Tuesday, 23 September 2014


So sorry, my dear Dear Readers. There will be no blog for a week as I have too much book and too little time.

It’s not the writing. It’s the thinking.

The very fact that I used the word ‘thinking’ in relation to this blog will, I hope, keep you laughing for the next eight days until I return.

23 Sept 1

23 Sept 2

Monday, 22 September 2014

A new theory.

1885 words written. Five hours of editing. Horse ridden. Farrier welcomed. Dog walked. Kindness on the internet. Breakfast cooked for mother. Spirited political discussion with stepfather. Admin tragically left undone.

A fairly ordinary, good-ish day, in other words.

I was thinking today about enthusiasm. I am an enthusiast, and because of this I attempt to convince myself it is an unmitigated good. Today I contemplated the possibility it may have a dark side.

This was because, I am ashamed to say, I heard the voice of a very enthusiastic man, so jigging with can-do that I wanted to first punch him in the nose and then lock myself in a darkened room and do nothing for the duration.

How could this be? I am supposed to be a fairly nice person. This poor gentleman had never done me any harm. He was just being enthusiastic, which is something I myself am. Where had this visceral and rather beastly reaction come from?

I remembered my two most hurtful blog critics, one lady and one gentleman. Both of them said, in varying shades of rage – enough with the bloody horse.

The gentleman said it made him sick.

I remember at the time being entirely baffled. She is just a horse, and I love her. What could be more benign than that?

Perhaps it was the unbridled enthusiasm that drew such fury. I wonder if, allowed to gallop about in all directions, it becomes a rudeness, a reproach. I wonder whether it is a narcissism. Look at ME with all my passions and delights, whilst you are stuck in the corner channelling your inner Eeyore. Is it almost a reproach? Does it lack empathy? If someone is in a shitty mood, the last thing they need is a bloody enthusiast, leaping about the seeing the best in everything.

I think of the people who convince me. They are not the evangelists. One fanatical gleam in someone’s eye, and I go cussed and run off in the other direction. A bit of diffidence and self-deprecation, and I am sold. Some uncertainty – I suspect, I guess – and I am caught. I think of the voices on the wireless which entrance me. They are not the fast-talking, loud voices of utter conviction; they are the quiet, slow voices which allow nuance and doubt.

I think: is there sometimes an element of bad manners in enthusiasm?

I don’t want to turn into a stale jade, but I wonder perhaps if the dial might be turned down, for the sake of tender sensibilities.

It’s a new theory and I’m still working on it. I love a new theory.


Today’s pictures:

22 Sept 1

22 Sept 2

22 Sept 3

Hmm. Three pictures. Dog, horse and farrier. Three enthusiasms. But at least I did not put JAUNTY CAPTIONS.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

For the horse people. Or, the red mare teaches me a hard lesson.

It is a Sunday and I don’t usually write a blog on a Sunday, so I think this one can be as self-indulgent as I like. You know that when I write the horse posts I try to put in a bit of good life lesson there, so that the non-horse people can enjoy the things. Today, this really is about the horse. It is for the horse people. It goes to you with love, because you will understand every word.


This morning, at 11.02am, I lost my temper with my red mare.

My red mare. The love of my life, the beat of my heart, the transcendental gift that stops me going bonkers.

‘Fucking HORSEI shouted. ‘Do you have any idea how much I think about you and work on you and write about you on the internet? Do you know how much money I spend on those Warwick Schiller video subscriptions so that you can have a happy life? Do you know that I sent myself right back to school so I would be good enough for you? Do you know how many times I had to embrace humility and admit that I was not good enough, and go right back to scratch? Do you know that I taught myself a whole new way of horsemanship, for you? AND NOW THIS????’

She snorted at me and rolled her eyes. She did not give a bugger. She is a horse, after all.

We had gone out for a nice canter. We’d been doing such nice canters in the last week that I had been boasting about them on the Facebook. I don’t know why I did not hear the hubris klaxon go off, but I didn’t. I’ve had a lot on my mind.

It started off light and floating and glorious and I whooped into the air. And then she suddenly did a half rear, a right plunge, a left plunge, and finished it off with a great, snaking, head in the air yaw. I almost fell off.

All the beautiful, soft harmony was wiped out, and the light stride broke up, and there was a wild, uncollected creature underneath me, as if a friend had turned into a stranger.

I was a bit frightened, I must admit. That was why I shouted. I was also humiliated, even though there was nobody there to see. Did this mean that everything we had done over the weeks and months was worth nothing? Had I been fooling myself all this time?

There is a certain school that would say – ha, typical thoroughbred. Typical mare, typical chestnut, typical ex-racehorse. Naughty monkey, that school would say; taking the piss. Kick on and try a martingale.

The new school I have embraced says, sternly, firmly, that there is no such thing as a typical horse, and that it is not laughing matter, and throwing kit at the problem will do nothing. This school says that it is almost always the human who is wrong. I had to look to myself, which is quite a tiring thing on a quiet Sunday morning.

The mare was by now hopped up on adrenaline, and throwing her head about, and had lost all focus. My adrenaline was high too and the first thing was to take a deep breath and bring it down. Temper would solve nothing, only pour down the reins as tension and convince her that there were mountain lions in the woods.

Fuck, fuck, fuck, I thought. We are going to have to do some work. Sunday, Schmunday.

Slow transitions – halt to walk to halt; walk to trot to walk, three steps at a time. Back to lateral flexion. Looking all the time for the soft,willing place, which I had lost.

No, no, no, said the mare, still star-gazing. There is a man with a dog over there. AND CYCLISTS. In lycra. (She does not approve of lycra.)

Hey, hey, hey, I said; they are none of your business. Listen to me.

More transitions. Endless changes of direction, to get her focus back. Oh, she said, there you are. I had forgotten about you. Yes, you bloody well had, I said.

Turn turn turn; stop, walk, stop. Flex, flex, flex.

It was the canter we had lost, so I was determined to find it again. But to do that, we had to work up through all the gaits, starting with a perfect, gentle stop. That took half an hour. Finally, I thought we could risk the canter again.

Rush, rush, rush.

Back to the beginning.

And then, at last, the glimmer of something. Relax your shoulders, I told myself, and give her the reins. I had to be brave enough not to hold onto her. I started to think that adrenaline had been the problem, and that had to be banished, so the only answer was to show her that going into canter was not a tight, tense thing, but a lovely, open, loping matter.

I gave her the reins, prepared to find myself halfway to Inverness.

Oh, she said, all right. I don’t have to panic.

We did canter to walk, canter to walk, from voice. We did canter to halt. Lots of lovely loose walking on a long rein in between, so she could stretch out her neck, and remember that she did not have to be a racehorse, but could embrace that dear old cowpony incarnation which I love.

At 12.17pm, we hit the sweet spot.

Ah, I said, there it is.

Yes, she said, nodding. There it is.

I was exhausted, mentally and physically. I had ridden my arse off. I had thought my head off. We were united again, moseying back through the long grass on the buckle, as if none of that craziness had happened.

What was it? I wondered, as I brushed her down and put her to rights and let her out in the field.

I’ve been very grateful to her lately, because she does keep me sane. I’ve been writing a lot about how lucky I am to have her, and how she soothes my troubled mind as I rush up to my book deadline.

The problem is that gratitude is no good to a horse. In the wild, herd leaders are not grateful to the rest of the pack, as they fall in behind. They essentially say: follow me or die. Survival instinct is perhaps the defining element of a horse, because it is a prey animal. It does not want soppiness and outpourings of love; it wants safety. Perhaps I had gone soppy and allowed little things to slide without even realising it. She does not want me to fawn over her; she wants strong boundaries and consistency and sureness. She damn well does need me to step up to the plate. Maybe, just maybe, all that plunging and yawing was her way of saying she was starting to feel insecure.

Ruefully, as I read myself this stern lecture, I thought: what would my horsemanship mentor, the most excellent Mr Schiller say? He would say: how is your groundwork? Are there holes? he would say.

Sometimes I think I am one big hole.

I thought I was being so clever; I was certain that I was, as the great old cowboys who perfected this kind of horsing would say, taking Square One with me. But maybe I had left it behind, let it get raddled round the edges, blurred the outlines.

There is a lovely paradox at the heart of this way of thinking of horses. The aim is to find softness, to work off feel, to make everything easy and light. The horse becomes an extension of you. You think something, and the horse does it. There need be no yanking or pulling or kicking. But to achieve that, there needs to be toughness at the beating heart of it. There must be rigour. You have to be tough with yourself, keep checking motives and mental processes and physical techniques. Those good boundaries must be maintained. It needs slowness and patience and repetition. It is love, but it is tough love.

Back to the beginning, I think. Or, more accurately, the beginning never ends.

We did find a good note on which to end. I did not give up. We did have a canter on a loose rein in a rope halter. I did not fall off. The hubris demons laughed their mocking laugh and my temper got lost and my pride got bruised, but we are still partners. That mighty red mare taught me another of the forty-eight life lessons that she teaches me, every single damn day – don’t take things for granted, don’t get sloppy, don’t get cocky, never, ever, ever give up. Glory does not just fall from a clear blue sky; you have to work for it. You get back what you put in.

A thoroughbred is one of the greatest creatures on this green earth – fine and powerful and fleet and brave. Respect is due. The puny human game must be raised. Or at least, the game of this puny human.

21 Sept 1

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Facing the void.

At 7.26am, the telephone goes. I struggle to consciousness. ‘Are the horses out?’ I mutter.

It is either that or someone has died.

My brother’s voice comes down the line, thin and high, from Bali, where he lives.

‘Hold on,’ I say. ‘I’m on the scratchy phone. I’ll pick up the good one.’

I go downstairs and settle myself on the sofa and watch the morning sun rise.

The brother is having a bit of a crisis. We are all having a crisis, because we are all going to die, and only two monks and the dogs in the street know what to do about that.

‘But you have your horse,’ he cries.

‘I do admit she is my perfect Zen mistress,’ I say, watching the yellow sun muddle in through the slats of the blinds. ‘Without her, I should probably run mad.’

‘All those hippies,’ he said (he is a bit of a hippy himself) ‘I see them, sticking their left toe in their right ear, trying to quiet the fear.’

‘They should get a horse,’ I say staunchly.

‘I’m not sure that everyone does with a horse what you do,’ he says, very dry.

We laugh for quite a long time.

He reads me Clive James’ poem about his daughter’s maple tree, and the gently falling rain. It is about those things. It has a faint air of ee cummings about it. (Nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands.) It is really about death.

‘Facing the void,’ says my brother. ‘That’s what it is all about. If only everyone could face the void, then they’d stop being so cross.’

I think about the poem. I shout, suddenly, down the long transcontinental line: ‘LOVE AND TREES.’

‘Yes,’ says my brother, slightly less doleful.

‘That’s what Clive James has come to. Love and trees,’ I say. I laugh and laugh and laugh, from sheer pleasure. Me and Clive and the beloved brother in Bali; we shall face the void with love and trees.

‘I do find the void frightening,’ I say.

‘And yet,’ says the brother, ‘we are just going back to where we came from. We were nothing and we go back to nothing.’

‘I thought of Dad last night,’ I say. ‘I wondered where he went. I mean: where has he gone?’

‘He came here,’ says the brother. ‘I got drunk on gin and told all his old jokes. I haven’t told those jokes for twenty years.’

‘Ah,’ I say, oddly relieved. ‘That’s where he went.’

We talk a bit more about death and love and the void. By this time, we are slightly hilarious, and the thing no longer seems so frightening. We are ironical about the void, and make jokes at its expense.

‘I love you,’ says the brother.

‘I love you,’ I say. ‘This is one of the best conversations I ever had.’

‘I did want you to know,’ says the brother. ‘In case I am run over tomorrow.’

‘Mind those buses,’ I say. ‘I’d rather you weren’t run over just yet.’

One of our grandmother’s oldest friends was actually run over by a bus. He had spent his entire life looking into the void, with an exhausted, comical melancholy. He was the saddest and funniest man I ever knew. He wrote one perfect book, under an assumed name, and then gave up.

‘Love you,’ the brother and I yell at each other.

Love won, today. Love beat the void. And now I’m going to ride my mare.


Today’s pictures:

20 Sept 1

20 Sept 2

20 Sept 3

20 Sept 5

20 Sept 6

20 Sept 7

20 Sept 8

20 Sept 9

20 Sept 10

Friday, 19 September 2014

The morning after.

The red mare and I ride out into dear old Scotland, who seems miraculously the same after the seismic events of the last few weeks. The clouds are low and the sheep are sanguine and the cows are having a nice rest. The blue hills are still blue. The birds are singing.

As my mighty thoroughbred swings along underneath me, I think: it was not a case of winning or losing. Those who yearned for a resounding Yes will be feeling bruised and deflated this morning, but they are not my opponents. I feel no sense of triumph. I remember, keenly, when I canvassed for one of my oldest friends, years ago, wearing out shoe leather walking door to door, with hope in my heart. He lost, and I disgraced myself by bursting into tears in front of an entire political association. But it did not mean that those who voted against him were my enemies; they simply chose someone else. Vague with lack of sleep, I think: you say pot-ay-to, I say pot-ah-to. (Although nobody actually does say pot-ah-to.) I think: we don’t have to call the whole thing off.

A mighty exercise in democracy was enacted last night. People who have never been politically engaged before found their voice, and put their shoulder to the wheel. The young people will have discovered, perhaps for the first time, what it is to fight for something in which you believe. That will not be snuffed out, even if they turned out to be on the minority side. I hope that the notion that they matter will be kindled in their hearts, and they will go on to fight other fights.

I am glad and relieved that the Union survived. Scotland roused herself, and showed that she mattered. The politicos in Westminster will have to think more about affairs in the north, and the Holyrood establishment will have to raise its game. Some of the clichés about Scotland may be put to rest. It is not just a land of shortbread and haggis and deep-friend Mars Bars and constantly falling rain. It has an amazingly active electorate, who turned out in their millions and made their mark.

And, for all that I had my aunt-ish spasm about some examples of bad manners, overall the whole thing was conducted with great grace. There is little glee or I told you so this morning; there was, after all, no fighting in the streets. Hands are being stretched out across the divide, as if everyone is remembering that there is more that holds them together than drives them apart. I see a lot of mention of hearts – each side voted from their heart, from hope and belief. I think that, yes or no, it was a vote from love, for this fine, ancient land.

Some hearts will be sore, and some unburdened. But what matters is that those hearts beat for something true, something that mattered, something bigger than themselves.


Today’s pictures:

Just one, no prizes for guessing of whom.

I know I put up far too many photographs of the red mare, but she is the love of my life and so funny and beautiful that I can hardly help myself. In the last few days, she has been my still point of calm in a frenzied world. No matter how fretful I grow about votes and book deadlines and work and life in general, for two hours each day she offers balm for the soul. She is like a meditation, because when I am with her I think of nothing else. My crazy monkey mind stops, and I am only aware of my physical self and her physical self, working in harmony. It is a great privilege to ride a thoroughbred, because of all that power and grace. I am only a puny human, but when I am on her, I have wings. Today, out in the wide green spaces, she offered me a dancing canter of such cadence and rhythm that I shouted aloud in joy. She is an absurd gift, and I don’t know what I did to deserve her.

19th Sept 1

Thursday, 18 September 2014

One last thought.

In the quiet dark, people are still voting at my polling place.

I go to the shop, to buy coffee to get me through the long hours of decision. I am pretending that I shall go to sleep like a usual person, and set my alarm for six and hear the results on the Today programme. I know myself stupidly well. I shall whack on Radio 4 and find some rolling referendum news, and there will be a point where I shall find bed impossible, on this most momentous of days. I shall almost certainly revert to my student self, my essay crisis incarnation, and stay up all night, watching history unfold.

In the shop, the evening shift is coming off duty, men in heavy boots and bright visibility vests, tiredly buying pizza. I don’t know what they have been doing – building houses or fixing roads, perhaps. One of them, translucent with exhaustion, stands like a classical statue, his face grained with dirt.

I feel my heart lift. I have an odd bias towards people who work with their hands. It is an idiot generalisation. There must be manual workers who are mean or selfish or rude. But in my mind, they have a shimmering authenticity. Perhaps it is because I was raised on a farm and in a stable. The singing memory I have of my dear departed dad is the scent of dung, the feeling of the earth. He was the man who rose in the dark, put on his muddy old trousers, and went out to see to the dozing horses. I remember following him, tottering behind on my infant legs, as he gently woke the mighty creatures, those fine thoroughbreds, those great athletes, those horses he loved as if they were his sons and daughters. I remember the low breath, the rustle of straw, the sleepy shift of a great half ton body.

The man in the shop is a complete stranger to me. But he is my people. He is good people. He, I think, a little fanciful, is what this is all about. Not the fancy pants commentators, the mistresses of the fine phrase, the psephological mavens. He is real people.

I let out my breath. Whichever way this goes, I think, this is what matters: real humans in a small shop in a little village, getting something to eat after their day of work. Whatever way it goes, those ordinary lives are what matters. It is not win or lose, triumph or tragedy. What matters is that people cared, and people voted, and demos was served.

I love that they are still voting, out there in the dark. I love that my family gathered this evening, and spoke of dear Scotland, and raised a glass to her. I love that despite the odd outbreak of incivility, the quiet untold story of this strange episode is of humans minding. Whichever way it goes, Scotland shall survive. She has her blue hills, her silver lochs, her ancient glens and her bright uplands. She has her shining sea. She has been here long before I was ever thought of, and she shall exist long after I have gone. It does not matter to her, but for all that, she has my love.

18 Sept 22

A vote for love.

This morning, in the dreich and the drizzle of my beloved Scotland, I voted.

I voted No.

No has been caricatured, in the white heat of this frantic race, as a negative. But no can be splendidly positive, a cry from the heart. When Rosa Parks said no to the men who told her to go to the back of the bus, she was striking a blow which echoed down the years. When Nelson Mandela said no to bitterness and division on his long walk to freedom, he was setting a shining example of the human spirit. When the Pankhursts said no to the querulous plea that ladies should keep quiet and know their place, they were inspiring generations of women.

Saying no can be a fine and splendid thing. You can say no to bullying or demonisation or prejudice. You can say no, I shall not be silenced. You can say no to received wisdom or cheap assumptions or category errors. You can say no to confirmation bias or lazy thinking or taking the easy way out. No is one of the great words in the language, two little letters which can mean so much. Give me a lever and I can shift the world – no can be such a lever.

I voted for the Union because I think people are stronger together than apart. I voted for it because I hate waste. Something can be wonderful even if it is imperfect. The answer is to change the imperfections, to work on a better tomorrow, not to throw the whole thing out. Preserving this United Kingdom is not saying it is flawless or spotless or without fault. She is an old lady, this Blighty I love, and like all of us old ladies, she has creaking joints and a bashed heart and moments of grouchiness and grumpiness. She sometimes gets it wrong, but that does not mean that wrongness defines her. She can still brush up and put on her dancing shoes.

I voted for the Union because I remember the fine parts of its history. There are plenty of dark episodes, of imperial adventures and social exclusion and nasty prejudices. But the dark does not cancel the light. The clouds do not mean the sun never shone. Today, I think of the Great Britain which outlawed slavery, and repealed the Corn Laws, and enacted Catholic emancipation, and gave women the vote, and changed the law so that two men or two women who love each other may marry.

I think of the Britain which survived the Blitz and fought them on the beaches and never surrendered. I think of Winston Churchill, who once said: ‘Success is not final; failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts’. I think of him standing like a lion and insisting that ‘we will defend our island nation’. It is this island nation for which I voted.

Much less famously, Churchill also once said: ‘Although an Englishman, it was in Scotland I found the three best things in my life: my wife, my constituency and my regiment.’ He fought bravely with the Scots Fusiliers on the Western Front, and earned the respect of his men by insisting that they had dry socks. I love that story. It goes along with my faith in the small things. It speaks of my belief that love is not in flowery words or romantic gestures, but may be found in the most mundane actions. Dry socks are sometimes better than roses.

I voted no because I love the wideness and openness of Britishness, which stands for me against the narrowness of nationalism. I like that you can be black British, or Jewish British, or Welsh British or Scots British. I like the fact that it encompasses so much, from The Last Night of the Proms to the Edinburgh Festival to the Eisteddfod to the Royal Meeting at Ascot. It is the place of Mary Poppins and My Fair Lady and Auld Lang Syne, of Macbeth and Black Beauty and Molesworth. It is the gardens at Kew and the Western Isles, the Peak District and the wild Yorkshire moors, the Cornish coast and the mountains of Snowdonia. It is ‘Very flat, Norfolk,’ and ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged’, and ‘We few, we happy few’. It is five days of Test cricket and the mighty roar as champions gallop up the Cheltenham hill and the sound of a massed pipe band. It is understatement and rain.

I like what Martin Bell said about Britishness. He said: ‘It's tolerance, decency and determination to talk about the weather on all occasions and a tendency, when a stranger stands on one's foot, to apologise.’

I voted no because my ancestors came from Scotland, Ireland, Wales and England, and I do not want to have to choose between them. I voted for inclusiveness and old bonds of affection and history and culture. I voted for the poets and the playwrights, the jokes and the stories, the landscape and the sea, the wisdom and the folly.

Most of all, I voted for love.

I love this place. I did not realise quite how much I loved it until I feared it might be gone.


Today’s pictures:

I voted in my scruffy doing-the-horse kit, with the muddy earth of Scotland on my boots:

18 Sept 1

At station three, which will today witness history:

18 Sept 2

With the lovely Stepfather, who is not covered in mud:

18 Sept 3

You’ve been WHERE?:

18 Sept 4

Over there????:

18 Sept 6

I suppose I had better come and check:

18 Sept 8

The democratic process, you say?:

18 Sept 9

And yet even on this glorious day, you still make me work on my canter. I suppose everyday life must go on:

18 Sept 10

If I were only a bit more flaky than I am, I would believe that she really thought today should be some kind of school holiday. The fate of a nation is at stake, and yet I still insisted that she do her transitions.

I still wrote 2125 words.

I still made soup for lunch.

I still tried to pick the winner of the 4.10 at Ayr.

It is an extraordinary day, but the ordinary still has its place.

All my loves were represented, in that ordinariness – the red mare, the green soup, the fleet racing horses, the English language, the family, the Scottish earth. And in the extraordinary – the cross in the box. And now, there is just waiting, and hope.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

In which I am puzzled.

One of the things which has baffled and intrigued me from the beginning of the referendum debate is the labyrinthine psychology.

Yesterday, a Yes supporter shouted ‘you are a serial murderer’ at Ed Miliband. I am no great cheerleader for of Ed Miliband, and I am prone to hyperbole myself, but even I thought this was lunacy. Another man bawled ‘liar liar liar’ until he frothed his posse into such a frenzy that the entire event had to be stopped.

Why would anyone do that? What is the thought process? I like to think I am a bit of a student of the human condition, but I find it really, really strange.

You are a Yes person. I see very well the arguments, and some of them I agree with. Who could argue with liberty and independence; a plucky nation with storied names in its proud past and great human capital in its strong present, deciding to go it alone? There is goodness and even romance in that. That is, as the Yes campaign says, a positive message. Their great criticism of the No campaign is that it is negative, and they have a point.

So there you are, with your eyes filled with this dazzling future, your heart filled with hope and belief, and you go up to someone who is making a different argument and accuse them of being a liar and a murderer. Not only that, but you manage to shut down one of the most precious gifts of a liberal democracy, which is freedom of speech. You are all about freedom, yet you deny it to someone else.

What is the thought process which makes you scratch ‘coward’ and ‘traitor’ on the front door of someone who sees the world in a different way than you do? What is the animus which leads you to leave a bottle of urine outside a No voter’s house, or throw paint on a No banner, or go out at night and take a knife and carve up a No sign? You disdain the negative, and yet you employ tactics which could not be more negative.

Perhaps the most disturbing story I have heard is that of the farmers. I am wildly biased in favour of farmers. I grew up on a farm. I love the farmer whose sheep and cows keep company with my red mare. I am lost in admiration and awe at his work ethic, how he rises with the dawn and finishes his jobs long after dark. I love his feeling for his livestock. Anyone who attacks the farmers deserves a very special category in my book. In Perthshire, a farmer had his telephone lines twice cut, No banners in his fields have been scrawled with the word scum, and most sinister of all, these men and women who work the land have had anonymous calls telling them that if they do not take down their posters their gates will be broken and their animals let out onto the roads.

In the myriad of rolling news, the endless stories of this kind, it is easy to be shocked and move on. This is the kind of thing which happens in an impassioned campaign. There are always fringes who go too far. But I stop and think of the peculiar impetus which would lead an individual to do such a thing. How do you get from thinking I want an independent Scotland to sitting down and ringing up a hard-working farmer, whom you have probably never met, who has never done you any harm, who adds to the success of the nation you love by producing food, and threatening their cows with injury and possibe death? Not to mention the terrifying road accidents which might be caused by such an action. Again, my baffled mind asks Why?

The No Campaign is not composed of spotless angels. There have been people who have behaved badly on that side too. I think that they have made mistakes, and the accusation of negativity and last-minute hustle is often correct. But there is not the same orchestrated pattern of aggression, the same automatic use of extreme epithets. There may be people voting no who are absolute showers, appalling excuses for human beings, but there is not the same overarching story. There is not the same narrative arc of attacks on journalists (one went so far as to say he felt safer when he was covering the Troubles in Northern Ireland, which may be a slight exaggeration), the mob action against Nick Robinson for asking a perfectly ordinary question, the bizarre idea that you cannot be a true Scot if you disagree, the flying pickets which follow around the No speakers.

No has its own questions to answer. It has often felt feeble, and sometimes even patronising, although it does not have the monopoly on this. It has erred on the side of the minus rather than the plus. Most of all, it has failed to ignite a big idea. Where Yes wins is that it has the most lovely idea. It does have a dream. (My reservation is that I don’t think the reality can match the dream, and that everyone might wake up in a new Scotland and say: where is my pony?)

My psychological conundrum is – why would you have such a beautiful dream and sully it with shouts of traitor and terrorist, with vandalism and the shutting down of speech? The Yes campaign, when asked about some of the uglier incidents, usually says something along the lines of the other side does it too, as if that makes it all fine. I’m not so much interested in false equivalence, I’m interested in the oddity of a group so invested in its self-image of positivity being so negative. It is a sort of twisted cognitive dissonance. When Jim Murphy is called a quisling, a terrorist, and a traitor, merely for expressing an opinion in which he believes, how does that sit with the idea of a positive campaign?

It’s not that one side is good and one side is bad. There is nothing as simplistic as that. I imagine that the vast majority of people who will vote Yes deplore the aggressive minority, and would never do anything like that themselves. What fascinates me is the strangeness of one side, in its deeds and words, going against its own defining feature. There is no need to call someone a traitor or a terrorist. If you believe in your own argument, you should welcome dissent, happily confident that you can refute it. If a person has a profound belief in the sunlit uplands, in a new dawn, why would they pick up the telephone and threaten a farmer? It is so unnecessary and contradictory as to be almost inexplicable.

Humans are complex and often say one thing and do another. Perhaps this curious dissonance should be expected. But I would have loved a serious, thoughtful debate, an argument of strong ideas and high passions. The Yes campaign has many good points, and I wanted to hear them. They lost me when they went after the people who work the land.

Luckily, away from the big campaign stages, there are individuals who are charming and gentle, who go out of their way to be polite to their opponents, who refuse staunchly to indulge in ad hominem. Luckily, in ordinary life there are ordinary people who say whichever side wins, let us all be friends afterwards. Luckily, there has been thoughtful, serious writing about democracy and nationality and economics and the human heart. I know some people who fear that Friday will dawn with fighting in the streets. I hope that yes, no and all points in between might sit down instead and have a pint of Guinness and remember the fine moments – the good jokes, the heartfelt pleas, the nuanced discussions, the fact that as turnout roars over 90% nobody could say that we take our dear democracy for granted. I hope that glasses will be raised, and not smashed.


Meanwhile, in a quiet corner of my own Scottish field, these two were at their crest and peak of sweetness today, riding out together like two courteous old dowagers, two glorious equine oases of calm in the middle of the maelstrom:

17 Sept 1

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Love. Or, the last swift.

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?


Today’s pictures:

I love the farmer, and I love how much he loves his coos:

16 Sept 1

The glorious light:

16 Sept 2

The good companions:

16 Sept 3

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:

16 Sept 4

Monday, 15 September 2014

Miss Manners.

I enter the last days of my deadline race, so the blog may be a poor and shadowy thing for a while. I apologise for that. It is not just a matter of time; it is that I am thinking so damn hard about the book that my brain shuts up shop at a certain point, and there is nothing left. It still baffles me that the silent act of thinking can be so physically enervating, but it is. I get to a point where I can no longer function on any but the most basic level.

I’ve been thinking today about politeness, and why it matters. As the world news is so terrifying, so cruel and so big, manners might seem almost worse than irrelevant, a tiny blip in the vast and surging sea of dark reality.

But I do think that courtesy matters. I think it speaks of the Golden Rule. I think it is about empathy, about trying to think your way into the shoes of another, perhaps the ultimate act of good manners. I think it has a profound existential point – life is hard and unfair and random and sometimes filled with grief and pain, so why would you add to that if you do not have to?

Someone was rude to me last week. In the grand scheme of things, it was an event so small that it could hardly be seen by the naked eye. Yet, it keeps coming back to haunt me. It is like a little splinter under the skin, nudging and scratching and throbbing.

It came at a time when I am a little flayed, and my defences are down. Fret about this book leaves me vulnerable, my heart is sore from the shouting over Scottish separation, I had a bit of a bug and am still physically shaky. I am rather like my red mare, who can deal with one unexpected stimulus, and then two, but finds the third one pushes her over the edge, so that I have to be very strong and comforting and reliable to keep her on an even keel.

The act of bad manners will bother me for a while and soon I shall return to equanimity. I shall talk myself down off the ceiling. But if it were not for the lack of thought or courtesy from that person, I should not have to. I am wasting valuable emotional energy on fixing something which did not need to be fixed. The rudeness came from carelessness and badly-chosen words, sentences flung out with no conception of the effect they would have. It was not the end of the world and had no profundity. All the same, it detracted from the sum total of human happiness rather than adding to it. This seems to be a small but potent waste.

I like manners because they are useful. They make people feel better, not worse. They often bring out the better angels of those who are on the receiving end. They can have a lovely virtuous domino effect, a delightful paying forward – if you are kind and charming and polite to someone, they will often be polite and thoughtful to the next person. They are positive, rather than negative.

I know that some people think that politeness is old-fashioned and pointless, even bogus. But I am a little old school, in some ways. My mother taught me manners, when I was a little girl, and I thank her for them daily. I do not always live up to her high strictures, but I try. I think that matters, even when the world is so oppressed.


Today’s pictures:

So sorry, no time for the camera today. Besides, dear old Scotland is shrouded in the dourest dreich. Just a moment for this shot of my sweet red girl, who is as polite as a Jane Austen heroine:

15th Sept 1

I admit I did spend a lot of time teaching her manners, but she was a quick study, because she has such a good and gentle heart.

Saturday, 13 September 2014


The trailer for Pride has been exciting me all week. It is sharp and clever and funny. But oddly, even though it is a brilliant trailer, it turns out to have nothing to do with the film. The film itself is so much bigger, more nuanced, more universal, and more moving. The trailer is like a snappy 1963 Motown tune: dazzling and snappy and joyful. The film is like a concept album.

It took me about twenty minutes to realise this. As the action began to deepen and unfold, and the first weepy moment hit, I felt a cognitive shift. This is not shoop boop boo wop wop; this is the human condition. All life is there. My mind opened up like a big old Russian novel. I settled happily into my seat. Something marvellous was happening.

The nuances are astonishing. The lightness of touch is pitch-perfect. The story is filled with paradox – it all happened in actual life, and everyone knows the ending, and yet there are revelations and surprises along the way which make you open your eyes and blink in astonishment.

It manages to hit the cinematic jackpot: it is glorious entertainment, with no dull moment, but it also makes you think. I shall go on thinking of it for days to come. To roll out the hoary old saw - it makes you laugh, it makes you cry – feels too cheap, although it does do both those things. It made me cry and cry; sad tears, inspired tears, what if tears, me too tears.

I went to see it because I wanted to, because it is my perfect subject and my perfect film, but I also went to see it because it was written by my friend Stephen. We have been friends for twenty years. I don’t love him more because he went and wrote a stunning piece of work. But I do feel very, very glad that he is my friend. And it’s not just because he will get a lot of admiration and worldly success. It’s because he has done something which touches the heart. Even if the film does not win all the prizes and plaudits it deserves, it exists gloriously in itself, as something lovely and touching, something authentic and true.

It has all the best of British, in this week when I am thinking of Britishness. It has an ensemble cast composed of every British actor you have ever loved, as well as one or two new faces who will become loved. It has masterclass after masterclass in understatement. There is a scene with Bill Nighy and Imelda Staunton where more is said in one silence than I could write in an entire novel. It has the light and dark of recent British history, and the staunch buggering on at which dear old Blighty excels.

Everyone is so good in it that it would be rude to pick out any single performance, but there is a tour de force from Dominic West, and something devastatingly profound from my beloved Mr Andrew Scott.

I would say go and see it anyway, because of my friend. But really I say go and see it for yourself. It will make you laugh; it will make you cry. But most of all, it will make you want to make the world a better place. Not in a preachy, po-faced sort of way, but in a sod the lot of them, disco sort of way.

If you are anything like me, it will make you remember the best beloveds who are no longer here, the dear Departeds who were cut down before their time. As I drove home through the misty Scottish hills, I thought of my friend T, whose picture sits on my desk, who died from AIDS in the cruel days when it was a death sentence. He chose me, when I was very young and very foolish, I think because he saw that there was something slightly other about me. I have never been able to make the expected choice, and for years I had to make defensive jokes about being a freak girl, to protect myself from judgement. It has taken me until these middle years to feel comfortable with difference, not to have to explain endlessly, or do a diverting, compensatory tap dance. My adored, camp old artist must have seen something of that, and I think it was why he took me under his wing, and encouraged me to write, and treated me like his own. I miss him every day, and I thought of him as I sat in that darkened cinema, looking at the flashing screen and thinking: these are my people.

Everyone will take something different from this film, and it has something for everyone. I loathe being told what to do and so I very rarely use the imperative voice. I find unsolicited advice one of the most maddening things in the world. But for once, I break this rule. Go and see Pride. Go and see it before you know too much about it. Try not to read the reviews or watch the clips. Go, and be surprised. It will surprise you. It will enchant you. It will make you want to do something in the world.


Oh, and there is a very real danger that you may never make an assumption again – about miners, gays, the Welsh, middle-aged women, leather queens, unions, or about quiet men with neat hair. About anything, really.

All that in a rattling 120 minutes. Best tenner I ever spent.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Where the heart is.

The Dear Readers will know that one of my great rules in life is: if at all possible, avoid ad hominem. This is a cool, rational position. Usually, rather like with Godwin’s Law, the first one to go personal has clearly lost the argument. It is also a very slightly weedy thing of the sentiment. I can’t stand confrontation and I hate needless hurling of insults and invective. It is also ruthlessly pragmatic. No mind has ever been changed by attacking the human, not the ball.

From the beginning of this mighty Scottish debate, I have never attacked the side of Yes. This is partly because of my rule, but it is also because I see the argument. I see the passion with which it is held. I see the keen desire and the burning hope. I understand that, because I have my own passion, in the other direction.

I do have a private difficulty with Mr Salmond as a politician. I have never been able to think of him in the same way since he used twenty thousand pounds of taxpayers’ money to fight a court case to keep information away from the public. This goes against every inch of his cherished persona as an open, plain-speaking fellow, unlike the weaselly shower in Westminster. He also, in a way, failed my waiter test. There is a famous story of him picking on a junior reporter in front of the press pack, which I can’t get out of my mind. On the other hand, I do like and admire Mr Darling. I think he is a steady gentleman of some integrity. But I have been very strict about not making all this about two different men. It must be about the arguments. This is too momentous a decision. It is not about two individuals, but about the future of a great nation.

As my head clears, I try to take a step backward, and see the thing objectively. There is some fascinating psychology going on, a perfect Freudian example of projection. (I know that all the penis envy side of Freud is entirely mad, but he was right about projection, and I think of it almost every day.) There are people on the Yes side who accuse the Unionists of being negative, of scaremongering, of seeing only the chasm, not the great leap forward. In the same breath, those very same people accuse those on the other side of being traitors and Quislings, cravenly unpatriotic, with no faith in the Scottish people. This could not be more negative. It is not countering the argument. It is not saying if you disagree with me I think you are wrong; it is saying I think you are bad.

The other oddness is that many of those who long for Yes talk of the democratic deficit. All democracies, as Churchill mordantly pointed out, have a deficit. This is even more true today than when he spoke of democracy being the worst of all systems until you look at the others. Globalisation, international markets, geo-politics, the European Union, even the structure of the civil service and the dear old Sir Humphreys – all mean that no politician in the world is quite as in charge as they would like to be. It is why manifesto promises are so often broken. They are made in the wide prairies of opposition, where everything is possible. The hopeful candidates famously campaign in poetry and govern in prose. Realpolitik is a cruel mistress. Even if the electorate gets the party it votes for, it often does not get the results for which it yearns.

But more ironical still is that if separation were achieved, a huge democratic deficit would yawn, bigger than any which obtains after an ordinary election. Half the population would be deprived of their dearest wish. They would have to stand by, powerless, as the country in which they believe is broken up. It is not a deficit of a few years, but of generations.

The head part of me does see what might be called the negative, although I think of it as unacceptable risk. I do fret about capital and intellectual flight. I watch with trepidation as the pound falls and fund managers warn against investing in the United Kingdom and the billion and a half pounds slides away from British companies. To me that translates into real lives and real jobs and real people paying the heating bills. I worry about the currency. I wake at night thinking of the enormous expenses which are not even mentioned. Who will pay for the cost of setting up new embassies and legations around the world? I think about the things very close to my heart – the military towns which will be left filled with tumbleweed as the non-Scottish regiments go south, the racecourses which will be bereft of the Levy and so face closure. To me, it is too high a price to pay.

The positive of all this is that I hope there will be more devolution, which is devoutly to be wished, and that Scotland has the best of all worlds. It gets to be both Scottish and British. Two great identities for the price of one.

But for all the rational, cautious head, it is my heart which wins. My heart is English and Scottish and Irish and Welsh; that is my history and my ancestry. To have to choose one would be like cutting off a limb. I want the old neighbours to stay together, to capitalise on all their mutual strengths, in everything from research and invention, to the arts and the shared sense of humour. I don’t want the cultural ties that run between us to be brutally severed.

There are people who sneer at the heart arguments. I am not among them. The great psychologist Alfred Adler said there were three vital aspects of human happiness. A sense of loving and being loved, a sense of satisfaction and meaning in work, and a sense of belonging. Place, community, comradeship, being dug in – these were so important to him that he included them in his definitive trifecta. My heart argument is all about belonging.

This morning, I went down to the village to get a Racing Post, so I could read about Estimate, the Queen’s sweet filly who is running today at Doncaster. I adore Estimate, because she is a battler. She is a slip of a girl, lightly built, delicately constructed, but she has a huge fighting heart. I saw my friend George, a man of proud Scottish lineage, standing in his shop, arranging the shelves to his satisfaction. He loves racing as much as I, and usually we discuss the intricacies of the 3.30. Today, without being asked, he said, loudly, proudly: ‘I’m no, me.’ He gestured in a southerly direction. ‘I’d feel naked without them,’ he said.

This is instinct, heart, viscera. It does not make it any less important. It has no figures or statistics or financial forecasts to go with it. Humans cannot live on dry as dust numbers alone. The rational is important, but so are the more nebulous things which touch the soul.

My heart, like George’s, cries for union, fellowship, for the ties that bind. If Scotland and England and Wales and Northern Ireland were to unstitch themselves I would be forlorn, diminished, bereft. For me, these island nations are a family, and I say, like lovely Al Green: let’s stay together.


Today’s pictures:

My beloved Scotland, from the archive:

12 Sept 1

12 Sept 2

12 Sept 5

12 Sept 7

12 Sept 8

12 Sept 8-001

12 Sept 8-002

12 Sept 9

12 Sept 9-001

12 Sept 9-002

12 Sept 10

12 Sept 10-001

12 Sept 10-002

12 Sept 11

12 Sept 14

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Almost normal.

1422 new words written, and I feel almost human again. Now all I need is for the monkey mind to stop monkeying around, and things shall settle back into routine. The sun shines all day and people, near and far, are funny and kind. I eat proper food and contemplate getting more iron in my diet. I speak of Scotland and the future and the human condition and all those important things. I am pleased because I make the Mother and the lovely Stepfather laugh at breakfast. Then I watch the racing at Donny, and admire the beautiful, fleet thoroughbreds in the Yorkshire sunshine. Not quite normal yet, but heading towards the border.

The mare once again gets to have her adored wander about the set-aside. She loves the wild grass and the thistles. She is so absolutely herself, so sweet and funny and known to me, so at ease in her beautiful skin, that I think, for the time I am with her, that nothing else matters. The idiot mind may monkey about from branch to branch, but when I am with her everything is still and clear and real. She is my own Zen mistress, and I don’t know how I would get through a day without her. She is my best example. She knows what matters, and that is what exists now, in the moment. She is my meditation and my best professor. She is a salve to the heart.


Wednesday, 10 September 2014

A small and possibly not very coherent thought.

I’ve been under the weather all week, having had a relapse after my false perk over the weekend. Every ounce of weedy energy was directed at smashing my first deadline, which I triumphantly hit at 1.38pm, just in time to collapse in a heap and watch the first day of the Leger meeting. The main deadline is still two weeks away, so I shall have to butch up and bash on, but at least I was able to deliver on what I promised today.

The poor blog, shamefully neglected, sits in the corner, hoping someone might throw it a bone. But my brain has returned to its fugue state after putting on a thousand words this morning, and can summon no good prose.

I do have a thought, though. A thought for the day is better than a poke in the eye with a dull stick.

It is this.

Never, ever underestimate the power of the smallest act of kindness.

I know that people do talk about this. It is in quite a lot of books. It is supposed to be one of the secrets of well-being, performing small acts of kindness. It can sound wise, or it can sound corny as hell, depending on the state of your inner sceptic. It can sound a bit pointless.

Someone I do not know at all, a gentle stranger on my Twitter feed, took the time to make one of those small kind acts this afternoon. It was a gesture which spoke of great thoughtfulness, even though the thing itself was little and fleeting. But it took my battered old heart and expanded it like a glorious balloon.

It was an oddly pure thing. There was no side to it, no point to prove, no flag to fly. It was what it was: an offering of sheer pleasure. It made me smile and smile.

You know I always bang on about the small things, in so many different contexts. Sometimes I wonder whether I am talking arrant nonsense.

But there was the mighty power of the very, very small thing.

Take the time, I tell myself; think the thought. Do the small thing. Offer the offering.

All those tiny grains of sand add up to a mighty dune.

10th Sept 1

Friday, 5 September 2014


The universe is kind and breaks my fever just in time. I had got to the stage where I thought I would never feel well again, and perhaps this was not a bug but a life sentence. There was that thing of waking at three in the morning and trying to plan how to live with constant pain. I know people who do live with constant pain and I have no idea how they bear it. This dull virus contains the overwhelming luxury of going away. I never watched a tide ebb with such gratitude.

One of the oldest of the old friends is coming tomorrow for lunch. We have known each other since childhood and I never see him and I miss him. I could not have stood the idea of chucking, although I did at one point consider asking if he would mind it if I received him on a chaise longue, like something out of an Italian opera. (The awful thing is I do actually have a chaise longue.)

As it is, the beastly bug sods off at about four-thirty. I can feel it go. I like to think it was the spinach soup that beat it. I potter about in my pyjamas, weak as a baby panda, vaguely remembering what normal feels like, and attempting to tidy up a bit. This old friend lives a big life; he is one of the ones who has gone and done something in the world. For a moment, I panic. What will he think of the old piles of the Racing Post and the slightly dusty Edwardian glasses and my ridiculous collection of birds’ nests? I never got the whole House and Garden thing, and I am almost constitutionally incapable of throwing things away, so there are awful little hoarder’s piles everywhere you look. I could get up at six in the morning, I think, and redo the whole house.

Then I think: he really has not come for interior design. With any luck, he won’t notice. I’ll give him some lovely chicken and some green soup for strength and we’ll remember all the old jokes. What can it matter? My house is slightly odd, but it is mine, and I can’t suddenly fake a magazine front. I’ll never be one of the shiny people, and that is all she wrote.


And if the worst comes to the worst, there is always the red mare, and Stan the Man too. Who cares if there are holes in the sofa when there are these two?:

5 Sept 1

5 Sept 2

Rather bad pictures, but I’m still too swimmy to find and edit good ones. Still, I think this goes with my theme of not having to be all gleamy and perfect. A bit muddly and not quite in focus will do.


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