Tuesday, 31 July 2012

All horses and joy; or anatomy of a Tuesday


The sun shone. A brilliant man from Perthshire came and manipulated the mare’s back. He gave me a lesson in equine anatomy as Red shuddered and leaned and made most unladylike groaning noises. She’s tight and knotty in all the places you would expect someone who has done the work she has done to be. The brilliant man was not whimsical and new age, although some people think massaging horses is a load of nonsense. He was one of those proper, bone-deep horseman, the kind you can meet once and immediately start talking the same equine language. He is practical and earthy and not prone to flights of fancy, I should not imagine. All the same, he wants me to massage my mare every day. And so I shall. We shall bend and stretch until our ears squeak. She shall be the most limber horse in Scotland.

I then rushed back to watch the show-jumping phase of the three day event. It was absolutely thrilling. For a moment, I hoped the doughty Britons might overhaul the coruscating Germans, but no one was getting past them. Still, Olympic silver is an extraordinary thing. The team rode so well and tried so hard and took equine excellence to a high plain. I salute them all.

I felt quite teary, watching the ceremony. The riders all looked so happy and proud, and the horses so gleaming and bonny. The great New Zealand team won bronze, and everyone cheered their heads off for Mark Todd, who at fifty-six is really stretching the Olympic spirit to its farthest ends. He is so good it would not surprise me if he were in Rio in four years’ time.

So that was happy and good, and even though the lovely Michelangelo got beat in the big race at Goodwood, carrying my money with him, I was rewarded with an unexpected treat, because friend of the blog Shirley Teasdale had a big winner at Ayr. She had a difficult ride last week when her horse ran off his true line and she was hauled in front of the stewards. I always think that must be a terrifying carpet to be up on for a young apprentice. But there, she bounced back in glory.

My own tiny champion, the younger great-niece, rode Myfanwy the pony, with the usual blissed out expression on her face. I’m not sure I ever saw a four year old person quite so happy. For a lot of small people, getting on the back of even the dopiest pony can feel alien and alarming. It’s so foreign, and so far off the ground. Not for this one. She goes into a trance of bliss. ‘Can I steer myself? Let me steer myself!’ she cried, with her Lester Piggott face on. I thought: I must record this now, so that when she is winning Olympic gold or riding in the Grand National, her first steps shall have been marked. (It may turn out that she is a poet or a breeder of rare sheep, but I like to have my equine dreams.)

Her joy was so infectious that the other children clamoured to have a go. So we got all the tiny relations on the small white pony, and it made me think of my own childhood, and it was very, very sweet indeed.

I must concentrate now on serious things. I must get back to my work and take in world events (no idea what is happening beyond my gate just now) and put my serious hat on. But today, as the dancing Scottish sun beamed down on us, all was horsey joy.


Pictures of the day:

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Red, looking particularly magnificent after her manipulation:

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I don’t know what that fella did to her, but she was bucking round her field like a two-year-old:

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Myfanwy the Pony had a bath today. Does she not look clean:

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The ponies have new neighbours. The farmer brought them up yesterday. They are just weaned, very curious, and ravishingly beautiful:

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Red’s view:

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Sometimes she has to go into capital letters because lower case is just not enough.

The hill:

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Monday, 30 July 2012

The strangely invisible team

Today, a British team is performing at the Olympics. At the half-way point of their discipline, they are in bronze medal position. One member of the team is the world number one. We don’t have that many world champions, but we have one here.

We have only won two medals so far, a silver and a bronze. This team has the potential for collective and individual gold, if they get a little luck and things fall their way. You might think that this would be a cause for excitement and rejoicing and sporting fervour.

On the BBC Olympic website, this team is not mentioned. On the page titled ‘Day Three’s must-see moments’ there is diving, swimming, gymnastics and rowing. On the section ‘GB Teams in action’ there is basketball, handball, hockey, volleyball and water polo. There is absolutely no mention of this particular team, despite the fact they have performed out of their skins so far, in one of the most gruelling Olympic sports of all, and they have the potential to win something for dear old Blighty. In the sports round-up on this morning’s Today programme, their names were not spoken.

I refer, of course, to the British three-day-event team, who start the cross-country section today.

I’m afraid I got very, very grumpy about this. I started developing all kinds of furious conspiracy theories. It must be because it is to do with horses, and horses are seen as posh, and everyone hates posh people. The world champion is even called William Fox-Pitt, carrying the terrible no-no of a double-barrelled name. He really does not sound as if he scrabbled his way up from a council estate. (Perhaps he should have changed his name to William Pitt, but then everyone would have thought he was an 18th century prime minister and made Pitt the Younger jokes and asked if he were going to declare war on Napoleon.) It’s inverted snobbery at its crest and peak, I decided, which is intellectually lazy and generally very silly.

Then I wondered if it were an identity thing. Commentators talk a lot about being able to identify with public figures; they must be accessible and not too far removed from the common experience. Lofty fellows with grand names high up on shining horses are too far from the daily life of the woman on the Clapham omnibus. If that were the reason, then I thought that was pretty absurd, too. Rebecca Adlington and Tom Daley may come from backgrounds very much like the majority of usual Britons, but their talent and their dedication set them apart. Spending six hours a day in the pool is not something with which anyone but the most dedicated may identify.

Then, because I must have a damn explanation, I wondered if it were a town and country thing. Most people live in towns and cities now; the country is often viewed with some suspicion. The three-day-event is country to its fingertips, fatally connected with tweeds and gumboots and mud. It is not metropolitan and modern.

I went up for my Olympic breakfast with The Mother and the lovely Stepfather, filled with indignant theories. The Stepfather gave me my bacon, got out his glittering Occam’s Razor, and sliced cleanly through all my ranting. ‘People just aren’t very interested in it,’ he said.

The awful thing is that I think he might be right. It’s probably not any sociological prejudice or casual stereotyping; it’s just that it is a minority sport.

I think that is a bit sad. Badminton used to be a great national event; when I was a child, it was all over the BBC, and the mighty Lucinda Prior-Palmer was a household name and an object of heroine worship with me and my fellow schoolgirls. Now, despite William Fox-Pitt being the champion of the world, his name is virtually unknown.

I think it is a pity because one could argue that the three-day-event is the ultimate Olympic test. It involves that great mystery, the horse. You can train a horse and school a horse and use all the new technology available to you and get the greatest experts and ride eight hours a day (which is what these athletes do, rain or shine) and still, there is the glorious unpredictability of the equine mind. A horse may spook at the crowd in the middle of a dressage test, take exception to a strange water feature out on the cross-country course, become distracted by a bright umbrella in the show-jumping ring, and that is four year’s work up in smoke. The rider not only has to be talented and fit and nimble, but alive to the constant possibility of the unexpected.

It involves no fewer than three testing phases, all of which ask different things of horse and rider. In the dressage, there is control, suppleness, responsiveness. Then, out on the cross country course, there is the hard gallop over stretching, immovable fences, where one minute misjudgement can lead to crashing falls, broken limbs, utter disaster. I know of no other Olympic event where such physical jeopardy is taken quite for granted. Finally, there is the accuracy and speed required for the show-jumping phase. Having been faced with enormous, solid obstacles the day before, the horses are presented with poles that may come crashing down at the flick of a hoof.

It is also very beautiful. The sight of a fine, strong horse, rippling with muscle, coat gleaming with health, eye shining with intelligence and alertness, at one with a skilled rider, in the most demanding contest, is a very lovely one, even to the untrained eye. It is aesthetically pleasing, even if you do not know what the hell is going on.

It also requires buckets of courage, strength, stamina and dogged determination, over an extended period. I used to do a little bit of junior cross-country when I was young, and I knew I could never go on to the grown-up stuff, because it was too damn terrifying. It asks both equine and human to go the very limits of their physical capabilities.

You would think that this might be interesting, but apparently not. The good thing is that only I am cross about this. The riders will be far too busy walking the course and contemplating their great challenge to care what media websites have, or have not, to say. The horses, very luckily, do not read English, and care only about doing their job and getting a nice bran mash at the end of the day. Perhaps it is even a relief for the competitors not to have to suffer the glare of the public spotlight. Horse people are pretty straightforward and down to earth; preening for the cameras is not something that comes naturally to them.

Still, I would like them to get a bit of credit. The skill and guts that shall be on show today will be something to which a hat should be doffed. I shall be rooting for Mary King and William Fox-Pitt and Nicola Wilson and Tina Cook and Zara Phillips, in my Team GB way, but cross country is so demanding that it goes beyond national labels, so I’ll be cheering for every good rider and brave horse to get round, and give of their best. And the best will be very, very good indeed.


It’s a gloomy old day today, so I did not take the camera out. Here are some nice pictures of our great horses and riders instead, to get you in the Olympic mood:


Partnership in their prime: Mary King feels she and Imperial Cavalier can challenge for a medal

Mary King and Imperial Cavalier; photograph by Getty Images.

Nicola Wilson and Opposition Buzz at the Dew Pond 2

Nicola Wilson and Opposition Buzz, by Henry Bucklow for Lazy Photography.


Zara Phillips and High Kingdom performing dressage yesterday; photograph by John MacDougall for AFP.

Chatsworth Horse trials 2011

William Fox-Pitt and Lionheart; photograph by Horse and Hound.

Tina Cook and Miners Frolic at the Water Complex 5

Tina Cook and Miners Frolic; photograph by Henry Bucklow for Lazy Photography.

And I’m so very sorry, but I can’t resist including my own little Olympic champion. She wouldn’t know a flying change from a hole in the ground, but she gets my own personal gold medal, for sheer loveliness:

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And this one of course is just the official Queen of the World:

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The event has just started, as I finish typing this. To be fair to the dear old Beeb, they have just done a lovely package with Clare Balding interviewing the British team, and the cross country coverage has got off to an excellent start. The first American rider is motoring over a very trappy and undulating course, and the crowds are whooping and cheering their heads off. So perhaps my own personal heroes and heroines, horse and human both, are getting their moment in the sun after all.

Oh, and talking of Olympic champions, we may have one in the making here. The middle of the great-nieces, who is a very, very small person indeed, got onto Myfanwy the pony today for their first serious ride together, and it turns out that not only does she have a natural seat, but she can do a perfect sitting trot. She loves it so much that her entire face is wreathed in beaming smiles, smiles so big that they really need more face to express their full delight. The World Traveller and I count on our fingers. ‘What do you think?’ we say to each other. ‘Olympics 2024?’ We nod seriously. The pony nods her old grey head. The great-niece laughs out loud, from sheer pleasure.

PS. Forgive if there are typos and howlers; I have not time to do a serious proof-read, as I must now WATCH THE HORSES. Go, go, go Team GB.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

In which I examine my patriotic pride for bugs, and cheer on the great British riders

The Dear Readers take a stand against patriotism, and in a way they are quite right. It is, after all, the last refuge of the scoundrel. It is such a random thing, which country you are born in; really, we are all citizens of the world.

In some ways, though, I think patriotism gets a bad name. It need not be a narrow, competitive thing. One can feel fondness for one’s country without thinking it is the best. There is a great difference between narrow chauvinism and generous national pride.

I feel about my country the same way I feel about my family. One may feel pride in one’s mother’s or father’s achievements, even though it has absolutely nothing to do with one, and the people to whom one is born is just as random as is one’s home city.

I feel insanely proud that I had a dad who rode in the Grand National, even though he did it before I ever existed. When I think of him and miss him, I look at a picture of him booting some dear old steeplechaser over a fence, his teeth gritted, a look of manic determination and wild joy in his eyes, and I feel happy again. I do not think my family or my country is the finest that ever existed; quite the opposite. I love them because of their flaws, not in spite of them. (Someone, I think it may have been Balzac, said that is the truest kind of love.)

My fondness for Britons stems not from the hope that they might be world-beaters, but because of the family connection: the shared references, the in-jokes, the cultural shorthands. It is familiarity, as much as anything. It is understanding about Marmite and Monty Python and Mrs Slocombe’s pussy and Pride and Prejudice and Dad’s Army and Dr Who and we few, we happy few. (Even these shorthands may fracture; many of my cultural markers will be strange to those of my compatriots under forty.)

In these games, it shall be lovely to see fine competitors of whatever nationality fulfil their potential, be rewarded for all that work and striving. But if Rebecca Adlington or Mary King or Ben Ainslie or William Fox-Pitt win something, there shall be an extra frisson of delight, because we are related by all the national icons, stitched together by the NHS, and the weather, and self-deprecation, and Shakespeare, and all those other things of which Britain's identity is made.

It is a bit nuts to love one country more than another, but human emotions are not always neatly explicable. Danny Boyle’s great and glorious opening ceremony reminded a lot of Britons what it is that makes us fond and proud: the eccentric, the historic, the exuberant, the very slightly odd. I doubt that any other country on earth would have put dancing nurses into a sporting extravaganza. Or suffragettes and shire horses and Chelsea Pensioners and sheep, for that matter. It had nothing to do with me, yet I did feel proud. I even quite liked the very British fact that, beside all the delight and amazement and applause, there was the statutory curmudgeonly grumbling. We do curmudgeonly better than anyone.

I think you can wave your own flag without wanting to lower anyone else’s. Poor old Blighty is a bit battered and bashed at the moment, what with the crappy economy and industrial decline and the embarrassment of the football. It would cheer one up to win something.

But if we don’t, the crowds will still cheer for those of other nations who do. They will cheer effort as much as victory. This generous spirit was on display on the water this morning, when a capacity crowd saved its biggest roar of the day for a rower from Niger, who was so far behind the rest that he was practically in another county. Hamadou Djibo Issaka has, I very much doubt, a drop of British blood, but he showed the glorious underdog spirit which Britons love the most, and was taken instantly to the spectators’ hearts. I don’t think anyone on the water got more sincere applause.

My Team GB cockles were warmed today by the lovely performances from Zara Phillips and William Fox-Pitt in the dressage stage of the three-day-event. Most of all, I was thrilled by the extraordinary composure of Tina Cook, who had to ride the most delicate of equestrian disciplines in a torrential rain storm. She and her lovely horse, Miners Frolic, rose mightily to the occasion, and, despite thunder and lightning, made a brilliant score of 42.00. Cook’s father, Josh Gifford was a racing compadre of my father’s. He most famously trained Aldaniti to win the Grand National, and, even more memorably, refused to jock off the cancer-stricken Bob Champion when some of his owners complained. So he was a great gentleman, and he died in February, and I thought of that as I watched Cook. I wondered if she were remembering her dad and wishing he were there to see her. He would have been fiercely proud.

Taking my Blighty hat off, I was incredibly happy to see the majestic horseman Mark Todd of New Zealand, still at the top of the world at the age of 56, ride a perfect, balletic test on his delightful Campino. The knowledgeable crowd also took their own nationalist hats off to give the tremendous Kiwi a rousing cheer, recognising true excellence when they saw it. The commentators were beside themselves. ‘Toddy,’ they said, with joy and admiration, ‘very, very good.’

Tomorrow, I shall be shouting for the British riders as they face the daunting cross country fences. Team GB lies in third place, just behind Germany and Australia. In a way, none of this matters. It is just a sporting competition; national glory is only a human construct, and a fairly peculiar one. But for all that, I do feel proud, and I do feel hopeful, and I shall be waving my metaphorical flag. They are all such great competitors, and the horses are so brave and fine. Let them go for gold.


I did not have a moment to take out the camera today. What with working with the horses and watching the dressage and I don’t know what else, the day got away from me. Just time for my girls, in elegant black and white:


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Saturday, 28 July 2012

Olympic Fever

Too overcome by Olympic fever to write a word. There shall be words, but just not now. Last night was so unexpected and deliriously wonderful that I ran out of adjectives. I shall think some up, and get back to you tomorrow.

In the meantime, forgive me, as I sink into an Olympic haze, muttering under my breath, faintly, falteringly: Go, Team GB.....

The Team GB athletes were showered in white tickertape and cheered to the rafters by the home crowd
Lovely photograph of Sir Chris Hoy waving the flag for dear old Blighty, surrounded by our athletes, at the astonishing opening ceremony, where Danny Boyle instantly won the hearts of an entire nation.

Oh, but I do have the energy to take my hat off to two of our great equestriennes, who started the day with a bang by riding lovely dressage tests in the first phase of the three-day event. Nicola Wilson on Opposition Buzz is currently in 16th place overall, and Mary King, who rode an almost flawless test on Imperial Cavalier, is in third. 

Wowed by the crowd: King

Mary King, smiling after her test; photograph by AFP/Getty Images.

Solid start: Nicola Wilson and Opposition Buzz

Nicola Wilson, who rode beautifully on Opposition Buzz, and was, I thought, rather harshly marked by the judges. (Dressage judges are an inscrutable lot.) But don't they look fine? 

Photograph by the PA.

Finally, here is my sweet Equestrian Team GB fact of the day. Despite their posh competition names, in the stables Imperial Cavalier and Opposition Buzz are known as Archie and Dodi. I hope they get a lot of love and carrots tonight. They really, really deserve it.

Friday, 27 July 2012

In which it turns out I owe Mitt Romney a debt of gratitude

An absolutely massive working day. After weeks of feeling like I was wading through mud, I finally got the pitch and no fewer than two sample chapters finished and sent off to the agent. (The Playwright rang just after lunch to inspire me, and no one inspires quite like he can.)

There was also a wild ride in the sunshine and a twenty-minute conversation with The Farmer, who wanted to know all about the mare. We swapped notes on cows and horses and came away happy as grigs. Or at least, I was deliriously happy. He was smiling politely but you never know. It could have been massive equine overload shock. (He did drive away rather quickly in his navy blue Landrover before I could start telling him about the Darley Arabian.)

The good part of all this is that I have had a proper and fulfilling day. I even managed to take a very quick glance at the 2.55 at Ascot. (My fancy, Dansili Duel, finished an honourable third. I wish my father had taught me the trick of each-way betting, but he never did. It was all on the nose with him.) The bad part is that my huge Olympic blog plan is completely scuppered because my fingers are now too gnarled to type and my brain is too fogged to think.

I will say one thing though, which is a big, big thank you to Mitt Romney. No one else could have managed to unite the country so completely with a few disobliging sentences. All the PR gurus and advertising mavens and feelgood experts must be chewing their arms off with rage, since no campaign they could have devised would have done the job more efficiently.

Mr Romney, I suspect, does not understand quite a lot of things. The one thing he really does not comprehend is that we Britons are the only ones who are allowed to bitch and grouse and grumble about our own shortcomings. The British have a slightly odd habit of taking a twisted pride in thinking of themselves as a little bit crap. Britons moan and groan about our football team crashing out of tournament after tournament; we know we no longer rule the waves; we understand very well that the tube and the NHS are a bit of a shambles. Mr Romney clearly has no time for the shambolic; he dreams of the coming American century, the shining city on the hill. We know our city will always be a little dusty.

But just because Ordinary Decent Britons take an almost perverse pride in the crapness of everything, adore to complain, and indulge in heavy irony rather than Pollyanna-ish sanguinity, it does not mean that anyone may come in from the outside and tell us how feckless and pointless and hopeless we are. That is our job.

(It is very, very rare that I use the Universal We. I dare to use it here, even though it’s a bit naughty; obviously not every last British person will subscribe to the shambolic sentiment.)

Within hours of Romney talking of the British public’s lack of enthusiasm for the games, calling poor old Ed Miliband ‘Mr Leader’, as if he were a character in Star Trek, and saying he had just looked out of the ‘backside of Number Ten Downing Street’, seemingly unaware that backside means arse in British English, the hashtag #romneyshambles was trending on Twitter. Outside, the great British public were crowding the streets, hanging from lampposts as the Olympic torch went by, roaring with approval in Hyde Park as Boris Johnson said ‘There’s this chap called Mitt Romney who wants to know if we’re ready. Are we ready?’ I thought: I think we are ready.

Good old Mitt, with his extraordinary lack of grace and shocking manners, has added vastly to the gaiety of nations, and to this one in particular. We may criticise ourselves as if grumbling were itself an Olympic sport, but when an outsider doubts us, we rise up like tigers. As Churchill said: we will defend our island. The Romneyshambles jokes came thick and fast, and everyone seemed to decide dear old Blighty might be able to put on a party after all.

I suddenly realised that, for all the fumbles and missteps (I do think that getting a hamburger chain to sponsor a sporting event is quite odd), it is damn well the greatest show on earth and this crumbling old island nation might just do it proud.

Watching the happy crowds, I felt a bit teary and oddly patriotic. Thanks to Mitt Romney, I became fired with Olympic zeal and Corinthian spirit. Go, Team GB, I thought. We may not be the best in the world, we may be a bit bashed and battered, but we do have our moments.


Just time for my own little Team GB:

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And our hill:

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Thursday, 26 July 2012

Turning the corner

A small corner has been turned. When I was young and foolish, I used to think that if I turned a corner, then the road ahead would be straight and clear, a lovely line to the horizon, without end. Sometimes, even now, I think that, in the magical part of my brain. In fact, I discover that really life is just one damn corner after another. You have to keep turning the idiot things, and the road is never, ever straight.

There are two kinds of people who really frighten me. They are: the very capable ones, and the very self-contained ones. I always think they are looking at me and judging. (In fact, that quizzical expression on their faces is probably because they are trying to remember whether they turned the oven off, but still. In my mind, they always know the oven is off.) Just lately, I have grown incompetent, and I try to cover the fact by talking too much. The capable and the self-contained would never fall into such a schoolgirl error. I always know when something is wrong when I get very bad at doing things. I break cups, burn the soup, can’t write a decent sentence for money nor love. I become incapable of fulfilling the smallest tasks; I cannot even take my library books back.

I am supposed to be writing a pitch for a new project, and a sample chapter, and I keep starting, realising what I have written is the biggest load of buggery bollocks ever invented, deleting everything, and beginning from scratch. I write pathetic emails to my agent promising tomorrow and tomorrow, and tomorrow never comes.

The reason I write so much about the horse is that in this season of uselessness, she is my one true thing. For some strange reason, I can do everything well with her. I think it is because she is such a quick study, and so she flatters me. Also, it has turned out that, despite her occasional duchessy moments, and her high breeding, she is in fact the softest thing in the world, and all she really needs is love. Even in the slough of incapacity, I can do love. I may not be able to tidy my office, but I can stand in a field with a sentient creature and bring her joy by scratching her ears. That is my twice daily fillip.

The corner was turned because I finally realised what all this is about. It is simple, but I am a little shy to admit it. (The stern critical voice in my head says: you really should be butcher than this.) It is that I am missing my dad.

I think I got grief all wrong. I think I thought that I could do it well, and that then it would be finite. I could mark the passing, plant the tree, honour the memories, and then, somehow, move along. It’s not like that at all. I start to think it does not end, and nor should it. You can’t just get on, through sheer act of will. Time does not stop the missing, it merely intersperses it with more normality. All the ordinary emotions come back; there are many days of usualness. But the heart carries a crack in it, because a person is not there.

I think I thought I could heal the crack, but that’s not it. I think, I think, that the secret is to accept the crack, and know that it does not mean the whole thing is broken. Leonard Cohen once sang: there is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in. I have a strong sense that Jung once wrote something very similar, although I can’t remember exactly what it is.

There will be days of joy, and there will be days of missing. My fatal tendency is to try to paper over the cracks, and that is when I get useless and can’t do anything well, probably because all my mental energy is being channelled into a sort of blank denying.

Anyway, last night, I remembered my dad and missed him like hell, and today I got up and my shoulders were light for the first time in weeks. I even went to the library and took my books back. Both my favourite librarians were there (I love librarians almost as much as I love dry stone wallers) and we smiled and laughed and wished each other well. I came home and put some Handel on at full blast and faced my pitch with open eyes instead of cross dread.

As I finish this, I think: I’ve written this despatch before. But that is because learning to carry a loss is not a smooth, linear process for me. I am learning it in stops and starts; I shall, no doubt, bash into another corner before the summer is done. I want to learn to carry my father with me, and remember him well. I want to let the light in.



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This is not Red’s beautiful face. This is the donkey face she makes when I have been scratching her neck for ten minutes. It is her I don’t care what the hell I look like, I am so blissed out face. Notice the lower lip:

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This is her ready for prime time face:

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And, talking of beautiful faces:

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The hill:

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Wednesday, 25 July 2012

In which I declare war on the flies, and learn a little life lesson in the process

The problem with having animals is that they paw and nip and scratch and yip at your heart. If my creatures are not happy, I find it impossible to be sanguine. Also, there is the fatal disadvantage that they do not speak English. You cannot say to a dog with its Disney face on: I am just going to the shop and shall be back in twenty minutes. The dog thinks: I am being abandoned and shall so die.

Today, there was a classical example of the be careful what you wish for cautionary tale. The sun came out. The sun came out. Scotland looked gaudy and glorious, like a gloomy old lady who has suddenly got her mojo back and remembers the beauty of her youth. After moaning about the dreich for weeks, I should have been delighted. I should have danced a little dance. Instead, I shot out of bed in a state of high anxiety and zoomed up to the mare to check on the fly situation.

Red, I discover, is not just a duchess, she is the bloody princess and the sodding pea. If a fly so much as bats its wings in her direction, she feels it. It’s her posh thin skin. Her eyes were tender and weeping; her body shivering and contracting with the beastly fly menace. I settled her as best I could, rushed back for breakfast and vital pieces of work, and then went to the internet for fly remedies.

Should I get sheets, masks, sprays, supplements? People say horse garlic is good; some swear by cider vinegar. Everything cost about eight hundred pounds and besides, it would have to be delivered. Before I slaughtered my credit card, I went to my new spiritual home, the Horse and Hound forum, to see if there might be answers. Bath the eyes with cool tea bags, said the clever people there.

All right, I thought. Let’s try home remedies first. I got the tea bags. I also found some lovely calendula balm which I had bought from a brilliant woman in Cirencester craft market on one of the trips south to the Beloved Cousin. I doctored this with citronella from the chemist. The lady in there was very smiley and understanding when I explained about the horse problem, and sold me her entire stock of citronella oil without batting an eyelid.

Back up to the poor afflicted horse I dashed. The pony, who has the marvellously thick skin of the Welsh mountains, and does not notice the flies, watched with interest as I got out my lotions and potions. Red was not happy; all her veins were up, in the thoroughbred way, and she was pawing at the ground and shaking her head. Bloody sunshine, I thought savagely, brushing away the ghastly feasting horseflies (which really do hurt, and had even drawn blood) with murder in my heart. I need some nice broken cloud and a good wind off the mountain to clear these beasts.

The eyes were bathed. I anointed the mare’s entire body with my new preparation, which turned out to be the stuff of legend. It soothed her poor skin, and the flies seemed wary of the citronella smell.

So it was, that I ended up in a sunny field, at eleven-thirty in the morning, giving my horse a massage. I am not really that hippy dippy; I do not believe in horoscopes or homeopathy or all the other bogus things beginning with H. For all my faith in love and trees, I cling to empiricism. The old horse people would have shrieked had they seen me, massaging my mare. And quite frankly, had she not been loving it so much, I would have felt utterly idiotic. But her dear head went down and her lower lip started to wobble and her eyes fluttered shut and every muscle in her body was saying: thank you.

I found a tense, cross horse, and I left her dozing and dopey. Along with the empiricism, I have a strong utilitarian streak. I love ideology and theory, but I love what works. This made up on the hoof treatment worked, better than I could have dreamt. I did not have to spend many pounds, I just had to spend my time. That seems like a huge metaphor for the good life.

The only problem is that I am now resolved to do this three times a day and if my agent finds out she will shoot me. Something will have to give. No more peeks at the four-thirty at Haydock in the afternoons; up two hours earlier in the morning. The schedule shall have to be ruthlessly re-jigged. But I shall do anything, any damn thing I can think of, to keep that glorious creature happy.


Today’s pictures:

25 July 1

25 July 2

25 July 3

The sun may not please the horse, but it does make the colours in Red’s View sing:


25 July 16

25 July 17

25 July 17-001

25 July 18

25 July 19

I found this old mare tight with tension, and left her with her dopey old donkey face on:

25 July 8

The famous lower lip, the absolute barometer of her moods:

25 July 10

And the miracle of the tea bags – tea bags – meant that the dear eye went from puffy and pink to beautiful again in under fifteen minutes. Who knew? Well, except for every single person at the Horse and Hound:

25 July 11

The Pigeon obviously would much rather be chasing a stick, but if I insist, she will kindly put her Greta Garbo face on for the camera:

25 July 20

The hill:

25 July 22


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