Friday, 27 September 2013

Day in pictures

In terms of quality, these are not the best photographs I have ever taken, but there is a sort of sweetness and joy in them which is perfect for the end of a long week.

Stanley the Dog with his small friend:

27 Sept 1

Morning sheep:

27 Sept 2

Mist over the hill:

27 Sept 3

I don’t know what this was, but I rather like it; a little bit of abstract for you:

27 Sept 5

This one is slightly out of focus, but I love the nobility:

27 Sept 8

The red mare is still a bit tender in her shoulder, so we are taking her for gentle morning walks. I completely love it, as you can see from my delirious expression. In fact, The Horse Talker leads her own filly, and I take Red and Stanley, but here I am managing all three in order for the photograph to be taken. Quite a lot of complicated rope action:

27 Sept 8-001

More happiness:

27 Sept 10

What we walked past:

27 Sept 11

At this stage, she was posing for the camera:

27 Sept 12

This one is completely blurry, but I wanted to include it because it expresses well the joy in this simple morning exercise:

27 Sept 14

Also, how amazingly good and clever is Red, just standing on command like that, with her rope over her shoulder? It’s the kind of thing which makes me hysterically proud. Stand, stand, I say seriously, and move off about ten feet, and she DOES NOT MOVE A HOOF.

At this stage, there will be those of you who are saying enough with the red mare. I give you full permission to bash off and read something interesting about psephology or horticulture. It’s a Friday, and I can’t have enough of this beautiful face:

27 Sept 18

One final bit of sweetness. The Horse Talker is pointing to try and get Red to prick her ears and pose for the photograph. We have absolutely no idea what Autumn the Filly is doing, but it’s very funny:

27 Sept 18-001

Really am stopping now.

I’ve written THOUSANDS of words this week and my head is about to come off. I’m going to take the whole weekend for resting; no HorseBack, no blog, no book. I’m going to watch the racing at Newmarket and mooch about with my lovely girl and throw sticks for Stanley the Dog and let my mind go slack. At the moment, it is tight as a drum. I am going to take a big old breath and let everything settle.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

In which it turns out I have angst. Or, an awful lot of nonsense.

I had a very long and very serious blog for you, all ready to go, and then I suddenly thought: oh, for goodness’ sake, they don’t want all that nonsense. I was up very late last night, writing many words of book. I am keeping student hours at the moment. This often happens when deadlines bear down on me like rattling freight trains. I get wild adrenaline bursts into the quiet midnight hours and think, oh sod it. This is not very responsible or grown-up or professional and I always feeling faintly guilty about it (there is a proper way to do things).

So I had a horrible suspicion that the long and serious blog might be misspelled and filled with ghastly grammatical errors and also mazily tangential. I admit that I often indulge myself here in the luxury of tangents, but there are limits.

So instead, my plan is: to give you get some soothing photographs.

Oh, actually, scratch that plan. A real-life thing has just happened and I shall share it with the group. Since that is obviously what the Dear Readers are there for.

I try at almost all times to be polite and kind and tactful. I’m very papery in the skin department, so I am keenly aware of the tender feelings of others. Just now, I said something stupid and it came out all wrong and the tone was just horrid. I could blame tiredness I suppose, or stress of work, or any old thing. It’s always lovely having something to blame. Except I have this other thing about trying to take responsibility for my actions. So I can’t really cast about for any helpful cause except for my own idiot, thoughtless self. And now I think the person is actually quite cross, but I dare not ask, so there shall be an atmosphere.

Bugger, bugger, bugger.

You know how I wrote that long book about The Impossible Art of Being Female? In that book, I may have given the impression that I knew something about that art. Turns out there are days when I know absolute bugger all. I lose all idea how to conduct myself in a rational or adult manner and become confounded by the tiniest set-back. Angst squirrels about in my head as if it is storing nuts for winter. I get that awful curling feeling in my stomach and my shoulders go up about my ears and I can’t unscrew my face.

Ah well, I suppose that at least I am not presenting the shiny magazine self which some people do, and which makes me so doleful as I ruefully examine my own un-shiny life in comparison. I suppose at least there is some warts and all, which is very important for everyone’s peace of mind. (It’s not a competition, says my cross voice.) I find the Look at me with my perfect self and my perfect life and my perfectly calibrated emotional reactions rather lowering. On the other hand, an endless stream of wailing is equally tiring in the other direction.

I suppose everyone says stupid things and does not always live up to their best self. One of the things I like about my horse is that she brings out my best self. I actually said this to her last night in the field, even though she does not speak English and has no idea what I am on about. She is very polite about standing and listening when I am rambling on. (She, at least, is one member of the family with perfect manners, as would be expected from someone who clearly takes the Duchess of Devonshire as her model.) I actually thanked her for bringing out my best self. Now I just have to work on doing that with actual humans.

Report card says: could do better.

Really, really could do so much better.

After all that sharing, there is now only time for one picture, of my glorious beauty, who always thinks I say the right thing, with her dear friend Stanley the Dog, who only cares about chasing sticks and pigeons and has no time for angst.

26 Sept 3

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

A rather wonderful new arrival.

When I do my stuff for HorseBack UK, sometimes it is quite straightforward. An obvious photograph presents itself; the words that go with it spring easily to mind. Sometimes, however, it takes a lot of concentration and may not be dashed off in moments. It requires a frown and a wrangle and a squaring of the shoulders. It takes time. Today was such a day.

There is a new project afoot, and it is one that is close to my heart. HorseBack has got together with Retraining of Racehorses and taken on an ex-racehorse. Two of the brilliant women who steer the great ship that is RoR, Di Arbuthnot and Emma Balding, came to Scotland a while ago, and discussed the slightly outré notion, and, good as their word, found a candidate. He is a glorious fella called Peopleton Brook, and he was a sprinter. He won nine races, and when he came to the end of his racing life, there was not an obvious place for him to go. That was when Retraining of Racehorses stepped in. Brook was to come to Scotland, for a very new life indeed.

There is so much prejudice against thoroughbreds and racehorses, and even more against sprinters, who are often considered the nuttiest and most untameable of all. So to take one and introduce him to the HorseBack way of working, including Western saddle and riding in a rope halter, might be considered quite a stretch.

He loves it. He was pretty speedy when he put on his sprinting shoes. Now he is learning to take things very, very slowly, and you can see the surprised delight on his face.

I think he will make a course horse. He would not do for a double amputee who had never sat on an equine before, but there are veterans from the Household Cavalry with PTSD who would benefit mightily from such a Rolls-Royce of a ride. I love the idea that like those veterans who find a renewed sense of purpose when they come to HorseBack, so may dear Brook discover a meaningful role in life. He already has a new look of happy purpose in his eyes, and he is quick and willing to learn.

In my own little field, my lovely red girl is a bit sore after pulling a shoulder muscle. The wind was up and she was charging about the field as if back to her own racing days, and her cornering skills are not what they used to be. So I’m taking her for gentle daily walks in hand, until the slight stiffness passes.

I think of how all the ex-racehorses are called crazy and good for nothing. I think of the people who insist that thoroughbreds are impossible to handle. I think of Brook, up at HorseBack, in the wild hills, cleverly learning an entire new way of life, with all his intelligence and fineness. I look at Red, as we amble through the oaks and the beeches and the Wellingtonias. Her eye is soft, her head is down, her ears are in their dozy donkey position which signals ultimate relaxation. She is bred for ultimate speed, yet she absolutely adores these gentle morning walks. We step out in perfect time. She is polite and biddable, at my shoulder, never pushing or barging.

My heart expands, as it often does. It’s not just her profound sweetness and beauty that make my idiot old heart rise like a balloon, it is the thought that she quietly disproves all that prejudice, all those assumptions, all that lazy thinking, by her daily being.

They’re not a very likely pair, Red and Brook. He was bloody fast and won nine races. She trailed round at the back, never troubling the judge, despite the clutch of Derby winners in her glittering pedigree. But there they both are, in these blue Scottish hills, proving all the doubters wrong.


No time for pictures today; the work is getting on top of me.

Just two quick Best Beloveds:

25 Sept 1

25 Sept 3

And, up the road, sweet Brookie has a very well-deserved and joyful roll, after all his hard work:

25 Sept 2

There are links here to many, many shots of the glorious Brook, for your viewing pleasure:

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

A small story.

This morning, running errands in the village which is two villages along, I saw a pair of household names. Rather oddly, this part of Scotland quite often does have a household name roaming about in the wild. We could not be further from Claridge’s or The Groucho, and there are parts of the county where 1979 went to die, but still, sometimes a titanically famous person appears. In the village two villages along, people still remember when Robin Williams and Steve Martin bought some socks in the country store.

I did that thing you do. I did the understanding-the-nature-of-fame face. This is something I developed from long years of walking past celebrated actors coming out of looping studios in Soho. My theory went: if you should happen to catch their eye, you give a blinding but slightly innocent smile. The smile says: I know you are very famous, but I’m not going to make a thing of it. I’m just going to give you the lovely, merry grin that any nice person in the street would get. (I admit, I am slightly alone in this. It is not very British to smile at strangers in the street, but I do it all the time, and I get varying reactions, from simple friendliness to outright fear.) The smile also says: I am not going to invade your privacy, or shout your most famous line at you, or ask you for your autograph. It says: I loved your last film (or book or play or equivalent), but I’m going to let you go about your business as if you were an ordinary person, although I know you are not.

I’ve only broken this not-speaking rule once. I was at university, and the cast of White Mischief had arrived to shoot the courtroom scenes in the town hall. I was very poncy in those days, and it was high summer, and I used to waft around wearing a Panama hat. I thought it was the last word in chic. It was the eighties and I was eighteen; what can I tell you? Walking across the sloping cobbles of Oriel Square, I saw Ray McAnnally coming towards me. I broke out a blazing smile. He was one of the actors I adored the most at the time. As he reached me, he smiled back, rather quizzically, with a mischievous gleam in his dear old eye, and said: ‘I like your hat.’

I practically fell over.

‘I like your acting,’ I yelled, giddy with delight. I was in a hazy trance of pleasure for the rest of the day.

Anyway, there I was this morning, in the village with the two household names. I passed them on the street; they looked very nice and very happy and very normal. How lovely, I thought, that they can come to dear old Scotland and be left alone to take their ease. Nobody bothered them; nobody much even looked.

Ten minutes later, I was in a small shop. The car was parked just outside. I suddenly heard a volley of barking as Stanley the Dog took exception to a passing Westie.

Stanley,’ I called out, running to the motor to settle him. ‘Leave the small dogs alone.’

I walked back into the shop to pay for my things. ‘Sorry about that,’ I said to the man behind the counter. I turned, to find myself face to face with one of the household names. I did the nuanced nature-of-fame smile, with a little bit of welcome to my neighbourhood thrown in. I got a charming smile back, with, I suspected, a tiny trace of dog understanding; just a glimmer, but I was certain it was there. At that moment, I almost broke all the rules, and had to restrain myself from offering an introduction to my handsome canine.  

I went back home, rather foolishly bathed in reflected glory. I was idiotically pleased to have given the household name a welcoming smile, and I was glad I had been given such a good one in return. I was a perfect ambassadress for my locality, spreading good cheer.

Then I saw my reflection in the looking glass. I had a long brown smear all the way across my forehead.

Oh, no, I thought. The household name smile was not one of delight, but pity.

The HN must have thought I was one of those special people, some kind of community project, allowed out for a little shopping experiment. I had been feeding Red the Mare before I went on my errands. Her delicious daily breakfast is a sort of earthy mash; I usually mix it with my hands. Clearly, I had pushed my hair out of my eyes and left the tell-tale smear behind. So now, I thought, the household name will go back home and think not of the friendliness of the Scottish peoples, but of the most peculiar females one may encounter in small country shops.

And that, my darlings, is why I don’t get out much. Really, I’m not sure I am safe to leave the house.


Today’s pictures:

The leaves are really turning now:

24 Sept 1

And falling too:

24 Sept 2

24 Sept 2-001

I love sage:

24 Sept 3

The last leaves clinging to the little fruit tree:

24 Sept 4

One of my favourite of the HorseBack horses, who was working well this morning:

24 Sept 10

My perfect dozy girl:

24 Sept 10-001


24 Sept 11

I really should have introduced him to the Household Name. How could anyone resist Stan the Man?

We haven’t had a recipe in forever. So here is a little tangy salad of my own invention. Finely dice some cucumber and tomatoes. The dicing is important. Equally finely chop some parsley. This is a faux tabbouleh, without the bulgur wheat, so I think quite a lot of parsley. Chop some good black olives. Dress with a lot of good olive oil, more lemon juice than you might think, and a good dose of sea salt:

24 Sept 15

And eat it looking at a hill:

24 Sept 20

Only joking. The hill is optional.

Monday, 23 September 2013

Day in brief.

Good day; bad day. Good news; bad news. Equine sweetness, ravishing Scottish sun, comedy from Stan the Man, 1069 words of book. Faint frets about all the things I faintly fret about. My mother is not as well as I would like, and I wish I could magic her better. Idiotic bet on what I thought was a Sir Michael Stoute sure thing. The great racing knight would surely not send a horse all the way to Hamilton unless it was nailed on? He lost in a photograph and I felt absurdly stupid. A bit of cooking, a bit of reading; sudden, streaming deadline panic. Where do the days go? I have no longer any temporal understanding at all. The hours swish by my nose with derisive speed; they do not care that I never have enough of them. I feel the twang and stretch of my brain as I attempt to comprehend and order all the things I must do.

Write this, in haste. Think, as always: it will be better tomorrow.


Today’s pictures:

23 Sept 1

23 Sept 2

23 Sept 3

23 Sept 4

23 Sept 4-001

23 Sept 5

23 Sept 5-001

Happy horses in the glorious evening light:

23 Sept 10

23 Sept 11

23 Sept 12

The hill in full panorama:

23 Sept 15

And standing alone, in all her majesty:

23 Sept 23

Sunday, 22 September 2013

One good sentence.

Sitting in the blinding sun this morning, as a warm, rushing wind hurled itself over the hill and the horses grazed quietly in the light, I said: ‘I’m very good at sentences. It’s a whole book I find difficult.’

This is true, although it is breaking all the rules to state it so baldly. In dear old Blighty, you are not supposed to say, out loud, that you are good at something. You may think it, very, very quietly, alone in your silent room, but you may not say it. Because that is boasting and bragging and not at all called for. (There is still, even now, the very faint implication that it is what They Do Abroad.)

And you know the even more awful thing? I’m really proud that I’m good at sentences. I love being good at sentences. The fear and loathing comes when I have to string them all together and think about pacing and narrative drive and plot and NOT GOING OFF ON TANGENTS. But a single sentence – ah, I can play with that, and make it mine, and make it sing. I can break all the rules and have pure fun. I may begin with a preposition or leave out the verb altogether or make free with adverbs, and it doesn’t matter, because I’m listening to the syncopated rhythms in my head.

The sentence fairy did not just pitch up over my crib and scatter magic syntax dust. My early sentences were awful: derivative and uncertain and filled with a yearning to be anyone but myself. (Mostly Evelyn Waugh and Scott Fitzgerald and Dorothy Parker.) The sentences grew strong because I worked at them over many, many years. Someone asked on the internet yesterday: if you were to give writing advice in six words, what would it be? I thought: I can do it in three words. Practice, practice, practice.

Almost immediately afterwards, I read an article in a national newspaper by a non-writer. This person was highly intelligent, very articulate, and was saying something profound and important. But the sentences lay lifeless on the page, flat and flaccid. They weren’t bad, and the informing mind behind them was good, but the words had no vitality, as if they had been bought in a job lot, second-hand, off the shelf.

I think of words as aerial things. I imagine throwing them up to the sky and watching them fall back to earth, wondering where they will land. Good writing takes immense discipline, but it starts in play. There must be something antic and vivid and child-like even, in the initial approach. It is the language of Shakespeare and Milton one is messing with, as I say to myself every morning, but at the same time, it is a living, shifting thing. Too many rules and mores make it turgid and po-faced, and that is when the tired phrases shrivel and die.

I wasn’t going to write anything here today. It’s a lovely, sunny Sunday, and I was going to have the entire day off. But then I started this train of thought, about sentences and why I love them. Even though I wrestle and wrangle with bashing through to the completed article of 100,000 words, and even though I am at the stage where the deadline looms and I am haunted by the fear of not being good enough, I can come back to the simple fact of the single sentence. I can do that.

When I talk about writing, I often say: I can carry a tune. What I mean by this is that I shall never be able to produce the dream book which lives in my head. I shall never be as good as my heroes. I don’t expect I shall ever overcome my narrative weakness, merely paper over the cracks. But I can write one good sentence, on a going day, when the light is coming from the right direction. And that is not nothing. And for some peculiar reason, I wanted to record that thought, because it seemed to me to be a little metaphor for life.
Today’s pictures:

Are in fact from the last couple of days, because I forgot to take my camera out this morning. But it is the same dazzling sunshine.

22 Sept 1

22 Sept 2

22 Sept 2-001 

Even though this one is rather out of focus, I include it because it gives a sense of the light and the colours down in the field:

22 Sept 3
The dear old duchess has had a very good roll, and is covered in mud, but even despite that, her coat is still a glorious, blazing red:

22 Sept 5

I know there have been rather a lot of these free-grazing pictures lately, but it is one of the finest sights of my day. Each morning, I let the red mare out into the set-aside. It is not fenced. It’s about six acres of wild ground, with a treeline which forms a natural boundary around three sides. She could, if she really wanted to, trot off to Tarland. But she does not want to. She merely mooches about in absolute contentment in the long grass, and then, when it is time for breakfast, allows me to lead her gently back to her field. I love it because it gives her a sense of freedom, and when I watch her from a distance, I think she looks as if she is roaming over the prairies of Wyoming. (Too much My Friend Flicka at a formative age.) It is a daily pleasure of the heart, and of aesthetics too:

22 Sept 6


22 Sept 8

That’s the look which makes my heart flip in my chest:

22 Sept 9

The little pony is so white in the light that the camera hardly has enough pixels to capture her:

22 Sept 9-001
Of course, after all this, I laugh at my own absurdity. For all that I take pride in being able to string words together, the Dear Readers bring me gently down to earth – one of the most recent comments simply says ‘I always like the pictures the best’. Prose be damned. This makes me hoot with laughter. And probably is another good lesson for life, as well as being a fine corrective for any incipient swishiness.

Friday, 20 September 2013

An entirely random Friday.

The point about this blog, if there is a point, is that it is supposed to be about the prose. If I can give you some good words, some dancing sentences, then my work is done. The photographs are a mere illustration: this is what it looks like. My poor old camera is on its last legs. It actually has ingrained mud around the controls, from where it fell crashing to the ground when I took it out one day whilst riding Red. It has never really been the same since. And photography is not my talent; I am the most bumbling of amateurs. (Sometimes, I get a bit cocky if a shot comes out well; for a moment, I have a little swagger and think I’m all that. Then I see a proper picture by a proper pro, and I am chastened and put back into my correct place.)

But today I’ve come to the end of a very long week, and there are no sentences left. So I thought I’d give you a feeling rather than a prose explication. Today, the pictures are the thing. They show the feeling of the day – glimmering sun, the first suggestions of autumn, a falling peace, the utter, streaming loveliness of watching a red thoroughbred duchess take her ease in the wild places.

I did something today which I always mean to do, and which I sometimes forget. I admitted a weakness. Always admit your weaknesses, the sensible voice in my head constantly instructs. But there is a gap between the good voice in the head and the actual living of life. My weaknesses sometimes frighten me, and I have a tendency to keep them secret. Do a tap dance instead, says the fearful voice, which does not wish to be vulnerable. Divert them with a show tune. Misdirection, says the fearful voice – look, look, point them over here, where they may see mightiness and facility. (Tell them about the winning bets, says the Mr William Hill voice; don’t mention the losing streaks.)

The lovely thing about admitting weaknesses is that very rarely do the recipients laugh and point, as the fearful voices suspect they will. This one merely nodded and took it on the chin and appeared to think no less of me. I walked away feeling a spiralling, giddy sense of liberation.

And now, I’m going to do something very naughty. I’ve got most of what I should do done. I’m going to say sod ‘em if they can’t take a joke, and give myself the rest of the day off. I’m going to watch the racing from Newbury and Ayr and Listowel, and glory in the sheer beauty of the racing thoroughbred, which thrills my heart like almost nothing else. I’m hardly going to have a bet, because it’s a funny time of the season and the ground is soft and anything can happen. (Good decision, as it turns out, since a 33-1 shot has just won the 1.50.) There is a promising youngster on whom I am very sweet called Red Galileo at Newbury this afternoon. But mostly, I’m just going to watch the glorious show and feel lucky. It’s like iron tonic for me, and I shall gather myself and get my stamina back, and write many thousands of words over the weekend. That is my plan. And I have absolutely no idea why I feel the need to map it out for you, but you are the Dear Readers, and you must know everything.

Have a lovely Friday. I hope the sun is shining on you too.


Today’s pictures:

20 Sept 1

20 Sept 2

20 Sept 3

20 Sept 4

20 Sept 6

20 Sept 9

20 Sept 10

20 Sept 11

20 Sept 12

In the spirit of the admitting of weaknesses, today’s picture of the hill. My newly liberated self, freed from the bashing imperatives of perfectionism, laughs in delight, and cries: it could not matter less. It’s still the beloved old hill, who cares what focus it is in:

20 Sept 20


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