First Part: The Horse Stuff.
A friend writes, from America: ‘Really, this horse stuff is a bit nuts.’ He is a man of great irony, of the driest wit, and I can’t quite tell whether he is joking or not. For a moment, I feel rebuked, like a schoolchild caught doing something naughty and silly and wrong. ‘It’s an each to each thing,’ I reply, cautiously. Then he writes a lot of dear and kind sentences and I get my mojo back.
But the thing is, even if he was mildly joshing, he is right. It is a bit nuts. Most of the time, I’m used to nuttiness, and fold it into my existence easily. I grew up surrounded by eccentricity. My father obeyed no known societal rule. He was like a permanent Bateman cartoon. I’m not sure I ever met a man who paid so little heed to the done thing. Luckily, he was so funny and he had so much charm and he was so transparently generous that everyone forgave him. He was also armoured with a sort of innocence. He did the things he did not in a spirit of defiance or transgression, but simply because he existed in his own little magical world, with his own set of fairy tale rules.
I inherited some of that, but there is also a faint respectable streak, a voice that says: what will people think? Most of the time I take my obsessions and passions and monomanias for granted; I understand my geekish, going overboard side and let it run. Then, sometimes, I think: what are you going on about?
The horse love comes from a lot of things. It was what I grew up with. I knew horses before I knew anything else. The smell of dung and the scent of hay and the sound of hooves ran through my childhood like a seam of gold through rock. The equines dictated our daily routine: the dark early mornings when I followed my father out to the stables, to find the dozing shadows in their boxes; the summer evenings when we rattled round the fields in the old Landrover with buckets of nuts. They conjured the moods of the house: delirious joy when a winner came in, black despair when one broke down.
As I grow older, and find that familiar passion rekindled, I think: it is not just because these are the known rhythms of my early life. I really admire horses, in all their guises. I love the brave jumpers who battle through the mud, and the fleet milers who fly over the green turf, and the hardy handicappers who defy the weights.
Just as much, I love my little Welsh pony, who has no champion blood, but is good and funny and dear and interesting. I love my thoroughbred mare, who, for all her high breeding, was the slowest of slow coaches on the track, but who is so beautiful and intelligent and affectionate that she makes my heart stop.
This morning, the field was three-quarter flooded. The Horse Talker and I were having a rather doleful discussion about whether to tape off the drowned part, when Red, in her role as herd leader, took matters into her own hands. As if Noah himself were calling her to the ark, she gracefully waded through the water to the gate, with Autumn and Myfanwy following her in Indian file, to get their breakfast. It was a brave thing for a flight animal to do, and when they had safely navigated their way through the rising waters, they looked so pleased with themselves that I wanted to give them a prize. It was the simplest of simple things, and it made my heart burst with pride. It was sunshine, on a cloudy day.
Here is what I think it is, what really draws me and delights me and makes that passion fire. It is authenticity. You can’t fool a horse. You can’t impress it with riches, or blind it with science, or blag it with bogusness. They are so honest and intuitive that they respond instinctively to your most profound self. There is something very lovely about that. Working with horses brings me back to first principles like nothing else. They are like a daily dose of Shakespeare: to thine own self be true.
Well, that’s my excuse, and I am sticking to it.
Second Part: The Life Stuff.
Last year, in May, I went to three funerals in three weeks. My dad died. On the night of his funeral, the heart of one of my dogs stopped. In the weeks and months afterwards, I went through all the things one might expect. I did shock and grief and fury and a sudden, acute awareness of mortality.
This year, just as the skin was growing back and normality was returning, my second dog had to be put down. A couple of weeks later, I suffered an unexpected professional set back, which, though small in the scheme of things, felt like a dull blow on an old bruise.
All these are expected things. These are the things that everyone goes through. It’s life and death and the whole damn shooting match. But still, it leaves one a bit bashed about. It’s not as if I have not had pleasures and joys in amongst it all. It is not as if I have not laughed and smiled and found delight in a pretty morning or a fine sunset. It’s just that, I realise now, it took an actual thing to make me happy.
Last night, for the first time since all this mortality took me in its crocodile jaws, I felt violently happy for no reason at all.
Admittedly, I had had a good day. I had a funny Christmas lunch, with the people at HorseBack UK, who do something that means something in the world. The Landlord and the World Traveller came for a special festive drink, and admired the house with its decorations, and exclaimed over Stanley the Dog, and said kind things, and made me laugh. But it was a while after that, as I was sitting on the sofa, with my new brindle fellow, watching a bit of television, when the wave of absolutely pointless joy hit.
I suddenly realised I have not felt that for a really, really long time. It’s like a little humming engine, a billowing balloon, a gust of existential wind. It lifts one up, almost literally. This, I thought, is the thing I have not known for a long time. It’s the giddy pointless absurd happiness in simply being alive.
Writing this now I feel a bit hokey and silly and absurd. It doesn’t quite come out the way I felt it, and, once translated into words, it sounds soppy. But it’s important to me and I wanted to mark it. I like authenticity and purity, and there is something wonderfully real about being happy for no reason at all.
Also, I know these moments are fleeting. I feel like Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead when he says to Charles something like: I would like to bury a pot of gold in all the places where I have been really happy, so when I am old and crabbed and grey, I can come back and dig them up and remember.
This is my pot of gold.
Too wet for photographs today. Here are some collages:
Stanley the Dog:
The much-missed Pigeon: