Thursday, 25 December 2014

Christmas Day.

I wake early to a pellucid lavender dawn. The snow never came in the end; it must have veered off to another valley. Instead, there is a thick hoar frost, glittering gently in the light. Stanley the Dog comes and curls himself into a tight little ball under my right elbow. I think fairly serious thoughts about the gravy.

When the entire extended and immediate family announced, one by one, that they were driving off to all points south and west, I had some covert abandonment issues. In seventeen years here, there has never been a Christmas where everyone has gone to in-laws or grandchildren at the same time. Usually, it is staggered. Usually, we are at least twelve round the table.

This year, we are three.

It turns out this is a sort of dream number.

There is no panicked rush or hurry. No huge bird has to go into the oven at 6am since we are having a civilised turkey crown. I may eat my breakfast at leisure and wander down to do the horses. The duchess is in her most Christmassy mood. She takes the carrots that Father Christmas brought her with politely restrained glee, and is so filled with goodwill to all men that she even allows her little Paint friend to share her pile of hay. Lately, she has been so bossy that Autumn the Filly is banished to eat a solitary pile of her own, but not today.

I smash the thick inch of ice on the water trough with one well-aimed crash of my boot and then make up the feeds. I stand with my dear red mare as she eats, looking out over the silver landscape, as Stanley the Dog capers about, sniffing the air for possible pheasants. There is a deep peace, broken only by the occasional caw of the rooks and the slow munch of equine eating. I feel as happy as it is possible to feel.

And then it is on to make the lunch. The Mother is up and dressed in Christmas finery, defying a bout of bad health. The lovely Stepfather is as elegant as a 1960s fashion plate and has set the table with the best silver. There are winter roses and the sun streams in through the wide windows.

I manage only to swear at the high-tech oven twice, and although there is the traditional turkey panic at twenty past one, all comes right in the end. The bread sauce is perfumed with cloves, the stuffing rich with sage, the Brussels sprouts sautéed in butter, the gravy takes half a bottle of sauvignon blanc and a quarter bottle of Madeira. I make peace with the fact that the potatoes are not as crispy as I wanted, and wave goodbye to any perfectionist tendencies.

Both brothers ring, one from Shropshire and one from Bali, where he lives. On the internet, which is a very touching place on Christmas day, positively humming with festivity, old friends and cousins and kind strangers send happy greetings. The good claret is decanted, and the 1967 port.

We eat, speechless with greed. It is really, really good. I say this, blatantly. ‘Even though I cooked it,’ I cry, all out of false modesty. I am exhausted with triumph. Even if there are only three of us, we still have the full Christmas lunch, with all the trimmings.

The Queen appears, reassuring and calm. I love the Queen at 3pm. It is the bedrock of a dear old Blighty Christmas. She looks contented and hopeful. I think that she will be wondering as much as I am what will win the King George tomorrow.

I open some more enchanting presents from friends and relations. The best present of all is Edward Whitaker’s collection of photographs of AP McCoy. I am such a racing geek that a whole book of the Champ is my dream item. Most days, when in doubt, I ask myself: what would AP do? Now I have his flinty look of determination and grit with me always.

I give the Stepfather his traditional Christmas hamper, which I compose over many months, drawing on all his favourite things to eat. I give my mother a soft blanket the colour of earth, and a ridiculous blown-up picture of the red mare. My mum is not very mobile and can’t get to the field, so now she can see the duchess every day, up on the wall.

In the gloaming, I go and check on the horses. The gleaming good mood still persists, and they are happy and still as the evening falls.

And then Stan and I go for the annual Christmas walk. Normally we would do this with the whole family, but today it is just the two of us. Stanley races about, showing off his athletic skills. I look at the trees, with love. A slender crescent moon has risen over the hill, and is lying on her back in the translucent violet sky. It was mere chance that brought me to this place, and I am suddenly shaken by that stroke of luck. I think, strongly and suddenly of my father, and raise a metaphorical glass to him.

And that, my darlings, was my Christmas day. It was really, really lovely. I hope that wherever you are, and whoever you are with, your hearts are full.


Today’s pictures:


25 Dec 1

25 Dec 2

25 Dec 3

25 Dec 6-001

The lovely frost:

25 Dec 6

25 Dec 7

25 Dec 8

25 Dec 8-001

The Mother:

25 Dec 10

The lunch:

25 Dec 11

The elegant Stepfather:

25 Dec 12

The cook:

25 Dec 18

Happy Christmas. xx

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

In which I come back to love and trees. And get a bit Christmassy.

The snow is coming in over the hills. I can smell it in the air. The red mare has to forgo her spa day doing mud packs as the rug goes back on and the extra hay goes out. Stanley the Dog is feeling very festive, hunting rats and selecting absolutely enormous sticks. My mother and I have laid plans and made lists. The lovely Stepfather goes out to get Marsala for the gravy.

In the village, I see people I know and stop to talk. ‘The snow is coming,’ we say gravely. I buy two final presents and indulge myself in a little Christmas posy of red roses and eucalyptus. The ladies in the flower shop are rushed off their feet, but their blazing smiles never falter. In the general store, I have an excellent conversation about the King George with my racing friend. As do all racing fans at this time of year, we secretly quite wish Christmas Day would get on with it so that we can open the real Christmas cracker, which is the card at Kempton on Boxing Day. It is packed with shining stars, and our eyes light with anticipation at the very thought.

People are kissing old friends and wishing them happy Christmas. ‘Happy Christmas, happy Christmas,’ I say to every single person I see, even complete strangers. Without knowing it, I suddenly got Christmassy. Perhaps because I gave myself permission not to force the jollity, it came flying in of its own accord, like the snow.

I’ve been quite disorganised, and the godchildren are going to have to have New Year presents instead of Christmas ones, and I never got around to anything like sending cards, but it does not matter. The house looks pretty and smells gently of greenery, the animals are happy, the presents are wrapped, my HorseBack work is done, and I’ve even had a little ante-post wager on my dear Silviniaco Conti. I’m hopeful, as long as the ground does not get too quick. I have a fridge full of treat food, and lots of watercress for health and strength. I need the iron. My little community is filled with a generous spirit.

Yesterday, my friend the Political Operative rang up and we spent a whole hour having a joyful post-mortem on the party I went south for. (One of the Dear Readers asked what I was writing thank you letters for; it was that.) We both agreed that the greatest delight was seeing so many of the old compadres looking so happy and well. The party was given by one of our university friends, so it was filled with people we have known and loved for thirty years. All of us have had our downs and ups, our moments of glad grace and our broken hearts. We have got to the age when many of us have had lost one or both of our parents. There has been triumph, but there has been tragedy too. Life has taken us out behind the bike shed on occasion. But there was a real sense of coming through at that fond gathering, as if, despite being a bit bashed round the edges, we were still holding our heads high. We were buggering on.

‘And,’ said the Political Operative, laughing, ‘as long as you and I can still dance together, everything will be all right.’ I smiled into the telephone. ‘I can still throw some shapes, baby,’ I said, in my most ironical voice.

He and I first danced together in a garden in Chelsea in the 1980s. And here we are, looking sternly at fifty, dancing still. There is something streamingly lovely in that.

I wrote a post last week for HorseBack about how, for some people, this is not a season of jingle bells and joy, but a time of sorrow and loneliness. When it seems that the whole world is celebrating and shopping and cooking and decking the halls, a heavy heart can be a devastating and isolating thing. It can be a time when memories are not ones of friendship and love, but of pain and loss.

I am keenly aware of how lucky I am, in this beautiful, peaceful place, to have so many loves. I count that blessing every single day, but perhaps today most of all.

I hope, my dear Dear Readers, that you have love. It’s the only damn thing that counts.

And trees, too, of course. Love and trees.

That really is all she wrote.


Today’s pictures:

I did take some lovely shots of the red mare, dreaming under the Wellingtonias, but I left the camera in the feed shed so here are pictures from the archive instead:

24 Dec 5

24 Dec 6

24 Dec 2

24 Dec 10

24 Dec 12

24 Dec 13

24 Dec 1

24 Dec FB2

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Shine on, you crazy diamond.

There’s been an awful lot of fuss about Kauto Star in the last few days. You may imagine it is a discussion about which I have thoughts. On several occasions, I sat down to write those thoughts. I grew up in racing, I am in love with the thoroughbred, I’ve been entranced by Kauto Star since he was a wild novice. It had special subject written all over it.

But then the voices rose loud and clamorous and people began taking pot shots at each other and the debate grew personal and ugly. I had a radical idea. It was: sometimes a private opinion is just that, private.

There is nothing either beautiful or useful that I can add to the argument, so I’m going to go all William Morris on your ass. (But not on your ox, obviously.)

Instead of heaping more coals on a roaring fire, I’m going to reproduce a piece I wrote about Kauto in his pomp, in his glory days, when the dancing sight of him, imperiously casting aside all-comers as he romped around Kempton on Boxing Day, galloping himself into legend, stamping that green turf as if it were his very kingdom, made me cry tears of love.

This is how I want to remember him, and this is how he lives on in my heart, and in the hearts of all those who were lucky enough to witness his glory and his grace.

He gave us joy and we remember him well.


This is the King George, Boxing Day, 2011:

Half an hour before the start, there is the first glimpse of Kauto Star, walking calmly round in his red rug. He surveys the racecourse with his head held high, as if he owns the place. My mother calls: ‘The look of eagles,’ she says.

Ruby Walsh looks tense. ‘We’re here today with a fighting chance, but we are the underdog, there’s no point pretending that we’re not.’ He smiles, a little rueful, as if he suspects this might be the last spin of the wheel. 'He’s a privilege to ride,' he says.

Long Run is the evens favourite. He looks wonderfully well: fit as a butcher’s dog, his coat gleaming, his ears pricked. The interesting thing about the two horses is that they are completely different physical types. Long Run is long and lean, with a slightly thin neck. Kauto Star is big and bonny, a strong, compact, rounded horse. He carries his head high. He has a great, strolling action, where Long Run has a quick, athletic gallop, a bit on the knee.

Parading in front of the stands, to the applause of the crowd, Kauto nods his old head as if in acknowledgement. He looks as beautiful as any equine I ever saw; he is relaxed and serene. Down at the start, he still has his ears pricked, collected as a show pony. Long Run is chewing at his bit, his ears back, impatient to get on with it. He is young, after all, and at this moment, it shows.

And, off they jump.

Kauto pricks his ears, canters to the front, on the outside. The first fence is always a sign. Kauto Star sails over it. Quickly to the second, he puts in two long strides and stands off a mile, quite effortless. Round the first bend, he starts carrying his tail high, like a flag. Lobbing along on the outside, he takes the next two neatly and easily.

Then comes the open ditch. I have stood in an open ditch, and looked up to the stiff birch towering over my head. They are about six feet across and almost five feet high, fearsome obstacles, especially to take when galloping at thirty miles an hour.

Kauto Star sails over it.

All great champions have their signatures. With Desert Orchid, it was his outrageous standing off, sometimes outside the wings, and his habit of tearing along in front. With Frankel, this season, it is his dancing, raking stride.

With Kauto Star it is this sailing thing. When he meets a fence just right, and arcs high over it, it is as if, for a moment, he defies the laws of physics. There is a split second when it almost appears as if he has gone into slow motion, as if someone has pressed pause. His other brilliance is that he can jump very big and lose no ground in running. He jumps, as the racing people say, out of his stride, and at this moment, the stride is a perfect one.

On he goes, to the next plain fence. Another sail. He is almost in the lead now, and has fallen into a lively, bouncing gallop, something joyful in it. One should not get too anthropomorphic, but at this stage in the race, he looks happy. If horses could smile, he would be smiling.

Round the next bend and into the straight, Kauto puts in another immaculate jump. Ruby is sitting very still on him, with a tight rein. Long Run is three lengths back, doing nothing wrong.

As he approaches the stands for the first time, Kauto Star pricks up his old ears and puts in an exhibition leap, flicking his heels up into the air behind him, as if to say: here is your Christmas present. ‘What a jump,’ says Simon Holt, who is calling the race. Kauto raises his head, and goes to the lead.

At the fence which will be the last next time round, Ruby sees a stride from way out, the horse makes a streaming, flying leap, and the crowd starts to holler and roar. ‘They’re getting a tremendous cheer,’ cries the commentator. ‘Cheers and applause.’ Kauto flicks his left ear back towards the noise. As I have watched the race again and again, I have wondered: can they hear that, the horses, out on the track? Does the auld fella think, in his horsey old head: that’s for me?

Behind him, Long Run has no such sentimental thoughts. His head is down, his ears are back; he looks dogged and determined.

And off they go, out into the country again, with nine huge fences still to jump. Kauto is bouncing along, on the outside of dear old Nacarat, the front-running grey, still looking as if he is having more fun than anyone else.

At the next, he comes as close as he has so far to making a mistake. It’s not really an error, it’s just he gets in a bit tight. This is not a sail; this is just a working jump, no poetry about it. It does not stop him in running though, and he keeps right on with the wonderful rhythmic stride which Ruby has got him into.

At the next, another open ditch, it is as if Kauto thinks to himself: well, that last one wasn’t so pretty; now I shall show you how it is done. He takes off a stride too soon, and lands as far out on the other side. It is the kind of thing that makes you gasp, every time you watch it.

At the next bend, something interesting happens. Ruby has not moved an inch on Kauto Star; the reins are still tight. But old Kauto gathers himself and seems to put an extra spring in his step. I remember watching a film about Desert Orchid once, when Simon Sherwood, his jockey, said something like: ‘I said to him, come on, we’ve done enough poncing about, time for business, mate.’ It is as if, with seven to go, Kauto thinks to himself, without being told, it’s time for business. He pricks his ears, lengthens his stride, and dances past Nacarat.

It’s another perfect, high, sailing jump at the next, and now Kauto is out in the lead. Here is another new thing about the horse in his old age. In his younger days, he used to be covered up a bit; he’d go along in mid division, and Ruby would worry about getting to the front too soon. Sometimes he had to, because the horse was going so well, but it was never considered an ideal tactic.

Apart from the real, instinctive front-runners, like Desert Orchid, who always put his ears back in fury if anything headed him, most horses do not like being out on their own for long. I’ve never heard it actually said, but I assume it’s a ancient herd instinct thing; most of them need something to chase. This bold, prominent style is a new thing for Kauto, and it paid off magnificently in his last win at Haydock. It is also a joy to watch.

But it is a risk. It’s asking an awful lot of a chaser to be up at the sharp end for three long, hard miles. At this stage though, Kauto looks as if it is all he wants; just the clear blue sky and the straight green sward in front of him, and he gallops over it as if it is his spiritual home.

Six out, and a good, efficient jump, nothing showy about it. Ruby has a quick look under his arm, to see the white noseband of Long Run looming up behind him. But Kauto is full of running, and the young champion gets a slap down the neck, to remind him to go about his business. ‘Kauto Star is turning the screw,’ cries Simon Holt, his voice rising with the excitement of the thing.

Five out: a magnificent leap. Long Run is not quite so fluent behind, and Sam Waley-Cohen is having to ride him now. Kauto is now galloping a double handful, well within himself.

Four out: a good, unshowy jump. All business, mate. Kauto runs on, still beautifully balanced, his stride long and true. Long Run, in second now, looks a tiny bit out of kilter, scrabbling a little. Sam Waley-Cohen starts riding him hard, pushing away, the reins flapping.

By contrast, two lengths in front, Ruby still has a tight rein, his hands firm and still on Kauto’s neck. The camera comes in for a close-up, and you can see the hard quality of the gallop. Simon Holt’s voice has risen: ‘It’s familiar territory to the horse in front.’

On the final bend, Kauto eases away from the field. Long Run looks in trouble, three lengths behind. I suddenly think the auld fella is going to win by a mile. He is just not stopping; the farther they go, the farther he gallops. But there are still three fences to go; Long Run has won this race and a Gold Cup, and is no mug; and the eleven-year-old has been out in front for a long time. He could make a mistake, get tired, pack up.

Coming into the straight, Ruby lets out the reins for the first time. I notice what beautiful hands he has. In racing speak, this means not finely shaped fingers, but the kind of hands which are gentle on a horse’s mouth, which can feel the horse, which can send and receive signals down the reins. It’s a bit hard to explain, but it’s a lovely gift, and not something all jump jockeys have.

It’s the first time he has had to ask Kauto any kind of question. It’s a mild question, a little shake-up. The horse responds with a perfect, neat, collected jump. He is running straight, which is always a good sign at this stage of a race. When they get tired, horses can wander about a bit. Kauto still looks full of running.

At the second last, he pricks his ears. ‘Another perfect jump,’ shouts Simon Holt. Behind him, Long Run is a bit ragged, and Sam Waley-Cohen has to concentrate to pull the horse together as they land.

There’s one to go. Everything else is going backwards. Ruby is riding Kauto Star seriously now, with hands and heels. Behind him, three lengths back, Long Run will not go away. Will the years tell? Will Kauto bash the last, as he has sometimes done in the past? The crowd is going nuts. ‘He’s being ROARED on,’ shouts Simon Holt, roaring himself.

They are going flat out now. Anything less than pinpoint accuracy will lead to disaster. Kauto raises his head, collects himself, measures one, two, three strides, takes off at the sweet spot, and soars over the last, Ruby’s head almost on his neck as they take flight together, man and animal in perfect harmony.

In mid air, Kauto stretches out his hind legs, and almost gives the fence a little slap, as if in salute to the obstacle. He lands quite perfectly. Pausing the tape now, as I write this, I see the ideal racehorse, all his muscles stretched and defined, his front legs carving the air like scythes, his tail flying like a flag. Behind him, Long Run, who has made a bit of a bosh of the fence, has put down all wrong, his back legs in a tangle, and his jockey has had to lean right back in the saddle so as not to get unshipped.

But it’s not over yet. That mighty leap at the last should have been enough to seal it; Long Run’s mistake should have cooked his goose. High credit to the young pretender; his wins last year were not flukes. He is talented, and determined, and he has been brought to a peak of fitness. He picks himself up, and gets galloping again. Kauto is still going well, but Long Run is finishing like a freight train. This is an incredibly impressive thing to watch, after three long miles, and 19 fences.

It was at this point, watching the race for the first time, when I still did not know what would happen, that I was shouting and screaming and jumping up and down on the sofa. ‘Come on you beauty,’ I was yelling. ‘Hold on, hold on. Come on, my son.’

‘Kauto Star by two lengths,’ shouts Simon Holt. He is having to yell his head off to be heard over the howls of the crowd. ‘Long Run is getting to him.’

Where is the bloody finishing post? I think. The crowd is sending up a noise I’m not sure I ever heard before. Ruby has his head down; he does not use the whip. He just rides the old beauty out for all he is worth, in complete rhythm with the horse, keeping him straight and true. Long Run is closing all the time.

‘Kauto Star, can he be the king of kings?’ shouts Simon Holt.

And suddenly, I know he can be. He is not just brilliant, he is courageous and genuine. He does not give up. He keeps galloping, all the way to the line, and flashes past in front, with a dogged Long Run only a length and a half behind.

‘Kauto Star, a sporting sensation,’ shouts Simon Holt, his voice hoarse with emotion.

Ruby stands up in his stirrups, punches the air, his face split into a smile of delight, and slight disbelief. The horse, as if knowing what he has done, pricks up his ears, and falls into a relaxed, rolling canter, as the cheers of delight buffet about the grandstand.

The crowd is throwing hats, papers, racecards, into the air. The beaten jockeys crowd around Ruby Walsh, shaking his hand, slapping his back, leaning down to pat Kauto on the neck. They might have lost, but they know what this sport is all about; they know a legend when they see one, and they are gentlemanlike enough to want to salute him.

There is a great sporting tradition in National Hunt racing ; one of the first things Kauto’s trainer, Paul Nicholls, did after the race was to shake the hands of his vanquished rivals, and say, with complete sincerity: ‘Well done.’ He meant it. Long Run and Sam Waley-Cohen made it a magnificent race, and nothing should be taken from them in defeat.

I have had my doubts about how good Long Run really is, but seeing him battle to the line like that, just refusing to admit he was beat, made me tip my hat in respect.

It was not his fault. He came up against one of the best horses of the last fifty years, in his majestic pomp, a horse who was loving his work, who did not put a foot wrong, who was racing on a track he adores, in front of massed crowds cheering him home until their throats were sore.

The rest of the field was seventeen lengths behind, and they were not window dressing. They were good, tough horses. If Kauto had not been there, Long Run would have won that grade one chase by seventeen lengths, in a canter.

There are three things I think about that race, which is one of the best I ever saw. One is that Kauto Star mostly won it with his jumping. When Long Run comes under pressure, his jumping falls apart, just a bit. He does not make catastrophic errors, but he goes flat, bashes through the birch, has to get himself back together. It is to his credit that he can whack a fence and still keep on running.

But Kauto Star was foot perfect. If you are being strict, you can say he was a bit close to the first fence round the back, but that was it. Everything else was right on song. Some of the leaps were prodigious, the kind you don’t forget. It was an amazing privilege to watch the eleven-year-old veteran, literally jumping for joy.

The second is: as John Francome said, he can go over two, he can go over three; he can go on good, he can go on soft; he can go left, he can go right. As someone added, a couple of days later: he can go up, he can go down. Quite frankly, at this stage, you would believe it if someone told you he could fly. The remarkable thing about this horse is his versatility. The remarkable thing about his training team is that they have kept him galloping over all those distances, in all those conditions, for all those years. Just keeping a horse sound over six seasons is a feat of training; to keep him at the top of the game is extraordinary.

The third is: in a way, a length and a half doesn’t do justice to the thing. It was very exciting and thrilling and everything, but what I mean is that the triumph was easier than that margin suggests. Kauto won his last King George by a distance, which basically means so damn far the stewards can’t be fagged to count. Someone later calculated it was thirty-five lengths. I think his last Gold Cup was about fifteen lengths; he cantered away with it, anyway.

This one sounds less imperious, more hard-scrabble. When it’s a length and a half, people can say: oh well, if the winning post had come a few yards later, or if only Long Run had jumped the last, or if Kauto Star had hit it, it would be a different story. The jumping did probably win it, but there was something else too.

Long Run was never going to catch the horse in front. Kauto Star and Ruby Walsh are two canny campaigners; they did just what they needed to. It was a close finish, but it was a definitive one. I think Kauto Star had that race won on the final bend. I think, in the end, it was that joyous, relentless, rhythmic gallop that did it. It never faltered. It was the gallop of a horse with the heart of a lion.


So there you are, my darlings. It was absurdly long, but I chose not to edit it down. That horse deserves every damn word. He was a shining star, and I may not see his like again.

I’m going to be good and obey copyright rules and not naughtily pinch one of Edward Whitaker’s majestic photographs. Here is my own shining star instead. She never won anything, except the perpetual challenge cup of my own heart, which she is awarded every day.

23 Dec 2

23 Dec 3

23 December 1

Monday, 22 December 2014

Permission not to be Christmassy.

There are several reasons that I do not go away in December and ruthlessly refuse all invitations. One is that I worry about the weather, and have horrid visions of being stuck in the south whilst Red the Mare and Stanley the Dog pine for their human. One of the roads home was in fact closed on my return, but the other one was clear, and I managed to scoot over the hills without too much trouble, despite the so-called weather bomb which had exploded in my absence.

The other reason is that I love the Christmas season, and like to have plenty of time to prepare for it. As the Dear Readers already know, organisation is not my strong suit, so I need prairies of time otherwise I get panicky and cross.

This time, I broke my December rule and went south and had a very sweet and happy time indeed. But when I got back from my antic trip, I crashed straight into the pincer jaws of anti-climax and a hideous cold. I should be able to deal with anti-climax by now. I’ve even lately written a little essay on the subject. However, my besetting weakness is an inability to bridge the gap between paper and life. I can write something wise and sensible, I can even think quite coherent and philosophical thoughts, but I often can’t translate them to real life action. So I found myself crashing like a little girl who has been to a party and eaten too much cake and done too much tap-dancing and then spends the next three days wailing inconsolably. The cold, which has laid low half the village, was an absolute brute and is still chugging away. It left me weak and cross and unable to think clearly, as my head was filled with gunk.

Instead of doing my usual Yuletide dance round the butcher and the flower shop and the two general stores where all kinds of delightful Christmassy objects can be found, I sullenly bought an armful of eucalyptus and had done with it. In an absurd fit of throwing out the poor little baby with the stone cold bathwater, I’m so cross about not getting ready in time that I’m refusing even to listen to Christmas carols on the radio. I’m furiously catching up on old episodes of the Rachel Maddow Show instead. (I must admit that the politics geek in me regards this as a tremendous festive treat. Crazy Republicans! Confused Democrats! Sarah Palin goin’ rogue! Hillary vs Jeb for 2016? The majestic sight of Elizabeth Warren in full flight! Hog heaven.)

The family has gone away, so this year it is just me and the Mother and the Stepfather. This quite enchants me in some ways, as I can really concentrate on cooking them the most delicious Christmas lunch ever. But it means that the usual pre-Christmas atmosphere is muted. The compound is silent and empty, with the felled giant that is the old horse chestnut lying on the ground like a gloomy metaphor.

I started to get very doleful about not being in my usual celebratory mood. I began to castigate myself for mucking up my schedule and giving in to germs (germs??? How dare the fuckers march in and ruin the day???) when I suddenly realised something quite profound.

This is:

It does not matter.

None of it matters. Some Christmasses are very Christmassy, and some aren’t. It’s not written somewhere, in stone, with turgid Sermon on the Mount flourishes. I’ve had a very long year, writing two books and desperately trying to get my career back on track after a fairly spectacular derailment, and doing the HorseBack work as well. I love that work, but it consumes a lot of time and thought and emotion. I’m quite tired in spirit. Maybe it’s not a bad thing to have a slightly non-Christmassy Christmas. I’ll just cook the lovely lunch and watch Silviniaco Conti in the King George on Boxing Day and eat some stollen and find Stanley an extra big stick and give the mare some special carrots. It doesn’t always have to be a huge festival with dancing girls and a brass section.

I’m giving myself permission not to feel Christmassy this year. Not at all in a bah humbug way, but in an it’s all right to be ordinary way. It’s a vast relief. And I must admit, the eucalyptus does look very pretty.


Today’s pictures:

Actually, now I look at the pictures, I think – not too dusty:

22 Dec 6

22 Dec 4

22 Dec 7

22 Dec 10

22 Dec 11

The felled tree:

22 Dec 1222 Dec 1422 Dec 15

22 Dec 16

Stan the Man does not care about any of it, because HE HAS A STICK. Also, Santa Baby has left him an early delivery of some very, very special treats, hand-made by people who have clearly never had a common thought or mean:


And the red mare is happy as twenty-seven grigs, because the weather has turned mild and she can mooch around with her rug off and get perfectly filthy. I used to have angst when there were weeks I could not work her, for whatever reason. A lot of horses really want a job. You often hear people getting perfectly furious at the idea of some old chaser just being ‘thrown in a muddy field’. It turns out that my dear old duchess, useless at racing, useless at polo, adores nothing more than chilling out in her field, the muddier the better. She will kindly consent to work when I ask her, but her default delight is doing absolutely bugger all. You can see the contentment coming off her like smoke in this picture, as she has a nice graze out in the set-aside:

22 Dec 1

Sometimes it really is quite hard to believe that she goes straight back to the Byerley Turk.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Not my finest hour.

Well, it’s official. My head has now exploded into a festival of snot. It’s not my most glamorous hour.

I forget about colds, and how odd they are. One moment, you have a clear head and an easy chest, and the next every airway is blocked with catarrh and you’re hacking a cough to do a sixty Capstan a day woman proud. Where does it come from? Some odd snot factory inside the body gets to work and produces gunk where there was nothing. I find it peculiarly mysterious.

I’ve been reading this week’s Horse and Hound about astonishing people doing astonishing things with their horses. They’ve come back from brain injury, horrific falls, cancer, broken backs, and there they are, with their beloved equines, kicking on. A tiny cold should not stop me in the face of all this. I am a pitiful excuse of a girl.

Despite my belief in stoicism and buggering on, I totter about, barely functioning. I manage to make soup, write two thank you letters, and watch the 1.55 at Ascot. I stumble down to give the red mare her tea (she is flinty, and has absolutely no sympathy with a poxy cold) and throw a stick for Stanley the Dog, and that is it. I’m done. Finished. I eat the chicken soup and take the vitamin C and do not understand how such an absurd virus can conquer the human body so comprehensively. I just about do my HorseBack work, although I have no idea whether my swimmy sentences make any sense. I do not feel Christmassy in the least although I did manage to arrange my traditional armfuls of eucalyptus and they do look quite pretty.

Ah well, better tomorrow. At least the thank you letters were done. That’s the most important thing. My mother will be pleased.


Just one picture today, of the beat of my heart. I love it, even though the focus is slightly off, because it shows all her sweet peace. I think it is that spreading peacefulness, which streams out of her when all is well in her world, that I love the most:

19th Dec 1

PS. Thank you to those of the Dear Readers who shared my HorseBack album. It really means a lot to me.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

A compliment.

I really did want to write a glittering post for you today, but a stinking cold has descended on me from the blue. This is particularly galling since I have a fantasy that I do not get colds. Those idiot germs will rue the day. Swallowing is agony and I am pale as a wraith and my head feels like it is going to explode. I am very grumpy indeed.

But even through the bleurgh, I have reasons to smile. I’m back in full swing at HorseBack, and thinking a lot about the grace and courage I have seen there over the last year. It is, as always, a privilege to try and express some of that, to spread the word, to celebrate the triumphs. And, in much more humble news, I got a mighty compliment this morning.

The tree surgeons were at work, cutting down a tottering old horse chestnut. I took the red mare out to watch. She did not seem to think it at all remarkable that there was a man with a socking great chainsaw thirty yards up in the air. She lifted her head for a moment when he hurled a particularly big branch to the ground, assessed the situation, decided there were no mountain lions, and went back to dozing.

And here came the compliment. My neighbour, who was loading up the branches into his tractor and trailer, so they can be dried for next year’s firewood, looked at the sweet white face and said: ‘She’s just like an old dog, isn’t she?’

Now normally you would think that such a grand duchess should not be referred to as ‘an old dog’. (She has Hyperion three times on her bottom line.) In fact, it was the sweetest sentence I could hear. I grinned like a loon. I wondered if I should let it lie, but I couldn’t, quite. ‘I did school her to be like this,’ I said, utterly unable to keep the pride out of my voice.

The chainsaw started up again, and the tree surgeons adjusted their protective masks. The mare seemed to see nothing remarkable in these oddly-dressed strangers invading her territory. The neighbour looked at me, and looked at her. The mare blinked. I could see that he did not quite believe that I had specifically set out to make a horse which stood about with her head down whilst men with machinery capered about her.

But that is exactly what I did. All that desensitising, all that groundwork, all those slow steps; all the mistakes and the muddles and the moments of hopelessness and the sudden seeing of the light; all of that made the old dog the girl she is. She thinks the world is a pretty good place, and is more prone now to curious approaching rather than instant flight. It’s all in the mind. She’s got confidence in herself now, because she ended up with a human she can rely on. That’s really what all the training is about. It’s not so much teaching her new things, although that is a lovely side-effect, it’s showing her that I am steady and trustworthy and will protect her from those mountain lions. That is my job, and she needs to know I am up to it.

So, even though I feel like absolute buggery bollocks, just the thought of someone calling my beautiful girl an old dog can make me smile. Some days, it really is the little thing that makes the heart sing.


Too blah for pictures. Just this one, from our walk yesterday, where she followed me gently without needing to be guided by the rope. I think the gentleman walking behind us was slightly surprised.

It’s not the most flattering picture of her, and her dear face is rather out of focus, but you can see the old doggishness shining out of the frame like starlight:

17 Dec 1

PS. If any of the Dear Readers felt like it, I’d love it if you would perhaps share this HorseBack post. Only if the spirit moves you. It’s one I was quite pleased with and it means a lot to me and I wrote it from the heart.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Brevity and beauty.

Ravishing, glittering day. Freezing cold: three degrees with savage wind-chill. Took the red mare for a walk. She has slight mud fever and is a little sore, so we are on remedial walking to get the circulation going in her sadly puffy fetlocks. A lady stopped, looked out of her car window, and shouted: ‘Oh, but she’s so beautiful.’ So that made my day. Did a madly knotty piece of work which almost had my brain falling out of my ears, so there is no functioning cerebral cortex left for the blog. It’s shameful I know, but I must heed my limitations. Once the brain goes out the ear, there is no remedy, except sitting very, very still in a darkened room. I may, if I am exceptionally brave, read a book.

I hope to be functioning more efficiently tomorrow. In the meantime, here is some visual beauty for you, on which to rest your tired eyes. This was Scotland in the late morning, looking south and west over the Dee valley, as I went up and did my HorseBack UK work:

16 Dec 1

16 Dec 2

16 Dec 3

16 Dec 5

16 Dec 8

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16 Dec 12

16 Dec 14

16 Dec 18

And, at home, the Best Beloveds:

16 Dec 20

16 Dec 21

16 Dec 23

Monday, 15 December 2014


One of the things that people assume one lacks, if one should take the peculiar decision not to marry and have children, is love. There has been a lot about loneliness lately on the wireless. I heard at least three programmes speak of it, as I drove the five hundred miles to London, and the five hundred miles back to the north. (I think there must have been some terrifying survey, revealing the secret lives of lonely Britons.) I was talking about it to one of the best beloveds, when I arrived to stay for my first night in the south. Without thinking, I blurted out: ‘the only time I’ve ever been lonely was when I was in a relationship.’ He looked mildly surprised. He is a family man to his fingertips, proud and adoring of his four funny, bright children, affectionate with them, like a bear with his cubs.

It is true, though. It takes a top skill set to live with someone and love them well, every day, and I don’t have that set. I always chose absolutely hopeless fellows – charming, even glamorous, but unreliable and often quite fucked up. I instantly committed the grave sin which makes all the poor old shrinks in Hampstead shake their heads and suck their teeth: I gave all my power away. I fell into crazy, hopeless, unrealistic love, and wondered why I always felt so uncertain. Then I gave way to noisy despair as the whole thing fell apart with a rocking clang of inevitability.

But I have the love of thirty years. Those were the ones I saw this trip, the ones I have loved since I was eighteen years old. We have so much history together. We have, as Nanci Griffith sang, seen each other straight and seen each other curly. We’ve been young and hopeful together, wild and immortal. We’ve stayed up all night and driven through Italy and danced and drank and laughed. We’ve seen each other through heartbreak and desolation, through failure and triumph. We know each other so well and love each other so well that we start talking the moment we see each other, after gaps of many months, as if it’s only been five minutes. We smile goofy smiles of fondness and understanding at each other. We exult in each other’s successes and happinesses, wanting them as much as we want our own. We ruefully admit that we are chipped around the edges, a little battered and bruised, but still in there, pitching. We admire each other’s strengths, and do not judge each other’s weaknesses.

They are magnificent, these friends.

I don’t just feel the love when I see them, and then settle down. The love hums in me for the whole time we are together, beaming steadily from my expanding heart. It stays, strong and true, in my chest, on the drive home, as I think of them all, and how lucky I am to have them. It is profound, enduring, tested love.

And then, as I motor through the Lake District, where the snowy hills are so white at first I mistake them for clouds, I get the love of natural beauty. I look at the sheep on the fells, and the old stone walls, and the green, green grass, and I feel that love.

When I pass into Scotland, I cry actual tears of love, because this is my place and I chose it and it took me in, folding its blue mountains and its glacial valleys around me. Sometimes I whoop when I pass the Welcome to Scotland sign. Sometimes I get goosebumps. Sometimes I sing. This time, I had a little weep, because love can sometimes make you cry with joy.

And, of course, at the very end, there was the canine love, as Stanley the Dog capered and leapt about me, in a frenzy of delighted disbelief. You came home, he said, with his dancing eyes. There was my sweet little house love, with the books and the pictures and all the colours. There was the paddock love, as I arrived in sudden sunshine, and found the red mare, sweet and docile and furry, slowly eating her hay under her favourite tree. There was family love, as I saw the Mother and Stepfather and Brother-in-law and Younger Niece.

It really is an awful lot of love, for one person.

I am bloody lucky, and I don’t take it for granted, not for one moment.


Today’s pictures:

15 Nov 1

15 Nov 3

15 Nov 4

15 Nov 5

15 Nov 7

15 Nov 9

15 Nov 9-001

15 Nov 10

15 Nov 12

15 Nov 12-001

I took my first ever selfie (terrible word; someone should think of a better one) this trip, just to show that occasionally I can brush up and go out without being covered in mud. Although there was a tremendous moment when I parked in Dean Street, and a little bit of Scottish hay fell out into London’s glittering West End:

15 Nov 20

PS. Very tired after my lovely but long week, and I know that I’ve buggered up some of the tenses, and there will also be typos, but my eyes are too squinty to proof-read. Forgive me.


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