Due to illness and weather, I have not ridden for a week. I do the thing you are not supposed to do. I pull the red mare straight out of the field and get on her, without pause. I do not do our usual fifteen minutes of groundwork. I do not run through the basics. I do no preparation. There is something reckless in me. There has been too much fearfulness and melancholy in the last few days, as I contemplate the possibility that dear old Blighty shall be broken up. I want to throw caution to the winds and think only of goodness and hope.
As if catching something of that, the red mare steps out happily and proudly, her ears pricked, her wonderful banked power easy and contained. Even more recklessly, I do not run through slow transitions or our usual opening exercises. The hayfield, shorn now and empty of swallows and swifts, lies open and inviting before us.
‘Do you want to canter?’ I ask her.
She knows the word canter. I feel her gather herself. I think for some reason of old Mr Emerson in A Room with a View. I think of him crying ‘By the side of the everlasting why, there is a yes.’ All in the red mare is yes. I let her go, and we fly. I love her so much that I want to tell her in many, many words, but she only knows canter and whoa. I say whoa. We stand for a while, looking at our blue hill. I rub her withers and lean down her neck and whisper in her ear, telling her of the love that she cannot understand.
We walk quietly along the burn. The water is splashing dreamily to itself. The trees, marked with the lichen of age, stand sentinel. The light, which has been out for the last two days as the rain fell, suddenly gathers itself and shines down.
I think of old Mr Emerson again. He has passed the everlasting why, and has come back to the yes. ‘It isn't possible to love and to part. You will wish that it was. You can transmute love, ignore it, muddle it, but you can never pull it out of you. I know by experience that the poets are right: love is eternal.’
This is my land, I think; my place, my home. It is not possible to love and part. It may be stupid to love a country, but I do love it. I love it with all the singing passion that I have for my dear red girl. It is where I belong; it is stitched into my heart; I am dug in. I do not want it pulled apart, for a distant dream. I want the ties that bind. I love that Britain is the land of Shakespeare and Hume, Eliot and Byron, Joanna Baillie and Jane Austen, Phyllis Logan and Maggie Smith. (I include Maggie Smith as the quintessence of Englishness, but in fact her mother was born in Glasgow. Hands across the border again, I think.)
Cynics may mock the idea of British values, but I think that there is something in the notion of Britishness which speaks to a best self – a stoicism, a self-deprecation, an openness, a humour. While there is a Little Englander, there is no Little Britisher. The wonderful Craig Brown adores making jokes about ‘Ordinary Decent Britons’, but as in all the best jokes, there is a small acorn of truth. There is a decency and an ordinariness, in its finest sense.
I put the mare back in her green field, and go to my desk and do my work. The melancholy of possible loss hums in the back of my mind. All this is very personal to me. I cannot prove it, or impose it on others, or use it to refute any argument. It is not objective. My heart is not more important than that of someone on the other side. If it breaks, it breaks. It has healed before; it will again. Loss is integral to the human condition, running through it like a seam of coal. Grief, said our own dear Queen, is the price we pay for love.
The swifts and swallows have gone, on their long journey to Africa. I miss them. In their final days of hard flying practice, they swooped and soared around the red mare and me each morning, as we rode out. Now there is only silence and space. But this morning, at the end of the ride, there, like a flash or a sign, was one lone swift, flinging herself over the high beech hedge, as if in benediction. Ah, I said to myself, caught in absurd fancy, she has stayed behind, to see how the vote goes. She will not leave, I thought, until the thing is settled.
I am no ornithologist. I cannot tell whether a flying swift is a male or a female. She felt like a lady to me, that was all. One little bird, I thought. How will she make that great flight all on her own?
I love the farmer, and I love how much he loves his coos:
The glorious light:
The good companions:
It is this face which fills my heart like nothing else. Kind, questing, bright. I don’t call her. She just comes. She says: oh, there you are. That’s all I need for everything to feel very slightly better: