Friday, 31 January 2014

A great old gentleman

Quite often, sadly often, I write here: one of the great old gentlemen has gone. Today, it is one of my great old gentlemen.

My very dear godfather has died. He was eighty-nine, and had been in rotten health for years, but he kept buggering on in the most doughty and astonishing fashion. I had come to think he would live forever, as each new diagnosis was somehow survived.

He was one of the tremendous generation that fought in the war. He served with the Welsh Guards, and would sometimes say to me startling things like: ‘Well, after the war I went back and blew up bridges and things. Great fun.’

I had no idea about the blowing up of bridges, and he did not elaborate. I thought it must have been some hush-hush sabotage job, and I wish now I had asked. I wish so many things. I had been meaning and meaning to ring, but kept putting it off. He was so tired and ill and I thought I did not want to bother the poor old gentleman. Now I think: you fool, you should just have picked up that damn telephone. Now it is too late. I remember that regret with my father too, although the last time I had tried to call him he could not speak because he was watching the 3.30 at Kempton. This still makes me laugh.

The dear old godfather was loyal and funny and true. We used to write each other long letters and whenever I was in London he would take me out to lunch and talk in a very loud voice about kings and dukes, to the slight astonishment of the other patrons. He adored kings and dukes, and queens too. He liked dead, historical ones, about whom he wrote, and alive, actual ones, with whom he sometimes dined. He was a glorious, calamitous snob, carrying a very unfashionable delight in lineage. If he asked me to a party he was giving, he would tell me who else was coming, giving them all their full titles. He loved achievement too: this one won that prize for fiction, he would tell me, or that one won the Military Cross. And yet his snobbishness was not a horrid thing. He liked poshness as people like football or art, but he loved those of us who were not duchesses too.

His friendship with my father always astonished me. He had known Dad since my fa was a schoolboy; the godfather taught at the school my father attended. He then met my mother quite separately and was delighted when they married. He came to the house often, and I have an enduring childhood memory of him sitting in the sun, in a deck chair, wearing his immaculate panama hat with its Welsh Guards band. His love for my mother was perfectly explicable – she was elegant and graceful and a perfect hostess and looked like Grace Kelly. But Dad was a roisterer and boisterer, a singer of songs, a crazy rider of chasers, a drinker, a gambler, a teller of bawdy tales. The respectable, academic godfather seemed a most unlikely person to take to such a man. Yet they adored each other. They were good companions for many years – the wild, larger-than-life horseman, and the small, precise historian. I think what it really was was that my father made the godfather laugh and laugh, in a way, perhaps, that the duchesses did not, quite.

He was a very splendid old gentleman, funny himself, in a wry, intellectual way. He was kind and generous and thoughtful. He encouraged me in my writing, even though my early, appalling novels must have made him wince a little. ‘I never knew people drank so much coffee,’ was all he said, of those terrible first books, in which my characters did spend an awful lot of time in espresso bars. He was quietly proud of his own work, but never grew puffed up when his historical biographies were awarded prizes. He loved his Welsh Guards with a passion, but apart from the thing about the bridges, did not speak of his war fighting. I wish I had asked more about that too. What courage he must have had then; I think of it now. I saw it in his later years, as he stoically faced one illness after another. ‘How are you?’ I would say. ‘Oh, you know,’ he would reply. ‘Still here.’

For all my regrets, I am glad that not many months ago, I did write him a letter telling him what a marvellous godfather he had always been, and how much I loved and appreciated him. He did not do shows of emotion; as it was with so many of that mighty generation, understatement was his hallmark. But I wrote anyway, even though he would have thought the words a little excessive, because I wanted him to know.

I wanted to mark the passing of this remarkable man, but as always, I feel that these paltry scratches on the page do not quite capture him, or do him justice. I miss the good old men and wish they were not going. I shall miss this one sorely. I hear his voice in my head as I write. He would laugh, and tell me not to grow melancholy, but to keep buggering on, just as he did. And so I shall, in his honour.



I usually do not put up other people’s pictures, being keenly aware of copyright. I hope that, on this occasion, Eric Roberts, who took this lovely and very characteristic photograph, will forgive me.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

A pause.

Off the blog for a few days.

Anyone needing a fix of red mare pictures and handsome studies of Stanley the Dog may find them here:

Because OBVIOUSLY there will be withdrawal symptoms at the lack of those beautiful faces.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

A host of silver linings.

Here is the thing I should have said about moods. They pass.

They pass, they pass, they pass, they pass.

The weather is catastrophically filthy today, so it is like living in a big bowl of dirty washing-up water, but I DON’T CARE.

I took the red mare out into the small paddock and did a join-up so entrancing and graceful and effortless that was as if she were a demonstration horse in a Warwick Schiller clinic. (Schiller is an Australian horseman by whom I am currently entranced, as he combines thoughtfulness with intense, no-messing practicality.)

Back to Square One we went, and instead of making us feel foolish and amateur, this return to the basics gave us both intense joy. There are few things in the world more moving than feeling a great flight animal following you at liberty, moving in step, turning when you turn, pausing politely when you pause.

We stood for a long time afterwards, in the rain. I had a goofy grin on my face. The mare lowered her head and wibbled her lower lip and gave me her forehead to scratch, as kind and relaxed as she has been in days. All was ease and harmony and understanding. For a moment, the universe made sense.

I had a sweet family breakfast and there was joyful family news, on several fronts. It is not only sorrows that come in single spies; sometimes joys come in battalions too. The best of the news is: there is a new great-nephew in the world. He is a very tiny fellow indeed, as he surprised us all by arriving early, but he is a fighter and a battler and he is growing like Topsy and I already feel intense admiration for his bold spirit.

At HorseBack, there were Marines. I’m always cheered up by Marines. There were veterans too, bashing on with hard work in the filthy conditions, making jokes and teasing me. I think of what they have been through and what they have seen. Sometimes I think it is the things that cannot be unseen which is the worst of it. But there they are, laughing their heads off, as the sleet falls on them. They are dauntless.

I backed a winner at Taunton, and wrote 1637 words of book, and even had a coherent thought or two.

One of the thoughts was about something that some of the Dear Readers say, quite often. They say, with great kindness and generosity: Don’t be so hard on yourself.

I have a terrible cussed streak. I am stubborn and ornery. I have a visceral reaction against being told what to do, even when the telling is done with love, even when it is wise and right. This is something I need to work on. It is what is technically known, in psychological circles, as my shit. (Actually, you have to say that to yourself in an American accent. It doesn’t quite work on the page in straight British. It suddenly looks rather scatological. But they are always saying it in films and it seems to me very expressive. Normally I would say stuff, but I think I need something stronger.)

Anyway, because of this absurdity, it took me a while to figure out whether the advice was correct. I grow sad when I see other women lashing themselves, so it seems preposterous to do it to myself.

After some contemplation, I have decided that I don’t think I am so very hard on myself. I do believe passionately in striving. That is why I sometimes ask myself: What would AP do? Tony McCoy never settles for second best. He pushes himself mentally and physically, and that is why he is the champ.

There is of course the point where driving oneself on falls into obsession and monomania. Perspective is lost. Life is not all about winning, and no amount of trophies shall equal the simple victory of loving and being loved. Gentleness and kindness, with oneself and others, are as vital as passion and ambition.

On the other hand, I do think one should kick on. I believe I can do better and I believe it is right that I should try. I want to write better prose, be a better human, grow into a better horsewoman. Every day, I want to learn something, or take a small step forward.

It’s not about perfection, nor about castigating oneself for flaws or frailties. I’m pretty good at facing my flaws, because I’ve had many years of practice. The flaws are so very flawed, and if I do not learn to love them and laugh at them I should be sunk.

But one of the things I love most in the world is a trier. I love horses who try, and I love humans who don’t give up. So, I don’t think of it as hardness. I don’t think it is pitiless lashing. I think it is a kind of try.


Today’s pictures:

Too wet and lowering for the poor camera today. Instead, in the spirit of public service broadcasting, here are pictures full of light. They are of the three beautiful faces I see every day, from a distant time when there was no need for rugs or hoods or piles of hay, when there were leaves on the trees and grass on the ground, when Stanley the Dog did not leave a little trail of muddy pawprints wherever he went:

28 Jan 1

This Lady Bracknell face is because the Duchess has just seen a jogger wearing FAR TOO MUCH LYCRA. There is almost nothing she disapproves of more. Autumn the Filly, as you can see, is much more forgiving and really does not give a bugger:

28 Jan 4

28 Jan 5

28 Jan 8

28 Jan 5-001

And a bit of the river, just for the hell of it:

28 Jan 8-001

Talking of trying, there is a lovely idea in horsemanship called Rewarding the Try. I think it may go right back to the Dorrances, with whom I am currently obsessed, but the good Australian speaks of it a lot. What it means is: don’t wait for your horse to do something perfectly before you give praise and love. It means: celebrate even the smallest move towards the goal.  If you do not do this, the willing equine will turn baffled and discouraged. I like it as an idea because it is generous, but it is also good manners. And that is my final thought for the day.

Very tired now. I know There Will Be Typos. I rely on my kind proof-readers, out there in the ether.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Blue Monday. Or, I remember that I know nothing.

It is always when I am getting a bit swaggery and cocky that life slaps me down. It sternly reminds me of the virtue of humility.

I do have a tendency to get a bit over-excited. Suddenly I am showing off, doing jazz hands all over the place. Look at me, Ma, on my damn unicycle.

I was given a corrective in two radically different ways today. Red decided to remind me that she is still a half-ton flight animal with a mind of her own, and racing blood in her veins. As I was taking out the afternoon feed, she put on a wild Spanish Riding School of Vienna show. Considering that I have been known to boast about what good manners I have taught her and how polite she is and that I can do every single thing with her without a halter, this was a fairly severe riposte. Suddenly, all my herd knowledge and good body language counted for nothing. (The little Paint, who has a different heritage, was living up to her own ancestry by doing a bronco display in the background, which did not help.)

I think that earlier in the day I had actually said aloud the sentence: ‘we have the best behaved horses in Scotland.’ They had obviously heard, and now decided to play a joke on me. They had got together with the hubris police and were bringing me down to earth with a bump.

Ah well, I thought, stumping away, having finally settled my two crazy dancing queens. Back to basics. Serious groundwork tomorrow, and no more wild boasts.

In the human sphere, all my good resolutions about work and order were crashed by a catastrophic failure of time management. The work I did get done was not of a very high quality. My determination to be more organised turned out to be a puny plan, which made the universe laugh. Also I did a really stupid bet on the races and lost.

The elements joined the party, just to top it all off. It snowed in the morning and sleeted at lunchtime and now is just dreich and blah. And I have not done the healthy cooking I was supposed to, and I have only written 496 words, which is pathetic, and it’s ten past five and I have not come close to finishing all my tasks for the day.

Today, I was supposed to be galvanised and shiny and efficient, and I ended up being muddly and slow and constantly distracted. There is mud everywhere and I’m cold and cross.

Bizarrely, suddenly, after a year and a half, I really, really miss my dog.

The funny thing is that this morning I was thinking about moods. I was even going to write you something about moods and how to deal with them, because I thought I had cracked it. I’m going to be forty-seven in a couple of days, and I’ve been doing a bit of an inventory of all the things I know. I’d decided I knew rather a lot. That’s what I was getting cocky about. Moods, I thought, pah, I know just how to fix those right up. I’ll even tell people, as if I am some kind of maven.

Now I am fairly scratchy and glitchy and not shiny at all. Bloody weather, I think; bloody life. I know absolutely NOTHING. What was I thinking?

Still, knowing nothing is a fairly good place to start. The really good horse people always say that the one place to which you must return is square one. I think perhaps it’s not just a good place with horses, but with humans too. So off I trot, back to the beginning, shaking my head with rue as I go.


Today’s pictures:

27 Jan 1

27 Jan 2

27 Jan 3

Just to add to my sense of wearing a great big hat with D for Dunce on it, I realise that this blog is not very well written, and rather incoherent. I suppose that is appropriate, given my mood. I shall let it stand. I do hear the gusting sound of hollow laughter though, as I recall saying, on Friday, to a man I do not know very well: ‘The one thing I can do is write a really good sentence.’ Oh, oh, the flappy wings of hubris. Oh, the tumbling fall to earth. Oh, the shaming bruises on the arse that is my ego.

Never mind. Better tomorrow.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

I dream of Big Buck’s

Today, a rare horse returns to the racecourse after over a year away.

Big Buck’s, a mighty, imperious fellow, left a huge gap. You could set your watch by him. He would turn up, three or four times a year, stroll around Cheltenham or Aintree or Newbury, make good horses look slightly sheepish, and then vanish again, leaving trails of glory in his wake.

Then, one day, he vanished altogether. Thoroughbreds are astonishingly tough, and vastly fragile, all at the same time. Big Buck’s, a huge, strong horse, showed he had an Achilles’ heel after all. A tendon went, and the racing world held its breath.
Today he returns, and nobody quite knows what will happen. It could be a coronation, as the emperor takes his throne; it could be a ghostly farewell. Some horses never come back from that sort of injury; some do, but are not the same. Their old form is a fleeting memory.

Big Buck’s has one of the best trainers in the business, a master at bringing horses back from long lay-offs. But the horse is eleven now, and he’s been off the track for a long time, and nobody knows what will be going through his horsey old head when he sees the great bowl that is Prestbury Park this afternoon. He is unbeaten in his last eighteen starts. He has shrugged aside fine horses in a canter. But today is the first time in a long time that the odds are against him. Timeform has run a wonderful, scientific examination of the statistics. The statistics say: not likely. At the end of the long, bloodless summation there is one, wonderful, human sentence. ‘But, he is Big Buck’s.’

If any of that diamond brilliance is still there, if he can pull this one off, Cheltenham will explode. All the hats will be in the air. There will be banshee rebel yells in this house, and certainly weeping. My fingers tremble as I type.

Whatever happens, I hope only that the big fella comes home safe. He has given so much joy. He owes nothing.

In his honour, I am reproducing here a piece I wrote about him just over two years ago, when he was in his pomp, so that you can see why my battered old racing heart is beating in my chest.

In December 2011, this is what I wrote:

To the greater glory of Big Buck's

My heart is actually pounding as I sit down to write. This is because I have just watched one of the greatest afternoon’s racing of my life, and the adrenaline is still coursing through me. I smile even as I think of it.

There is, in the world, a lovely, bonny horse called Big Buck’s. He is one of the great champions of a generation, a staying hurdler of such imperious talent that he makes good horses look quite ordinary. He jumps, he stays, he gallops; he answers every question asked of him with an emphatic yes.

He is trained by the brilliant Paul Nicholls, who also trains two of my other favourites, Master Minded and Kauto Star, and is ridden by Ruby Walsh. Walsh is, for my money, one of the finest jockeys riding today, perhaps one of the finest of any day, ever. He is poetry to watch. He has a curious stillness, an empathetic oneness with the creatures he rides. He very rarely boots a horse into a fence, as plenty of perfectly good jockeys do. Often, running into a fence, he sits quite, quite still, trusting the horse, communicating the stride almost through osmosis. It’s a beautiful thing to watch.

Anyway, today, Big Buck’s was bidding to win his fourteenth race on the trot. This is an extraordinary feat. It has only ever been done once before. Big Buck’s is a brilliant animal, but anything can happen in racing. There were some other hot contenders, the ground was testing; even though he was odds on, nothing was quite certain.

I wanted him to win so badly I could hardly watch. The Pigeon, catching my nervousness, prowled and paced about the room.

Big Buck’s went down to the start looking like a hero. He is a big horse, with powerful quarters, and great depth through the girth. (There are racing people who look for this; more room for the heart, they think.) He has a slightly old-fashioned look, like the horses my mother remembers from her youth.

Off they set. It was a long, gruelling contest. A smart grey called Dynaste was out in front, leaping over his hurdles like a cat. Big Buck’s stalked along in mid-division, waiting. Come on, come on, I muttered; steady, steady. Round the final bend, the grey was still out in front. Big Buck’s is so good that sometimes he looks as if he is not doing anything much; he can idle along, as if he is playing with his rivals, teasing them, almost. Ruby just had to shake him up a little.

And this is the glorious moment. Just one little shake of the reins, and the champion powers forward, as if someone has thrown a switch. Everyone else is suddenly scrubbing away, heads down. Ruby is looking up to the sky, as Big Buck’s saunters into the lead, collected as a show pony, certain as a stone. He wins in a canter. Ruby is patting his neck in congratulation three lengths before the winning post.

The great horse pricks his ears, raises his head, eases back to a trot, as if it all were a mere bagatelle. He is in his rightful place. He turns to acknowledge the roar of the crowd, who pay him his homage.

I don’t know why I find this so magnificent, but I do. It makes me cry actual tears of delight. In these daunting economic times, with political fury and fiscal meltdown, there is something so pure and wild and true about a really, really good horse.

My mother rings up. ‘Oh,’ she says. ‘We are lucky to be alive to see these horses.’

We are. There’s a bit of a golden age going on in racing at the moment, with the kind of horses who make history, who touch your heart, whom you know you will remember years afterwards. It is our great good fortune to witness it.


Back to 2013. At the end of that 2011 post, I put up a picture of The Pigeon. I was thinking of her last night and missing her sorely. Here she is again, still the sweetest canine I ever saw. Above her photograph, I wrote the following caption, as true today as it was then -

My very own little heroine:

17 Dec 1 17-12-2011 13-11-41

Friday, 24 January 2014

Hardly a single thought left in my head. Or, a good week.

I wanted to write you a huge, diverting, positively blowsy blog today, because you have been so lovely and the week has been so good. I had thoughts about everything, including the human search for meaning. (Come on, you know you long for a winding tangent on that subject.)

But I’m knackered, and my fingers can hardly move, and my brain has shut up shop.

I wrote 1514 words, had the lightest, most dreamy ride on my red mare, backed a nice winner, had two conversations which made my mind dance, and started to get wildly excited about the return tomorrow of Big Buck’s.

I wanted to examine why this week has been so good, in case I could draw life lessons from it. You know how I crave a life lesson.

But there is no more thought left in me. All I can say is: everyone was lovely, everything was interesting, many things were funny, the canine was enchanting, the red mare rose to new heights of gloriousness, my heart burst with love, and even though I am a bit of an idiot, I’m not quite as much of an idiot as I at first feared.

I’ve been thinking about what is the most important thing, even though I’m not sure there is a most important thing. Different things assume different importance on different days. It’s like choosing your favourite album. It’s impossible. But if I had to choose, I would say: have passions.

Be passionate, and do things with your whole heart.

I think that is what is most important.

I have no energy left for going through the pictures now. You know what this means. Oh yes. An archive shot of what Charlie Rich would call the most beautiful girl in the world.

24 Jan 4

And actually, there is just enough life in me left for one more, of Red with her sweet Paint friend. This is what they look like in the mornings, when we let them out to mooch around in the set-aside. It’s one of my favourite sights in the world:

24 Jan 2

One of the things I believe in most is letting horses be horses. It sounds shatteringly obvious, but you would be amazed how many people don’t give that idea much weight. I love this because it is one of the times when they are absolutely at their most easy, natural, horsey selves.

Have a delightful rest of Friday, and a lovely weekend. Your comments this week have been stellar. They have made me smile and laugh and think.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

A good day

No day is perfect. Every day has a bit of fret and scratch in it. But some days are composed of a great deal of loveliness and I think these should be marked. I think of them like that pot of gold of which Sebastian Flyte speaks in Brideshead Revisited: I bury them so that I may go back when I am old, and remember.

I also think, as I get older, that life is not made of grand sweeps. It is a thing of increments, not arcs. The question is not so much how far have you come, or how high may you fly, but – Did you have a good day?

The goodness of my day lay in small things. I wrote 1496 words. I watched my sweet canine make my mother smile and smile. I told her and the Lovely Stepfather the story of the great gamble, which came off yesterday, to the amazement and delight of most of the racing public. (Some were cross and strict about it, but the rules of racing were not breached, and it turned a mediocre card at Kempton on an ordinary Wednesday into a three-act opera.)

I rode in the clear Scottish air, and felt my red mare roll under me into the most lovely, relaxed canter, on a loose rein, her powerful body contained and at home in the world. I got my HorseBack work done.


The paperwork wasn’t that terrifying in the end and I no longer feel like quite such an idiot. As I told myself this evening, I am a bit of an idiot, so it’s not surprising that sometimes I feel like one. It really is a logical cause and effect. This thought both soothed me and made me laugh.

I watched an enchanting horse called Little Legend win the hunter chase in the Warwick sunshine. Hunter chases are not the richest or most glamorous races on the card, but they often throw up some of the most taking horses. Little Legend is one of those. He is very small, and gallops along with his neck stretched out and his head low, and he is as tough and honest and willing as the day is long. He got a lovely sympathetic ride, and both he and his jockey had an absolute ball, and it was one of those tremendously happy sights that lift the heart. Nobody much is going to remember the 3.20 at Warwick. It shall not make the headlines. But it had a glancing loveliness which stayed with me and has made me smile ever since. I’m smiling now, as I write of it.

Then, after all that, with all my tasks done, I went down to do what I call evening stables. This is what it was called in my father’s yard, and it is what I call it still, even though we have no stables and at this time of year it takes place in the middle of the afternoon. It is the job of feeding and checking and settling the horses for the night. The hay must be put out, the water trough checked, the legs felt, the rugs adjusted. And, of course, the love given.

I left it late today, as the light is starting to stretch out now, and I arrived in the gloaming. A high, limpid sky had turned a gleaming blue, and the air was cold and still. The two dear white faces were turned expectantly towards me in the distance, and Stanley the Dog danced about the set-aside, hunting for critters. I did all the jobs, and I reflected that the good physical work of setting an equine to rights is one of the most uncomplicated pleasures there is.

I stood with the mare for a while, in the dying of the light. She ate her food and lifted her head from time to time to regard me with her kind eyes. I spoke to her, telling her my thoughts. She is a very good listener. ‘In this moment,’ I said, ‘every single thing is all right.’

She nodded, sagely.

I said: ‘Perhaps all that really matters is that in each day there is one moment when everything is all right.’

She sighed through her velvet nose.

I wondered if it were possible to love a sentient creature more than I love her. I thought probably not.

So, my darlings, it was a good day. That is all I wanted to tell you.


I haven’t had the camera out much lately, so these pictures are from the archive. They give you some idea of the tranquillity and joy:

23rd Jan 1

23 Jan 2

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

No blog today.

Work, horse, love, comical dog, HorseBack, conversation, errands, and watching with utter fascination as a massive gamble unfolds across racecourses hundreds of miles apart. The third horse of the backed four just won at nine to four ON, having opened at twenty-five to one against. Twitter is going hysterical.

Just time for some hills and a happy mare:

22 Jan 1

22 Jan 2

22 Jan 4

Particularly lovely comments lately. Thank you for them. You do make me smile.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Feeling the feelings. Which is not as easy as it sounds.

I’ve been thinking lately about feeling feelings. I know this sounds madly hippy-ish and New Age, with a dash of Chicken Soup for the Soul on the side, but I think it is an important and rather difficult life skill.

It’s horrid tax time, and I have to do all the things I am really crap at. I have to chase up figures, and look through financial statements, and rummage for tragically lost pieces of paper, which are not in nicely available files, but hidden in tottering piles on the floor, and often turn out to have been eaten by mice.

This makes me feel: tense, stupid, inadequate and embarrassed.

I contemplate, as I always do, the shining, organised people, for whom tax returns hold no fears. I think how lovely it must be to be able to write to the accountant without fear. I rather despise myself for not being able to turn myself into one of those people. How hard can it be, after all? If only I would make a little more effort, and put my shoulder to the wheel.

I do not like any of these feelings. I really only like doing things I am reasonably good at. I am not a brilliant rider, but I am good enough to enjoy getting on my beautiful mare. As I took her out this morning, she had a bit of a twinkle in her toes and set me some challenges, and I had the delightful feeling of being good enough to meet them. It does not bother me that I shall never scale the heights, do perfect dressage or turn myself into a barrel racer (although that is my latest crazed dream; I think the duchess would love it). In that sphere, I am happy to be good enough. As long as my red girl and I can mooch along in harmony, the joy flies upward.

I like writing because even though I shall never be quite as good as my dizzy aspirations, I have practised long enough to be able to carry a tune. Just as I have a natural feeling for horses, which must have been born in me, I have a natural feeling for words. It is like those people who have an ear for languages, or an innate sense of musicality. You still have to graft and strive, but you have a ready advantage: it is in your wheelhouse.

I have no natural feeling for organisation, or money, or figures. I must go against the grain, in those dark areas. I am faced with the brutally blank spaces of my own inadequacy. So I procrastinate wildly, and then curse myself for that particular weakness.

Yesterday, I sat down and made a start. There was no way I could avoid the horrid feelings, and I felt them all.

It wasn’t so bad.

I said to myself: what is the worst that can happen? The worst is: I shall feel uncomfortable. I will have to feel feelings which are not a carnival.

All these things come true. I shift in my seat and feel a pressure on my head as if someone is pressing there. I berate myself a little and put on my dunce’s cap. But that really is not the most terrible thing in the world. It sounds a bit bald, but as I get older I increasingly say to myself, for perspective: nobody died. If nobody died, then it all may be managed.

Of course this is the logical, adult brain. Sadly, I cannot always call on this. The irrational, instant gratification side of the brain wants everything to be bluebirds and bloody butterflies. It does not like feeling scratchy and stupid and will pull all kinds of wily stunts to avoid it. But, obvious as it may sound, feelings must be felt. Otherwise they mug you later, and then there is hell to pay.


Three pictures today.

The woody ones make me feel happy and calm:

21 Jan 1

21 Jan 2

Usually, I put up Herself looking ravishing. Her beauty makes me feel delighted and proud. But she also has a fine line in comedy, and she makes me laugh daily, sometimes by doing a good old donkey face:

21 Jan 3

Ha. The reserved Briton in me is shouting: DON’T POST A WHOLE BLOG ABOUT YOUR FEELINGS, YOU FOOL. But I damn well am going to share with the group. I have this odd idea that revealing one’s follies and frailties is as important as talking of one’s triumphs. Probably more important. Then the Dear Readers can chime in, and we can have a good old share-up and after that, nothing seems so bad.

I’m risking it, anyway, despite my residual stiff upper lip.

Monday, 20 January 2014

In which I lose a day.

The day galloped away from me like a crazed colt on a Mongolian plain. There is no time or energy left to write anything useful. All I seem to have been doing for the last forty-eight hours is battling with the deluge and the mud. I know I said one must experience the rain, but there are limits. Thanks to the miraculous new rug technology, so different from when I was young and it was basically a bit of green canvas New Zealand or bust, the horses stayed warm and dry. But still, endless downpour and floods are not their favoured conditions.

I felt very proud of the red mare. Her duchessy streak and her fine breeding might lead one to suspect she would grow grumpy or make a fuss in the filthy dreich. But she becomes wonderfully calm and stoical, putting her head down and getting on with it. She deals with the whole thing much better than I.

And today, as the light came again, she was at her dearest and sweetest and best, funny and affectionate and philosophical. She is a fine example, and I try to live up to her.


Just time for some quick pictures for you, of the floods and the Beloveds, and a bit of lichen, because we have not had nearly enough lichen lately. Don’t know WHAT I’ve been thinking. Must sharpen up:

20 Jan 1

20 Jan 2

20 Jan 3

20 Jan 5

Oh, oh, OH, that face:

20 Jan 7

Saturday, 18 January 2014

All about Red.

This is an indulgent Red the Mare post, so those of you who are not interested in the horsing, look away now.

We’ve been working on straightness lately. The mare has a tendency to drift, and I suddenly realised that I had spent so much time concentrating on the groundwork, I had rather taken the riding side of things for granted. So I went back to basics, to teach her to go on a true line at a steady pace on a loose rein.

This morning, we had moments of absolute triumph – trotting for a full quarter mile without reins, the pace controlled with voice and seat. (I must admit there were moments when I was madly waving my arms in the air, I was so exhilarated. Some walkers who came round the corner looked slightly surprised.) And there were moments when she tested me – leaning all over the shop and deciding it was time to go back to the home paddock, so I had to grow stern and determined. She even got a little excited and put her sprinting shoes on for a quarter furlong, which she has not done for months. She is getting fitter and it’s starting to show.

So, there were ups, and there were downs, and after one of the downs, as I stiffened my sinews and gave myself a good talking to, and kept on, because one must always find the good note to end on, she suddenly went forward into the most glorious, relaxed, cowboy lope, and she softened, and we were all at once in a rolling, singing harmony. We went in long, wide circles, out in the open green spaces, the reins loose, keeping a beautiful steady pace. Everything fell into place. This was once a racehorse, I thought, and now look.

Then, I let her go, pointed her up a gentle slope, and gave her her head. And there it was, our first absolutely straight fast canter, with not a hint of drift or lean or jink.

We’ve done fast canters before, but they always ended with what I think of as a polo swerve, and I’d let it get a bit too swervy and out of hand. This was a different order of things altogether.

It had taken an hour of solid work. I had followed the brilliant method of an Australian horseman I admire called Warwick Schiller, and I could not believe the transformative effect. His idea is that you do not correct them when they drift off a true line, but simply turn them in the opposite direction. (We were describing wide arcs all over the place, drawing circles on the green grass.) Then, the idea goes, the moment they are moving straight, you leave them alone. I love this technique. It is so much calmer and more graceful than endless correction. Turn, turn, turn; and then – bang – there is the lovely true line. When it comes, it feels as if everything in the world has grown light and possible. There is a feeling of such effortlessness, and a communion, between human and horse, which is impossible to describe.

Although there were moments this morning when I grew frustrated, and had to control that frustration – she is just being a horse, and it is my job to teach and guide, with patience and calm – I looked back and was glad it was not foot-perfect. When she gives me little tests, it makes me better. She is, as ever, my best professor. She reminded me that I had made assumptions, taken things for granted, skipped a step. She took me back to Square One, which is an important place with horses. She keeps me humble, and brings me joy, and you can’t say that about too many people.

When it was over, and I got off and walked her home, the two of us swinging along together in perfect unison, at one with each other and the world, I thought that I can never pay her the debt I owe. She got extra love and food, of course. She got the good apple chaff and the fine new hay. But what she gives me is beyond any price. She makes me feel as if I can fly.


Sadly there was no photographer on hand to capture the Glorious Moment, as we were out on our own, but here is a picture of her from a few days ago, doing some impressive ground-tethering and showing off the full duchessy profile. That stretch is where we did the reinless trotting.

18 Jan 1

Friday, 17 January 2014

Experience the rain.

I heard a lovely piece of wisdom today. It went: experience the rain, don’t wish it away.

Since it has been pouring all morning, and I have been stumping about grumpily in my muddy boots and my special hat, this spoke to me, both literally and metaphorically. And now the sun has come out and I’m rushing to get work done so I can dash down to the field and take the red mare out for half an hour. A day not spent on her back is a day wasted.


Only one picture today. I love that this one is very, very slightly out of focus, since it gives her an old-fashioned, out of time look:

17 Jan 1

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Up and down and round the houses. Or, I count my blessings. Again.

I wish there were a British equivalent for the curveball. It is one of those good American expressions which finds no match in these islands. Perhaps googly would come closest, but it does not quite have the same euphonic ring.

Anyway, just as I was getting a bit cocky and thinking I had sorted a few things out, life has thrown me a curveball. It’s a combination of things. It is stuff.

It is no more than the kind of stuff that every human who does not live in an ivory tower has to deal with. As Stanley the Dog and I march along the beech avenue, I give myself a small lecture about perspective, and buggering on, and being grown-up. What is the worst that can happen? I ask myself, sternly. I contemplate the worst. Well, I say to Stanley, who is hunting for the biggest possible stick he can find, and sniffing the air for pheasants at the same time, we can deal with that. In a perfect world, we would not have to, but we damn well can. We are not drowning, but waving.

As usual, I count my blessings.

Today they come out, one two three four five, fast and reflexive. In this moment they are:

1. Opposable thumbs.

2. This clean Scottish air.

3. The beautiful red horse, whom I love with my whole heart.

4. An endlessly funny dog.

5. The ability to type.

There are many others, too many to count. My family, a brain which mostly works, the good fortune to live in a liberal democracy where I may vote and drive a car, curiosity, even the 1.50 at sunny Wincanton, in which I backed the dear old winner, a lovely mudlark called Benny’s Mist.

After I wept on Tuesday for one of my favourite horses, the gallant St Nicholas Abbey, who cruelly died of colic, I rejoiced on Wednesday, at the news of Frankel’s very first foal coming into the world. Silver linings, I suppose; they must go on the blessing list too.

There is always a silver lining, although it is sometimes an act of will to see it. On this morning’s ride, I was struggling for straightness. The mare sometimes has a tendency to lean, whether from her racing or polo days I cannot tell. She veers off a true line. So I’ve been working on straightness and today it did not go that well.

On the way home, slightly frustrated at a small lack of success, I suddenly realised I was in danger of overlooking all the things she did do. There were three perfect transitions, from canter to trot to walk, from VOICE ONLY. She walked, without blinking, through a four foot gap between a bloody big tractor and a huge tree. There are cobs who won’t do that. Then we found some gentlemen filling in pot holes. There was a rattly machine heating up tarmac, and strange humans in high-visibility jackets, and a big shining truck, pouring out stones and shale and all sorts, to go into the mix. Massive spook alert, for the quietest horse. My chestnut thoroughbred mare walked right past the thing without twitching so much as one of her dear ears.

So what if she wasn’t quite straight? All the rest adds up to miracle horse.

I suppose I am back to my theme of looking for the good stuff. Dig for gold, is my motto for the day. Get the damn spade out and dig.


And now there is just time for some quick pictures:

The red mare schooling, with the Remarkable Trainer up:

15 Jan 2-002

Mist and hills:

16 Jan 1-002

Beech avenue:

16 Jan 3

S the D, doing yoga:

16 Jan 4

At least, I assume that is what he is doing.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014


I have an inchoate feeling of a corner being turned, of a new beginning, of possibilities opening up. I cannot quite pin it down but I feel it moving in me like an energy.

I spoke to someone today who is very young, and very wise. She spoke of having her perspective changed, and learning to see the positive instead of the negative. Her glass used to be half empty; now it is half full.

I think that this is a conscious choice. People have a tendency to see their characters as fixed. I am stubborn, they say, or optimistic, or sceptical, or kind. There is a temptation to take one label and slap it on and be done with it.

I think that most people are many things, all at the same time. I think also that character traits are not carved in stone. One can choose. Choices are important. Habits of mind can be changed. New neuronal pathways can be built, since it turns out the brain is much more plastic than was previously thought.

My glass too tends to be half full. I generally choose to see the best. Sometimes I feel slightly embarrassed by this, as if it were proof that I am naive or unsophisticated. The clever people are often cynics, after all. I am reading one clever person now, who serves up his cynicism about the human race in a brilliant and funny way. It is horribly persuasive. He has any number of proofs. My hello clouds, hello sky self wants to say: no, no, stop, wait, LOOK THERE IS THE SUN COMING OUT.

Is the choice, and I insist it is a choice, to see the best wilful folly, or a generally good thing? I can’t decide. I like digging for the good stuff, like a hound snuffling for truffles. When I find it, I feel a sense of joy and triumph and vindication. Silver linings glimmer about me.

Today, a man arrived at HorseBack who, on his last tour, was shot through the head. He comes to us quite a lot, and I like him very much, and am always glad to see him back. Getting shot in the head could shake one’s faith in life. It’s a bloody awful thing to happen. He could complain about his ghastly fate and the unfairness of things. (Why me? Why my damn head?) Instead, he chooses to see himself as lucky. He could have died. He should have died, really, all the medical people said so. Not many people survive a bullet to the brain. But he did survive, and he chooses not to complain, but to celebrate the fact that he is still here.

That’s what I mean by seeing the best in things. That’s my finest example, my daily reminder, right up there with What Would AP Do? It is, I think, a good choice. I put it in my heart and carry it with me like an amulet. The best is there, I think, even if sometimes I have to squint very hard to see it. It is worth looking for.


No pictures today; the weather is too awful. Just the two Beloveds, from lighter days:

14 Jan 1

14 Jan 2

How can one not look for the best in things, when one has those two beautiful creatures to gaze on every day? That’s crazy, wild, impossible luck, right there.

Monday, 13 January 2014

The two brains have a little chat. Or, do the thing.

I am very much taken with the You are Not Alone theme which developed on the blog last week. How the Dear Readers rise magnificently to the occasion. My only slight dread is that one day I might admit to something and you will all turn round and go ‘huh?’ It is a risk I must take.

Today, my idiot brain and my adult brain had the following conversation.

Idiot Brain: I can’t.

Adult Brain: Yes, you can.

Idiot Brain: I will feel stupid and frightened, and I will be right, because I have made a massive cock-up and shall have to go into the garden to eat worms.

Adult Brain, kindly, sanely: You will almost certainly feel frightened and stupid. There is a real possibility that you will have been stupid and so shall be quite correct in feeling so. But these are only uncomfortable feelings. You have not had your legs blown off or lost your sight. You have not done something cruel and unusual. You have just screwed up a bit, and you may have to sit with that. It’s not the worst thing in the world.

Idiot Brain: IT IS. I shall disappear into a shameful puddle of my own inadequacy.

Adult Brain: No, you won’t. Let me just run you through the worst that can happen again.

Idiot Brain: I might feel frightened and stupid?

Adult Brain: Yes.

Idiot Brain: And that is all?

Adult Brain: Yes.

Idiot Brain mutters something that only dogs can hear.

This conversation (and I screw up my face in embarrassment as I write this) took place because I’ve been worrying about cash and have been quite stupid about it and not planned for contingencies. Contingencies have happened. (Yes, shouts the Know It All Brain, because this is life.) I went into a defensive crouch for a few days and could not face looking at my bank account, because I felt so idiotic and wrong and childish. I did not want to see proof of my lack of budgeting and past profligacy. I was convinced everything would be screaming at me in red and I would have to live off beans for the next year.

Finally, the adult brain won. The idiot brain went and hid itself in the cupboard of doom, and I opened up the computer and squinted at the screen.

It’s not anything like as bad as I feared. I shall still have to keep listening to the adult brain, and my belt shall remain tight, but I’m finding a small pride in saving money and a curious liberation in not buying stuff. The only things I buy now are the odd rug for the red mare, and some supplements to keep her dear hooves hard. (She cannot do without rosehips and seaweed.)

I do still feel a bit stupid, because I did not look far enough down the track, and I let things get away from me. But as the good old adult brain pointed out so truly: feeling stupid is not the end of the world.

I have a real terror of stupidity, and my next private project is to try and work out where that comes from. It’s such an odd thing to be frightened of. I mean, all humans are capable of stupidity, and it’s such a small vice, so tiny compared to cruelty or prejudice or dishonesty. I’ve known people who are utterly brilliant in one sphere be perfect icons of folly in another. Cleverness can be a wonderful and generous thing, but it can also be hard and almost ruthless. My absurd fear of being stupid, a fear so crashing that it can paralyse me and actually stop me doing things, is the next existential tangle which I must unpick.

In the meantime, I feel a streaming relief that the thing was not nearly so terrifying as I had thought. The anticipation and assumptions were perfect carnivals of mortification and fear; the reality turned out to be something which can be managed, with a little stern application.

I think: I must get to work on my tendency to catastrophise. I’m not sure that I can say categorically that things are never as bad as one thinks, because there must be times when they are. But most often, as the fool mind conjures up lurid images of disaster and destitution, as the lizard brain insists that everything shall crash and people will sneer and mock, the actuality is nowhere near as catastrophic. I know I should know this. I have seen Hamlet enough times, after all. I know that nothing is either good or bad but thinking makes it so.

Do the thing, is my mantra for the day. Just listen to the adult brain, and do the damn thing. Even if you might end up feeling a little bit stupid.


Today’s pictures:

The light this morning at HorseBack:

13 Jan 1

13 Jan 2

13 Jan 3

13 Jan 4

The light of my silly old life:

13 Jan 7

13 Jan 8

The light turns Stanley the Dog into a gleaming streak of red:

13 Jan 9

And, first thing, turns the hill into something magical and mysterious:

13 Jan 10

It’s all about the light, really, literally and metaphorically.

Friday, 10 January 2014

As is so often the case, this was not what I meant to write at all.

Ah, I was going to go back to the most excellent discussion on anger, but time has beaten me. Time is beating me quite a lot lately, but I don’t mind this too much. There is a goodness in having many things to do. Imagine a life in which the hours stretched out like acres, with nothing to fill them.

The good part of this week was that things got done. I read interesting books. I wrote 6179 words. I fulfilled my responsibilities at HorseBack. I spent time with my family. I walked the dog, and the horse too. (We rode a little this week, but she has a slight muscle strain in her off hind, probably from scooting about in the muddy field, and so we are gently walking it off. Since I adore walking her in hand, and she loves it too, this is not much hardship.) I cooked a good casserole and even managed some rudimentary domestic tasks. The blog stuttered and tottered a little, as it got squeezed into the smallest available space, but at least it still exists, chugging along on three wheels, held together with binder twine. I even backed a couple of winners, and had a very nice treble.

I thought quite a lot of my late father. I shall never stop missing him, but I have a sense that some corner in the road has been turned. One of the paradoxes I found about losing a parent was that even though it is the most normal and expected of things, it turned normality on its head. The world became oddly strange to me, without him in it. Although an old man dying could not be more natural, everything felt shocking and unreal and unnatural. I think that this was where the mare came in, anchoring me in the earth, in the animal, in the fundamental. Horses are all about the fundamental, in a practical as well as philosophical sense.

I found it hard to get back to ordinary routines. For a very long time after my dad died, so long that I was ashamed of it, I found my sleep patterns disrupted and small usual tasks difficult. I could write a book. I could school a horse. I could make conversation and crack jokes. But I battled to eat or sleep at regular hours. I kept missing lunch, or staying up all night working. For a short, rather terrifying time, I became afraid of the dark. I also feared silence, and sometimes went to sleep with the wireless on, so that I would surf in and out of forgotten dreams to the sounds of the World Service.

I hoped, secretly, that this was a thing, something common and known, and not just me going nuts in the head. I assumed it was the mortality attack. It’s not just losing a person, missing a beloved human, remembering well a formative influence, it’s a crash course in the reality which until then had been more of an intellectual exercise than anything else. Of course I knew about mortality, but I had not yet been beaten round the head with it.

I felt slightly stupid that I was not dealing with it better. Oddly, I did the grieving part pretty well. I did not stuff it down or deny it or belittle it. I cling always to stoicism, since I find those people who turn every set-back into a three-act opera tiring. But I knew the thing must be marked. It was in the mazy paths of readjusting to this new reality that I lost my bearings.

For whatever reason, perhaps just time doing its clever thing, the routines have at last reasserted themselves. Despite the fact that at half past midnight last night I was in a field, with a horse, staring at the moon and the stars in case the Aurora Borealis should pass by, most of the time I now go to bed at a reasonable hour. The domestic tasks do not seem to baffle me in quite the way they did. A small sense of agency and a glimmer of organisation return, lifting their heads like snowdrops seeking spring. I feel passionately grateful for this change, and tread delicately on the new, firmer ground.

How funny this medium is. As I started to write, the burden of my song was that I had no time to say what I wanted to say. Then I said something quite else, which I had not intended at all. In the spirit of this blog, which is all about authenticity and what the hell and buggering on and seeing what comes, I shall let it stand. I suspect that the Dear Readers know some of this only too well. I suspect, I hope, that I am not alone.


Today’s pictures:

Are not from today. Today, the murk and gloom returned. But earlier in the week, oh what light we had:

10 Jan 1

10 Jan 3

10 Jan 5

10 Jan 6

10 Jan 10

10 Jan 11

10 Jan 2

Thursday, 9 January 2014

The Dear Readers excel themselves.

What I loved about yesterday is that you came to talk not about me, or the dear dog, or the red mare, or the small things of daily life which I often put here, but of a good and interesting subject.

On anger, it turns out, the Dear Readers have wisdom and philosophy and jokes. I would very much like to unpack this, as Melvyn Bragg says each Thursday morning. Today there is no time. Today, the sun is dancing like a crazy thing and I want to get out again into the air and look at the hills.

I think a lot about choices. There is no perfect life; always one must sacrifice one thing to gain another. Today, I ruthlessly sacrifice the blog. (The racing has already been cancelled.) Today, I can do my work and go into the amber light and have a lunchtime ride on my horse, or I can write something serious here and watch the 2.05 at Catterick. I cannot do them all. Admitting this feels stupidly adult. There is still a giddy child in me which believes I can do everything. Now, I stare down the straight gunbarrel of reality and I find that I don’t mind that at all. It’s oddly reassuring.

More on the subject of rage tomorrow, because you all said such interesting things.


In the meantime, here are two pictures:

The morning sun at HorseBack UK:

9 Jan 1

And dear Polly the Cob, who lives there:

9 Jan 2

I never knew a cob in my life. I freely admit, I was never much for heavier horses.  But this girl is a treat. I grow very fond of her, and she has a beauty all her own.


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