For fifteen years, I have dreamed of having a New Year’s Eve all by myself. It is the introvert in me. Each year, I get invited to some damn thing, usually by my lovely family, and it would be rude not to say yes. (Despite my grumblings about awful enforced jollity on the stroke of midnight, I usually end up having a delightful time.)
This year, at last, at last, I am having my enchanted solo evening. Would I watch re-runs of Kauto Star’s Gold Cups, or dust off my Desert Orchid video (an actual video tape, it is so old), or get out the Frankel DVD, or find an epic movie? I have the Director’s Cut of Lawrence of Arabia, calling to me, in honour of the late, great Peter O’Toole.
Then, I stumbled upon The Choir, on the miracle that is the BBC iPlayer. It was about to expire, so I thought I should have a quick look. I am now as hooked as if I were half way through a box set of The West Wing.
All human life is there. On the face of it, it is just people singing. Singing is such a benign and usual thing. And yet, under the usual, The Choir is about the profound and the fundamental: the universal hopes and fears and dreams. What I find so touching is that it is really about humans trying really, really hard. I am endlessly moved by trying. It is not the success, it is the attempt. That is what counts.
I’ve just got to the episode about the Cheshire Fire Service. I’ve already been in tears in three previous programmes, but this lot have me in pieces. They are singing a song written by Bruce Springsteen in honour of the men and women who went into the stricken buildings on 9/11, and did not come out again. The pride and fellowship for everyone who does this extraordinary job, all around the world, is shining out of them. Hard men are moved to silence. Cheerful women are turned solemn and reflective.
You can see the knowledge of what really happens, of what is called on, of the hard realities, written in all their faces, from the operatives who take the emergency calls in the back rooms to the toughened fighters on the front line.
I don’t know about you, but I think I’ve always taken firefighters a tiny bit for granted. They are so much part of everyday life. Unlike soldiers and sailors and special services, who serve in distant lands, they are a very familiar sight. There is a fire station in every town; the big red engines are not only ubiquitous but also a favourite toy of small children. Of course I have always thought of the courage and the skill, but this programme, ostensibly about music, has driven home the great heights of courage and determination that perfectly ordinary people can rise to. All my hats are off in awe.
I think about courage a lot. I grew up surrounded by the courage of men who rode fast racing horses. My dad had incredible physical bravery, defying doctor’s orders to carry on riding over fences after breaking his back and his neck for the second time. If you fall off again, the docs told him sternly, you will die. He ignored them.
I see gallantry, as I do my work at HorseBack, pretty much every week. I hear stories that my brain cannot quite process, from the dusty valleys of Afghanistan and the sands of Iraq.
I see smaller, unsung acts of courage, in ordinary life, the ones that come from facing pain and adversity. There are many kinds of bravery, most of them never making headline news, but real and true, all the same.
As I watch the men and women of Cheshire, I think: I would never have the moxy to run into a burning building. That takes a very special kind of fighting heart.
So, rather unexpectedly, my gentle, solitary New Year’s Eve has turned into a meditation on the undaunted human spirit. Even more unexpectedly, it has been brought to me by the loveliness that is Gareth Malone. What a fellow he is.
And now I am going to raise my first glass of New Year’s champagne. I know I bang on about equines all the time, and they too have a bravery that makes shivers run up my spine. But I raise this glass to the brave humans.