Thursday, 8 December 2016

The astonishing power of the single step backwards.

At this very minute, the wisest thing I know is: take a step back.

It doesn’t sound like much, does it? I am clearly taking my obsession with the small things to sub-atomic levels. In fact, this one is huge.

I always sort of knew about taking that step back. Take a deep breath, look at the thing in context, understand what it is really about, refuse to enter the three act opera, let it go. Yada, yada, yada. I knew all that but somewhere deep inside I didn’t always believe in all that or could not apply all that or even thought buggery bollocks to all that.

And suddenly, without realising it, I have become The Queen of Stepping Back and it has made more of a difference to my life than I could have imagined.

I realised this morning, as something charged towards me which would normally send me into a tailspin but didn’t, that I was stepping back without even thinking about it. Over the last few months, I’d built a habit of stepping back. I’d tried it out with the stupid, irrelevant things, like someone being rude on the internet. I’d tried it out with slightly more important things, like professional troubles. I’d tried it out with really big things, things that bish and bash my heart.

And finally, when a grand test arrived, I found myself doing it without thinking and there it was – that crucial sense of distance, so that the swirling vortex did not pull me in but went on spinning away without sucking me into it.

This is really very surprising. I’ve spent half my life getting sucking into the vortex. And now, there it is, having to do without me.

Taking a step back can sound slightly passive, even disengaged. I don’t mean it like that. I think it’s very active and very robust. You make a choice. You can rush in, hurl yourself into the drama, try to change the things you cannot change, take everything personally, get yourself into a state. Or you can step back so you can see the whole picture and decide that the absolutely lovely thing is it is not your picture. And in one bound, you are free.

It takes, I have discovered, a lot of practice. You do have to build the mental habit. There are no fairy wands and wafts of stardust, not in this lifetime. But if you put in the effort, one day you may find yourself, to your rank astonishment and incredulous delight, stepping back instead of dashing forward, on the sturdy floor instead of on the mad ceiling, in the real world rather than in the created vortex.

It helps if you have help. Four friends were magnificent today, as if they had entered some kind of magnificence competition and were doing it for a bet. Two were magnificent on the telephone and two were magnificent in life. They were funny and understanding and kind and big of heart and authentic and wise and true. The red mare was magnificent. The brown mare was magnificent. The dogs were at their most antic and comical. Even the dear old Scottish sun came out, defying the weather forecast.

I’m not so bonkers as to think I have cracked the secret of the universe and may rest on my laurels. I’ll get caught in mistakes and wrong constructions and pointless tangles. I'll end up crying when I could be laughing. But today, in a situation where once I would have been trapped, I was free, and I wanted to write that down. Something actually worked. I adore it when things work, and I hang out all my metaphorical flags in astonishment, in delight, in relief.

Monday, 5 December 2016

A symphony of small things.

It was minus seven this morning and the world was white and still and petrified. The dogs leapt and flew and soared along the line of the burn, rejoicing in the vivid scents, barking hilariously at the flappy old heron, chasing imaginary creatures only they can see. Down in the field, the horses were as unmoving as the rock of ages, fluffing up their coats against the cold, peacefully gazing into the amber light.

I did HorseBack work. The light was so extraordinary that my pictures looked as if they had been taken by someone who knew what they were doing. I felt absurdly pleased.

Back to the field for the farrier. I love the farrier. The red mare loves the farrier. She rests her head on the farrier’s back and goes to sleep. We discuss horses and hooves and family and marriage and Christmas. The farrier smiles a blinding smile. ‘I love Christmas,’ she says.

Then: work, work, work, work. My heart lifts at a good paragraph and then sinks at some sloppy repetition. I get caught on favourite phrases, turning them over and over again until they mean nothing. Be strict, I tell myself, strictly.

Someone does something very kind for me. She does the favour without making it out to be a favour, which is an act of elegance. I express my gratitude and then we laugh a lot and I feel the twist of luck that there is generosity flying about. There is a practical generosity and a generosity of spirit, so that is two for the price of one.

I ring two old friends. We discuss this and that, and the other thing, and mostly exchange ineffable expressions of fondness. I notice that as we all get older we speak more of the love, instead of expecting the other person to know, to read between the lines. I think it is an effect of mortality. We have all been to funerals now; we all have friends who are sick; we all know about staring down the gun barrel of mortality. Life is crazy fast, and if you don’t say the love now it will be too late.

The gloaming falls, blue and serene, with a tiny delicate new moon suspended over the lime avenue. The dogs dance in the gloaming just as they danced in the dawn.

A little more work, I think, coming inside into the warm, and then I’m done.

A symphony of small things, I think, each smaller than the other, each vital to this human heart. 

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Sire De Grugy: the love.

At three o’clock this afternoon, the Tingle Creek will be run at Sandown. It’s one of the most exciting races in the calendar, run at a furious gallop over fences which test chasers to their limits. Sandown has a famous sequence of seven fences in the back straight, which come up in quick succession. Jockeys always say that if you get the stride right at the first one, the horses will pick up perfectly down the line. Miss that crucial stride, and you’re in trouble. It requires class, accuracy and courage and it has been won by some of the greatest names in racing, from Desert Orchid to Moscow Flyer, Kauto Star to Sizing Europe, Master Minded to Sprinter Sacre. That is a roll call of dazzling brilliance.

Today, one of my favourite horses, Sire De Grugy lines up to defend his crown. He won the race in 2013 and then again in 2015 but after that he slightly lost his way. Instead of ones and twos by his name, there were suddenly sevens and eights. Perhaps he’d had his glittering days, and was facing, as all horses do, a gentle decline as age caught up with him.

Then, a couple of weeks ago at Ascot, he was suddenly back, winning a good handicap off top weight. The old fella had life in him yet.

This afternoon, he’ll have the young pretenders snapping at his heels. The thrilling front-runner Un De Sceaux may be coming into his prime at the age of eight, God’s Own is in his pomp, and the exciting Ar Mad, the baby of the field, is stepping up from novice company where he drove all before him. My head says that it all might happen a bit quick for him. He’ll be eleven next month and this race is all about speed. My heart says perhaps the grand campaigner has one more great battle in him.

I love him because he’s an honest, brave horse who loves his racing. When he’s on song, he attacks his fences, ears pricked, all guts and glory. I love him because he is a family horse, trained by Gary Moore and ridden by his son Jamie, who describes the horse as his best friend. They do everything together. I love him because he’s owned not by a billionaire or a potentate, but by a group of working people whose enthusiasm knows no bounds, who are as gracious in defeat as they are charming in victory.

He may not win today, but I hope he runs his race and comes home safe. He’s given his fans so much pleasure and he owes us nothing.

And for the real racing aficionados, here is a bonus blog - 
Two years ago, Sire De Grugy won the Champion Chase at Cheltenham, and I wrote about that. These were the glory days, and I make no apology for reproducing the story here. On Saturdays, I always feel I can indulge myself on the blog. I adore this horse, and he deserves his hymn of praise.

Here it is, from March 2014:

There is a horse called Sire De Grugy, owned by a group of people who include plumbers and hairdressers, who only have this one horse. Compared to the mighty guns who arrive for the festival, the millionaires and billionaires with their shining strings of stars, these were relative underdogs. Yet, there was a serious chance that the rangy, athletic chestnut with the shining white blaze could step into the spotlight.

He’s been winning beautifully all season. On the book, he was the one to beat in the Champion Chase, the finest test of the two mile chaser. But the doubts started to swarm. He had been beaten twice at Cheltenham, and horses for courses is a cast-iron rule. Also, he had had a long season, running some races in heavy ground, which can take it out of even the finest athlete by the time spring comes around. And my own private worry was that he could be almost too bold over his fences, really attacking them, taking off a mile away, reaching over the birch with his raking front feet scything through the air. At Prestbury Park, at top speed, against the best, there is no room for error. I fretted that his very bravery might be his undoing.

The emotion was almost too much for me. He’s such a bright, bonny horse. He’s such a trier. His trainer and jockey are father and son, so there was the whole family romance of the thing. His owners are the most enthusiastic, happy, sporting bunch you could imagine. They had said before the race that it was enough just to be here. There is no greed or grasp in them. I wanted this result more than diamonds. I threw my cash on out of loyalty and love more than flinty judgement, and hid behind the sofa.

The sun shone. The parade started. There they all were, the stars: the clever, bright, bold equines, with their ears pricked, ready for the test to come. They were all so beautiful, so fit, so gleaming with health.

Jamie Moore settled Sire De Grugy back in the pack, as they went off at a furious pelt. It was an intelligent, instinctive, brave ride. He’s still a young jockey, but he did not panic. He let his fella get into a lovely rhythm, and did not hassle him. You could see the trust between horse and rider. But as the pounding hooves ate up the green turf, and the sinews stretched, and the race started to take shape, I worried. There was a lot of ground to make up.

Sire De Grugy had his sensible hat on today. He did not take chances. He fiddled a couple, and then jumped neatly and economically, out of his stride. He seemed to know that this was not the time for showboating.

And suddenly, miraculously, he was the only horse in the race, coming to the last with a ton in hand, romping away up the hill, as if it were his favourite place in the world. He won going away, like a really, really good horse.

The place erupted. My mother and I, who had been shouting our heads off, hugged each other and burst into synchronised tears. At the course, hats and newspapers were flying through the air. ‘I love him to pieces,’ Jamie Moore said, falling on his horse’s neck. Jockeys are hard men, in body and spirit. But they are not ashamed to use the word love, because that is what it is. The losing riders gathered round him, clapping him on the back, kissing him on the cheek. Love was everywhere. It was a win that was richly deserved and properly celebrated.

As the horse and rider walked back to the winning enclosure, all the jockeys came out of the weighing room and formed a guard of honour to greet them. Sam Twiston-Davies and Aidan Coleman were hoisted onto shoulders, waving and smiling and laughing their heads off. I’ve never seen that, ever, in racing. My mother, who remembers Arkle and Mill House, has never seen that. There was something about this, perhaps because it was the underdog, perhaps because the Moores work so hard and really deserve it, perhaps because the horse himself has never quite had his due, that brought out an unprecedented reaction. All etiquette was flung aside, as the Duchess of Cornwall, presenting the cup, had a scarf in the owners’ colours draped round her neck. She too was laughing fit to bust. Everything was in chaos, as joy overtook the day.

It was one of the best things I ever saw in my life.

PS. I can't give you a Sire De Grugy photograph, because of copyright, so I've included a snap of my own red champion, furry and soft and dreaming in her Scottish field. 

Friday, 2 December 2016


Whack, whack, whack goes life, bashing me in the solar plexus. Take that. And that. And this. Here is an upper-cut to the jaw and there is a blow in the kidneys and there is a sucker punch.

Woo, I say, reeling backwards, all my defences down. Ah, I say, that hurt.

Keep smiling, I tell myself. Smile and smile and smile and take the blows.

I keep smiling.

Then I stagger away, bloody and bowed.

I quite often see posts and articles and memes on the internet which say that things can only hurt you if you let them. This is buggery bullshit. It is meant well. It is intended to be consoling. You have power over your own mind, says this encouraging school, and you can choose whether to take something to heart or not. You can choose to see the thing in perspective and to let it go and not to let it wound you. You are the captain of your soul and the mistress of your fate.

This is not true. It is nearly true. What you can do is learn to talk yourself down off the ceiling afterwards. You can learn to console yourself and to stop yourself obsessing and to bind up your own wounds. But you cannot prevent the wounds in the first place. No human is impervious. Hurt hurts. It’s what you do with it afterwards that matters.

I do work. Work is the thing. I do book work and HorseBack work. I update my red mare page and my happy horse page, which I set up to go with the book I wrote about, you will be amazed to hear, how to have a happy horse. On that Facebook page I put everything I know about keeping your dear equine peaceful and contented. So I feel in some tiny way that it is adding to the sum total of human happiness, and of horse happiness too.

I watch a race at Sandown and talk to a friend. I do not tell the friend about the punching and the biffing. No need to dwell on it, I think. Kick on.

I can fall into the beckoning pit of thinking: why now, why me, why that? Or I can examine myself for cuts and bruises and find that they are there but they are not fatal.

Hurt hurts, but it does not have to be the end of everything. And now I am going to walk the dogs and give the horses their hay and look at the gloaming and take a deep breath and start again.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Love and the Corn Laws.

This morning, I stood in a quiet Scottish meadow and talked about the repeal of the Corn Laws. This is possibly my favourite subject in the world and my kind friend The World Traveller was gracious enough to let me bang on about it.

The horses grazed on the end of their ropes, not much interested in vested interests and the man of principle that was Sir Robert Peel.

Then we talked about ten different things: children, and family, and our weaknesses and strengths, and the importance of manners, and how there is never enough time.

Afterwards, as I went back to my desk, I thought: I should start every day like that. Laughter and interesting chat and the balm of human sympathy can take a dull day and dazzle it with metaphorical sunshine. One good person can banish all the frets and worries and low level anxieties. There is something almost miraculous about that and I don’t take it for granted.

I did book work and then HorseBack work and then went on an epic six mile ride along the Dee valley on my red mare and she was so bright and brave and fine that I almost fell off with delight and gratitude. I whooped into the air and fell on her neck with love and told her, over and over, how mighty she is. She blinked her sweet eyes and let me get it all out of my system.

Outside, the sky is the colour of violets and my house is very quiet. Both dogs are asleep. I type these words, looking for a good place to finish. Love, I think. Today was all about love. Love, and gratitude. Two people, one human and one equine, made my ordinary life extraordinary today, lifted my heart and made me think that everything will be fine and stopped me falling down the rabbit hole of worry. If you’ve got the love, I think, you can do anything. 

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

The critical voice is definitely suffering from low blood sugar.

Edit, edit, edit, edit.

Cut that bit, says the critical voice.

But I quite like that bit, I say, trying not to sound plaintive. And it’s about love.

Love, schmove, says the critical voice. All this love is giving me a headache. Couldn’t you be cynical sometimes? You know, a bit jaded and world-weary and funny. This is all so fucking earnest.

Oh, I say, in a very small voice.

You are, says the critical voice, in a rare access of generosity, quite funny in life, I suppose. You make people laugh in life. But the minute you start typing it’s all love and buggery trees and the meaning of sodding life.

Well, I say.

Lighten up, says the critical voice. Give the punters what they want, which is a good laugh.

Yes, I say, wondering when the critical voice will get her coat and leave for another party. The all-you-can-eat buffet is finished and the last of the good claret has gone and there must surely be other people she wants to bitch at somewhere else.

The door slams. I breathe a gusty sigh of relief. I stare beadily at my earnest tendency, which stares back, unblinking. But, it says, there is nothing else apart from love and trees. Oh dear, I think. I’m buggered. 

Friday, 25 November 2016

The ship sails on.

After yesterday’s horrors, I wake this morning in a different frame of mind. The sun is shining and I walk the dogs down to the burn. Scotland glimmers and gleams in the light. ‘Well,’ I think, slightly hilarious, ‘if this ship is sinking at least we shall go down singing.’

A kind man in the village does something for me which makes my life very, very much easier. Not only that, but he speaks generous words of sympathy and understanding. I stand, rather overwhelmed by his goodness, in his little shop in my gumboots and my hat and my muddy coat, listening to his words of wisdom.

‘Thank you,’ I say about five times, overcome with gratitude.

Down at the Co-op, a small boy is helping his grandmother with her shopping. He is perhaps eleven. He is wreathed in smiles, as if helping the old lady is all he wants to do in the world. I buy courgettes for soup and as I get to the car, I hurl them accidentally to the ground. I fiddle about with the keys and a voice behind me says: ‘Here you are.’

A smiling lady has picked the things up and is handing them to me. I am even more overwhelmed. Is the universe just sending me loveliness today, because it can? ‘That is so sweet of you,’ I cry. ‘Thank you so much.’ We beam at each other, as if we have a secret compact.
Back at the house, the lovely man from Scottish Fuels has arrived, despite his hectic schedule. ‘We might not be able to get to you till Monday,’ they had said, and I had resigned myself to a freezing weekend. ‘Oh, oh, oh,’ I warble, my voice now entirely out of control. ‘You came. That is so, so good of you.’

He too smiles. Everyone today is smiling at me. ‘Not a problem,’ he says, cheerfully. He looks at my three jumpers and my hat and my boots and smiles even more. ‘Now you can take the jumpers off,’ he says. I am quite bored of sitting at my desk in my hat and my boots and my three jumpers. ‘Yes,’ I cry, ‘I really can. All thanks to you.’

The horses are happy in the sun and my kind friend has done all the hard work, putting out the haynets and filling up the frozen water trough. It is as if dear elves have come in the night and fixed everything up, so all I have to do is stand with the magnificent creatures and do the love. The little brown mare in particular wants the love, and when I turn to go, she follows me, to get some more. I give her more. There is no end to the love.

I work and work and work. Yesterday, I felt as if I were getting nowhere and that all the words were pointless. Today, the sentences made me smile and some of them were even quite good.

And then, as I pass the side door, I see a small package that has fallen behind a chair. A friend has sent me a proof copy of her book. ‘Oh,’ I say, to Stanley the Dog, who was hoping it was Bonios. ‘Just look at that.’

I’ll just read the first page, I think. Just a quick peek. Ten minutes later, I am conscious of a slight crick in my neck. I look up. I have read twenty-two pages, standing in the hall, my head bent in concentration and delight. It’s a beautiful book, funny and fascinating and true. It’s the real thing. And this good writer went to the trouble to send it. So much goodness and kindness, I think, in a haze.

Yesterday, everything went to hell. Today, everything went to heaven. I still don’t really know how or why that happens. All I do know is that I feel very, very glad, and soothed to my soul. On we bugger, the dear equines and the dancing dogs and I, up and down and round the houses, sometimes on a stormy sea, sometimes over a ravishing calm. This dear old ship is a bit creaky, and it sometimes leaks, and it is not in its first flush of newness and youth, but it does keep sailing on.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Not even soup for supper.

No riding today as the ground is too hard. It’s been minus six every morning for a week. The light is ravishing and Scotland glitters and gleams, pristine and white with hoar frost, but it’s no weather for working a horse.

This gives me extra writing time. I work and work and work. Suddenly, instead of feeling a holy sense of achievement, I grow furious and frightened. All this thinking, all this typing, all these words, will they ever add up to anything? Will the agent ever ring with that good telephone call? I hunch my shoulders, suddenly terrified that I will never be able to make this into a proper, grown-up job. I spend so much time counting my blessings and looking at the beauty and searching for the silver linings and concentrating on the small things and trying to be a half-decent human and, all at once, despite all this striving, everything falls apart.

I feel the fear and despair run through me like an ache, like a blow. Oh, bugger, I think; this again. It comes from time to time, often when I am least expecting it. I know every day can’t be Doris Day, but really, do we have to go through this again?

It’s probably because you are cold, says my kind, sensible voice.

I forgot to ring the nice oil people (they really are very nice and always deliver incredibly quickly and with a beaming smile) and so the heating is off and I’m sitting in three jumpers and a hat and my gumboots in the office with one convection heater battling the chill. That battle is not being won.

Yes, says the sensible voice, you are cold and you’re a bit tired and you’re missing your mother and you’ve only got yourself to rely on and you are responsible for the hay bill and sometimes that’s all a bit much. It’s only human, says the sensible voice, to have a bad day from time to time.

Fuck that for a game of soldiers, says the furious voice, who is eight years old and has had too much sugar. I’m just spinning my wheels and everything is gone to hell and each time I look at the internet there’s that scary and clever financial gentleman who says that Britain is going into its worst economic crisis for seventy years. And who is going to have money for buying books then? We are doomed, yells the furious voice, and there’s no point to anything.

Are we extrapolating a fraction too far? says the pedantic voice, who has been in a bit of a state ever since a top writer misplaced a modifier this morning. (This feels like the world gone mad to the pedantic voice.)

You could always make some nice soup, says the sensible voice.

Soup!!!! I suddenly remember that I put on some celery soup to simmer this morning before I barricaded myself in the office with the heater. I rush to the kitchen. There, tragically, smelling of burnt dreams, are the charred corpses of my little chopped celery sticks. They huddle in the scorched pan, looking slightly apologetic, as if they really didn’t mean it.

Now I can’t even have soup, I think. I am fifty years old and I can’t remember to take the pan off the hob. It’s bread and water for supper and no more than I deserve.

We could list your blessings, says the sensible voice, hopefully; that will make you feel better. Bugger that, I say. I know that I could talk myself off the ceiling, I know that thoughts define my reality, I know all the things I should and could do. I wrote a whole bloody book about all those things. But you know what? I’m livid and I’m having a shitty day and I can’t be arsed. I’m just going to stare into the middle distance and be furious and you can damn well stop trying to make me feel better.  

The sensible voice and the pedantic voice are now going shopping, because they’ve just remembered that there is something on special offer. Either that, or they’ve run away to join the circus and I don’t blame them. And I’m going to sit here in my hat and feel crappy for a bit. That is my plan.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

The tiny triumphs.


A grand day. The sun shone, and a dear friend and I took both mares out for a walk and stood in the sloping meadow looking out over the hill and talked and talked and talked. The dogs had already been dancing along the burn with their small friend who is four years old. ‘Where has that Darwin gone?’ she asked sternly, slight exasperation in her voice.

I did a lot of work and then had a huge ride with our training partners in the Wobbleberry Challenge. This was mighty on at least eight different levels. It was hard exercise for mind and body, it had some moments of pure beauty in it so that I cried out into the bright air with admiration and pride, and the red mare remembered that her grand-sire did in fact win the Derby and put her racing shoes on for a moment and I felt her power. That power used to frighten me; now it no longer does. Come on, old lady, I said, we are both far too advanced in years for such nonsense. And then she settled herself and reverted to her usual dowager duchess self and the ancestral voices that were singing in her head stopped their siren song.

It was a day of achievements. They are all very small, in the ways of the wide world. In my world, they are vast, and they make me smile as I think of them. A triumph can still be a triumph, even if it is so tiny that it can hardly be seen by the human eye. Record those little victories, I think, so that when the failures come, you can go back and read and remember.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

The beauty versus the ugliness. I choose the beauty.

I heard something very, very ugly on the wireless today. I was going to write about it. I started writing about it. And then something in me died a little, and I turned away.

I did my work. At the moment, I’m beginning a new project which has actually been requested by my agent. For the last two years I’ve been doing everything on spec, which means I write and write and write and the agent says, well, yes, very nice, but we need more changes and a bit of this and a bit of that and I wrangle away with version after version and then nothing gets published and I want to go and live in a barrel.

This one is an idea which we cooked up together and is aimed at an actual gap in the market. It is a heart project and a commercial project. You may imagine my delight.

Part of the new project involves going back and looking at old writing. I’m going to use some of the old writing for the new book, which also delights me as I hate waste. As I was rummaging around in the archives this morning, I found a conversation I had written down with my smallest and most adored cousin. It took place two years ago, and I have absolutely no memory of it.

Thank goodness for the blog, I think, smiling as I read the words. Thank goodness that I listen to those lunatic voices in the head which yell at me: write it down, write it down. Thank goodness this little piece of loveliness has been preserved.

I heard something very ugly and it shocks me still. I’m putting up something beautiful and sweet and funny and true against it. Everyone fights ugliness in their own small ways. This is mine.

Here it is, from November 2014:

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 glorious 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, with interest: ‘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.
            ‘Do you know how the Germans started the Second World War?’
            I’m on slightly surer ground now.
            ‘They invaded Poland?’ I hazard, trying to remember what would count as the definitive starting gun. ‘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.

Monday, 21 November 2016

An ordinary Monday.

Minus seven this morning. The water trough is sadly empty, containing nothing but doleful ice crystals. I ferry buckets of hot water back and forth in the car whilst the red mare serenely eats her breakfast. My oldest friend calls from the south and says that it is raining so hard that when she goes out to the car to do the school run it is like someone has emptied a bucket of water over her head. I look up at the limpid blue sky and feel grateful. It might be cold, but it is so beautiful that I need new names for beauty. Then the oldest friend makes me laugh so much that I can’t breathe. She can do this out of nowhere, turning on a sixpence like a London taxi. If I wrote down the actual words she said, you would not laugh at all. It’s all in the timing and the tone. It’s in the thirty years we have been best friends. I laughed and laughed, doubling over, slapping my legs like a character in a cartoon.

The world is very mad at the moment, but that extraordinary human can make me laugh as if everything were bonny and blithe. That sounds like a small thing, but I believe it is a big thing. I think it is a huge thing. I sometimes think it is everything.

I talked to a few friends today. We spoke of politics and children and fear and family life and our own flaws and the songs of Aimee Mann and the Scottish light and dogs and the oddities of the internet and Iceland. They are very good at subjects, the friends. They are always interesting. They make me feel better than I am. This is an absurd gift and they give it, easily, naturally, without asking for anything in return.

I edit ninety pages of a new project. There always must be a new project. My brain stretches and creaks as the dogs doze in the warm house.

The light fades. The sky grows translucent and beckoning, as if it is trying to tell me the secret of the universe. I must go and do the horses, I think. I must put out the hay. The secret of the universe can wait.

Saturday, 19 November 2016

A very remarkable thing. Or, memories of Kauto Star.

Five years ago, on a gloomy day at Haydock, something very remarkable happened. At that time I was in the aftermath of my father’s death,staying with my cousin in the south and doing things with her children, and I never could tell what day of the week it was. I was so immersed in family life that I had completely forgotten that it was the Betfair Chase and that Kauto Star was running. I’m not sure I even knew it was a Saturday.

Once I opened the paper and saw it was a day for the titans, I made the whole family watch. The youngest was three. I explained to them all about Kauto Star and his glory days and how he was getting on a bit now and people were saying he was past his best and that Long Run, the young pretender, was coming to take his crown. I explained that all horses have their time at the top and his had been glorious but that it was probably in the past. I told them that quite a lot of people were, in a slightly bossy way, saying that Paul Nicholls should retire the grand old warrior.

Interestingly, I was not in this camp. Eleven is old for a champion, but it’s not that old, and it was Kauto Star, and Nicholls wouldn’t be sending him out to disgrace himself. And then I got cross about the doubters, because I always get cross about the doubters, and I bashed twenty quid each way on for love and loyalty and the old times we had had together. I think I fully expected that he would finish second or third and I’d have a bit of a shout and get my money back.

And that was when the something remarkable happened, and it really was remarkable, and I’ve never been so glad that I wrote something down. I wrote it all down, every word, and I’m reproducing it here in memory of a great horse, perhaps one of the greatest, who made me laugh and made me cry and made me catch my breath in awe and wonder. I miss him still, as if he were an old friend, gone too soon. But nothing can take away the memory of that extraordinary day.

This is what I wrote, in 2011:

It started off as a very ordinary day. The sun was muddling through an autumn mist. The Pigeon was looking very regal. We went to watch the Godson do some riding. There was delicious chard from the garden for lunch. I am always rather amazed that anyone would have a garden with delicious chard in it.

Then, I noticed in the paper that Master-Minded and Kauto Star were both running today, at Ascot and Haydock. I have been so out of touch that I had not realised this was happening. For those of you who don’t follow National Hunt Racing, this is a bit like Vanessa Redgrave and Judi Dench appearing on stage together.

They are not only two magnificent champions, but they are real old troupers. Master Minded is not actually that old, only eight, but he’s been racing in this country since he was four, so it feels as if he is an enduring fixture.

What is interesting about him is that people have often been keen to write him off. If you look at his figures, you find an extraordinary list of victories: 13 out of 18 races in Britain won. I think it was that when he first started winning big races he did it in a way people hardly ever see. He would demolish highly talented fields as if they were a bunch of selling platers. He would jump and gallop everything into the ground with soaring disdain. He was so much better than everything else it almost felt embarrassing. He would win at Cheltenham by 19 lengths, and pull up as if he had only just gone for a mild training canter.

So it did not even take for him to get beat for people to start sucking their teeth and saying he was not really as good as all that. If he won a race by 9 lengths instead of 19, the knowing sages would nod their heads and all but tap their noses and say he was on the decline.

I’ve always stuck with Master Minded, because I haven’t seen that many horses as truly majestic as he in my lifetime, and it’s almost as if I want to reward him for that brilliance by keeping faith with him. (I’m a bit sentimental about racing, in a way of which my late father would certainly not approve; when it came to betting he was flinty as a hedge fund supremo.) As a result, I’ve lost a bit of cash on him over the years, but I’m a great believer in putting my money where my mouth is.

He lost his last race: he looked lovely on the first circuit, flat on the second, got fairly easily beaten. My twenty quid went down the drain. Never mind. I was not down-hearted. There is a thing about very great champions, a mystery, an enigma that will never quite be solved: some days, the world-beater shows up, some days, it’s just a very good horse, who can be beaten by something else on its top form. I still thought the real Master Minded would pitch up later in the season.

And then there is Kauto Star. He is eleven, which is old, in racing years. Not geriatric, but a sure veteran. The young pretender, Long Run, had come last season and taken the Gold Cup. Worst of all, he had usurped Kauto Star’s crown in the race he had made his own, the King George at Kempton. Bear in mind Kauto is the only horse in history who had won that race four times in a row, the last time by over 30 lengths, against some of the best chasers in the country.

He is the mightiest and most beloved champion since Desert Orchid: first horse ever to win a Gold Cup, lose a Gold Cup, and come back to regain it; first horse ever to win fourteen group one races. There was a time when he seemed almost unbeatable. In his early days, he used to put in terrifying mistakes, quite often over the last fence when it seemed as if he had everything sewn up; in his later years, he could put in exhibition rounds, making such mighty leaps that it seemed as if he had wings.

The thought was, though, that his great days were all behind him. People were muttering about retirement. Today, he was facing three tough miles, up against much younger horses, at least four of whom had big wins under their belts. He might fall, be pulled up, get tailed off; the talk was that if he did not run well today, he would be retired on the spot, and that is the last we would all see of him.

I’m going to give both my heroes another chance, I thought. I got distracted by children’s lunch, and did not get my bet on Master Minded on in time. Still, it was a great delight to watch him prove his knockers wrong, and trot up, back to his talented best.

Then there was an hour before Kauto. I’ll just put on a little twenty, I thought, mostly out of love. I was not sure he could do it. Long Run is a very, very good horse. I was acting on sentiment. Then I got a bit more forensic. Paul Nicholls had trained Kauto to the minute for this race; Long Run would be being saved for later in the season, and often does not run well first time out. I’ve always thought there is a little question mark over his jumping; he can go a bit flat and careless.

I examined the form. There were definite drawbacks over another of the two main dangers. Sod it, I thought; this really could be Kauto’s moment. Five minutes before the race, I put on another twenty. Sod them all, I thought: my boy is not done yet.

I explained some of all this to the children. They got very excited. They watched the quick replays of his earlier triumphs that Channel Four was showing, and decided they loved him. ‘Come on Kauto,’ they said.

Off the horses went. Kauto Star was jumping very well, but almost too stupidly well, standing off outside the wings. I was worried he would take too much out of himself. The lovely Ruby Walsh, his regular jockey, took him to the lead, and kept him there. He can’t stay in front for three miles, I thought, not at his age. But he kept pinging his fences, and was bowling along as if he did not have a care in the world. Ruby was so relaxed half the time he seemed to be riding with just one hand. It was delightful to see the two old pros in such perfect tune with each other.

‘Maybe he can do it,’ I said.

‘Come on, Kauto,’ cried the children.

‘No,’ I said. ‘He can’t do it. It’s too much to ask.’

But Long Run was making mistakes, and running a little ragged. Kauto was collected and foot perfect. He’ll fade, I thought. The younger fellas will come and pick him up.

Into the last four fences. I was on my feet. ‘Come on my son,’ I shouted.

‘Come on, Kauto,’ yelled the children.

The Pigeon was also on her feet, barking her head off, which is what she always does when I shout at the racing.

Three out. Kauto Star still in the lead, against all the odds. At this stage, I actually jumped onto an armchair and started bawling my head off. ‘Come on, you beauty, ‘ I yelled.

The Pigeon was jumping up and down on all fours.

‘Come on, come on,’ shouted the children.

The younger horses were gathering themselves for their final effort. Ruby still had not asked Kauto the question. ‘Oh just steady,’ I shouted. ‘Just stand up.’

The heavenly Ruby Walsh kept the old horse balanced and straight and steady, using only hands and heels, preserving all his energy for the final push. Everyone else was scrubbing away. I suddenly thought the mighty champion could do it.

Over the last, everything else faded away. Kauto was tired, but he’s not only a once in a generation talent, he’s got enormous courage. He does not give up. He just went on galloping to the line, brave and true, seven lengths in front.

The crowd went nuts. Paul Nicholls jumped in the air for joy. Ruby Walsh fell on the horse’s neck, hugging him. I was shouting and crying. The children were yelling Yes, yes. The Beloved Cousin looked at me in amazement. ‘He looks as if he could go round again,’ she said.

The King was back in his castle. He walked back to the winning enclosure, his ears pricked, his head held high. The crowd gave him three cheers, twice. No one could quite believe it. It was one of the best things I ever saw in racing.

So, it went from an ordinary day to an extraordinary double from two remarkable horses. I wish my dad had been here to see it.

Friday, 18 November 2016

Finding the balance.

The sun shines, brightly, bravely, from a sky the colour of periwinkles. Out in the field, the red mare is happy and mighty. We ride around like old ranch-hands. I throw my arms in the air and whoop at the universe.

This week has been up and down and round the houses. I have had to remind myself that everyone has their view, their vision, their path. I feel the things I feel so intensely that I sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that everyone sees the world as I do. I tell myself that false expectations are the enemy of happiness, and then I expect something all the same. The expectation is not met, and I feel as crushed as a small child who has dressed up in her best party frock, only to be told that she looks silly.

Not everyone, I think, is going to exclaim in delight when you tell them something that has made you so proud and happy that you thought your ears were going to fall off. Sometimes, the reaction will be an odd look, a kindly laugh, a faintly puzzled lift of the eyebrow. But I tell myself, that does not mean that the thing itself is diminished. The thing is still the thing, existing gloriously in the world, even if it is only in your world. And, I say firmly, with my grown-up hat on, you did not do it for praise or reward; you did not do it for claps on the back and marks out of ten. You did it because you love it.

I’m doing a lot of deep breathing. Let it all go, I tell myself. It’s been a funny, scratchy week, with little darts thrown at the heart. That’s fine. That’s what life is. Slings and arrows of outrageous fortune; the sorrows that flesh is heir to. It’s about balance, I think. Did the good balance the bad? Yes, it did. The beloved creatures were happy and beautiful; some work was done; there was a HorseBack day; the sun shone and the trees glimmered in the last of their autumn motley and I went and looked at the indigo hills. This morning, I saw the brave blue of the Dee, far below me as I hung on to the sturdy trunks of two silver birches, flashing at me like a beacon of hope.

Two old friends called, two of the oldest and the finest, two of the ones who go back over all the vicissitudes of thirty years. I hear the reassuring strength in their kind voices, laugh at the ancient jokes only we can understand, feel appreciated and got. Sometimes I think all anyone needs is to be got.

There is the kindness of strangers too, the generosity of people I may never meet who take the time to say nice things on the internet. The internet can be the Wild West, but it can be a place of consolation and kindness too.

The balance balances itself, delicately poised. The needle quivers, and comes to rest in the positive side of the dial. There is enough, I think. Stare hard at the beauty, hold hard to the luck, concentrate hard on never taking one single good thing for granted. That will do.

Thursday, 17 November 2016


There is stuff at the moment. Stuff, stuff, stuff. I didn’t write the blog for a couple of days because I did not really know what to say about the stuff. It’s the same old stuff and it’s quite catastrophically dull. Don’t tell them about the stupid stuff, says the stern voice in my head. They’ve all got stuff of their own; they don’t need to hear about yours.

I feel a bit stuck. I get stuck sometimes. I’m like a car whose gears don’t work. I’m in neutral, gunning my engine, going nowhere.

As always, when this happens, the one place where everything moves and flows and is good and right is on the back of my red mare. Her power and glory gives me strength. She does not get stuck. She moves out into the green world with her authentic mind and her athletic body and when we’ve done some good work she flutters her enchanting eyelashes and goes to sleep. She is at one with herself. I sometimes gaze at her in awe and wonder and try to work out how she does it. She is her own absolute self at every moment of every day.

Some of the best things I learnt about life, I learnt from this horse. I learnt about giving rather than demanding, about kindness rather than impatience, about concentration rather than showing off. I learnt the value of steadiness and consistency and clarity. I learnt about category errors. I learnt not to take out my messy emotions on her. My nonsense is my nonsense, and it is not her job to make that better. (Although of course she does, simply by being her fine self.)

I always think: why can’t you take that best self out of the field and apply it to humans? When I am with that horse, I am a far, far better thing. Then I get back to my desk and my ordinary life and I grow flawed and scratchy. My frailties flock back like homing pigeons, the little buggers.

Everyone has stuff, says my kind, rational, adult voice. Everyone deals with it in different ways. It’s not failure. You don’t have to shut yourself up in the Cupboard of Shame. You are human, that is all, and this is life, and there’s a supermoon and strange things going on in American politics and you still really, really miss your mum. You are not impervious, nor should you be.

At least, I think, I have that one true thing. Every day, for a couple of hours, I know what it is to give myself utterly to the happiness and well-being of someone else, even if she has four legs and does not speak English and cannot do abstract thought. This is not selfless, because the happier she is the better she goes and the more delight I feel on her grand back. But it is an offering, rather than a taking, and I find that oddly important and consoling.

I can write a sentence, I think. I know what to do with the language of Shakespeare and Milton. I have dancing, antic dogs. I have the hills and the trees. They will all endure, whilst the stupid stuff will pass.

Everybody has stuff. It’s in the contract. There’s no point in trying to fight it or getting bent out of shape or sitting furiously in a room attempting to think it away. Open yourself to it and let it run through you and know that soon, soon, it will sail out to sea, off to another port of call.

Monday, 14 November 2016

Try for better things.

I snapped at someone today. I am very ashamed of myself. I did not say anything rude or unkind, but the tone of my voice was rough and impatient. I try so hard to be polite and I fear I was rude.

This horrid snapping voice tends to come when I am driven into the ditch. It’s a three strikes and you are out deal. I can take the first thing, I can grit my teeth at the second thing, but the third thing sends me into the rude voice. This is not a voice I want to have. It is not my voice, I always think; I am not that sharp, impatient person. Of course I am that person, on rare occasions. I can’t slide out of it so easily.

When you work a horse, you are always thinking about what it really going on. Did she leap in terror at that pheasant, or was it nothing to do with the absurd old bird at all? Had the worry been cooking for a while, and had you done nothing to let that worry out?

So, rather startled by my own flying pheasant, which was that horrid cross voice, I go back to see what was really going on.

Two things I really hate are being told what to do and negativity. Sometimes these come together, in a hideous pincer action, where unsolicited instructions are given in a voice of doom. I want to crawl away into a hole somewhere. I love the answer to be yes. Why not take a flier? Why not try that oddity? Why not cast out into the unknown? Well, say the doomy people, you can’t do that, or that, and that is going to be a problem, and that won’t work, and that’s a lot of nonsense. I am a lot of nonsense. I’m used to being a lot of nonsense. I’ve been nonsense for my entire life and it’s not going to change now. I sometimes can pretend to make perfect sense for short periods if I really concentrate, but nonsense and I are old, old friends. Mostly people laugh at this, kindly, not with too much mockery. Sometimes, they point it out ruthlessly and I feel all the air go out of my antic red balloon.

And because I am crushed and squished and crashed, I stomp my feet and use the horrid sharp voice, in instinctive defence.

But here is the thing. And I really do believe this. You can’t make other people do what you would love them to do. It is not their job to take care of your tender feelings. It’s lovely if they do, but those ones are your three best friends and you great-aunt Maud who understands everything. Most people are far too busy thinking about their own singed feelings and their own lost dreams and their own fragile desires to have much time to worry about your little three-act drama. So the snapping is not only unfair and rude, but irrational and pointless.

A small voice, deep in the recesses of my tangled brain, says: be the grown ups. Roll with the punches, says that voice. Know that you don’t always get what you want. Allow other humans to say what they say and think what they think and then carry on along your own primrose path. Wave and smile, says the wise voice, laughing a little. Every day is not Doris Day.

I called a friend after the terrible snapping incident and she laughed and sympathised and did not judge and disentangled the tangle with wisdom and grace and then told me such an excellent dog story that I almost fell off my horse. The red mare, who was practising for the Standing Still Olympics, flicked her ear back towards me, in easy pleasure. She adores the sound of human laughter.

There are always two choices, I thought, as I sent her into a rolling cowgirl canter. I can lash myself into a frenzy because I was ungracious and sharp, or I can see why it happened and use that knowledge to make it less likely in future. Knowledge is power, as I said to the vet today. I love going to the vet. We talk about Donald Trump as he examines my little brown mare and he understands that it breaks my heart that she is not right and he does not do the empirical dry scientific thing but allows space for emotion. It looks like we are not going to be able to fix her up as we had hoped, but are now in the stage of managing her condition. Although officially I am filled with purpose and hope for this new plan, perhaps I am sadder about that than I will allow. Perhaps that was partly why there was the sharp, snapping voice. Everything has a reason.

Humans are not perfect, I tell myself, sternly. They make mistakes and are not always their best selves. But they can try and hope for better things. That is my resolution of the day. Try for better things. It’s not splitting the atom, but it’s something. 


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