blank stares. I would not have the smash of shame when my brilliant idea was rejected. I would not have the crawl-into-a-cupboard-and-die feeling when I expected a red rosette and got given a dunce’s cap instead. 

This morning, as the birds sang their dawn song, I saw that I’d got everything the wrong way round. The only stamp that counts is the one on the internal passport. The only control I have is over myself and my own decisions. I have to let all the other people go. I have to let them dream their own dreams and do their own thing and believe their own beliefs. Some of those will clash with mine, and some of them won’t. But they are not my business. 

The strange thing is that I learnt all this from my red mare, and from the people who have helped me along that grand, thoroughbred journey. I’ve learnt that to get her right, I simply had to turn myself into the best human I could be, the steady, reliable, imaginative human she needed, and the rest would take care of itself. That’s how I ended up riding through the Scottish hills with a single finger on the rein and a song in my heart. It’s the same with ordinary life. I’ll go on trying; I’ll do my best; I’ll run my own race. And some people will love that and some people won’t.

I have finally, finally, run out of fucks. I’ve given so many, for the wrong reasons, to the wrong ends, for the wrong people. The box is empty now. That’s it. I’m done. 

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.

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