I hope you are having a lovely day, wherever you are.
The Co-Writer does this week’s Speccie diary. I am pretty impressed. Not only is it quite a thing to be asked, but it’s such a very, very difficult medium to master. You have to write six or seven pithy paragraphs, on different subjects, although a theme may develop. The tone is almost always wry and faintly ironical. There is one regular Spectator diarist who takes himself so seriously that I always think it must be Craig Brown, doing a little spoof. It’s an oddly British sin, taking yourself seriously. I suspect that it is not nearly so frowned on in France or Germany or America, although I may be falling into the trap of cultural assumptions.
As I read it I think: I would be absolute buggery bollocks at that. The Co-Writer gets to talk about her husband being on national television, and having dinner with famous historians. The absolute high spot of my week was getting my mare to walk nicely through a gate.
I sort of itch to have a go, though. My dander rises. This would be my diary of the week:
(At this point, you have to imagine silence de glace. Fingers absolutely motionless on keyboard. Eyes taking on glazed, faintly panicked look. Nothing.)
I have no Andrew Roberts to fall back on, it turns out. It’s a bloody good thing that Fraser Nelson is not on the blower night and day, offering me a commission. I would have to admit defeat, or crank out something blah and second-rate.
Instead, I have this lovely medium, where I may write what I choose, go where I like, muse on what I wish, in as many paragraphs as I like.
As a faint thaw comes, not enough to get all the snow off the ground, but enough so that movement is possible, I do serious work with my mare. A lot of it, after a bit of a lay-off due to the elements, is getting her to pay attention to me. It’s one of the most powerful tools in the arsenal, although it looks like nothing. I am her person, her good leader, and she needs to acknowledge that fact.
When you take a horse out of the field, it will generally look about a lot. The head goes up, on predator alert, the body is braced for strangeness. This is a perfectly natural reaction, and even looks rather marvellous – the ears are pricked, the eyes are bright – and lots of people would not correct it.
But I want her focused on me, not the bears in the woods. So every time she looks one way, I lead her the opposite way. I move, fast and firm, in small circles, reverses, figures of eight. After a moment, I have her absolute attention. If I move a step, she moves a step. We are in sudden, singing harmony. There it is. The head comes down, the eyes soften, the ears relax. By the end of the session, I have taught her to follow me with her head without moving her feet. Left and right, we swing back and forth, like a little metronomic duet.
The thing I love about this kind of horsemanship is that it is all about the small things, and you know I revere the small things. There is no punishment. If she does something I do not want, I gently correct her, usually by turning her in the tightest of circles or backing her up. When she does what I ask, she is lavishly rewarded, so that she feels inordinately pleased with herself. She is a creature who loves to please, which makes my work vastly easier.
It’s a theory which goes along the lines of making the wrong thing hard and the right thing easy. I think it could be applied to almost all areas of life. To an observer it would look as if I am hardly doing anything. Yet I am laying great, lasting foundations, which shall underpin our entire relationship, and keep us safe and happy. There are no fancy gadgets or complicated manoeuvres; just time, and patience, and thought. Oh, and love, of course.
By the end, she has had to concentrate a lot. I give her a pick of grass in the wild ground near the woods, and then I take her back into the field and set her free. She hasn’t done this much work in a while, and the sun is shining, and she has spring fever suddenly in her. She takes off with a vaulting leap, flies her tail like a flag, and gallops away to join her herd, calling for them as she goes, as if to say I’M BACK.
When she reaches them, she dances about, does a couple of pirouettes and a Spanish Riding School of Vienna leap. Her girls look at her, nod, and go back to eating their hay. This kind of exhibition is one of the purest expressions of beauty I have ever seen and I laugh and whoop out loud. The pleasure that horse gives me is beyond rubies.
There is further high excitement because the family is arriving for Easter. The Older Niece and the Man in the Hat are driving up the M6 as we speak. The Older Niece puts a picture on Facebook of her dog, in the back of the car, with a rather plaintive expression. The caption goes: Are we there yet?
I rush to the village to get lamb and haggis and a steak pie for strength. As always, I have a perfectly splendid time with the butchers, of whom I am excessively fond. Then I go to the flower shop for hyacinths and tiny delicate ferns and little dark plum carnations, for my Easter table. I love the ladies in the flower shop, because they laugh at my jokes. A smart gentleman arrives, with purpose. ‘I’ve come for the – what’s it called? – convoluted hazel,’ he says.
I laugh out loud. The ladies say, ‘I think you mean the contorted willow.’
‘I think convoluted hazel is much better,’ I say.
Great branches of the stuff are produced and it is very, very convoluted indeed.
And then I come back and arrange everything and feel a flush of achievement. Even Stanley the Dog looks quite impressed. It’s not international historians, but it is my own, small, good day.
When I say Stanley the Dog was quite impressed, what I really mean is that he lay down on his sheepskin and went to sleep:
This is a bit more like it:
The clever girl, who got five gold stars this morning:
The expatriate rings. We have known each other for so long that we have no need to spell things out; we barely need to talk in complete sentences. There is no call for long explanations; a lovely, staccato shorthand exists between us. A single word in a certain tone of voice can say more than eighteen paragraphs.
Early in the conversation, one of us says, I forget which, ‘Oh, all the learning we still have to do.’
The other echoes, with a dying fall: ‘All that damn life learning.’
I think what we mean by this is that we have got to the age when, according to the book, we should know an awful lot. We should be certain and capable. Instead, back back back we both trot, to the drawing board, to keep learning the lessons, to remember the ones we already learned but carelessly forgot.
‘Do you think,’ I say, tentative and musing, ‘that there are people who just barrel through life?’
I hear her smiling down the long-distance line.
‘Some people might barrel a bit more than we do,’ she says. ‘But you know, everyone’s got something.’
I think this is a fairly profound truth. Everyone does have something. Even those alphas - the bond traders or thoracic surgeons or university professors, the Nobel laureates and the corporate titans, the ones pronouncing on the wireless or writing with authority in the broadsheets, shining with sureness - even they must have something, when they wake at three in the morning, which is what F Scott Fitzgerald called the dark night of the soul. Otherwise why did they need to get so shiny and successful in the first place?
The Playwright calls, from a London street, sirens wailing in the background.
‘I’m just crossing a police line,’ he says. ‘Thank you, officer.’
He has a slightly different take on the matter.
He says: ‘Look how far we’ve come.’
He does not mean in terms of professional success or worldly accomplishment, which is what that phrase might ordinarily conjure. He means that even though we are both still packed with frailties and foibles and general moments of idiocy, we deal with the thorny patches better and more quickly and – this most crucially – more temperately than we would have done when we were young and callow and thought we knew everything.
It’s easy to forget, as one enters the searching halls of middle age, that for everything one does not know, there is a thing one does know.
Here is what I think, just now. Here is what I tell myself. Be brave, be kind, be funny, be vulnerable, be goofy, be true. There are people in the world who will never, ever get the point of your own idiosyncratic little star. My strong thought is: let them. Let them run free, not getting it. Give them the glorious liberty never to see the point. There are points in life it is worth trying to prove; there are some which can never be proved.
For some reason, as I slow down, trying to finish this new notion, I hear an old Scots voice in my head. It says: save your breath to cool your porridge. I think this is what old nursery nurses used to tell chatty children, in the days when children were seen and not heard. But now, I think, it can mean something slightly else. It can mean: don’t try to persuade the unpersuadable.
As I cast around for the good, final sentence, the little existential bow on the parcel, and come up blank, I suddenly think: but of course, you probably know all this already. I think even I might have known this already. Part of the reason for writing it down is that sometimes I need to be reminded.
As I type this, Stanley the Dog comes into the room and gazes at me with his steady amber eyes. Last night, I had a brief grief storm. I was watching, in my geekish way, a re-run of the Gold Cup, and they were showing Gold Cups past.
There was the mighty Arkle, the bonny Mill House, the doughty Desert Orchid blasting his way through the mud and murk. The beauty and the bravery of the horses, and the old racing history, made me think of my father, and I wept. Stanley came and positioned himself next to my left knee, sitting upright as a sentinel, as if on guard. It was absurdly touching. I suddenly realised he has not seen tears before. He arrived in November, and I have been busy and mostly happy since then. I might have thought that the sorrow could have disturbed him, but not at all. There he was, by my side, staunch as a very staunch thing.
The storm passed, as it always does. I felt clean and renewed. I thought of May Sarton, one of my very favourite writers, another solitary. She once wrote: ‘We have to dare to be ourselves, however frightening or strange that self may prove to be.’
Can’t have too many pictures of Gus the Foal, here with his lovely friend Awesome:
Myfanwy the Pony:
Autumn the Filly:
Stanley the Staunch:
This person is pretty staunch too. Sorrow holds no fears for her. She just stands with her head on my shoulder until the thing is finished:
Love that slightly wistful face. It’s actually her Where the bloody hell is my tea face.
What I meant to say, but quite neglected, was a very big thank you for all your exceptionally kind comments of yesterday. I used to try to reply to each comment as it arrived, but the whooshing of time past my ears now means that it is not possible.
So instead I send out a happy, collective shout of thanks. I was very touched.
Here is a bonus picture of Mr Stanley. For some reason, I think he looks almost exactly like Burt Lancaster in From Here to Eternity:
As if so often the case, twenty different blogs were written in my head on this cold, snowy day. I was going to tell you a perfectly thrilling thing that happened with Red the Mare; then I was going to talk about a good morning at HorseBack; then I was going to write about the use of language and why it matters.
They were all shimmering with perfection, as everything that is written in my head always is. The real trick, for any writer, is bridging that gap between brain and page. Some sad thing happens on the journey, and what was so coruscating in the privacy of one’s own cerebellum looks dull and second-rate in actual print.
But that’s a whole other story.
In the end, the day cantered away from me like a recalcitrant brumby, and it is almost five and my fingers are slow and worn and the last flashing light in my brain is blinking faintly, before the battery runs out entirely.
The small things, I think. That’s what I can say. I come back, over and over, to the small things.
An old friend who lives six thousand miles away sent me a photograph of her son with his new Labrador puppy. The email was entitled: The Whole Point. Another friend, who lives closer to home, said yes at once, without equivocation, to a perfectly outrageous last-minute favour. There was no hedging or sucking of teeth or that might be difficult. Just: Yes, of course. Someone else said something kind and encouraging about work I am doing which means a lot to me, and about which I am still uncertain.
Red the Mare did indeed do something marvellous: absolutely tiny in the eyes of any other observer; absolutely vast to me. She and Autumn the Filly then did a little comedic double act in the afternoon which made the Horse Talker and me laugh and laugh and laugh, as we leaned over the fence, contemplating our lovely herd.
We then walked the poor, snowy, muddy paddock, searching for green shoots of grass. The paddock is old set-aside; it has had a hell of a battering this winter. Sometimes we despair of ever seeing a patch of grass again. But there, under the snow, were little brave green shoots, pushing up against all the odds. I laughed and shouted and exclaimed out loud.
In other miniscule, barely-visible-to-the-naked-eye matters, I got back from HorseBack just in time to see the John Lewis van backing out of my drive. The kind gentleman was carrying vital Hoover bags, which cannot be bought in the village, and without which the mud on the carpet will never be removed. He was about to take the vital consignment back to the depot, but, just in the very nick of time, there I was to sign and take delivery. I blessed, as I always do, John Lewis and all who sail in him.
Just before lunch, I stood out on a rutted track, in the chill, clean, Scottish air, talking to a man in a cowboy hat about all matters equine. We can have this particular conversation for hours, and never tire of it. To the south, the blue hills were just coming out of their long winter white. His horse stood immaculately. I absent-mindedly rubbed the gelding’s neck and ran my hand up the sweet spot between his ears whilst the conversation rolled on. If I had not had to get back to my desk and do some serious work, I would probably be standing there still.
None of this makes headline news or has much to do with the price of fish. But the older I get, the smaller are the things which are important to me, which bring me joy and make my heart lift. They are the tiny pieces of the jigsaw which fit together to make a Good Day. And in the end, I think that probably is the whole point.
‘Don’t write about the thing,’ says one of the wisest men I know. ‘Write about anything else. I don’t know. Write about jam.’
He had been talking about Pirandello only moments earlier. For five days, I wondered if I could somehow work in some marvellously clever preserve-based theatre of the absurd parable.
I loathe unsolicited advice, almost as much as I detest dangling modifiers. The wise man is one of the very few I take it from. But this time, I cannot quite obey his good instruction.
I have to write about the thing, just a little.
Here is what happened:
I was hurt.
I got better.
It’s not the most urgent drama the world ever wrote. It’s a very, very small thing. It was salutary in many ways. It reminded me that I have absolutely no defences. If anyone wishes to shoot an arrow at my heart, it shall hit its target. On the other hand, what I am very good at is talking myself down off the ceiling. I wish I did not have to get to the ceiling in the first place, but we all have our weaknesses and that is mine.
In some ways though, I don’t want to build defences. I don’t want to be guarded, to put up sea walls, to tread with caution. My heart is worn, recklessly, on my sleeve; that is why it is so easy to hit. I’d rather it was there, than hedged about with chilly barbed wire. If I wanted never to be wounded, I should never leave the house, literally and metaphorically.
There’s an awful lot of quoting going on on the internet at the moment. Some of the quotations are the most bogus things I ever saw, like that fake Shakespeare one doing the rounds, where honour is spelt without an O. There are a lot of counterfeit Wildes cantering about, too. But some of the true quotes are rather good and often come in a curiously timely way. The one I saw three days ago which really struck me was by some old Yogi or other, and it said: meet anger with love.
Oh, I thought, do I have to? That really is quite tiring. Much easier to rant and rave, to lash out, to be intemperate, to wail and flail. Do I really have to a sodding grown-up?
Unfortunately, I am a grown-up and it’s too shaming if I can’t behave like one.
I could not not write about the thing, but I refused to write about it until I could meet anger with love. That was my rule. There would be no snide remarks or horrid passive aggressive grandstanding or phoney fatalism. I had to wait until the hurt was gone and perspective returned and I could return to love and trees.
Luckily for me, the dear old perspective police staged a massive raid. I went to HorseBack twice. I’m doing a lot of work for them just now and each time I lay my foot on their turf I am reminded how tiny my own miniscule troubles are. (For a start, I actually have a foot.)
It’s quite a good life lesson to stand in the sub-zeros, talking to a twenty-three year old who has had both his legs blown off. He is matter-of-fact and cheerful. He is funny. He has a puppy. He works hard. He does not give in to self-pity and navel-gazing. There is another fellow up there just now who has such bad post-traumatic stress that until he came to HorseBack, he had not left his flat for six years. He could not conduct a normal conversation or look people in the eye. Now he builds fences and constructs beautiful saddle racks and makes jokes.
Perspective and time and love; those are the balms. That’s all it takes to come back off the ceiling and realise one’s own absurdity.
There’s another really good saying which zooms about the Facebook with lovely regularity. It is from Plato, who knew a thing or two. It goes: ‘Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.’
Love and trees, my darlings; love and trees. That’s all she wrote.