Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Stoicism is not enough.

Stoicism, it turns out, can only get you so far.

I think: did I know this, and forget it? Did wish-thinking take over, so that I dreamt up a luring fantasy that I could just stoic my way out of it? Or did I remember very well, but think I’d give it shot anyway?

I’m not giving up on stoicism. I love it. I do not like the things which stand in opposition to it. I do not like the weeping and wailing and look-at-me-ing. I do not admire grandstanding and drama queening and that nasty strain of competitive grief which is played so ruthlessly by the narcissist. I do not like ululation and holding up the bleeding hands and the playing of the victim.

Everybody has sorrow. Everybody’s heart breaks. Everybody loses someone they love.

There are two voices in my head. (Who am I fooling? There are twenty-seven voices in my head. Sometimes it gets very crowded in there.) But these two voices are speaking the loudest, just now, and they are both saying the same thing.

One says: your mum died. This is the voice which understands well that is an ocean of loss, a great, unmapped expanse of water, almost impossible to navigate. That voice knows that the rogue waves will leave me storm-tossed, and hurl me, breathless and hopeless, to the beach, only to suck me out to sea again. This voice says there is no point trying to fight it or neaten it or pretend that it’s only an ordinary thing which happens to everyone. It does happen to everyone, but at the moment it is happening to me. This voice says, kindly, gently, that I must keep sailing on until that great tempest blows itself out.

The other voice says: your mum died. No need to make a fuss, says that voice, a steely note in it. (This is the same voice that says, when I dress up for a party, well, no-one is going to be looking at you.) Get on, says that voice, and for God’s sake don’t be a bore. Sing another song boys, says this voice, who has been listening to Leonard Cohen, this one has grown old and bitter. This voice is quite useful, in a way. It is the voice which gets me to HorseBack to do my work there, and gets me out to the field to check the water trough and put out the hay, and drives me to make breakfast every morning for my dear stepfather and make bright conversation about world events to cheer him up and keep his mind off it. (As if I could keep his mind off it.)

Another wiser, saner voice speaks now. That voice says: they are both right, and you have to find the balance between the two. Find the balance. Stoicism is not enough, although it can be good and useful and keep one existing in the world. The wild stormy griefs must be let out, from time to time. Probably best if one does that in a nice, quiet, private place, so as not to startle the horses, but they must be given their moment.

Let it out, keep it in. It’s like a push-me-pull-you. Wallowing is no good; self-indulgence is no good; but the thing is real and true and must be felt. Find the balance.

I write all this because I burst into tears in front of the poor stepfather this morning. For all that I believe my job is to cheer him up and be my best self for him, I could not help it. Out they came, the streaming tears. Then I put on my ridiculous hat and made a joke about it. ‘No wonder I am crying,’ I said, a bit watery, ‘when I have a hat like this. It is a truly tragic hat. But it does keep the rain off.’

(I feel there is a life lesson in this, although I can’t quite put my finger on it. It really is a tragic hat, but it really does keep the rain off.)

And we laughed, and I went home to do my work, and said that I would see him in the morning.


Today’s pictures:

The rain stopped this morning, and the sun shone, and my sweet girls went out into the set-aside to have a little graze. They are so happy and so muddy and so woolly and so absolutely themselves, rooted in this good Scottish earth, shimmering with goodness and authenticity. They are my best consolation, because they are so beautiful and true:

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Saturday, 21 November 2015

Memories of Kauto.

The sun is shining and I’m determined to mine the beauty and the joy out of this day. I spent time with my sweet mares, drove round the Scottish hills to look at the snow, went to see the dear Stepfather, and then ran home to watch the racing. Many of my old friends are out today, and my heart is beating with love.

Four years ago today, I watched Kauto Star line up for the Betfair Chase. I was with the Beloved Cousin and her small children and my dear old dog, known on this blog as The Pigeon. The consensus on the day was that Kauto’s glory days were behind him. Some people were even quite cross that Paul Nicholls was running him.

I wrote about that day, and I’m reproducing it here because my memories of the bold and beautiful Kauto Star will never die. I’m thinking a lot about the people who are not here any more; that glorious horse is not here any more. I hope they are all running their race on some celestial track, with the emerald turf springy under their feet.

The story of a great race:

(There was a rather long introduction about having chard from the garden for lunch, and about my love for Master Minded, who was also running. Only then did I get to the main action, which is why the start sounds slightly abrupt.)

Kauto Star is eleven, which is old in racing years. Not geriatric, but a sure veteran. The young pretender, Long Run, had come last season and taken the Gold Cup. Worst of all, he had usurped Kauto Star’s crown in the race he had made his own, the King George at Kempton. Bear in mind Kauto is the only horse in history who had won that race four years in a row, the last time by over 30 lengths, against some of the best chasers in the country.

He is the mightiest and most beloved champion since Desert Orchid: first horse ever to win a Gold Cup, lose a Gold Cup, and come back to regain it; the first horse ever to win fourteen group one races. There was a time when he seemed almost unbeatable. In his early days, he used to put in terrifying mistakes, quite often over the last fence when it seemed as if he had everything sewn up; in his later years, he could put in exhibition rounds, making such mighty leaps that it seemed as if he had wings.

The thought was, though, that his great days were all behind him. People were muttering about retirement. Today, he was facing three tough miles, up against much younger horses, at least four of whom had big wins under their belts. He might fall, be pulled up, get tailed off; the talk was that if he did not run well today, he would be retired on the spot, and that is the last we would all see of him.

I’ll give my hero another chance, I thought. I’ll just put on a little twenty, I thought, mostly out of love. I was not sure he could do it. Long Run is a very, very good horse. I was acting on sentiment. Then I got a bit more forensic. Paul Nicholls had trained Kauto to the minute for this race; Long Run would be being saved for later in the season, and often does not run well first time out. I’ve always thought there is a little question mark over his jumping; he can go a bit flat and careless when the pressure is on.

I examined the form. There were definite drawbacks over another of the two main dangers. Damn it, I thought; this really could be Kauto’s moment. Five minutes before the race, I put on another twenty. Sod them all, I thought: my boy is not done yet.

I explained some of all this to the children. They got very excited. They watched the quick replays of his earlier triumphs that Channel Four was showing, and decided they loved him.

‘Come on Kauto,’ they said.

Off the horses went. Kauto Star was jumping very well, but almost stupidly well, standing off outside the wings. I was worried he would take too much out of himself.

The lovely Ruby Walsh, his regular jockey, took him to the lead, and kept him there. He can’t stay in front for three miles, I thought, not at his age. But he kept pinging his fences and was bowling along as if he did not have a care in the world. Ruby was so relaxed half the time he seemed to be riding with just one hand. It was delightful to see the two old pros in such perfect tune with each other.

‘Maybe he can do it,’ I said.

‘Come on, Kauto,’ cried the children.

‘No,’ I said. ‘He can’t do it. It’s too much to ask.’

But Long Run was making mistakes, and running a little ragged. Kauto was collected and foot perfect. He’ll fade, I thought. The younger fellas will come and pick him up.

Into the last four fences. I was on my feet. ‘Come on my son,’ I shouted.

‘Come on, Kauto,’ yelled the children.

The Pigeon was also on her feet, barking her head off, which is what she always does when I shout at the racing.

Three out. Kauto Star still in the lead, against all the odds. At this stage, I actually jumped onto an armchair and was bawling my head off. ‘Come on, you beauty,’ I yelled.

The Pigeon was jumping up and down on all fours.

‘Come on, come on,’ shouted the children.

The younger horses were gathering themselves for their final effort. Ruby still had not asked Kauto the question. ‘Oh, just steady,’ I shouted. ‘Just stand up.’

The great Ruby Walsh kept the old horse balanced and straight and steady, using only hands and heels, preserving all his energy for the final push. Everyone else was scrubbing away. I suddenly thought the mighty champion could do it.

Over the last, everything else faded away. Kauto was tired, but he’s not only a once in a generation talent, he’s got enormous courage. He does not give up. He just went on galloping to the line, brave and true, seven lengths in front.

The crowd went nuts. Paul Nicholls jumped in the air for joy. Ruby Walsh fell on the horse’s neck, hugging him. I was shouting and crying. The children were yelling yes, yes. The Beloved Cousin looked at me in amazement. ‘He looks as if he could go round again,’ she said.

The King was back in his castle. He walked back to the winning enclosure, his ears pricked, his head held high. The crowd gave him three cheers, twice. No one could quite believe it. It was one of the best things I ever saw in racing.

So, it went from an ordinary day to an extraordinary win from a most remarkable horse. I wish my dad had been here to see it.


Today’s pictures:

My own little shining star:

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Stanley the very Manly:

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Friday, 20 November 2015

Jane Austen and thoroughbreds.

This morning, the Stepfather and I, for the first time, carefully, delicately, tentatively, spoke about the nature of our grief. We obviously can’t come at it head on, because we are far too reticent for that. We are pretending normality, stepping very, very carefully. The main thing is that we must not make a fuss and frighten the horses.

‘It’s like a weight,’ he said. ‘An ache.’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Always there.’

‘And then,’ he said ‘there are moments when I forget and it seems like nothing has happened and then I remember.’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Just for a moment I think: oh, I must tell Mum that.’

Such bald little sentences; such a wealth of meaning.

My job, as I see it, is to go in every morning and make the eggs and lift his spirits, if I can. We both adore talking about international and domestic politics. We have discussed the buggery out of the soi-disant ISIS in the last few days. We do not confront the ghost in the room head first because we both know it is there and we are both hanging on and we don’t want to cry at the breakfast table.

‘Time,’ I said. ‘That is the only thing that works.’

Then we talked about Jane Austen for quite a long time and I made a little attempt at humour and he showed me a beautiful collection of her novels, bound in ravishing leather, and said he thought perhaps he should read one. (He collects books and makes jokes about never actually reading them.) ‘Which one should I choose?’ he said.

‘Oh,’ I said. ‘Well, Persuasion is my secret favourite, but for the full glory I would go for Pride and Prejudice. It’s so funny. It will cheer you.’

I opened the book. I must have read that first chapter ten times. I read it again, and there in the kitchen, with its great absence, I laughed out loud.

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Pride and Prejudice. That will make you smile.’

Jane Austen never went anywhere and didn’t really meet many people and wrote in secret in the corner of a little room, hiding her work whenever anyone came in. Two hundred years later, a rather distrait middle-aged woman is recommending her work as a tonic for grief. That is immortality for you.

Later, someone else said: ‘You have to find a place to put them. You should be sad. Imagine if someone you loved died and you were not sad.’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘It would be awful. I’m running at this thing, full blast. Sometimes I think, oh I wish it would stop, but I know I have to run into the storm. Otherwise it gets you later in awful twisted ways.’

In the field, I work the horses before the weather closes in. My new little mare, who has such kindness and sweetness, is still a mystery to me in many ways. I know exactly what my old red mare would think in any given situation, as much as a human can know. I understand her every look and her every twitch of the ear and her every shift of the body. We are old old compadres. With this new one, I’m still learning her and trying to read her and getting to understand her.

I was so cross and sad when I went down to the field this morning I did not want to work her, but then I felt that I should, so I made myself. She was bright and willing and clever and I felt ordinary human feelings, like interest and pride and concentration and affection and dedication, flow back into me. ‘Look what you did,’ I told her afterwards, running my hands over her sweet teddy-bear coat. (She is as furry as an Exmoor pony, all ready for the snow that is coming tonight.) I meant not just the cleverness of the work, but the miracle of her restorative powers.

I’ve been reading about Elizabeth I, but, inspired by my stepfather’s Austen collection, I’m going back to Emma today, for the eighth time. A nineteenth century novelist and two mighty thoroughbred mares, I think, these are my tonics. I was thinking I might go back and look at the classic books on grief, as if I were taking a course. I wonder if any of those books mention Jane Austen and ex-racehorses. I suspect not. They are the headline acts; they would be in my first chapter; they are my life-rafts on a stormy sea.


Today’s pictures:

Far too dreich for the camera today. Here are some photographs of the sunshine instead:

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Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Good parts, bad parts. Or stoicism and loss.

I’m back in the missing stage, today. Yesterday I was in the stripped of my skin stage. The day before I was in the baffled, hit a brick wall stage. Today, all I can think is: I miss you. Oh, I miss you.

It was every day, you see. I saw my mother ever day. That’s part of the problem. It’s the good part and the bad part. The good part is that we saw each other each morning as I went in to make the breakfast. On Saturdays, I collected her Racing Post from the shop and delivered it and stayed to talk about the day’s runners. (‘Oh, Ruby,’ she would say, a wistful, maternal note in her voice, as if these were not tough men at the top of their profession. ‘Oh, AP.’) On Sundays, we all had a lie-in and I would just get a telephone call if Hurricane Fly or Annie Power had done something marvellous at Punchestown.

That’s all good part. The bad part is that this means there is a vast daily rupture; a daily absence; a daily reminder. The lovely Stepfather and I eat our eggs and doggedly talk of the news. We speak of Paris and fundamentalism and tolerance and intolerance and the lessons of history, and we pretend that there is not a great, gaping hole in the house. We do a lot of speaking. The one thing we do not say is: ‘Oh, how we miss her.’

I write about my mother and father as if they were paragons. They were not. They were as complex and flawed as all human beings. They were both dazzlingly brilliant parents and occasionally absolutely useless parents. There were times when they drove me mad, and times when I drove them mad, mostly through my shocking stubbornness.

But the interesting thing about death (at least, it is fascinating to me) is that almost at the very moment of passing from the mortal realm to whatever lies beyond all those flaws and frailties and maddening bits are burnt away, as if in some grand Phoenix-like fire. And from the ashes rise all the glorious parts, the good bits, the moments of glad grace, the idiosyncratic talents, the laughter, the kindness, the sheer otherness. (They were both quite unusual, in their different ways. I only realise this when I tell someone a story which I think perfectly normal, and see the arched eyebrows and look of astonishment.)

I like that part. I like remembering them in their glory days; I carry their very finest selves with me, locked into my heart.

I got used to being without my father. It took about two years. I still think of him every day and sometimes miss him so much that I can’t breathe, but mostly I think of him with a great, spreading fondness and keen pride and a lot of wry laughter. I’ll get used to this too, although I think it’s going to be harder and longer, because of the every day aspect. A huge chunk of the cliff of my life has crumbled into the sea and I have to make a new path.

The Stepfather, who is a gentleman of the old school, as my brother said at the wake ‘the greatest gentleman in Britain’, said a very kind thing yesterday. We were talking about stoicism. Mum had it; he has it; it is one of the virtues that is still stitched into the culture of this dear old island race. I admire it more and more as I get older. ‘I think you are very stoical,’ he said, nodding his wise head.

I felt as if someone had given me a medal. When I was young, I wanted to be charming, brilliant, eccentric, talented. I wanted glittering prizes. Now, I want to be steady and stoical.

It doesn’t mean that emotions are not felt, or honoured, but that one does not make a three act opera of them. One may stare them in the whites of their eyes, but not wallow in them. It’s a very, very fine line to walk. Sometimes I feel that even writing this is a bit of a tap dance. Look at me, with my grieving. On the other hand, sorrow must have words, and this is as good a place to put them as any. I put them here, and people may read them and understand them, or they may pass on, and I don’t have to bore poor real-world humans and frighten the horses in the street.

Also, I want to remember. When the missing stage has faded, shrunk back to its proper place, become gentled with time, I shall take down this book and slowly read. I find it curiously soothing to know that it shall all be there, waiting for me.


Today’s pictures:

The remarkable thing is that the one place I don’t have to be at all stoical is down in my enchanted field. The mares are so funny, affectionate, clever and beautiful, so authentic and present and real, so honest and absolutely themselves, that merely standing next to them banishes all sorrow. It is really quite odd. It’s my daily rest, my morning holiday from wearing emotion. I can’t quite work out what it is - their sheer loveliness, the purity of them, their own complete lack of sentimentality, their faintly flinty life must go on aspect. Or perhaps all of those things. Whatever it is, I am more grateful for it than I can say.

It’s gloomy today, so these pictures are from a couple of days ago, when it was sunny:

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Saturday, 14 November 2015


I laughed. I cried. I absolutely refused to wear black. I wore a mad dress covered in butterflies, and my mother’s pearls.

There was a lot of loveliness, a lot of sweetness, a lot of love and a lot of sadness.

My stepfather gave a speech so heartfelt it left the room silent. My brother gave a speech so funny and dazzling and brilliant that it left the room rocking with laughter and remembrance. My sister ran through the speech with him after breakfast, and gave him the tune to sing it with.

I made about eighty-seven cheese puffs, and they ate them all.

All the people who had looked after her in her later years were there. They gave her so much.

One very kind woman said: ‘I wish I had known your mother before she was ill.’

‘Oh,’ I said, ‘she was so beautiful. She looked like Grace Kelly. She was tiny, but she was tough. She used to ride out my father’s great big steeplechasers, the huge horses who came over from Ireland. She could not hold one side of them, but she rode them. Seventeen hands and feet like soup plates, she used to say.’

A thoughtful gentleman said: ‘I have had a lot of bereavements. I don’t think they are gone. I think they are in the next room.’

Then he laughed. Because we are British, and we must laugh at wakes. ‘I’m not sure that is strictly true,’ he said.

‘Well,’ I said. ‘It’s a lovely idea.’

There was a pause. I wondered whether I should say what I wanted to say. It might be too solemn. I said it anyway. ‘I think,’ I said, ‘they are in the wind, in the hills, in the woods.’

He nodded.

That was the end of that conversation. He looked around. I think perhaps he wondered whether there was another cheese puff.

The children ran around. The youngest of the great-nieces was wearing a coat which my mother bought for my sister from The White House in 1960. It was put away in tissue paper until I was old enough to wear it. Somehow, it has survived, elegant and pristine, and now it has gone through the great-nieces until it found the littlest one, who wears it with an air.

I played hide and seek with the great-nephew, who was alarmingly good at the game and wished it could have gone on all day.

The children were asked this morning where they thought Granny M had gone. ‘Heaven,’ they chorused, dutifully. Then with a look of mischief, and also in chorus: ‘Where she gets to do exactly what she wants.’

We sent her off well. We remembered her well. We raised a glass and laughed a laugh. I am very sad, and very happy. And very tired.


Today’s pictures:

This shot is of the older brother, the sister and me, after the wake. The younger brother is not in the photograph because he lives in Bali, where, apparently, he has been making special whale sounds in honour of Mum. (Don’t ask. Really. We don’t. But the old lady would be laughing her head off at the thought of it.)

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Oh, and I can’t resist this picture too. It is of me and my mother, very soon after I was born. All our photographs were burnt in a fire when I was fifteen. (Everything went: books, furniture, pictures, all the memories and mementoes of childhood.) Somehow, this photograph survived, and a few years ago I had it framed and gave it to Mum. She hung it by her bed, and this is where I photographed it this morning, before the people came.

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Friday, 13 November 2015

Horses and flowers.

Got the horses all rugged up yesterday for Storm Abigail, and then came down this morning to find this enchanting scene – sunshine and happy faces:

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(We were very lucky with the storm. It roared in from the west, glanced at us for a moment, and then veered quickly north, to go and do its mischief in Orkney and Shetland. Poor things; they got the brunt of it.)

Then did the flowers for my mother’s wake. We are calling it a gathering, because wake is too gloomy. I’ve also cooked about eighty-seven cheese bloody puffs, along with salmon mousse, yellow pepper soup (to be had in shot glasses), smoked mackerel pâté, a spicy tomato salsa, and some feta cheese thing which will go on little rounds of baguette toast. I’m quite tired. But the flowers came out beautifully, and I’m pleased about that:

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I keep meaning to say thank you thank you thank you, to all the Dear Readers who have left such enchanting messages. So many of you have visited this foreign country, and your words of generosity and understanding fly through the ether to lift my battered heart. The heart is very, very bashed. But it’s going to be sunny tomorrow, and we shall remember the old lady well, and on on on I bugger, because the only thing to do is to keep buggering on. It is the greatest catchphrase of this funny old island race, and I cling to it like a drowning woman in a stormy sea.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Cheese puffs.

I have just made some cheese puffs. I have no idea why. I have never made a cheese puff in my life.

I am practising for my mother’s wake, which is on Saturday. I am in charge of the food. I am doing some old favourites which I can cook in my sleep, but I suddenly wanted something a bit different. So I got the puff pastry and played around with it and filled it with cheese and rolled it and rolled it and cut out little disks using an Edwardian sherry glass (exactly the right size for the puff, it turns out) and presto! – a cheese puff.

I have no concept of why I suddenly decided these would be the very thing for my mother. She never made them when we were little. They were not a tea-time favourite or a Saturday treat. We did not sit around in a pleading chorus, our eyes as yearning as those of Dickensian orphans, shouting: please, please, THE CHEESE PUFFS. I don’t think I’ve ever knowing eaten a cheese puff. I’m not sure I could have told you what they looked like. But that is what we are having.

I find the whole thing most surprising.

Riding and cooking, I think; those are the places where I am all right. In the field and in the kitchen. Do some people get very stout when they lose their mothers? Cooking, cooking, cooking, like a demented Italian mamma (do Italian mothers still think that food is the cure for all ills?), making soup and taking it round in pots so that the dear stepfather can keep up his strength, making something, some good offering.

He said this morning: ‘I still have my appetite. Is that wrong?’

I said: ‘It’s marvellous. You must eat, because it’s so bloody tiring. If we did not eat we would fall over.’

My step-aunt, whom I adore, has arrived, and we all have breakfast together, and it’s all hysterically British. We make little stabs at irony and talk about the news and generally carry on. The said is all in the unsaid. Occasionally, our eyes slide towards each other, acknowledging all the things that are tacit. (These are: it’s bloody awful; the house is so empty without her; everywhere you look there are heart-breaking little reminders.)

Then I stomp off to the field and there are my dear mares, as still and centred and peaceful as two little Zen mistresses, and I mix up their feed and give them their hay and do a little work with them and feel the heavy ache lift. They are both very affectionate by nature. Not all horses are. Some are like cats, and don’t care much for human stroking. These ladies are also getting into their furry stage for winter, despite their aristocratic bloodlines, so they are like two beloved teddy bears. I hug them and rub them and talk to them and they blink their liquid eyes at me and whicker down their velvety noses.

I suddenly thought this morning: this is like being in a foreign country. It’s as if I’ve gone abroad, to somewhere not very nice, where I can’t quite remember the idioms and am not certain of the food and can’t read the road signs. I have been to this doleful country before, but the memory is not sharp. So I drove along the river to anchor myself in my own country and look at my favourite hill and watch the water go by.

And then I went and did some more cooking.


Today’s pictures:

The river:

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The teddy bear:

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Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Sailing by.

Yesterday, my ship was sinking. We were taking on water, and no matter how hard I bailed, the poor battered old craft was wallowing in the heavy swell.

Today, we are sailing on again.

This is what I had forgotten. I have to take it day by day. One small step at a time, one foot in front of the other. If I look too far ahead, the great blank spaces overwhelm me.

The dear old Scottish weather helped. It has grown mild again and the sun has come out. It is not a dazzling sun, just a shy, gentle sort of light, exactly right. Stanley the Dog is dancing about, getting up to his tricks. The horses are calm and happy. My red mare gave me her finest canter this morning, so lovely and lilting and compose that my heart forgot its heaviness and lifted up to the sky. There, she seemed to be saying, that’s something for you. It was something indeed.

And so, the ship sails on.

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Tuesday, 10 November 2015


I now move into the vastness stage.

The vastness stage sounds like something from Glastonbury, the place where all the prog rockers go to strut their stuff.

In fact, it is the moment that I look at this thing and see the size of it. It is much, much bigger than I had suspected. I had a moment of terror last night, looking at the bigness. I thought of TS: ‘I shall show you fear in a handful of dust.’

It was not that I was in denial. I had looked reality hard in its basilisk eye. I understood very well the fact of death, the fact of absence, the space left behind. I knew all that.

But somewhere, in the back on my mind, a voice hummed from my practical self, from my Britishness, from the culture itself. The song this voice sang was very plain. It said: this happens to everyone. Everyone’s mother dies. I think I made a category error. I muddled up usual with small. It’s also to do with age. Eighty-one is a pretty good age. The great span was achieved; the race was run. There was none of that jarring tragedy of a person cut off in their prime. So there was a natural order to the thing.

It’s the paradox of death. It’s so normal. And yet, it is oceanic and odd and shocking and wrong. So, there was a moment when I looked onto the vast spaces, and felt fear.

I find it amazing that such a little person could leave such a great gap. She was tiny, like a little bird by the end.

That is what I am contemplating now. It came as a bit of a surprise. I have to stare at the vastness and accept it. I remember that I carry vastness inside me, since I, like all humans, am made of stardust. I love that fact and never cease to be astounded by it. A gentleman was talking about it on the World Service a couple of days ago. I like to think that humans came from stars and will, in a metaphorical way, go back to stars. The depth of the absence is like the depth of the universe. I go outside and look at the night sky and imagine all the Dear Departeds twinkling down on me. There’s quite a party, going on up there.

I don’t know where people go when they don’t exist in the world any more. For the moment, I’m going to put them in the sky. (Sometimes I give them to the hills; sometimes they live in the woods; sometimes they exist still for me in the wind.) Just now, they are stars, shining down from the infinite spaces. They are gentle and beautiful and merry, and a very, very long way away.


Today’s pictures:

I have no star pictures, so here is a hedge and a hill and a wall instead:

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Monday, 9 November 2015

A day off, a day on.

Yesterday, I decided I would take a day off from grief. I was going to have a happy day. I was perfectly prepared for failure (failure and I are old, old friends) but I thought it would be interesting to see whether through sheer force of will I could give my mind and body a rest.

The amazing thing was that it worked. Two of the great-nieces came to see the horses in the morning. There was a lot of sweetness and laughter. I worked the new mare on the ground and then walked in the rain with my sister and Stanley the Dog loped beside us. I saw the dear Stepfather and watched the racing. There was one little blip when the telephone went just after Bobs Worth won at Sandown. I thought for a second it was my mother. She always called when one of the horses she loved ran a huge race.

It was not her voice on the line. I won’t get that telephone call ever again.

Then I rallied and brushed myself up and put on a jewel and went out for dinner. I sat next to a gentleman I had never met before, a kind, intelligent man with an open face. We spoke of many things. Then he mentioned a name. The name was well known to me. It was the son of a man who once saved my father’s life. I said, quite calmly, ‘Well, you know, if it were not for your friend’s father, I would not exist.’

This sounds melodramatic, but it is true. On a drunken winter’s afternoon, in a house by the water’s edge, someone rashly bet that nobody could swim across the Thames. My father did not hesitate. He leapt into the icy water and made it to the other side. The fellow who made the bet bawled that it did not count unless Dad swam back again.

I looked at the kind gentleman. ‘Dad being Dad,’ I said, ‘he plunged back in and set off at once.’

Half way across, my father got cramp and started to sink. One man had the courage to swim across and rescue him. This man, whom I remember well, a smiling, sophisticated, charming fellow, was the parent of my dinner companion’s old friend. It was before I was born. So, without that brave swimmer, I would not be typing these words.

The dining companion seemed to take this on the chin. I quietly marvelled at the odd strands which can connect complete strangers. Then we changed the subject and talked of the financial crash. ‘Iceland,’ I said. ‘A whole country was wiped out. All those fishermen who became hedge fund managers.’

The most odd thing was that on the stroke of midnight, as if I were Cinderella, the melancholy returned. It had been waiting for me, in the wings. My experiment worked. I could take a day off. The force of will could be employed. But it was only a delaying tactic.

It’s good to have a rest. It’s good to know that one can find laughter and interest among the wreckage. The thing I understand most of all is that time will come along and do its thing. What time does is allow one to remember the Dear Departed with smiles instead of tears.

Tonight, I cooked my stepfather a lovely soup, an invention of my own which was a riff on Vichyssoise. (Cauliflower and watercress instead of leek.) We talked of many, many things. We spoke of Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford and Diana Cooper; we discussed Winston Churchill’s odd attitude to money; we talked of the Remembrance Day service and how the British do that kind of ceremony so very well. We did not talk of my mother. At the end, we looked at each other, and it was all there. We did not need the words. We are buggering on, and we do not make a three act opera of it.

Yesterday, I had a day off. Today, I had a day on. Sorrow and I are known companions, and grief walks beside me like an old hound. Yes, I say, I know you. There is no trick to it, no secret, no brilliant strategy. I think one has to let it in and not fight it.

Today, the nation stopped at eleven o’clock to remember all those massed ranks of the Dear Departed. I always watch that great ceremony at the Cenotaph, but this time I could not do it. I got on my fine red mare and walked her gently into the middle of our Scottish field and held my own private two minute’s silence. I heard the distant chimes of the church bells and bowed my head. She stood like a statue. I was never so glad in my life that I taught her to be still.

Today, the hundreds and thousands and millions of war dead were held in the collective memory. I thought of them, those lost who fell in numbers I can hardly imagine. And afterwards, I thought of my mother and missed my mother and mourned my mother.

I will find a safe place to put her. That is another thing that takes time. I found it for my father, and now I shall find it for her. The safe place is in that good corner of the heart where the dead still live.

Today’s picture:

From her eightieth birthday party, last year:

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Friday, 6 November 2015

The crying stage.

I’m in the crying stage. I’ve been through shock, irrational fury, stoicism and looking on the bright side. Now every word, every memory, every small thing makes me cry.

This is good. The tears have to come out or they get stuck inside and turn angry and bitter.

The difficult part is not the tears, it is that this stage makes me feel as if I have been stripped of a layer of skin. I have absolutely no defences against the slings and arrows, and find normal conduct a strain, like walking uphill in a headwind. A well-meant suggestion feels like a shattering criticism of my entire self. The usual rough and tumble of other people living their usual lives makes me feel as if I have been hurled into a rioting crowd. A careless word or a sharp tone of voice are like red-hot brands on my paper-thin skin. An oversight feels like arrant rejection. A mild demand feels like a roaring sergeant-major is sending me up Everest without oxygen.

I don’t like wimpishness. I don’t like the stripped skin part because it reduces me to one of those weedy drama queens whose company is so exhausting. I don’t want to be that person. I want to butch up. But butchness will only return with time and I have to bloody well wait it out. I have to go slowly. This part cannot be rushed. This pisses me off quite a lot.

I suddenly think those clever Edwardians had it right when they went into black for six months after a death, and then lavender for the next six. It was a subtle, tacit sign to say Handle with Care. Many people are afraid of grief, and desperately want one to get back to normal. This is kind and faintly callous at the same time; it is very human and entirely understandable. The singed spirit does not want pity or even sympathy. The yearning heart does not need everyone to walk on eggshells. Solemn faces are not required. Jokes and laughter are essential. But gentleness and kindness and thought are needed and not everyone has those immediately to hand.

Some people are naturals with grief just like some people are natural with horses. I am passionately glad for those people. Oddly enough, today the best and most shimmering of them was the lady in the Co-op. Our Co-op is a small shop, and I know quite a lot of the people behind the till well. There is one I especially like and this morning she spoke the most beautiful and soothing words. They were so fluent, so authentic, so poetic that it was as if she had rehearsed them for this very moment. She had no fear and she had no pity. She had understanding, and a generosity of spirit which shone out of her like starlight.

Not everyone gets it. Why should they? But I cherish the ones who do.


Today’s pictures:

Just two today. They are of the person who gets it most of all. She is all gentleness and peace and understanding. She was as tender with me today as if I had been made of glass. Horses are famously telepathic and thoroughbreds especially so, because of their high sensitivity and intelligent. But this has taken it to a whole new level. I think she has been secretly watching Spinal Tap, and has decided to crank up her loveliness to eleven:

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Thursday, 5 November 2015

Work and friendship.

I felt like a wounded bear today. I countered it with work. I gave my whole day to HorseBack and that was a good thing. My mother would have liked that.

In the evening, I wrangled with the Skype and suddenly there was the dear face of one of my oldest friends, many thousands of miles away, all the way from the west coast of America, where she lives.

We talked about my mother’s death and hers; we talked about her childhood and mine; we talked about the days when we were undergraduates together and ran around together getting into mischief. We cried and we laughed. I felt soothed to depths of my soul.

I’ve always thought that friendship was as fine a love as romantic love, if not finer. (Oh, all right, I secretly think it is finer.) It’s just it never got the press. It did not get the poets and the playwrights and the novelists hot under the collar. There is no friend equivalent of Jane Eyre or Pride and Prejudice or Romeo and Juliet.

I survive happily and soundly and easily without romantic love. I was never any good at it. I could not survive without my friends.


Today’s pictures:

My dear comrade in arms. Very old and blurry photographs, but you can see why I love her so much:




Wednesday, 4 November 2015


All the sun has gone and there is a low dreich in its place.

This morning, I went to get some more flowers for my stepfather. For some reason, I am convinced that he must have flowers. Then I went to the chemist. The lady in the chemist looked at my pretty bunch and said: ‘Oh, those are bonny.’

I told her my mother had died. I said I was taking my stepfather flowers and soup. She said her own mother had died this spring. We looked at each other, understanding absolutely what it was all about without having to elaborate. We stood in the brightly lit shop, a kind harmony running between us, talking about death. We usually talk about the weather, because we are British, and sometimes she smiles and asks after my mare. Today, we spoke about death.

She told me that her sister had died three years ago, and her mother-in-law the year before that, and then her uncle and her aunt.

‘It’s like someone is having a big clear-out,’ she said, dry as a bone.

I laughed. I looked at her. I pushed my fist against my chest, to illustrate my words. I said: ‘That is so many blows to the heart. Too many blows. What do you do with all that? And you are always so cheerful. You have a smile for everyone.’

She is one of the kindest and gentlest people in the village. I sometimes go to the chemist even when I don’t need anything much, because I like talking to her so much.

She gave me one of those smiles. ‘What can you do?’ she said. ‘You have to keep going on.’

I felt immensely soothed by this conversation, and rather tearful at the same time. Ah, the stages of grief. I’ve gone from shock, through an angry stoicism, past my usual competitive spurt when I think I can do grieving better than anyone ever did the damn thing before, into the momentary sunlight of hunting for beauty to balance the sorrow, to the plain missing stage. I just miss my mother. I actually had to tell myself this morning: ‘It’s all right to miss your mother.’ I don’t want to be a wimp and a bore, I want to come out of the darkness into the light, so I have to give myself official permission. The missing pulls at me like a slow ache, and part of me wants to fight it. But it cannot be fought. It must be felt.

I wish I had had one more conversation, asked one more question, heard one more story. I find her empty room so very, very empty.

I miss my mum.


Today’s pictures:

Are from yesterday, when the sun was shining:

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Tuesday, 3 November 2015

The trees.

Last night, I had a dream. I did not dream I went to Manderley again but that I was chatting to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. (I know that people who tell you their dreams are among the biggest crashers on earth, so I’ll keep this brief.) He was talking about crooked vegetables, which is what he is currently talking about in real life, and then he looked at me and said ‘As for the mixed messages which women have to deal with...’ He rolled his eyes as if in actual pain. And I threw my arms round him in amazed delight and said ‘Thank you, thank you. I’ve been living with cognitive dissonance all my life. I didn’t think that men really understood.’

The swanky part of me is quite chuffed that I use expressions like cognitive dissonance even in dreams. The critical part is quite cross that in my sleeping hours I give in to broad generalisation. (I am perfectly certain that there are men who do understand.)

I am not going to bang the lady drum but I did think a bit this morning about the societal expectations of women and how amazingly confused and contradictory they are and how one just gets used to it, as background noise. I am not sure why I dreamed about that, but perhaps it is too that there are societal expectations about death and grief and those hum along in the back of the mind.

One must be stoical, but not too stoical; let it out, but don’t frighten the horses. One must feel it, but not make a drama. One must move on, but not too soon. One must honour the dear departed, but not be morbid. One must share with the group, but not too much. Even as I try to face this damn thing in the whites of its eyes, and as I do that by writing about it, there is a little voice in the back of my head which says: ‘Quick, quick, make a joke.’ One must be solemn, but not serious. Or is it the other way round?

Even as my kindest, most sane voice says there are no rules for grief, that even those famous seven stages or however many there are come packed with caveats, that one must surf it free-style as if it were a wild wave, those humming, chattering voices of the culture cannot be entirely banished. I do not live in a vacuum. I am part of the world. In my more self-regarding moments, I like to think I am a perfect maverick, like my old dad who did not know who made the rules and did not care. But that’s not quite true. I have to work hard to be true to myself. Even at such a time as this, the horrid word ‘should’ sometimes echoes through the mazy corridors of my mind.

Jung said every person that humans dream of represents a part of themselves. I am quite glad that I am in touch with my inner Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. He is not hidebound by rules or expectations; he is a man of the earth and he believes in real food and he hates waste, just like my mother did. I find odd comfort in this thought.

Today, the sun shone again, and I went and stared at the trees. Stanley the Manly found the biggest stick in the wood and was quite sad when we had to go and I said it would not fit in the car. He gave it one last, tragic look, and left it on the ground. I said, absurdly, out loud: ‘We’ll come back and play with it again tomorrow.’

I salute everyone who can photograph trees well. It’s my second most difficult subject, after horses at the races, which are completely impossible. I thought of all those photographers who have mastered these two subjects and felt profound admiration.

I am so lucky to have these trees. I think every day that I don’t know what I would have done without my mares. I don’t know what I would have done without the trees either. Everyone has their thing. The trees are my thing.

After the trees, I drove up and looked at the hills. They looked back at me, serene and secure in their magnificence. I tried giving Mum to them, but they gave her back. She’s not ready to go out there yet. She’s going to stay with me.


Today’s pictures:

When you look at these pictures, you have to imagine the beauty times a hundred. I can’t capture it with my puny eye. But this gives you a little glimpse of the loveliness:

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