I cried today. Not for my own sorrow, but because I heard a gentleman from Syria on the wireless. One of the BBC’s foreign correspondents had known him and his family quite well and was catching up on their story, on what had happened to them because of the war. (I think this was it; I came in half way through in one of those serendipitous moments when I just happen to be in the kitchen and I happen to press the button for Radio Four and there is all humanity, speaking to me.) This man had been driven from his home town, although some of his family and friends still seemed to be there – ‘Ah, they are bombing now, can you hear?’ said one of them when the journalist rang up. ‘Should you not hide?’ said the journalist. ‘No, no,’ said the crackling voice, cheerfully, ‘we are used to it.’
The gentleman who had been driven from his town said, at the very end of the programme, to this gentle man from the BBC: one day we shall go back there, God willing, and we shall play some football. It seemed he had run some kind of football club and he had kept a diary of all their fixtures and who had won and who had scored, and it was this diary he wanted to find, to show his friend from the Beeb.
So, I cried. Because there was all human life: hope, courage, love, loss, fear (I shall show you fear in a handful of dust), humour, grace under pressure, an amazing and dauntless optimism. Will that man ever go back to his town? Perhaps not. But he has faith; he believes. Across a long cultural divide, those human hearts are just the same as this human heart. There is the hope for better things.
Sometimes I don’t know what to do with the world. There are all the private griefs, but there are the great global griefs too. How does one carry those? Empathy is sometimes the very devil. My sister can’t listen to the news any more, it makes her too sad. I listen to it, furiously, thinking that if they can go through it – those refugees, those victims of war, those women in the Congo – then I can damn well listen to it. Sometimes I laugh a twisted laugh, thinking that if those women of the Congo knew that there was one middle-aged, middle-class female standing in the middle of a muddy field worrying about them they would not really feel that much better about things.
Down in the village, everyone is talking about the floods. There is a dauntless Blitz spirit in the shop and everyone is wishing everyone a happy new year. They are pumping out the Co-Op with fire trucks and there are police cars flashing past, packed with serious officers. At my field, the water is subsiding and the mares are as poised and composed as if they were going to a diplomatic cocktail party, just as if they had not spent yesterday afternoon walking through water up to their hocks as we led them to the higher ground.
I’d had a sudden moment of doubt as I left them in their flooded field, as the gloaming fell and the night rolled in, and had told the red mare sternly that it was her job to look after them. She takes her responsibilities very seriously, and she did look after them, and they are entirely unruffled.
There are rumours of tragic sheep which I don’t want to think about. (My neighbour, a man of the land, is steely. ‘They were warned,’ he said. ‘Everyone knew to move their livestock.’) That’s very north-eastern. There is a streak of granite in the people here, just like the stone that runs through this part of the country. It took me a while to get used to when I first arrived, with my soft southern ways, but now I love it and admire it.
My gumboots will never be dry again. I’ve tried everything but the neoprene lining has soaked up the water like a sponge and there is a terrible squelching when I put them back on. I am resigned to wet feet and soggy socks. The dogs think the whole thing is hysterical and gambol through the water with their heads held high. I make soup and feel passionately grateful that my house is dry and the power is on.
I feel equally grateful that my village is here and my house is safe and I don’t have to shout down a crackling line to a journalist about the bombs. I don’t really do New Year resolutions, but I think that every day of 2016 I am going to make a list of my good fortune. Reasons to be cheerful, one two three.