Friday, 31 August 2012


To the very kind readers who enquired: I am taking a break. I did mention this three posts ago, but clearly you are related to my mother, who believes that if I do not report in every day, I must be dead in a ditch. It is very touching that you even notice, let alone mind.

I am driving home now, but still officially on holiday until Monday.

In the meantime, here are some pictures of The Pigeon, visiting her southern relations:

31 Aug 2

31 Aug 5

And here are some of me, so you may have prove of my continuing existence:

31 Aug 6

Luckily, I always take pictures of myself at the Beloved Cousin’s house, because she has two of the most flattering looking-glasses in England:

31 Aug 7

There is something absurd in taking pictures of oneself. But then, I start to realise there is something faintly absurd in almost everything I do. As I told the Old Fella this morning: I have an idiot streak; I must be true to my destiny. (This was when I explained to him that I was going to go via Ludlow to avoid the M6 on a Friday. Actually, I went by Shrewsbury instead. I can’t work out if this is more, or less, silly. Very pretty though.)

Anyway, despite the blatant flakiness of the thing, I like having pictures of myself so, when I am old and wizened, I can see what I looked like in 2012. And occasionally I like showing them to you, so you can put a face to the typing.

31 Aug 9

And now it is especially important so you can see I am, like Flash Gordon, ALIVE.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

The end of Frankel Day. Or, a very full report

AUTHOR’S SUGGESTION: really only read this if you are as in love with Frankel as I am. For the rest, there is no obligation.


This is a stupidly comprehensive report. I have no excuse, except for the fact that what I saw today is too good not to share.

I am sitting now, in the bar of my little hotel, exhausted but still vibrating with joy, as if every atom in my body were dancing. People are giving me slightly strange looks, as I madly type. Don’t care. DON’T CARE. Because today, I saw Frankel.

The trip to York was a much longer and more complicated drive than I anticipated. I thought it would be a charming sweep across wild Lancashire and Yorkshire moorland. Instead, it was wiggly and a little dull and filled with small towns and traffic lights. So, as I dreamed of the sublime, there was the mundane. I decided this was probably a Good Thing. (It appealed to me, philosophically.)

Once there, finally, I ran about, remembering the charming racecourse. I had not been there since I was fifteen. Wonderfully, it has not changed so very much. There are still white wooden benches, with signs saying: Please do not stand here. Men in panama hats and venerable old ladies were sitting on the benches. But how will they not leap to their feet when Frankel hits the front, I wondered.

I had put my doubts to bed, unusually by forensic examination rather than raw emotion. Take off love hat, put on form hat, and the only conclusion was: nothing can touch him. I had even taken 2-1 with William Hill for him to win by seven lengths or more. It is always important for me to put my money where my mouth is. (I could go into an endless dissection of St Nicholas Abbey and Farhh and the question marks over their heads, but I won’t.)

I was not worried about the trip; I thought Frankel would get it in his sleep. My only fret was the fret I have every time any horse I love goes out on a racecourse. The wrong step, the bump, the unbalanced turn, the bad luck in running, the damn delicacy of those beautiful thoroughbred legs: all these are the things that haunt.

I stopped worrying and went instead to spend my traditional fifteen minutes with the champion. I ruthlessly ignored the race before, even though Frankel’s brother, of whom I am fond, was running in it. I knew the pre-parade ring would be packed, so the only answer was to get there early.

I had checked out the terrain with the man in charge, earlier in the day. ‘Oh yes,’ he said, nodding gravely, ‘he’s coming. They did not send Sea the Stars to the pre-parade ring; they boxed him up and sent him straight to the course. But Sir Henry says Frankel will be here.’

‘Oh, good,’ I said. ‘I’ve come all the way from Scotland to see him.’

The gentleman eyed me speculatively. I could tell he was not quite convinced by the aubergine hair.

‘Sir Henry,’ he said approvingly; ‘he really minds about the racing public.’

Henry Cecil has been having treatment for cancer. He has not been seen on a racecourse for many weeks. I saw him quoted in one newspaper saying: ‘I must be there for Frankel.’ I did not know yet whether he had made the trip from Newmarket or not. I thought he would be pleased that one of the oldest of old school York racecourse men thought so well of him.

Well, he had sent the horse. The pre-parade ring at York is absolutely tiny. It is hidden away at the far end of the course, under the heavy shade of venerable trees. It is on a slight slope. It is not where you would expect to find a world star. And yet, there he was, with his crowd already four deep, forty-five minutes before his race was due to start. Small children said to their fathers: ‘Put me on your shoulders.’ There was the murmur I remember from Ascot: which one is he, is he here, there he is. A boy of about twelve turned to his mother, eyes shooting out points of light: ‘I got his photograph.’

In it all, the big fella walked round, as relaxed as an old hound. This was not always the case. He used to get in a state before races, and needed two lads, one either side, like sentries. They have done something magical with him, at the Cecil yard. They have taught him to put his head down. This very physical act releases endorphins into a horse’s system. All the other colts were carrying their heads high, the veins standing out on their necks. Some of them looked very trained, which is what can happen by this stage of the season. All the early fat is burned away, and the real athlete is revealed. The trick is not to take it too far. (They can be too trained.)

Frankel looked fit as a butcher’s dog, but still wide and strong and bonny. John Francome always says you would not pick him out of the paddock, but I would. I would take him every day of the week and twice on Sundays. I looked into his black, liquid eye. I wanted to laugh and dance like a child. There are very few times in your life that you can stand two feet away from a history-smashing athlete, a best we have ever seen, a once in a generation. It is a crazy privilege.

Having communed with my beautiful fella enough, I ran like a dervish to the best place in the stands. I was only just in time. Even with half an hour to go, the place was jammed. I snatched the last position with an unimpeded view, and sat down on the wall, and took a deep breath. I looked out over the happy crowd, the glittering sun, the emerald green turf. York is a very pretty course. There was a lot of loveliness to distract the eye. Sadly there were not great Aussies to see Black Caviar, as there had been at Ascot, so I did not make friends. There were just two rather stiff gents fore and aft. I tried to put on my special smiling let’s talk about the beauty of Frankel face, but it did not fly.

I had a fag instead.

Then out came the parade. (Should I really tell you all this? I am officially banging on. But every moment of this remarkable day was so extraordinary, and the thing about the columnists and the newspaper writers is that they are only allowed 600 words, and they can’t tell you half of it in that space.)

The moment Frankel appeared he got a rippling round of applause. It was very touching. The clapping was tentative at first; you could sense the crowd thinking they should not upset the fella with too much noise. But in the end they could not help themselves. Glory was in front of them and must be paid its due.

As they could see that Frankel was maintaining him composure beautifully, they let rip. Shouts and yells and applause ran up and down the Knavesmire. Frankel lifted his head and looked as if he realised that there was some business to attend to.

Tom Queally waited until all the other horses had set off; paused, turned, and then took Frankel down in a lovely, bouncing, collected canter. He went to the start like a dressage horse. It brought tears to my eyes, for a reason I could not quite identify. Too much loveliness, perhaps.

And then, for the first time, for all my certainty, I could not stand it. I thought: it’s going to be like Dr Bloody Who. I drove all this way, and I can’t watch. Suddenly, I was assailed by swarming, swamping nerves.

But there was not time for that because they were off. My race glasses were shaking so much I could not see the first five furlongs. Everything was a blur. ‘Frankel’s gone to sleep at the back,’ yelled the commentator. Fuck no, I thought; this is no time to go to sleep.

I hate hold-up tactics. I know they are clever and necessary, but I am scarred for life by Dancing Brave coming too late in his Derby. They kill you like nothing else, if you are trying to watch, with your race glasses shaking like poplars.

But then, before I died of fright, Frankel woke up. The gears shifted; a small question was asked; a huge question was answered. The turbo kicked; the engine roared; the power unfurled. The crowd went nuts. I don’t know what they were shouting. It sounded like GO GO. It might have been Come on, my son. It might have been Frankel, Frankel.

It might have been Love, Love.

What it meant, as the glorious fella flew home, by four, five, six, seven lengths, was that every single person there was in the presence of greatness and they knew it and they wanted to mark it, with joyous shouts and hands red from clapping and hats literally in the air. (Out of the corner of my eye, I saw one panama shooting across the stands.)

I, as is now fully expected, burst into tears.

It took ages for Queally to pull the horse up. They were practically round at the start before they stopped. They trotted decorously back and I held my breath, desperate that they should come in front of the stands, and not just go back to the winner’s enclosure. Queally had a discussion with an official. ‘Come on,’ I said out loud. The stiff gents gave me a look. Bugger them for a game of soldiers, I thought, missing my Australians.

And there he came, the mighty champion. The crowd rose to him. I whooped and hollered, all shame fled. Tom Queally was so overcome that he fell on the horse’s neck, hugging him with love and gratitude. I rued the day I did not pack waterproof mascara.

In the end, the biggest cheer of all came for Sir Henry Cecil. He was pale and delicate, but wreathed in smiles. He gave Frankel that look I know so well; the one I give my mare. It’s the look of absolute, ineffable love. I am a soppy old amateur. Sir Henry is a hardened professional at the peak of his career. I adore the fact that we give our horses the same look. (Of course at this stage I cannot help remembering that Red and Frankel are cousins.)

Henry Cecil got his cheer because he is whacking away at a horrible illness. He got it because he has been up and been down, and the British appreciate most keenly someone who knows what it is to be up against it. When he was down, the one owner who stuck with him was Prince Khalid Abdullah, who sent him Frankel. There is a ravishing symmetry to that.

And he got his cheer because everyone who follows racing knows that it is one thing having a really talented horse, but it is quite another to keep him sound and keep him interested and place him perfectly and ask him the exact right questions. It is for that reason that unbeaten is such a rare word in racing.

What a pair they are, the young brave and the old warrior. What joy they have given. How they make me lost for superlatives.

I have seen many, many fine sights on a racecourse, but I’m not sure I’ve ever, ever seen anything quite as fine as this.


Frankel wins at York

Lovely photograph by the always talented Alan Crowhurst, for Getty Images.

Could not resist, because it’s FRANKEL DAY

So much for my no blog, no Twitter resolution. Turns out I cannot HELP myself. I have to write some words on the screen and send them out to you. The Pigeon and I are sitting in our favourite place, Plato’s in Kirkby Lonsdale, and I am devouring the Racing Post, with a glorious picture of the mighty Frankel on its cover, because it is FRANKEL DAY.

It is yet another of the great, cherished days, and I am about to drive over the moors to the Knavesmire. There are no nice hotel rooms free near York, and anyway, this is my place. The Pigeon is going to be looked after for the day on a farm just up the road, where she may romp in the woods as I scream Come on, my son.

There may be need for shouting, this time. Lately, it’s been applauding a victory parade. Now Frankel goes two furlongs into the unknown, with an entire O’Brien gang out to mug him. The race is stuffed with pacemakers and tacticians, all aiming to get Frankel. Memories of the great Brigadier sear the minds of Frankel fans. Can this be the day the champion is brought low?

I am so excited I am shaking. It is about four hundred miles from my front door to York Racecourse; every single of those miles is worth it. It could all be a tremendous let-down, I suppose; Frankel could be interfered with, stumble, just get out of bed on the wrong side. No horse goes on winning like that; unbeaten is a rare word.

Here is what I think is going to happen. I think he will see the extra two furlongs as just more lovely turf upon which to stamp his imperious class. I think he will laugh at the O’Brien tactics. I think St Nicholas Abbey, a horse I also love, will be confounded by Frankel’s mid-race speed. I think there may be more glory than we have seen, even this far. That’s just my gut. I have no science for this.

And now I run to the car. I have on my special Frankel frock; also a nice Frankel jewel. One must be well-turned out, in the presence of greatness. No hat unfortunately, since I dyed my hair last night out of a box and it appears to have gone purple. Never mind. Who cares about aubergine hair when one has the chance to see the greatest horse in a generation?

I’ve written of Frankel so many times; I love him and admire him so keenly that I run out of good words for him. He is, without doubt, the most thrilling horse I ever saw; the most visceral, the most titanic, the most out of the ordinary. He is the one that makes you gasp and shout. Whatever happens today, all that will still be true. He owes none of us one thing; every person who ever saw him has already a cup running over with luck. If he can thrill us again today, then it’s all bonus. It will be like the loveliest racing present anyone could ever give.

In my head, I see all the caveats and pitfalls. In my heart, I imagine a marvellous, romping procession, as Frankel stretches out his great stride, and eats up the Knavesmire, leaving everything else floundering in his wake. It could happen. I eye, gingerly, the William Hill offer of 4-1 to win by ten lengths. My finger hovers over the Place Your Bet button. That would be a punt for pure love, nothing forensic about it. I hear the sweet, ghostly laughter of my dad, from his betting shop in the sky. I think: bugger it. It’s worth a tenner. I think: it’s racing, anything could happen. I think: I love that horse more than I can express.

I think: it’s all very well writing a blog like this on the hoof, but almost certainly none of it makes any sense. I have no time to proof-read. I think: the Dear Readers will understand.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Random Monday. Or, horses, politics, and a short break in regular programming

Today, I rode my mare in only a thin rope halter and a leading rope. (I want to put all that in HUGE CAPITAL LETTERS. WITH LOTS OF EXCLAMATION MARKS!!! But you see how heroically I resisted.)

Those of you who ride Western or do natural horsemanship may be thinking: yeah, yeah, big whoop. Anyone brought up in the English tradition, or who harbours doubts about thoroughbreds may be thinking, as I was: what the...????

I grew up with lots of bits. I rode in double bridles and Pelhams, as well as snaffles. I rode quite a lot of strong, galloping ponies, and they needed things in their mouths. Today, for reasons too boring to recount, I threw the bit away. I was really interested to see what would happen. I mean: she was a racehorse, after all. She could have just buggered off, and I would have not had many means to stop her. Also, I wondered about direction. I don’t rely on the bit for steering, but I do use it.

I rather wish I could relate the whole story step by step, but I’ve too many other things to say. Also, you would die of boredom. I would just like to record that we did a perfect, slow, sitting trot; long, extended walk; and, most amazing of all, serpentines and tight turns round the saplings. Steering, astonishingly, was better with just a halter.

I have not literally thrown away the bit. But quite frankly, after that revelation, I may never use a bridle again. Bridle, schmidle.

It made me think of the prejudice against thoroughbreds. Because I grew up with them, I slightly thought they were the only horses. I knew people liked cobs and Connemaras and Irish sports horses, but I’m afraid I always thought they were a bit down the pecking order. Thoroughbreds, in my mind, were the kings and queens. It’s only lately I have discovered that people spread the most ghastly calumnies about the breed. According to nasty, tattling tongues, they are difficult and temperamental and hard to handle and too sensitive and bad doers and not affectionate. I even found one website ironically called: You can’t hug a thoroughbred. (The people there insist otherwise, but that is what they have been told.)

I hug my thoroughbred all the time. I can lie down with her, and walk under her stomach, and she will fall asleep on me. I can lead her, groom her, rug her, feed her, all without any rope or headcollar. Today, I discovered that I can ride her without a bridle. She is the poster girl for her breed; one-mare proof that all the rumours are not true. I could not be prouder or happier.


Driving about the gleaming Aberdeenshire countryside, admiring the late summer colours (wild blues, purples and high yellows), I caught an argument on the radio. It was about the new housing policy suggested by the centre-right Policy Exchange. It’s a rather practical idea: very expensive social housing in swanky postcodes should, when it falls empty, be sold, and the money used to build several cheaper houses not in Chelsea or Notting Hill. There are huge waiting lists for council houses, and this is a fairly interesting solution.

The man arguing for it was a mild, wonkish fellow with a faint northern accent. Not a cartoon evil Etonian, in other words. The woman arguing against was middle-class, and livid. She went straight to the emotive: throwing people out of their homes, ghettoes, social divisiveness. The poor fellow repeated three times that no one was being thrown out of anywhere, but she would not listen. Because the policy was suggested by a right of centre organisation, it must, clearly, be an attack on the poor. If low-income families cannot live in Mayfair, then there is no social justice. It was really, really stupid.

As regular readers know, I’ve given up tribalism. I take each policy or argument on its merits, regardless who vaunts it. I’m of the left in that I really do believe in government. I’m a bit of a collectivist; I think that wildly free markets and rampant individualism can bash and strain the social fabric. Part of the reason I loved the Olympics so is that it could only have been put on in the way it was by a collective, and could only have been covered so well by a state broadcaster like the BBC. The old leftie in me got a very naughty shiver of righteous shadenfreude when the private G4s screwed up on a monumental scale, and the public army stepped into the breach. (Everyone said that the soldiers were magnificent.)

When the right is silly, it bangs on about feral children and benefit scroungers and dreams, idiotically, of a mythical golden era when everything was so much better. It keeps saying that supply side is the answer to everything when it is patently not. (I am an empiricist; I have seen the graphs.) When the left is silly, it insists that all private enterprise is intrinsically evil and that the Tories loathe the poor and want to punish them and take away their shoes. Today, the left was being silly.

The thing about the social compact is that it must be consented to. It must be seen to be fair; taxes should not be squandered or hurled about on crazed vanity projects or jobsworth jobs. In this way, we are all stitched into the communal fabric. If the Daily Mail gets to run too many scare stories about families on the dole living in million pound houses, then the fairness aspect starts to creak, and the compact is in danger of disintegrating. People ask difficult questions; ordinary decent Britons may suspect that their hard-earned cash is not being used in the most sensible way.

This housing idea may have some unintended consequences, and should be questioned and checked, of course. But to come on the radio and scream about how building houses in Stoke Newington, say, instead of putting up families in the hedge-fund theme park that is Westbourne Grove, is some kind of sinister plot to herd the poor into ghettoes is insulting and intellectually lazy. It also feeds the right-wing caricature of the left, which is never helpful.

This policy may or may not work, but it could be discussed without everyone going immediately to knee-jerk and howling about ghettoes. The word cleansing has also been used, which is really offensive to those who have been ethnically cleansed. The country needs more houses; someone has to work out how to do it. This notion may not be the answer, but it is a start. I don’t care if a useful idea comes from the right, or the left; I care about its utility.

And that’s my little political rant of the day.


I’m going to have some time off. I’m going to see Frankel run in the penultimate race of his glorious career. (Even as I write that sentence, I feel a twist of wild excitement in my stomach; I get butterflies and shivers up my spine.) I’m going to see The Playwright’s play. I’m going to visit some dear relations.

My nutty relationship with this blog is such that I keep thinking: even on a break, moving about, I must still give you your daily bulletin. What would I do without the Dear Readers? But I have decided that I am going to be ruthless. I am going to go off the blog, and possibly even Twitter and Facebook too. My mind is tired, after the wrangle with the old book and the pitching for new books and the inception of the secret project. I’m going to switch off all my machines, and read old-school paper novels, and sleep late, and settle my antic brain. Then, I shall come back for the new term in September fresh as forty-seven daisies.

My terror, of course, is that you shall all have fled, to more fecund pastures. You shall find other Pigeons and other mares and other rambly musings on more fruitful subjects. I shall switch on the computer and find only tumbleweed and dust where there was a village. That is how bonkers I am. This idiot belief is actually my final sign that I really must stop for a while. If I have given in to this much loony thinking, then it surely must be a red flag. I need a holiday, and I’m going to take one. I thank you for all your lovely comments, and your generous support. I’m going to trust to the ether, and hope that you shall still all be here when I return, on the 3rd of September.


Very quick pictures, as I must pack:

Red, doing her Minnie the Moocher:

20 Aug 1

Gazing at her view:

20 Aug 2

Doing her butter would not melt face:

20 Aug 3

Pigeon, gazing with love at the Younger Brother:

20 Aug 5

With hopeful ball face:

20 Aug 6

Dreaming of biscuits:

20 Aug 7

She is coming with, this time; I know some of you will be wondering.

The hill:

20 Aug 20

Sunday, 19 August 2012

In which a compliment sparks a half-baked theory

Someone said a very kind thing today. She said: ‘You have retained your childlike enthusiasm. You have not been beaten down by life.’

I don’t generally like passing on compliments about myself. It’s a most unBritish form of showing off. Even if one couches it in self-deprecation, it qualifies for what people on Twitter now call the humblebrag. But it interested me because it made me think that often what we think of as weaknesses may be perceived as strengths. May even be actual strengths. (I have not fully worked out this theory yet.)

As the regular readers will know, I am prone to enthusiasms. I suddenly go nuts for racing or the Olympics or the American election or some new thing on Radio Four. (When John Finnemore’s Cabin Pressure is on, I have to restrain myself from writing of it every day, complete with sonnets to the loveliness of Roger Allam.) This is not always what I consider seemly in a woman of my age. I am surely supposed to have learnt some composure by now? I am rather afraid of the self-contained people, because I have never learnt self-containment, and when I am with them I feel like one of those out of control mutt puppies, knocking things over with my paws, whilst they are regal Borzois, gazing at me in distant astonishment.

I feel like an idiot quite a lot of the time. The enthusiasms are part of the reason I feel like an idiot. As I was contemplating this, I wondered if even this is a bad thing. Obviously, I imagine it would be lovely and restful not to feel like an idiot, but on the other hand, the spectre of idiocy does act as an excellent brake to hubris. If you are secretly convinced you are a bit of a fool, you are much less likely to persecute people or stand in strict judgement or impose your stern moral code on a group or cohort, or invade countries. (Not that I am actually in a position to start invading places, but you take my wider point.)

On the rare occasions that I meet an Alpha Male, I am always struck by a feeling of surprise. There was a surgeon I met not that long ago, absolutely shining with brilliance and certainty and cleverness and accomplishment. He was a tremendous conversationalist and very funny and polite, but still, there was something surprising, even disconcerting, about him. I thought for a while it was just his general Alpha-ness. Now I wonder if the batsqueak of astonishment comes from the fact that people like that probably never feel like idiots, ever.

Folly, I think now, is stitched into the human condition. I have always wondered why people accuse other people of being irrational, as if it were an odd thing to be, when most of human thinking is shot through with the irrational. You have to make a strict mental effort to be a rationalist; magical thinking goes back to the caves. I sometimes wish I did not have quite so much folly. I do wonder, as I sing to my horse, and tell her stories of her famous grandfather, and give her massages with special balm that I have made for her, at the chasms of my folly. When I wake up on any day that Frankel is going to a racecourse and feel as if all my Christmases have come at once, I do slightly question whether this is entirely appropriate for a forty-five-year old female, who has been round the block a few times. Should I not be a little more world-weary? Should I not attempt to channel Gore Vidal or Charlotte Rampling?

I sometimes think it might be rather lovely to be mysterious and sophisticated and enigmatic (as the magical thinking part of my brain imagines that all French women are). But one must face one’s limitations. I shall never be Charlotte Rampling, because most of the time I am stumping round a muddy field, belting out a vaguely out of tune rendition of The Rhythm of Life to Red the Mare. And that, literally, metaphorically, is all she wrote.


Pictures are from yesterday evening, when the special Scottish sun was dazzling about everywhere:

Pot table and garden:

19 Aug 1

19 Aug 2

19 Aug 3

19 Aug 4

19 Aug 5

Red’s View:

19 Aug 8

19 Aug 9

19 Aug 10-002

Myfanwy the Pony:

19 Aug 10

Red the Mare, bathed in evening light:

19 Aug 10-001

19 Aug 11

Will you throw the ball?:

19 Aug 13


19 Aug 14


19 Aug 20

Saturday, 18 August 2012

In which the mare teaches me another life lesson

Today, I had the best ride ever on my mare. We have had good rides before, but lately it has been a bit hit and miss. There was the fussing thing with the head, which I could not quite get to the bottom of, and also a tension behind the saddle. Was it just ordinary thoroughbred temperament? Was it reaction to a new rider? Was it some kind of physical discomfort? Was it a test?

One by one, I ticked off the physical and practical probabilities. Over the last few weeks, I have had the brilliant man from Perthshire to deal with her back. He stretched her muscles and soothed her sore spots. I got the clever woman from Logie Coldstone to come and tend to her feet. The delightful saddle-fitter from Keith arrived to fit the perfect saddle. At last, yesterday, the Alpha Vet pitched up to check her teeth. There was some undignified rasping. A huge metal object, like a wrench, goes right into the back of Red’s mouth; her duchessy side does not think this is appropriate at all.

The vet gave me a bit of a quizzical look. After all, he had done her teeth only three months ago. But still, I was not taking any chances. It was belt and braces all the way.

This morning, the sun came out and I tacked her up and got on. I was a little wary, because if, after all this, there was still a glitch, I could only conclude that it was me. I was a rotten rider and she was pining for the light hands and perfect seat of The Auld Fella.

We went off very slowly. There are young cows in the hayfields now, and I was not risking some kind of madness of crowds, even though the farmer says I may ride among them. We stuck to the gentle tracks instead, and travelled at a stately pace. Red shook her head, tested the bit, thought for a moment, and then let out a great equine sigh of relief. She stretched herself, put her head down, and fell into a glorious, easy lope. It’s very difficult to describe the difference, but it was immense.

We beat the bounds, in ecstatic harmony. It was as if I had been driving a car with the handbrake on, and now suddenly someone had noticed and taken the damn thing off. I felt a faint, haunting sense of guilt. I had not understood how she could be so good on the ground, and so tight and not easy under the saddle. All that time, I think now, she had been in some kind of uncomfort. I don’t say pain, because she is perfectly clever enough to have bucked me off, if something had really been hurting. Also, we did have good moments before, so it cannot have been too awful. My suspicion is that a combination of back, saddle, and teeth had been bothering her, and the bother was increasing as time went on, and, by the end, it was as if I were asking someone to run a marathon in a pair of tight high heels.

Now, I had given her the equivalent of a pair of lovely old All Stars, and she was as happy as a pig in clover.

There were about twenty-seven interesting things that I drew from all this. One is that horses really will do pretty much anything for you, even if they are not in their optimum state. Something was amiss, and she had been trying to tell me, and it took a while for me to get it, but she still did go on and do her work. (This makes me feel a bit teary and humble.) The second specific equine thing is: it’s really easy to be a good rider if you are on a happy horse. Today, I was like William Fox-Pitt at the Olympics; I could have given Charlotte Dujardin a run for her money. When your horse is moving easily forward, filled with joy and momentum, you pretty much just have to sit up straight to be brilliant. All my jittery confidence came zooming back; the revitalised Red reminded me that I could do this. The third thing, which may apply to horses and life, is: check everything.

That is my life lesson, the check everything thing. With horses, everybody says it: teeth, back, saddle. That is the mantra. All these things involve organisation and finding the right person and making appointments. People do not call back and there is the matter of time and logistics. I had rather hoped it was just something between the mare and me, so I had been a little dilatory. In the end, it was the checking of the basics that made all the difference. I’m always banging on about how one should say the thing; now I add to it the idea that one should do the thing. I finally dialled all the numbers, took the sterling advice, and now it is as if I have a whole new horse.

Poor Red, I thought. I really was a bit slow on the uptake. I blessed the bad weather, which meant we had not been riding that much, and the days that I chose to do groundwork instead. I blessed the fact that I had taken the time to get to know her, so that I could see if she was throwing her head and being a bit mulish there was more to it than temper. (She does not have any temper; she has a streak of wildness in her, from her fine blood, but her default setting is sweetness and willingness.) I was glad I had read all that stuff that told me I must listen to my horse. I have angst I did not listen more carefully, quicker, sooner. But we have got there in the end, and the lovely thing about the mare is that she does not hold it against me.

We rode back in such harmony that I let go of the reins and did special stretching exercises with my arms whilst she guided herself home. I felt her move under me with grace and ease. The future spooled out in front of us, glittering with promise.

I felt towards her, as I so often do, a passionate gratitude. People talk about the once in a lifetime horse. There is always one, that stands above the rest, that catches your heart like no other, that can never be matched. I think that she is my once in a lifetime horse. She is my Frankel, my Kauto Star, and I can’t quite believe my great good fortune.


Today’s pictures:

18 Aug 1

18 Aug 2

18 Aug 4

18 Aug 6

18 Aug 7

Red’s View:

18 Aug 8

Red the Mare:

17 Aug 8

17 Aug 9

The Pigeon:

18 Aug 10

Who, along with her departed sister, is my once in a lifetime dog.


18 Aug 20

PS. Wrote this at the end of the day, rather tired. It’s not my finest piece of writing, but my eyes are crossing and there is no time for an edit. I just really did want to tell you this little parable, so forgive my clumsy paragraphs.

Friday, 17 August 2012

How to love beetroot; or, a recipe

A quick recipe, as promised.

Beetroot, broad bean and feta salad.

Here is a lovely fresh summer thing, to cheer you up as the rain falls.

First, catch your beets. It really is worth getting the fresh, muddy kind. Chop the tops off, quarter them, and boil for about half an hour, or until tender. Let them cool, slip the skins off, and slice.

Take a handful of broad beans, as many as you fancy, and simmer for about six minutes. Allow these to cool also, and skin them too. The beetroot skin falls off, pleasingly, but broad bean skins are horrid, recalcitrant things. It really is worth the effort, though. Find something interesting on the wireless to distract your mind. (I find the skinning is helped by making little nips with a sharp knife in the top of the bean, and then sort of pushing the innards out with your fingers.)

Skin and slice finely half a cucumber.

Take two mint leaves, and very, very finely slice these. You want the merest ribbons.

Crumble or finely cube about a third of a slab of feta cheese.

Now arrange all the ingredients as you like, on a nice plate (I like a plain white one to show off the colours.) This salad should not be mixed, as the beetroot will bleed and make everything look like a road accident. It is best artfully assembled in layers. (I really do sound like an insane Mrs Beeton at this stage.)

Dress with some good olive oil, a scatter of sea salt, and a squeeze of lemon.

And that is it.

I always bang on about giving you brevity, and not going on and on and on. Then, when I am concise and ruthlessly short, I have angst about not having rambled about a bit. My attitude to blogging is absolutely idiotic, and there is no reason or rhyme to it.

Have a very happy Friday.


Quick pictures:

Not terribly good one of salad:

17 Aug 1

Pot table:

17 Aug 2

Thistle in Red’s field:

17 Aug 3


17 Aug 4

17 Aug 5

Red the Mare:

17 Aug 10

Very, very sweet today. I took her with as I scoured her paddock for hideous ragwort. I thought I could combine a bit of join-up work with digging for weeds. Also, it was a good opportunity to teach her to stand like a rock as I shoved my huge garden fork into the earth to get every last root.

She really did pass with flying colours. It never ceases to amaze me that she will follow my every footstep. Although sometimes she gets bored and buggers off. Then I have to get her back, reassert my leadership (ENORMOUS body language), and back we are together, like a tiny miracle in a soggy Scottish field.

The helicopters are going over all the time at the moment. I imagine it is members of the Royal Family going to visit the Duke of Edinburgh, who is in hospital in Aberdeen. In my nutty mind, I imagine Prince Charles looking down and saying: Now there’s a nice sort of horse.


17 Aug 13

Really, the beauty. Age does not wither her. And as for her infinite variety…

Cloudy hill:

17 Aug 15

Thursday, 16 August 2012

The Ordinary and the Extraordinary. Or, the place where adjectives fail

Today, I met some people who had bits missing. I think that’s the best way to put it. Say the thing like it is. Amputee is horrid; armless and legless are just wrong, somehow.

Words matter, in these situations, and often there are no good ones. When good-hearted people took against disability, a word I too dislike, and started talking about differently-abled, it did not quite fly. It lacked authenticity, somehow; it was as if they were trying too hard. It had a faint whiff of political correctness and jargon and not calling a thing by its name. Yet, there is really no good name. Bits missing is my own small protest against the poverty of language when it smacks up against lost limbs.

The other problem is when words whack into sentiment. My fingers are itching for adjectives. I want to say: heroic, and remarkable, and extraordinary, and awe-inspiring. I want to tip up my thesaurus and empty it out onto the page. I am lost in admiration, and I want language for that.

I suspect, though, these men and women would hate that. I suspect, but do not know, that they could do without the adjectives, because that puts on them some kind of artificial burden which they may prefer not to carry. Too many words place them beyond the usual, into a part of life where regular people do not go, where civilians may not know how to react with nuance and sensitivity. Much easier to slap the label of hero onto someone, put them in that box, and then not have to think about it too much.

The women and men go out to wars. They fight their good fight. Some of them leave parts of themselves behind. At some stage, after medical attention and long rehabilitation, they end up in the rolling valley of the River Dee, on horses they have never met before. This is the operation of which I wrote a couple of weeks ago, HorseBack UK. Today, I went up to see the thing in action.

I want to say extraordinary, because it is true, yet I know that the returning soldiers are in some sense as gloriously ordinary as you and I, with all the frailties flesh is heir to. They do have extraordinary reserves of courage and determination and physical stamina and tactical nous. But to meet, they are funny and filthy and irreverent and interesting and ironical and thoughtful. My instinct of course is to hoist them up onto a pedestal; at the same time, I know that is no good at all.

Similarly, the HorseBack operation is extraordinary, and at the same time steeped in ordinariness. There is no Disney soundtrack, no slow-motion, no flying manes and dramatic galloping sequences. The horses are mostly dear old quarter-horses, who live out in the field, with dreamy temperaments and slightly scruffy tails. They are trained with intelligence and skill, and can do remarkable things, but at the same time, they are horses; they may be ornery or a bit idle or wander off if the mood takes them. Horses are not machines; however brilliant and well-schooled they are, you cannot just press the button that says go.

There is something intensely moving and impressive to watch a man who has lost half of one arm and most of the other hand, who has never sat on a horse before, guiding his ride round an obstacle course. There is something remarkable in watching a fellow with no legs ease himself into a Western saddle, or a woman in a wheelchair learn to lunge an equine in easy wide circles around her.

At the same time, there is the ordinariness again. The obstacle course is made of pedestrian poles and familiar old traffic cones; everyone wears jeans and t-shirts; sometimes the man with no legs remembers that he never saw a horse until four days ago and completely forgets what to do and the animal goes the wrong way, and it’s not all circus tricks and violin soundtrack.

There is ribbing and jokes. ‘Not bad for a Welshman,’ yells the man with two prosthetic legs to the fellow with no hands.

Maybe that is the most bloody brilliant thing about the whole shooting match. It is the extraordinary and the ordinary; it is life-changing and yet life very much as it is lived. It is beyond imagination and yet completely real.

I’m not going to hurl around adjectives, however much I want to. I wrote this because I really wanted you to get a picture of what actually goes on, rather than editorialise all over the shop. You have your own adjectives; you can fill in the blanks. I will give you one word though, and that word is: grit.

That is what I sensed, everywhere, not in a showy, John Wayne way, but in a quiet, self-deprecating, bone-deep way. It’s there in the tough, honest horses; in the people who work there in all weathers and with all comers; in the servicemen and women who just damn well get on with it. It’s not an operatic quality. It is, though, an essential one. It is the one to which I take off my hat.




I talked a lot about horses today. I discussed with one of the horsemen the bad reputation some people give the thoroughbred: too hot, too sensitive, too quirky and difficult and temperamental. I don’t believe this idiot stereotyping for a moment. Before going to HorseBack, I ran up early to my own mare. She and the pony were lying, side by side, dozing in the field. They mostly sleep standing up; it’s quite rare to find them lounging around like that.

Red did not budge as I approached. I crouched down beside her and checked her over and rubbed her sweet spots and talked to her. I thought: I wonder if she will go all the way over. We have never done that before. I gently pushed her neck, and she thought for a moment, and then over she went, so that she was lying completely flat, her head on the grass, her whole body stretched out. I ran my hands all over her face and down her neck. She closed her eyes and breathed through her nose.

This was a flight animal at its most vulnerable. It was the ordinary – a muddy old mare in a green field – and the extraordinary – a thoroughbred trusting its human completely. I sat and marvelled at it for a bit, my heart catching in my chest. Every damn day, she gives me something like this.

Then we both stood up, shook ourselves, and laughed at each other. The mare did her old donkey face. I gave her a rub and a treat. And then I drove away, leaving her gazing out to the west behind me.


The photographs today are all in honour of the horse in general. Because honour is due. Unfortunately, I only have photographs of my own horse, so these are of my mare in particular. But I think she can stand for her species.

16 Aug 1

16 Aug 2

16 Aug 3

16 Aug 5

16 Aug 6

16 Aug 7

16 Aug 9

16 Aug 10

16 Aug 10-001

16 Aug 10-020

And even in the middle of a festival of equine loveliness, there must always be THE DOG:

16 Aug 12

And the hill, which is appropriate today, because it is not just the horses, it is the hills too that play their part in what I witnessed this morning:

16 Aug 20

Talking of horses, one of my favourites, Trade Commissioner, was running today, and I put a bet on, thinking that if he won I could send the winnings to HorseBack UK, in a lovely piece of symmetry.

He got absolutely stuffed. Even the mighty John Gosden may sometimes falter.

I felt a bit flat about it, to tell you the truth, and rather dolefully put up the pictures on the blog, and got ready to press publish.

Then I decided to have a second Bet of the Day, on the nice Mick Channon filly, Represent. She looked liked she was boxed in, and I thought: idiot, idiot, idiot, there’s another punt gone south. Then a tiny gap opened up, and the jockey asked her to go through it. Some horses will hesitate at a moment like that. Not Represent. On she went, gutsy, determined, willing as the day is long, and she won her race. So there was another piece of grit. And there was forty-five pounds to a fine cause.

Sometimes I curse my father for leaving me his betting blood. I picture him in the big William Hill in the sky, shaking his head sorrowfully as another accumulator crashes and burns. Not today. Today, everybody won.


Link to HorseBack is here, if you are interested.


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