Thursday, 25 February 2016

Work and thoughts and better angels.

Sunshine and snow this morning. Horses and dogs in dazzling form, enjoying the light after a winter of dreich and rain.

Then it was work, work, work, work. It was words, words, words, thirteen hundred of the little darlings.

Also: thinking, thinking, thinking.

My brain scoots off on twenty-seven tangents and I have to corral it gently. I am afraid to say that sometimes I have thoughts which I think rather brilliant. (This is most unBritish and entirely indefensible.) I think: I must write that one down and share it with you. The Dear Readers will like that, I think. Then, when I get to my desk, the dazzling thought has entirely evaporated, leaving not a trace behind. Can’t have been that clever, I tell myself, grumpily.

I took a moment out of this maelstrom of working and writing and thinking to watch a race at Huntingdon. A very tough mare called Emily Gray was up against a Willie Mullins hotpot, who went off at long odds-on. But Emily Gray knows nothing of betting or mighty yards that drive all before them. She did not know that she was giving away weight to the favourite. All she knows is that when someone asks her a question, her answer is always yes. (I find this attitude in horses almost unbearably moving.) It looked as if she was going to get beat, as the Mullins mare ranged up alongside her, going the better of the two. But little Emily Gray turned her head and eyeballed her rival, said no, not today, you are damn well not going to get past. She threw every inch of her brave, fighting heart into it, and scrapped like a tiger to the line.

They once said of Mill Reef: he was something to brighten a morning. That little mare was something to brighten an afternoon.

My own sweet mare brightened my own morning. When I am with her, I manage to switch off my brain for the only hour of the day. It’s all heart and soul and feeling. We went into the woods and looked at the trees and the shadows and the mysterious places. We did a little dance. When a mere human is at one with all that great, grand thoroughbred power, there is no feeling like it in the world. She is so much finer than I; I aspire to her ravishing authenticity. Her mind is not cluttered with all the absurd thoughts and frets and desires that live in my mazy mind. There is a great purity to her. Sometimes I stand and gaze at her in awe and wonder. She has the astonishing talent of making me, for a short time every day, my best self. When I am with her, I feel the wings of my better angels flapping.

And now I must fall back to earth and go and get my poor bashed old car back from the garage. Every time I go there, which is quite a lot, they give me a look. The car is full of hay and rugs and horse feed. Its wheel arches are clogged with clots of Scottish earth from where I have driven across fields and run down muddy tracks and breasted potholes and skidded on the soft ground. It was once quite a nice car, the looks say, and then the insane horse lady got a hold of it. The better angels, defeated and chastened, flap off to the far horizon, knowing when they are beaten.

PS. As I finished this, I suddenly thought I should look up the better angels. It’s a phrase I use all the time, in writing and in speech, and I wondered where it came from. It turns out it is from Barnaby Rudge, a book I have never read. The whole passage is worth quoting, because it is magnificent.

‘The thoughts of worldly men are for ever regulated by a moral law of gravitation, which, like the physical one, holds them down to earth. The bright glory of day, and the silent wonders of a starlit night, appeal to their minds in vain. There are no signs in the sun, or in the moon, or in the stars, for their reading. They are like some wise men, who, learning to know each planet by its Latin name, have quite forgotten such small heavenly constellations as Charity, Forbearance, Universal Love, and Mercy, although they shine by night and day so brightly that the blind may see them; and who, looking upward at the spangled sky, see nothing there but the reflection of their own great wisdom and book-learning.
It is curious to imagine these people of the world, busy in thought, turning their eyes towards the countless spheres that shine above us, and making them reflect the only images their minds contain. The man who lives but in the breath of princes has nothing in his sight but stars for courtiers' breasts. The envious man beholds his neighbours' honours even in the sky; to the money-hoarder, and the mass of worldly folk, the whole great universe above glitters with sterling coin--fresh from the mint--stamped with the sovereign's head--coming always between them and heaven, turn where they may. So do the shadows of our own desires stand between us and our better angels, and thus their brightness is eclipsed.’

Isn’t it brilliant? Chance is such a funny thing. I might have gone my whole life without knowing that passage. But for some reason, because the thoughts I believed so clever had fled from my mind, I decided to write about my sweet mare, and she led me to dear old Dickens, and now I know something I would not have known. That is my happy moment of the day.


  1. Oh, how I love Dickens. I'm reading Bleak House right now. But Barnaby Rudge has never really figured on my radar before. I will have to start looking for a copy. Thank you...

  2. Dickens sure had a talent with turns of phrase, and he never missed a chance to criticize money lenders, with whom he was often in hot water! Or so it is said. I used to be quite fond of his stories, but I never could get through "Martin Chuzzlewit."

  3. What a lovely quotation. Thank you and Mr D. On a rather unrelated note, apparently CD wrote one of his novels in the oldest inn in the town where my mother lives in a care home. Seeing this notice somewhat cheers me up as I grump along muttering about how unfair things can be. Ok rant over and apologies for venting. Helen

  4. I'm not sure if you've read it yet, but I sent a reply to your earlier writing on the subject of Valentine's Day a few hours before this post was published. If you had set out to write a better response, I doubt if you could have done. The quotation from Dickens highlighted to me that placing too much weight on a single aspect of human existence is never a good idea.
    I will have to look out for my better angels. On this occasion they came in the form of your post.

  5. Your description Emily Gray puts me in mind of the wonderful filly Attraction. Not attractive in fact, in the classical way, but mind-blowingly brave on the track, beating her blue-blooded, correctly-actioned betters by toughing it out at the front. My goodness I nearly burst a blood vessel one autumn at HQ when she beat Stoute's fine mare Chic by a neck. Oh what a memory, what a day. Thank you for the reminder. God only knows why you are not writing for the RP - I'd still be reading it if you did :)


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