Wednesday, 17 September 2014

In which I am puzzled.

One of the things which has baffled and intrigued me from the beginning of the referendum debate is the labyrinthine psychology.

Yesterday, a Yes supporter shouted ‘you are a serial murderer’ at Ed Miliband. I am no great cheerleader for of Ed Miliband, and I am prone to hyperbole myself, but even I thought this was lunacy. Another man bawled ‘liar liar liar’ until he frothed his posse into such a frenzy that the entire event had to be stopped.

Why would anyone do that? What is the thought process? I like to think I am a bit of a student of the human condition, but I find it really, really strange.

You are a Yes person. I see very well the arguments, and some of them I agree with. Who could argue with liberty and independence; a plucky nation with storied names in its proud past and great human capital in its strong present, deciding to go it alone? There is goodness and even romance in that. That is, as the Yes campaign says, a positive message. Their great criticism of the No campaign is that it is negative, and they have a point.

So there you are, with your eyes filled with this dazzling future, your heart filled with hope and belief, and you go up to someone who is making a different argument and accuse them of being a liar and a murderer. Not only that, but you manage to shut down one of the most precious gifts of a liberal democracy, which is freedom of speech. You are all about freedom, yet you deny it to someone else.

What is the thought process which makes you scratch ‘coward’ and ‘traitor’ on the front door of someone who sees the world in a different way than you do? What is the animus which leads you to leave a bottle of urine outside a No voter’s house, or throw paint on a No banner, or go out at night and take a knife and carve up a No sign? You disdain the negative, and yet you employ tactics which could not be more negative.

Perhaps the most disturbing story I have heard is that of the farmers. I am wildly biased in favour of farmers. I grew up on a farm. I love the farmer whose sheep and cows keep company with my red mare. I am lost in admiration and awe at his work ethic, how he rises with the dawn and finishes his jobs long after dark. I love his feeling for his livestock. Anyone who attacks the farmers deserves a very special category in my book. In Perthshire, a farmer had his telephone lines twice cut, No banners in his fields have been scrawled with the word scum, and most sinister of all, these men and women who work the land have had anonymous calls telling them that if they do not take down their posters their gates will be broken and their animals let out onto the roads.

In the myriad of rolling news, the endless stories of this kind, it is easy to be shocked and move on. This is the kind of thing which happens in an impassioned campaign. There are always fringes who go too far. But I stop and think of the peculiar impetus which would lead an individual to do such a thing. How do you get from thinking I want an independent Scotland to sitting down and ringing up a hard-working farmer, whom you have probably never met, who has never done you any harm, who adds to the success of the nation you love by producing food, and threatening their cows with injury and possibe death? Not to mention the terrifying road accidents which might be caused by such an action. Again, my baffled mind asks Why?

The No Campaign is not composed of spotless angels. There have been people who have behaved badly on that side too. I think that they have made mistakes, and the accusation of negativity and last-minute hustle is often correct. But there is not the same orchestrated pattern of aggression, the same automatic use of extreme epithets. There may be people voting no who are absolute showers, appalling excuses for human beings, but there is not the same overarching story. There is not the same narrative arc of attacks on journalists (one went so far as to say he felt safer when he was covering the Troubles in Northern Ireland, which may be a slight exaggeration), the mob action against Nick Robinson for asking a perfectly ordinary question, the bizarre idea that you cannot be a true Scot if you disagree, the flying pickets which follow around the No speakers.

No has its own questions to answer. It has often felt feeble, and sometimes even patronising, although it does not have the monopoly on this. It has erred on the side of the minus rather than the plus. Most of all, it has failed to ignite a big idea. Where Yes wins is that it has the most lovely idea. It does have a dream. (My reservation is that I don’t think the reality can match the dream, and that everyone might wake up in a new Scotland and say: where is my pony?)

My psychological conundrum is – why would you have such a beautiful dream and sully it with shouts of traitor and terrorist, with vandalism and the shutting down of speech? The Yes campaign, when asked about some of the uglier incidents, usually says something along the lines of the other side does it too, as if that makes it all fine. I’m not so much interested in false equivalence, I’m interested in the oddity of a group so invested in its self-image of positivity being so negative. It is a sort of twisted cognitive dissonance. When Jim Murphy is called a quisling, a terrorist, and a traitor, merely for expressing an opinion in which he believes, how does that sit with the idea of a positive campaign?

It’s not that one side is good and one side is bad. There is nothing as simplistic as that. I imagine that the vast majority of people who will vote Yes deplore the aggressive minority, and would never do anything like that themselves. What fascinates me is the strangeness of one side, in its deeds and words, going against its own defining feature. There is no need to call someone a traitor or a terrorist. If you believe in your own argument, you should welcome dissent, happily confident that you can refute it. If a person has a profound belief in the sunlit uplands, in a new dawn, why would they pick up the telephone and threaten a farmer? It is so unnecessary and contradictory as to be almost inexplicable.

Humans are complex and often say one thing and do another. Perhaps this curious dissonance should be expected. But I would have loved a serious, thoughtful debate, an argument of strong ideas and high passions. The Yes campaign has many good points, and I wanted to hear them. They lost me when they went after the people who work the land.

Luckily, away from the big campaign stages, there are individuals who are charming and gentle, who go out of their way to be polite to their opponents, who refuse staunchly to indulge in ad hominem. Luckily, in ordinary life there are ordinary people who say whichever side wins, let us all be friends afterwards. Luckily, there has been thoughtful, serious writing about democracy and nationality and economics and the human heart. I know some people who fear that Friday will dawn with fighting in the streets. I hope that yes, no and all points in between might sit down instead and have a pint of Guinness and remember the fine moments – the good jokes, the heartfelt pleas, the nuanced discussions, the fact that as turnout roars over 90% nobody could say that we take our dear democracy for granted. I hope that glasses will be raised, and not smashed.


Meanwhile, in a quiet corner of my own Scottish field, these two were at their crest and peak of sweetness today, riding out together like two courteous old dowagers, two glorious equine oases of calm in the middle of the maelstrom:

17 Sept 1

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Love. Or, the last swift.

Due to illness and weather, I have not ridden for a week. I do the thing you are not supposed to do. I pull the red mare straight out of the field and get on her, without pause. I do not do our usual fifteen minutes of groundwork. I do not run through the basics. I do no preparation. There is something reckless in me. There has been too much fearfulness and melancholy in the last few days, as I contemplate the possibility that dear old Blighty shall be broken up. I want to throw caution to the winds and think only of goodness and hope.

As if catching something of that, the red mare steps out happily and proudly, her ears pricked, her wonderful banked power easy and contained. Even more recklessly, I do not run through slow transitions or our usual opening exercises. The hayfield, shorn now and empty of swallows and swifts, lies open and inviting before us.

‘Do you want to canter?’ I ask her.

She knows the word canter. I feel her gather herself. I think for some reason of old Mr Emerson in A Room with a View. I think of him crying ‘By the side of the everlasting why, there is a yes.’ All in the red mare is yes. I let her go, and we fly. I love her so much that I want to tell her in many, many words, but she only knows canter and whoa. I say whoa. We stand for a while, looking at our blue hill. I rub her withers and lean down her neck and whisper in her ear, telling her of the love that she cannot understand.

We walk quietly along the burn. The water is splashing dreamily to itself. The trees, marked with the lichen of age, stand sentinel. The light, which has been out for the last two days as the rain fell, suddenly gathers itself and shines down.

I think of old Mr Emerson again. He has passed the everlasting why, and has come back to the yes. ‘It isn't possible to love and to part. You will wish that it was. You can transmute love, ignore it, muddle it, but you can never pull it out of you. I know by experience that the poets are right: love is eternal.’

This is my land, I think; my place, my home. It is not possible to love and part. It may be stupid to love a country, but I do love it. I love it with all the singing passion that I have for my dear red girl. It is where I belong; it is stitched into my heart; I am dug in. I do not want it pulled apart, for a distant dream. I want the ties that bind. I love that Britain is the land of Shakespeare and Hume, Eliot and Byron, Joanna Baillie and Jane Austen, Phyllis Logan and Maggie Smith. (I include Maggie Smith as the quintessence of Englishness, but in fact her mother was born in Glasgow. Hands across the border again, I think.)

Cynics may mock the idea of British values, but I think that there is something in the notion of Britishness which speaks to a best self – a stoicism, a self-deprecation, an openness, a humour. While there is a Little Englander, there is no Little Britisher. The wonderful Craig Brown adores making jokes about ‘Ordinary Decent Britons’, but as in all the best jokes, there is a small acorn of truth. There is a decency and an ordinariness, in its finest sense.

I put the mare back in her green field, and go to my desk and do my work. The melancholy of possible loss hums in the back of my mind. All this is very personal to me. I cannot prove it, or impose it on others, or use it to refute any argument. It is not objective. My heart is not more important than that of someone on the other side. If it breaks, it breaks. It has healed before; it will again. Loss is integral to the human condition, running through it like a seam of coal. Grief, said our own dear Queen, is the price we pay for love.

The swifts and swallows have gone, on their long journey to Africa. I miss them. In their final days of hard flying practice, they swooped and soared around the red mare and me each morning, as we rode out. Now there is only silence and space. But this morning, at the end of the ride, there, like a flash or a sign, was one lone swift, flinging herself over the high beech hedge, as if in benediction. Ah, I said to myself, caught in absurd fancy, she has stayed behind, to see how the vote goes. She will not leave, I thought, until the thing is settled.

I am no ornithologist. I cannot tell whether a flying swift is a male or a female. She felt like a lady to me, that was all. One little bird, I thought. How will she make that great flight all on her own?


Today’s pictures:

I love the farmer, and I love how much he loves his coos:

16 Sept 1

The glorious light:

16 Sept 2

The good companions:

16 Sept 3

It is this face which fills my heart like nothing else. Kind, questing, bright. I don’t call her. She just comes. She says: oh, there you are. That’s all I need for everything to feel very slightly better:

16 Sept 4

Monday, 15 September 2014

Miss Manners.

I enter the last days of my deadline race, so the blog may be a poor and shadowy thing for a while. I apologise for that. It is not just a matter of time; it is that I am thinking so damn hard about the book that my brain shuts up shop at a certain point, and there is nothing left. It still baffles me that the silent act of thinking can be so physically enervating, but it is. I get to a point where I can no longer function on any but the most basic level.

I’ve been thinking today about politeness, and why it matters. As the world news is so terrifying, so cruel and so big, manners might seem almost worse than irrelevant, a tiny blip in the vast and surging sea of dark reality.

But I do think that courtesy matters. I think it speaks of the Golden Rule. I think it is about empathy, about trying to think your way into the shoes of another, perhaps the ultimate act of good manners. I think it has a profound existential point – life is hard and unfair and random and sometimes filled with grief and pain, so why would you add to that if you do not have to?

Someone was rude to me last week. In the grand scheme of things, it was an event so small that it could hardly be seen by the naked eye. Yet, it keeps coming back to haunt me. It is like a little splinter under the skin, nudging and scratching and throbbing.

It came at a time when I am a little flayed, and my defences are down. Fret about this book leaves me vulnerable, my heart is sore from the shouting over Scottish separation, I had a bit of a bug and am still physically shaky. I am rather like my red mare, who can deal with one unexpected stimulus, and then two, but finds the third one pushes her over the edge, so that I have to be very strong and comforting and reliable to keep her on an even keel.

The act of bad manners will bother me for a while and soon I shall return to equanimity. I shall talk myself down off the ceiling. But if it were not for the lack of thought or courtesy from that person, I should not have to. I am wasting valuable emotional energy on fixing something which did not need to be fixed. The rudeness came from carelessness and badly-chosen words, sentences flung out with no conception of the effect they would have. It was not the end of the world and had no profundity. All the same, it detracted from the sum total of human happiness rather than adding to it. This seems to be a small but potent waste.

I like manners because they are useful. They make people feel better, not worse. They often bring out the better angels of those who are on the receiving end. They can have a lovely virtuous domino effect, a delightful paying forward – if you are kind and charming and polite to someone, they will often be polite and thoughtful to the next person. They are positive, rather than negative.

I know that some people think that politeness is old-fashioned and pointless, even bogus. But I am a little old school, in some ways. My mother taught me manners, when I was a little girl, and I thank her for them daily. I do not always live up to her high strictures, but I try. I think that matters, even when the world is so oppressed.


Today’s pictures:

So sorry, no time for the camera today. Besides, dear old Scotland is shrouded in the dourest dreich. Just a moment for this shot of my sweet red girl, who is as polite as a Jane Austen heroine:

15th Sept 1

I admit I did spend a lot of time teaching her manners, but she was a quick study, because she has such a good and gentle heart.

Saturday, 13 September 2014


The trailer for Pride has been exciting me all week. It is sharp and clever and funny. But oddly, even though it is a brilliant trailer, it turns out to have nothing to do with the film. The film itself is so much bigger, more nuanced, more universal, and more moving. The trailer is like a snappy 1963 Motown tune: dazzling and snappy and joyful. The film is like a concept album.

It took me about twenty minutes to realise this. As the action began to deepen and unfold, and the first weepy moment hit, I felt a cognitive shift. This is not shoop boop boo wop wop; this is the human condition. All life is there. My mind opened up like a big old Russian novel. I settled happily into my seat. Something marvellous was happening.

The nuances are astonishing. The lightness of touch is pitch-perfect. The story is filled with paradox – it all happened in actual life, and everyone knows the ending, and yet there are revelations and surprises along the way which make you open your eyes and blink in astonishment.

It manages to hit the cinematic jackpot: it is glorious entertainment, with no dull moment, but it also makes you think. I shall go on thinking of it for days to come. To roll out the hoary old saw - it makes you laugh, it makes you cry – feels too cheap, although it does do both those things. It made me cry and cry; sad tears, inspired tears, what if tears, me too tears.

I went to see it because I wanted to, because it is my perfect subject and my perfect film, but I also went to see it because it was written by my friend Stephen. We have been friends for twenty years. I don’t love him more because he went and wrote a stunning piece of work. But I do feel very, very glad that he is my friend. And it’s not just because he will get a lot of admiration and worldly success. It’s because he has done something which touches the heart. Even if the film does not win all the prizes and plaudits it deserves, it exists gloriously in itself, as something lovely and touching, something authentic and true.

It has all the best of British, in this week when I am thinking of Britishness. It has an ensemble cast composed of every British actor you have ever loved, as well as one or two new faces who will become loved. It has masterclass after masterclass in understatement. There is a scene with Bill Nighy and Imelda Staunton where more is said in one silence than I could write in an entire novel. It has the light and dark of recent British history, and the staunch buggering on at which dear old Blighty excels.

Everyone is so good in it that it would be rude to pick out any single performance, but there is a tour de force from Dominic West, and something devastatingly profound from my beloved Mr Andrew Scott.

I would say go and see it anyway, because of my friend. But really I say go and see it for yourself. It will make you laugh; it will make you cry. But most of all, it will make you want to make the world a better place. Not in a preachy, po-faced sort of way, but in a sod the lot of them, disco sort of way.

If you are anything like me, it will make you remember the best beloveds who are no longer here, the dear Departeds who were cut down before their time. As I drove home through the misty Scottish hills, I thought of my friend T, whose picture sits on my desk, who died from AIDS in the cruel days when it was a death sentence. He chose me, when I was very young and very foolish, I think because he saw that there was something slightly other about me. I have never been able to make the expected choice, and for years I had to make defensive jokes about being a freak girl, to protect myself from judgement. It has taken me until these middle years to feel comfortable with difference, not to have to explain endlessly, or do a diverting, compensatory tap dance. My adored, camp old artist must have seen something of that, and I think it was why he took me under his wing, and encouraged me to write, and treated me like his own. I miss him every day, and I thought of him as I sat in that darkened cinema, looking at the flashing screen and thinking: these are my people.

Everyone will take something different from this film, and it has something for everyone. I loathe being told what to do and so I very rarely use the imperative voice. I find unsolicited advice one of the most maddening things in the world. But for once, I break this rule. Go and see Pride. Go and see it before you know too much about it. Try not to read the reviews or watch the clips. Go, and be surprised. It will surprise you. It will enchant you. It will make you want to do something in the world.


Oh, and there is a very real danger that you may never make an assumption again – about miners, gays, the Welsh, middle-aged women, leather queens, unions, or about quiet men with neat hair. About anything, really.

All that in a rattling 120 minutes. Best tenner I ever spent.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Where the heart is.

The Dear Readers will know that one of my great rules in life is: if at all possible, avoid ad hominem. This is a cool, rational position. Usually, rather like with Godwin’s Law, the first one to go personal has clearly lost the argument. It is also a very slightly weedy thing of the sentiment. I can’t stand confrontation and I hate needless hurling of insults and invective. It is also ruthlessly pragmatic. No mind has ever been changed by attacking the human, not the ball.

From the beginning of this mighty Scottish debate, I have never attacked the side of Yes. This is partly because of my rule, but it is also because I see the argument. I see the passion with which it is held. I see the keen desire and the burning hope. I understand that, because I have my own passion, in the other direction.

I do have a private difficulty with Mr Salmond as a politician. I have never been able to think of him in the same way since he used twenty thousand pounds of taxpayers’ money to fight a court case to keep information away from the public. This goes against every inch of his cherished persona as an open, plain-speaking fellow, unlike the weaselly shower in Westminster. He also, in a way, failed my waiter test. There is a famous story of him picking on a junior reporter in front of the press pack, which I can’t get out of my mind. On the other hand, I do like and admire Mr Darling. I think he is a steady gentleman of some integrity. But I have been very strict about not making all this about two different men. It must be about the arguments. This is too momentous a decision. It is not about two individuals, but about the future of a great nation.

As my head clears, I try to take a step backward, and see the thing objectively. There is some fascinating psychology going on, a perfect Freudian example of projection. (I know that all the penis envy side of Freud is entirely mad, but he was right about projection, and I think of it almost every day.) There are people on the Yes side who accuse the Unionists of being negative, of scaremongering, of seeing only the chasm, not the great leap forward. In the same breath, those very same people accuse those on the other side of being traitors and Quislings, cravenly unpatriotic, with no faith in the Scottish people. This could not be more negative. It is not countering the argument. It is not saying if you disagree with me I think you are wrong; it is saying I think you are bad.

The other oddness is that many of those who long for Yes talk of the democratic deficit. All democracies, as Churchill mordantly pointed out, have a deficit. This is even more true today than when he spoke of democracy being the worst of all systems until you look at the others. Globalisation, international markets, geo-politics, the European Union, even the structure of the civil service and the dear old Sir Humphreys – all mean that no politician in the world is quite as in charge as they would like to be. It is why manifesto promises are so often broken. They are made in the wide prairies of opposition, where everything is possible. The hopeful candidates famously campaign in poetry and govern in prose. Realpolitik is a cruel mistress. Even if the electorate gets the party it votes for, it often does not get the results for which it yearns.

But more ironical still is that if separation were achieved, a huge democratic deficit would yawn, bigger than any which obtains after an ordinary election. Half the population would be deprived of their dearest wish. They would have to stand by, powerless, as the country in which they believe is broken up. It is not a deficit of a few years, but of generations.

The head part of me does see what might be called the negative, although I think of it as unacceptable risk. I do fret about capital and intellectual flight. I watch with trepidation as the pound falls and fund managers warn against investing in the United Kingdom and the billion and a half pounds slides away from British companies. To me that translates into real lives and real jobs and real people paying the heating bills. I worry about the currency. I wake at night thinking of the enormous expenses which are not even mentioned. Who will pay for the cost of setting up new embassies and legations around the world? I think about the things very close to my heart – the military towns which will be left filled with tumbleweed as the non-Scottish regiments go south, the racecourses which will be bereft of the Levy and so face closure. To me, it is too high a price to pay.

The positive of all this is that I hope there will be more devolution, which is devoutly to be wished, and that Scotland has the best of all worlds. It gets to be both Scottish and British. Two great identities for the price of one.

But for all the rational, cautious head, it is my heart which wins. My heart is English and Scottish and Irish and Welsh; that is my history and my ancestry. To have to choose one would be like cutting off a limb. I want the old neighbours to stay together, to capitalise on all their mutual strengths, in everything from research and invention, to the arts and the shared sense of humour. I don’t want the cultural ties that run between us to be brutally severed.

There are people who sneer at the heart arguments. I am not among them. The great psychologist Alfred Adler said there were three vital aspects of human happiness. A sense of loving and being loved, a sense of satisfaction and meaning in work, and a sense of belonging. Place, community, comradeship, being dug in – these were so important to him that he included them in his definitive trifecta. My heart argument is all about belonging.

This morning, I went down to the village to get a Racing Post, so I could read about Estimate, the Queen’s sweet filly who is running today at Doncaster. I adore Estimate, because she is a battler. She is a slip of a girl, lightly built, delicately constructed, but she has a huge fighting heart. I saw my friend George, a man of proud Scottish lineage, standing in his shop, arranging the shelves to his satisfaction. He loves racing as much as I, and usually we discuss the intricacies of the 3.30. Today, without being asked, he said, loudly, proudly: ‘I’m no, me.’ He gestured in a southerly direction. ‘I’d feel naked without them,’ he said.

This is instinct, heart, viscera. It does not make it any less important. It has no figures or statistics or financial forecasts to go with it. Humans cannot live on dry as dust numbers alone. The rational is important, but so are the more nebulous things which touch the soul.

My heart, like George’s, cries for union, fellowship, for the ties that bind. If Scotland and England and Wales and Northern Ireland were to unstitch themselves I would be forlorn, diminished, bereft. For me, these island nations are a family, and I say, like lovely Al Green: let’s stay together.


Today’s pictures:

My beloved Scotland, from the archive:

12 Sept 1

12 Sept 2

12 Sept 5

12 Sept 7

12 Sept 8

12 Sept 8-001

12 Sept 8-002

12 Sept 9

12 Sept 9-001

12 Sept 9-002

12 Sept 10

12 Sept 10-001

12 Sept 10-002

12 Sept 11

12 Sept 14

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Almost normal.

1422 new words written, and I feel almost human again. Now all I need is for the monkey mind to stop monkeying around, and things shall settle back into routine. The sun shines all day and people, near and far, are funny and kind. I eat proper food and contemplate getting more iron in my diet. I speak of Scotland and the future and the human condition and all those important things. I am pleased because I make the Mother and the lovely Stepfather laugh at breakfast. Then I watch the racing at Donny, and admire the beautiful, fleet thoroughbreds in the Yorkshire sunshine. Not quite normal yet, but heading towards the border.

The mare once again gets to have her adored wander about the set-aside. She loves the wild grass and the thistles. She is so absolutely herself, so sweet and funny and known to me, so at ease in her beautiful skin, that I think, for the time I am with her, that nothing else matters. The idiot mind may monkey about from branch to branch, but when I am with her everything is still and clear and real. She is my own Zen mistress, and I don’t know how I would get through a day without her. She is my best example. She knows what matters, and that is what exists now, in the moment. She is my meditation and my best professor. She is a salve to the heart.


Wednesday, 10 September 2014

A small and possibly not very coherent thought.

I’ve been under the weather all week, having had a relapse after my false perk over the weekend. Every ounce of weedy energy was directed at smashing my first deadline, which I triumphantly hit at 1.38pm, just in time to collapse in a heap and watch the first day of the Leger meeting. The main deadline is still two weeks away, so I shall have to butch up and bash on, but at least I was able to deliver on what I promised today.

The poor blog, shamefully neglected, sits in the corner, hoping someone might throw it a bone. But my brain has returned to its fugue state after putting on a thousand words this morning, and can summon no good prose.

I do have a thought, though. A thought for the day is better than a poke in the eye with a dull stick.

It is this.

Never, ever underestimate the power of the smallest act of kindness.

I know that people do talk about this. It is in quite a lot of books. It is supposed to be one of the secrets of well-being, performing small acts of kindness. It can sound wise, or it can sound corny as hell, depending on the state of your inner sceptic. It can sound a bit pointless.

Someone I do not know at all, a gentle stranger on my Twitter feed, took the time to make one of those small kind acts this afternoon. It was a gesture which spoke of great thoughtfulness, even though the thing itself was little and fleeting. But it took my battered old heart and expanded it like a glorious balloon.

It was an oddly pure thing. There was no side to it, no point to prove, no flag to fly. It was what it was: an offering of sheer pleasure. It made me smile and smile.

You know I always bang on about the small things, in so many different contexts. Sometimes I wonder whether I am talking arrant nonsense.

But there was the mighty power of the very, very small thing.

Take the time, I tell myself; think the thought. Do the small thing. Offer the offering.

All those tiny grains of sand add up to a mighty dune.

10th Sept 1

Friday, 5 September 2014


The universe is kind and breaks my fever just in time. I had got to the stage where I thought I would never feel well again, and perhaps this was not a bug but a life sentence. There was that thing of waking at three in the morning and trying to plan how to live with constant pain. I know people who do live with constant pain and I have no idea how they bear it. This dull virus contains the overwhelming luxury of going away. I never watched a tide ebb with such gratitude.

One of the oldest of the old friends is coming tomorrow for lunch. We have known each other since childhood and I never see him and I miss him. I could not have stood the idea of chucking, although I did at one point consider asking if he would mind it if I received him on a chaise longue, like something out of an Italian opera. (The awful thing is I do actually have a chaise longue.)

As it is, the beastly bug sods off at about four-thirty. I can feel it go. I like to think it was the spinach soup that beat it. I potter about in my pyjamas, weak as a baby panda, vaguely remembering what normal feels like, and attempting to tidy up a bit. This old friend lives a big life; he is one of the ones who has gone and done something in the world. For a moment, I panic. What will he think of the old piles of the Racing Post and the slightly dusty Edwardian glasses and my ridiculous collection of birds’ nests? I never got the whole House and Garden thing, and I am almost constitutionally incapable of throwing things away, so there are awful little hoarder’s piles everywhere you look. I could get up at six in the morning, I think, and redo the whole house.

Then I think: he really has not come for interior design. With any luck, he won’t notice. I’ll give him some lovely chicken and some green soup for strength and we’ll remember all the old jokes. What can it matter? My house is slightly odd, but it is mine, and I can’t suddenly fake a magazine front. I’ll never be one of the shiny people, and that is all she wrote.


And if the worst comes to the worst, there is always the red mare, and Stan the Man too. Who cares if there are holes in the sofa when there are these two?:

5 Sept 1

5 Sept 2

Rather bad pictures, but I’m still too swimmy to find and edit good ones. Still, I think this goes with my theme of not having to be all gleamy and perfect. A bit muddly and not quite in focus will do.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Vague thoughts from a swimmy head.

I had to say no to someone today.

It was a question to which the answer is always no, so there was no agonising over the decision. It was the way of saying it. The request came from a charming young woman, at the beginning of her career I guessed. I did not wish to sound aloof or squashing or even negative. I wanted to make it very clear that the thing was not personal.

I have spent half my adult life trying to polish the art of saying no. I remember my wild delight when I first managed to say no without adding an explanation. Not no but, or no because, no you see. Just – no.

Those of you who are not female or do not have a fatal tendency to try and please people will be scratching your heads at this stage. For God’s sake, you will be crying; sometimes the answer is yes, sometimes it is no. What difference can it make?

But no can be profoundly scary. How much easier to say yes and be nice and compliant and have everyone think what a trooper you are. What if they do take the no the wrong way, and decide you are difficult and ungenerous? The carping voices in my head sharpen their painted nails and get scritching and bitching. They judge no meanly, and tell me that so shall everyone else.

After that, another more nuanced and complicated no had to be said. Not a definitive no, but a moving of goalposts. I am felled by a horrid low-grade virus, the kind I get about once a year, which makes me feel as if I have been kicked all over by a furious Shetland pony and that my eyeballs have been boiled in oil. My irrational mind sees illness as a weakness, as if some pathetic failure of will has let my immune system down, so I tend to stagger on, achieving nothing, until I hit the wall and admit defeat. Today, I had to write to the agent to push back the deadline. Not a resounding no, but a not yet, which also feels like a sort of defeat.

Luckily there is the sensible voice. I really have no idea how on earth I have a sensible voice, since my family is not famed for any kind of sensibleness, but there she is, steady and sure, and really very grown-up. She is the one who says spit, spot, it’s not the end of the world. This is the voice which says: apologise, move on, go to bed, and have some chicken soup. It is a very, very good voice indeed, and I wish I could hear it all the time.

Today’s pictures:

Just one shot for you. Despite my viral load, I stumped up to HorseBack. There are veterans who go there who have to deal with daily pain which I can hardly imagine, so the least I could do was stir my sorry self. It was absolutely worth it, as I watched people up against it do excellent work with the horses.

These were the first faces I saw, two of my very favourites of the mighty herd – Mikey on the left who is sweet and soft and will do anything for love, and Red on the right, who is bright and alert and gentle and good.

4 Sept 1

Oh, and down in the field is a very, very happy red mare. Some horses are busy and active and really want a job. But this one would be delighted if she could just mooch her days away with nothing to do. She adores stillness. So she is exceptionally pleased to have a day off:

4 Sept 2

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

No, thank you.

Because I am a goofball, I forgot to send in my electoral registration. Today, there was a wild panic, as the deadline charged down the track like a brakeless freight train. The only answer was a lot of downloading, scanning, filling in and emailing, all things that I am really, really bad at. Luckily, I have a kind friend who is organised, and she helped me with it.

‘I can’t thank you enough,’ I cried. ‘I may now take part in the democratic process. This is what Mrs Pankhurst chained herself to the railings for.’

My kind friend laughed, kindly.

I love Scotland. I fell in love with these hills as you might fall in love with a person, and moved five hundred miles north to live in them. I left my old life and my old friends behind in the south. I still miss the old friends sorely; it is the only sadness of this northern life. I wish for a Tardis, and wormholes. But the hills won.

When I cross the border to Scotland, after a trip to the south, I cry actual tears of homecoming. This place is home to me in a way which is stitched into the deepest reaches of my heart. I love the beauty, the people, the wild spaces. Those spaces amaze me still, they are so improbable in this small, crowded island nation.

I do have Scottish blood. ‘Quite a lot of Scottish blood,’ says my mother, staunchly, at breakfast. I also have Irish blood, English blood, and Welsh blood.

Sometimes I think nationality means nothing. It is a human construct, after all. Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, and nations are often no more than random lines drawn on a map, or recent inventions, cobbled together out of territorial ambition, political compromise and contingency. Italy and Germany were only unified in the late 19th century; they are band-box new. Before that, an inhabitant of the duchy of Savoy was a foreigner to an inhabitant of the Kingdom of Sicily.

All that is intellectually true. It is not emotionally true. The feeling of culture and history and ancestry does mean something. Nationality may be intellectually indefensible, but it is viscerally meaningful.

In the year when the great sprinting mare, Black Caviar, came to Ascot, I went to the Royal Meeting for the first time in years. The place was teeming with Australians, many of whom had never been abroad before, who were following their mighty heroine. I made friends with many of them, at the pre-parade ring and in the stands. I took on, absurdly, the role of ambassador, apologising for the weather, making jokes about the oddness of the British way.

Late on the first afternoon, after spending much time laughing and joking with the great Aussie contingent, I found myself upsides a very British gentleman, one of those old racing types I remember from my childhood. We also laughed and joked, but in a very different way. I suddenly realised I had been very literal with the Australians, because we did not share a culture. With my old racing gent, we fell into the language of our own tribe, dry and ironic, reading between the lines, understanding cultural references without having to amplify. It was not that one was better and one was worse, it was just that with those different nationalities I spoke a different language, even though it was all English. The old gent and I knew each other, even though we had never been introduced in our lives.

I love Britishness, I can’t help it. I love the idiotic obsession with failure, the hatred of showing off, the pragmatism and stoicism, the instinctive saying of sorry when someone bumps into you in the street. I love the queuing and the tea and the understatement. I love the Queen, even though I could give you eight good arguments against a hereditary monarchy. I love the bosky hedgerows and the wild moors, the lakes and tors, the Norman churches and the stately piles. I love the hill farmers and the farriers and the dry-stone-wallers. I love the sucking of the teeth and the shaking of the head. I love that most Britons, when asked how they are, will not answer ‘marvellously well’, but just mutter ‘not too bad’.

I love my Scottish and Irish and Welsh and English blood. I don’t want to have to choose. I could mount a serious, empirical argument for the Union. I could draw on all that history I learnt. I could even break out a bit of economics and geo-politics. But my decision is entirely one of the heart. I want to remain an Ordinary Decent Briton. I do not want to have to carve a slice of myself off. Being British is stamped on my heart.

And that is why, with the utmost respect for those of opposing views, with quiet politeness and reserve, I shall be voting No, thank you.


2 Sept 1

Friday, 29 August 2014

Thoughts about advice.

I’ve been thinking about advice this week. I’ve been thinking about the good advice I have been given in my life, and the advice I would give to a young person if I were asked, and the advice I would give now to my twenty-one year old self.

The two best pieces of advice I ever heard came twenty-five years apart.

The first was from an older and much wiser friend. I was twenty-two, painfully in love with the wrong person, and flailing. She looked at me, very gently, and said: ‘Would you rather be proud? Or would you rather be happy?’

One could parse this and unpick it and examine it from all angles. One could put nuances on it and argue with it. But at the time, it made immediate and profound sense to me and I think of it still, every single week of my life.

What I think it meant was: misplaced pride will only make you miserable. Pretending you are untouchable when you are not, or able to do something without help, or doing fine when you are falling to pieces, will not bring you peace or joy. Humility and vulnerability might seem like hard and painful things, but in the end, being humble and vulnerable will make you a much happier human than being proud ever could.

The second piece of stellar advice came from one of my best beloveds, one who goes back all the way. We have been friends since we were eighteen, and I can’t imagine my life without her. Only last year, she introduced me to a new theory she had carved out. It was, whenever faced with a confusion or a difficult decision or just sheer raw pain or fear, think of what is the worst that can happen in that specific scenario. The answer often comes very quickly, rising from the subconscious like a trout to a fly. It often goes something like: I will fail, people will laugh, I will be left alone, I will be heartbroken. Then, you ask yourself if you can deal with it. Most often, the answer is yes. It will be hard, but the worst will not sink you. This makes taking the decision or facing the fearful thing much, much easier.

I also think you need a really good friend to go through this with. I remember mapping out one such disastrous scene with the very beloved who invented the theory. We were riding together. Over our heads, there was a bright spring sky; under us, the good horses were moving easily and kindly. In my head, all was darkness and bafflement.

‘What is the worst that can happen? she asked.

I told her.

I faced it. I contemplated it. I examined the worst from all angles. I thought I could weather it. She thought so too.

And you know the funny thing? The worst did happen, in that particular play. The final curtain did not ring down on triumph, but on messy failure.

It was difficult. It did hurt. The ramifications rippled on for months afterwards. (They can catch me still, on a bad day.) But because of that ride with that good friend, because of contemplating the crash with another sympathetic human heart, I damn well did get through it.

I think now, what would I tell someone of the Younger Niece’s generation, if they should ask for some of my aunt-ish advice? What is the most important thing I have learnt in these forty-seven years?

I have nothing very pithy. I think I might say something like: don’t disdain the unshowy virtues. Brilliance and wit and talent are all very well, but what really gets you through are the quiet virtues, like reliability, and gentleness, and dogged determination, and consistency, and patience. I would recommend my old friends, kindness and stoicism.

I think I would say: not everything is about you. Don’t make it all about you.

I may add: the things you think are the end of the world almost always are not.

There are the very obvious ones – don’t be afraid to fail; don’t be frightened of being wrong; risk falling flat on your face and be the first to laugh at yourself if you do.

I would say: empathy is an awful word, but a lovely thing to be able to do.

I would obviously tell them never to dangle their modifiers.

I would insist that human beings have much more that unites them than divides them, and that most divisions are mere constructs, hardly more than flickering shadows on the cave wall.

Something like that. I admit it needs a little work.

Everything I know comes from somebody or somewhere else: from humans I have loved, books I have read, unexpected voices on the radio, the plays of Shakespeare, the poems of Yeats and TS. I think the only original idea about existence that I ever came up with is not really original at all, it is just that I thought it for myself rather than pinching it. It is quite recent, and I like it.

It is: are you living a life or proving a point?

I suspect this says more about my own flaws than revealing any great wisdom, but still, it is useful in my own mazy mind. I think I may have spent quite a lot of time trying to prove a point. Look at me, with my step ball change and my jazz hands. Now, I don’t want to prove anything. I am too old for that, too chipped around the edges. I want to live a quiet Scottish life, a life that is useful in some small way, a life that adds rather than subtracts, with these trees and these blue hills and this red mare and this lurcher dog and this good earth.


Will you tell me yours? The best advice you ever got, the best you ever gave, the best you give yourself?

Only if you have time, of course.


As I finished this, I went next door. The kind Sister has given me a delightful chair. It is upholstered in very pale colours, and since I live a life of animals and mud, I put a blanket to protect it, in case the dog sat on it. The dog, it turns out, is sitting on it. I think Stan the Man has found his new favourite place.

It’s not for everyone, but some of my best advice ever would be, of course: get a dog.

Noble face:

29 Aug 1

Comedy face:


Hills and earth and sky:

29 Aug 5

Grass and heather:

29 Aug 7

Every morning she greets me:

29 Aug 10

I love this one, even though she had come too close and I was all out of focus. It makes me think of Stubbs, for some odd reason. And sometimes I like including my mistakes:

29 Aug 11

PS. Wrote 2445 words today and edited the manuscript to the end. Tomorrow, I start the third draft. So, even though I hate excuses, I must confess that my eyes are squinting and my brain has gone. Which means: THERE WILL BE TYPOS. Forgive me.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

No blog today.

So sorry. Too much work and an airport run.

Just time for a picture of my two beloveds:

28 Aug 1

I am becoming very hippy-ish in my old age. Soon I shall wear flowers in my hair. Today, I thought: really the answer to everything is love. Love, and be kind, but mostly love.

And not to be loved, although that is enchanting, but to love. Not in a cheap, ersatz, sentimental way. In a tough, robust, getting on with it sort of way. More actions than words; more reality than flowers.

I’m not sure where this thought came from, but it seemed very certain and sure.

Tomorrow, I expect I shall have changed my mind.

But for today: it is love.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

The ice bucket challenge.

I did the ice bucket challenge this morning.

Since it went viral, there has been the inevitable backlash. Oh, say the doubters, surely giving to charity should be a quiet, private thing. It should not involve show-offs prancing about on the internet. A very thoughtful and rather charming Australian news anchor politely declined to nominate any individuals, and instead challenged everyone to make the world a slightly better place. He added that the whole shooting match could be seen as a waste of water, and that one might be better donating to Water Aid instead.

I absolutely see the intellectual point of these arguments. They are all true. Besides, I did not much fancy a bucket of water over my head. So I kept quiet, and vaguely hoped the thing would pass me by.

Then my friend Jay Hare nominated me. He is a Royal Marine, and as I remarked in my video, you don’t say no to the Marines. The intellectual arguments went out of the window, and the instinctive took over. I could of course just donate, and skip the whole look at me with my bucket aspect. But I had the strong and immediate feeling that it would be curmudgeonly to refuse. Part of the whole experience is the element of fun and idiocy and sharing with the group. I don’t think it is showing off; I think it is being stitched in to the collective, and that is one of the great strengths of this internet age. I was galvanised, even if there would be cross people who tutted at one more damn bucket video.

Someone I loved very much died from Motor Neurone Disease. It is a brutal thing, and if a nutty viral trend is getting it more money and more awareness, that surely can only be for the good.

I was also suddenly excited about the possibility of involving the red mare. This was fairly high risk. I pride myself on the desensitising work I’ve done with her, but what if she freaked out, for all to see? She is a thoroughbred, after all. Still, there was no question that I should do it without her. She would be the Debbie McGee to my Paul Daniels. (Very lucky that the red duchess does not read English; I’m not sure how pleased she would be with that comparison. She almost certainly sees herself more as a cross between the Duchess of Devonshire and Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey. If she had eyebrows, she would raise them.)

I had only twenty-four hours to organise the thing, and I had no video equipment. A faint sense of panic nipped in.

All the stars aligned. My sweet family was available, at the shortest notice. The Younger Niece and The Sister swung into action. My sister does not go on the internet much, and had not heard of the challenge. ‘You want me to pour a bucket of water over your head?’ she said, at first, entirely baffled.

‘That is correct,’ I said.

‘Oh well,’ she said, with equanimity. ‘I suppose I can do that.’

The red mare was more than ready for her close-up, even though she was slightly surprised to find that instead of slow work and breakfast she was being made into an internet queen.

My mother, when told of the thing, looked at the grubby coat I wear to do the horses and said, in a very dry voice, ‘Well, that jacket does need a wash.’

The water was a blinding shock, but afterwards I felt wildly energised. My sister ran me a nice bath so that I could warm up, and we reminisced about our old dad, who used to turn the water in his early morning shower from boiling to freezing before he went out to ride first lot. He would bellow as the cold hit him, but it set him up for the rest of the day. We wondered whether we should follow his example.

The whole thing was enchanting, from the brilliance of my clever horse, to the sweetness of my dear sister, to the lovely laughter of my niece, who was holding the video camera. It was one of my beloved Small Things. Of such small things is the good life made.

And it taught me something else. I shall never, ever again carp at television presenters. Speaking to camera is really difficult. I wanted to say a few words before the water hit, and my arms appeared to have a life of their own, waving about as if they were channelling Sir Patrick Moore. I also seemed to have developed an odd swaying motion. I wished for a moment afterwards that I had not waved the arms about so much, and that I was not having such a rotten hair day, but then I realised that this is not about me at all. It really was not the time for vanity. The mad waving and the bad hair made it all the better, in a way. I was not some polished public person, but a very ordinary woman, in a field, with a horse.

The horse, of course, was not ordinary at all. If she does not get a television gig after this, I shall eat my hat.

There was no camera on hand, so here is a screenshot from the video. The amazing mare did not MOVE A HOOF:

27 Aug 1.bmp

It’s a hopeless picture, but it gives you the sense of the brilliance of that red girl.

As I finish writing this, my video has finally gone up on Facebook. The absurd thing was that the planning and filming took about fifteen minutes, whilst managing to download the video clip, locate it on my computer, make it compatible with Facebook, and get it up there has taken three hours. Every avenue I tried contained a furious error message. It was the wrong type of file; Facebook would not recognise it; it downloaded from the niece’s camera to the most obscure part of my computer which refused to share it with anything else. At one point it disappeared altogether and I had to spend ages ransacking my entire hard disk. When I finally worked out that I could share it from Microsoft Movie Maker, that horrid application would only allow me to post it with an advertisement for itself, rather than the words I wanted to write. When I tried to edit the words, it simply deleted the entire video, which had already taken forty minutes to load. I had to start ALL OVER AGAIN.

I went into gritted-teeth tech rage. Only the most bloody-minded refusal to be beaten got me through. Somehow, this feels quite appropriate. The thing itself was quite easy. Getting wet is not the worst thing that can happen to a person. Donating money was easy; the lovely MND Association make it as straightforward as falling off a log. Getting the video out nearly made my ears fall off. But there should have been some element of sacrifice, even if it was only time and a bit of fury.

All the arguments against this kind of thing are perfectly logical. But, my darlings, it was a riot. It felt like an unalloyed Good Thing, on so many levels. If you are nominated, go for it. If you can find a red mare to star in your challenge, all the better.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

A day in brief.

1637 words of book written. Twenty pages edited.

Hats in the air work with the red mare. Important trailer practice. She self-loaded. (She is so clever that I need new words for clever.) Then: a canter out in the hayfields of perfect lightness and containment, as if she were channelling her inner dressage diva. And to finish: a sweet slow ride with her little Paint friend. My heart filled to overflowing.

Try not to think of the awful shoutiness of last night’s debate on Scottish independence. You know that I have a strict rule on this blog about ad hominem. But the tutting old great-aunt in me said: that Mr Salmond really should learn some manners. (Am clearly in a minority in this, since everyone else said he won, hands down. Cross aunt says: by yelling?)

HorseBack UK work. Quite pleased with the pictures from Blair.

A dream of more time. Always, always, more time.

But Stanley the Dog is sweet and funny and makes my mother smile at breakfast, which is always a shining and good thing.

Wonder where to buy jump-leads.

Think of books I have to read and things I must look up.

Faint sense of relief that it is very average racing today, so I do not need to have a bet. The memory of dear Beacon Lady from yesterday sustains me.

Feel faintly guilty that this blog is written in cheap and intermittent telegraphese. Have I no deep thoughts for you?

Must make soup.

Sometimes I think the story of my life is: must make soup.

Suppose it could be a worse story.


No time for the camera today, so here is a quick blue hill and a beautiful red girl:

26 Aug 1

26 Aug 2

Monday, 25 August 2014

A small thought on happiness.

The blog may be a little spotty in the next couple of weeks as I am up against a hard deadline and my brain is about to explode. Forgive me.

Today though, it turns out I do have one small thought.

This weekend I went to the Blair Castle International Horse Trials, as part of my work for HorseBack UK. The team did a mighty demonstration there, and it was my job to record it.

Blair is in one of the most ravishing parts of Scotland. I drove through the indigo and purple glories of Perthshire, with the glancing early morning sun shining ancient and amber over the folded hills. I have not been to a three-day-event since I was a child, and it was rather thrilling to see so many powerful and supremely fit equine athletes.

The worry always in this kind of situation is that I should look at the gleaming stars and think of my scruffy, muddy mare back in her quiet field, and feel inadequate. Why were we not winning silver cups and red rosettes? Why was she not getting the first prizes which she deserves?

I’ve been thinking about happiness lately. I have read quite a lot about the science of happiness (it really appears that such a nebulous concept is now being codified) and I have, you will be amazed to hear, several theories of my own. Most of the theories, you will be even more amazed to hear, revolve around love and trees.

My enduring line is that high expectations are the enemy of happiness. I think what I really mean by this is unrealistic expectations, or wrong expectations. Comparing yourself upwards and wanting what you don’t have both factor in to this equation. Why am I not like this? Why can I not have that? More and more, I come back to the immediate, and the small. Love what you have. Cherish what is, not what might be.

Because I’ve been thinking of all this, I had no batsqueak of longing, when I saw the Blair stars. They do what they do, and the red mare does what she does. She does not need a silver challenge cup, since she is the holder of the perpetual trophy which lives in my heart. She does not need to prove herself with prizes. She is perfect just the way she is.

Instead of wondering why we were not jumping and competing and doing dressage and winning things, I noticed the qualities Red has which those brilliant competitors perhaps do not. She needs no fancy tack. No martingales or drop nosebands or Pelhams for her. She goes sweetly within herself in a rope halter. She will come to a dead stop from a fast canter if I say the word ‘and’. (This has happened by accident. I was teaching her whoa, and I always prefaced it by and, so now ‘and’ is all she needs. She is that clever.) She can free-school with such astonishing precision that she will now do transitions from my body alone. I merely raise my energy for a trot and lower it for a walk. (It is at this point that the crazed voices in my head start shouting MIRACLE HORSE!!!!!)

But actually, even that is not required for happiness. Of course I love that she can do all these things. I am so proud of her on some days that I feel my entire body might just take flight, and soar away over the Scottish hills. Yet, the happiness part is more earthed, more humble, more ordinary than what she can do. It lies in what she is: in her gentle presence, her kind face, her horsey horsiness.

It lies in these pictures. This is what she does when I arrive at the gate each morning. She looks up, thinks, nods, seems quietly pleased, and mooches over, with her eyes bright and her ears pricked. This is not one of the many things I have taught her to do. She just does it. She is a mare at ease with herself and her human. That, that, is the gift; that is what makes my heart sing.

I’m not sure there is a secret to happiness. I’m not sure there is supposed to be. But if ever anyone were to ask me advice on the subject, I would say: think small. It is in the very small that some of the greatest joy is found.

My morning love:

28 Aug 10

28  Aug 11

28 Aug 13

28 Aug 14

And here are the majestic Perthshire hills, through which I was lucky enough to drive on Saturday, and which also bring me simple joy:

25 Aug 1

25 Aug 2

25 Aug 3

25 Aug 4

25 Aug 6

25 Aug 9

PS. Here is another small story about taking delight in the ordinary things. There is a horse I adore called Beacon Lady. She is not a famous horse, and she will never make the front page of the Racing Post. But she is tough and willing and she has a fabulous quirk: she only likes Brighton and Epsom. Those two courses are where she does all her winning.

Her connections recently put her up in grade, out of the unremarkable handicaps she had been winning, and she had the slight humiliation of trailing round behind  much, much better horses. Today, she was back at her own level. Still, there were good reasons to think she would not win, and the bookmakers reflected this when they priced her up at 10-1 first thing. I whacked a tenner on her out of love and loyalty. If I did not back her, she would of course know, and never forgive me. (You see how well my battle against magical thinking is going.)

It was raining so hard that the cameras could hardly see the start through the gloom. Beacon Lady did her usual thing of loping round right at the back, about twelve lengths off the pace. Even though I am used to her doing this, I did not take it as the most brilliant sign. Then her good jockey switched her to the middle of the track, so she had plenty of room, and sent her for home. The sweet girl lifted her head, as if to say: I’m at EPSOM, my favourite place in the world. She put her sprinting shoes on, and scorched through the mud and murk, leaving the rest flailing in her wake.

I’m not supposed to be watching the racing today. I’m far too busy writing 2332 words. But I stopped the clocks for Beacon Lady, who will never trouble the headline-writers, but who is always above the fold in my heart. A handicap at Epsom in the rain on a Monday is virtually the definition of a small thing. It will have me smiling for the rest of the day.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

An afternoon off. Or, York Glory.

Even though I am running up to deadline and my shoulders are around my ears and there are not enough hours in the day, today I am taking the afternoon off. I have written 1060 words, and done some editing, and now my desk is cleared, and I am going to watch the racing at York. Because it is Australia Day.

Australia is a mighty chestnut, as red as my red mare, but twenty times as fast. He has a sprinkle of stardust about him, and he’s coming back from a nice summer rest to, I hope, delight me again with his power and speed and brilliance.

There is also a horse running today who lives in my heart: the charming, compact grey that is Kingston Hill. I fell in love with him last season not because he is so talented, but because he is so nice. It’s an odd thing to say about a top-flight racehorse, but it is true. His good character shines out of him like a sudden shaft of sunshine on a cloudy day. Even when he was a baby, he took the hurly burly of victory with a touching equanimity, a lovely matter-of-fact getting on with it attitude. I suspect he is a stoic. I hope he gets his moment of glory this afternoon.

I’m going to go and sit with my mother, and we shall watch the dazzling equine beauties soar over the Knavesmire, one of the loveliest tracks in Britain. The Yorkshire crowd is famously one of the greatest in the world, warm and enthusiastic and knowledgeable. And the Ebor meeting always gathers a feast and festival of thoroughbred talent. I adore it.

As I watch, I shall think of my sweet girl, bred to win the Oaks, her pedigree packed with storied names, and how she trundled round at the back in her racing days. I think she just never saw the point of it. This morning, she was going so lightly that I offered her a gallop. She thought for a moment of putting her sprinting shoes on. I watched her ears flicker, and felt the mighty engine start to rev up. ‘Come on,’ I said, ‘you can go.’ And then the dowager duchess reasserted herself, and she decided on a nice stately canter instead, bouncing gently over the emerald grass, complete within herself, not needing to prove anything to anyone. At York, her fleeter cousins will be hitting top speeds of forty miles an hour, every sinew stretched, every muscle bunched, every ancestral voice reminding them of their will to win. And my slow old girl will be dreaming happily in her field.

I feel there is almost some kind of parable in that, but I’m not sure what it is. It makes me smile, that is all.

20 Aug 1


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