Thursday, 30 April 2015
Rarely, I see someone who is broken. Not chipped or bashed or struggling or holding on by their fingernails, but broken. I saw one such person this week. The shock is exacerbated by the fact that he used to do a job so perilous and demanding that he walked, slowly and deliberately, without flinching, towards danger.
I know what it is like to be stretched and strained. I know how it feels to have your heart smashed. I know about death and grief and watching your dreams go up in smoke. I know what it is to walk into a hospital room and see a beloved in a wracked sleep so ghostly that I believed them dead, and I know the streaming relief when they move their eyes. I know missing. I know failure. I know the ordinary sorrows of an ordinary life.
I don’t know what it is to be broken.
Maybe the Perspective Police got up this morning, and decided it was time for a raid. I’d been vaguely moaning about the weather, a longed-for trip I could not make, the damn car going wrong, a Best Beloved who is not well, hopeless time management, professional worries, bills, forty-seven things on my To Do list, responsibilities. I was a bit cross because Stanley the Dog dug some more of his tunnel under the feed shed and then ran into the house, went straight upstairs, and transferred all the good Scottish earth onto my nice white linen pillowcases.
The Perspective Police rammed down the door and shouted: ‘You think you’ve got problems.’
I walked away with humility in my every bone.
Some people crack, like Scott Fitzgerald’s old china plate. Some people stretch and tear and warp. Everybody hurts. And some people break.
I get an awful lot of things wrong. But I can hold up my head and function in the world, to a greater or lesser degree. This is fortune beyond price.
And I have this person, who is worth more than diamonds. The polar plume means that she is putting up with sleet and frigid rain and cruel winds. But then the sun comes out and she is happy again:
As I finish this, the optimist in me raises her head and sniffs the air. What breaks can mend. There must be hope. If there is care, and support, and understanding, and someone who has faith, and people who will help and won't give up. I believe in second acts. They are not easy, but they are possible. I've seen a few, and I've seen the dauntless humans who make them happen.
Wednesday, 29 April 2015
Author’s note: this is very long, and it is all about me. I’d love to think you might extrapolate some universal human truths, but let’s have the word with no bark on it: it’s all about me. It also features the red mare. She now has her own Facebook page so that I don’t bore you witless with her every whicker, but today she’s come galloping back to the blog. I just wanted you to know that before you started.
I love triers. People who try can bring me to tears. Horses who try have me in pieces. Children who try, with that wonderful, youthful sense of optimism and determination, pull on my heartstrings like nothing else.
And yet, I have lately been reminded that you can try too hard.
Of course I knew that. I don’t want you to think I am a complete booby. One of the surprises I have found as I motor through middle age is that I know much, much more than I thought I did. I got quite cocky about this for five minutes, until I realised that I have a fatal habit of forgetting all those good things I know. That’s when the gap comes between theory and practice, and I find myself falling into elephant traps and lying on my back, legs flailing in the air, thinking furiously: but I knew this.
This week, I had a little parable about trying, from my red professor.
Since I’ve come back to horses, I’ve taught myself a whole new way of horsemanship. I’ve learnt from two great horsemen – Robert Gonzales, in life, and Warwick Schiller, on the internet. Schiller provides an amazing resource for people who want to have happy horses, easy to ride and handle. At his place in California, he takes in all kinds of horses who have problems. He’ll be presented with a 17 hand dressage horse who can do a test, but who can hardly be rugged up without freaking out. He is sent buckers and rearers and bolters, horses that can’t get on a trailer, horses so riven with separation anxiety that they can’t think straight. He’ll take the horse right back to the beginning, go through the methodical steps, find the frets and the worries, iron them out, and by the end will have a soft, responsive equine who can do everything on a loose rein with its head down. He videos this, explains exactly what he is doing, and posts it on his page as a learning tool for people all around the world.
It has been a revelation for me and the mare, and because of it I’ve never in my life been so in tune with a horse, or had a horse who is so at ease with herself.
This week, Warwick Schiller is coming to Scotland to do a clinic. The moment I heard, I booked my place, and started dreaming of the great moment when the red mare would meet the master. Yesterday, a pincer action of three disasters meant that I had to cancel. There would be no trip to St Andrews, no glorious meeting.
Part of me was very sad about this. I’d been working so hard to get the mare ready. We’d gone right back to the beginning, found all the things I was doing wrong, concentrated on fixing them. I’d upped the ante, asked her new questions, pushed her harder. I’d sat up late, rewatching all the videos, trying to figure out where I was going wrong and what I needed to improve. Each day, I went down to the field with my teeth gritted, trying like buggery, because we had to get our gold star.
I say part of me was sad, because there was another part. Another part was, and this is so odd I can hardly write it, relieved. Today, I suddenly realised that I had been going to that clinic for a lot of the wrong reasons. I’ve written, over the months, about the red mare and her wonders on the Warwick Schiller forum, so that she is well known there, carving out her tiny piece of internet fame. I think that I secretly believed that I would arrive in St Andrews and say: Look, look, here is the famous Red Mare, IN REAL LIFE. And everyone would gasp at her beauty, and gaze in awe at all the clever things she can do, and give her a round of applause and a laurel wreath.
In fact, they would have seen a perfectly ordinary thoroughbred, with a kind white face, who is, I have to admit, a little bit short in front, and who sometimes slings her head and rushes her trot. In my eyes, she is the embodiment of a dream; to anyone else, she is just a sweet chestnut mare, with all the flaws that horses are heir to. She has not travelled for a long time, and the journey might have unsettled her. She would have had to stay in a strange stable surrounded by unknown horses, leaving her charge and field-mate behind. She could have wigged out a bit, even after all the good training we have done. She might, whisper it, not have shown her best self. Where would I be then?
Of course I wanted to learn, and of course I hoped that the last knotty problems would be instantly unpicked by those knowledgeable eyes. But I am slightly ashamed to say that much of the driving impetus was an awful sort of showing off. My competitive spirit, which I pretend is not there but which is always yelling, in the back of my mind, give me a cup, had hijacked the whole thing and was running riot. That’s why I was going down to the field every morning with gritted teeth.
Gritted teeth are not always bad. Gritted teeth got AP McCoy to twenty jockey championships. They got my old dad back in the Grand National after severe doctors had said he should never sit on a horse again. They got me, in younger days, round huge cross country courses, to Peterborough and Windsor, through complicated dressage tests.
But gritted teeth are no good to the mare. In this new horsemanship, she has been taught the ways of softness. When I grit my teeth, she thinks there are mountain lions in the woods, and her lovely, floating stride breaks up and her neck tenses and she fears that the storm is coming. She does not know I am absurdly trying to prove myself and improve myself; she just feels the tension and dreads the worst.
As a result of all this damn trying, we had lost that elusive trot. We’d had it, so beautifully that it made me weep tears of joy, and then it went again. The basis of this method is that you should be able to walk, trot and canter on a loose rein. You are teaching your horse self-carriage. It’s one of the things I love. Instead of giving it information every two seconds, you ask the polite question and then leave it alone. You are not saying a bit slower, a bit faster, a bit more collected. You just say go, and then sit as still as Ruby Walsh on Douvan in the Punchestown sunshine. You trust the horse, because you have taught the horse to trust itself. This requires a steady mental state. Trying too hard wrecks all that work at a stroke.
This morning, in a curious combination of regret, sorrow, wistfulness, release and relief, we went for a ride. We were no longer getting ready to show the teacher what we could do; we were just being together. I let the mare wander where she would, which is a basic teaching exercise I do every morning. She struck out towards the darkest woods, the ones that use to make her snort and rear. She was in her most intrepid explorer mode. She ignored the little Paint, who was doing her own private rodeo in the field alongside. At one point, the Paint and Stanley the Dog were staging an antic series of barrel races. The mare did not so much as flick an ear. I had no hand on her rein; she was brave and free.
By the entrance to the terrifying woods, there is a high granite wall, very typical of this part of the world. In it, there is a door. The door is exactly like that in The Secret Garden, one of the books of my childhood which most touched my heart. The mare walked up to the door and put her head through it and looked into the garden beyond. I leant down along her neck so I could see what she was seeing. There was a slope of grass, the young trees we planted for my late father, when the family gathered, including his sister, his nephew and niece, his children and grandchildren, and the blue hills beyond.
The good horse and I stood, for many minutes, looking through the secret door. It felt symbolic of something profound, I was not sure what. I said, out loud, in her ear: ‘Thank you for this.’
We were not going to do any work today, because we are no longer preparing for a great occasion. But I thought, damn it, let’s just give that trot a go, just for the hell of it. And there it was, as if it had been waiting for me all along. She was as poised as an ambassadress, as delicate as a duchess, as gentle and relaxed as an old Labrador. We did it on a loose rein; we did it with no reins at all. I put my hands out into the cool Scottish air, and she bent her beautiful, mighty body round in a curving circle, found her own lovely rhythm, beat her own delightful drum.
I had stopped trying, and that was when she gave me my greatest gift.
So, after all that, the thing which was a bit of a disaster turned out to be the best thing which could have happened. I needed a lesson in not letting that wild competitive drive get rancid and wrong. I needed to be reminded that I don’t actually require a cup. I needed to know that sometimes I can crash everything when I grit those absurd teeth too hard. I had forgotten all these things, and circumstance and this generous horse came along and set me right.
Trying is good. I try to write better prose. I try to do my work at HorseBack well. I try to be a good friend and a reasonably decent human. I try to be polite and see others’ points of view. I try not to judge in a mean way, and I try not to bitch and moan. I try for stoicism and balance.
With this ravishing mare, I try to follow the example of those two dazzling horsemen, not because it will make her a supreme champion, but because she will be happy in her skin and have a human on whom she can rely. It also means I am less likely to fall off and bruise these old bones. That’s a good kind of trying. It’s trying for the right reasons.
And it means that we get a glimpse of the view, through that low door in the wall.
Here she is, after all that loveliness, having a happy breakfast with her questing friend. The Paint always hopes that if she stands there with her Oliver Twist face on, she might get a go. She never does. The red mare knows perfectly well that she’s had her own breakfast, and this orphans in the snow look is pure theatre:
Tuesday, 28 April 2015
Spinning my wheels like a crazy person. I run around, at a hundred miles an hour, trying to get my work done, do my HorseBack UK job, plan for a trip away with the mare, keep the domestic situation under some kind of control (hollow laugh), and get in touch with the rat-catcher, since Stanley the Dog, despite digging entire tunnels and racing round every corner of the feed shed like a man with a mission, has lost control of the Rat Situation. I am trying not to see the rats as a metaphor, but they weigh on my spirit.
I want to write you something good and true about life and the human condition and the whole damn thing, but there are no words there. Out in the world, the news has taken on a desperate and apocalyptic aspect, as terrifying natural disasters strike and Baltimore goes up in flames. Everyone has something to say about that, but I find it is where words fail. Words are my touchstones, the things in which I believe the most, but they grow shadowy and paltry in the face of such despair. The world makes no sense, so all one can do is one’s best, putting one foot in front of the other. There are no good or wise or consoling things to say.
I think of the forty things I have to do and try to do them. In my harried ears, I hear the faint screech of the spinning wheels. Concentrate, I say to myself; take your iron tonic; keep buggering on.
In the midst of all this, there is this person, the one note of sanity in a discordant symphony:
I’m afraid the blog is going to be rotten this week. Bear with me, Dear Readers. I’ll be back on an even keel after the weekend.
Oh, and thank you all for the very kind response to the AP posts. They came here, and on Twitter and on Facebook. I was rather overwhelmed, and very touched. I always feel flayed when I write about something which comes so from the heart, so your generous words are amazingly soothing.
Sunday, 26 April 2015
A seventeen-year-old conditional jockey called Sean Bowen won the first race in style. He was not even born when AP took his first championship. The future, with its flags flying, had arrived. Just in case anyone was in any doubt, Bowen won the big race too, the last great chase of the season, the one that will always be the Whitbread to me, the race that still recalls that glittering sunny day many years ago when the bright white figure of Desert Orchid danced over that emerald turf with his head held high, putting them all to the sword. McCoy’s last ever race was won by Richard Johnson, another great horseman and true gentleman, who has run second to him for almost all of those twenty years of triumph.
All the jockeys came out and formed a guard of honour, clapping the slender figure in the green and gold as he went past. When he was awarded his twentieth Champion Jockey trophy, he was hoisted up onto laughing shoulders, holding his cup aloft, a smile of achievement and regret on his wistful face. The cup was decommissioned on the spot. Nobody else has ever won it, and it was right that AP should take it home. They’ll make another one for next year.
Twitter went insane. Everyone, from the humblest punter to the greatest trainer, wanted to say #ThanksAP. At one point, I thought The Champ had broken the internet. Nick Luck, natty in very sharp suiting, led the Channel Four team, who captured the occasion with perfect pitch. Paul Nicholls and Nicky Henderson and Jonjo O’Neill and JP McManus and Ruby Walsh gave eloquent tributes. Everyone was crying. Chanelle McCoy, who, with quiet grace, has watched the man she loves risk his very life, was in tears; Richard Johnson was in tears; AP himself, the toughest competitor I ever saw, a man they carved out of granite and then threw away the mould, was in tears.
I, as you may imagine, was in pieces. At one point, a lone voice of dissent piped up. Don’t be so pathetic, said one cross gent on Twitter; he hasn’t died.
No, thank the racing angels, he has not died, although there was one dark day in an ambulance when they thought his heart was going to stop.
It did make me think, though, as I heard that rather British crossness, why there was this great outpouring. I’m not sure I ever saw it for any other sportsman in any other discipline. In some ways, I think it’s very simple. AP McCoy has taken being the best to unprecedented heights. He’s smashed every record, put every other competitor in the shade, set benchmarks which shall probably never be surpassed. That deserves applause. Along with that there is another very, very simple thing. It’s that everyone loves him. He’s a really, really nice man. Sure, people say he can be occasionally grumpy, and he admits to being obsessive, and he has said he had to teach himself to get better at losing because he really did not take it well in the early days. In recent interviews, with a wry grin, he has said his one regret is that he wished he had smiled more. But he is a proper human being and everyone likes him. He embodies quiet, unfashionable virtues – he is humble, and stoical, and industrious. He does not showboat, or save it for the big occasions. He’ll give a novice at Stratford the same ride he’ll give to a superstar at Cheltenham.
I thought too about the nature of racing. Great sporting stars are often unreachable. They perform in an arena, away from their public. They are paid huge salaries and live in gated mansions. Jockeys walk through the crowds on the racecourse, every day. If you get to the Festival early, as I do, you’ll run into Barry Geraghty or Ruby Walsh or Tom Scu in their overcoats, with their Racing Posts under their arms. There’s a democratic element in racing which you don’t see in other sports. You can be an ordinary owner, who has scrimped and saved to join a syndicate, and you can get AP McCoy up on your horse just as if you were a mighty tycoon.
The racing world itself is a tight world. They see each other a lot, because racing goes on every day. The champion trainer will bump into someone who has ten horses in training on a dour day at Plumpton, and might be beaten by her, too. They are levelled by the marvellous and mysterious nature of the thoroughbred. No matter how much money they pay for their equine stars, how many facilities they have, how many vets and physiotherapists and jumping coaches they employ, they are still prey to the stone fact that even the most brilliant horse will sometimes have a bad day. They all know the risks, the disappointments, the disasters. They know that what goes up will, literally and metaphorically, come down. That’s why they stood tall and saluted their Champ, because they know what he’s been through and they know what it takes.
Through this gaudy carnival, as the sun beamed down on Sandown, and it seemed that the whole racing tribe was united in love and admiration, stalked the ravishing thoroughbred beauties who make it all possible. They have come in their coats now spring is here, and they blossom and bloom with the sun on their backs. They have given joy to thousands since the fine weather of October, through the rain and mud and dreich of the hard winter months, and are still galloping in a bright April. Now, they will go out to grass for their summer holidays, and get to be just horses again, in a field.
AP has said it’s all about the horses. I love the horses, he has said; I could not do it without the horses. I’ve heard him state, with quiet indignation in his voice, when he’s been congratulated on one of those improbable, last-gasp victorious rides, ‘I don’t think the horse ever got the credit he deserved.’ In some ways, I suspect he would rather that it was the equine stars who got the laurel wreaths, not him. His great friend, Mick Fitzgerald, said yesterday, laughing: ‘I think he’s probably a bit embarrassed by all this.’
Watching AP, I thought that he was surprised, too. He is the professional’s professional, and he has had his head down for so long that I’m not sure he knew how much he was appreciated.
Yesterday, at last, he got to feel the love.
Here he is at Aintree, on Jezki, one of his last winning rides. I’m so glad I can say – I was there:
Saturday, 25 April 2015
You get up every morning at the crack of dawn. Some days, you eat a piece of toast, some days you do not. You may sit for an hour in a boiling hot bath to get the flesh off your bones. You may go out to the gallops, on a frigid November morning, and ride a piece of work on a raw novice, who does not yet know her job. You may school an old friend, or you may have your first sit on one of those young horses who feels like he might be one of the great ones, get the electric crack of talent and promise, and dream a dream of how high he might one day fly.
You get in a car and drive sometimes hundreds of miles. You arrive at the racecourse and perhaps allow yourself a cup of tea. You put on your gaudy silks and go out and get up on a half-ton flight animal. This may be a horse you know well. You might have educated her since she was a baby, showing her how to find a stride, how to contain her excitement, how to harness her wild herd instinct. You may have taught him balance, and maturity, and trust. You may have nurtured her will to win. He might be a best beloved, a loyal compadre, or she might be a horse you have never met in your wide life.
That horse could be a shining star, a top class athlete who glitters at the highest level. Or it could be a mundane selling plater, whose owners clubbed together and got it on the cheap, and hoped, against all the odds, that they might live the dream.
The horse might have been beautifully schooled, by a storied trainer, so that it knows its job better than you do. Or it might come from one of those now rare sorts who think that schooling at home is for sissies and that horses should learn their job out on the racetrack. And you think bitter thoughts as it puts its feet into the bottom of the open ditch.
You set off, at around thirty miles an hour. You face anything from nine flights of whippy hurdles to twenty-two fences of stiff birch, five foot high, with a twelve foot stretch. There are other horses around you. One may veer off course and cannon into you, squeeze you up the rails, do you out of running room. Loose horses are the great unknown unknown. Your fella may miss his stride; your brave girl may take a false step on the flat. The hot favourite you are riding might have got out of the wrong side of the bed that morning, and the crowd will boo and hiss as you labour into an undistinguished fourth and disgusted punters tear up their betting slips. Now, in the new age of the internet, people will break out the slanders, say that the race was fixed, that the bookies greased your palm, that you can’t ride a rocking horse. All those armchair jocks, who have never so much as sat on a fighting fit thoroughbred, will tell you exactly where you went wrong.
There are tactics to think of. Your bosom friends, the ones you laugh with and cry with and go on holiday with, are fierce competitors out there on the green track. If one of them can force the pace, or keep you off the rail, or suddenly kick for home off the last bend, leaving you flat-footed, they will. But even as they are trying to sink you, and you are trying to sink them, you love them still. Theirs are the first hands that are held out to you when you pass the finishing line. You might watch one of them go down, and lie still, and even as the giddy shouts of the racegoers die in your ears, you think – what happened to Ruby, is Dickie all right?
Some of the horses you love, and some you admire, and some you don’t especially get on with. You understand they are individuals, with characters and hopes and quirks and minds of their own. Some of them show pride when they win; some are shy of the crowd; some bask in the glory. You admire them all, because you know what it takes. Some of them don’t come home. You know, with the stern rational part of your mind, that when they go, they go quickly, with adrenaline stopping the pain. You know, better than anyone, that you can’t make them race if they don’t want to. You know that they lead a better life than half the horses in the land, that they get the incomparable feeling of being gloriously fit, cherished, honed, attended to. You know that a horse can die on the road, in the field, in the box. You know that there are poor, misunderstood, shut-down equines out there, whose twilight existence is worse than death. But all the same, where there was flashing speed, mighty power, a fighting heart and a bright eye, there is now nothing. You can never hear the names Synchronised or Darlan without regret.
For twenty years, you have lived with pain. You know that every fall could be your last. Your body is a battlefield, scarred and broken. Yours is one of the very few jobs in the world where you go out to work followed by an ambulance. Some of your friends and colleagues don’t come back. You will always be haunted by the day when you saw the clothes of JT McNamara hanging on his peg and you knew he would not be coming to get them.
On some dazzling days, they will roar you up the hill at Cheltenham and you will know elation as fierce as arrows to the heart. On other days, you will be riding some dear, slow old plug on a wet Friday at Fontwell in front of four men and a dog. You ride in the wind and the weather, the sleet and the murk. You win, you lose, you fall, you fail, and sometimes, when you think all is lost, you ask that great animal under you for one, impossible, galvanic effort and even though the tank is empty and the legs are tired, it somehow finds something more, giving you every last drop of courage and determination and sheer, bloody-minded refusal to be beat, and you flash past that cherished winning post, in front by a short head.
You drive home. Sometimes you have dinner, sometimes you do not. Tomorrow, you will get up in the indigo dawn, and do it all over again.
Congratulations. You are AP McCoy.
When I write that hard life down, I wonder for a moment why anyone would do that to themselves. The pain, the risk, the hunger, even, sometimes, the boredom, when you are stuck in traffic on your way back from a blank day at Huntingdon – where does the mental and physical strength to deal with all those come from? AP has said that winning is everything. It is what drives him, and he is one of the most driven humans I have ever seen. You can pick him out in a shifting field of jockeys, teeth gritted, body crouched in wild determination. But, oddly, I think he is not quite right. I think he really does it for love. When he won on Uxizandre, at his last ever Cheltenham Festival, he did not speak of the winning, although it was a big race at the greatest jumps meeting in the world. He spoke of the thrill of riding a horse like that, who tears off in front and jumps for fun. He spoke of the exhilaration of those mighty leaps, the joy of flying over that famous turf.
I understand that love. The thoroughbred is one of the most beautiful, graceful, brave and powerful creatures on this green earth. The moment you get on their backs, you can feel the purring power under the bonnet, the Aston Martin hum, the extraordinary result of three hundred years of breeding, going back to the day when Captain Byerley brought his Turk back from the wars and put him to stud. As well as being magnificent physical specimens, they are intelligent and kind and honest. I swear that some of them even have a sense of humour. Of course the winning is the thing, but it would mean nothing without the love.
There are many extraordinary things about AP McCoy, and they’ve all been written in the last few weeks. No sportsman or woman has remained an unbeaten champion for twenty years. Just think of that for a moment. Twenty years. It’s one of the hardest sports in the world, the most unpredictable, the most demanding. But, like clockwork, there is The Champ. His guts, his talent, his stoicism, his brilliance, his determination, his horsemanship, his never-say-die are beyond compare. But perhaps even more extraordinary is that in this keenly competitive discipline, there is not one person who has a bad word to say about him. He’s had the same agent for those twenty years, and they’ve never had an argument. He is, famously, the first person in the weighing room to offer to take someone to hospital. All the young jockeys look up to him, not just because he is so damn good at his job, but because he is a gentleman. He is tough as teak, and yet he is a gentle man. To be the best and to remain a proper human being is an achievement for the ages.
I love AP McCoy. I’ve never so much as shaken his hand, but I love him like he was a brother. When I’m feeling beaten and doleful, I ask myself ‘What would AP do?’ The answer always is: pick himself up and ride another winner.
It’s been a rare privilege to watch him, over these glory years. Today, he rides his last race and thousands of racing fans will salute him as he goes. We shall not see his like again.
Friday, 24 April 2015
Warning for: very sweary swearing.
This morning, a letter arrived in the post. It was from the Electoral Registration Officer. It said: ‘Your application as an elector cannot be progressed as we were unable to verify your identity against government databases.’
I felt a galvanic rage seize me in its crocodile jaws and throw me about the room.
It was not just because of the ugly use of progressed in that sentence.
I am a bit of an old lefty. More accurately, I should say I am a pragmatic centrist small L liberal with whiggish tendencies. My leftness comes most strongly in my belief in government. When my right of centre friends and relations are hymning the free market and wanting to drown the state in a bathtub, I stick up for government. I believe in it for all its faults because I believe in the social contract. I am grateful every day that I live in a liberal democracy where there are no religious police knocking down the door. When people groan and say that politicians are all the same, I state the unfashionable view that most of them are decent men and women who do a difficult job to the best of their ability. I wish they would answer the question on the Today programme and I fall into despair when they ruthlessly stay on message and mouth pablum and jargon, but, mostly, I believe in them.
My government, which I defend every single damn week, to which I dutifully pay my taxes, whose laws I obey, whose history I have studied, now tells me I do not exist.
How fucking DARE it?
I’m so angry I’m tempted not to send in my driving licence and, when the electoral cops come to arrest me, I’ll tell them they can’t, because, according to them, I AM NOT A PERSON. The fuckers will rue the day.
Through my red mist, I wonder why this makes me quite so angry. My heart is hammering in my chest and I want to throw things. A vague snatch of talk from the old days in Hampstead, when I used to sit with my sage and funny Jungian-Adlerian and draw comfort and wisdom from his words, comes back to me. He was talking about children and the fragile sense of self. He said something about how when children are ignored, not listened to, not counted, it is a little like dying, because the sense of existing in the world is so important to them. They need to be seen; they need to be heard. It can feel like a matter of life and death.
I am a woman steaming into middle age. The conventional wisdom is that women grow invisible after the age of forty. I’ve never found this to be true. I think you can be as visible as you believe yourself to me. When I went to Aintree, a cameraman from Betfred picked me out of a crowd of seventy thousand. He was asking people about AP McCoy, the incomparable champion who has bestrode the sport of National Hunt racing like a colossus for twenty years. I was enchanted to be asked and poured out a stream of words. He looked at me and smiled. ‘Was that scripted?’ he asked, in astonishment, as if I had been secretly writing my paean of praise for this very moment. I laughed. ‘No,’ I said. ‘I think about him a lot, that’s all.’
I am not invisible, but I do not conform to society’s rules. I confuse and baffle because I don’t want to get married and have children and I don’t do a regular job with an office and a National Insurance Number and a pension and nine-to-five hours. I have odd enthusiasms. I am a geek. This can make one sometimes feel a little like a non-person. If you don’t conform, you can get written out of the script. You don’t see very many other people just like you, or if you do, they are held up as the freak girls, the cautionary tales, the exceptions that prove the rule. My dear old dad did not even know there were any rules and he bequeathed that to me. Most of the time I don’t notice it so very much, as I merrily trundle on my own way, but sometimes I smash up against the blank walls of incomprehension.
Perhaps that chafes me more than I know. Perhaps it’s just that I work hard to live a decent life and be a decent person, even if I sometimes get grumpy and unreasonable and have the odd bitch and can never tackle that damn cupboard of doom, and now someone has come along and told me that was all for nothing. I try not to need external validation, although it’s a bit of a losing battle, but perhaps everyone needs their passport stamped from time to time.
I want to shout, like John Hurt in The Elephant Man: I am a human being.
But sod it, I’m really just a number, and a number that does not appear on the government database. My red duchess will raise an aristocratic eyebrow when she hears that.
The blinky duchess and the manly Stanley:
Stan the Man and the red mare then had a lovely race up the set-aside to the top gate. She was running because the Paint filly had gone ahead without a permission slip and the duchess was clearly afraid she would eat all the breakfast, and Stanley was running to inspect the tunnel he has dug under the feed shed in his constant quest for rats:
HorseBack UK, where I did not work this morning because I do not exist:
Well, that’s better. Thank you for letting me get that off my chest. Obviously you won’t be reading this because I cannot have written it, but in the parallel universe where someone who looks remarkably like me is typing at seventy words a minute, I wish you a very happy weekend.
Thursday, 23 April 2015
Everyone says, looking at the sky, British stoicism in their voices: ‘The snow is coming.’ It’s hard to believe as I stand in the warm field with my dozy mare. The sun on her back has sent her into a dream of pleasure and everything about her is soft and relaxed. All is good in her world.
I run up to HorseBack to do my work there. One of the lovely things it has taught me is not to be afraid of people with damaged bodies. I used to have an embarrassed terror of what I once called disability. I didn’t know where to look or how to act. I tried so hard to be normal that I fell into a high-voiced phoniness, overcompensating to beat the band. Now I’m so used to it that I genuinely don’t notice it. The prosthetic is registered, and after that I just see the person. There is no voice in my head shouting, at crazed Basil Fawlty pitch: ‘FOR GOD’S SAKE, DON’T MENTION THE LEG.’
Volunteering for a charity can sound terribly pious and po-faced. Oh, oh, look at me, doing good. In fact, I think it’s one of the most selfish things I’ve ever done. I do get the gift of feeling I’m putting some tiny thing into the world, but the gift is much, much more than that. My mind, which I had not even realised was closed, has been cranked wide open. I have listened to stories and heard perspectives and seen attitudes which I would never have known otherwise. I may now converse with any human missing any part of the anatomy without falling into a sinkhole of terror that I shall say the wrong thing. These people turned me authentic where I was once artificial. That is one of the greatest presents you can give to a human being.
I think a lot about language. Language is one of my great loves, my enduring delights. I never lose my awe and wonder at what words can do. They are worm-holers, time-travellers, scene-setters. Tiny black scratches on a page can take you to 19th century Russia or 25th century Mars. They may transport the reader into other minds and other worlds. Those scratches may cause water to come out of human eyes, or provoke laughter to make the stomach ache. They can enlighten, soothe, galvanise, reassure. The act of writing itself can release anger, cure angst, calm a harried mind. Write it down, write it down, sing my better angels. These little words I play with every day make a record of my love for my dear red mare, so that when she is only a memory I shall still have her with me. She will always exist, in the language of Shakespeare and Milton.
Because of going to HorseBack every week, I don’t use the word disability. It’s not out of some mealy-mouthed political correctness. It’s because I have come to realise that it is not the right word. Language matters. These men and women are the least disabled people I have ever met. They might have been blown to smithereens by roadside bombs, but they can still climb Ben Nevis in the rain and the murk. They work with horses and make unrepeatable jokes and carry themselves with no trace of self-pity. They do bear scars in their bodies and in their minds which mean that they may struggle with things which other people might take for granted. Just because I do not focus on their wounds does not mean that I do not appreciate the challenges they face. But disability is not the word. I prefer to describe the thing as it is. There is a limb missing; the fingers are gone; the Post-Traumatic Stress includes hyper-vigilance and agoraphobia. I don’t think that one word, that single label, is insulting or demeaning or belittling; it just doesn’t tell the thing like it is. The choice is my own, and it means something to me. It’s a decision, not a judgement.
Oddly enough, as I was writing this the telephone rang. It was a nice man called Pete from Action Aid. Apparently I have been supporting Action Aid for twenty-two years. Pete, who sounded as if he was not born when I set up my first direct debit, had amazement in his voice. (I had a rueful moment of thinking the astonishment was that anyone could be that old.)
I remember the impulse as if it were yesterday. All my life, I have carried the hum of First World guilt in my ears. I shall never quite understand why I had the luck to be born in a liberal democracy with running water and a temperate climate and a roof over my head. In a shameless manner, I thought that if I whacked some money each month to a good cause then I might ease that guilt. It was not the most salutary reason in the world, but, anyway, Pete seemed pleased.
He was ringing to tell me about disaster prevention and told me of a family in Vietman who had spent three days on the roof of their house as the flood waters rose. Could I spare another two pounds a month so that they could have an early warning system? Yes, I could. How can I say no to two pounds when I am about to shell out fifty times that for some hay for my horse?
HorseBack, however, has nothing to do with assuaging guilt. There is no consciousness of others not having the fortune I have. It’s part of my life. It’s hard work. Far from feeling saintly, I sometimes get scratchy and manic and even grumpy about the demands on my time, even though it’s entirely my own choice to do it. It’s an eye-opener, a mind-expander, a weekly perspective police. I don’t feel like a good person when I am there; I am far too busy being interested and laughing my head off and listening to things I should never hear anywhere else. I canter about and make bad jokes (‘Are we playing innuendo bingo?’ I hollered, at one point this morning) and frown as I try to get a good angle with the camera and give my favourite horses a good scratch and catch up with the returning veterans.
I suppose I sometimes feel useful, part of something bigger than my own small self, but mostly I feel galvanised. There is a reason that people say there is a paradox in volunteering. The paradox is this: the more you give, the more you get. It’s that damn simple. And I love it.
HorseBack UK course, this morning. All these veterans have gone through life-changing injury, physical and mental. They have seen things no human eye should see. Until they came here, most of them had never even met a horse. And here they are:
At one point, I started faffing around with angles, trying to get arty. These pictures are not technical successes, because the focus is all wrong, but I rather love them anyway:
Back in her quiet, sunny field, the duchess is enjoying her Thunderbrook’s. This is a top-quality feed which I have shipped in at vast expense, by couriers who believe I live in the Highlands, however often I tell them I don’t, so that they can charge me an extra premium. I don’t care. Only the best is good enough for the red mare:
The peace is coming off her in waves. She is my own little Zen mistress and she was at her most Zennish today:
Meanwhile, Stan the Man is HUNTING. Again, not the best picture I ever took but I like it because you can see the determination. He is a very busy dog. Some days, he can’t even stop to say hello because he has jobs to finish:
Wednesday, 22 April 2015
In a book whose name I cannot recall, Miss Marple puts her wise old head on one side and says: ‘When you get ground elder really badly in a border, there is nothing to do but dig the whole thing up and start again.’
She was using ground elder as a metaphor for some kind of fiendish crime of course, but I have always worried about literal ground elder. My dear little garden is plagued by it, and I am too much of an old hippy to allow it to be sprayed. I once had to stop a tall gentleman with a fanatical gleam in his eye from dousing it with Agent Orange. (I didn’t even know that was legal.) He had the hazmat suit on and everything. ‘No, no,’ I cried, hanging on his arm like a 19th century damsel. I practically added: ‘Pray, sir, do not,’ in swooning accents.
So, every year, I pull out the mean little elders with my bare hands. I never win the battle, but my battalions keep marching on.
This morning, I saw to my horror that the things had gone crazy. Spring-time ground elders every damn where. I fell to my knees and started digging them up with my fingers. Stanley the Dog thought it a very poor sort of a game.
I uncovered some enchanting little vincas and some tiny box plants and rescued a lovely peony from despair. I am not digging up my bed and starting again. I’m going to go on battling.
I thought, as I crouched low with determination, my hands in the good Scottish earth, that I have ground elder of the mind. I don’t think I can ever dig up that mental bed up and start again. I think I have to keep pulling the stuff up by the roots, every day.
I think it is a lot to do with people leaving. My dad left, when I was seven, and I think that is one of the defining features of my life. I adored my father, and I missed him. He came to see us and I went to stay with him, but it was not the same. I missed him then and I miss him still.
Even though my rational mind knows that all humans are different individuals, with different lives and different thoughts and different loves, I have a magical part of my brain which really does suspect that everyone is just like me. (You can see this as horrid narcissism, or being a hopeful citizen of the world. I can’t decide.) I think that somewhere in the most nutty corridor of my mind I sort of believe that everyone has a red mare and is a politics geek and knows by heart the poems of Yeats. I don’t refine on my father leaving, because that part of me secretly believes that all fathers go. But they really don’t. Lots and lots and lots of fathers stay. Of course, some are dead bores and some are workaholics and some are emotionally absent, but some are not. They are there, at the breakfast table, entwined in their children’s lives. They know the small things, they get the private jokes, they understand the heartaches.
I believe in stoicism, and I’m not going to make a three-act opera of something that happened forty years ago. But it did happen, and I think one must mark it. The ground elder that springs from that leaving has to be pulled up, or it will choke the whole. It’s not a sorrow or a pity, so much, it’s just a thing. It is there. The beloved was beloved, and then he was gone.
That’s my thought for the day. It’s about balance, I think. I think one has to acknowledge the griefs of life, the ones that leave little scars and tics and scratches in the mind. One not need be defined by them, or sunk by them, or unhinged by them, but one must know they are there. And then, you just pull the buggers up, one by one.
Or something like that.
The little Paint filly and Stanley the Manly this morning. Stan is helpfully eating up all the hoof parings from the farrier’s recent visit. They are like gourmet treats for him:
The duchess stopped doing her donkey ears for three minutes and put on her show pony face. I’d put my camera onto a new setting by mistake, so she’s come out rather more amber than usual, and I quite like the effect. It’s got an old school feeling to it:
And the same again here. It’s like we’ve gone back to 1962:
Tuesday, 21 April 2015
Even though I indulge myself too often in endless horse stories, I am aware that not all the Dear Readers are quite as entranced by the red mare as I am. (Nobody could be as entranced by the red mare as I am.) So I am starting a small experiment. I’m giving her her very own Facebook page, where I can bang on to my heart’s content, secure in the knowledge that the audience will be kindly self-selecting.
She is so precious to me, and the work she does makes me so proud, and the lessons she teaches me are so profound that I have wanted always to keep a record of her. I am keenly aware that she will not always be with me. I hope to keep her into a delightful old age, but any sudden colic, random field accident or unexpected illness could rip her from me, at any time. Everyone who keeps horses knows that if you have livestock, you will also have deadstock. I try to take a leaf from the equine book, and be flinty and unsentimental about this. Horses deal with life and death much better than do humans. But of course, when she goes, I shall be undone. That is when I shall need to take down this book, and slowly read. I shall want to remember her moments of glad grace.
I start to think that the correct place for this is not here. I cannot banish her from these pages entirely, as she runs through my life and my heart like Brighton through a stick of rock. She is stitched into my very being. She makes me a better human and causes the wings of my better angels to flap. But when I need to elaborate on some training exercise, or wax madly on a moment of love, or gallop off on a tangent about the life lessons my red professor teaches me, I can now put all that into a discrete chapter.
I quite often start experiments like this and do not maintain them. It’s one more thing to do in a busy life, and eventually I decide that there is not enough time and thought and space. It may take. We shall see. But if you want to find her, she is, for the time being, here: https://www.facebook.com/RedTheMare?fref=photo
I’ve been a bit stuck for the last week and today, as the sun shone and dazzled and danced over this green land, I found myself released.
I like to think I have a faint graps on The Human Condition. I once had an awfully good shrink. I’ve read a bit of Jung and Adler and the very brilliant Dorothy Rowe. I try to practice sense and sanity each day as I would practice arpeggios. I have that red mare, my best professor, who teaches me valuable life lessons every single day.
And yet, there are the elephant traps, and there am I, falling into them.
The stuckness was to do with difficult emotions and a big family change and, humming away in the background, fretfulness over the manuscript which is still with the agent, still awaiting its marks out of ten, still not yet grown-up enough to be sold into the world as a book.
It manifested as a series of odd refusals. I would not follow the election campaign, even though I am a politics geek. I would not cook nice food, even though I love cooking and am quite good at it, but existed on ham sandwiches and quite often skipped lunch altogether. I would certainly not tidy the house or keep my office looking professional. I would not reply to that urgent email or this vital telephone message.
I was doing the bare minimum, and I hate doing the minimum.
Then, something shifted, and I was off to the races again. It’s more of a relief than I like to admit. There are still frets and scratches and murmuring worries in my mind, but I glimpse a small patch of normality. Today, I did my HorseBack work and had a long conversation with my friend The Marine. I went back to the other book I am writing, and set out on the sixth draft. Once that is done, I can send that one off too, and see if someone might like to buy it. I edited forty good pages and felt quite pleased. I had a glorious ride and did some useful work on the ground with the red mare and watched her learn something new, and teach me something new, because she teaches me every day. Tonight, I shall cook something proper for my supper. Tidying the office may still have to wait for another day, but now there is movement where there was paralysis and that feels like one great leap forward.
This was the smiling face that greeted me as I arrived at HorseBack this morning. He is one of our regular veterans, and it’s always lovely to see him back with us, and to watch him reunite with dear Rodney, his old mucker:
Not my best pictures ever, because I’ve cut off her ears and there is a car tyre in the background. But you can see the dearness and the softness, and that’s all I care about:
Friday, 17 April 2015
It’s been a long and odd week. I’ve been rather grumpy and scratchy, only finding moments of calm and bliss when I’m with the red mare, who made it her business to be at her most charming and enchanting and antic and interesting and clever on every single sunny morning. I can’t take any emotional nonsense down to her, so the hours I spend with her are like daily meditation.
All the same, I knew something was going on, but I was not sure what. It’s tiredness and anti-climax, I thought, vaguely. I was at full stretch at Aintree last week, physically and emotionally, involved in the HorseBack work which meant so much to us all. I’d been travelling, which always exhausts me. I’ve got a lot of work to do and am still waiting for the agent to get back to me. I need to get this damn book sold. When I found myself weeping at the thought of AP McCoy retiring, because I’m going to miss The Champ so much, I suspected that there was a little glitch in my emotional wiring. But you know, it’s just life, and all its demands.
This morning, an old friend called. She’s one of those ones who has been there for over twenty years. We have so much shared history and old jokes and mutual affection and understanding. We exclaimed and bantered and shouted with laughter.
And then, she told me exactly what it was that was going on. I’d hardly said two sentences when she cut at once to the heart of the matter. ‘Oh,’ I said, amazed, ‘of course that is what it is.’ She then teased me about it for five minutes whilst I actually slapped the walls with hilarity and merriment. And relief, too. At last, I knew, and knowledge is power.
The mare has done glorious things this week. I’ve asked her many more questions than I usually ask, and although she has expressed moments of doubt and astonishment, once she realised that I was serious and steady she gave the good answers. We’ve found the most lovely trot, and she is learning to bend her body and drop her head and go from left to right like a dressage diva. But, oddly enough, the thing of which I am most proud is her newly intrepid spirit.
We start each ride with an offering. I give her the reins and ask where she would like to go. She has the whole set-aside to play in, and generally she describes a known circuit, from the feed shed to the top gate to the bottom gate to the far paddock and back again. About a month ago, she delighted me by striking out to the scary woods, where the treeline starts and shadows and rough ground are found.
Today, she went to the even more scary woods, which run to the south and go up a sharp hill. When she first arrived and I took her there, she wigged out entirely, rearing and reversing downhill like a crazy horse. I didn’t blame her. The trees are thick and the shadows deep and the going treacherous and I won’t walk far into those woods myself, for all my rational cast of mind, because who knows what sprites are hiding in the dark.
To get to that place where Here Be Dragons, she had to walk all the way around the main paddock railings, along a fairly narrow path, taking two sharp right-hand turns. It’s not an obvious route. And the really funny thing was that I was on the telephone at the time. (Children, do not try this at home. It’s very, very naughty and I should not do it.) Because I was chatting away and had no hand on the rein, I did not really realise where we were until I suddenly looked up and found that we were about to fall off the edge of the world.
As I did so, I heard the sound of rattling hooves. The little Paint filly, obviously believing that we were about to strike off into the unknown and leave her alone, was remembering her barrel racing ancestry and was charging down the field at full gallop.
‘Hold on,’ I said to the person on the telephone, ‘it’s all kicking off here. I had better concentrate.’
It’s spring, and I was out in a strange part of the field, and the red mare’s friend was going loco. That should have been a light the touchpaper and then retire moment. I fully expected the mare to want to gallop too. Instead, she regarded her charge with tolerant eyes, and did not move a muscle. I put my hands on the reins, certain an explosion would come. Nothing happened. The Paint, as if also expecting at least some reaction, and quite miffed that her glorious display produced no more than a sceptical eyebrow, did a perfect sliding stop in front of us and then put on a small rodeo display, as if she were in the Calgary Stampede. She wheeled, did twisting bronco leaps, bucked, snorted, and danced in a circle.
The red mare sighed.
‘Well,’ I said into the telephone. ‘I think we are all right.’
Then I turned the mare’s head towards home and walked back on the buckle.
I write all that because I want to illustrate how far she has come. That moment was far more impressive, in a way, than the delightful bending trot. But all the same, I have had a suspicion for some time that I have not quite got to the bottom of her. I think I’ve excavated about 90% of her, but there is a lurking 10% of old emotion, trapped feelings, subterranean worry, that lies at her core like black old silt. If I can dig that out and bring it into the light, then we shall be all glory.
They say that horses are the mirror of their humans. I think that I too have a layer of silt, difficult or shameful or stupid feelings which I don’t want to look at too closely. That is what has been going on this week. That was what my dazzling friend saw at once. She cast daylight on the mystery, and at once it had no more power to paralyse me.
This particular friend has faced things in the last two or three years which would have sunk a lesser woman. She has stared straight down the gun-barrel, unflinching. There is no frailty or self-pity in her voice. She is exactly the same as she always was: incisive, clever, idiosyncratic, funny, absolutely her own self. As we talk, and she makes me laugh so much that I can hardly breathe, I silently take all my hats off to her. I don’t say that. I wonder if she knows. For all that I pride myself on Saying the Thing, I am still British, and do irony and jokes better than earnest sincerity.
As we finish our conversation, she says, another teasing note in her bright voice, ‘Well, at least you have that horse.’
‘YES!!!!’ I bellow. ‘I have the horse.’
I have the old friends; I have Stan the Man; I have the red mare; I have this place, these hills. I have love and trees. I’ll be all right.
Far too much going on to take out the camera, so these are from the week:
You can see the start of the scary woods in the background. To the right, out of shot, is the place where they get really dense and alarming. That was where my brave girl went: