Warning for: length, tangents, national generalisations based on no empirical data, gratuitous Pushkin references, and other howlers. It’s Friday. It’s been a long week.
There are several conversations that I love. One of them I have each morning, as the Horse Talker and I lean over the fence and observe the mares, and pretend we are discussing herd behaviour and horse husbandry and the human condition, when in fact we are inventively trying to find one hundred and forty-seven ways to express how wonderful our girls are.
There are the obsessive racing conversations. I adore those. I particularly like the ones I have with my mother, because she can remember Sea Bird and Arkle and Mill House and Mill Reef and Nijinsky and the mighty Brigadier. She was there, in her elegant hat, at those storied Derbies and Gold Cups and Legers and Arcs. She saw records being smashed and history being written. Sometimes, to give the thing an added piquancy, she was following the ambulance, as Dad fell at the fifth and had to be carted off to hospital.
And then there are the conversations where you know you can go anywhere, and the person you are talking to will follow. Usually, they will leap over you and arrive at the destination three steps ahead. Oddly, quite often, these are had with strangers. I had one this morning, with a man to whom I had just been introduced. He wears his cleverness modestly and diffidently, in the true British tradition, and it took me a moment to realise I had to bring my A game. Actually, I don’t think I even understood that consciously. It was only afterwards that I had the sense of shifting gear, only looking back on that exhilarating half hour of chat that I saw myself, retrospectively, going into turbo drive.
It was during my daily HorseBack visit. I went in for a perfectly ordinary discussion, about logistics and practical things and the plan for next week. I was introduced to the gentleman, and within two minutes we were off to the races. We talked of the nature of courage, of neuroscience, of evolutionary biology, of gender difference; of hippies, nature, the power and rarity of silence. We talked of the First World War, and societal expectations, and love.
I get so excited when I have these kind of conversations that I say absurd things. At one point, I heard myself saying, ‘Oh yes, authenticity is one of my favourite words.’ At one point, I actually spoke these sentences: ‘It fascinates me that in every society in the world, men are supposed not to cry. Of course, there are certain places in the Middle East where ulultations are acceptable, and there is Russia, with its tradition of melancholy. But even there a man is only allowed to cry if he has drunk half a bottle of vodka and is speaking of Puskin.’
What was I talking about? Do Russian men really sit about and drink vodka and speak of Puskin and weep? Where did I get such an outlandish notion? This is what happens when I get over-stimulated: I make rash extrapolations and wild generalisations. Still, I do stand by the oddities of the current Russian mores of masculinity, if Mr Putin is anything to go by. All that riding shirtless and posing with big guns. Although I suppose one cannot judge an entire people on its rather peculiar president. The fretful, discursive liberals of the Upper West Side would not have liked to be defined by the faux-Texan swagger of George W Bush, any more than the Tea Party Republicans would thank one for putting them in the same bracket as that ghastly commie, Barack Obama. (I love that people really do think Obama is a communist, or a socialist at the very least. ‘No, no,’ I shout at the screen; ‘he really does not want to nationalise the means of production.’)
Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, talking nonsense. But even when I make perfectly preposterous statements, I still find it entirely delightful to have such a gentleman to talk to. He was very polite and kind about the whole Puskin/vodka thing. He just carried on being quietly clever.
Cleverness is not very fashionable at the moment, in certain circles. I think it’s partly to do with the complicated derision for elites which has sprung up in the last decade. Besides, the British have always been suspicious of too much learning. ‘Too clever by half,’ is an ancient insult here. But the knee-jerk disdain for the ghastly Oxbridge elites who think they can run the country, but, crucially, have no idea how the real world works is a fairly novel political development.
Personally, I love an elite. I adore it when people are really, really good at things. When I watch Andy Murray play tennis, or Ryan Moore or Johnny Murtagh or Ruby Walsh ride a race, or Yo-Yo Ma play a cello, I am dazzled by their brilliance. They are absolutely elite, at the very crest and peak of their powers. I want the people who run things to be exceptionally intelligent and highly educated. I wish for the novelists and poets to be as elite as all get out, as they play with the language of Shakespeare and Milton.
Perhaps the confusion comes between the meaning of elite – best or most skilled – and elitism, which contains the idea that those at the top get special treatment or unfair privilege. It shades into snobbism and us and them; there is the idea of poncy people peering down their superior noses at the rest of us oiks. (I think there is a muddle too about games which have a zero sum. If someone is exceptional, it does not mean that everyone else is pointless, useless and feckless.) Cleverness, which is quite a separate thing, then gets conflated with the dark side of elitism, and before you know it, a good university degree means you are a horrid, out-of-touch posho, with a sneery disdain for the ordinary woman in the street.
I think this is a pity. Cleverness, lightly worn, is one of life’s great joys. I felt so exhilarated and galvanised by talking to the clever gentleman this morning, it was as if I had taken a double dose of iron tonic. I spend an awful lot of time contemplating the dearness of my mare, or what will win the 3.40 at Newcastle (today, I hope a lovely filly called Filia Regina). The book I am writing is a fairly simple story, very much a thing of first principles. I’m not galloping about over any intellectual prairies, which is probably lucky for my readers. So to engage in conversation where I had to stretch my brain to keep up felt like a rocket boost.
And now I’m going to go and drink some vodka and read Puskin and weep.
Are not from today. Too dreich for the camera. An entirely random selection from the archive instead: