Tuesday, 19 February 2013

HorseBack UK, and a serious visitor. Or, in which I am not cynical about politics.

It was a red letter day at HorseBack UK. This is why I have not been able to sit down and write the blog until eight o’clock at night. I have been photographing and writing and taking notes and even talking to actual humans, the whole livelong day.

At nine this morning, I rushed into my mother’s house.

‘How do you address the Secretary of State for Scotland?’ I shouted.

She looked puzzled and mildly quizzical. It appeared she did not have that information.

I tore back home and took to the email. I sent a message to my friend the Political Operative. ‘I’m going to meet the Secretary of State for Scotland today and I suddenly have no idea what to call him. Old episodes of Yes Minister are playing in my head and I know I’m going to call him minister. Is this in fact correct? Or a massive Bateman cartoon? Should I just say Secretary of State? Oh, bugger. You’d think a politics geek like me would know.’

Then I realised that the Political Operative would have quite enough on his own plate, and would have no time to deal with a flake such as I. And anyway, I was late.

The point was: the Secretary of State for Scotland was coming to HorseBack UK.

And it was my job to record it. 

I arrived, in dancing, glancing Scottish sunshine, to find the whole place being polished. The yard was swept, the office organised, the muddy old trucks put away. All the western saddles were out, and Scott Meenagh, the Para with two prosthetic legs, was bringing in the horses.

I was in a state of dancing excitement. HorseBack is one of my high loves. What they do there is so remarkable that I want the whole world to know about it. I want to hang out more flags.

For them, this kind of thing is in a day’s work. But still, someone from the highest reaches of government coming to see the work is no small deal. As I understand it, the most important thing for them is putting all the pieces together. HorseBack has a lovely, simple idea at its heart: to help those wounded in the service of their country help themselves. But its effects and operations are very complex, and cover an astonishing range.

If the Secretary chose to involve himself, he could gather together the disparate ministries, from the Department of Defence to all the health and social services, and make a difference. This is politics at its most useful and best.

My plan was to stay in the background. I would be the silent scribbler, the velvet-footed snapper. I had my stout boots on; my notebook and camera were at the ready. But I was determined at least to sound proper when I was introduced. I would look the important gentleman in the eye and say, in the loud clear voice my mother taught me: ‘Secretary of State, how do you do?’

Of course, when he arrived, I completely lost my nerve.

‘Oh hello,’ I said, faltering, looking at my feet. ‘Sir, Secretary, Secretary of State.’ My voice tailed off into pathetic obscurity. Finer people than I bore him off, to see the show.

There was a most excellent, polished presentation, given by Jock Hutchison, who, with his wife Emma, came up with this whole miraculous idea. Jock is very, very good at this kind of thing. He manages to cram in a vast amount of information, go at a galloping speed, and even make a few jokes, to leaven the whole. What he is talking about is profoundly serious, but too much seriousness can make Ordinary Decent Britons uncomfortable, and he knows when to crack the atmosphere. Besides, he was a Royal Marine, and if there is one thing that people who serve know, it is dark humour.

Then Scott spoke. He is in the Paras, and he was blown up by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan, and lost both his legs. He has had 22 operations in the last couple of years, something he states in a most matter-of-fact voice. He can tell the story from the inside.

He spoke of what happens when you serve, when you are blown sky-high, when you come back down to earth and want to know what it is you still can do, when there are parts of you missing. He talked of how HorseBack helped to give him back his mission. He described how it felt when he got on a horse. ‘Mobility with dignity,’ he said.

I watched the Secretary, as he listened to all this. He is a still, serious man. He did not exclaim or raise his eyebrows or do the pity face. He watched intently, with respect, and appeared to suck in the information. I got the impression that he was filing away all the relevant pieces in his good brain.

What was interesting, as we all filed out into the sunshine, is that at once he started asking the instrumental questions. Which departments should he speak to? What would be of the most help?

What fascinated me is that he got it straight away. He did not have to be told twice. Sure as an arrow, he homed in on the thing that makes HorseBack unique. It is that many of the people who work here have been in the theatre of war, and have the kind of life-changing injuries that the participants in the courses have suffered. Part of what makes it so effective is the camaraderie, the shared language, the sense of mutual experience. No one needs to explain themselves, here.

As Scott said, vividly, without rancour: someone in a suit with a PhD in psychology is all very well, but when they say ‘I know what you have been through’, they really don’t. The people at HorseBack know of what they speak, because they have lived it.

After that, there was a horse demonstration. The Rt Hon Michael Moore MP was very honest about knowing little about equines, but even he could not resist the gentle face of one of the dear American Quarter Horses. Scott’s fellow Rodney went straight up to the important government operative and stuck his nose out for love.

There was a lot of action. Our local MP, Sir Robert Smith, was also there, and I definitely had my Bateman moment with him, in spades. I saw a tall man get out of a car, and Jock was in a rush and said, ‘Tania, would you show him round?’

I said, with enquiring courtesy: ‘I don’t quite think I caught your name.’ When the honourable gentleman said it was Sir Robert Smith, I felt like sinking into the ground. To overcompensate, I started talking, at eighty miles an hour, about the glories of HorseBack, about their thrilling new ideas for the future, about how their work astonished me each time I saw it. I was so embarrassed about not recognising him that I went into clattering overdrive.

After the polite gentleman managed to extricate himself, I ran into the house, where I found Emma Hutchison. ‘I think I may have frightened Sir Robert Smith,’ I shouted. (I had certainly frightened myself.) Luckily, Emma was in the police and is unflappable. She went quietly out to give the Secretary of State’s special advisor a riding lesson.

Special advisors, or SPADS, are cannon fodder for the press, often portrayed as princes of darkness, working behind the scenes with Machiavellian fervour. This one was a smiling, charming fellow, so delighted by what he saw that all he wanted was to get on one of those Quarter Horses. So Emma made his wish come true, even though it was not on the itinerary.

I decided to stop alarming the politicians and fell into conversation with the Secretary’s press officer. He was lovely and easy and witty, and reminded me of the boys with whom I had been at university. He explained that he was in the civil service, and so not a political appointment. With my reactions on knee-jerk, I made three Sir Humphrey jokes in a row, but I think I got away with it. I admit that I may have made a mistake when I gave him a dissertation on the art of dry-stone-walling, but his polite smile did not falter.

Even though he, like me, was in the background, I wanted to know what he made of the whole thing. I wanted to know if anything surprised him about the place, or whether there was one element that struck him most.

‘It’s that it’s just here,’ he said. ‘You turn off the road, down the little muddy track, and it’s like finding a seam of gold. You come down a path and there it is, a life-saving operation.’

He paused. It was such a good and clever thing to say that I wanted to skip and wave my arms in the air, but I restrained myself.

He said: ‘The extraordinary thing to witness is the arc of change.’

I smiled. I’m always looking for the one short paragraph that goes to the heart of HorseBack. I’m always asking for the one sentence.

‘Arc of change,’ I said. ‘Seam of gold. I’ll take that.’

The Secretary of State was making his final swing. He spoke, very well and clearly, to the people from STV. He cleverly gave them a soundbite without it sounding like a soundbite.

I reflected on how politicians are so much better in life than on camera. In the world, watching Michael Moore give his piece, I was incredibly impressed. He switched from conversational to professional mode on a dime, and gave the journos what they wanted, Later, as I saw it on the news, his reality and humanity were flattened, a little. It was still good, but the forty-second clip had bleached the dimensions out of it.

It’s fashionable to lump all politicos into the same box. The careless meme goes that they are dull, they are hopeless, they are idiotically on-message; they are in it for themselves, they have no human heart. I’ve never believed this, but I understand why people think it. It is not just because I am a geek that I saw the goodness in this particular politician. It’s not just because I have given up tribalism, or that I am getting soft in my old age.

I have always thought that most people go into politics because they actually want to make a difference in the world; I think it’s too cheap and intellectually lazy to write off the entire political class. I’ve always fervently held the idea that one should disagree with a policy, a political ideology, a view of the role of the state, without resorting to wholesale ad hominem, or idiot generalisation.

I can only tell you what I saw. I saw a serious man, observing a serious operation, with a serious mind.

He did it with grace, efficiency, intelligence, and openness. His staff clearly liked and admired him. He was not tortured with jargon, or twisted with tactics. He raced to the heart of the matter. He wanted to know what he could do.

This is the good side of politics. It is not all good, or useful. There are disastrous policies, and rotten calculation, and a daily dose of the self-serving. There is not answering the damn question. But there is a good side, whatever the cynics say.

Today, in a rather extraordinary place, with a group of remarkable people, as the dear old Scottish sun glimmered and slid and beamed, I was lucky enough to see that.


Pictures of the day:

There is a little photo essay here, and I wish I still had the energy to do clever, discrete captions, but I’ve come to the end of my stamina now. Still, I think you can see that this was the very definition of a Good Day -

19 Feb 1

19 Feb 2

19 Feb 3

19 Feb 4

19 Feb 4-001

19 Feb 5

19 Feb 6

19 Feb 7

19 Feb 8

19 Feb 9

19 Feb 10

19 Feb 11

19 Feb 12

19 Feb 14

19 Feb 15

19 Feb 16

19 Feb 16-001

19 Feb 17

19 Feb 17-001

19 Feb 19

19 Feb 20


  1. Lots of promise there, I do so hope to comes to fruition and that the bureaucratic wheels turn quickly.

    Love the buckskin!

  2. I can feel you fizzing from here. :) What a wonderful day and opportunity. I hope too that HorseBack gets all the recognition and support it so obviously deserves.
    Love the photo essay and the thought of you overcompensating!

  3. Oh Tania!

    Those first three photos just stabbed straight into the core of my heart and made me weep! What an amazing project to be involved in.... I suspect it is a mutually beneficial relationship though - they are so lucky to have your skill!


  4. Thank you for another stonking insight into the intrinsic ordinary goodness in so many much maligned politicians. It breaks my heart when they are all soundly whipped together as charlatans. Colour is not important - most of them enter a dark and difficult world, giving until they are spent or spat out, because they want to make IT better.

    And the local reps (Sir Robert served hard this side of the hill pre boundary changes)to those who take major portfolio's work sodding hard all the time just to try and keep up. They also serve.

    I often favour the politician over the journalist (sorry) in the honesty and decency stakes.

  5. Just wondering. Did you have to have permission to publish photo's of the MPs?

  6. That bay is BEYOND gorgeous. What a great day - glad it went so well.x

  7. So glad to see Shirley MacLaine was able to make an appearance as well, in her marvelous blue coat! Glad the day was a success.

  8. What a wonderful day. Love your account, both the serious (inspires hope, because there ARE good politicians) and the hilarious (your account of yourself is the stuff sit-coms are made of). And, as someone else said, those opening photos go straight to the heart of the matter.


  9. One on one most politicians seem fine and sane - en masse is a different thing I find. Oh and etiquette wise you don't call a Secretary of State "the Secretary" it's usually the full "secretary of State" or more disconcertingly one such person always made us use his first name which just felt all shades of wrong in an official context.


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