Yesterday, I found myself in a little Twitter storm which is so illustrative of the perils of the internet that I am going to tell you the whole story.
It does not start well. I fear that I may have hurt the feelings of one of Britain’s most beloved broadcasters. Yes, even I, always banging on about good manners and kindness, may have not lived up to the standards I set myself.
Here is how it happened.
Channel 4 were showing the racing. I tweet a lot when the racing is on, partly out of excitement, partly to deal with big race nerves, and partly because I am still unsettled with the new coverage. Because the adrenaline is running, I type fast, and sometimes press send before I have thought carefully what it is I say.
As I was making my usual complaint that we do not get to see enough of the horses themselves, particularly in the paddock, two other Twitterers joined in. They were not people I know, but they shared my sense of loss for the old Channel 4 team, and soon we were in an orgy of regret for the departure of John Francome and Alistair Down.
One of them objected, in quite personal terms, to the choice of Clare Balding as the new front-woman for the show. I said that I like her as a broadcaster, which is absolutely true, but think that she is a generalist. By this I mean that she has a wide knowledge of all different kinds of sport, and works in a range of different mediums. (On a very personal level, what I crave from Channel 4 is a tight focus on specialist racing knowledge.)
However, in context, the whole Twitter chat came across as an ad hominem objection to Balding herself. I spend days twisting myself up like a pretzel to avoid ad hominem. So I was already started to feel uncomfortable, when Balding herself entered the conversation. I work hard, she said, and try to get people interested in racing.
Oh God, I thought. This is what happens when the internet flies too fast and tempers get heated. It can be forgotten that there are real people out there, with real feelings, who are only doing their jobs. I imagine that anyone in public life gets more slings and arrows than any human deserves, now that the green ink brigade has gone viral.
I was overcome with crushing angst. I sent Balding what I hoped was a polite tweet saying that all I too wanted was for more people to be interested in racing, and emphasised that really what I was crying out for was a view of the horses in the paddock. (This is an editorial decision, and absolutely not her fault.)
And here is the amazing thing. She tweeted back at once, saying that she would mention it, and that it might be possible once they were covering fewer races. I am a complete stranger, howling and yowling out on the prairies of the internet, and yet she took the time and trouble to reply.
How is that for grace?
The problem is that she was so generous and well-mannered that my angst only grew. I was now convinced that I had behaved badly and unfairly. I could not get the thing out of my head. I woke up this morning worrying about it.
So here is my own question for the day. It is: how may one object, without being objectionable?
I love racing with an unbridled passion. I loved the old Channel 4 team, and spent so much time with them that they felt like family. It’s a slightly peculiar thing to say, but it’s true. I loved that Alistair Down could recall every single Cheltenham since he was a boy. I loved that John Francome could tell you that an ordinary horse down the handicap had run a blinder on a wet Wednesday at Wetherby. Francome in particular wore his knowledge so lightly that it was easy to overlook how profound it was.
I am still a bit raw from the sudden change, and in danger of taking it personally. Channel 4 Racing, after all, does not exist just to serve me. Not everyone is a racing geek, and perhaps not everyone does need to know what happened in a mid-week card at Wetherby.
Where Clare Balding is brilliant is in her ability to translate the language of racing for a wider audience. She knows the world inside out, having grown up in it, and she knows the people. She is also an ultimately professional and accomplished broadcaster, who can take anything that a live programme throws at her.
It’s all very well, my yelping like a scalded dog, every time the programme does something I do not like. But this small episode reminded me that there is a danger, in this rushing internet age, of developing a nasty sense of entitlement. It is too easy for me to throw my toys out of the pram, and take to Twitter to shout and scream and set my hair on fire. Perhaps it is not a very edifying thing to do. My new resolution is to think before I tweet. Because, much as I hate to admit it, it really is not all about me.
Clare Balding is far too busy to read an obscure blog like this. But just today, I really wish she were one of the Dear Readers. Because I would like to say sorry. And to thank her for reminding me of a valuable lesson in manners.
Too dull and snowy today to take out the camera. So here is a random selection from the last few days:
Autumn the Filly:
Myfanwy the Pony:
Can’t resist the free-schooling pictures:
Red the Mare, living up to her name in the winter sun:
Stanley the Dog enjoying some top ball action:
The hill, from a sunnier day: