‘Never,’ said my landlord, who is also my much-loved relation by marriage, ‘have anything in your house which is neither beautiful nor useful.’
We were having dinner last night and he was quoting William Morris but he did not know he was quoting William Morris. The saying has survived, but the man himself is often forgotten.
‘Yes, yes,’ I said, agreeing so much that I practically fell off my chair. ‘William Morris. That is William Morris. He was so right.’
In the spirit of William Morris, I am going to tell you something useful. If you should ever wake up in one of those inexplicable bad moods which make you want to shout fuck at the radio and kick inoffensive bits of furniture, here is what you do. Pick up some dung, ride a good horse, and make someone laugh. I think you will agree that I have now fulfilled my remit. Here is easy, practical advice that absolutely anyone can follow.
Actually, I’m only half joking. Obviously not everyone has a horse, but there is the metaphorical riding of the horse – something you love, something you can do outside, something physical, something that stops you thinking of your own idiotic frets and strains.
The inexplicable mood which crashed on me this morning was an old friend. I don’t know when I shall learn. I had had far too good a time in the last two days. I did horseback archery on my mare, and I took her to a place where everyone admired her and she was queenly and immaculate and stellar. Then my family arrived from the south – my adored niece, her very dear husband and their enchanting little boy, who is ten months old and is funny and jolly and entirely at one with the world. I had, as a Texan I once knew used to say, too much fun.
I get so involved and excited when glorious things happen that there is always a crash afterwards. I need to develop an emotional thermostat, a steady barometer, a Goldilocks not too hot not too cold metronome. I think it is good to have passions, but I have to think that, or it would be all up with me. But I also think that there needs to be a sturdy fulcrum which stops one swinging too far in each direction.
The mood snarled at me and I thought everyone on the Today programme was an idiot. I went crossly down to the field, almost resentful that I had to feed the horses and groom the horses and generally look after the horses. Then I did the required physical work, still muttering like Muttley, and then I got on the red mare and we cantered about as if we were in the Wild West and the snapping, snarling voices in my head grew fainter, as if they were starting to get bored.
I went up to my dear Stepfather’s house and showed him how to cook an omelette with herbs from his garden. He had asked me to do this and in my initial grump I had thought I would put it off, do it tomorrow. But it was such a small thing that I just did it. The growling voices were deathly fed up by now, and I could hardly hear them. Then I made quite a lot of entirely random jokes, as if I were throwing little comedic darts at a dartboard, hoping one of them might hit. Something smashed into the bullseye, and he laughed so much that tears came into his eyes.
My remit at that house, still so empty without my mother in it, is to fill it every morning with light and laughter. The stepfather is old school, and does not speak of his emotions, but I know he misses my mother with a great and enduring ache. I can’t cheer him up, precisely, but I can do what I can do.
When I saw him laugh like that, the last of the stupid voices took themselves off, to torment someone else. The mood ran for the hills. I could come home, get on with writing, address my day in a reasonable manner.
In the end, I suddenly realise, as I tell you this little story, I got myself back to a state of respectable humanity by being useful. I have had a theory for a while that if you want to make yourself feel better, you should do something for someone else. If you give a little of yourself, then you get yourself back. It’s a beautiful, virtuous circle. This morning