Stanley the Dog and I return to the house after our morning’s errands to find the boiler man, hard at it.
One of the lovely things about being a tenant is that I have a most elegant landlord. The elegant landlord does elegant things, like sending round a gentleman to service the boiler. Finding and organising someone to service the boiler is one of my fate worse than death jobs. As it is, the gentleman appears like a miracle and I need not even think about it.
The boiler, although quite new and very environmentally friendly, is jammed with soot. ‘Goodness,’ I say, baffled. ‘Should that be happening?’
It turns out it is the gales. If the wind blows for day after day, as it has this season, then all the emissions are blown straight back into the flue, where they gather as soot.
The gentleman is sanguine. He has a special implement.
I admire it. The soot shall be gone in a trice and all manner of things shall be well.
‘Will it work better?’ I ask.
‘Oh yes,’ says the gentleman. ‘And it will be more efficient.’
This makes me very happy. The cost of oil is frankly terrifying.
I suddenly think that being a boiler operative is a very good job. This gentleman arrives, finds something dirty and messy, and leaves it clean and spanking, to the high delight of the owner. He has added to the sum total of human happiness. I am beside myself to think that my poor boiler is no longer clogged with soot and shall use less fuel and will generally chug along more smoothly.
I like, I realise, manual jobs. I love writing, of course I do, and I could not do anything else, but for sheer, visceral satisfaction, nothing matches the work I do with my horse. The carrying of hay, the mixing of feed, the checking of legs: this simple, daily, manual exercise has something clean and true and profound in it. Perhaps that is why I have such intense admiration for farmers and dry-stone-wallers and fencers. The fencing man who comes to do the paddocks always looks absolutely amazed when I virtually fall on his neck and exclaim in delight. But his is such a great skill; there is almost poetry in it.
I love that the farmers understand the weather and the earth and the livestock. I am in awe of the skill of dry-stone-wallers, whose sure touch and knowledge of stone is often passed down from generation to generation.
When I am in the presence of people who are good at these sort of things, I often feel quite flimsy and inadequate, as if my own profession is rather wafer-thin by comparison. (This may not be merely my own idiosyncrasy. I was once asked, by a perfectly polite, intelligent person, when I was going to get a ‘proper job’.)
I grew up on a farm and in a stable. Some of my earliest childhood memories are of gnarled old men, whistling through their teeth as they groomed the horses with wisps they had fashioned out of clean straw. I think now they were horse whisperers before horse whisperers were invented. My father, whom I followed out into the dark early morning yard like a faithful puppy, started every day mucking out. He smelt of an intoxicating combination of mud and dung and Mr Trumper’s hair oil. (It was the seventies.) I suspect this is where my ancient love of the earthed jobs comes from.
It’s funny, because all my adult life I have had something approaching worship for the life of the mind. Quickness and cleverness thrill me like a great painting or a fine sonata. I adore thinkers. Talking with someone much more brilliant than I makes me raise my game and catch a glimpse of the peaks. I get an exhilaration from it that is like a jolt of electricity.
It is not an either or. There is no zero sum here. The intellectual and the manual need not be in opposition. I still love cleverness. I love the historians and scientists and philosophers who can cast their fine minds over intractable problems. But as I grow older, I return to the things of the earth. There is something enduring and deep in them. There is something tremendous, both literally and metaphorically, in getting your hands dirty.
The most beloved tree, down in the horses’ paddock:
This morning, at HorseBack:
Red, from Saturday, doing blinky eyes:
For reasons that are too lovely and too complicated to go into now, I am going to tell you Red’s real name. The Dear Readers will know that I have some bizarre imperative to give both humans and animals special Blog Names, to protect their privacy. The only exception to this so far has been Stanley the Dog, because Stanley is too splendid a name to be hid. But soon Red shall have another internet life, where she shall be known by her actual name, which is Phoenix. She is also known by me as Phoeny, Feen, Feenle Been, Bub, Boo, and Wib. (On account of the famously wibbly lower lip.) You do see there is a reason I generally do not admit these things in the public square.
Back on topic – you don’t get more earthy than a baby bison:
Or some top lichen:
Stan the Man, who likes the earth very much, for burying things in, sniffing at, and RACING over at thirty miles an hour: