Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Farewell to Channel 4 Racing. Or, I was wrong.


Being a racing broadcaster must be one of the hardest jobs in the world. This is because racing people are passionate about and protective of their sport, excessively opinionated, and often unconvinced by change. Everybody knows what racing should look like and everyone secretly dreams of the glory days of Sir Peter O’Sullevan.

I was one of those people, in the turbulent days when Channel 4 Racing gave the job to a new outfit. There would be changes, and secret technology, and, help us all, gimmicks. I at once gathered up all my toys and hurled them from the pram. I did not want gimmicks. I did not want special touch-screens. I wanted Alastair Down, with his shambling dress sense and his poet’s heart. I wanted re-runs of every single race and more shots of the horses in the paddock, going down, in fact anywhere. If a ravishing thoroughbred so much as pricked her ears, I wanted a shot of it.

I could not bear the sight of Jim McGrath looking rather lost and forlorn since he no longer had his great compadre beside him. How could they deprive him of John Francome, greatest jockey and greatest broadcaster, whose dry-as-a-bone asides and lyrical voice harked back to the days when he and the noble Lord Oaksey used to marvel over Desert Orchid’s impossible leaps? I felt an injustice had been done to the suave and smiling Mike Cattermole, who had once had to do battle with the rudest owner in racing. There must have been nothing else to cut to and there must have been a frantic producer yelling in his ear ‘you’re coming into the final furlong’ as Cattermole manfully struggled to get a single polite word out of the taciturn person, before tottering away, a broken man.  And after all that, there was no place for him on the new team.

So I yelped and howled and complained. More horses, I bawled on Twitter; no no not another vapid celebrity interview.

Then, slowly, slowly, something unexpected started to happen. I began to see that although the old band was no longer in town, there were some new stars. Nick Luck, quietly and without fuss, turned into one of the most polished broadcasters in the business, with his glinting humour and his excellent suiting. Mick Fitz stole into my heart with his twinkly eyes and his years of experience and his love and knowledge of the thoroughbred. In Alice Plunkett, the new Channel 4 had unearthed one of the most natural onscreen talents I’d seen in years: completely authentic, unapologetically enthusiastic, and unafraid of emotion. Simon Holt, who had survived the change, developed into the most heart-stopping caller of a race since the legendary O’Sullevan. There are other good commentators out there, but he had that little extra something which I can only call soul. He understood and admired the grand fighting qualities of the horses he was calling and hung out more flags for the genuine and the brave.

Clare Balding stepped up to make the big occasions as splendid as they should be, combining her trademark professionalism with the love of horses she inherited in her cradle. I even started to like some of the more eccentric stuff, like when Rishi Persad, with great determination and good humour, trained to take part in a charity race. The behind-the-scenes features – visits to Frankel at stud, or the maestro that is Aidan O’Brien at Ballydoyle – were beyond price. Jim McGrath stopped looking lonely and started to make jokes again.

I had to admit that I had been entirely wrong. I gathered up my toys, put them back in the pram, and began to enjoy myself.

And now there is to be another great change. I’m not going to make the same mistake again. I’m going to give the new lot a chance and be on their side, because I love racing so much it makes me cry (literally) and I want it to succeed.


All the same, I feel a little melancholy today, as Channel 4 and the old guard have their last hurrah. If you watch racing every week as I do, these people become like family to you. I’ve seen them wrangle with the unexpected and go on smiling through the pouring rain and keep the show on the road even when there are only three wheels on the wagon. They love the game as I do, and they brought it flashing into my quiet Scottish room with verve and enthusiasm and passion. So I do thank them and I will miss them and I put up my hands and say: I was wrong. That start might have been a little bit glitchy in places, but as the race went on it developed into something fine. And everyone, from the headline act to the most behind-the-scenes runner, deserves credit and gratitude.

Saturday, 24 December 2016

Christmas Eve.

In the kitchen, the nine lessons and carols from King’s comes on. The high, pure voice of the lone chorister starts to sing. I miss my mother so much I cannot breathe. I cry for her.

There, I think, after five minutes, that’s done. I should really have written it down on my list. Let the emotion out, I think. Let it run around and feel the wind in its hair. It does no good if it is kept inside.

I go to the village for the last of the errands. ‘Happy Christmas, happy Christmas,’ I say, to my favourite ladies in the shop and to the kind woman in the chemist. The Christmas lights twinkle gently against the indigo sky. Children in festive hats are literally jumping for joy. I smile, thinking that I am not jumping for joy for tomorrow but for the day after. For the lovers of racing, Boxing Day is the real Christmas day and this year there will be the old king up against the young prince and nobody can tell who will come out on top and it will be a clash of the titans.

I drive back along the lime avenue where families are out walking their dogs. The grandparents are there and fathers with tiny infants hoisted onto their shoulders and mothers corralling the canines.

Down at the field, the mares are very happy because the kind farmer has appeared like Father Christmas to fill their shed with hay. That is their best present and they are content. I rub their sweet spots and murmur in their dear ears and smell their beautiful, honest, earthy scent.

I take the dogs out along the burn, where they rush and race and bark hysterically at the resigned old heron, who flaps off in faint indignation. The sky is translucent as the gloaming falls and, above the hill, there is the evening star. It is so glittery and magnificent that at first I think it must be a spy satellite. But no, it is its true self, as eternal as the ages. I stare at it for a long time.

I’ve got my iPod with me and I stick the earphones in and decide to have a song. I don’t want Dean Martin singing Let it Snow, so I put on The Rolling Stones instead, singing You Can’t Always Get What You Want. I belt out the words, into the still evening air. As I walk over the meadow I see a light burning and suddenly remember that I have new neighbours. I hope very much that their windows are not open. I imagine them peering out into the half-light, to see a lunatic in a strange hat bawling ‘I sold my soul to Mr Jimmy.’ I suddenly can’t stop laughing. Poor neighbours. They have no idea.


Friday, 23 December 2016

A quiet day.

I potter about, doing errands. The funny thing is that even if you do not do Christmas there still are things to do. I find myself making lists and delivering things and doing a lot of cooking.

As I do the cooking, I listen to the wireless. Mark Mardell has devoted the whole of The World At One to Syria. He has three experts in their field to talk about it. They are serious and engaged and articulate. They use their brains to combat despair. But I can hear, under their fluent voices, the rumble of exhaustion and fury. ‘How could we let this happen?’ says one of them. ‘On our watch. It is on our generation’s watch.’ As if in some way an entire cohort is responsible, by default, by neglect, by simple confusion or inertia or the awful tangle of what is politically possible, and perhaps it is.

Then a rather extraordinary thing happens. Mardell mentions that people have compared the situation to the Thirty Years’ War. Andrew Mitchell, his political guest, at once takes up the baton, as if this were the very analogy for which he had been searching. He begins talking of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.

I stare in amazement. I read history at university, but I could not begin to tell you about the Peace of Westphalia, nor could I have given you a date for it. How many politicians, I wonder, would know that? How many educated people would know that? I feel oddly proud, in a completely irrational way, that there are backbenchers in the House of Commons who know about the Peace of Westphalia and the great powers who signed it and when it happened. Good old Blighty, I think; someone, somewhere is still teaching the history.

And then the programme finishes and another one starts. It is a programme about secrecy. A cross-dresser comes on. He has to keep his predilection a secret from his family. He sounds very weary, as if this secrecy rubs and presses on him, never letting him go. I think of the drag queens I used to run around with in Soho when I was in my twenties. They were so totally without secrecy, so vivid and proud and witty. They used to give me lipstick tips in the lav. I looked up to them, literally because they were all immensely tall and they wore six inch heels, and figuratively too. I was not at all sure who I was in those days, but they seemed to know exactly who they were and what they wanted and they strode out on those antic streets in search of it.

Storm Barbara huff and puffs. She keeps pitching up, in a livid rage, and then she gets bored or spots something else more interesting and goes away again. I start to think we won’t have a power cut after all.

Everything is very quiet now, as the wind dies down. I miss my mother. It is my second Christmas without her and I miss her. I fold the missing into my heart as if I am putting a note away in a careful, precious place. I had been running away from the sorrow, I realise. I got a little cocky. I had come back to usual life, was able to laugh with conviction and think of happy things and feel enjoyment running through me like electricity. That’s it, I thought; that race is run. But of course it does not quite work like that. Grief does not go. It becomes rarer, its visits more spaced out, its knocks on the door less frequent. It loses its daily weight, and stops making the head hurt. But at certain times, for a reason or for no reason, it pays its visit, and you can’t slam the door in its face. You have to let it in and give it a nice glass of Fino and let it say all the things it wants to say and then kindly smile and wave it goodbye until the next time.

In the quiet, the Beloved Cousin rings. ‘I am reading your book,’ she says, her voice carrying strongly down the line, full of life and interest and humour. ‘I’m absolutely loving it. And you know it is really helpful. N keeps saying: what does she say next?’ N is the smallest cousin, who is now eight. I think the fact that she wants to know what I say next is one of the best compliments I ever had. I smile all over my face.


Wednesday, 21 December 2016

In which I don't do Christmas.


I’m not doing Christmas this year.

I’m not not doing Christmas in a furious spirit of Scrooge. There are aspects of Christmas that I love, although I’ve always found the day itself rather wearing. (For an introvert, Christmas Day could have been designed by committee to exhaust.) Even now, as I don’t do Christmas, I quite like that it is going on around me, in a faintly distant, benign manner.

The decision was very simple and very obvious. My family are scattered about the place this year, my mother is no longer in the next house but wherever it is that the dead live, my dear stepfather is in Canada. I suddenly thought, about a month ago: everyone is away and I shall not do Christmas. It was as if someone had come along and taken a huge pack off my back and said: you really don’t need to carry that up the Brecon Beacons.

Today, however, as I was in the village doing errands, I ran into the flower shop and bought some eucalyptus. I love the ladies in the flower shop and I wanted to go and say Happy Christmas to them and I suddenly thought that a little extravagance of greenery was just the ticket. That was, after all, part of the original mid-winter festival – the greening of the halls, presumably to cheer everyone up when there were few leaves on few trees and what was left of the grass had turned the colour of lost hope.

I had wondered whether I would get to this stage and feel a little doleful. As the terrible world news blasted out of my wireless this morning I thought there were not many reasons to be cheerful. (‘It’s Christmas-time,’ said one despairing German woman. ‘What kind of people would do this? I don’t understand.’ And there was no answer to that.) But later, as I had things to do and the ordinary demands of ordinary life asserted themselves, as they ruthlessly must, I carried my green armfuls home and felt a curious lift of the spirits.

That was all it took. Two bunches of eucalyptus and some errands run and some physical work in the cold Scottish air and a telephone call to a cheerful voice, and there, somehow, was just enough Christmas spirit. It turns out that I did not need to decorate the entire house or buy stuff or think about expensive food or get in fine wines or watch the special festive programmes about how to be festive or read the slightly dictatorial articles about how to be Christmassy and perfect in that particularly terrifying female way. (I sometimes wonder whether the yuletide stereotypes are ruder to men or women. The ladies are supposed to be domestic slaves, planning the lunch and choosing the ideal presents with their emotional intelligence and marshalling the troops until they collapse in a mess of gin and smeared mascara and broken dreams, whilst the feckless males do their last-minute shopping at the garage and get so pissed up that they are rude to Great-Aunt Edna and eventually become somnolent in front of re-runs of Top Gear. It’s an all-you-can-eat buffet of gender offensiveness.)

An old friend said: ‘What are you going to do on the day itself?’
I sighed with anticipatory pleasure.
‘I am,’ I said, ‘going to ride my red mare and walk the dogs and cook something nice and then settle down in front of all my recordings of past King Georges.’

For those of you who do not follow racing, this does not mean that I am going to watch endless versions of the old King bravely stuttering through public speeches, but runnings of Britain’s second-greatest steeplechase, which was invented in 1937 and named for King George VI. If you love thoroughbreds as I do, the King George is Christmas. Rather wonderfully, it has been lit up in true celebratory spirit by two of the greatest, gaudiest and most beloved racehorses of the last fifty years. Desert Orchid was everybody’s favourite present as he won it four times, and Kauto Star was the unbelievable cracker under the tree as he roared to victory on no fewer than five occasions. It is a race that has truly lived up to its Christmas billing.


So that is my plan. It’s my idea of heaven. It would be many people’s idea of hell. But that is what I love about getting older. One does not have to be the stereotype or conform to the rules or meet the expectations. One can choose. There are so many versions of bliss and one does not denigrate or detract from another. They may exist, in harmony, as individual as snowflakes and as charming.

Monday, 19 December 2016

KBO.

Sometimes the universe sends you something just at the very moment you need that damn thing to be sent.

I was out tonight. I never go out – you have to dig me out of this house with a spoon - so this was a big deal. On the way back, I turned on the wireless. I never listen to Radio Four at 9pm so on any ordinary day I would not have heard what I heard.

What I heard was a very old, very humorous voice saying –

Well, I always wrote KBO at the end because of course I wrote down everything. And then a nice chap came in one day and said you know you don’t have to write KBO every time. And I said: why not? And he said: well, you know what it means? And I said: no. And he smiled and said: keep buggering on.

Any of you who have read this blog for more than ten minutes know that I say keep buggering on every other day. Sometimes I say KBO, KBO; sometimes I say on on on we bugger. It came from Churchill, and I never, ever looked it up because I was so afraid it would turn out not to be true. I feared it might be one of those apocryphal stories which have gone into folkore but which never happened, just like Humphrey Bogart never actually said ‘Play it again, Sam.’ (What he actually said was ‘If she can stand it, I can. Play it.’

I got out of the car and looked at the stars in the indigo sky. I had no context. I did not know what the name of that woman was, or what she had done for Churchill, or why she was on the wireless at 9pm on a Monday night. But she had stamped my card, and I shall be thankful to her for ever.

The really funny thing was that I was with old friends tonight and at one point I talked about buggering on. The last year has been very fraught and complicated. I kept thinking I was getting better and then I would get knocked back and I would have to pick myself up all over again and start from the beginning. The buggering on had to go up to a Spinal Tap eleven. I said to the dear friends, thinking of all this, ‘you know the funny thing about my dad is that he was a very eccentric man, but he was a trier. He loved triers. He loved horses who tried and he loved humans who tried. So he taught me that. He taught me, without ever saying a word, not to give up.’

Dad and Winston Churchill were about as far apart as any two men could be. (Although I must confess they both adored drinking and racing and if they ever had met they would have made each other hoot with laughter.)  But, oddly, it turns out I carry them both with me and they both taught me a lesson that really means something, in the actual world. Don’t expect everything to be easy. Don’t be downhearted when it all goes to hell. Keep trying, keep failing, keep trying again. Keep keep keep buggering on.

I was thinking about something quite else, before all this happened. Not long ago, there was a quote running around the internet which went: be kind, because everyone you know is fighting a hard battle. It was often attributed to Plato, but even I knew that it really was not the sage old Greek. Still, it was wise and it was true and I liked it and I think of it often. Today, I was reminded of that. I was reminded that behind a good facade and a bright smile, there can be a battle so hard that it would make your eyes water.


So, at the end of this long day I think: be kind, keep trying, don’t give up and damn well bugger on. 

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Good is good.


Today, I read a question. The question was: why be good in a godless world? It was directed by a believer to atheists and agnostics and she clearly expected there to be no possible answer.

Ah, I thought, rather delighted. At last, here is a question to which I do know the answer. I shot up my hand. Ask me, Miss, cried the girly swot voice in my head.

Miss cast her beady eye on me. She clearly thought I was up to something.

But my answer was plain and straightforward. I needed no sophistry or tricks. Why be good? Because being good is better.

It’s better for everything: family, government, society, friendship, health, mental well-being. I define being good as being kind, thoughtful, empathetic, as unselfish as you can be, not a bore or a solipsist, generous, willing, reliable, truthful, forgiving and open-minded. Hardly anyone except possibly the Dalai Lama can be these things all day and every day, but they are the gold standard. They are goods to aim for. They make people happy instead of sad, consoled instead of rattled, confident instead of shaken, reassured instead of threatened.

They cross all boundaries of  upbringing, culture, ethnicity, belief. Good is good. It’s there, shining like the evening star, gloriously obvious and available to everyone. It does not rely on the thousands of religions (4,200 at the last count) or the myriad of philosophers or the ranging spectrum of instructional texts or sacred books or improving literature. Good expresses itself in wonderfully binary ways, so that it has an almost Manichean aspect. Would you rather be kind or unkind, generous or mean, violent or gentle? The choices are as gleaming as the morning sky.

And the really lovely thing about goodness is that it is like the very air. It crosses all boundaries. It does not matter whether you are a Zoroastrian or a pagan, a Presbyterian or a Sikh, a Buddhist or a follower of Shinto, you can choose goodness. The most atheist and the most devout can be good. A child can be good and an ancient can be good.

A lot of goodness is instinctive. I think most people know at once when they are not being good, not because they read about goodness in a book or even because their parents told them about the difference between good and bad, but because a little tuning fork inside sounds a dud note. (This is, I think, why people who are behaving badly get so cross and defensive.)

I was not good today. I was sharp and a little impatient with someone. This happens when I am over-tired, or not dealing with something that needs to be dealt with, or generally stretched too tight. Even as I was not being good, I felt the Bad Behaviour klaxon go off in my head. Move quietly to the exits, said the klaxon; vacate the building at once.

Did I know that I was failing in goodness because my mother taught me to think of the feelings of others, or because I once read about Kant’s categorical imperative, or because I fell in love with Anne Elliot, easily the nicest character in literature, when I was eighteen? Perhaps it was a mixture of all three, but it felt deeper than that, almost visceral. I think that most humans are mostly good most of the time and perhaps that is my own act of faith. I do believe in the human heart. There is an awful lot of badness in the world, but I retain my trust in the good. The bad always gets the headlines, but the small, unsung, constant goods are everywhere, if you look out for them.

Good is better. It just is. It is light instead of darkness, hope instead of despair, laughter instead of tears.

I was not very good today, but tomorrow I shall damn well make up for it. This is not some pious act of virtue, but quite a selfish desire. I don’t like beating myself up with a big stick. It makes my head hurt. Goodness is easier, because the stick can stay in its cupboard, I don’t have to race around making pathetic excuses for myself, and I can send angst back to the border because its passport was not stamped. Goodness has an enchanting double effect: it can bring a smile to the face of another human, and at the very same time make your own dear, goofy self feel sane and soothed and generally all right.


Just as love is love, so good is good. 

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Stand in it for all you are worth.



I think I can’t really listen to the news from Aleppo. Then I think I must listen to the news from Aleppo. I listen to it with my face screwed up. I think: if they can live through it, I can listen to it. I wonder sometimes about the importance of being a witness, of having a witness. Is that what listening to the news does?

I hear the note of exhausted despair in Jeremy Bowen’s voice as he reports for the BBC. He’s been reporting for the BBC from the Middle East since the old Queen died and I don’t think he’s ever been able to say  ‘Well, John or Nick or Sarah or Justin or Mishal, the good news is...’ There is a note of bleak resignation in his voice as he tells his story. It is as if he has given up hope that he might ever have a good story to tell.

I listen and then my mind starts moving away, as if it would like to pretend that the unfolding horror is not happening. Can’t think about that, says the mind; it’s too much. And then it circles back and tries, for a moment, to imagine what it must be like for human beings to live in a place where there is no humanity, where everything is destroyed, where there is no sense or reason or end in sight, where nothing works, where the usual rules of civilisation are a joke. What hand-hold is there, for those people? What metaphorical lifebelt is there for them to cling to?

I never know what the answer is to the big questions. I don’t know the answer to slaughter and torture and fundamentalism and natural disasters and refugee camps as big as a county. I don’t know why one set of people hates another set of people because of the colour of their skin or the order of their chromosomes or the nature of their god. My usual remedy, if it can be called a remedy, is to run back to the small things, because the small things are the only ones that make any sense at all. I cling on to the small things with a dogged hope, a stupid optimism, a cussed defiance, as if I can really restore order and equilibrium by staring at a tree or listening to someone who needs to talk.

This kind of works. Only kind of. The big questions still laugh at my puny plan, but the small things are amazingly present and they do pitch up every day and they are oddly reliable. They stack up. They make no grand promises, but they are always there, beavering away like little woodland animals.

And then, in all this thinking, in all this hurly burly, in all this incomprehensible world sadness, I notice the small things that don’t help. These are small in the sense that they are so inconsequential they should not matter. Someone says something pedantic and slightly crushing; someone is disdainful; someone is momentarily rude. Tiny, fleeting things that will be forgotten in a week, in a day perhaps. But I think: why would you do that? I know not every day is Doris Day, I know that all humans cannot always be their best selves, I know that sometimes one wants to shout and stomp and swear and tell everyone to fuck off. I know that skipping around like Polly-bloody-Anna can be absolutely maddening. Yet all the same, I wonder about those little crushers, those moments of bad grace, those careless words that smash down instead of build up.

I think about the quality of restraint. Does everyone have to say the thing they are thinking at the exact moment they think it? Is the great experiment in free expression that is the internet leading to a twisted sense of entitlement? I have visions of people saying to themselves: I’m not being rude, I’m exercising my fundamental human right to free speech.

Speech is precious. Not everyone has it. With rights come responsibilities. You can use words to tear down, or you can use them to lift up. This is in every person’s gift. Everyone has the choice. And I wonder sometimes why people choose the negative rather than the positive.

There was a man on the Today programme this morning who was an absolute bore. He was filled with his own importance, utterly devoid of charm, and carried a whiff of entitlement with him. It was a very unattractive combination. I felt the usual desire to throw heavy objects. I almost sat down to the Twitter and vented my dislike. I was about to type something cheap and bitchy. And then I thought: why? What would it achieve? It would not suddenly turn a rather second-rate human into a shining exemplar of all the virtues. He would not grow an instant sense of humour and some nice humility. And perhaps he had friends and family who might read the cheap shot and feel sad. (I also have a secret entirely improbable dream that when the public figures come on the wireless and bore for Britain they are performing a heroic double bluff. I tell myself that they are absolute pistols in private life, singing show tunes and making people fall about laughing.)

Anyway, I didn’t bitch him up in the end. I went downstairs and took my small friend to see the big horses. ‘Can I feed them?’ she said, gazing in awe and wonder at the gentle mares. ‘They are very big. They are very soft. Oh, she tickled my ear.’

The smaller of the two mares had been rolling, and was covered in mud from the tips of her sweet ears to the end of her dear tail. My tiny friend, who is four, gazed at her for a while and then pronounced. ‘She needs a wash,’ she said.


That’s better, I thought. That’s better than venting my spleen on some hapless stranger. Try and choose the good, I thought, even if that good is so small you need a microscope to see it. Because all the minuscule goods do add up to something, in the end. Something better, lighter, brighter. That is what I hope is true. I remember my EM Forster. ‘We cast a shadow on something wherever we stand, and it is no good moving from place to place to save things; because the shadow always follows. Choose a place where you won't do harm - yes, choose a place where you won't do very much harm, and stand in it for all you are worth, facing the sunshine.’

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Looking the fears in the whites of their eyes.

A long day but a good day.

I thought about the miracles of perspective. Nothing in my small world has changed since yesterday, but this morning I decided to look at the thing differently. Just a little shift of angle can do it. I come back always to: it’s not the thing, it’s how you think about the thing. Today, I decided that what made me feel despairing and beaten yesterday would not overcome me after all. I’ll pick myself up off the turf and walk back into the weighing room with grass stains on my britches and go out and ride a winner, just like AP used to.

In the spirit of this, I did two things that frighten me a little. I read somewhere not long ago that you should do something that frightens you every day. This is too tall an order for me, but perhaps once a week might do it.

I rode the red mare out alone for three miles, on a route we had only taken once before. The very idea of this used to scare me witless and, in a rather gutless way, I made lots of excuses about how we had to stick to the home fields. I’m not sure quite what the fear was, some muddled idea that we might take a wrong step and fall into a ditch or be ambushed by mad bikers or scorched by a careless driver and there would be nobody there to pick up the pieces.

Today, I thought bugger it, let’s go. So we went. And I found that my trepidations fell away and the strange places were not so strange after all.

The second scary thing was that I asked for help. I am absolutely crap at asking for help. I have this bizarre idea that I must do everything for myself otherwise I am somehow failing, as a woman, as a human, as a grown-up. My irrational mind gets very shouty and says that if I ask for help then everyone will laugh and point. My rational mind gets so tired with the shouting that it goes on a cruise and is not heard from in weeks.

Actually, I did not quite ask. A very kind person offered, and I accepted. And it was so brilliant and so dazzling and so revelatory that I whooped for joy. I was in the hands of a fine teacher and I learnt something and I did not feel ashamed of the things I did not know or the things I got wrong but felt proud and happy and capable and as if I could fly. There was something so marvellously comforting about being in the hands of a generous expert. It was like being given hot soup on a cold day or getting an unexpected present in the post or being sent flowers for absolutely no reason.

Face your fears, I thought. Look the fuckers in the whites of their eyes. They are bullies, and bullies lose their power if you confront them and laugh at them and see them for the paper tigers that they are. I’m not sure one can do this all day or every day, because it is quite hard work. Sometimes, an act of will is not enough. But maybe once a week, I thought, take the bastards out behind the woodshed and show them what you are made of. Yesterday, I felt I was made of not much. Today, I felt that perhaps there was a little bit more there than I thought.


It doesn’t have to be perfect, I thought. It doesn’t have to be V for Victory. Whatever it is that you really love, that you put your heart into, that truly means something to you – it just has to be good enough. It might be a little wonky round the edges and it might sink in the middle and it might not look in life like it does in the magazines. It may not make your fortune or get you laid. And it may, sometimes, scare the bejesus out of you. But just keep on trying, and do it with love and conviction, and, whatever you do, don’t give up.

Monday, 12 December 2016

Not everything needs a shape.



Today, I cried. Then I smiled and then I whooped and then I laughed. And later I cried again.

There was a good reason for the weeping. It was proper sorrow. Even as I got it all out and it started to ebb, I began writing it down in my head. It formed itself into an essay. It moved away from being an overwhelming, painful feeling in the gut, a feeling of despair and defeat, up into the head, where it formed itself into sentences.

Because, you see, if I can put a thing into words then I have an explanation. I always need an explanation. If I put a thing into words it has shape, and coherence, and even reality. There it is, on the page, making sense.

And then, much later, after all the emotion had drained away, I thought: does it really need explaining? In life, humans are sometimes happy and sometimes sad. Sometimes they are baffled and sometimes they are blithe; sometimes they are beaten, and sometimes they rise again like a phoenix from the ashes. Sometimes they are confused and sometimes they are wrong and sometimes they are found and sometimes they are lost.

All this does not necessarily need a shape. It does not have to be mapped. It does not have to be justified.

I sometimes feel painful emotion as a failure. I should be stronger, better, bolder, tougher. I should be able to face the blows; I should be more flinty and less self-indulgent. The should voices are quite loud and very bossy.

But there it was,  that overwhelming emotion, this morning, in the field, as the red mare dozed by my side, waiting for me to get it all out so we could do some work. I was sad and there was a reason to be sad. And I did get it all out. And we did do some work. We did some proper schooling and then we rode all the way up the hill and far away. We crossed the high road and we went deep into the woods and we went over the scary bridge. The sun rose and glimmered and glinted through the trees and gentled the land and made everything all right. ‘If we can cross the scary bridge,’ I said to the mare, ‘we can do anything.’


Sometimes I am happy, and sometimes I am sad. I don’t need to write you an essay about that. It does not need shape. It simply is. 

Friday, 9 December 2016

A small world.



Worked my arse off today. Work work, HorseBack work, red mare work. I smash into the wall at the end of a long week and bounce back off it, seeing cartoon stars. I’ve done an unaccustomed amount of talking, which always leaves me running on empty. (As I get older, I slide further along the introversion spectrum. I can be garrulous, but afterwards I need to go and sit very, very still in a quiet room.) I did some emotional heavy lifting. I even did some admin, which left me breathless.

Something always gets lost, when I am galloping around like this. This week, it has been the world. I catch snatches of the news, but cannot piece together the fragments and make out what is going on. Did Boris Johnson say something odd? Was there a bad set of educational results? Is Donald Trump doing something bonkers? (I think my money is safe on that one. That’s like backing an odds-on favourite in a three horse race.) Was there a thing about the grand judges, making their judgements? Will the Brexit be hard or soft or up or down or round the houses?

Nope. No idea.

In my tiny world, which is very close and very real, people have been intensely kind and the horses have been intensely sweet and the dogs have been intensely funny. At my desk, I stare at words and edit words and try to find better words and ruthlessly kill extraneous words. In the kitchen, I ponder ways to break out of my cooking rut. In the field, I contemplate rugging decisions and put out the good hay.


I used to want a big world. Now I rather love that I inhabit a small one. Perhaps it will expand again, as the years roll on. For now, it is absolutely ordinary, very little, and entirely mine. It means something to me. It makes me feel as if I mean something to it. And, on a grey Friday with the gloaming about to fall, I can’t ask more than that.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

The astonishing power of the single step backwards.

At this very minute, the wisest thing I know is: take a step back.

It doesn’t sound like much, does it? I am clearly taking my obsession with the small things to sub-atomic levels. In fact, this one is huge.

I always sort of knew about taking that step back. Take a deep breath, look at the thing in context, understand what it is really about, refuse to enter the three act opera, let it go. Yada, yada, yada. I knew all that but somewhere deep inside I didn’t always believe in all that or could not apply all that or even thought buggery bollocks to all that.

And suddenly, without realising it, I have become The Queen of Stepping Back and it has made more of a difference to my life than I could have imagined.

I realised this morning, as something charged towards me which would normally send me into a tailspin but didn’t, that I was stepping back without even thinking about it. Over the last few months, I’d built a habit of stepping back. I’d tried it out with the stupid, irrelevant things, like someone being rude on the internet. I’d tried it out with slightly more important things, like professional troubles. I’d tried it out with really big things, things that bish and bash my heart.

And finally, when a grand test arrived, I found myself doing it without thinking and there it was – that crucial sense of distance, so that the swirling vortex did not pull me in but went on spinning away without sucking me into it.

This is really very surprising. I’ve spent half my life getting sucking into the vortex. And now, there it is, having to do without me.

Taking a step back can sound slightly passive, even disengaged. I don’t mean it like that. I think it’s very active and very robust. You make a choice. You can rush in, hurl yourself into the drama, try to change the things you cannot change, take everything personally, get yourself into a state. Or you can step back so you can see the whole picture and decide that the absolutely lovely thing is it is not your picture. And in one bound, you are free.

It takes, I have discovered, a lot of practice. You do have to build the mental habit. There are no fairy wands and wafts of stardust, not in this lifetime. But if you put in the effort, one day you may find yourself, to your rank astonishment and incredulous delight, stepping back instead of dashing forward, on the sturdy floor instead of on the mad ceiling, in the real world rather than in the created vortex.

It helps if you have help. Four friends were magnificent today, as if they had entered some kind of magnificence competition and were doing it for a bet. Two were magnificent on the telephone and two were magnificent in life. They were funny and understanding and kind and big of heart and authentic and wise and true. The red mare was magnificent. The brown mare was magnificent. The dogs were at their most antic and comical. Even the dear old Scottish sun came out, defying the weather forecast.


I’m not so bonkers as to think I have cracked the secret of the universe and may rest on my laurels. I’ll get caught in mistakes and wrong constructions and pointless tangles. I'll end up crying when I could be laughing. But today, in a situation where once I would have been trapped, I was free, and I wanted to write that down. Something actually worked. I adore it when things work, and I hang out all my metaphorical flags in astonishment, in delight, in relief.

Monday, 5 December 2016

A symphony of small things.



It was minus seven this morning and the world was white and still and petrified. The dogs leapt and flew and soared along the line of the burn, rejoicing in the vivid scents, barking hilariously at the flappy old heron, chasing imaginary creatures only they can see. Down in the field, the horses were as unmoving as the rock of ages, fluffing up their coats against the cold, peacefully gazing into the amber light.

I did HorseBack work. The light was so extraordinary that my pictures looked as if they had been taken by someone who knew what they were doing. I felt absurdly pleased.

Back to the field for the farrier. I love the farrier. The red mare loves the farrier. She rests her head on the farrier’s back and goes to sleep. We discuss horses and hooves and family and marriage and Christmas. The farrier smiles a blinding smile. ‘I love Christmas,’ she says.

Then: work, work, work, work. My heart lifts at a good paragraph and then sinks at some sloppy repetition. I get caught on favourite phrases, turning them over and over again until they mean nothing. Be strict, I tell myself, strictly.

Someone does something very kind for me. She does the favour without making it out to be a favour, which is an act of elegance. I express my gratitude and then we laugh a lot and I feel the twist of luck that there is generosity flying about. There is a practical generosity and a generosity of spirit, so that is two for the price of one.

I ring two old friends. We discuss this and that, and the other thing, and mostly exchange ineffable expressions of fondness. I notice that as we all get older we speak more of the love, instead of expecting the other person to know, to read between the lines. I think it is an effect of mortality. We have all been to funerals now; we all have friends who are sick; we all know about staring down the gun barrel of mortality. Life is crazy fast, and if you don’t say the love now it will be too late.

The gloaming falls, blue and serene, with a tiny delicate new moon suspended over the lime avenue. The dogs dance in the gloaming just as they danced in the dawn.

A little more work, I think, coming inside into the warm, and then I’m done.


A symphony of small things, I think, each smaller than the other, each vital to this human heart. 

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Sire De Grugy: the love.



At three o’clock this afternoon, the Tingle Creek will be run at Sandown. It’s one of the most exciting races in the calendar, run at a furious gallop over fences which test chasers to their limits. Sandown has a famous sequence of seven fences in the back straight, which come up in quick succession. Jockeys always say that if you get the stride right at the first one, the horses will pick up perfectly down the line. Miss that crucial stride, and you’re in trouble. It requires class, accuracy and courage and it has been won by some of the greatest names in racing, from Desert Orchid to Moscow Flyer, Kauto Star to Sizing Europe, Master Minded to Sprinter Sacre. That is a roll call of dazzling brilliance.

Today, one of my favourite horses, Sire De Grugy lines up to defend his crown. He won the race in 2013 and then again in 2015 but after that he slightly lost his way. Instead of ones and twos by his name, there were suddenly sevens and eights. Perhaps he’d had his glittering days, and was facing, as all horses do, a gentle decline as age caught up with him.

Then, a couple of weeks ago at Ascot, he was suddenly back, winning a good handicap off top weight. The old fella had life in him yet.

This afternoon, he’ll have the young pretenders snapping at his heels. The thrilling front-runner Un De Sceaux may be coming into his prime at the age of eight, God’s Own is in his pomp, and the exciting Ar Mad, the baby of the field, is stepping up from novice company where he drove all before him. My head says that it all might happen a bit quick for him. He’ll be eleven next month and this race is all about speed. My heart says perhaps the grand campaigner has one more great battle in him.

I love him because he’s an honest, brave horse who loves his racing. When he’s on song, he attacks his fences, ears pricked, all guts and glory. I love him because he is a family horse, trained by Gary Moore and ridden by his son Jamie, who describes the horse as his best friend. They do everything together. I love him because he’s owned not by a billionaire or a potentate, but by a group of working people whose enthusiasm knows no bounds, who are as gracious in defeat as they are charming in victory.

He may not win today, but I hope he runs his race and comes home safe. He’s given his fans so much pleasure and he owes us nothing.


And for the real racing aficionados, here is a bonus blog - 
Two years ago, Sire De Grugy won the Champion Chase at Cheltenham, and I wrote about that. These were the glory days, and I make no apology for reproducing the story here. On Saturdays, I always feel I can indulge myself on the blog. I adore this horse, and he deserves his hymn of praise.

Here it is, from March 2014:

There is a horse called Sire De Grugy, owned by a group of people who include plumbers and hairdressers, who only have this one horse. Compared to the mighty guns who arrive for the festival, the millionaires and billionaires with their shining strings of stars, these were relative underdogs. Yet, there was a serious chance that the rangy, athletic chestnut with the shining white blaze could step into the spotlight.

He’s been winning beautifully all season. On the book, he was the one to beat in the Champion Chase, the finest test of the two mile chaser. But the doubts started to swarm. He had been beaten twice at Cheltenham, and horses for courses is a cast-iron rule. Also, he had had a long season, running some races in heavy ground, which can take it out of even the finest athlete by the time spring comes around. And my own private worry was that he could be almost too bold over his fences, really attacking them, taking off a mile away, reaching over the birch with his raking front feet scything through the air. At Prestbury Park, at top speed, against the best, there is no room for error. I fretted that his very bravery might be his undoing.

The emotion was almost too much for me. He’s such a bright, bonny horse. He’s such a trier. His trainer and jockey are father and son, so there was the whole family romance of the thing. His owners are the most enthusiastic, happy, sporting bunch you could imagine. They had said before the race that it was enough just to be here. There is no greed or grasp in them. I wanted this result more than diamonds. I threw my cash on out of loyalty and love more than flinty judgement, and hid behind the sofa.

The sun shone. The parade started. There they all were, the stars: the clever, bright, bold equines, with their ears pricked, ready for the test to come. They were all so beautiful, so fit, so gleaming with health.

Jamie Moore settled Sire De Grugy back in the pack, as they went off at a furious pelt. It was an intelligent, instinctive, brave ride. He’s still a young jockey, but he did not panic. He let his fella get into a lovely rhythm, and did not hassle him. You could see the trust between horse and rider. But as the pounding hooves ate up the green turf, and the sinews stretched, and the race started to take shape, I worried. There was a lot of ground to make up.

Sire De Grugy had his sensible hat on today. He did not take chances. He fiddled a couple, and then jumped neatly and economically, out of his stride. He seemed to know that this was not the time for showboating.

And suddenly, miraculously, he was the only horse in the race, coming to the last with a ton in hand, romping away up the hill, as if it were his favourite place in the world. He won going away, like a really, really good horse.

The place erupted. My mother and I, who had been shouting our heads off, hugged each other and burst into synchronised tears. At the course, hats and newspapers were flying through the air. ‘I love him to pieces,’ Jamie Moore said, falling on his horse’s neck. Jockeys are hard men, in body and spirit. But they are not ashamed to use the word love, because that is what it is. The losing riders gathered round him, clapping him on the back, kissing him on the cheek. Love was everywhere. It was a win that was richly deserved and properly celebrated.

As the horse and rider walked back to the winning enclosure, all the jockeys came out of the weighing room and formed a guard of honour to greet them. Sam Twiston-Davies and Aidan Coleman were hoisted onto shoulders, waving and smiling and laughing their heads off. I’ve never seen that, ever, in racing. My mother, who remembers Arkle and Mill House, has never seen that. There was something about this, perhaps because it was the underdog, perhaps because the Moores work so hard and really deserve it, perhaps because the horse himself has never quite had his due, that brought out an unprecedented reaction. All etiquette was flung aside, as the Duchess of Cornwall, presenting the cup, had a scarf in the owners’ colours draped round her neck. She too was laughing fit to bust. Everything was in chaos, as joy overtook the day.


It was one of the best things I ever saw in my life.

PS. I can't give you a Sire De Grugy photograph, because of copyright, so I've included a snap of my own red champion, furry and soft and dreaming in her Scottish field. 

Friday, 2 December 2016

Ouch

Whack, whack, whack goes life, bashing me in the solar plexus. Take that. And that. And this. Here is an upper-cut to the jaw and there is a blow in the kidneys and there is a sucker punch.

Woo, I say, reeling backwards, all my defences down. Ah, I say, that hurt.

Keep smiling, I tell myself. Smile and smile and smile and take the blows.

I keep smiling.

Then I stagger away, bloody and bowed.

I quite often see posts and articles and memes on the internet which say that things can only hurt you if you let them. This is buggery bullshit. It is meant well. It is intended to be consoling. You have power over your own mind, says this encouraging school, and you can choose whether to take something to heart or not. You can choose to see the thing in perspective and to let it go and not to let it wound you. You are the captain of your soul and the mistress of your fate.

This is not true. It is nearly true. What you can do is learn to talk yourself down off the ceiling afterwards. You can learn to console yourself and to stop yourself obsessing and to bind up your own wounds. But you cannot prevent the wounds in the first place. No human is impervious. Hurt hurts. It’s what you do with it afterwards that matters.

I do work. Work is the thing. I do book work and HorseBack work. I update my red mare page and my happy horse page, which I set up to go with the book I wrote about, you will be amazed to hear, how to have a happy horse. On that Facebook page I put everything I know about keeping your dear equine peaceful and contented. So I feel in some tiny way that it is adding to the sum total of human happiness, and of horse happiness too.

I watch a race at Sandown and talk to a friend. I do not tell the friend about the punching and the biffing. No need to dwell on it, I think. Kick on.

I can fall into the beckoning pit of thinking: why now, why me, why that? Or I can examine myself for cuts and bruises and find that they are there but they are not fatal.


Hurt hurts, but it does not have to be the end of everything. And now I am going to walk the dogs and give the horses their hay and look at the gloaming and take a deep breath and start again.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Love and the Corn Laws.

This morning, I stood in a quiet Scottish meadow and talked about the repeal of the Corn Laws. This is possibly my favourite subject in the world and my kind friend The World Traveller was gracious enough to let me bang on about it.

The horses grazed on the end of their ropes, not much interested in vested interests and the man of principle that was Sir Robert Peel.

Then we talked about ten different things: children, and family, and our weaknesses and strengths, and the importance of manners, and how there is never enough time.

Afterwards, as I went back to my desk, I thought: I should start every day like that. Laughter and interesting chat and the balm of human sympathy can take a dull day and dazzle it with metaphorical sunshine. One good person can banish all the frets and worries and low level anxieties. There is something almost miraculous about that and I don’t take it for granted.

I did book work and then HorseBack work and then went on an epic six mile ride along the Dee valley on my red mare and she was so bright and brave and fine that I almost fell off with delight and gratitude. I whooped into the air and fell on her neck with love and told her, over and over, how mighty she is. She blinked her sweet eyes and let me get it all out of my system.


Outside, the sky is the colour of violets and my house is very quiet. Both dogs are asleep. I type these words, looking for a good place to finish. Love, I think. Today was all about love. Love, and gratitude. Two people, one human and one equine, made my ordinary life extraordinary today, lifted my heart and made me think that everything will be fine and stopped me falling down the rabbit hole of worry. If you’ve got the love, I think, you can do anything. 

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

The critical voice is definitely suffering from low blood sugar.


Edit, edit, edit, edit.

Cut that bit, says the critical voice.

But I quite like that bit, I say, trying not to sound plaintive. And it’s about love.

Love, schmove, says the critical voice. All this love is giving me a headache. Couldn’t you be cynical sometimes? You know, a bit jaded and world-weary and funny. This is all so fucking earnest.

Oh, I say, in a very small voice.

You are, says the critical voice, in a rare access of generosity, quite funny in life, I suppose. You make people laugh in life. But the minute you start typing it’s all love and buggery trees and the meaning of sodding life.

Well, I say.

Lighten up, says the critical voice. Give the punters what they want, which is a good laugh.

Yes, I say, wondering when the critical voice will get her coat and leave for another party. The all-you-can-eat buffet is finished and the last of the good claret has gone and there must surely be other people she wants to bitch at somewhere else.


The door slams. I breathe a gusty sigh of relief. I stare beadily at my earnest tendency, which stares back, unblinking. But, it says, there is nothing else apart from love and trees. Oh dear, I think. I’m buggered. 

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