Thursday, 31 July 2014

No blog today.

So sorry to have been derelict from duty. Running around like a crazy thing as the family gathers for a great 21st, the Highland games are almost on us, and I have guests. Always a bugger when real life gets in the way.

If you want to know what I have been doing in the last couple of days, you can see some pictures here:

Back next week.

Yesterday, at Perth, one of the loveliest racecourses in the world:

31 July 1

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

A good day.

Today I:

Rode the mare, played with the dog, wrote 1579 words, had tech rage, did two HorseBack stints, smiled at the kindness of strangers, walked and laughed with my family, scolded myself for lack of administrative skills, made one important telephone call, had two disastrous bets at Goodwood (Beacon, what were you doing?), met a very charming gentleman who remembered my father, planted some lavender, caught the edge of the news, which is still bad, attacked the weeds, and made some really rather good chicken for supper.

That’s it.

(In other words: did not do the blog.)

Took some pictures for you though:

29 July 1

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29 July 10

29 July 11

Monday, 28 July 2014

Random thoughts from a broad.

1416 words. Older niece and Man in the Hat arrive from the south, with happy dog. Sun shines. Red mare is utterly adorable in every way. Good HorseBack work.

Eat green soup, for health. Brain feels stretched and addled but I bash on. Vaguely cross that there is no time to watch the racing at Galway because there is still too much work to do. Remind myself that it really, really is not the end of the world.

Then I read a comment on the blog. One of the Dear Readers writes: ‘That is the most beautiful horse I have ever seen.’ I want to cry.

She is not the most beautiful horse, I think. (I must cling to the remaining shards of reality that live in my horsey mind). But I love that someone said so. Nobody has to write anything like that. It is not an imperative, in a busy life, when there is so much else to do. But someone thought the thought and took the time and wrote the words, and sent a shaft of sunlight into a long day. Even though I am so tired my fingers can hardly move over the keyboard, I am smiling as I write this.

Say the thing, I think. If you love someone’s eccentric hat, tell them. If you think they are doing well in trying circumstances, congratulate them. If you adore their chicken soup or like the way they do their hair or are lifted up by the quirky way their minds works, tell them.

I think some people are almost afraid of giving compliments, as if it is a bit goofy or sappy or uncool or even, most oddly, a sign of weakness. It is true that some people, especially if they are British, may not be awfully good at accepting compliments, and instead of smiling and saying thank you so much will laugh, in a mocking manner, and say something like ‘oh, this old thing’, or ‘are you mad?’, or just mutter incoherently and scuff their feet along the ground. This can feel like a small rejection.

I think: risk it. Say the thing. Say the kind thing. Make someone’s day.

Even if it is a bit uncool.

I’ve been uncool for years, so I’m very much resigned to it by now. I did try to be hip and groovy, in my younger days, but it never took. There’s something quite liberating about coming to term with this in my middle-age, because now I can give as many compliments as I like. I sometimes gush. I don’t care. Say the thing.


Today’s pictures:

Very quickly, as I still have miles to go before I sleep:

28 July 1

28 July 2

28 July 3

28 July 4

28 July 6

28 July 6-001

28 July 10

Not the best pictures I ever took. But there is an awful lot of sweetness in them, so I don’t mind. And sorry there is no time for captions.

Friday, 25 July 2014


797 words written; one sunny day; one blissed-out mare; one joyful dog. I think he even may have caught one of the bluebottles, after a week of trying. Here is how it went: buzz, buzz, buzz; snap, snap, snap; buzz; snap. Silence de glace.

One of my ridiculous accumulators even came good.

The thought of the red mare with the old people still makes me smile.

And the Dear Readers of yesterday touched my heart with kindness.

I think I have to chalk that down as a good day, to end a good week.

I have, however, run out of words. I’ve typed them all. Luckily, I have a photo essay for you instead, of one delighted dog in the dazzling morning sunshine. It is for the Stanley-lovers amongst you.

He is still prone to the occasional freak-out, when I shout too loudly at the racing on the television, as the scars of his early life continue not quite healed. He does slope off when he is bored with me working the mare, and goes to my mother’s house, lets himself in and sits himself down. (He can open every single door in all our houses, except for one here, which has a round handle. However, I have caught him up on his back legs, a paw on either side of the knob, practising. Nobody told him he does not have opposable thumbs.) He does still get a bit carried away and barks at cyclists whose lycra he considers too garish, but he no longer woofs at Pearl the Postwoman, just gazes at her with eyes of love. He makes my mother smile every single morning, and sends my stepfather’s dog into transports of love. He comes when he is called, and knows sit and stay and wait. He still steals any food which is not nailed down, but he is a lurcher, and must stay true to his heritage. He is the first rescue I ever owned, and one of the best decisions I ever made. And at top speed, he is so fast over the ground that he looks like a wild brindle streak.


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25 July 12

The first of the honeysuckle is out:

25 July 1

I was quite pleased with some of the HorseBack photographs I took this week:

24 July H6-002

The red mare made great strides and was really rather brave and gave me mighty gifts. The particularly touching thing was that I could not resist posting her all over the internet, and people I have never met, some from the other side of the world, celebrated her gloriousness as if she were their own. My showing days really are over, so she will never go anywhere and win a silver cup. She famously trundled around the back in her blessedly short racing career, and then turned out not to be very good at polo. (We don’t like to speak of it.) I sometimes think that I plaster her all over Facebook because I want her to get the credit she deserves. Every kind person who admires her sweetness and brilliance is the equivalent of a judge, pointing at her to come in at the head of the line. Every little internet thumbs-up is Supreme Champion in Show. Of course the idiot thing is that she does not give a bugger. She does not want credit. That is a human concept. She wants to be at peace, and this morning she was more peaceful than a philosopher queen who had just found the answer to the Universal Why. I have no picture of it, but it lives in my mental camera. Here is she is in her Prettiest Mare pose instead:


25 July 20

Thursday, 24 July 2014

The voices in my head.

‘Oh, for God’s sake,’ says the critical voice. ‘Tell them you can’t do the bloody blog. Half of them probably hate it anyway. They have lives to be living. What can it matter?’

The critical voice gasps at her fag and orders another gin. I think she probably did not get enough love as a child.

I was on the verge of writing: no blog for a while. Everything is on fast forward. I did 1527 words and HorseBack and the horse and the dog and my family things and did not have time for the vital administrative tasks that have been hanging over my head for days or the picking of the ragwort, which is like painting the Forth Bridge. I am furious about the ragwort.

Stanley escapes and barks at the nice farmer bringing the good hay, and the farmer looks affronted and hurt. I am hurt on his behalf. How could Stanley bark at the farmer? I know he thinks he is protecting the old homestead, but even so. This unsettles the mare, who usually ignores Stanley, and then the Paint sees him creeping through the bushes and thinks he is a mountain lion. My green paradise is suddenly besieged and the peace that normally lives there is fled.

‘Bloody ragwort,’ I shout, seeing it sprouting evilly through the set-aside, no matter how hard I dig the bastard up. ‘It’s six o’clock and I have not yet finished my work and I have not finished the weed-digging and how can there be a blog?’

I was going to say no blog because of all these good reasons. Something has to give. Really though it was to do with a long day and exhaustion and one moment of idiot fury. It only takes fifteen minutes to write two hundred words. I know that it occupies much more mental time, because I do think about it a bit you will be astonished to hear, but even so, it’s not a three-hour slog. The sudden spasm is because I am not listening to my sensible voice of yesterday about perfection being the enemy of the good.

(Thank you so much to the intelligent Dear Reader who knew it was Voltaire.)

The reason I do this is because I like having postcards, which I can look back on. I like markers.

I like the strangers who come and read and say: me too.

I like the act of writing. I think of it as a good discipline, a practice, like doing your arpeggios in the morning.

If one person, one single human, reads this and raises a smile because of some idiot joke or a dancing stretch of prose or a needed thought, then my work is done.

Its ambitions are shatteringly small. How odd I think, that I started it to promote Backwards, with the absolute conviction that I could go viral, sell a million copies, and retire with fields full of ex-racehorses. Now, one smile, even a fleeting one, is enough.

I like that it is free. Paid work has a different aspect to it, slightly distanced by professionalism. I adore reading good journalism, even if it is by people with whom I radically disagree. There are columnists whose weekly articles I look forward to keenly. But I get a very different kind of pleasure from reading my sister blogger across the Atlantic, with her thoughts on love and heartbreak and family and food and the beauty of the canyon in which she lives, so far away. It is a sweeter pleasure, because she does it for love, and so her blog has a personal authenticity which no paid writing can match. It is a gleaming glimpse inside the soul of an ordinary human, struggling with all the ordinary challenges and ordinary griefs and ordinary joys of life. And it has a truth in it which makes it extraordinary.

The critical voice has now given up and gone to buy another bottle. She quite often does not stay long. She gets disgusted and moves on to wreck someone else’s party. The sensible voice has her sensible hat on and is enjoying her moment in the sun. She does not need gin, although she has been known to indulge in the occasional Negroni.

‘You can fit it in,’ she says. ‘Everyone has busy lives. It does not matter if it is only three lines. Don’t give it up because you are feeling a bit overwhelmed in one hour of one day. Just write it, word by word. Don’t fret if it is not the dazzling thing that exists in your head. You don’t need bouquets and cups; you just need to write.’

The sensible voice is awfully nice.

Stanley the Dog has now calmed down. The mare is settled for the night.  The delicious new hay is in the shed. The sun is still shining. I have not finished my work, but I never finish my work. Like the ragwort, it is always with me.

I remember that the 1527 words were not bad, and that despite my endless panic about time, I did manage to take ten minutes to back a winner at Sandown, and that Red and I had one of our floating trots in the hayfield this morning, so light it was like dancing.

We wheeled in and out of the huge cotton-reel bales, shifting to left and right as easily as thought. When she first arrived, she believed that the bales were monsters which would eat her, and often leapt vertically in the air, all four feet off the ground, at the very sight of one. Now we slalom between them like cowgirls in a cutting competition.

The enemy of the good is quite strong at the moment. This is usually a sign that something is not quite right. I need to take a deep breath and see what it is. I’ll excavate. There is always a reason.

But the main thing is that there is good. I can still hear the old lady from yesterday singing, in my head. She sang a song to my red mare. Nothing can be too bad when a thing like that happens.


Today’s pictures:

This one feels rather illustrative. The focus is all wrong, but it does not matter. You can still see the beauty of the little marjoram flowers:

24 July 1

And I got a friend in to help with the lawn-mowing:

24 July 2

24 July 3

24 July 4

24 July 4-001

While Stan the Man kept busy catching the bluebottles:

24 July 10

And then had a most deliriously joyful roll:

24 July 11

There. Better now.

I do like to think that perhaps, each day, there might be one tiny thing here that brings a smile to your face. The truth is, you bring a smile to mine, by listening. Once I have shared with the group, the gentle breeze of perspective blows.

Thank you for that.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

The enemy of the good.

I have slightly been living, like a camel, off the hump of the triumphant visit of the red mare to the care home last week. It was such a crossing of the Rubicon in so many ways. Flushed with the happy memory, I went back to easy, slow work in the safety of our home fields, doing things at which we could not fail. I became a little shy of marring the Great Moment with any subsequent setback, as if now only the highest accomplishments were acceptable, and any ordinary, muddly imperfections would render the whole thing a phoney and a fake. (The irrational mind really is a fiend from hell sometimes.)

Perhaps because of this, we had not made a firm date to return, although it was in my mind that I wanted to, since turning my lovely girl into a proper therapy horse is the dearest wish of my heart.

This morning, the sun was gleaming and beaming in a most unScottish way. We had a lovely lope out into the hayfields and felt friendly and relaxed and in tune with each other. I am crazy busy just now, and did not think I had the time to go and see the old people today. But I decided on a whim that we would just cross the main road into the village, so that the iron bars did not harden in my soul, leaving us once again paddock-bound.

Last week was low and cloudy. Today, because of the glittering sun, there were dazzles and reflections everywhere. Glancing light on shining surfaces has been one of the red mare’s bugbears since very early days, when she could go into top-speed reverse at the mere glimpse of sun on water.

Up went the head, on came the aristocratic snorting. Something had caught her attention like a laser, and it took me a moment to work out what it was. She had seen herself, in full view, reflected in the window of the local bank. Whoa, whoa, who is THAT??? For some moments, she could not process this new apparition in any meaningful way. The ladies in the chemist were laughing their heads off.

Bugger, I said to myself. I thought it had all been going so well. We’d got everything so soft and low and lovely, and now she was high as a kite again. For a moment, I was seized with shame and a sense of crashing failure. Then I took a grip, and worked her through it. Rather madly, we went down to the tiny industrial park, where the car mechanics are, and the recycling plant and the mysterious shuttered units with secret lorries coming in and out. There, as the rattly recycling trucks trundled back and forth, with their recorded voices shouting ‘CAUTION; LORRY REVERSING’ and their beep beep beep, we worked on lateral flexion and delicate turning to left and right until her stiff neck relaxed and stretched and eased. It took fifteen minutes. The lady with magenta hair walking her dog clearly thought we were nuts in the head.

Perhaps it was a little step backwards. If you educate a horse well, it should be able to deal with almost any amount of stimuli. But before I fell entirely into the beckoning pit of shame, I reminded myself that we are still in a learning curve, and that we did work our way through it. She came back to me, and stopped snorting at the glitters and gleams and the strange people and the alarming moving vehicles. She breathed out a long sigh, and decided that the mountain lions were not, after all, going to eat her whole. She dropped her dear head, and flicked her ears back to listen to me once more, instead of blindly staring at the hills, from when the attack bears would surely arrive.

So, after all that, we went to the old people. Because settling her had taken longer than I thought, they were going in for lunch. But two enchanting ladies disdained such ordinary things as food, and came out and gazed at the mare and admired her and said hello. She stood beautifully still, and tickled their hands with her whiskers. One of the ladies was so overcome with delight that she sang a special song. ‘Tail up, horsey,’ she sang, in a light, reedy, happy voice; ‘and bring out the sunshine.’ Red dropped her head to listen, much struck. I practically burst into tears. ‘That,’ I said, staunchly, ‘is a great song.’ My lady smiled so much her ears almost fell off.

As we rode home on a loose rein, composed again, a line came into my head. ‘Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.’ I have a suspicion it was first said by someone very wise, and possibly very famous. I don’t know where I heard it or how I know it.

It was not perfect. There was tension; there was snorting; there was some initial fear. We are progressing in so many ways, but my work here is not yet done. The progress will never be seamless and Whiggish, on a smooth upward curve. There always shall be blips and small reversals. The important thing, I think is to mark the fact that the good was so good. She was still and gentle with the two delightful women. She walked right up into a strange porch and looked in the great plate-glass window of the care home, so that those inside could smile at her. She brought joy to people who are stoically dealing with the twilight of their lives, when dignity is so easily stripped away, and mortality is starkly on show.

And once again, most generously, she left a steaming pile of dung for the roses.


Today’s pictures:

All hosed off and cooled down and posing graciously for her close-up:

23 July 1

And demonstrating her tremendous ground-tying skills:

23 July 2

Which is doubly remarkable when you consider that Stanley the Dog was having a hell of a rumble with his new best friend Spike:

23 July 3

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

A snapshot of a day. On account of there being too much work and too little time.

Too much to do; not enough hours in the day.

But there were 1527 new words written, HorseBack work done, and a joyful ride on the red mare. She is in her high Zen mode, so soft and calm and relaxed it makes me want to shout for joy. Something has changed, and we have gone into a whole new realm of loveliness.

The Sister came to the field this morning, and observed the sweet horse, and she too smiled and smiled, even though she is going through some fairly fraught life changes. For a moment, nothing mattered but the bright sun and the good earth and this enchanting, kind equine.

As I rushed off to do my work, I wound down the window of the car and called: ‘Thank you for admiring my mare.’ That is worth more than diamonds to me.

Meanwhile, Stanley the Dog has his own heavy work-load. He is on full bluebottle patrol. He barks at them, growls at them, leaps about the house trying to catch them, and snaps at them with crocodile jaws. The fuckers will rue the day.

Then, as you can see from the pictures, he is so exhausted he has to flake out in the sun.


Today’s pictures:

My mother asked me to make an arrangement from the garden for the nurses who looked after her so well in hospital. I was quite pleased with them:

22 July 1

Flaked-out Stanley the Dog, after his bluebottle work was done:

22 July 2

Although he woke up the moment he sensed one more:

22 July 4

And then crashed out again:

22 July 4-001

A couple of days ago I was having such an intense conversation with my brother and sister that I let the mare off the rope so she could explore the garden while we talked. I suspect this kind of thing is not in the BHS rulebook:

22 July 5

Hmm. Not sure about that wild rose:

22 July 6

Thanks. Seen enough now. I know you are busy, but you really should think about doing those edges:

22 July 11

And here she is, getting the love from the brother and sister:

22 July 8

Raindrops on the cotinus:

22 July 9

Our glorious blue hills, shimmering in the sun:

22 July 10

Friday, 18 July 2014

Write it down.

One of my best beloveds once told me this story. I must allow for human misremembering and natural tendency to embellish, but I think it is true.

The Dalai Lama travels everywhere with two scribes. Presumably they are there to make sure no pearl of Lama wisdom is dropped. The great words may all be recorded, and codified, and made available to the world. One day, in skittish mood, the Dalai Lama made a rather frivolous joke. (It may even have been a slightly risqué joke. I can’t remember.) The scribes’ pens hovered over their paper, uncertainly. The Dalai Lama saw the hesitation, and said, with a mock imperative in his light, sing-song voice: ‘Write it down, write it down.’ Then he burst into peals of laughter.

That story has always stuck in my head. I love that story. I hear the words ‘write it down’ in the Dalai Lama’s voice all the time, and they make me laugh.

My own write it down is less a words of wisdom thing, and more an obsessive-compulsive thing. Life does not quite exist, until it is written on the page. It certainly makes no sense until it is mapped in words. Writing brings order, and reason, and sense. I think that is why humans love fiction. Fiction has a shape, which life does not. A good narrative has foreshadowings, and Chekhov’s gun, loaded in the first act. In life, the shot just rings out.

There was no foreshadowing to the bringing down of a commercial airliner by unruly Ukrainian separatists, using a surface-to-air missile almost certainly supplied by the Russians. There was no presentiment, as those three hundred humans boarded their flight to go on holiday, or visit family, or attend a conference about AIDS. Everything must have seemed very ordinary and usual. In the quiet Ukrainian field where the wreckage now lies, there would have been no portents.

Everyone will write that down. The pundits will write of the geo-political ramifications, and the experts will write of the ramping up of the conflict, and the armchair psychologists will attempt to get into the mind of Mr Putin. People will try to give it a shape, try to make sense of it. It has no sense. It is one of those events that is so shocking and unexpected and tragic that it goes into the realm of the meaningless. It is where words fail.

In my quiet, ordinary life, a world away from havoc and mayhem, the red mare and I have a trot in the hayfields of such lightness and grace that it makes me shout out loud. The swifts fly with us, over the green grass. As this shining moment happens, at once I think: write it down. Then I think: no, you don’t have to start making sentences in your head. Just live it. Just let it happen. Not everything has to go into paragraphs.

I get back to my desk, galvanised for a big day of work. A letter sits waiting for me. It is from an old friend. She had been going through her photograph boxes, and she had found a picture of my dad. Her mother and my father were friends from childhood, and knew each other in their dancing youth. ‘Very funny and very naughty,’ was how her mother described him, with the remembering, indulgent smile that people always use for my dear old dad.

There he was, vivid and alive, making a face, as he would have said, all the funniness and naughtiness there in the twinkle of his eyes.

‘Oh,’ I said, out loud.

I burst into tears.

Even as I wiped away the tears, the voice came back. Write it down, write it down.

There were so many things to say – the sweet thoughtfulness of the friend who sent the picture, the sudden resuscitation of the dear departed, how much I still think of my father, even three years after his death. I thought of the curious act of alchemy: when someone dies, they leave their best self behind. It is the glory days that I carry with me, in my heart, all my father’s better angels. That is the paradoxical gift of death. I remember him at his most mighty, before age and care wore him down to a shadow of his fine self. I remember the laughter and the courage.

Then, again, the other voice said: don’t start putting it into words, not yet. Let it lie. Sit with it. Let it go into your body and feel it. The writing can come later.

I think, quite often, of how easy it is to miss your life. One is so busy thinking of what must be done tomorrow, or worrying over the mistakes of yesterday, or fretting about the possible pitfalls of next month, that the present moment is entirely lost. But that moment is your life, and each one must be cherished.

I was riding a few days ago, down past the burn, with the blue hills lazing in the light. As usual, I was thinking of twenty different things. Quite often, when I ride, I am writing my book in my head, getting ready for going to the machine and typing. If I am not doing that, I am thinking of different training techniques, or what I want to do with the mare tomorrow, or what possible errors I am making. I suddenly stopped, and paid attention. The birds were singing. They were singing their dear heads off, a perfect orchestra of nature; I was in the front row of the stalls, and it was all for free. I realised I had not even heard them until that still moment, because there was so much noise in my head. Listen to the birds, I thought; don’t miss the birds.

I used to think that writing it down would capture life and mean that none of it was wasted. It was an armour against forgetting. The thing would be preserved. Now I see that if you are always writing it, shaping it, whipping it into the euphony of perfect prose, then you are in danger of letting the thing shoot past your ears. Sometimes, one just has to live it. It astonishes me that something so simple can be so hard. It should come naturally, but the antic mind is oddly afraid of letting itself go slack. Thinking can be a diversion and a defence.

I love thinking. I love words. I love thinkers, and people who can make language dance. But sometimes, sometimes, life must simply be lived.


Today’s pictures:

Are all about the best beloveds:

18 July 2

17 July 3

17 July 4

The dear old pot table, a bit scruffy this year, but still with its own loveliness:

17 July 4-001

This is the picture I saw as I opened that envelope. My kind friend is in the middle. My dad is on the left. You see what I mean about the twinkly eyes:

18 July 1


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