Wednesday, 13 August 2014

A little bit viral. Or, the kindness of strangers.

Yesterday, at 10.47pm, I went viral.

It was absolutely terrifying.

I only went a little bit viral. I was not trending on the internet. But Stephen Fry retweeted the piece I wrote about Robin Williams, and for about ten minutes it felt like all hell was breaking loose.

A smashing packet of emotions broke over me. First of all, I was wildly excited that Stephen Fry, a man I admire keenly, whose books I have read, whose comedy has made me laugh since I was a raw teen, even knew who I was, let alone liked something I had written. I had been awarded that finest prize, the Fry challenge cup, and in my mazy mind I did a cantering lap of honour, all flags flying.

Then, complete strangers started saying kind things. My heart swelled and warmed. I was Sally Field. They like me. They really like me.

The strangers soothed me, because I had been fretting about the whole shooting match. I worry always when I address any serious subject, and I twist myself up into a pretzel about the rights and wrongs of writing about the death of a stranger. The fear is that it is an intrusive, even rude, thing to do. The danger is that one is doing the empathy tap dance. Look at me, caring. It should go without saying that everyone who admired Williams and who laughed like a drain at his comedic brilliance would feel sad. I had not let it go without saying. I had said, as if somehow I was important.

Then, just as I was smiling in astonishment, the terror hit.

I inhabit a very small, very private part of the internet. I have a tiny, gentle group of Dear Readers, who know all about my equine obsession, the ludicrous voices in my head, the enchanting Lurcher antics of Stanley the Dog, my ardent love of these blue hills. They put up with me with gentle grace, and seem to understand and forgive my shortcomings.

Now, someone had thrown open a door onto a huge new world, with a crowd of unknown people in it. They would expect something. I could not just tell them about the dancing canter I had this morning on the red mare, as the swallows practised their low flying in the hayfields, so that I whooped with joy into the bright air. They would want their money back. Mare, schmare, they would say; give us the good stuff.

The fact that this whole odd phenomenon happened on Twitter was even more worrying. I suddenly had a boatload of new followers, on the strength of that post on death and depression and the frailty of the human heart. But I use Twitter almost exclusively to indulge my passion for racing, with the odd grumble about people not answering the question on the Today programme. I had sold these new arrivals a pup. They would go back through my timeline and be baffled to find endless musings on the 3.30 at Kempton, intemperate shouts of joy about the beauty and power and grace of Kingman, and wild expressions of love for the genius that is Ryan Moore. Ryan what? they would say, scratching their heads.

The last tweet I posted before the Twitter storm hit was this: ‘Quite adorable. Royal Connoisseur, 2nd and 3rd in virtually all his races, pricks his ears in amazed delight as he sees the winning post.’

Royal Connoisseur is not a famous horse, for all his rather grand name. He is a bay gelding who has never won a race. He was running in a maiden at Thirsk, on an unremarkable cloudy evening, with £3000 going to the winner. I was particularly taken with him, because when he saw the winning post coming towards him, a wide sward of green turf before his eyes instead of the equine hindquarters he was used to looking at, he really did lift his head and prick his ears in triumph. A look of delighted amazement spread over his handsome face.

Horses are like humans in one way: confidence can make all the difference to them. They can grow demoralised if they are always the bridesmaid. Once they’ve got their head in front, their old herd instincts call to them, and they grow in stature. It’s a touching thing to watch. But it’s not exactly life and death and the whole damn thing. Those poor new followers, I thought. What will they think?

I had, for those ten minutes, a fleeting flash of what it must be like to be famous. I’ve always thought fame was something I would not wish on my worst enemy. Years ago, John Updike wrote that it was a mask that eats the face, and that hard line has haunted me ever since. You are no longer your own person, but belong to the world. People suddenly have a sense of entitlement, and an odd intimacy, as if they know you. The famous are quite often put into a box, and if they dare to jump out of that box they are ruthlessly punished. They are judged, and found wanting. Even if they are adored, the adoration comes with caveats: the expectations must be met. They are tall poppies, and every armchair critic is sharpening the scythe.

Luckily, the internet moves at warp speed. It soon settled down and went to shine its light on someone else. I could return to quiet normality.

I was also very lucky because the sudden rush of people responding to the post did so with lovely humanity and generosity of spirit. I met only kindness, in that frightening new space. It was as if they were all saying: it is all right, we come in peace.

The caravan will move on. It is already trundling off into the middle distance. I shall go back to tweeting about the 2.15 at Hamilton, and writing of the dearness of my red duchess, and offering goofy little slivers of my very ordinary life.

The fear subsides. It was, looking back, rather a lovely moment. I wrote something heartfelt, and unknown humans responded from their own good hearts. Out in the brave new world, I found all the same kindness of strangers that I encounter in the old world. Fortune smiled. I smile back.


Today’s pictures:

Stan the Man and Red the Mare, with tractor:

13 Aug 1

Goofy face:

13 Aug 2

Noble face:

13 Aug 4

Serene face:

13 Aug 3

She really was light as thought today, all willingness and generosity. I hardly had to ask. She just gave and gave.

Then, after the ride, I went up to do my HorseBack UK work. I watched veterans who are missing limbs learn to ride. This is always a useful corrective, not just because of the Perspective Police, but because they find me, in the nicest possible way, slightly absurd, and mob me up with glee:

13 Aug 5

Then, as if the universe was making sure that I did not get above myself, after my glancing moment in the sun, Patrick the Miniature Horse asked if I would scratch his quarters. This, it turns out, is his dearest wish. It would have been rude to say no. So there I was, on my knees, with a tiny arse in my face, which seemed about right. ‘I know my place,’ I shouted, as the shutter clicked:

13 Aug 7

The flappy wings of hubris have no chance, faced with that.

And one final word - of thanks, to all of you who came to this quiet space yesterday, and generously wrote your own words, and made me smile and smile with your kindness and grace.


  1. Glad you wrote this, because I wondered how you felt about having Stephen Fry comment on your post. When I first saw his tweet (love, love, love him), I thought, 'Oh, how nice, doesn't surprise me if Tanya knows him and he follows her blog.' And then realized that that perhaps might not be true, but good for him that he recognized worthwhile writing when he saw it.

    Thank you for yesterday's piece. It was lovely. Funny thing, as much of a horse person as I am - and as much as I enjoy hearing of Red - there are times, I must admit, that I miss your social commentary posts of the past. When you feel strongly enough to comment, as you did with Robin Williams, you really are incandescent on those subjects. At the same time, usually what sparks posts so touching is something distressing, so perhaps I should be happy that there have been fewer such instances since Red came along. Not, unfortunately, that the world is any safer place now . . .

    At any rate, well done.


  2. Your blog posts always make me smile. As Bird says in the comment above - you are incandescent when you choose to speak out on the things that matter. Somehow you say the things that people are feeling, but don't know how to say.

  3. Stephen Fry re-tweeted you! I am delighted to hear that.
    And it is a well deserved thing. I can only agree with Bird and Becca - your clarity of expression when you choose to comment on happenings in the wider word often leave me wishing I could have found those precise words, which are so exactly what I wanted to say. Thank you for that.
    I equally love hearing your everyday stories, and seeing the beauty, canine, equine and landscape, that surrounds you.

  4. A dear thoughtful friend shared a link to your piece on Robin Williams and I shared it with my family.
    It was moving and comforting to see that kind peopke still exist in these scarey days.
    I lost a brother to suicide many years ago and times like this tend to reopen old wounds.

  5. Please would you put Patrick in a courier bag and send him my way. He's delicious :)

  6. I might have come for the one post, but lingered with the mare and the soothing calm of your words. I was close enough to giving up that this oasis of everyday happinesses was a very welcome place to take a rest. Thank you.

  7. It's wonderful that so many people were touched by your post on Robin Williams. After Em's had a cuddle with Patrick, could you send him my way? Thanks as always, Rachel

  8. Tania -

    "Now, someone had thrown open a door onto a huge new world, with a crowd of unknown people in it. They would expect something. I could not just tell them about the dancing canter I had this morning on the red mare, as the swallows practised their low flying in the hayfields, so that I whooped with joy into the bright air. They would want their money back. Mare, schmare, they would say; give us the good stuff. "

    I confess to being one of those unknown people. I had not heard of you, nor read any of your writings before, and I didn't comment on your Robin Williams post... but I did share it on Facebook, along with 3 others whose words meant much to me that day: Anne Lamott, Glennon Doyle Melton (of Momastery), Joe Henry. You were in good company... :-)

    I just couldn't make sense of the loss, and I was eerily comforted by the fact that the four of you were not able to either (because it didn't make sense), but your collective calm, lovely and thoughtful words talked me off the emotional ledge where I'd been hovering since I first heard the tragic news...

    I also am here to stay, and plan to visit your blog daily to read new posts as well as catch up on prior ones. I ordered two copies of your book, one to send to a dear friend who recently moved 4 hours north (celebrating her 50th birthday this Wednesday), and one for myself, who heralded in my 60th a few weeks ago. She and I will read it "together" (albeit from across the miles), and I look forward to that new discovery as well...

    Thanks for sharing your gifts of language and compassion with us. Such a pleasure to cross paths... <3



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