Friday, 21 November 2014

In which a Dear Reader asks a question. I answer it.

For a glancing moment, the sun comes out and Scotland glimmers and glitters in the light. The red mare lifts her head, amazed. Then the clouds roll in again and we are back in the brown soup. Despite this, I feel oddly happy. Good work this week, and a lot of action, and even some admin. (I made at least two dreaded telephone calls and sent some put-off emails.)

A Dear Reader asks: ‘Any advice on how to silence the Monologue of Doom?’

I am delighted. I really, really do know the answer to this question. Her query was specifically about writing, her desire to shut off the beastly, destructive, critical voices who say that every sentence is a crashing disaster, but I think that the technique I use can be extrapolated to all areas of life. I suspect that an awful lot of people have a fairly persistent monologue of doom. (I love that phrase, by the way.)

For the writing specifically, the first thing is to give yourself permission to do an absolutely rotten first draft. In fact, you must sternly instruct yourself to write nothing but buggery bollocks. The only important thing is to get the words down. It’s at this stage that you need to get your muscles going and your sinews stretching, almost feeling the process as a physical one. Don’t think too much; get those fingers moving.

This achieves several things. It gives the mean voices nowhere to go, since when they say ‘Well, that’s a ghastly construction,’ you may cheerfully agree. This pisses them off mightily, and they may well decide to leave and go and see if they can wreck another party. It gets you cooking, so that you may pile up many, many words, which is encouraging. The thing grows, and gives you hope. By allowing yourself to be absolutely crappy, you may find that you come up with flashes of brilliance. If you go too carefully to start with, trying to get everything right, your wild inner creative can never fly. You will amaze yourself when you read the thing back to find dazzling thoughts you never knew you had.

However, and this is the stern part, you must know, all the time you are doing this unfettered, crazed writing, that you will go back with your critical hat on. Because you have planned this, you are in charge, and you may select the good critic, not the wrecking ball critic.

The good critic is perfectly lovely and every human has one. The good critic does not deal in shame and hysterical hyperbole. She knows that just because you get something wrong it does not mean that you are wrong. He understands that a mistake does not invalidate you as a human being. The good critic has perspective and is judicious.

The good critic says: right, that part does not work, let’s have a bash at licking it into shape. (In the same situation, the bad critic says: that part does not work, therefore you are an unholy mess of a human and should probably never go out in public again.) The good critic is constructive, and suggests improvements. He is stern and rigorous and will not put up with sloppiness. She is hopeful and galvanic and always believes there is a way through, even if you have to work your arse off to get there.

There is an enchanting idea with horses, which comes out of the old cowboy school of Ray Hunt and the Dorrances. It is this: it is very, very important to allow your horse to make a mistake. Some people desperately hold on to their equines, always preventing them from going near the wrong thing. In this way, the horses grow tense and nervous and never learn anything. The cowboy notion is to let the horse make the mistake, and then show it a better way. You don’t punish it or make it feel stupid. You simply say – if you do this, over here, like this, everything will be much, much easier for you.

I think this works with humans too. I think this is what the good critic knows. Everybody makes mistakes. Even Tolstoy and Jane Austen will have written shoddy first drafts. In the starting stage of a novel, which nobody ever sees, there will be terrible longeurs, and stretches of pointlessness, and glaring over-writing, and characters which do not cohere, and phrases which are worn and banal. The difference between a writer and a good writer is that the good writer REWRITES. I put this in capital letters because it is so important. And I mean rewrites. Over and over again, draft after draft, until some kind editor or agent gently removes the manuscript from crabbed and reaching hands.

I find it quite useful to give my drafts names. At the beginning, there will be narrative drafts, and character drafts, and dialogue drafts. As you get into the weeds, there will be platitude edits, and repetition sweeps, and semi-colon drafts. I am so obsessive that I quite often do a platitude edit and a cliché edit. Which may be threading the needle a little too finely, even for me.

The final thing, which applies I think to life as well as to writing is: give yourself a choice. Do this consciously. You may want to say it out loud or write it down. It’s quite important that it is out in the world.

Say to yourself: well, you can listen to the Monologue of Doom, and convince yourself that you are pointless and useless and feckless and hopeless, and should go into the garden to eat worms. You are perfectly welcome to do that, if that is what you want. Or, you can listen to your sensible, kind, rigorous voices, who tell you that nobody’s perfect, who tell you that with a little graft and application and determination you can get the thing right. You can choose to listen to the useful voice. The mean, destructive voice has no utility. You can pay heed to it if you want, but it won’t get you anywhere, except to make you feel horrid and send you into a defensive crouch. If you want the defensive crouch and the existential angst, for whatever reason, that’s fine. You are a grown-up. It is your decision.

This sounds so stupidly blatant that it’s almost absurd. But it really, really does work.

It’s a psychological trick, I think. It’s an opening up, rather than a closing down. It gives you dignity. By offering yourself a choice instead of merely scolding yourself for hopelessness, you are treating yourself as a sentient human with agency, rather than a captive pawn in a chess game played by unseen hands.

And sometimes too, I think of my kind self. I have a mean self, a judging, carping, lashing self. I generally direct this inwards, although sometimes, sadly, she does escape into the wild. The most salutary reminder, when the Monologue of Doom is raging out of control, is the thought that I would never, ever say to my best beloveds the horrid things I say to myself. If the people I love come to me and tell me that they’ve fucked up and they don’t know what to do, I do not break out my nastiest voices. The kind self lifts her head like a bird dog and reminds the beloveds of all their fine points, their good skills, their fighting hearts. The kind self ruefully tells them that they are not alone, because everyone screws up sometimes, most of all me.

You can choose to build up, or you can choose to tear down. It really is your very own choice.

 

Today’s pictures:

The light is like a despairing dull beige haze, so no camera today. As I went to the archive, I hit at once on these two pictures, taken by my friend the Horse Talker. Since I have hardly mentioned the red mare, it seems only right that she gets the visuals. In keeping with today’s theme, I laugh ruefully at my absurd riding outfit and my goofy face. I’m never going to look like a posh girl on a horse and that’s all she wrote. I don’t care. I care about the joy, which streams out of these shots and reminds me, as if I need reminding, that this beautiful girl lifts my heart every single damn day, and brings out my better angels, and makes me whole.

21 Nov 2

P5012866

I also love her slightly resigned look in these pictures. I was coming home for a good groom and some breakfast, she is clearly thinking, and you expect me to stop and do idiot Posy Posington? Don’t you know who my grandfather was? Isn’t all this poncing about rather beneath my dignity?

PS. It’s been a long week and I’m quite tired. I always fear that when I write a blog on writing I shall include frightful howlers and typos and there shall be pointing and scoffing. But my eyes are crossing too much to do another proof-read. So please forgive my mistakes.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

A small thought on writing.

Good work today. The mists are slowly clearing. Yes, yes, says the unflinching, critical brain (the good critic, who is galvanised and constructive) this part needs beefing up, and this part needs cutting back. There must be more obstacles, it says, firmly. This sounds a bit manipulative and phoney, as if the story is not arising organically, but I have a fatal tendency to fall in love with my characters and so make everything too easy for them. The rule of fiction is that there must be barriers to overcome, or there is no drama and no tension. The rule of life, which is rather different from fiction but also obtains, is that rarely do things easily fall into place, as if mere wishing might make them so.

Therefore: make it a little harder.

Then there is the thing of voice. My other weakness is that quite often many of my characters take on the same cadences of speech. It really is too phoney to give them all their own distinctive tics, but a little judicious differentiation is important. Voice can also reflect character. This fellow does not use adjectives, because he is a direct, getting on with it sort. That kind of thing. I have at the moment one woman who speaks as if she has walked out of a 1938 black and white film, and I’m having a lot of fun with that.

The actual cutting is still not going that well. The thing is still far, far too long. This feels like self-indulgence to me. One must not pander to markets or even readers, but I am keenly aware that humans live busier lives than ever before. I sometimes think a very long book is almost an act of passive aggression on the part of the author. Everyone can sharpen up. I recently read a very, very long book by a very, very famous writer, and the first three chapters could have been done just as well in ten pages. WHERE IS THE BLUE PENCIL? I found myself shouting, furiously. The writer was doing a lot of very writerly writing, as if to say: look at me, with my literary sensibility. I felt it was an awful form of showing off, and it took me out of the fictional world and made me cross.

Even the most brilliant natural talent needs editing. I always think of that famous manuscript of The Wasteland, with Ezra Pound’s frenzied markings all over it like a palimpsest. The sad story is that now, once writers get very successful, hardly anyone dares to edit them at all, so that just as they reach maximum brilliance the quality of their work often goes sharply downwards. It is not that they have been ruined by fame. It is that they are not cut. Also, there are very few devoted editors of the old school. There are few Maxwell Perkins any more, and I feel regretful for that.

For all these reasons, I have to be fierce with myself. I don’t care that you think that sentence sings and dazzles, I tell myself sternly, IT MUST GO.

It will still be a flawed book, because all books are flawed and because I’m not quite in the top rank. When I was young and ambitious, I thought I would be. I thought if I read hard enough and worked hard enough and practiced hard enough, I’d be the kind that won prizes. I’m not. I can write well enough to bring pleasure, but I don’t have that ruthless, diamond brilliance of the very best.

Perhaps that is not a bad thing. The very best gave everything to their work, and tended to be drunk and mad and despairing in life. I think always of sottish F Scott and furious, bonkers Hemingway, and Mrs Woolf with the voices in her head which she could only stop with stones in her pocket and a running river, and Dorothy Parker, who somehow lived into old age, but existed in a twilight of sad hotel rooms, unrequited love for Mr Benchley, and dog shit.

Being in the second rank is not so bad. It’s about right. It does not mean I do not strive. I strive like hell. Even in this funny little blog I strive. I think: if, each day, I can give them one good sentence, then it is worth it. If I can get one passage of prose to dance, then it’s all right. It’s just that I have no false, luring expectations of glory.

What I really love is doing the work. I love that every day I get to play with language. I love that language is my medium, and I know it and understand it and am friends with it. When I was young, I did want a prize. I wanted an outside agency to award me something. Now I know that the very fact that the work itself brings me joy is the prize.

That, and the wild good fortune of flexible hours, so that I can pause for a moment and watch the 3.30 at Plumpton.

 

Today’s pictures:

Are from the archive. I scrolled through entirely at random, and picked the ones which stood out. One day, I shall manage to tidy up my photograph files, but at the moment they creak and groan like over-filled bookshelves, tottering gently in the bowels of the machine.

20 Nov 1

20 Nov 2

20 Nov 5

20 Nov 7

20 Nov 10

20 Nov 14

20 Nov 18

20 Nov 20

20 Nov 22

20 Nov 22-001

20 Nov 24

20 Nov 27

20 Nov 27-001

PS. Slightly geekish note - I was never so glad in my life to find that Windows Live Writer was working again. It disappeared yesterday, and I had to resort to the horror that is Blogger. I know I should be grateful for any free bit of software, and I do not take it for granted that I have a nice blogging platform for which I do not have to pay. But it really was devised by sadists. Quite apart from making all formatting and the inserting and sizing of photographs fiendishly difficult, it forces you to redo all your paragraphing if you ever want to edit a single line. So much as press the edit button, and you see all your lovingly-placed gaps removed, as if by an evil, mocking hand. Why would anyone do that? At what meeting did everyone sit down and say: oh, I know, THAT’S a good idea?

PPS. As one of the Dear Readers has astutely noted, I am madly writing two books at once. I keep telling everyone, from HorseBack to my family, that soon I shall be back to normal and not rushing everywhere with a manic glint in my eye, fighting time, and it never quite happens. I would not recommend writing two books at the same time, especially when both of the early drafts have come out ludicrously long. At the moment, I am wrangling 154,000 words and 120,000 words. One book is very nearly ready to be seen by publishers; one may take me beyond Christmas. The agent is excited, but flinty, discerning humans, keenly aware of markets and demographics and trends, will still have to say: yes, please. It’s kind of a nutty way for a grown-up to make a living, but, apart from touch-typing at eighty words a minute, it is my only skill. And, as I have said, I do love it so. Even on the bad days, when my shoulders are up around my ears and I can’t see a way through, I still love it.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

The Small Victories. Or, a slightly unexpected event.

More dull rain. Working working working. Head full of book. Excellent HorseBack meeting. Galvanised.

Despite the weather, I worked the red mare on the ground this morning for the first time in a couple of weeks. I’ve been away, and it’s been pouring and pouring, so she’s had a long holiday. Usually, she goes round like an old dote, running through the steps she knows so well, her head low and her neck relaxed. Today, I don’t know what it was, she suddenly felt all her racehorsey, thoroughbred blood. Whoop, whoop, she went, putting on her best Spanish Riding School of Vienna act, leaping and plunging, letting out mighty bucks which made me laugh. I let the rope out and sent her on. You want me to do WHAT??? she said. Huge amounts of snorting, tail stuck vertically in the air so it flew like flags, that astonishing thing where she grows a hand before my very eyes. She is normally so low and relaxed that I sometimes forget how big she is. When her dander rises, I remember, with awe and respect, that I am in the presence of a half-ton flight animal.

After about five minutes of this malarkey, she returned to her poised, dowager duchess incarnation, and was as cool and immaculate as a dressage horse. She remembered the merest voice cue, the lightest bit of body language. Once again, her ears twitched towards me, listening to what I wanted. The gentle harmony between us was restored.

I don’t know what it was – the long time off, the awful weather, a testing of the boundaries, a pure moment of high playfulness. I loved it, because it reminded me that she is, after all, descended from storied champions, and all that glorious animating spirit lives in her, however sweetly trained she becomes. There is nothing dull or shut down about her.
I loved it because I knew how to deal with it. In the old days, I would have been frightened, and possibly even grown cross or fractious in my fright, as humans do. Now, I know the good techniques, I know exactly what to do, and more than anything, I know her. I took care to remain away from those bucketing back hooves, but I was not afraid. And with a little steady calm and perseverance, I got my kind girl back. There was no shouting or drama; I let her work it out of her system, and steered her through it. I admit, I felt quite proud of myself.

As always, I log the small things, the tiny, private victories. I made my mother laugh, I wrote a decent line or two for a good charity, I was not fazed by a mighty red mare challenge. The book goes along, and I start to see the shape of it and know the people who inhabit it. Stanley the Dog searches doggedly for mice in the feed shed, only his determined lurcher tail visible, sticking out of the hay. He never actually catches a mouse, but he never gives up trying.

This dreich could bring one down. The atmospheric conditions at the moment make me feel as if I am swimming in a bowl of old soup. Everything is brown and drowned. It is relentless, day after day of low, brooding skies and despairing rain. But there are enough tiny, existential sparkles of light to illuminate my days. On, on, on I bugger, recording my small victories, the ones that are of absolutely no importance to anyone but me, winning my own, tiny, challenge cups of the mind.

No time for pictures today, just a couple of shots from the archive. Hard to believe that this dozy, butter would not melt person can transform herself into a fiery, plunging, snorting creature. It was only for a moment. Just to show she's still got it going on.





Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Return.

There was so much joy in the south, and so much love and laughter, and that glorious thing of a friendship which goes back almost thirty years, and children I have known since they were born. There is nothing quite like it. After a week with my best beloveds, I feel like a better human being.

But as always, I am delirious to be home. Even in the dreich and the mud and the murk, I sing songs as I mix the morning feeds and stuff the haynets and potter about in the shed. Outside, the red mare is grazing at liberty in the set-aside, where there is still something that might be called grass. This is our morning ritual. I let her out of the field to wander at liberty. She could gallop off to see the cows, but she doesn’t. She just mooches about in the open spaces and then comes and sticks her dear white face through the door of the shed, looking at me enquiringly, as if to say: ‘Are you doing that properly?’

Stan the Man is antic with delight. He has a lovely time always with the dog-sitter, but is gratifyingly pleased to see me. There is the tremendous lurcher thing he does, gathering all his energy into his athletic body and twisting and turning and leaping, so that he looks like an animated apostrophe. He is also very happy to be back to my mother’s house for breakfast, where he can see her and my stepfather and his special friend Edward the Terrier. They are a most unlikely couple and they adore each other. They dance around, Little and Large, playing special games of their own and panting at each other with love.

I whack back into work. I have returned to the second of the secret projects, neither of which are really secret any longer, but both of which started on spec. This is a fiction, and it’s a long time since I told a story. I have to remember the rhythms of it, how to keep the narrative taut, what to tell, what to leave out. I like this story and am pleased to go back to it. We are in serious Dead Darlings territory now, because there are 154,000 words, and that is far too many. Great cadres of them must die. I wield the bloody axe, ruthlessly. There are also additions, and decisions about the characters. This one must be put into the background, this one must be beefed up. Writing a novel takes ages because you have to live with your characters for a while to get to know them. Each morning now, I wake up and think: oh yes, that’s why that person did that. Slow revelations come and make sense of the thing. You can’t hurry it, although it drives me mad that you can’t. I’d love to be able to invent them on a dime, write a nice shopping list of traits, and be done with it. But they reveal themselves like onions, the layers peeling off to reveal the heart within, and the process can’t be rushed.

Dear old Scotland is drenched and melancholy, but I love her so much I don’t care. One day the sun will shine again. In the meantime, there is only sunshine in my heart.

 

Today’s pictures:

Far too gloomy to get the camera out, so here are a few snaps from my week away.

The Beloved Cousin sent these from her telephone – me with my sweet homebred friend Cocky Locky, and the three small cousins by a dam they built:

18 Nov 1

Cousins

And a couple of the dear herd. I always stupidly took the camera out late in the day, as the gloaming was coming in, so that the light was gone and the quality of the pictures is not that good. But you can still see the sweetness:

18 Nov 3

Even though this one is terribly blurred, I rather love it:

18 Nov 5

Another blurry one, but worth it for the dearness:

18 Nov 9

Almost in focus:

18 Nov 12

Well, being pin-sharp is not everything:

18 Nov 19

Even though I have absolutely no technical knowledge, I do sometimes have a bit of secret pride when I manage to take a decent picture. But I rather love that these ones are not very good. It reminds me that the search for perfection is, along with high expectations, the absolute enemy of happiness. It reminds me that it is all right to be a bit scruffy and goofy and not the best at everything. My horrid competitive streak, which always wanted to be the top of the class, has to be smacked down every so often. So I think of putting these pictures up as a sort of salutary lesson. Good enough, my darlings; good enough.

Monday, 10 November 2014

The Sweetness of Family Life.

As always, I slightly forget the absolute enchantment of the family life with the Beloved Cousin. For enchantment it is. There has been a lot of cooking, picking the last vegetables from the garden, walking, admiring the apples still on the apple trees, watching the ravishing polo herd have their happy winter off, and playing with the ravishing black dogs.

The Youngest Cousin has turned into a mine of wisdom and information. She looks at me very seriously and says things like: ‘You know, being pretty is not important. Being kind is. And being happy.’

Grave pause.

I say: ‘How do you know that? Did someone tell you?’

Slightly reproachful look.

‘I do a lot of thinking, you know.’

She is six years old.

Then, gathering momentum – ‘Boasting is no good. Nobody likes a boaster.’

‘No,’ I say, chastened. I hope she is not referring to me. I think of all those blog posts about the wonders of the red mare and all the clever things she does. Has the Youngest Cousin been secretly reading the internet? And disapproving?

Then she moves swiftly on to information. ‘Do you know how many dinosaur names I know?’

‘No, I don’t.’

She kindly lists them.

‘Do you know that whales can hear from really far away? A thousand miles sometimes?’

‘I did not know that.’

She puts her head on one side. ‘They talk to each other,’ she says, slightly wistful.

‘What do they say?’ I ask.

‘Oh, I don’t know. ‘Hello, I’m lost’ I expect.’

‘I see,’ I say, trying to keep up.

She switches subjects like a London taxi turning on a sixpence.

‘Do you know how the Germans started the Second World War?’

I’m on slightly surer ground now. I perk up.

‘They invaded Poland?’ I hazard. ‘Or the Sudetenland?’

Dismissive frown. ‘I don’t know that country, but they were very, very cross with the English.’

‘Yes,’ I say. ‘I expect that’s what it was.’

Then I get a little break while she watches an episode of Scooby Doo.

Soon, she is back for more. She fixes me with her basilisk stare. ‘Do you know?’ she starts. I have begun to see there is a pattern here. ‘Do you know?’ is her newest and most regular conversational gambit. I sit up straight and concentrate.

‘Do you know,’ she says, ‘that King Henry put gunpowder in the holes so that when the Spain came THEY BLEW UP?’

I retire from the field, defeated. I have no memory of the Spain being blown up. Can she mean the Device Forts?

I know better than to ask.

 

Today’s pictures:

The focus and the light is a bit dodgy in some of these, but you can see the loveliness in them, even though I lack the technical skills to make them good photographs. One of my greatest joys is watching a herd at play. Most of the horses you see here were working incredibly hard through the summer, top athletes at the peak and crest of their game. Now, they just get to be muddy, furry, playful, rowdy equines, with not a bother on them. It’s one of the finest sights in the world. It is also, I reflect joyfully, the way a true horseman keeps his herd, natural and fleet and free.

10 Nov 1

10 Nov 2

10 Nov 5

10 Nov 6

10 Nov 7

10 Nov 8

10 Nov 8-001

10 Nov 9

10 Nov 11

10 Nov 12

10 Nov 14

10 Nov 18

10 Nov 18-001

10 Nov 19

PB105353

10 Nov 19-001

10 Nov 21

Friday, 7 November 2014

A hell of a drive.

The drive this morning was one of the more dramatic I have had. I set off in slanting rain, which had been rattling at the windows all night. There were amber warnings out for most of Scotland but I blithely ignored them, thinking everyone was getting far too hysterical and it was just a bit of weather.

The hills looked as they usually did, only with black clouds rising from them like smoke. It was just another dreich day, until I got to Braemar and there was a vast loch where the fields should be. For a moment I thought that I had forgotten the landscape and become so used to a spreading body of water that I had stopped noticing it. But no, it should have been green fields. The whole of the wide valley floor was covered in a rising tide, and, on the far side, in the shadow of some doleful pines, a flock of sheep stood, desperately, on the last island of dry ground, as the water lapped at their feet.

For a moment, I panicked. They were too far away for me to stop. Did the farmers know? Were the mountain rescue out? Should I stop and call someone?

Then I saw a lone figure in black waders, arms akimbo, water up to his ribs, plunging across the water to his sheep.

I wondered how they would get them out. The water ran for hundreds of feet in each direction. No car or tractor could get near. Would there be a community effort, like the raising of the barn in Witness, with each of the strongest and tallest of the local men carrying a single sheep above his head to safety? Would there be an airlift? Would there be flying sheep against the lowering sky?

I did not have much time to think about this as I was getting into the remote part of the glen. I measured it once, on the speedometer. There is a stretch of road without a house or a human for thirteen miles. In a small island with almost seventy million people this is quite remarkable. Usually, I find the space and the solitude delightful and invigorating. Glenshee is an open, benign valley, not sinister and brooding as some of the more dramatic ones are, to the west. (I’ve been properly frightened in one or two glens, spooked out of my rational mind.) But this morning at seven-thirty it was angry and tormented.

The water was bursting its banks wherever you looked. Where the rocks and bridges meant it had to smash through narrow spaces, it was turbulent and raging. Normally it is silvered as a millpond. Today, it was a furious peaty brown, with great white waves coming off it in all directions, as if it were a wild sea, or one of those white-water rivers you only find in the wild spaces of America or Canada. From the walls of the glen, more water came crashing and tumbling. Usually, the tiny thin lines of water that fall there look like delicate traces of mercury against the blue and green and purple. Now, they were like flailing white scars, tearing down the rock, urgent with movement and menace.

It’s really hard to describe and I’m running out of adjectives, but it felt as if the water was going to win, as if this mighty valley, so many hundreds of thousands of years old, would be wrecked and overwhelmed by the urgency of the flood, as if even it could not withstand these elements. In the wider parts, where one could get a panorama of the scene, it looked like something you might see on the news, the aftermath of a typhoon in the Philippines or Bangladesh, everything trashed and broken.

There was one last drama at Bridge of Cally, where the entire stone bridge was under a foot and a half of water and I drove through praying the electrics would not cut out, which they did once near Pitlochry, so my friend the Political Operative stripped down to his Calvins and got out and pushed.

Then, Perthshire, the politest county in Scotland, asserted herself in all her elegance and calm. The crazy weather went back into its box, the floods existed only in the occasional genteel sheet across the road, even the cows looked rested and self-contained.

At Tebay, rather relieved to be in one piece, I ate mushroom soup out of a Thermos and watched the 1.10 from Fontwell. My horse won. Then I bought some cake and some Tudor pie and rang my mother to tell her I was not dead in a ditch.

What a journey.

Somewhere to the north, a red mare rests gently under her favourite tree. To the south, the smallest cousin tells her mother: ‘I can’t believe Tania is coming tomorrow. I am just SO excited.’ I’ve known these children since the day they were born and we love each other a very great deal. That is why the drive is always worth it. I just hope that someone got to those stranded sheep.

 

This is what Glenshee should look like.

7 Nov 2

7 Nov 1

Now imagine the sky black, the water all over the valley floor and rushing, all choppy and white and churning, and lapping menacingly at the road. And from the very tops of those hills, more tumbling water chasing down the crevices, as if they are coming to finish the job.

Really quite something. I would have stopped and taken a picture, but I was a bit too wigged out, and just kept my eye on the road and my foot on the accelerator.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Fairly random thoughts. Or, it’s quite often not as bad as you think.

I am having an actual coffee break. A real proper break with a latte and a huge piece of cake and everything. Being self-employed is a beautiful and lovely thing, mostly because of the flexible hours which mean I can ride my mare, but oddly, I do not allow myself things such as coffee breaks. On a normal day, coffee is a fuel, not a treat. The lashing voice shouts in my head: on, on, on. Quicker, quicker, quicker.

Today is a logistics day, as I must get ready to go south. I have been running errands in the village, so I went to the nice man with the Gaggia machine and that’s why I’ve got the coffee and the cake. Amazingly, the nice man and I ended up talking about the Danes and their excellent record on recycling. (Charging for plastic bags has just come in, so all the locals are discussing the ramifications.) From which we moved easily to my favourite subject – the Scandinavian social contract. I know this will make at least one Dear Reader laugh. (You know who you are and it was a top, top comment. I smiled and smiled.)

Actually, I’m not sure whether there even is such a thing as the Scandinavian social contract. I made it up in my head. It’s just that all those Nordic countries consistently score at the top of every league from maths to well-being, and they have a lot of state and a lot of taxation, so from this I extrapolated: social contract.

Anyway, the point of all this is that of course I was not going to be writing a blog, because of the running around and the logistics and stuff, and because look at me and how busy I am. (And, I must admit, there is an awful subliminal suggestion of: be impressed by my industry.) But since I decided on the real coffee break with the real coffee, I thought: why not? Why not stop for a moment and write a word or two? The sky will not fall. I get myself into these lashing frenzies, when in fact all it is is mucking out the car and making the house look reasonably respectable for the dog-sitter. There really is time.

All of which made me think: things are so often less bad than one thinks. The human capacity to catastrophise is astonishing. Of course some things are much worse than one thinks, like a refugee crisis or the fact that there still exist some highly-paid financial operatives who think it is a wizard wheeze to break the law, but what I mean are the small daily things of dread. That awful telephone call, the defrosting of the fridge, the attempts to organise the piles of paper. I was absolutely dreading today. I had twenty things to do and I hated the idea of all of them. On top of which, it was pouring with rain and the sky was the low, brown colour of lost hope.

In the end, though, it really was not that bad. The packing and the kitchen tidying and the errands took about half the time I had thought. Admittedly, I did get soaking wet, as the rain is the kind which somehow insinuates itself, no matter how many coats or hats one wears. And there was a fairly demoralising moment when I lost my wallet and had to spend half an hour retracing my steps, before finding it perched sadly on the incinerator where I had taken a load of rubbish. But even that had a bright side – at least I did find it and would be able to pay for petrol, and nobody had come and lit the incinerator and burned the thing to a crisp.

The mare is hunkered down in her good rug, braced against the weather, but not grumpy, just stoically getting on with it. Stan the Man has decided that finding sticks in the rain is actually quite good sport. (Lurchers are not water dogs, and there were moments in the early days when he would look at the weather and refuse to go out in it. He’s butched up marvellously.)

Yes, the car is full of random bits of hay and horse feed and spilt grass seed from where a bag broke open, and the house is filled with small bits of mud and leaf and also feathers from a burst cushion, but it’s not the end of the world. I even opened the cupboard of doom and decided it was not really that doomy after all. I use it as a regular stick to beat myself with, but really it’s just a place where some slightly muddling stuff goes to hide.

Things, I thought, oddly sunny despite the atmospheric conditions, really are often not as bad as I anticipate. Must tell the Dear Readers. (The mean inner critic, the one who drinks gin and has long nails the colour of ox-blood, at this point says, her hard voice dripping with sarcasm: oh, yes, because they don’t know that already.’)

So after all that, I wrote you a blog in my coffee break. It is almost certainly because I had said I was off, and so all pressure was removed. There really are mad days when I feel obliged. Must give them SOMETHING, shout the voices in my head. And then I go all blank and cussed and resent the job.

It’s actually the pictures that take the time. There is a lot of collating and editing and choosing. I want the thing to look pretty. If I have banged on about the mare, I think well, at least I can give them something diverting on which to rest their poor tired eyes. It becomes duty, and then I panic. If I am saddened by my poor excuse for prose, then the hunting down of the good pictures becomes a thing. Time shudders past, and I grow livid with myself and what should be a pleasure becomes a blot.

Today, because I was not supposed to write anything, because I did it because I felt like it, because what the hell, I let the thing spool out and then found some entirely irrelevant photographs and it was not a chore at all. None of this is my best. But I rather think that might be the whole point. I suspect you don’t come here for best. You can get that elsewhere. Perhaps a little bit muddly and a little bit unpolished and a little bit real is also of use.

Well, it’s just a theory.

 

Today’s pictures, from the archive:

6 Nov 1

6 Nov 2

6 Nov 3

6 Nov 6

6 Nov 6-001

6 Nov 7

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Love.

Out into the bright Scottish autumn we go - the red mare, the little Paint, the Horse Talker and me. The leaves on the trees have turned such a radiant colour that it is as if they are being illuminated by some mysterious inner light. They glimmer and gleam against a dusty Wedgewood sky. The splendid cows, big and burly and imperious, convinced of their own superiority, stand silhouetted against the horizon, a slight mist blurring the hills behind them, which roll in indigo waves like a silent sea.

The horses are bright and relaxed. They love this still, clean weather. We take the now-traditional obstacle course – past men with buzz-saws clearing the fallen trees, the mandatory wigged-out dog with its tremulous owner, gentlemen with leaf-blowers, a mysterious rattling vehicle in angry burnt orange with a roaring grill effect and a quick, clanking way of moving. Yeah, yeah, say the good girls, hardly flicking an ear; nothing to see here. Up into the deep woods, where the mountain lions certainly live, and the forest floor is gloriously muffled by moss and old pine needles, the red mare gives half a snort, as if she is contemplating putting herself on alert. Then she thinks better of it and stretches out her neck, calm as an old hound. On the way home, we exit, pursued not by a bear but a running man in screaming day-glo.

‘Jogger!’ calls the Horse Talker, to warn me.

Afterwards, I laugh. ‘Do you think,’ I say, ‘that he’s run all the way home muttering I’m not a jogger, I’m a runner?’

It was the perfect ride, the perfect gift. Two kind horses, in harmony with their humans, on a loose rein, in rope halters.

We are very proud of how kindly they go in their halters. It’s not a whole anti-bit thing, it’s just that’s how we train them on the ground, and those are the cues they know. The mare’s old snaffle droops in the feed shed, slightly redundant. We have a little joke that the people in the village secretly feel sorry for us, thinking that we are so scruffy we cannot afford bridles and martingales and proper kit. ‘Perhaps they’ll have a whip-round,’ I say, slightly hilarious with joy.

All the things, I think, that thoroughbreds are not supposed to be able to do, because they are too wild, too hot, too untameable. All that nonsense. The mare sighs with content, at ease with herself. I’m going south for a while. I took the time this morning because this will be our last ride for almost two weeks. It will gleam in my memory as I drive to the Beloved Cousin, lifting my heart.

I want, for a moment, to write to the horseman I bought the red mare from, to tell him of her brilliance. I want to tell him of how beautifully she goes, across all terrains, with me riding her with one finger. I want to tell him of how she can do transitions now from voice only. I want to tell him that she will politely back up when I merely squeeze my fingers on the reins, that she can do self-carriage as elegantly as the most stately dowager, that she no longer drops her shoulder or leans against me, but goes straight and true and light, within herself. I want to describe for him the lovely, long muscles she has developed on her great, athletic body. But he is gone to Argentina, to make ponies for the ten-goal titans they have out there, and I suspect this is all very small potatoes to him. (It is huge potatoes to me.) He is a professional, after all, with horses in his bones. We are a pair of gentle amateurs, in the best sense of the word, with its root in the Latin for love.

Love, love, love, love. That is all it is, really. Glorious, earthy, daily, heart-stopping love. She really has no idea what it is she gives.

5 Nov 1

As I go on my travels, I shall almost certainly neglect the blog. I’m going on my traditional autumn visit to my family in the south so there shall be cooking and chatting and children and all sorts. A great deal of life, in other words, which shall get in the way of pondering and writing. Forgive me. Back with a bang on the 17th.

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