Friday, 29 July 2016

Rays of light.

Up and down and round the houses I go. Existential complications swarm at me like angry bees. But there are sudden, dazzling shafts of light. I go up to HorseBack to watch a man in a motorised wheelchair work a horse. There is nothing to bring one to a sense of perspective like seeing someone who has been paralysed at a young age rising above that catastrophic injury.

What was interesting about this particular man is that he was not doing any sort of gung-ho, watch me overcome schtick. He had a job, and he was going out to do it. He was matter of fact, low-key, and quite reticent. As I watched him work, I could see why he had been so brilliant at the rugby which eventually felled him. He was utterly focused, concentrating always on the next step, on what he could improve, on what he could learn better. You can’t not notice that someone is in a chair, but as he bonded with his horse, that chair faded into the background and the human spirit revealed itself. I became fascinated with him and impressed by him not because he was a man in a chair, but because he was a man with a mission.

In quieter, less dramatic waters, the great-nieces came this morning to ride. The middle niece rode the red mare off the lead rope for the first time and they forged a glorious new partnership. The oldest niece zoomed round an obstacle course with a blazing smile on her face. The baby niece, four years old, had her first sit on the mare and decided that the broad, mighty thoroughbred back was the place she was going to stay. We had some difficulty in persuading her to get off.

I feel tremendous pride in my horse at times like this. I’ve taught her a lot of things. She did not get as relaxed and soft as she is by eating magic beans. But her tenderness and dearness with the children is really to do with her own kind heart. She recognises precious cargo when she sees it, and she carries it with gentleness and loving care.

Those were the shining lights, illuminating the darkness. I’m struggling with some stuff. It’s complicated, messy, grievous stuff and it makes my heart ache. But there are good humans and good dogs and good horses and the dear old trees and hills which lift that bashed heart. I have a sort of percentage rule. I accept that life contains frets and sorrows and blows. I don’t shut my eyes to those, but try to run towards them. But as long as I have a decent ratio of goodness and kindness and laughter and beauty to balance them out, then I’m all right. If the percentages work out at around the sixty-forty mark, I’m fine. When we dip below fifty-fifty, I have to concentrate. I have to dig for the daily beauty, the one true thing, the shy silver lining, the elusive shaft of light. Sometimes, I don’t have to dig so hard. Sometimes the sun comes out, all on its own.

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

A cloud over the sun.

A tangle of intractable complications and sadnesses has me in its web. I think I am being tremendously stoical and putting on a good front, because I believe in stoicism and good fronts. In the end, I stand in the green field and tell a friend. She listens for a long time and then smiles kindly and says: ‘I had guessed.’ That good front, I think, needs work.

The friend is wise and true. She is a brilliant person for sorrows because she does not put on the pity face, or do the special voice, or tell me to butch up, or offer solutions. She just lets me get it all off my chest and then says something sage and then says something that makes me laugh. I feel profoundly soothed.

The tangle will get tighter and sadder over the next few days and then will loosen, a little. It is not made up of single spies, but of battalions. I stare very hard at the things of beauty in my daily life; the dancing dogs, the dear mares, the kind friends, the tall trees, the words written on the page. I squint beadily for silver linings, and there aren’t many, just now.

I always feel affronted by the bracing people who tell one to cheer up. There are things in life about which it is correct to be sad. One is not carved of pitiless marble. I hate dwelling and self-indulgence; I try not to wallow. But sometimes sad things happen and they make the heart ache and there is absolutely no point in pretending that they do not. 

Friday, 22 July 2016

The art of stillness.

I write 2872 words. Bash, bash, bash go my fingers on the keyboard. I see to the horses and walk the dogs and make my stepfather his breakfast and we talk about the madness that is Donald Trump.

Yesterday, I sat for forty minutes and listened to one of the most interesting men I know. Usually, when I see him I am in a rush. I have to get back to my desk, I have many miles to go before I sleep. I put my head round his office door, wave at him manically, perhaps stop for a couple of minutes of chat, explain why I must fly. Yesterday, I had twenty-seven things to do, but I made myself sit down and not think about any of those things. He started talking and I thought: oh, this is the good stuff. I thought: bugger the world, I’m going to get off. I actually concentrated on stilling and softening and opening my body language, so that it said: I am here, I am present, I am not thinking about what I have got to do next. I am listening to you and that is all.

It was a rather magical forty minutes. It was very quiet in that room, and there was just the interesting man, and his stories of things that I shall never know and can hardly imagine, and his vast store of knowledge. He is a seeker of knowledge, and he shares it with easy generosity, never showing off or trying to make a point or intent on making himself look good. He does look good, but not because he tries to. This lovely knowledge poured out and I kept still and mostly silent and merely tried to absorb as much of it as I could. I love the interesting people. The interesting people make it all worth it.

Oddly enough, I’d had some interesting stuff from the vet, earlier in the day. I’d taken the mares up to have their teeth done. One of them needed a post-operative wound treating. There was a bit of bad news and some fairly intricate treatment. I like to watch the vet at work and I like listening to him. But I could not be still and present in that situation, because all the frets swarmed round me like flies. My poor little mare, with her wound, and the threat of her bloody buggery sarcoids coming back, haunts me. I feel a little helpless and hopeless. Her wound is my wound. So, in reaction, I do a lot of nervy talking. I am tense as a guitar string. I take in some of the interesting stuff, but I can’t sit there and let it flow over me like I do with my friend in the quiet room, because I am too busy covering up emotion with pointless speech.

I always think the vet must think me a little bit nuts, on account of the pointless speech. I wish I could say: don’t pay any heed, it’s just that damn monkey mind, chattering fearful things in my ear. I wish I could explain that I can’t quite do the art of stillness when I’m fretting about that horse. I try to do matter of fact and hopeful and stoical, and sometimes I make a decent fist of it, but inside I’m wailing like a child.

She’ll be all right, that sweet horse. We’ll get her right in the end. And in the meantime, I shall go away and work on the art of stillness. I’m too damn old for the pointless speaking. 

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

The smiling men of Loch Muick.

Darwin the Dog sees two likely fellows and bounds over to make friends. There have been new people coming and going outside my window for a couple of weeks and I wonder what they are up to. Now the incurably friendly puppy has broken the ice, I can ask them.

They are smiling men, very young, probably just out of university. I grin at them from under my absurd, battered hat, and ask them what they are doing. ‘Oh,’ they say, beaming, ‘we are fixing the path at Loch Muick.’

Loch Muick is half an hour to the west. When I first came to live here, I used to drive about the country, looking in wonder at the mountains and the glens. I could hardly believe that if I took the road a mere twenty minutes to the north-west, I would find myself in proper wilderness, with not a house or a human for miles. On this crowded little island, this felt like a miracle.

I discovered Loch Muick by accident, since it is hidden away. I took a tiny road along the south of the Dee, and found myself twisting and turning through mossy plantations of silver birches, and then moving upward into dense pine forests. I was in the beginnings of a valley, tight and close, rather magical, like something out of the fairy tales of my childhood. Then, the road took a sudden turn and the glen opened out like a great book.

There it was, wild and wide and glacial, speaking vividly of its ancient beginnings. The floor of the valley was flat and expansive, with a river running through it in sapphire blue curves, and herds of deer gently grazing. I remember thinking that it had a look of South America about it; it was very familiar, but very foreign at the same time. The mountains rose up on either side in almost perpendicular folds, like grave guardians of this secret place.

At the end of the glen, there was a shining silver loch with its high sentinel cliffs and a sliver of bright beach at its eastern end. I stared and stared at it, in awe and wonder, astonished that I should have this much beauty on my doorstep.

Now, I don’t drive about the country. I have work to do, livestock to care for, my voluntary job, and family obligations. There is never enough time for life, let alone going on tour. But there were these smiling young men, going up into that fairy tale and making the path good, so that people can walk through the beauty without falling into potholes.

‘Do you know this country?’ I say.

‘No,’ they say, smiling more broadly than ever. ‘We come from Dumfries, we come from Edinburgh.’

They bend down to stroke Darwin, laughing at his antic disposition. I think how glorious it was that there are young people who came from Edinburgh to make the path at Loch Muick fine. I want to ask whether they are volunteers or on some kind of work experience or what. I feel goodness and kindness flowing out them in waves. I long to know why they have chosen this good job instead of any other.

But we all have to get on, so we smile some more and part ways, in great good humour with each other.

It was a tiny moment, but it gave a lustre and a gleam to my day. Afterwards, I felt glad that because of the blog, this small conversation would be written down and recorded. I would always have a memory of the grand young men, because I had put them into words. I would forget them otherwise. I have a sieve memory and too much of the important stuff tumbles through the holes. I want to remember this, I thought. In two, three, four years time, I want to be able to look back and think of those boys, by the side of that silver loch, making their path.

Saturday, 16 July 2016

Friendship and kindness and love.

As all the drawers are emptied, I take home each day small files and folders of papers. My mother kept everything. There are cards in wobbly childish writing saying: I love you Granny. There are notes from old friends, from her dear husband, even one from the Spanish Ambassador. (I can’t read the writing, so have no idea what that is about.) I can’t save them all. Sometimes I have to throw away things with words of love written on them. This feels like sacrilege. Do we find love so often that we turn it off the box?

In one of the piles, I find a flimsy telegram. It is typed in the faded capital letters of a lost time. It is very simple. It says: ‘You transformed a sad week into one S and I adored because of friendship kindness and love.’

I remember well the man who wrote that. He is one of the cohort of the great old gentlemen, the ones who remember the war. He was very sweet to me when I was a raw teen, doing the thing that the finest gentlemen do, which is treating me not as if I were a callow youth, but as if I were in fact the Spanish ambassador. (The father of the Beloved Cousin used to do the same thing. I think of it every week. It is one of the great gifts in life, and it leaves an enduring legacy.)

This particular gentleman had polio when he was young, so he was slightly lame. He and my mother used to go to the same dances, in those far-off days when people went to dances. My mother was very shy, and used to find them torture. The grand gentleman was not yet grand, but diffident and with a gammy leg. The more dashing girls found other partners. But Mum always danced with him. She did not care about the leg.

Thirty years after those excruciating social gatherings, he wrote her a telegram about friendship and kindness and love. Thirty years after that, I found the slip of paper, almost transparent with age, which she had preserved in a little leather case where she kept her most precious correspondence.

It’s not a bad epitaph. If someone ever wrote that of me, I should think that I had had a good life.

Not everyone chooses friendship and kindness and love. As the hectic news rolls daily off the presses, it is clear that these simple virtues are not at the top of everyone’s list. They seem so simple and so obvious, almost as if they fall from the sky like gentle rain. But they are not obvious to every human, and they do not simply fall. They, like all the important things in life, must be chosen. They are active virtues, more robust and stalwart than they sound. They are what Shakespeare meant when he wrote: so shines a good deed in a naughty world. They make a difference. They can transform something sad into something adored. I have written proof. 

Friday, 15 July 2016

There are no words.

I never know what to do when tragedy strikes, out in the world. My own world is very small, and, in some ways, very sheltered. When I go down to the field each morning to let the dogs play and to tend to the horses, it feels as if we are hidden from all the bad things and the mad things and the sad things. Nobody can see us there. We are sheltered by a high hill and stretches of dense woodland. I have a friend who shares the field with me. Her young daughter christened it The Magic Paddock, and there is something magical about it.

My house is small and sheltered too, but the world comes in there when I turn on the wireless or switch on the internet to hear the news. There, suddenly, in vivid colours, is that distant, outside world, with its living and dying, its tectonic shifts, its sudden political shocks.

As social media gallops and wheels in its wild, wide prairies of news, there can be almost an imperative to say something. Sometimes it feels as if everyone must react to everything, must have an opinion, must choose the right thing to say. I find the right thing to say almost impossible. Sometimes, I don’t say anything at all, because mere paltry human words in the face of unspeakable grief and loss and horror seem pointless and gimcrack. A huge thing has happened; why should anyone need to know what my own small feeling about it is? It can seem self-regarding, jumping on any passing bandwagon. Look at me, caring. On the other hand, to speak about ordinary things can seem callous and stupid. Can I really put up a picture of Stanley the Dog on Facebook when eighty-four people lie dead in the street?

But what word do you use for those eighty-four lost souls? Even the language of Shakespeare and Milton seems to come up short. It is shocking, and heartbreaking, and beyond human imagination. It is mad and wrong and lunatic. Yet every word one slaps on the horror seems too thin and small.

All the same, people will write the words, will stretch out uncertain fingers for the words, will try to make the nonsensical make sense with the words. Some good, wise people will use the right words, to reach out across oceans and incomprehensions, across time and distance, from one wounded heart to another. Some people will have the words, and will act as stalwarts, as witnesses, as consolers, if any consolation is to be found.

As I stood in that hidden, magical field this morning, with my little brown mare, who is the kindest, sweetest, most gentle animal I ever met, there were words in my ear. I was listening to a portable radio, and something rather extraordinary happened. It was Desert Island Discs, and Nicole Farhi was on. The programme had obviously been recorded some days before, and as she said, blithely and happily, that she grew up in Nice, I felt a visceral shock. She could speak of Nice with innocence, because she did not know what was to happen there. It was haunting and moving and added an extra twist to the tragedy. It somehow made it more touching that she was such a lovely woman, charming and engaged and thoughtful. She was all light and goodness, on such a dark day.

And then she chose Ne Me Quitte Pas by Jacques Brel for one of her records. I listened to that beloved singer of songs singing ‘don’t leave me’ in the quiet Scottish morning. The mare rested her sweet head against my shoulder. I thought of all those people, celebrating in their happy, peaceful streets, in the moments before tragedy struck. I thought of the ones who had left, against their will, torn violently from life and laughter by actions the human mind can barely understand.

It was a very strange moment. Listening to that most tender of voices was both lovely, and heart-rending. It is a time when words are not enough, and yet Brel had the right words. ‘I will make a kingdom where love will be king.’ If only it could be so. If only. 

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

You are not alone

I send a long and fond email to a very old friend. He’s facing up to some things just at the moment, so I think a lot about the tone. Tone is important. I suspect that people don’t want sympathy so much. The thing the men and women at HorseBack dread most is the pity face and I learned to put that away long ago, although I do still sometimes raise my eyebrows when they tell me a good getting blown up story. Sympathy sounds lovely, on paper, but in life it can be almost patronising. I like empathy better. But empathy has been hijacked by the welcome the abundance brigade, so I always feel like a real old charlatan whenever I write it down.

Anyway, I am British, so as I write the email I make jokes. I want my friend to know that I love him and I’m thinking of him and he is not alone. I can’t quite say that in some many words, which is why I make the jokes. That’s how it works. He can read between the lines. A bit of mild swearing is also useful. Sod ‘em all.

It’s the old saw of: you are not alone. People write a lot about the rampant individualism of the West, the out of control narcissism, the atomisation of society. I think this is a bit overcooked, but it has a grain of truth in it. Alfred Adler, my favourite of the psychologists, wrote a great deal about the importance of community. He believed that for the good life, you need to be stitched in to the human family. I think quite a lot about being part of something bigger than myself. On my more bonkers days, I believe I am a citizen of the world; on the saner days, I feel a little bit better about everything when I have a nice conversation with the ladies in the village shop.

So, when someone is going through it, I don’t say: poor you, or cheer up, or it will all be fine. I make a joke and say, either overtly or by implication: I know just how you feel, I am thinking of you, I can imagine what that is like. You are not alone.

It’s not magic beans. It does not fix anything. It will not miraculously transform a fraught situation. But as they used to say in The Big Chill: ‘you do what you can do.’

You dear Dear Readers did that for me yesterday, with your kind hearts. Thank you for that. It means a lot. 

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Here is the deal.

Here is the deal.
I get to write anything I damn well want.
And you get to write anything you damn well want.
That is the joy of freedom of expression.

You, Dear Readers, have no limits. You can be kind or you can be cruel; you can be charming or you can be rude; you can be generous or you can be mean. You can dangle your modifiers or split your infinitive or curse like a sailor on shore leave. That is the great good fortune of living in a liberal democracy at the beginning of the 21st century. People fought and died for free speech. The first thing the dictators do is burn the books. Liberty of thought and word is a gift, and it is your gift.

You can even, if you choose, tell me that I make you want to be sick in a bucket.

I must admit, that one hurt a bit. It took me five whole days before I could laugh about it. Suddenly, it struck me as not wounding but gloriously comic. I really don’t get up in the morning thinking: now, my plan is to make someone sick in a bucket. Yet, apparently that is what I do. I probably should not laugh. I probably should try much, much harder not to make people sick in buckets.

The direct personal attack is an interesting thing. I’m not very good at dealing with it. I have this theory that when someone says something disobliging, the most important thing is to give them permission, in the privacy of one’s own head. For whatever reason, they need to plunge in the knife. It can be classic Object A, Object B: one is furious and miserable and in despair over Object A, one takes it out on Object B. Whatever the origin, the attack exists and it has come at you. The only thing to do is to let it run its course, because everyone must think what they will, hold the opinions they hold, and say what they must say. Freedom of expression is not all bluebirds and butterflies. It has to allow the dark side.

I quite like this theory but it’s not always that easy to apply. If one is vulnerable, no amount of rational thought can stop the sting. One is only human, after all.

In the last few weeks, my stepfather has been dismantling the house my mother made. He is to go and live in the south. This is a good decision, but it is a very sad decision. For five years, I made him and my mother breakfast every day. It was our fond ritual. I made them Easter and Christmas lunches and birthday celebrations and special dinners too, but it was breakfast that was the thing. Since my mother died, I have gone in each morning to make the dear stepfather his eggs and to see if I could bring a smile to his face. If I could, my work that day was done.

Now, there is this slow dismantling. Every week, there is a moving van with smiling men taking away pieces of furniture. There are blank spaces on the walls where pictures used to be. The chair my mother sat in has gone. On the breakfast table when I arrive there is now a little pile of things found in some drawer or other: a folder of cuttings, old photographs, my grandfather’s wallet. These are the very last remnants of a life, and they break my heart.

I’m trying to be butch about it, because this is life. People die and people leave. This is what happens to everyone. I am not special. All the same, it is a long, low melancholy, the distant roar of a withdrawing tide. It is very much the end, and however much I paint my brave face on, I am sad underneath the smile.

So when the harsh words came, I had no defence. That freedom of expression went whoomp, whack, wallop into my solar plexus. Bloody hell, I thought, that really, actually, properly hurt. One must take the knocks, in life, learn to roll with the punches, but it is never a lovely thing to be told you are vainglorious. (Vain, excessively boastful, with swollen pride, from the 14th century root of worthless glory. Oh dear, I thought, am I really that? How very unBritish. How very much not what my mother brought me up to be.)

I took myself away from the internet for a bit, rather bruised and battered. (When wounded, I always have to withdraw for a bit, go to somewhere quiet, take time to talk myself down from the ceiling.) I thought about this blog. Is it really worth doing it, if it makes people sick in buckets, if they find it an egregious exercise in vainglory? I had some tiny hope of occasionally adding to the sum total of human happiness, if the light was coming from the right direction. Instead, it seems I am adding to world nausea. Perhaps I should just stop. I do this for sheer pleasure. I like writing; I like recording my own small days; I like being able to go back and see what I was doing a year ago, or the year before that. It’s good match practice too. Daily writing is a fine way of keeping your muscle memory sharp, like doing scales and arpeggios. I like that there are readers from Sri Lanka and New Zealand and California It makes me feel like a citizen of the world.

But it’s such a tiny thing, and if it were gone nobody would notice, and I could find another form of daily words. Perhaps it would be rather a relief. I would not have to encounter the angry voices, the unsolicited advice, the strict instructions, the bald litany of my appalling failures. (I'm certain all this is very good for character-building, but it's not my favourite thing in the world.) 

I ponder. I ride the mares and walk the dogs and drive my stepfather to the airport and do my work and read a very long book about the Second World War. I wonder and think.

And then I decide: sod it. This is my freedom of expression too. If I want to write a load of buggery bollocks, I shall write a load of buggery bollocks. I shall do it with my head held high. I shall do it whilst wearing my special hat. I shall do it with a spring in my step and a song in my heart. 

I shall get knocked down, and I shall pick myself up and dust myself off and start all over again. So keep your buckets handy. 

Sunday, 26 June 2016

The little ships put out to sea.

Down in my quiet Scottish field, the sun shines and I work the horses. Yesterday, I cheered myself up with horses. The beautiful and brave Harzand won the Irish Derby to add to his English one and I shouted him home. My sweet domestic thoroughbreds are equally adept at lifting the heart.

Every so often, though, I feel something clutch at that heart. It is fear, and dismay, and regret. As if it were not enough that the global economy is rocking and rolling (I never knew the world would pay so much attention to little old Blighty), that pre-referendum promises are being torn up like old betting slips, that there are already plans for a Scottish breakaway, the two main parties have plunged into an orgy of internecine warfare. In the blue camp, the Anyone But Boris bus is revving its engine. In the red camp, half the shadow cabinet is on the brink of resignation: the stage is like the final scene in Hamlet, littered with corpses. The sunlit uplands seem very far away.

I sternly tell myself to retrieve my Blitz spirit. I shall be the little ships of Dunkirk. Every woman must do her duty. I shall work twice as hard. I shall write only cheering books, because everyone is going to need cheering books. I will look on the bright side. Perhaps Schumpeter’s gale is blowing; perhaps this is creative destruction. The Beloved Cousin said on Friday, as I told her of some of this: ‘Yes, we must rise like the phoenix from the ashes.’ I remember the seventies, and the three day week, and the feeling that poor old Britain was finished. She was not finished. The old lady rallied. She may rally again.

I quite wish everyone was not so cross, but perhaps they need to be cross. Perhaps there has been a great store of crossness building up in their breasts and it needed to be released. Even the winners are cross, oddly. Some of the losers are furious, but more of them seem to be sad and baffled. Many of the winners appear to be livid, which I don’t quite understand, despite my study of the human condition. (Study human condition more, I tell myself, adding another resolution to my list.) ‘Stop whining,’ they shout, on the social media. ‘Suck it up.’ I think, slightly bizarrely, that they should watch the racing more. Racing people are amazingly good at losing with dignity and winning with grace. They tend to be humble in victory. The trainers always give credit to anyone but themselves: a great horse, a great team, we were very lucky, they say, with sporting good manners. Nothing that is happening now is very sporting.

Work harder, be resilient, look for the silver lining. Dunkirk boats. Rally, rally. I put the horses back in their field and go to see the dear Stepfather. I think: I must make a joke, to cheer him up. My job, since my mother died, has been to cheer him up. If I can bring a smile to his poor face each morning, then my job is done. I make a slightly mordant joke about the forty new trade deals that must be negotiated, and the fact that Britain has no negotiators. Job opportunities there at least. I suddenly realise that was not really very funny. I try to make a Boris joke, but that does not quite hit the mark either.

He sits down, looking defeated. He is over eighty and he can’t see a way that any of this is going to get any better. I try my rally, rally tactic, but it gains no traction. In the end, I just listen, quietly, to his sorrow. All I can do now is give him an ear. I wonder what the stop whining brigade would say to this old gentleman, if they could see him.  Would they tell him to butch up, to get with the programme, to savour his new freedoms? I wonder what, precisely, those freedoms are. I wonder: what happened to empathy?

The little ships of my mind put out to sea. Dunkirk was a disaster, by any calculation. Yet the British cherish it as a kind of victory, in the odd way that Britons adore their defeats. A phoenix did flap her wings over that troubled sea, rising from the ashes of Europe. Can I be the captain of my small ship, the mistress of my soul? We are a sea-faring nation. Perhaps we can chug, chug, chug over this stormy ocean. 

Friday, 24 June 2016

Nobody knows what happens next.

The unexpected happened, and sterling fell off a cliff. It seemed that the majority did not quite believe that Brexit would really brexit. Many people thought the vote might be close, but the shrewd money was on the dear old British public reverting to their usual default mode which is one of phlegmatic, pragmatic steadiness. (I once wrote an entire essay on this premise, using it as an explanation for the reason that Britain had no nineteenth century revolution as Europe went into the raging, radical spasms of 1830 and 1845. Britain quietly passed the Second Reform Act and the Repeal of the Corn Laws and went on with her business.) But the Ordinary Decent Britons did not choose pragmatism. Half of them voted for steadiness, and half of them voted for revolution, and the revolutionary half won.

The markets started crashing so hard that some of them had to be suspended. The pound fell deeper and faster than it has since 1972. It made Black Wednesday look like the Teddy Bear’s Picnic. The leaders of the Brexit movement who spoke to the media were oddly unBritish about the whole thing, at least they did not speak in the restrained, sporting, self-deprecating way that I think of as Britishness at its best. They celebrated and whooped, whilst the economy faltered and stumbled and fell. When asked about that, they said, airily: ‘Oh, you have to expect a bit of economic volatility.’ Someone had sent out that word. I heard it three times. One of them stated, rather crossly, when asked about the plummeting pound: ‘This is Project Fear again.’ 

I felt confused. This was not Project Fear, it was Project Reality. The very thing the experts had warned about was coming true, before my stretched eyes. I did not understand those Brexit leaders. I did not understand what they were celebrating so blithely. I did not understand their tone. If I were in their shoes, I would be sober, and humble, and firm of purpose, and slightly chastened. I would temper my day of jubilee with a serious acceptance of the consequences, of the turmoil unfolding all around.

I would not be saying, as Nigel Farage said, that this was ‘a victory for real people, for decent people.’ The blatant implication was that I, who felt defeated, obviously did not count as a real person or a decent person. Everybody I talked to, in the same state of shock and desolation, could not be, in the Farage book, real or decent. What were we? Unreal and indecent? The country, riven, needed reassurance, the promise of unity, and it got Us and Them.

I could not sit still as the Today Programme unfolded. I went out into the sunshine, marching the dogs off their feet, desperately dialling the numbers of old friends. I spoke first to a man I have adored since we were eighteen. He runs a business; he is one of those company bosses that the Brexit leadership said needed a wake-up call. His share price had tumbled thirty percent. ‘I’m worried about the pension funds,’ he said.  He was not concerned for himself, but for those pensions. That was one of my original frets. I had the real people in my head, despite what Mr Farage had to say about it. I was worried about Mrs Everywoman, who had saved all her life, and her pension, which was now fading before her eyes..

I spoke to another old friend, who is a freelance photographer. ‘I don’t know what to do or where to go,’ he said. ‘There is no one who speaks for me. I’m damn well going into politics. I’m going to start a new party. It’s time for the SDP 2.0, for the progressive voice.’

I called one of the best of the best beloveds, who started up a business from scratch that makes television programmes. He has worked his arse off for twenty years, to make it a success. ‘I don’t understand anything,’ he said. ‘It does not feel real.’

My dear friend the World Traveller, who once rode the silk route on Mongolian ponies and camels from God knows where, and is not afraid of much, drove up to my door, a blank look on her face. ‘I find this very frightening,’ she said. ‘I want to live in a country that is open and welcoming and diverse.’ We talked of the extraordinary, dedicated Polish woman who was one of my mother’s carers during her final illness, who worked two jobs, who came back in after a long day, gave her children their tea, and then went out for a night shift. ‘How can I look her in the face, after all this?’ my friend said.

In a daze, I drove up to the charity where I volunteer. I saw a gentleman who was once in the King’s Troop. ‘I know one person who will be pleased,’ he said, grimly. ‘Mr Putin will be rubbing his hands together in glee.’ I was introduced to a visiting brigadier, very upright, radiating intelligence. ‘I really don’t know what happens next,’ he said. If the brigadier does not know, I wondered, dolefully, then who does?

I suddenly realised, as I got home, that I had spoken to a perfect cross-section of society, from old to young, from metropolitan to rural, from the boss of a blue chip company to an Oxford graduate to a man who was brought up in a children’s home to a veteran who fought for his country. I spoke to a mother, an ex-policewoman, a Royal Marine, a retired book dealer, a man in the arts. All had the same shell-shocked, dazed response. I thought of that little charity, which is making a difference, which is just finding its feet and ready to expand its work. How will we raise the funds we need now?

My adored stepfather, who is still reeling from the loss of my mother, stared bleakly into his now uncertain old age. ‘I did not want my final years to be like this,’ he said, very quietly. ‘I no longer know what they hold for me.’

How, I thought, will anyone work out what happens next?

Yet, this is the demos. The people have spoken. Their decision is heartfelt, and must be honoured and valued.

But it does not feel quite as simple as that. Seventeen million people got what they wanted. Sixteen million are left voiceless and powerless and bewildered. They watch the world markets falling, as billions of pounds and dollars and yen are wiped off the global economy. They sit in shock as big companies already announce that they are moving jobs from London to Dublin and Frankfurt. They try to comprehend that Britain has gone from the fifth richest nation to the sixth, in one night. They, real people that they are, worry for the future their children must face. 

Democracy is the thing I believe in passionately, yet here in Scotland, whose people voted to Remain to the tune of 62%, the result feels oddly jarring, not very democratic at all. (It feels, to my irrational mind, as if the rest of the country has said: you don't count. Of course it is not as simple as that, but that is what it feels like.) The will of the people is what all this is about, but the Britons under twenty-five, 72% of whom wanted to stay in, have their will ignored. And they are the ones who will have to live longest with this result. ‘What about the young people?’ says one of the old friends, on a dying fall.

This is not like a general election. In a normal election, if you back the wrong horse, or hate the result, you get another go in a few years. You suck up your disappointment and butch up for the next fight. This is for good and all. There is no going back, no second chance. I have seen people on Twitter saying that it is a brave new dawn, and that those of us who don’t like it should be quiet and stop whining. But surely if this is about the voters, about democracy, about real people with real human hearts, the sixteen million should be honoured just as the seventeen million are. Their feelings should be allowed to exist. Their freedom of expression should be respected. They should be heard.

I am not pointing fingers or calling people names. I am not even saying that the Brexiteers are wrong. I don’t know that they are wrong, any more than they know that they are right. Perhaps those sunlit uplands of which Boris Johnson spoke will one day make themselves seen. But the reality of this moment is uncertainty, instability, a chaos that did not exist yesterday, and did not have to exist today. I simply feel bereft, sorrowful and as if the ground that I stand on is no longer solid.

Because nobody, nobody, knows what happens next. 

Thursday, 23 June 2016

In which EM Forster gets my vote.

It’s been a rather horrible three days. Sometimes a perfect storm arrives, a vicious combination of emotional turmoil, family stuff, events in the world. I can deal with one, I can deal with two, I can’t deal with three. So I go quiet for those missing days, away from the internet, away from all the shouting voices. In those times, I close the door and sit still in my room and wait for that storm to pass. I always know it does pass and I always forget it does pass. I sometimes speak out loud to myself as I tend to the horses in the silent field, talking myself down from the ceiling. I think: human hearts are great things and human hearts are fragile things.

The wrangling and brangling of the last few weeks, the accusations and bogus posters and sometimes cynical tactics – all that has not been dear old Blighty’s finest hour. I have an odd belief in Britain. It’s a little curious to believe in a country. Countries are, after all, fairly random collections of humans. This country has a long and chequered history. It’s a mutt of a country, a cross-breed of cultures and events and rights and wrongs and ethnicities and bloodlines. And yet, I do believe in it. I don’t like to see the old lady as fractured and cross as she is at the moment. I’ve found it oddly upsetting.

I also hate picking sides. I’m a bone-deep liberal, and I see both sides of pretty much every argument. This is very tiring. In this argument it is especially tiring, since both sides are right and both sides are wrong. It’s being presented as a binary choice, but there is nothing Manichean about it. It is not hope versus fear, or light versus dark. It’s also been a mess of category errors. Some people have behaved appallingly, but this does not mean that the argument they represent is wrong. Resist the ad hominem, I tell myself, over and over, look at the pure principles.

In the end, I went and put my cross in the box, not with any sense of dancing delight. I did not think, as I do at general elections: this is what the Pankhursts fought for. The arguments about the democratic deficit and the absurdity of a European Supreme Court trumping British law are unanswerable. But in some ways, they are head arguments. I went, in the end, with the heart argument. My heart says: let us be part of something wider, greater, more hopeful. That foolish heart understands all the flaws of the union, and there are many, but does not want to pull up the drawbridge and retreat, but roll up its sleeves and work to make it better. The heart tells me that if I turn away I am a wrecker, and I don’t want to be a wrecker. I worry about the economy on a very human level: the old ladies with their pensions, the young apprentices who have just got their first chance, the small businesses who need their market. The ship has only just steadied after the stormy seas of the world financial crisis; I could not bear it to be tossed by a self-imposed tempest.

Most of all, and this perhaps is not my own finest hour, I voted to stay in Europe because I fear muddle. EM Forster wrote: ‘Take an old man's word; there's nothing worse than a muddle in all the world. It is easy to face Death and Fate, and the things that sound so dreadful. It is on my muddles that I look back with horror - on the things that I might have avoided. We can help one another but little. I used to think I could teach young people the whole of life, but I know better now, and all my teaching of George has come down to this: beware of muddle.’

He also wrote: ‘We cast a shadow on something wherever we stand, and it is no good moving from place to place to save things; because the shadow always follows. Choose a place where you won't do harm - yes, choose a place where you won't do very much harm, and stand in it for all you are worth, facing the sunshine.’

And, in the same book, he said that by the side of the everlasting Why there is a Yes.

I want to say yes, rather than no. I’m going to stand in the sunshine, even though that sunshine is sometimes shadowed by clouds. It may be that I am the only person in Britain today who voted to remain in Europe because of A Room With A View. There are a hundred good reasons to vote for either side, and all of them may be defended with reason, bolstered with practicality, galvanised with intellectual argument. My reason is a faintly bonkers one, but it is my reason. It won’t convince anyone else, nor is it meant to. This is not an evangelical reason; it is a private one. I vote for the Emersons, for the sunshine, for the yes, for the beware of muddle. 

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Theatre of dreams. Or, there is no such thing as only a horse.

The sweetest moment yesterday was when the ravishing filly Quiet Reflection put her dear head in front and ran straight and true to the line. Her honesty and straightness were decisive, as her nearest rival veered across the track, throwing away his chance. The sweetness was not just because she is a very good, very lovely girl. It was because she was owned not by someone with millions in the bank, or someone who heads a whole country, but by a syndicate of Yorkshire owners. 

They were, as one commentator said, ‘ordinary people’. They went to Ascot with hope in their hearts, and their fine filly made their dream come true. Watching the finish, they forgot any idea of occasion and protocol and went bonkers, leaping in the air, hollering, hugging each other, crying tears of joy. 

Everyone was crying tears of joy. Quiet Reflection’s lad was weeping on national television; apparently afterwards he said ruefully that he hoped his mates would not have seen that, or he would never hear the end of it. Her jockey, Dougie Costello, was also crying openly. ‘I’m getting a bit emotional,’ he said, wiping his face. This time last year, he was riding in bumpers at Market Rasen. He switched codes from the jumps to the flat, and suddenly, here he was, on the biggest stage of all. When he went to collect his prize, he took his tiny daughter on to the podium with him. She sat contentedly in her father’s arms, too young to know that she would be hearing about this grand moment for years to come.

It might seem a little odd, all this emotion. These are toughened professionals, after all. They get up every morning with the dawn, and they know that this is a job of highs and lows, of dashed hopes, of forgotten dreams. For all the pomp of the Royal Meeting, it is still a day at the office. But they start planning for this when the young horses come in with the stirring of the spring. They start thinking about Ascot when the old campaigners return from their winter break. They watch and hope and plan and plot. They look for the confirmation of class, for the sudden flash of unheralded brilliance, for that little bit of work on the quiet gallops that might change everything. Everyone would like to win a good race at Newmarket or York or Goodwood, but the Royal Meeting is the pinnacle, the theatre of dreams, the place unlike anywhere else. ‘It’s why we get out of bed in the morning,’ the jockeys say. And that is why you see hard men in tears.

Today, one of the people I love most in the world has a hoof of a horse who is lining up to take his chance. She is part of one of those syndicates, another one of those ‘ordinary people’ (although of course there is nothing ordinary about her at all; she is a most remarkable human). She rings me from the car, her voice rather tremulous. ‘I’m trying to contain the emotion,’ she says.

‘I was trying to contain the emotion,’ I say. ‘But that ship has sailed.’

Her fella is a handsome, bonny horse, with an intelligent outlook and a genuine heart. He’s not very big, but he is beautifully put together, and he’s got a lovely temperament. He listens to his jockey, who can put him anywhere in a race. He’s got a chance. I’ll be trembling in the preliminaries, and shouting my head off in the race. ‘It’s Ascot,’ I keep say to my old friend. ‘Anything could happen. Let’s just hope he runs his race and comes home safe.’

‘Yes,’ she says, trying to be very grown-up and sensible. ‘It’s enough of a treat that we are even here.’

It’s only a race, some people might say. Some people might say: it’s only a horse. Some people are right, logically speaking. But the heart, which is not logical, knows that there is no such thing as only a horse. 

A thoroughbred, all fleetness and beauty and courage, can make the spirit soar like nothing else. I rode my own dear mare this morning, after a long time off. I’ve had a sore back, and we went very gently. She gave me her best dowager duchess canter, moving tenderly and smoothly as if she knew that my poor old body could not take a jar. 

She is closely related to all those mighty creatures who will be flying over the turf today, but she went as softly and slowly as a seasoned cow pony. She’s still an Aston Martin, but she was happy to go along in second gear. That feeling of controlled power, the kindness and peace flowing out of her fine body, the harmony of horse and human is like nothing else. It is elemental, visceral, beyond words or thought. No such thing, I think, as I get off and lead her back to her paddock, as only a horse. 

Friday, 17 June 2016

Triumph and tragedy.

Yesterday was a haunting and strange day.

The third day of the Royal Meeting started off with great loveliness. The rain stayed away, the Queen looked happy and excited, the ravishing filly Even Song flew to victory, filled with promise for the future. In the Gold Cup, my dear old Clever Cookie did not have his day, but the mighty Order of St George did. He was the class horse in the race, and, for all my love of the underdog, there is something that makes my heart beat about seeing that class rise to the top, as it should. But the Gold Cup is a rough old race and one where anything can happen, and Order of St George had never run anything like this distance before.

A French horse, whom everybody knew stayed all day, tore off in front, and I thought for a horrible moment he had stolen the thing. Then the pack started to ruck up behind, and Order of St George was stuck in the melée, with no way out. He was buffeted about, surrounded on all sides by a wall of hard, thoroughbred flesh, and all Ryan Moore could do was, as they say in racing, sit and suffer.

When the gap finally appeared, it might have been too late for many horses. But not for this fine fella. He put his skating shoes on and ate up the ground. He was the best, and he was not going to let anyone else steal his limelight. On he galloped, faster and faster, stretching out that mighty athlete’s body, feeling the blood of champions run through his veins, hearing the ancestral voices in his head. On he flew, into unknown territory, and in the end, after all that drama, he made it look easy, in the way that really good horses do. It was not easy. He had to fight for it. He had to want it. He had the class, but it turned out that he had the courage as well.

There was a great deal of joy. He’s a good horse and a popular horse and he was well backed and there is a lot of affection and admiration for his trainer, Aidan O’Brien, and a lot of awe for the talent of his jockey, Ryan Moore, whom many people think is the best man riding in the world today.

As all this went on, something strange and frightening started happening, out in the world. Twitter is a great gathering place for fans of the thoroughbred, and I follow it all day when the racing is on. In between the banshee yells of delight, there was actual news from the actual world. The news was shocking. Jo Cox, an MP, had been shot and stabbed whilst on her way to a constituency surgery. She was 42, a wife and mother of young children, and a dauntless campaigner for human rights. The man who had attacked her had, according to these fragmented reports, shouted something like ‘put Britain first’.

I felt very dislocated. I did not understand. This is not the kind of thing that happens in Britain. People make jokes about MPs; they don’t shoot them. There is no gun culture in this country. (The last official gun homicide figure I can find is 58 in one year.)

Disturbed and unsettled, in a jagged kind of unreality, I turned back to the racing. The sun had come out and Ascot glowed and gleamed. There was another happy result, as the big handicap was won by Jamie Osborne, a trainer who was a very old friend of my father’s. I remember him from my childhood and my teenage years, when he first came to Lambourn and he was raw and young, and Dad used to take him to the pub for a pint. And there he was, in his top hat, shouting his fella home.

On Twitter, in the real world where real things were happening, it said that Jo Cox had died.

The last race was won by a nice horse for Alan King, a good man who mostly trains over the jumps, ridden by Willie Twiston-Davies, a young jockey who started his career at the age of sixteen riding over the Grand National fences. It should have been a moment of great celebration. But a shadow had fallen over the sun. In some kind of awful, dramatic foreshadowing, the Queen’s colt took a false step and broke his leg and had to be put down. Even though a horse can do this in the stable, in the field, on a quiet day at home, it is always a horribly sad thing to watch. It fills one with regret, and takes a the joy out of the race. But out in the world there was a great human tragedy, too big to comprehend. Britain first? This was the least British thing in imagination.

I stared blindly at the television. Down at the bandstand, where music traditionally plays after the last and all the happy racegoers gather to have a sing-song, the military band in their red tunics and their bearskins struck up, of all things, Land of Hope and Glory. This land suddenly did not feel glorious or hopeful. Everything was jarring and wrong.

I went down to see to my own horses, in my quiet, Scottish field. I did not know what to do or what to think. This Ascot week is usually about the best of British, and now it was about the worst. Nobody should be singing, or smiling, or shouting horses home, or playing songs, or feeling happy about anything. All those simple human pleasures seemed wrong and gimcrack.

I stood with my sweet mares for a long time. And suddenly I thought: perhaps that band damn well should go on playing. Perhaps that is exactly the point. Perhaps Land of Hope and Glory is the very song. Because if fear and horror and sorrow win the day, then the bloody wreckers and haters have got what they wanted. I don’t know who that man was or what he sought, but he made me think of the dark forces who would like to destroy everything that is good about this country, who operate on hate and fear, who despise the other, who want to take away the pluralism, tolerance, diversity, the very cultural melange which makes Britain interesting and good. They want to close minds, point fingers, put up barriers. I thought that a woman such as Jo Cox, who was one of the remarkable, rare, truly fine people who make a difference,  who once said that there is more that unites humanity than divides it, might want the band to play on, literally and metaphorically.

After this long time of thinking, I went back inside. I made some green soup. I tried to count the good things, the cheerful things, the hopeful things. The dogs, exhausted from their evening dash about the meadows, slumbered gently. Everything was very quiet. I thought I would, after all, do my usual thing of watching the racing back. I record it every day, and watch it again in the evening. I did not have much heart for it now, but in some very bonkers way I thought that sitting and feeling sad and beaten would be a form of giving in. It’s exactly what the wreckers want.

As I pressed play, a collage of Ascot pictures came up on the screen. And there was one lovely shot of three smiling faces, leaning on the rail around the paddock. On the right was a Sikh man in a very smart suit and an elegantly tied turban. He had his arm round his Best Beloved. She was leaning into him and laughing, her black hair coiled beautifully under a chic pink hat. To their left was a young woman, with very pale skin and dark hair, with a delighted, uncomplicated smile on her face. It was impossible to know what nationality she was. She could have been Irish, or English, or Welsh, or Polish, or French, or Scottish.

Ascot is not a famously diverse event. It is quite white. Racing as a whole is quite white. It’s not that usual to see Sikhs out in force. But this gentleman looked completely at home, as much a part of this very British tradition as those military bands and those Windsor greys and the Queen herself. All three humans were united, across their different heritages, in the joy of the grand occasion. It was not possible to tell whether they were there for the horses, or for the pomp, or for the party, or for the pageantry, or for the craic, or for all of it. They had made a huge effort, and they looked wonderful. What shone out from that snapshot in time was that they were having the best time, united in sheer pleasure.

When the darkness falls, I cling on to silver linings as if they were life-rafts. It’s easy to let go of the small things, the green shoots of hope, the tiny proofs of love, and drown in the stormy seas of bad news, and human tragedies, and horrifying world events. This picture was my silver lining. No human with a gun can shoot that away. The band, somehow, somewhere, will play on.

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Yesterday, Lady Aurelia devastated. Today, Clever Cookie fires my old racing heart with hope.

On Wednesday, after two great mares delighted the crowd on the first day, another girl stepped into the spotlight. I’d love to say stepped shyly because that would sound better, but there was nothing shy about Lady Aurelia.

She was, in some ways, a bit of a dark horse. Nobody really knew very much about her and this was for a very good reason. She is two years old and she has run once in her life, on dirt, over four and a half furlongs, a distance that does not exist in British racing. She had never run on turf, had never run outside of America, had never so much as sniffed Ascot, had never gone five furlongs, had never encountered soft ground. The list of things she had never done were as long as your arm.

What she did have was Wesley Ward. I love Wesley Ward. He’s always smiling and he’s only just learnt to do up his top button. He is a man who seems most at home in jeans and a polo shirt, and the whole top hat and tails schtick makes him look like a very happy, very small boy who is dressing up for a fancy-dress party. Yet he has made this party his own. He comes over from America each year with a string of speedy stars, and every year he reaps the glittering prizes.

A lot of American trainers fight shy of British racing. It’s so different from the American version, and there is so much to lose. Great reputations can be brought to dust. Ward adores the Royal Meeting and has no fear. Last year, he gave us his might filly Acapulco, who drew gasps in the paddock because she looked more like a four-year-old colt than a first season filly. Often, the baby fillies are described, in the vivid racing term, as ‘unfurnished’. This means they have not yet grown into their physical selves. They are light and a bit on the leg; they still have some growing to do. Acapulco was furnished all right. She looked like a fierce creature, and she won with a blast of speed and power.

Lady Aurelia was nothing like as big as her mighty predecessor, but she had the same sense of packed power, of deep muscle, of developed athleticism. Still, she had a few questions to answer. Five stiff furlongs on rain-softened ground could easily blunt that blazing speed she had showed over the shorter trip on dirt.

She answered those questions in a minute flat. She broke quickly from the stalls, and had them all in trouble by half way. She cruised along in the middle of the track, as talented fillies struggled behind her. She seemed to be going as fast as a horse could go. Frankie Dettori sat motionless on her broad back. And then he just shook the reins at her. He did not need to. The race was pretty much in the bag. It was as if he was saying, come on then, princess, let’s see what you can do. Lady Aurelia said: ‘You’d really like to know? Watch this.’ And she put on her turbo boosters and roared away from the field, by five, by six, by seventh lengths. ‘Lady Aurelia,’ shouted Simon Holt, in hoarse disbelief, ‘is going to absolutely destroy them.’

The filly won with her head on her chest. Frankie Dettori will never have had an easier ride. The official distance was seven lengths, but it looked more like nine. It could have been ten or twelve if Frankie had asked for more. Lady Aurelia was hardly out of second gear. Hardened race-goers were lost for words. People ran out of superlatives. Nobody was quite sure what they had just seen. And the good filly, as if entirely unaware that she had just put a dent in the laws of physics, walked back into the roiling cauldron of jubilation as if she had been out for a nice little exercise canter.

Today, the big race could hardly be a greater contrast. The centrepiece is the Gold Cup, two and a half searching miles for battle-hardened stayers, most of whom have no secrets. This is a race for heart and guts and strength and stamina. It brings out all the most admirable traits in the thoroughbred – the honesty and the courage and the cussed will to win. It is for the ones who give every last inch of themselves. 

The class horse in the race is Order of St George, who is flying the flag for Ballydoyle. If he gets the trip, he could show us something magnificent. The heart horse is Clever Cookie, a dear old fella from one of the smaller yards. He’s trained by Peter Niven, who used to ride over the sticks, and Clever Cookie himself has run over hurdles, although he’s now become something of a standing dish on the flat. He’s eight years old, very bonny and bright, and he always tries his best, and he’s become a great favourite with the crowds.

Today, he too goes into the unknown as he’s never run quite this far before, although the charming thing is that he was really bred to be a staying chaser. He loves to get his toe in, so the ground will hold no fears for him, and his fighting heart may see him through the marathon distance. He’s up against the big boys, and the favourite is already odds-on, but he’s my sporting bet at 10-1. If he could acquit himself with honour, I would cry tears of love. But he's one of those horses who owes nobody anything. He's already given a huge amount of joy. In some ways, it will be pleasure enough simply to see him there, with his dear ears pricked and his head held high, brightening up the day by doing nothing more than being his enchanting, genuine, bold self. 


Blog Widget by LinkWithin