Friday, 30 January 2015

A slight birthday shock.

I am forty-eight.



As I said this morning to a friend, standing in the dazzling Scottish sunshine and the bitter Scottish wind: ‘Old for a jockey, young for a prime minister.’

In the spirit of the birthday, I thought I’d write you one of those amusing lists, like they do on the Facebook – you know, seven interesting or surprising facts about oneself.

I only managed three. And they are not very interesting.

They are:

1. I really like cockles.

2. I have a bronze medal in life-saving. Which means that if ever an inflated pair of pyjamas were drowning in a small swimming pool, I would be able to rescue them.

3. I can’t remember the third one.

Ah, ah, ah, ah. All these years, I secretly thought I was quite interesting. I could tell you about the repeal of the Corn Laws and how not to dangle a modifier. How damn fascinating is that? And then, when it comes to it, I discover that I HAVE NO INTERESTING FACTS.

It’s a bit of a blow, to be honest. (And I never use the phrase ‘to be honest’, so you can see how acutely I am afflicted.)

Oh yes, I remember the third one. It is: I once saw Judi Dench in the ladies’ lav at the Groucho. She was absolutely radiant.

You see? That sound you hear is the bottom of the barrel being scraped. In order to drum up the tiniest roll on the interest timpani, I had to dredge up a National Treasure.

Obviously, I am now going to have to go away and deal with this. I suppose it’s lucky I’ve got to the age of forty-eight with my delusions intact. At least it is excessively British. Being fascinating is really best left to Bobby Dazzlers from the continent. (Not that I would stoop to vast cultural generalisations, oh no.) Much better to talk about the weather and not blow one’s own trumpet.

Talking of the weather, there is going to be sleet tonight. Rug up the horses and put on your thermals. Never say this blog does not do public service.

PS. I was going to tell you about my enchanting birthday, which has involved cake, champagne, a jewel, flowers, a mystery parcel, and a lot of loveliness on the internet. But I’m saving that for tomorrow because I’m still a bit over-tired and my fingers have done enough typing. I’m going to watch the racing from Chepstow instead. See how ruthless I am, now I am hurtling towards fifty?


Today’s pictures:

One of the things I don’t really know how to do is take a selfie. It’s oddly hard, and my arms are not long enough. Obviously I had to try to get a special birthday picture of the red mare and me, since she is the beat of my heart. She stood for ten whole minutes in the middle of the field, not moving a hoof, occasionally letting out a gentle, resigned, forgiving sigh at the folly of her human.

Excellent Lady of a Certain Age tip – pose head-on into the dancing Scottish sun. It’s insanely flattering. I probably should care that I don’t actually look like this, but I don’t:

30 Jan 1

Can you see the look in the mare’s eyes? It says: just let the old girl get on with it. Possibly with a bit more swearing:

30 Jan 2

Stan the Man was moving so fast he is completely out of focus. But you had to see the special birthday ears:

30 Jan 4


30 Jan 5

The sweet, woolly, muddy duchess, sighing a sigh; at least that’s over. She’s very dozy and dreamy this morning, as if her wild gymnastics of the other day are quite forgotten:

30 Jan 5-001

PS. I’ve thought of another interesting fact. Watching the racing, I was reminded that the very first time I tasted smoked mackerel was at Chepstow racecourse in 1976. I was nine. I thought it the most madly sophisticated food I had ever eaten. Even though I had encountered the legendary soupe de poisson at Tetou. But you know, that was just soup.

So sorry. That really is the best I can do.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Being human. Or, sometimes you don’t get the gold star you want, you get the one you need.

Sometimes, I have a bad few days. I feel a bit weak and weedy, I forget to take my iron tonic, I don’t sleep well. I get behind on work and neglect to make special green soup.

I believe this is called: being human.

However, although I know on paper that all humans are human, and that flaws are written in to the deal, and that not even the Shiny People are shiny all of the time, there is a part of me which feels this as haunting failure.

Acceptance is a lovely word. It is used, I believe, quite often by the Buddhists, and certainly by the shrinks. One must learn to accept that life is complicated, that human beings are complex, that psychology is a snaking, labyrinthine thing. What is it? I ask myself crossly when I have the bad couple of days. What is going on? As if, by rationality and reason and empiricism, I may come up with the right answer, get ten out of ten, go back to the top of the class, and FIX EVERYTHING.

Sometimes, I think, there is not an easy ‘what is it?’. Sometimes, there are barely perceptible tectonic plates, shifting under the surface. Sometimes one just has to sit with a thing, and let it run its course.

The regular readers will know that I often write: every day cannot be Doris Day. I know this to be true, in my rational mind. In my irrational mind, which is six years old and quite often high on sugar, I am shouting: yes it can. Come on, Doris, shouts the irrational mind, put your damn dancing shoes on. Do jazz hands, Doris, bawls the irrational mind, which wants to have a party.

Today, for no known reason, the sane mind has taken over, like a lovely grown-up coming in and telling the children that it really is time for bed. Now then, says the sane mind, who is like a cross between Mary Poppins and Jung and the Dalai Lama, you really can just sit with it. You can accept the fact that this is not a test; it’s a long, winding journey, with bumps in the road. You don’t always have to get a gold star.

As I type this, with my poor old brain a bit swimmy still from two days of not functioning, I wonder: why write all this? I think it is because almost everyone I know of this age has this push-me, pull-you. My cohort has reached the time in life when we really do know quite a lot of things. We have had to face cruel truths; we have been to funerals; we know mortality like a dear old dog. Perhaps, we have had to understand that not all our childhood dreams will come true. We have had to adjust our expectations. We have had, in the outmoded vernacular, to get real.

But as TS, who knew everything about poetry, and quite a lot about wisdom, but could not apply much of that to his own fraught life, once wrote: humans cannot bear very much reality. They run away from it, or deny it, or drink it away, or merely point in the other direction – look at that, over there, let’s get furious about that.

I try to write about reality so that somewhere, out there in the dark, one person might sigh and say: oh, yes, me too. The more I go on, the sweeter I think it is to know that one is not alone. It is why I love the internet. It’s not just the baby pandas and the Budweiser Clydesdales; it’s the fact that there really is a lot of human truth out there. There are people admitting that they, too, are not quite as shiny as they would like to be. The funny thing about the internet is that it is not about gold stars, or top of the class. It is often about the stone in the shoe. It is about that rocky road, which everyone must walk. Or, at least, the good, kind parts of it are.

Out in the field, where the red mare has no time for such absurd ponderings, there is spring fever, even though it is not yet spring. In fact, it has been minus one and gales and blizzards. Then the dear old Scottish sun came out, casting its benign amber glow on the scene, and the two fast friends went for a hooley. They galloped from one end to the other, turned on a sixpence, and galloped back, throwing up wild clods of mud as they went. They hurled themselves to the ground and rolled and rolled. They leapt in the air for no known reason, twisting and snorting and broncing. The red mare stuck her tail vertically in the air, so it flew like a flag, and snorted like a steam train, and did her floating, Spanish Riding School of Vienna trot. Then she showed off her Champion the Wonder Horse rear.

Bloody hell, I thought, she really is remembering that Nijinksy is her grandsire. I went to work her with a small degree of trepidation. When she is like this, I am keenly aware that she is half a ton of thoroughbred. But when she saw me, she dropped her head and went through her groundwork steps as softly and accurately and politely as if she were a dressage diva instead of the rodeo crazy of ten minutes before. She blinked at me, kindly. Just getting the twinkles out of my toes, she seemed to be saying. Now, what would you like me to do next?

She doesn’t care about Doris Day. She doesn’t care that it’s been a bit of a scrappy, crappy week. All she minds about is that she gets a reliable, patient human, who cares about clarity and consistency. All that matters to her is that I make her feel safe. And then, as I hear the wings of my better angels begin to flap, she sweetly gives me a little gold star of her very own.


Today’s pictures:

Two incredibly muddy horses in an incredibly muddy field, having a little party of their own:

29 Jan 1

29 Jan 2-001

29 Jan 2

29 Jan 4

29 Jan 3

And then, after all that, I worked her for half an hour and she stood, composed and elegant, ground-tethered, whilst I faffed about with the camera:

29 Jan 10

She may be the scruffiest, woolliest, muddiest horse in Scotland, but she is also one of the funniest and sweetest and cleverest. She is all gold stars. No matter how cross and grumpy and scratchy and jangly I am feeling, she makes everything better.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Sick leave.

So sorry about no blog yesterday. I’ve got one of those dull, non-specific, low-grade viruses, where you feel weak and swimmy and hot and cold and generally demoralised. As the regular readers know, I have a lunatic belief that I never get ill and that somehow it is a sign of weakness. If only I eat my greens and harden my will, I can escape stupid germs. What about my cherished notions of stoicism and stiff upper lip? Life is too short to give in.

However, the poor body is saying stop, stop, and the addled brain is incapable of composing a coherent sentence, so I’ll be off for a couple of days.

In the meantime, here a horse of shining sweetness:

27 Jan 1(She is delighted that I am not firing on all cylinders, since I just wobble down to give her food and love and then stump off again, and she gets to have a holiday. There are some horses who really need a job but she is not one of them. She adores mooching, and is taking the opportunity to give herself a spa day, with complete mud pack. So good for the skin. It’s going to be a lot of fun when I return to grooming.)

Friday, 23 January 2015


For the second day in a row, I need a drum roll, please.

I did errands.

I quite often dream of the Organised People. Here is how I imagine they deal with errands:

They say to themselves: ‘Goodness gracious, I have some errands to run.’

They make a list.

They run the errands.

They cross the items neatly off the list.

They go home and have a nice cup of tea.

I imagine that they weave domestic and logistical duties into the warp and weft of daily life. They understand that there are jobs which must be done, and they do them. They do not obsess over the errands, put the errands off, pretend the errands do not exist, wake up in the middle of the night in a muck sweat on account of the errands, dread the errands with a dark, morbid dread, build the errands up in their minds so they take on the operatic aspect of a Wagnerian spectacle.

They just do them.

They do not tell themselves that they have no time to do mundane, administrative tasks because they are a Creative, and they must gaze into the middle distance and think Important Thoughts. Often about The Human Condition.

They just do the errands.

They do not return home after the errands and shout out loud with glee and do a little dance. They do not yell, to the puzzled dog: I DID THE ERRANDS.

They certainly don’t write a whole sodding blog about it.

They do not have to remind themselves that all these dreaded tasks turned out, in fact, to be quite easy, and that everyone was kind and helpful and understanding, and that the young man in the bank said yes to every single question.

The young man had been giving some Euros to the gentleman in front of me in the queue. He asked the gentleman where he was going. ‘Vienna,’ said the gentleman. ‘Oh,’ said the young man. ‘I’ve always wanted to go to Germany.’ Small pause. ‘It’s in Austria, actually,’ said the gentleman, laughing, to take the sting out of the mistake.

The poor young man blushed scarlet in shame. There was a lot of muttering about yes, Austria, of course, I meant Austria. He was still flustered when I came to the window.

I know all about geographical faux pas. I once muddled up Persia and Mesopotamia, whilst talking to an Iranian. I’d love to say that I was ten, but in fact I was over thirty and should have known better. I still go cold with embarrassment when I think of it.

I’ll cheer up the poor young man, I thought, by being extra nice. But I did not have to try, because spit, spot, he pressed a few buttons and typed a few typings and printed out a few pieces of paper, and all the awful admin was done in a flash. The tax remit was fulfilled, a vital standing order changed, some important information given. JUST LIKE THAT.

‘You have made my morning,’ I told the young man. ‘I can’t thank you enough.’ I hope he never thinks of Vienna again.

I was so delighted that I went straight to the hardware shop and bought the red mare a new scarlet bucket for her feed. She deserves a spanking new bucket, and it was only £4.99. (Also, there are few things I love more than a good hardware shop. All those enchanting items made out of galvanised metal.)

I expect that the Organised People do not return from all this and decide that they feel like a new woman. Especially if they are gentlemen. (Although I’m always in favour of blurring a few boring gender boundaries.) But I damn well did feel like a new woman. The cares of the world are off my shoulders.

Why I have to go through all this I do not know. Why I can’t just do the jobs as they arise like a normal person remains a mystery to me. I know I have to write hundreds of thousands of words, and I am idiotically attempting to finish two books at once, and my whole professional future is riding on it, but even so. I don’t imagine Sebastian Faulks (rhymes-with-jokes) gets into a state of hysteria when his tax return rolls round and he has to buy a new mop head.

Ah well, one works with one’s limitations. Mine are legion. But today, the sun shone like honey and the mare was at her crest and peak of dearness and sweetness and Stanley the Dog reached a pitch of comedy styling, and I got my errands done.

And now I’m going to have a bloody big drink.


Today’s pictures:

No camera today, what with the errands and all. Instead, here are some randomly chosen pictures from the archive. Starring Herself as The Red Duchess, Stanley the Dog as Stanley the Dog, some inexplicable leaves as some inexplicable leaves, and me, as the Most Disorganised Woman in Scotland. (But who cares? Because I have a NEW SCARLET BUCKET.)

23 Jan

23 Jan 1

23 Jan 1-001

23 Jan 2

23 Jan 2-001

23 Jan 4

23 Jan 7

23 Jan 8

23 Jan 9


PS. I also put together this album of photographs for the HorseBack Facebook page. I thought you might like to see them. There are only forty-three of the damn things. (What was I thinking? It took three hours. Still, it’s the least all the good people in the pictures deserve. They did great work and I take my hat off to them all.)

Thursday, 22 January 2015

A book and a horse. Or, it’s not magic beans.

Drum roll, please.

I have finished the fifth draft.

This is not quite as drum-roly as it might be, on account of the fact that I was supposed to be slashing and burning and did not, in the end. It turned out to be a quite different edit than the one I had planned. It was, in the end, a character edit. I had been living with the characters for long enough to see below the surface, so I found myself writing new scenes, to give them depth and nuance, to explore and cement the relationships, to let them leap off the page as three-dimensional individuals instead of lying there like types or cardboard cut-outs. Now, I know my people, and I had to give them room to breathe.

The kill your darlings draft is yet to come. I’m going to take four days off, clean my mind, and then print out the manuscript, so I can read it with a stern eye. A hard copy is always better for this process, and one may take a ruthless pencil and CROSS THINGS OUT. One can put squiggles and question marks in the margins, and little tentative ticks for the sections which work.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about horsing and about writing. They have a great deal in common. You have to go over every element again and again, get the tiny things right, or the whole will not fly. You have to pay attention to the minute details, which the careless or the cavalier do not even notice. You have to dig the foundations deep. You have to practice and practice and practice, every damn day, if you want to be good.

I sometimes suspect that almost anyone could write a book, in the simple sense of putting a hundred thousand words on paper. (My nutty book is currently clocking in at over 160,000 words, which is why the darlings must, must, must die.) What sorts the sheep from the goats is the willingness to go back and do the endless drafts, wrangle and mangle and pummel the thing into shape. The difference between the amateur and the professional is the taking of time.

Just like writing, good horsing can’t be rushed. I worked my mare this morning, in the snow, paying attention to the most basic things, checking those foundations, not letting the fundamentals slide. It’s take me a lot of time to realise what is really important, in this new approach I am learning. At the beginning, I was so excited to have discovered an entirely novel way of thinking about horses that I leapt about all over the shop, as if I were teaching the mare circus tricks. We made some progress, but there would always be a moment of disaster. It took me a while to figure out that it is the doing well of the right things in the correct order that brings enduring results.

One of the fascinating things you are teaching them is that the world has pressure in it, shocks and surprises and things not always going in a calm and predictable way. You are teaching them to deal with that, and not scoot off into a maze of adrenaline and panic. To do this, you put pressure on them, on purpose. If you pussy foot around, if you coddle them or namby-pamby them, they learn nothing. Quite often, on a still day like today, I’ve thought: oh, it’s a bit mean to ask her to work. She’d be in her dozy Zen state, enjoying the sun, and even though I know most horses like a job, I felt like a horrid slave driver. So when I asked her to do something, it would be with an underlying note of apology.

Today, I assumed my stern face and put the pressure on without regret or restraint. If I ask her to go, she must go. No messing. She was slightly surprised. Hey, she said, throwing her duchessy head in the air, what’s that all about? Good boundaries, I said; clarity, consistency, clean lines. After a firm ask, I’d relax her again, with a rest and a damn good rub. Then, off she would go once more. We rinsed and repeated for fifteen minutes, until all I had to do was lift my hand and she would walk off, click my tongue and she would move into a smooth trot. Oh, she said, looking utterly delighted, I really do see. It was as if I had encircled her in a gleaming ring of safety, because she knew what I meant, that I really did mean it, and that she could rely on me to be absolutely consistent in that meaning. All was clear.

Life lessons, I thought, extrapolating like a crazy thing. That’s the whole point of growing up. You learn to deal with pressure. You learn to take the knocks. I talk quite a lot about my battered heart, the one I have taken to funerals, the one that misses my old dad, my old dogs, my old godfather, the great generation which is leaving us, one by shining one. I think sometimes that I am holding it together with binder twine and hope. (And strong liquor.) But this morning, I watched my mare learn to take more pressure, to be a little braver, a little tougher, a little more sanguine, and I thought: the battering does not make the heart weaker, chipped and bashed and second-hand, but makes it stronger. Life will always make the heart ache, because of the sorrow and the pity, but it will not break it or smash it, not if you learn the habits of resilience.

She was so happy and content, after doing good work, that kind mare. It was so simple, what we did, but wonderfully profound. It’s taken me a lot of time for the understanding of the whole to grow strong roots. Yeah, you can get all the books, and watch the videos, and listen at the feet of a master, and ask questions, and discuss niceties with people who are on the same path. But you have to let the knowledge settle, you have to make mistakes, you have to think and think and think, and that cannot be rushed. There are absolutely no short-cuts, no tricks, no tick tick ticking of neat boxes.

I always thought that horsing was an instinctive thing, and in some ways it is. Some people really do have it. I thought that writing was an instinctive thing, that some lucky souls had a feeling for words, a facility with language. The feeling has to be there, but with both disciplines it is the thought that makes the difference. I think and think and think, and I work and work and work, and every day, it gets a little better. It’s not magic beans. It’s effort. And the more effort you put in, the more effortless the thing becomes, so the words fly off the page and the sweet mare goes forward in ravishing harmony, her great thoroughbred heart and my chipped human one stitched into each other, across the species divide.


Just one picture today. I think I already put it up on Facebook, but I’m posting it again because I love it so much. I love her wibbly lower lip, and her furry ears, and the fact that she has the Scottish sky in her eyes:

22 Jan 1

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

No words.

I was going to write you a whole blog about why words matter, but then I decided not to. I’ve been editing all day and my brain is gradually turning to mush and it’s minus four outside and I didn’t sleep very well last night.

Besides, you all know that words matter.

Mr Bobby Jindal sadly had to find that out the hard way, when he tweeted ‘Your welcome’ instead of ‘You’re welcome’, to hysterical and pitiless Twitter derision.

Sometimes, words matter when you least expect them to. I had to write a condolence letter not long ago, to someone I love very much. I always feel that scratches on the page are paltry things, in the face of death. But I bashed on, trying to avoid platitudes, trying to put my heart into my pen. The reply came back today. The words, amazingly, had mattered, even though I feared none of them were the right ones. (What can one say? Really?) I felt the old communion, running between old friends, who do not see each other often enough, but who may still send out little arrows of affection, small balm to shattered spirits. That does matter.

Tiny words mattered this morning, in the arctic chill, from a tiny person. The smallest of the great-nieces had come down to see the red mare. She was defying the weather and wearing her special gold-sequinned party skirt. I know no other human who can get away with gold sequins whilst standing in a snowy paddock. She insists on choosing her own clothes, even though she is only three.

She regarded the mare for a long time, and held out a little hand to stroke the soft muzzle. The mare went still and gentle, as she always does with children, whom she adores. (A lot of thoroughbreds love children, I never quite know why. It’s very touching.)

The small person went on regarding, pondering, observing. The mare snuffled through her nostrils and whickered. The great-niece rang out peals of delighted laughter. ‘She’s so funny,’ she said.

That pretty much made my day.

Then the great-niece told me, very seriously: ‘Rabbits eat carrots so they can see in the dark.’

‘Thank you,’ I said, gravely. ‘That is excellent information.’

Well, it turns out that I did have a few words after all. And now, here are some pictures for you, selected at random from the archive:


21 Jan 8

21 Jan 10

21 Jan 12

21 Jan 14

21 Jan 15

21 Jan 18

21 Jan 23

21 Jan 1

21 Jan 1-001

21 Jan 5

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

In which I attempt to vanquish a mood through the power of the list.

I had a whole lot of words for you today. I even started. Everyone was so kind yesterday and I was rather inspired. I was going to write about something interesting, and use my brain. Then I ground to a shuddering halt. It’s minus six here, and the ground is like iron, and I can’t ride. I just give the mare her hay and gaze at her with love for a bit and then stump off to my desk. It is tax time, and as usual I can’t find the correct pieces of paper and have to send grovelling emails to my poor accountant. There are at least three bits of vital and crashingly dull admin that I have not done and the fridge needs defrosting and there is a very, very strange smell in the car. Only Stanley the Dog does not care, because he’s got mice to hunt and pigeons to chase and sticks to find.

You know I’m pretty good about the perspective police. I have all the damn luck. I really do count my blessings and make out gratitude lists and never take anything for granted. But somehow, today, I can’t shrug off the January blues. I’m cold and cross and sluggish and blah.

Oh, pull your socks up, shouts the impatient sergeant-major in my head. (Very shouty, that fellow, and absolutely no time for any weedy self-pity, because worse things are happening at sea.) Pull your head out of your arse and do something useful, he bellows.

As I get older, I notice that I write the words useful and utility more and more. I think I like things that work. Even though I adore a theory, an exploration of ideas, a bit of a muse and a ponder, the impatience that flying time brings means that I do prefer usefulness. Sometimes, a kind Dear Reader will say that they were having a crappy day and then the blog put a smile on their face. This is usually due to a good picture of Stan the Man with ears ahoy. After that, I can think, well, I achieved something today. It’s all about adding rather than subtracting. Did you put something into the world?

At HorseBack, where I see men and women who must climb rock faces that I shall never know, the idea is that the best way to help yourself is to help other people. That’s why the veterans come back to volunteer and help their comrades on the path to recovery. The awful thing about bad moods and the furious moments of bugger everything and the days when you can’t see the light is that they tend to put you in a defensive crouch. You can hardly be bothered to make a sandwich for lunch, let alone add something to the sum total of human happiness. The vicious circle has you in its grip, you clench into immobilised despair, and before you know it, you are saying: what’s the fucking point?

It is at this moment that the sergeant-major comes in handy. After I lost my inspiration and came to a stop, I did not want to write a blog at all. I was going to cop out and just throw a couple of hill pictures at you and hope you would not notice. But my square-bashing friend won’t have it. Stop being a weedy wimp and do something, that shouty voice is saying.

There’s a list going round at the moment, about how to make your life slightly better. It has things on it which don’t speak to me, like having a fruit bowl on your counter. I hate fruit bowls. But I love the idea of it, because it’s all about the small things, and you know what I am like about the small things. So, in the spirit of bashing aside the curtain of negativity and forcing myself to offer, I’ve made a little list of my own. For you.

1. Breathe. I’m really, really bad at breathing. I’ve never done yoga, and I tend to hold my breath when I get excited, scared or cross with myself. But it’s free and anyone can do it and it really makes a difference. I’m breathing now. My shoulders are coming down.

2. If you can, try and do the thing you dread without thinking. Fool your brain. Point out something else, over there, and while the cross part is looking away, quickly write the email you have been putting off. I used this pathetically tragic technique this morning, and did finally manage to send some information to the accountant. Why I can’t just WRITE THE BUGGERY EMAIL I have no idea.

3. Say something nice to someone. I know the jades and the cynics are now screaming with laughter, but I don’t care, because this really, really works, however sappy it sounds. As my filthy mood had me in its crocodile jaws, and I was getting crosser and crosser, I made things worse for myself. Instead of goodly working, I went and looked at pointless things on the internet. Then, obviously, I could lash myself even more for being feckless and hopeless and useless.

However, the universe was on my side. I found the most enchanting post on one of the horse forums I like. It was from a young girl, incredibly excited because she had just learnt a new technique and applied it to her pony and it had worked like a dream. She wanted to thank the gentleman who had taught it to her. Not only was she brimming with delight and enthusiasm, she was also polite enough to start her grateful message in the formal manner: ‘Mr Schiller,’ she wrote. I was so overcome that I sent her a message, congratulating her on her brilliant work, telling her she had rescued my grumpy self from frozen fury, and making a little joke about how her use of the polite Mr had warmed the cockles of my old-fashioned heart. So, in the world today, a grouchy, creaky, middle-aged Briton in the north of Scotland sent a message to a completely unknown young person in Geelong, and felt better. There is a risk the young person in Geelong will think I am a bit nuts in the head, but I don’t care. Send a compliment, say something good, even if it is to a total stranger. Perhaps especially if it is a total stranger.

4. Kindly give yourself a choice. I find this very potent, although I can’t always apply it. I say: well, you can go on wallowing in your vile mood and making lists of everything that is wrong with you. It is a free country, you absolutely have that right. Or, you can eat some cheese and take a deep breath and think of baby pandas and Stanley’s ears and the soft, whiskery face of the red mare, and remember that while you are crap at admin you are really good at the placement of the semi-colon. Which is not nothing.

5. Compare yourself down. There is a terrible temptation, when in a low mood, to look up to the peaks, where the shining, organised, glittering people are being wonderfully good at everything. They are winning prizes and making vast piles of cash and saving the world and dressing well and discovering inner peace. You will never do any of these things. So you might as well give it all up and go into the garden to eat worms. Comparing yourself down instead of up is quite salutary. It is in part a division of the perspective police, the one that says: you do not have to walk seventeen miles every morning in order to get fresh water. It is in part a sigh of relief that you do not have to be a bore or a boor. There are many ostensibly successful people who are absolute arses. I was going to name names, but I must stick to my ad hominem rule. You can make your own list. You know perfectly well who is on it.

6. Did I mention baby pandas? They are on the internet. Everyone can see them. If they don’t work, try the floating sea otters who hold hands whilst they are asleep.

7. Make soup. Obviously. This does not have to be a complicated ritual, involving sweating onions and measuring ingredients. You can throw some watercress and spinach and a bit of leek into a pan of water, add some magical Marigold bouillon powder and a dash of olive oil and even a pinch of chilli if you feel like it, simmer for ten minutes, and then liquidise. You have health-giving green soup. You are a domestic goddess. Or god.

8. A quick canter through the obvious ones. Go out in the air. Look at some moss. Forgive yourself. Remember the power of hope. Be nice to your old mum. Don’t believe everything you read in the Daily Mail. Steer clear of conspiracy theorists. Read the first line of The Great Gatsby, which contains some of the best human advice ever given, although I admit it did not do poor old F Scott much good. Dare to eat a peach; or, remember your Prufrock. Give thanks for the glories of the English language.

9. Accept that some days you will feel perfectly shitty and that it’s not the end of everything. You know I believe in striving, and I generally think that one should not sink into self-indulgence. But humans are flawed and you can’t do jazz hands every damn day.

10. Try not to give advice. See what I did there? I am now committing the cardinal British sin of laughing at my own unbelievably poor joke. BUT AT LEAST I AM LAUGHING.

Love and trees, my darlings. Love and trees. Thank you. Because you are there, I have written this, and it really has made me feel better.


Today’s pictures:

Again from the archive. I’m still far too grumpy to go out and take an actual picture. Are you mad?

20 Jan 1

20 Jan 2

20 Jan 4

20 Jan 6

Monday, 19 January 2015

In which I get grumpy about cheap labels.

I pause, in my work, and have a quick look at the internet. A huge class war has broken out, as James Blunt and Chris Bryant knock seven bells out of each other.

I hate class war. It is such a blunt instrument, and it contains so many cheap assumptions and category errors. It has no room for nuance or humanity. People on all sides of the political divide seem to adore it. They bash the idiot chavs who don’t know how to cook and spend all their benefits on televisions and cheap lager. They denigrate the ghastly metropolitan middle-class, the do-gooding bleeding hearts, who have never peered beyond the smug confines of Hampstead in their lives. They lambast the horrid public school cohort who only want to bray at their rich friends and think the poor should not have shoes.

The really odd thing is that no class is safe. The bourgeoisie are dull and unimaginative; the lower middles still twitch their curtains and talk about serviettes and put on airs; the upper middles insist on wearing garish corduroy trousers and think the world ends at Waitrose; the academy is so far up its own arse that it is looking at the world through its nostrils. There is a faint nostalgia across the sociological divide for what might be called the respectable working class, the one that epitomised stoicism and striving and bettering oneself, the very best of British, and which people seem to think does not exist any more.

Class itself, and the British obsession with it, is interesting as a sociological and anthropological subject, but it is the least interesting thing about an individual. (Apart, perhaps, from their star sign.) Just think of how you feel when you meet someone stimulating and fascinating and charming. Do you go home and say, I met a really interesting middle-class person today? Of course not. You remember that they know all about astrophysics or dry-stone walling or how to make bread. They made you laugh, they made you think, they made you feel better about yourself. They knew things you did not. They were kind; they knew how to listen. Do you really give a bugger what school they went to or what their parents did?

I sometimes think that arguments about privilege start from the wrong premise. I’m not sure that privilege is necessarily a fat salary and a seat on the board. Years ago, I went to a place where the very rich go. I don’t mean the well-off. I mean the ones who have not flown commercial since the old queen died. I never saw so many discontented faces in my life. I thought I might be intimidated, surrounded by plutocrats and captains of industry. Instead, I wanted to make them all soup. The real privilege, which no amount of cash or jobs or schooling can buy, is to love and be loved, and to have a sense of ease in your own skin. The real privilege comes with things that no rarefied education can provide – a sense of humour, resilience, a humane heart. I know this sounds like my hippy meter has gone off the scale, but I believe it to be true.

To understand privilege, I think one has to understand consolation. James Blunt went to public school. He then served in the Balkans. There are veterans I know who are still so haunted by the Balkans that they sometimes find it hard to function. It held a particularly poisonous combination of horrors seen and a sense of impotence, since the forces were there not to fight, but to observe. I don’t know what James Blunt saw there. I can pretty much guarantee that if he stood on the edge of a mass grave, he would not have consoled himself with the words: at least I went to Harrow.

Stephen Fry is another one who is routinely bashed with the privilege stick. There he is, with his expensive education, and his Oxbridge friends, and his mammoth erudition, and his cut-glass vowels. In a rushing media world, he is the ne plus ultra, the new aristocracy. À la lantérne les aristos! Let the baying mob chop him down, watched by beady rows of Mesdames Defarges. Fry battles with bipolar disorder, a particularly nasty form of mental affliction about which he has written eloquently. When he is in the midst of an attack, when the drugs don’t work, I very much doubt he might cheer himself up by dwelling on which university he went to.

A loving family, a good education, a warm house, opposable thumbs, enough to eat, water coming out of the tap, books to read, a view to look at, living in a free democracy where there are no religious police or state oppression are profound, uncountable privileges, to be keenly appreciated. In Saudi Arabia, women may not drive a car and a blogger is currently being given one thousand lashes. The lashes are being staggered, fifty at a time, so that the wounds may heal. (There is something particularly macabre about that.) In Turkmenistan, you can be arbitrarily thrown into jail if you are a journalist, human rights activist or even if you sing a song the president for life does not care for. In Cuba, the prisons are full of randomly arrested doctors, journalists, librarians and homosexuals. Juan Carlos González Leiva wrote of Cuba: ‘Day and night, the screams of tormented women in panic and desperation who cry for God's mercy fall upon the deaf ears of prison authorities. They are confined to narrow cells with no sunlight called "drawers" that have cement beds, a hole on the ground for their bodily needs, and are infested with a multitude of rodents, roaches, and other insects. In these "drawers" the women remain weeks and months. When they scream in terror due to the darkness (blackouts are common) and the heat, they are injected with sedatives that keep them half-drugged.’

Compared to that, the daily life of almost any free Briton is a verdant paradise.

I think it is the thoughtless herding into boxes that I find dismaying. Humans are individuals, whatever tribe they come from. Slap a label on them, reduce them to some crude sociological mark, and you deny their intrinsic humanity. Apart from anything else, it is lazy thinking. It has no utility. It does not get anyone anywhere.

As I get older, I start to think I’m going to ban the word typical from my vocabulary. Typical woman, typical thoroughbred, typical posh bloke, typical Scot, typical Geordie – none of these tell me anything much. All humans judge; it’s almost impossible not to. And many humans dearly love a category, and a list, and a dividing line. But I’d love people to be judged on what they do, not what accent they have. Are you funny, are you kind, are you generous? Do you try? Do you add some increment to the sum total of human happiness? Do you take your privilege, and do something useful with it?

As I look for a good place to stop, a final, ringing sentence, I think: oh, bugger it. Why wade in? Perhaps people are really enjoying themselves, with their sociological cudgels. Nobody cares what I think. James Blunt can take care of himself. He is trained in mortal combat and has an advanced sense of the ridiculous. But reductive labels make me crazy in the head, so I suppose I must publish and be damned.


Today’s pictures:

It was minus six today and glittering with sun, but I did not have time for the camera. Here is a motley selection of pictures from the archive instead:

19 Jan 1-001

19 Jan 1-002

19 Jan 1-003

19 Jan 2

19 Jan 3

19 Jan 4

19 Jan 4-001

19 Jan 5

19 Jan 5-001

19 Jan 7

19 Jan 11

Friday, 16 January 2015

A gratitude list.

Although it sounds very hello clouds, hello sky, I do try to count my blessings. Apparently, it is a thing. If one consciously lists the good things in life, before bed, or first thing in the morning, one’s mental state is enhanced. It’s one of those simple acts which is often quite hard to do. The monkey mind is monkeying about, time is racing, one must get on. There’s no room for all that hippy shit.

The Younger Brother is really a proper hippy. He lives in Bali and sits in circles of love and beats drums and chants and everything. Sometimes it works for him. Sometimes he rings me up and says, despairingly: ‘I’m still staring into the void.’ The void is our shorthand for all the difficult things that hit one in middle age: the reality of mortality, the madness of the world, the bashed heart. It is easy to fall into a terrible confirmation bias, where one only takes in the sadness and the madness, the haters and the shouters, the people who rape the land and tear down the rainforests. Everyone is going to die and we are all for the dark.

So, doggedly, furiously sometimes, I damn well count those blessings.

Opposable thumbs are always pretty near the top of the list. I love typing and I don’t take it for granted that I can do up buttons. I also give thanks for a brain that mostly works, water that comes out of the tap, and a warm house. If I believed in prayer, I would pray to the gods of nature, the spirits that live in these blue hills and my beloved trees and the smallest piece of moss. I give gratitude to beauty, in all its forms, and the luck I have that I can appreciate it. I’m very, very pleased to have the English language at my disposal. That is a great gift. I am blessed with a happy horse and a happy dog and a fast internet connection, so I can look at baby pandas when things get very bad.

I think quite a lot about happiness: what it is, whether it is a goal to be pursued. I think about ratios. I have the ordinary amount of sorrow, fret, fear and angst. But as long as there are joys as well, the balance holds. I can’t be Pollyanna every day, skipping about, blind to the dark side. (Jung spoke a lot about balancing the light and the dark.) On the other hand, wallowing in the bad parts does not achieve much and can slip easily into self-indulgence. The good old shrinks always say: you can’t change the thing, but you can change the way you think about the thing. It’s not easy, but it can be done. Perspective, in all its forms, is a talent that may be learnt.

The gales have passed and the sun has come out again. Scotland looks clear and calm and ravishing. I got back on to the back of my dear red mare. We have not been riding on account of the weather, and I was so excited that I had to take several deep breaths so as not to communicate wildness to her. She walked sweetly on a loose rein, at home with herself and the world. Even in a slow, low walk, I can feel her power, all those centuries of breeding for speed and strength streaming off her. She is as light as air and as mighty as an empress. The spreading sense of physical joy runs between us, in the bright air. Half a ton of flight animal rests easily beneath me, responsive to my every thought. It is a sort of miracle. It is a blessing of the very highest.

Opposable thumbs, a majestic thoroughbred and a Scottish field: that is a list to be going on with.

Oh, and this morning I saw the first tiny daffodil shoots; singing green harbingers of spring.


Today’s pictures:


16 Jan 1

16 Jan 2

16 Jan 4

16 Jan 6

16 Jan 8

16 Jan 12

16 Jan 15


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