Monday, 24 March 2014


In The World at One, the news of Russia taking the Crimea sits firmly at centre stage, like some blowsy old diva who does not know that her scene has been cut. The experts arrive. I am usually very, very happy when the experts arrive. I love experts. I thrill to hear someone who really understands that vast, mysterious landmass which gave the world Chekhov and Tolstoy and gulags. I like someone who can navigate the maze of international relations. I adore a person who can bring not only diplomatic but historical perspective into the light.

Today’s expert is Paddy Ashdown. He is very clever and very experienced and knows an awful lot of things. I listen with interest. But what really, really strikes me, as he goes on talking fluently of sanctions and NATO and the behind the scenes machinations of the G8, now reduced, pointedly, to seven, is his certainty.

I have a momentary swoon. Imagine being that certain of all the things you are certain of. It must be quite lovely.

Nothing stops Paddy Ashdown. There was that thing years ago when he had some kind of affair; I can’t remember the details. The tabloids splashed on it and gave him cruel and amusing names. The Beloved Cousin and I were once watching Question Time when a serious member of the audience actually addressed him as ‘Lord Pants-Down’ quite by mistake. David Dimbleby nearly fell off his chair.

Did that stop Lord Ashdown? Not a bit of it. He seemed to show no embarrassment or doubt, he just sailed on, cutting through the water with the wind of certainty in his sails.

Perhaps, in the silence of his lonely room, he is assailed with doubt. Perhaps he too is prey to night demons and crashing angst. But I don’t think so. I think he really is armoured in his own sureness.

I was thinking about certainty, because I’d like a little more of it. I wonder if one can grow it from seed, as clever gardeners propagate young plants. One of the things I take very badly is criticism. I have to take it for my job, so I am practised in its public acceptance. I am very polite, very open, very gracious. Of course, I say, you are quite right, I should have thought of that, I’ll do the whole thing all over again.

I smile, and leave. I do not throw things or grow bolshy or take it the wrong way. I know that criticism is necessary and one must learn from it. When I say I take it badly, I mean: on the inside. Underneath the adult acceptance is a furious wailing child, throwing food at the wall. You WHAT? the baby screams, its face red with rage. You want me to do which??? Have you any idea how hard I have worked, or how resolutely I try, or the sheer amount of difficulty that is involved? And you come along in your stompy boots and crush the tiny butterflies of my dreams?

What I never say, because I do not have the Ashdown Certainty, is: actually, I think you are wrong.

There is never any question of that. It is always I who am hopeless and feckless and pointless, whilst the critic is wise and sage and right. Occasionally, I am most ashamed to say, I indulge in passive-aggression, one of the least charming of all the character traits. Yes, yes, quite, I say, through politely gritted teeth, and then I stealthily do not change the thing at all, and wait to see if anyone notices. (They almost invariably do not.)

What I am very good at, after all this, is talking myself down off the ceiling. I deal with the immoderate fury. I explain patiently to myself that it is not personal, it is business. I remind myself that it is a tiny thing in the great scheme, and not worth getting bent out of shape over. I write it all down, or shout at the walls, or put on very loud music and dance like a dervish, to release all that wounded pride.

After about twenty-four hours, I am back on my even keel.

But I wish that I did not have to do the ceiling talk. I wish there was not the miserable flailing, the punched in the gut feeling, the awful, impotence sense of livid failure. I wish I could see at once the difference between the subjective and the objective.

I wish, most of all, that it did not hurt.

But, as I tell myself most days, one of the marks of being a grown-up is understanding uncomfortable feelings. One has to learn to sit with them. One cannot wish them away or drink them away or think them away. One has to let them exist, and watch them go.

Sometimes, though, I also wish that I did not have to be the bloody grown-up. Goodness, it is exhausting. Sometimes, I want to tell everyone to bugger off and leave me alone. I shall sit in my room and watch the racing and eat cake, and fuck ‘em all if they can’t take a joke.

I don’t do this, of course. I take a deep breath and count to ten and remember that tomorrow is another day.


Only two pictures today, both taken on Saturday morning. I left at seven-thirty to go to Aviemore to see some very old and dear friends.

The first picture is the red mare, when I went down to say goodbye, and the second is of the mighty Corgarff Castle, which delights me every time I see it, alone on its wild hillside. Whoever built that had a very great deal of certainty indeed:

24 March 2

24 March 1


  1. Yes, certainty would be a great gift. I think though that you are spot-on in saying that as we grow up we learn to sit with those uncomfortable feelings. Equally, part of being a grown-up (for me) is throwing everything out of the cot and *ahem* feeling pretty comfortable about that too. :)

  2. One thing I have always known for a certainty was that every time I listened to someone talking about politics, all I heard was "MWAH MWAH MWAHHHHH MWAH MWAH".

    I also have a second certainty. Same thing happens inside my head when I read anything about politics.

    I love you and your horses and your pup. That is also a certainty.

    Wow! Three certainties in one comment! I'm doing pretty well here!

  3. I wish I was better at the ceiling talk. Sometimes the odd bit of finest Anglo Saxon slips out after I put the phone down to a client. Or there's a distinct stomp to my step as I tell myself I am ' just going for a walk'.
    And yes, logically, rationally, it isn't personal, even when it feels like a sharp barb right in your breast bone. But the thing is, if it didn't hurt, it wouldn't matter. And getting it right, and doing your best do matter don't they?


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