Going off the blog for a bit. I am rather overwhelmed with work and then shall be away from my desk for a few days.
I am overloaded today, so the blog is rushed. The prose is rather banal and flat, I’m afraid. But I wanted you to have something. Better tomorrow.
A very sweet family day yesterday, as my mother celebrated her 80th birthday. All four children were gathered, which does not happen very often, and the boat was truly and elegantly pushed out. My mum’s smile lit up the room. It was very touching.
As a result of the great birthday, I am behind on my work, and have been galloping about like a crazed thing, trying to fit in HorseBack and the book and the secret project, which may not have to be secret for much longer. It may in fact be a real project, with the stamp of approval from the agent herself. I am humming with terrified excitement. There is hardly time today for the blog, but I wanted to tell you one very quick story.
One of the things which gives me most joy is sponsoring puppies for Guide Dogs for the Blind. I currently have two excellent canines, Dudley and Olivia. Dudley is a very splendid fellow, a big, kind Labrador of ebony black. I’ve watched him go through his training, from novice puppy to full graduate. This morning, I got a letter telling me he was now a working guide dog, with a gentleman in Wales, and that their partnership has turned out to be a dazzling success. I must admit I felt as proud as if I had trained Dudley myself.
I am intensely moved by all manner of service dogs. Humans going into war or policework or the caring professions are impressive enough, but they have abstract thought and free will. The dogs have neither of those things, which makes the loyalty and dedication they show even more remarkable, in my eyes. That’s why I sponsor these puppies, as a small way of showing my admiration. It easily the most satisfying amount of pounds that I spend every month.
My own beautiful Stanley is not a service dog. He is a crazy rescue lurcher, wild as the wind, far too busy barking at bees, chasing rabbits and getting freaked out by bluebottles to concentrate on a higher calling. But every morning he does a little bit of service of his very own.
Each day, we go and have breakfast with the mother and the lovely stepfather. My mum has osteoporosis, a hideous ailment which leaves her in fairly constant pain. Anyone with daily pain knows how draining and debilitating it can be. Stanley the Dog absolutely loves her. Every morning, he bounds in, alive with the joys of spring, races round the house in a frenzy of delight, and then settles at my mother’s side with his chin on her knee and his eyes cast up adoringly at her face. Every morning, in his goofy, sweet way, he makes her smile. He may not be guiding the blind or sniffing out explosives in Afghanistan, but he still adds to the sum total of human happiness with his own private offering.
Here is a tiny snapshot of Dudley in his new job. I’m afraid I could not make it any bigger. But you can see the goodness:
And here is my own little hero:
He does get a bit long-suffering when I make him pose for the camera. Along with the expression of nobility on his face, you can clearly see that he is thinking – how much longer is the old girl going to ponce about with that idiot contraption of hers?
And finally, it was a very splendid morning at HorseBack UK. We have with us wounded servicemen from 40 Commando, all at various stages in their recovery. I am generally very, very happy when surrounded by Marines. Even happier was the sight of Polly the Cob, who is both a rescue and a service horse, graduating to her first full ridden course. She was immaculate:
All morning I think of the Normandy landings, as the voices of the old soldiers come on the radio, filled with humanity and grace. They are reticent and stoical. There is a sense that, even after seventy years, this is a hard thing for them to speak of. Theirs was a heroism that is impossible to put into words, and the debt they are owed can never be repaid.
Then the present world reasserts itself. The sun shines; the mare gleams and works beautifully, filling me with admiration and love. The Younger Brother is coming, all the way from Bali, where he lives. I see my sister, cycling along the side of the burn, smiling in the brightness. My mother tells an extraordinary story at breakfast about a jockey who kept a badger in the basement of the Ritz. We all ponder this for a moment. There are more questions than answers.
I get my work done at warp speed and give myself the afternoon at Epsom. My heart starts beating as I think of the beautiful, dancing fillies who will shine in The Oaks. Today, one of them will be crowned queen. I hope it is the gleaming, flying girl that is Marvellous. The race is quite soon after her mighty victory in Ireland, and she has never been tried over this distance, and the money is coming for the Dermot Weld filly. But I keep the faith. I would love the bold, bonny Madame Chiang to run her race, and she is my each-way shout. She is honest and taking and may not be quite the highest of the high class, but she will give her best.
Mostly, I shall watch them for the brilliance and the beauty. This is a race that is not for money, but for love.
It is not just for love of the dazzling thoroughbreds. It is because this year the race is run in the name of Sir Henry Cecil, whose loss is still keenly felt. He had a way with fillies, understanding them, bringing out their best. It was an elegant thing for Epsom to do, and at four o’clock this afternoon, everyone who loves racing will remember that great gentleman.
This morning, in the misty, rainy field, I find the red mare and her Paint friend lying down, taking their ease like two old ladies. Red scrambles to her feet and does her Minnie the Moocher walk towards me, her head down, her ears gently pricked in greeting. Hey, she says, there you are. There are no operatics, no prancing or whinnying or snorting. It is just a contented horse, happy to see her human. My heart blossoms and blooms, like a flower in springtime.
Thoroughbreds are bred for speed and strength. They are all power. Even when Red is at her most relaxed, when I sit on her I can feel that mighty engine, humming underneath me. At the moment, she is still off games as her abscess heals. At the moment, I feel a different kind of power from her. It is the power of stillness, of authenticity, of a good mare at ease in her skin, of a living creature with a mighty spirit.
I go to do my HorseBack work. Today, this takes me to World Horse Welfare’s Belwade Farm. They are having an open day on Saturday, and the members of the HorseBack team are practising in the indoor school for the demonstration they will perform. Belwade rescues horses from lives of pain and neglect and abuse. As I arrive, I see one of the happiest sights I know – the green, wooded hills of the Dee Valley dotted with contented equines given a second chance at life.
One of their rescues was Polly the Cob. Her early existence was a nightmare of neglect, and she ended up brutally tangled in wire, which has left a deep scar on her hind leg. Belwade saved her and then sent her to HorseBack, where she has been learning her new job. She has come on so well that she has already worked on a couple of the leadership days, and soon she will take her place on the courses proper, with the veterans and servicemen and women who have suffered life-changing injury and Post-Traumatic Stress.
This morning, as she returned to Belwade to show off her new skills, she brought dazzling smiles to the people there who remembered her well. It was a very moving moment. I think she remembered them. I have a belief that horses have a very strong sense of humans trying to help them. (If the red mare ever gets a foot caught in a rope, she will stand perfectly still and look to me to come and untangle her, as if she holds a granite certainty that I am there to get her out of any mess.)
I did my usual cantering about, taking hundreds of pictures for the HorseBack archive. Polly was exemplary, standing like a statue as a tarpaulin was draped over her and a giant pilates ball bounced on her tremendous arse. She was vivid proof of the value of desensitising training.
She was proof of something else, too, just as the red mare is. Both horses, in their very different ways, bring me back to what is important. They are reminders of all the unflashy virtues – kindness, steadiness, reliability, gentleness. You can’t blag or bluster or cow a horse. It sees through phoniness with its eagle eye. Swagger and vanity and narcissism mean nothing to it. If you offer a horse patience and sympathy and a good heart, that half-ton flight animal will do anything for you. It will go with you to the ends of the earth.
This never ceases to amaze me. It never stops delighting me. The rain may fall, the news may be bad, the slings and arrows may come, along with all the sorrows that flesh is heir to, and yet there, in a quiet field, is my one true thing. If Red were a human, she would read Keats. She might misquote him slightly. Truth and beauty, she would say, nodding her wise head: that is all you know and all you need to know.
And, I might say back to her, the small things. Know the small things. Find loveliness and solace in the small things, and, however bleak the weather, the internal sunshine will break through the clouds.
At which point she would pause, snort, give me a look, and say: you’re going to start talking about love and trees again, aren’t you, you mad old hippy?
Polly the Cob, this morning, with her old friends at Belwade:
And showing off her considerable tarpaulin skills:
Could any horse take a huge flying ball more in its stride?:
Little and Large, at Belwade:
The view looking south-west:
Another southern view:
Misty hills to the east:
And, rather randomly, here is a chicken, for the Dear Reader who loves chickens. It is not my chicken, but it is, indubitably, a chicken:
The elegant ladies and their lambs:
Red the Mare, from a sunnier day:
Even Red is not this red, but I was having fun playing about with the contrasts:
Oh, that face:
Stan the Man. Love this rather contemplative expression. And the heart-breaking ears, of course:
Insomnia. Wild, half-remembered dreams. Dazed morning head. Eggs for breakfast. Not enough coffee. A very sweet red mare. Work, work, work, work. HorseBack. Work, work, work. Should be cutting, instead put on 1280 new words. Half pleased, half furious. Need more ruthlessness. Forget lunch. Paltry attempts at admin. Followed by: idiotic and traditional admin screw-up. Close inspection of sell-by dates in the fridge. Dubious. Pause to admire handsome, comical face of Stanley the Dog. Contemplate making decision which must be made; swerve it. Time shoots past ears. Contemplate beating self up for perceived hopelessness; decide not to. WORK. High tea, on account of forgotten lunch. (Fried cods’ roe with olive oil and tomatoes. Old school.) Soft Scottish rain. Late afternoon field, green and still and secret. Two gentle, contented horses. Stop for first time since breakfast. Breathe. Smile. Remember the love.
Somewhere, in the middle of it all, this enchanting sight, of the lovely Stepfather, and his dog:
With added red mare, and sweet HorseBack horse:
I wake up thinking: bugger, bugger, bugger.
I have decided that I have got into bad habits with my horse and must go back to square one and start from the beginning. I have grown cocky, and lax. I have let things slide.
I am stern with myself. As if to set the thing in stone, I make this confession on a forum which practises this kind of horsemanship. I say that I understand that going back to Square One does not mean I have to wear the red badge of shame. All the same, secretly, I feel a tiny scarlet pin of mortification on my lapel.
I march down to the field this morning, fired with good resolutions. I shall take myself and the mare back to the start, and be strict and proper, and not allow those pesky bad habits to creep in. The horse looks slightly surprised, but goes with it. She is sound again after her horrid abscess and full of spring beans. I have a lovely free-school and do a delightful hooking on. She follows me round the field like a dopy old hound.
The Horse Talker arrives, and I bring Red up to the shed, and start mixing up her breakfast. With enthusiasm, I explain to the HT my new plan. It’s going to be high-end, full steam ahead, no messing, serious work. I shall be ruthless with myself. There will be no more sloppiness.
The Horse Talker, who is practical and wise, looks at me quizzically, and says: ‘Why?’
I explain that I was concerned that Red had spent Sunday with a bit of separation anxiety, as the little Paint was taken away on a great adventure to Glen Tanar. There had been some shouting, some staring, some scanning of the woods, some beady examination of the cows. (The red mare was clearly convinced that her filly had run away to join the cow circus.) Then, when her friend finally returned, Red had bawled her head off and pranced about like a Lipizzaner stallion, with her tail stuck straight in the air.
‘If I’d done the groundwork right,’ I said, ‘she would not have paid any mind.’
‘She was just a bit excited,’ said the Horse Talker, in a forgiving tone. There was a pause. ‘You know,’ she said, ‘you’ve got a really good horse.’
She looked at the red mare. The two humans were in the shed, with the big doors wide open. Red was standing at the entrance, where I had left her, watching me mix up her feed. We had been talking for ten minutes, and the mare had not moved a muscle. She was not tethered in any way.
‘Damn it,’ I said. ‘She is a really good horse. Am I trying to live a life, or prove a point?’
I always come back to this. Some of the time, I am ashamed to say, I am trying to prove a point. Look at me, look at me, tell me I done good. Give me strokes and thumbs-ups and rosettes and gold stars. Give me compliments, which I can hoard up against a long, cold winter.
I think of my dad, who did nothing for public consumption. He loved winning races and singing songs and making people laugh, but he did those things for their own sake, I think, rather than for acclamation. He did not know what to do with a compliment if one were given to him. He would put it in his pocket and shuffle his feet and buy you a drink and change the subject.
I think of writing, and all I know about it. Much of it is still a mystery to me. But I do know that you should never sit down to write a book because you want money or love or awards or good reviews or your name in the papers. You must write it for its own true self. You must write because you love language, and you want to tell stories, and you are curious about the human condition.
Authenticity, I think. Along with kindness and stoicism, authenticity is the virtue I admire the most.
Whether I am working a horse or writing a sentence, I do think it is important to pay attention to the small things. I do think it is vital to be rigorous. I do think one must be honest and humble and sometimes go back to the beginning. I think one must try to be better.
But the Horse Talker is right. The good question is why. Pointless lashing for lack of idiot perfection is tiring and useless. Context is queen. It’s not just what you do, but why you do it.
I want to work carefully and correctly with my mare, because this will give her a foundation of security. If she can trust her human, she will be happy. I want a happy horse. I want to write a good sentence because of the sheer, visceral joy of the dancing language on the page.
The rest is just jam.
Are from the archive. I forgot to charge the camera battery:
As I finish this, I think of the craving for compliments that sometimes comes upon me. It is not a trait of which I am proud. I suppose it is fairly human, but when it roars in me, I generally think it a sign that something is not quite right. When one is easy in one’s own skin, one does not need outside validation. All the same, what is making me laugh now is that my best compliments are not always the obvious ones. Someone I admire said to me, not long ago, with a smile: ‘you are a slightly dotty lady who gets excited when she trots a horse round a field.’ For all that I occasionally think I want to model myself on AP McCoy or Mary King or William Fox-Pitt or Venetia Williams or the late, great Henry Cecil, those kind of people who have horses in their bones, who are at the absolute top of the tree, actually I’ll take that line and frame it in my heart. It makes me laugh. It is my best kind of compliment, mostly because it is true.
Today would have been my father’s 84th birthday. I sometimes think he should have lived to be a hundred, but the truth is that he hated old age. When he died, he was ready to go. He wasn’t even particularly ill. He was in hospital, but not for anything catastrophic. He sang a song he had just invented specially for the sweet Australian nurse who had taken his fancy – Dahlia from Australia, he sang. Then he drank some Guinness which was smuggled in for him. Then he said he was going to have a little sleep. He did not wake up.
It was a bloody brilliant way to go. There was no drawn-out departure, no beeping machines and snaking wires. For a long time, his bashed old body had been failing him. He was a physical man, strong and hard in his prime. Even when time put weight on him, his arms were still like steel hawsers, from years of holding strong horses. As he went into the twilight of age, all the crashing falls and breaks and dislocations caught up with him. He had, after all, broken his back and his neck twice. The bones protested and cried out. His back stooped and hunched. He could no longer do the things he wanted to do. He grew fretful and melancholy. He would have loathed being a hundred. He had run his race.
I think of him every day. I can hear his ghostly laughter, as the last leg of my 3000-1 accumulator gets beaten a short head. I remember him as I work my mare. I think the sole reason I got a horse after thirty years was to feel closer to the old horseman. The funny thing is that he was not a brilliant rider. He was not the most stylish, or the most technically accomplished. But he had such dash and courage and sheer guts that horses responded to him. They are telepathic creatures, instinctive herd animals. He gritted his teeth and threw his heart over those great birch fences, and the horses, infected by his Corinthian spirit, would have gone with him anywhere.
He never really knew what the internet was. He was the oldest of the old school. But the internet knows him. As I rummage about the Google, I find kind words and happy memories from Brough Scott and Martin Pipe and regular punters and people who lived in the Lambourn valley and the Amateur Jockeys’ Association, of which he was chairman.
There is an old tweet from George Baker, who trained Belle de Fontenay to win a charity race at Newbury run in my father’s name: ‘To win anything named after the legendary Gay Kindersley is a privilege.’ I remember George when he was a young racing fan, devoting every spare moment to rushing off to Sandown and Newbury. Eventually, he chucked in his sensible job and followed his dream, and last season he lived the very pinnacle of that dream, leading the doughty campaigner Belgian Bill into the winner’s enclosure at the Royal Meeting. He is exactly the same person as a professional as he was when he was a fan: smiling, enthusiastic, fired with love for the mighty speed and strength and courage of the thoroughbred. The thought of him remembering Dad is very touching.
More touching still, I discover a photograph on the Amateur Jockeys’ Association website, of the Fegentri World Cup at Goodwood. There is my dear old Fa, aged but still doing what he called his grinny face, having just presented the trophy. To his left is the winning trainer, John Hills. John died last week, at the absurdly young age of 53. His race was not run; it was cruelly cut short. He too was a horseman and a gentleman. He and his brothers were a pulling thread that ran through my childhood. I have snapshots of my head of them flinging their ponies over massive jumps at high speed. They rode like cowboys, with wild élan. In the sadness of John’s death, I find a glitter of light, as I see him smiling next to the auld fella, both of them brought back to vivid life.
Mortality tugs at my sleeve, as I think of the Dear Departed. There are too many of them. They no longer come as single spies, but as battalions.
I think of Dad, and wonder what he would say. He would sing a song, and laugh a rueful, self-mocking laugh, and drink a drink. He would not put it into so many words, but by example he would tell me to live every moment as if it were the last.
He never gave me any advice, except not to back odds-on favourites. Instead, he showed me many good life lessons by example. Be generous, laugh at yourself, never give up, always be the first to buy a round. He judged humans on their true selves, not inessential externals or societal yardsticks. He lived high life and low life and saw no difference between the two. He did not understand any set of rules, but made up his own as he went along. He had the wonderful talent of bringing fun with him, wherever he went. Soon after he died, I ran into a gentleman who had been a steward with him for many years. ‘Oh, your father’ he said, his eyes lit with memories. ‘Every time he walked into the stewards’ room, it was a party.’
I ponder the imponderables of life, and I know exactly what my Dad would say. He would say: ‘What the hell is going to win the 7.30 at Windsor?’
Very young and rather serious. Top boot action:
He did a huge amount for the amateur riders, and he loved doing it. The jocks and everyone at the AJA loved him right back:
The old riding style makes me laugh and laugh. Several things about this picture bring me joy. There are the tremendous britches, Dad’s traditional gritted teeth, and the bright face and pricked ears of his horse. I’m not sure which one it was; I’ll have to ask my mum. She remembers them all. She was the one who had to watch him roaring over those obstacles at high speed, sometimes through her fingers:
He would have loved this beautiful girl:
You’ve all seen this one before, but it remains my favourite:
And many, many years later, at Goodwood, with age on his shoulders, but still that blazing grinny grin. Dad is second from the left, then the winning jockey, and then John Hills: