Sunday, 26 June 2016

The little ships put out to sea.

Down in my quiet Scottish field, the sun shines and I work the horses. Yesterday, I cheered myself up with horses. The beautiful and brave Harzand won the Irish Derby to add to his English one and I shouted him home. My sweet domestic thoroughbreds are equally adept at lifting the heart.

Every so often, though, I feel something clutch at that heart. It is fear, and dismay, and regret. As if it were not enough that the global economy is rocking and rolling (I never knew the world would pay so much attention to little old Blighty), that pre-referendum promises are being torn up like old betting slips, that there are already plans for a Scottish breakaway, the two main parties have plunged into an orgy of internecine warfare. In the blue camp, the Anyone But Boris bus is revving its engine. In the red camp, half the shadow cabinet is on the brink of resignation: the stage is like the final scene in Hamlet, littered with corpses. The sunlit uplands seem very far away.

I sternly tell myself to retrieve my Blitz spirit. I shall be the little ships of Dunkirk. Every woman must do her duty. I shall work twice as hard. I shall write only cheering books, because everyone is going to need cheering books. I will look on the bright side. Perhaps Schumpeter’s gale is blowing; perhaps this is creative destruction. The Beloved Cousin said on Friday, as I told her of some of this: ‘Yes, we must rise like the phoenix from the ashes.’ I remember the seventies, and the three day week, and the feeling that poor old Britain was finished. She was not finished. The old lady rallied. She may rally again.

I quite wish everyone was not so cross, but perhaps they need to be cross. Perhaps there has been a great store of crossness building up in their breasts and it needed to be released. Even the winners are cross, oddly. Some of the losers are furious, but more of them seem to be sad and baffled. Many of the winners appear to be livid, which I don’t quite understand, despite my study of the human condition. (Study human condition more, I tell myself, adding another resolution to my list.) ‘Stop whining,’ they shout, on the social media. ‘Suck it up.’ I think, slightly bizarrely, that they should watch the racing more. Racing people are amazingly good at losing with dignity and winning with grace. They tend to be humble in victory. The trainers always give credit to anyone but themselves: a great horse, a great team, we were very lucky, they say, with sporting good manners. Nothing that is happening now is very sporting.

Work harder, be resilient, look for the silver lining. Dunkirk boats. Rally, rally. I put the horses back in their field and go to see the dear Stepfather. I think: I must make a joke, to cheer him up. My job, since my mother died, has been to cheer him up. If I can bring a smile to his poor face each morning, then my job is done. I make a slightly mordant joke about the forty new trade deals that must be negotiated, and the fact that Britain has no negotiators. Job opportunities there at least. I suddenly realise that was not really very funny. I try to make a Boris joke, but that does not quite hit the mark either.

He sits down, looking defeated. He is over eighty and he can’t see a way that any of this is going to get any better. I try my rally, rally tactic, but it gains no traction. In the end, I just listen, quietly, to his sorrow. All I can do now is give him an ear. I wonder what the stop whining brigade would say to this old gentleman, if they could see him.  Would they tell him to butch up, to get with the programme, to savour his new freedoms? I wonder what, precisely, those freedoms are. I wonder: what happened to empathy?

The little ships of my mind put out to sea. Dunkirk was a disaster, by any calculation. Yet the British cherish it as a kind of victory, in the odd way that Britons adore their defeats. A phoenix did flap her wings over that troubled sea, rising from the ashes of Europe. Can I be the captain of my small ship, the mistress of my soul? We are a sea-faring nation. Perhaps we can chug, chug, chug over this stormy ocean. 

Friday, 24 June 2016

Nobody knows what happens next.

The unexpected happened, and sterling fell off a cliff. It seemed that the majority did not quite believe that Brexit would really brexit. Many people thought the vote might be close, but the shrewd money was on the dear old British public reverting to their usual default mode which is one of phlegmatic, pragmatic steadiness. (I once wrote an entire essay on this premise, using it as an explanation for the reason that Britain had no nineteenth century revolution as Europe went into the raging, radical spasms of 1830 and 1845. Britain quietly passed the Second Reform Act and the Repeal of the Corn Laws and went on with her business.) But the Ordinary Decent Britons did not choose pragmatism. Half of them voted for steadiness, and half of them voted for revolution, and the revolutionary half won.

The markets started crashing so hard that some of them had to be suspended. The pound fell deeper and faster than it has since 1972. It made Black Wednesday look like the Teddy Bear’s Picnic. The leaders of the Brexit movement who spoke to the media were oddly unBritish about the whole thing, at least they did not speak in the restrained, sporting, self-deprecating way that I think of as Britishness at its best. They celebrated and whooped, whilst the economy faltered and stumbled and fell. When asked about that, they said, airily: ‘Oh, you have to expect a bit of economic volatility.’ Someone had sent out that word. I heard it three times. One of them stated, rather crossly, when asked about the plummeting pound: ‘This is Project Fear again.’ 

I felt confused. This was not Project Fear, it was Project Reality. The very thing the experts had warned about was coming true, before my stretched eyes. I did not understand those Brexit leaders. I did not understand what they were celebrating so blithely. I did not understand their tone. If I were in their shoes, I would be sober, and humble, and firm of purpose, and slightly chastened. I would temper my day of jubilee with a serious acceptance of the consequences, of the turmoil unfolding all around.

I would not be saying, as Nigel Farage said, that this was ‘a victory for real people, for decent people.’ The blatant implication was that I, who felt defeated, obviously did not count as a real person or a decent person. Everybody I talked to, in the same state of shock and desolation, could not be, in the Farage book, real or decent. What were we? Unreal and indecent? The country, riven, needed reassurance, the promise of unity, and it got Us and Them.

I could not sit still as the Today Programme unfolded. I went out into the sunshine, marching the dogs off their feet, desperately dialling the numbers of old friends. I spoke first to a man I have adored since we were eighteen. He runs a business; he is one of those company bosses that the Brexit leadership said needed a wake-up call. His share price had tumbled thirty percent. ‘I’m worried about the pension funds,’ he said.  He was not concerned for himself, but for those pensions. That was one of my original frets. I had the real people in my head, despite what Mr Farage had to say about it. I was worried about Mrs Everywoman, who had saved all her life, and her pension, which was now fading before her eyes..

I spoke to another old friend, who is a freelance photographer. ‘I don’t know what to do or where to go,’ he said. ‘There is no one who speaks for me. I’m damn well going into politics. I’m going to start a new party. It’s time for the SDP 2.0, for the progressive voice.’

I called one of the best of the best beloveds, who started up a business from scratch that makes television programmes. He has worked his arse off for twenty years, to make it a success. ‘I don’t understand anything,’ he said. ‘It does not feel real.’

My dear friend the World Traveller, who once rode the silk route on Mongolian ponies and camels from God knows where, and is not afraid of much, drove up to my door, a blank look on her face. ‘I find this very frightening,’ she said. ‘I want to live in a country that is open and welcoming and diverse.’ We talked of the extraordinary, dedicated Polish woman who was one of my mother’s carers during her final illness, who worked two jobs, who came back in after a long day, gave her children their tea, and then went out for a night shift. ‘How can I look her in the face, after all this?’ my friend said.

In a daze, I drove up to the charity where I volunteer. I saw a gentleman who was once in the King’s Troop. ‘I know one person who will be pleased,’ he said, grimly. ‘Mr Putin will be rubbing his hands together in glee.’ I was introduced to a visiting brigadier, very upright, radiating intelligence. ‘I really don’t know what happens next,’ he said. If the brigadier does not know, I wondered, dolefully, then who does?

I suddenly realised, as I got home, that I had spoken to a perfect cross-section of society, from old to young, from metropolitan to rural, from the boss of a blue chip company to an Oxford graduate to a man who was brought up in a children’s home to a veteran who fought for his country. I spoke to a mother, an ex-policewoman, a Royal Marine, a retired book dealer, a man in the arts. All had the same shell-shocked, dazed response. I thought of that little charity, which is making a difference, which is just finding its feet and ready to expand its work. How will we raise the funds we need now?

My adored stepfather, who is still reeling from the loss of my mother, stared bleakly into his now uncertain old age. ‘I did not want my final years to be like this,’ he said, very quietly. ‘I no longer know what they hold for me.’

How, I thought, will anyone work out what happens next?

Yet, this is the demos. The people have spoken. Their decision is heartfelt, and must be honoured and valued.

But it does not feel quite as simple as that. Seventeen million people got what they wanted. Sixteen million are left voiceless and powerless and bewildered. They watch the world markets falling, as billions of pounds and dollars and yen are wiped off the global economy. They sit in shock as big companies already announce that they are moving jobs from London to Dublin and Frankfurt. They try to comprehend that Britain has gone from the fifth richest nation to the sixth, in one night. They, real people that they are, worry for the future their children must face. 

Democracy is the thing I believe in passionately, yet here in Scotland, whose people voted to Remain to the tune of 62%, the result feels oddly jarring, not very democratic at all. (It feels, to my irrational mind, as if the rest of the country has said: you don't count. Of course it is not as simple as that, but that is what it feels like.) The will of the people is what all this is about, but the Britons under twenty-five, 72% of whom wanted to stay in, have their will ignored. And they are the ones who will have to live longest with this result. ‘What about the young people?’ says one of the old friends, on a dying fall.

This is not like a general election. In a normal election, if you back the wrong horse, or hate the result, you get another go in a few years. You suck up your disappointment and butch up for the next fight. This is for good and all. There is no going back, no second chance. I have seen people on Twitter saying that it is a brave new dawn, and that those of us who don’t like it should be quiet and stop whining. But surely if this is about the voters, about democracy, about real people with real human hearts, the sixteen million should be honoured just as the seventeen million are. Their feelings should be allowed to exist. Their freedom of expression should be respected. They should be heard.

I am not pointing fingers or calling people names. I am not even saying that the Brexiteers are wrong. I don’t know that they are wrong, any more than they know that they are right. Perhaps those sunlit uplands of which Boris Johnson spoke will one day make themselves seen. But the reality of this moment is uncertainty, instability, a chaos that did not exist yesterday, and did not have to exist today. I simply feel bereft, sorrowful and as if the ground that I stand on is no longer solid.

Because nobody, nobody, knows what happens next. 

Thursday, 23 June 2016

In which EM Forster gets my vote.

It’s been a rather horrible three days. Sometimes a perfect storm arrives, a vicious combination of emotional turmoil, family stuff, events in the world. I can deal with one, I can deal with two, I can’t deal with three. So I go quiet for those missing days, away from the internet, away from all the shouting voices. In those times, I close the door and sit still in my room and wait for that storm to pass. I always know it does pass and I always forget it does pass. I sometimes speak out loud to myself as I tend to the horses in the silent field, talking myself down from the ceiling. I think: human hearts are great things and human hearts are fragile things.

The wrangling and brangling of the last few weeks, the accusations and bogus posters and sometimes cynical tactics – all that has not been dear old Blighty’s finest hour. I have an odd belief in Britain. It’s a little curious to believe in a country. Countries are, after all, fairly random collections of humans. This country has a long and chequered history. It’s a mutt of a country, a cross-breed of cultures and events and rights and wrongs and ethnicities and bloodlines. And yet, I do believe in it. I don’t like to see the old lady as fractured and cross as she is at the moment. I’ve found it oddly upsetting.

I also hate picking sides. I’m a bone-deep liberal, and I see both sides of pretty much every argument. This is very tiring. In this argument it is especially tiring, since both sides are right and both sides are wrong. It’s being presented as a binary choice, but there is nothing Manichean about it. It is not hope versus fear, or light versus dark. It’s also been a mess of category errors. Some people have behaved appallingly, but this does not mean that the argument they represent is wrong. Resist the ad hominem, I tell myself, over and over, look at the pure principles.

In the end, I went and put my cross in the box, not with any sense of dancing delight. I did not think, as I do at general elections: this is what the Pankhursts fought for. The arguments about the democratic deficit and the absurdity of a European Supreme Court trumping British law are unanswerable. But in some ways, they are head arguments. I went, in the end, with the heart argument. My heart says: let us be part of something wider, greater, more hopeful. That foolish heart understands all the flaws of the union, and there are many, but does not want to pull up the drawbridge and retreat, but roll up its sleeves and work to make it better. The heart tells me that if I turn away I am a wrecker, and I don’t want to be a wrecker. I worry about the economy on a very human level: the old ladies with their pensions, the young apprentices who have just got their first chance, the small businesses who need their market. The ship has only just steadied after the stormy seas of the world financial crisis; I could not bear it to be tossed by a self-imposed tempest.

Most of all, and this perhaps is not my own finest hour, I voted to stay in Europe because I fear muddle. EM Forster wrote: ‘Take an old man's word; there's nothing worse than a muddle in all the world. It is easy to face Death and Fate, and the things that sound so dreadful. It is on my muddles that I look back with horror - on the things that I might have avoided. We can help one another but little. I used to think I could teach young people the whole of life, but I know better now, and all my teaching of George has come down to this: beware of muddle.’

He also wrote: ‘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.’

And, in the same book, he said that by the side of the everlasting Why there is a Yes.

I want to say yes, rather than no. I’m going to stand in the sunshine, even though that sunshine is sometimes shadowed by clouds. It may be that I am the only person in Britain today who voted to remain in Europe because of A Room With A View. There are a hundred good reasons to vote for either side, and all of them may be defended with reason, bolstered with practicality, galvanised with intellectual argument. My reason is a faintly bonkers one, but it is my reason. It won’t convince anyone else, nor is it meant to. This is not an evangelical reason; it is a private one. I vote for the Emersons, for the sunshine, for the yes, for the beware of muddle. 

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Theatre of dreams. Or, there is no such thing as only a horse.

The sweetest moment yesterday was when the ravishing filly Quiet Reflection put her dear head in front and ran straight and true to the line. Her honesty and straightness were decisive, as her nearest rival veered across the track, throwing away his chance. The sweetness was not just because she is a very good, very lovely girl. It was because she was owned not by someone with millions in the bank, or someone who heads a whole country, but by a syndicate of Yorkshire owners. 

They were, as one commentator said, ‘ordinary people’. They went to Ascot with hope in their hearts, and their fine filly made their dream come true. Watching the finish, they forgot any idea of occasion and protocol and went bonkers, leaping in the air, hollering, hugging each other, crying tears of joy. 

Everyone was crying tears of joy. Quiet Reflection’s lad was weeping on national television; apparently afterwards he said ruefully that he hoped his mates would not have seen that, or he would never hear the end of it. Her jockey, Dougie Costello, was also crying openly. ‘I’m getting a bit emotional,’ he said, wiping his face. This time last year, he was riding in bumpers at Market Rasen. He switched codes from the jumps to the flat, and suddenly, here he was, on the biggest stage of all. When he went to collect his prize, he took his tiny daughter on to the podium with him. She sat contentedly in her father’s arms, too young to know that she would be hearing about this grand moment for years to come.

It might seem a little odd, all this emotion. These are toughened professionals, after all. They get up every morning with the dawn, and they know that this is a job of highs and lows, of dashed hopes, of forgotten dreams. For all the pomp of the Royal Meeting, it is still a day at the office. But they start planning for this when the young horses come in with the stirring of the spring. They start thinking about Ascot when the old campaigners return from their winter break. They watch and hope and plan and plot. They look for the confirmation of class, for the sudden flash of unheralded brilliance, for that little bit of work on the quiet gallops that might change everything. Everyone would like to win a good race at Newmarket or York or Goodwood, but the Royal Meeting is the pinnacle, the theatre of dreams, the place unlike anywhere else. ‘It’s why we get out of bed in the morning,’ the jockeys say. And that is why you see hard men in tears.

Today, one of the people I love most in the world has a hoof of a horse who is lining up to take his chance. She is part of one of those syndicates, another one of those ‘ordinary people’ (although of course there is nothing ordinary about her at all; she is a most remarkable human). She rings me from the car, her voice rather tremulous. ‘I’m trying to contain the emotion,’ she says.

‘I was trying to contain the emotion,’ I say. ‘But that ship has sailed.’

Her fella is a handsome, bonny horse, with an intelligent outlook and a genuine heart. He’s not very big, but he is beautifully put together, and he’s got a lovely temperament. He listens to his jockey, who can put him anywhere in a race. He’s got a chance. I’ll be trembling in the preliminaries, and shouting my head off in the race. ‘It’s Ascot,’ I keep say to my old friend. ‘Anything could happen. Let’s just hope he runs his race and comes home safe.’

‘Yes,’ she says, trying to be very grown-up and sensible. ‘It’s enough of a treat that we are even here.’

It’s only a race, some people might say. Some people might say: it’s only a horse. Some people are right, logically speaking. But the heart, which is not logical, knows that there is no such thing as only a horse. 

A thoroughbred, all fleetness and beauty and courage, can make the spirit soar like nothing else. I rode my own dear mare this morning, after a long time off. I’ve had a sore back, and we went very gently. She gave me her best dowager duchess canter, moving tenderly and smoothly as if she knew that my poor old body could not take a jar. 

She is closely related to all those mighty creatures who will be flying over the turf today, but she went as softly and slowly as a seasoned cow pony. She’s still an Aston Martin, but she was happy to go along in second gear. That feeling of controlled power, the kindness and peace flowing out of her fine body, the harmony of horse and human is like nothing else. It is elemental, visceral, beyond words or thought. No such thing, I think, as I get off and lead her back to her paddock, as only a horse. 

Friday, 17 June 2016

Triumph and tragedy.

Yesterday was a haunting and strange day.

The third day of the Royal Meeting started off with great loveliness. The rain stayed away, the Queen looked happy and excited, the ravishing filly Even Song flew to victory, filled with promise for the future. In the Gold Cup, my dear old Clever Cookie did not have his day, but the mighty Order of St George did. He was the class horse in the race, and, for all my love of the underdog, there is something that makes my heart beat about seeing that class rise to the top, as it should. But the Gold Cup is a rough old race and one where anything can happen, and Order of St George had never run anything like this distance before.

A French horse, whom everybody knew stayed all day, tore off in front, and I thought for a horrible moment he had stolen the thing. Then the pack started to ruck up behind, and Order of St George was stuck in the melée, with no way out. He was buffeted about, surrounded on all sides by a wall of hard, thoroughbred flesh, and all Ryan Moore could do was, as they say in racing, sit and suffer.

When the gap finally appeared, it might have been too late for many horses. But not for this fine fella. He put his skating shoes on and ate up the ground. He was the best, and he was not going to let anyone else steal his limelight. On he galloped, faster and faster, stretching out that mighty athlete’s body, feeling the blood of champions run through his veins, hearing the ancestral voices in his head. On he flew, into unknown territory, and in the end, after all that drama, he made it look easy, in the way that really good horses do. It was not easy. He had to fight for it. He had to want it. He had the class, but it turned out that he had the courage as well.

There was a great deal of joy. He’s a good horse and a popular horse and he was well backed and there is a lot of affection and admiration for his trainer, Aidan O’Brien, and a lot of awe for the talent of his jockey, Ryan Moore, whom many people think is the best man riding in the world today.

As all this went on, something strange and frightening started happening, out in the world. Twitter is a great gathering place for fans of the thoroughbred, and I follow it all day when the racing is on. In between the banshee yells of delight, there was actual news from the actual world. The news was shocking. Jo Cox, an MP, had been shot and stabbed whilst on her way to a constituency surgery. She was 42, a wife and mother of young children, and a dauntless campaigner for human rights. The man who had attacked her had, according to these fragmented reports, shouted something like ‘put Britain first’.

I felt very dislocated. I did not understand. This is not the kind of thing that happens in Britain. People make jokes about MPs; they don’t shoot them. There is no gun culture in this country. (The last official gun homicide figure I can find is 58 in one year.)

Disturbed and unsettled, in a jagged kind of unreality, I turned back to the racing. The sun had come out and Ascot glowed and gleamed. There was another happy result, as the big handicap was won by Jamie Osborne, a trainer who was a very old friend of my father’s. I remember him from my childhood and my teenage years, when he first came to Lambourn and he was raw and young, and Dad used to take him to the pub for a pint. And there he was, in his top hat, shouting his fella home.

On Twitter, in the real world where real things were happening, it said that Jo Cox had died.

The last race was won by a nice horse for Alan King, a good man who mostly trains over the jumps, ridden by Willie Twiston-Davies, a young jockey who started his career at the age of sixteen riding over the Grand National fences. It should have been a moment of great celebration. But a shadow had fallen over the sun. In some kind of awful, dramatic foreshadowing, the Queen’s colt took a false step and broke his leg and had to be put down. Even though a horse can do this in the stable, in the field, on a quiet day at home, it is always a horribly sad thing to watch. It fills one with regret, and takes a the joy out of the race. But out in the world there was a great human tragedy, too big to comprehend. Britain first? This was the least British thing in imagination.

I stared blindly at the television. Down at the bandstand, where music traditionally plays after the last and all the happy racegoers gather to have a sing-song, the military band in their red tunics and their bearskins struck up, of all things, Land of Hope and Glory. This land suddenly did not feel glorious or hopeful. Everything was jarring and wrong.

I went down to see to my own horses, in my quiet, Scottish field. I did not know what to do or what to think. This Ascot week is usually about the best of British, and now it was about the worst. Nobody should be singing, or smiling, or shouting horses home, or playing songs, or feeling happy about anything. All those simple human pleasures seemed wrong and gimcrack.

I stood with my sweet mares for a long time. And suddenly I thought: perhaps that band damn well should go on playing. Perhaps that is exactly the point. Perhaps Land of Hope and Glory is the very song. Because if fear and horror and sorrow win the day, then the bloody wreckers and haters have got what they wanted. I don’t know who that man was or what he sought, but he made me think of the dark forces who would like to destroy everything that is good about this country, who operate on hate and fear, who despise the other, who want to take away the pluralism, tolerance, diversity, the very cultural melange which makes Britain interesting and good. They want to close minds, point fingers, put up barriers. I thought that a woman such as Jo Cox, who was one of the remarkable, rare, truly fine people who make a difference,  who once said that there is more that unites humanity than divides it, might want the band to play on, literally and metaphorically.

After this long time of thinking, I went back inside. I made some green soup. I tried to count the good things, the cheerful things, the hopeful things. The dogs, exhausted from their evening dash about the meadows, slumbered gently. Everything was very quiet. I thought I would, after all, do my usual thing of watching the racing back. I record it every day, and watch it again in the evening. I did not have much heart for it now, but in some very bonkers way I thought that sitting and feeling sad and beaten would be a form of giving in. It’s exactly what the wreckers want.

As I pressed play, a collage of Ascot pictures came up on the screen. And there was one lovely shot of three smiling faces, leaning on the rail around the paddock. On the right was a Sikh man in a very smart suit and an elegantly tied turban. He had his arm round his Best Beloved. She was leaning into him and laughing, her black hair coiled beautifully under a chic pink hat. To their left was a young woman, with very pale skin and dark hair, with a delighted, uncomplicated smile on her face. It was impossible to know what nationality she was. She could have been Irish, or English, or Welsh, or Polish, or French, or Scottish.

Ascot is not a famously diverse event. It is quite white. Racing as a whole is quite white. It’s not that usual to see Sikhs out in force. But this gentleman looked completely at home, as much a part of this very British tradition as those military bands and those Windsor greys and the Queen herself. All three humans were united, across their different heritages, in the joy of the grand occasion. It was not possible to tell whether they were there for the horses, or for the pomp, or for the party, or for the pageantry, or for the craic, or for all of it. They had made a huge effort, and they looked wonderful. What shone out from that snapshot in time was that they were having the best time, united in sheer pleasure.

When the darkness falls, I cling on to silver linings as if they were life-rafts. It’s easy to let go of the small things, the green shoots of hope, the tiny proofs of love, and drown in the stormy seas of bad news, and human tragedies, and horrifying world events. This picture was my silver lining. No human with a gun can shoot that away. The band, somehow, somewhere, will play on.

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Yesterday, Lady Aurelia devastated. Today, Clever Cookie fires my old racing heart with hope.

On Wednesday, after two great mares delighted the crowd on the first day, another girl stepped into the spotlight. I’d love to say stepped shyly because that would sound better, but there was nothing shy about Lady Aurelia.

She was, in some ways, a bit of a dark horse. Nobody really knew very much about her and this was for a very good reason. She is two years old and she has run once in her life, on dirt, over four and a half furlongs, a distance that does not exist in British racing. She had never run on turf, had never run outside of America, had never so much as sniffed Ascot, had never gone five furlongs, had never encountered soft ground. The list of things she had never done were as long as your arm.

What she did have was Wesley Ward. I love Wesley Ward. He’s always smiling and he’s only just learnt to do up his top button. He is a man who seems most at home in jeans and a polo shirt, and the whole top hat and tails schtick makes him look like a very happy, very small boy who is dressing up for a fancy-dress party. Yet he has made this party his own. He comes over from America each year with a string of speedy stars, and every year he reaps the glittering prizes.

A lot of American trainers fight shy of British racing. It’s so different from the American version, and there is so much to lose. Great reputations can be brought to dust. Ward adores the Royal Meeting and has no fear. Last year, he gave us his might filly Acapulco, who drew gasps in the paddock because she looked more like a four-year-old colt than a first season filly. Often, the baby fillies are described, in the vivid racing term, as ‘unfurnished’. This means they have not yet grown into their physical selves. They are light and a bit on the leg; they still have some growing to do. Acapulco was furnished all right. She looked like a fierce creature, and she won with a blast of speed and power.

Lady Aurelia was nothing like as big as her mighty predecessor, but she had the same sense of packed power, of deep muscle, of developed athleticism. Still, she had a few questions to answer. Five stiff furlongs on rain-softened ground could easily blunt that blazing speed she had showed over the shorter trip on dirt.

She answered those questions in a minute flat. She broke quickly from the stalls, and had them all in trouble by half way. She cruised along in the middle of the track, as talented fillies struggled behind her. She seemed to be going as fast as a horse could go. Frankie Dettori sat motionless on her broad back. And then he just shook the reins at her. He did not need to. The race was pretty much in the bag. It was as if he was saying, come on then, princess, let’s see what you can do. Lady Aurelia said: ‘You’d really like to know? Watch this.’ And she put on her turbo boosters and roared away from the field, by five, by six, by seventh lengths. ‘Lady Aurelia,’ shouted Simon Holt, in hoarse disbelief, ‘is going to absolutely destroy them.’

The filly won with her head on her chest. Frankie Dettori will never have had an easier ride. The official distance was seven lengths, but it looked more like nine. It could have been ten or twelve if Frankie had asked for more. Lady Aurelia was hardly out of second gear. Hardened race-goers were lost for words. People ran out of superlatives. Nobody was quite sure what they had just seen. And the good filly, as if entirely unaware that she had just put a dent in the laws of physics, walked back into the roiling cauldron of jubilation as if she had been out for a nice little exercise canter.

Today, the big race could hardly be a greater contrast. The centrepiece is the Gold Cup, two and a half searching miles for battle-hardened stayers, most of whom have no secrets. This is a race for heart and guts and strength and stamina. It brings out all the most admirable traits in the thoroughbred – the honesty and the courage and the cussed will to win. It is for the ones who give every last inch of themselves. 

The class horse in the race is Order of St George, who is flying the flag for Ballydoyle. If he gets the trip, he could show us something magnificent. The heart horse is Clever Cookie, a dear old fella from one of the smaller yards. He’s trained by Peter Niven, who used to ride over the sticks, and Clever Cookie himself has run over hurdles, although he’s now become something of a standing dish on the flat. He’s eight years old, very bonny and bright, and he always tries his best, and he’s become a great favourite with the crowds.

Today, he too goes into the unknown as he’s never run quite this far before, although the charming thing is that he was really bred to be a staying chaser. He loves to get his toe in, so the ground will hold no fears for him, and his fighting heart may see him through the marathon distance. He’s up against the big boys, and the favourite is already odds-on, but he’s my sporting bet at 10-1. If he could acquit himself with honour, I would cry tears of love. But he's one of those horses who owes nobody anything. He's already given a huge amount of joy. In some ways, it will be pleasure enough simply to see him there, with his dear ears pricked and his head held high, brightening up the day by doing nothing more than being his enchanting, genuine, bold self. 

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Jennies Jewel glitters and gleams. Or, dreams really can come true.

Many years ago, Dick Francis wrote that there are no fairy tale endings in racing. Yesterday at the Royal Meeting, a true racing fairy tale did come true.

Jennies Jewel, the nine-year-old mare from the small Irish yard, the winter horse most often seen slogging her way over the hurdles of Punchestown or Thurles in freezing weather, the mare who has played second fiddle to the stars from the big, powerful stables, stepped on to the grandest stage of all and had her moment in the sun.

It was a literal and metaphorical sunny moment. After glowering skies and torrential downpours, the sunshine finally arrived and cast its gentle beams down on the emerald turf.

Jarlath Fahey, the trainer of Jennies Jewel, has six horses in his yard. The Godolphin team was bringing eight times that many to this meeting alone. They had four horses running in the Ascot Stakes. Fahey was up against Willie Mullins and Nicky Henderson and John Gosden and Dermot Weld, fresh from winning the Derby. His young jockey, Ronan Whelan, looks about fourteen but is in fact twenty-three. He is in the early days of his career, and he faced Ascot specialists, champion jockeys, tactical geniuses, old hands who were riding winners before he was born. Frankie Dettori won his first Ascot Stakes when Whelan was six years old.

Jennies Jewel did not know any of that. She did not know that she was in the presence of the Queen. She did not know that millionaires and billionaires were sending in their big guns against her. She did not know that the world was watching. She just knew that she felt pretty good about life. She preened in the paddock, looking splendid, cantered down to the post with the poise of a dressage diva, and set off in that long, long race with her dear ears pricked. Well, she seemed to be saying, this looks like fun.

The two humans did know it, but they were not daunted. ‘She’s so honest,’ they said. ‘She’s so straightforward. She just doesn’t know how to run a bad race.’ Whelan had so much faith in his mare that he sent her at once to the front and kept her there. Apparently, she does not like being crowded, so he decided to give her plenty of space and not get hustled and bustled in the twenty-strong field. He had a plan, and he was sticking to it.

I can’t tell you how difficult it is to go out in the lead in a top race and stay there. The rider has to judge the fractions to a second. The danger is that the horses in behind see a perfect target to aim at, and come and swamp you at the line. You can feel like a sitting duck.

Jennies Jewel might not be a championship horse in a champion stable, but she is genuine and brave and she stays all day. Every time the field came to her, she switched up a gear, giving a little bit more, so that soon she had the others strung out behind her like washing. She pointed her toe and pricked those charming ears and danced her way over Ascot’s storied turf. At the two furlong pole, I thought she was going to win by a street.

But then they started coming for her. One by the one, the horses who still had something to give mounted their challenge. She had found some of them out, and decent horses at the back had given up, but there were a few with petrol still in the tank. She fought off one, she fought off two, she fought off three. She’s going to hold on, I thought. She is as tough as teak and nothing can catch her.

But then, on the outside, picking up speed and storming home, came the terrifying flash of the Godolphin blue. Qewy was flying down the straight as if he had sprouted wings. I was screaming my head off. Stanley the Manly was barking hysterically. The commentator was roaring: ‘Jennies Jewel is looking vulnerable’. Oh no, I thought, she could not be caught now, not after all this, not in the dying strides, not in the shadow of the post.

For the first time, Jennies Jewel put her kind, bright ears back, flat to her head. You little tinker, she seemed to be saying to the impertinent Qewy, you are damn well not getting past me, not now, not today. Today, I am the queen and everyone else is my courtier and you can bugger off.

Qewy tried his best, but his best was not quite good enough. The courageous mare stretched out her neck, stuck out her head, found another starburst of heart and guts and sheer, cussed will to win, and flashed past the post, the winner by a neck.

The place went mad. I went mad. The mare lifted her head and surveyed the turf she had made her own and looked as calm and composed as if she had never had a doubt. ‘This is the stuff that dreams are made of,’ said Jarlath Fahey. ‘She’s all heart and determination. She really gives it her all.’
Ronan Whelan took his first winner at the Royal Meeting with happy aplomb. ‘What a tough mare she is,’ he said, beaming. ‘What a joy. It means a lot to me - I am best friends with Jarlath's daughter Keira, we went to school together and his yard is where I first went to ride out. Keira and I came racing together today and I said to her look at us, we were children and we went to school together and here we are at Royal Ascot. We can't win today can we? But luckily dreams can come true.’

When I looked through the form on the morning of the race, I kept trying to find something that could beat Jennies Jewel. I’ve loved her for a long time because she is so honest and brave. I’ve watched her scamper after Willie Mullins superstars, because she did not know that she was 33-1 up against the cream of the thoroughbred crop. She’s a real trier, and I love few things more in life than someone who really, really tries. As I looked at the other horses, I kept finding question marks – the trip, the ground, a long time off the track. Jennies Jewel had no question mark. I started to think that I could back her with my heart and my head. But all the same, this was a dream, and dreams surely can’t come true, can they?

Yes, they can.

Many wonderful things happened yesterday. The American supermare, Tepin, showed that she really is the empress of the world, beating the boys in the Queen Anne. The thrilling young colt Caravaggio laid down his marker for future glory. Adam Kirby burst into tears on national television after the smart sprinter Profitable fought off all comers. Galileo Gold confirmed his class, and the Dettori smile lit up the low skies.

But nothing, nothing gave me more joy than that bright, bonny mare leading them all from pillar to post in the Ascot Stakes, wearing her heart on her sleeve, her medals blazing on her chest, dauntless, determined, damn well not going to let anyone steal her moment of glory. 

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

The Royal Meeting: Day One. The Mongolians are coming, and Jenny is a jewel.

This week at Ascot, the mighty Godolphin operation will have almost fifty runners. The Mongolians, by contrast, will have one. Yes, my darlings, the Mongolians. This is somehow the Royal Meeting in a nutshell.

Mongolian Saturday is a big, bonny, fast horse who is trained by Enebish Ganbat. Ganbat famously wears his traditional national dress to the races. One wag said that when he went to the Breeders’ Cup, people thought he had entered a Halloween fancy dress competition. The jokes stopped when his fella trotted up at 20-1.

He trains Mongolian Saturday in America now, but when he worked in Mongolia he had 200 horses who ran races of fifteen miles, against hundreds of competitors. ‘One time, my horse won a race which had 721 runners. He won by one kilometre. We could not see another horse.’ This kind of thing fills me with amazed delight.

On The Morning Line, Ganbat was interviewed about his first experience of the Royal Meeting. He had a lot to say, in his broken English. I loved it so much I wrote it all down. ‘This is very special because I know this is very famous old racetrack and every time Queen come to see this race.’ He stopped, and let out a wide smile. ‘For me, king and queen is very important thing. I think not many countries keep king and queen. Mongolia was socialist country, take off our king. King and queen is better for tradition, better for young people how they understand what is tradition, what is culture, what is history.’

The Royal Meeting is all about what is history. As the Queen comes down the course behind her mannerly Windsor greys, she is following in the footsteps of Queen Anne, who founded the track in 1711. The first races were run over four miles, in three heats, for the Queen’s purse of a hundred guineas. That is some good history, for the young people.

The first day is in some ways the best day. The meeting gets off to a roaring start with Group Ones fluttering like confetti. Aside from the flying Mongolians, there will be horses from Japan, France, America, Ireland. Wesley Ward will bring over his speedy battalions from Florida. The American supermare Tepin will grace these shores for the first time, with her beauty and her brilliance. The master of Ballydoyle, Aidan O’Brien, will have his glittering stars honed and polished to their peak.

But, rather oddly, almost the horse I am most excited about is a nine-year-old mare who will never make headline news. She’s called Jennies Jewel, and she is a three-mile hurdler. (This, at the greatest flat meeting in the world.) She is not a superstar; she is a household name only in this household. But I adore her. She always runs her race, with her ears pricked and her heart on her sleeve. Even when she is up against much superior company, she puts her head down and gives her all. She does not shy away from the fight; she is not afraid.

There are always great staying races at the Royal Meeting, and this is where the National Hunt horses have their chance to shine. The jumps trainers cast aside their Trilbys and their raincoats and put on their top hat and tails. Today, the ground is soft and the trip is two and half miles in the Ascot Stakes and this is where dear Jennies Jewel may come into her own. As the international raiders fly in, and the multi-million Godolphin stables throw every dart they have at the board, and the princes and potentates send out their good things, I love the fact that this sweet little mare, usually seen slogging round Punchestown in frigid January, might have her moment in the sun.

The fillies and the mares always make my heart beat faster. I think there is hardly a creature finer than a grand thoroughbred mare. There are two other lovely girls I’m looking forward to: the glamorous French Ervedya, and the tough and speedy  Mecca’s Angel, bred in Ireland, trained in County Durham. I can’t wait to see how the mighty Tepin adjusts to conditions she has never encountered before. But if I lose my voice, as I lost it after the Derby and the Oaks, it will be from shouting for the kind, willing, courageous Jennies Jewel.

Monday, 13 June 2016

Love, hate and swallows.

Out in the world, something dark and violent and ugly and fatal happens. On the television, everyone is talking about it. Quite soon, everyone is fighting about it. What was the cause? What is the solution? Who, or what, is to blame? (There must always be somebody to blame.)

And then, somewhere quite else, someone is writing about swallows. The talk of the nesting swallows reminds me of a man I used to know who lived in a house that was filled with wildlife. He didn’t really like it unless it was inhabited with birds and beetles. He died, from a stupid disease, much too young. Down at the horses’ field, my own swallows are flinging and flying. It seems hard, in the warm Scottish rain, to imagine the fifty lives which were just torn up as if they were so many pieces of paper, to imagine all those who grieve for them, who will miss them, who will never be quite the same without them.

I almost know why the shouting people shout. This is all very complicated and frightening and people want a nice, neat box to put horror in. There is a huge desire to blame it on The Other. The Other is safe, because it is not the enemy within. That’s the really scary one. The Other can take many forms – fundamentalism, terrorism, religious extremism, insanity. Those are easy, because they can be pointed at. They are over there. Hatred and violence and bigotry and the unravelling of the mental wires are more frightening, more complicated, more difficult, because they don’t belong in a neat box. They are not over there. They have their seeds in the familiar culture, in the zeitgeist, even, horribly, in the playground. From tiny seeds of prejudice, harmless name-calling, careless labelling, mighty oak trees of division and derision grow.

This was about lots of things. All those things will be shouted about in the next few days. And in the end, probably nobody will do anything. Everyone will call for action, everybody will say Something Must Be Done, and everyone will still be able to buy an assault weapon at Walmart.

One of the things it was about was hatred. The shooter hated gay people. Whatever else he loved, whatever else he hoped to achieve, whatever else was in his head, his hatred was clear.  That is widely reported, even by his own family. On the internet, there is footage of a choir called the Orlando Gay Chorus, singing True Colours in honour of the victims. It’s very moving. The camera pans along, and there are men and women, white and black and brown, young and old, tall and short, slender and rounded. How, I wonder, could you hate all those people? They are all so different. They are all such individuals. They sing so beautifully. What blind category error makes a person scoop them all up and hurl them into the hatred box?

Also on the internet, various memes are off and running. One of them goes: Love is Love. I always think this when everyone gets hysterical about equal marriage. Woman and man, woman and woman, man and man: love is love. It really is. I don’t know much, but I do know this. The privileging of one kind of love over another is so odd. I take your gay love and I trump it with my hetero love. It’s not a game of poker. This is not a royal straight flush. Love damn well is love.

The good part, because in every tragedy there are good parts, the merest slivers of shimmering silver lining, is that the hatred will, in many quarters, be countered with love, and there will be unity and sympathy and empathy and the holding out of hands. The bad part is that nobody really knows what to do about that kind of hate and some people don’t want admit it even exists and all the shouting people will go on shouting, mostly about otherness and the Second Amendment.

But someone, somewhere, is talking about swallows. And that is what I cling to, because when faced by the very big, the very cruel, the almost inexplicable, I can only hold on to the very small. 

Saturday, 11 June 2016

This moment.

8pm. In a quiet green field, with a soft rain falling.

I have my arm over the little brown mare, rubbing her neck as she eats her tea. Most horses hate to be touched when they eat. It is good manners to leave them alone. She loves it. If I stop rubbing and move away, she turns her head to me as if to say: where have you gone? Come right back here, she says, and keep me safe.

I’m  not sure I ever knew a horse who loves humans as much as she does.

The red mare is eating her own tea, in grand solitary state. The Paint tries all her stealth tricks to get a bite, but the wily old duchess sees her off. The Paint bridles and pulls herself into a contained rodeo leap. Her father is a Western champion, and she likes to channel him sometimes. Then she starts the stealth approach all over again.

Stan the Man has gone to look for critters in the woods. Darwin the Dog is swishing and swaying about my feet, faithful and questing.

A lone swallow flings himself over the meadow, flying sure and low. I wonder where his wife is. All the swallows are alone, just now. They are out, I suppose, whilst the good mammas are guarding the nest.

In my ear, Van Morrison is singing I’m Not Feeling It Any More. He may not be feeling it, but I am feeling it. I saw him sing this song once at the Fleadh, years and years ago. It lasted for about twenty minutes. The brass section went crazy. They were just riffing by the end, and Van was riffing with them, making those yelping jazz noises with his voice, as if he never wanted it to end.

I leave the horses and walk up over the bridge and through the trees. The Flaming Lips are now singing about Yoshimi battling the pink robots. She has to beat those damn machines. She will beat those damn machines. I had forgotten about The Flaming Lips. How could anyone forget about The Flaming Lips?

In the old cow barn, a wedding is in full swing. There is a lot of good Scottish dancing. ‘They are having fun,’ I say, with satisfaction, to the dogs. I sneak up and peer in through the window. A man turns round and looks slightly surprised to see a curious woman in a hat in the rain. It’s a nice hat. It’s a green hat. But I’ve already sat on it once, so it’s not what it was. I smile at the wedding man, a little rueful.

We head up the beech avenue and then double back and strike out across the wild meadow, where the grass is as high as my hip. The dogs, as if infected by the party music, start dancing too. Darwin needs no excuse to dance. Then they roar off into soaring lurcher races, their fast bodies close to the ground, all their speedy ancestry rising in them like smoke.

I sing out loud. There is nobody to hear. I don’t care if there is anyone to hear. It is James Taylor now, a very old friend. Then it is Dar Williams. That aching voice. It is a voice to end all voices.

The burn is still as glass and the dogs have disappeared into the rhododendron bushes where clearly they have important business.

I never want this walk to end.

But the gloaming is falling and it’s time to go home.

Write it down, write it down, says a voice in my head. You must never forget this.

You don’t always have to write it, says another voice. You could just live it.

I’d like to remember, though. I’d like to look back when I am old and grey and nodding by the fire, and remember.

This, this moment. This is all that matters.

Everything else is just noise. 

Thursday, 9 June 2016

Today, I am singing.

This morning, as the sun broke through the clouds, I sang a song. It took me a moment to realise what I was doing. Ah, I thought, I’m singing again. I know that everything is all right when I am singing.

Today is my mother’s birthday. I should be sad, but I was not sad. There are moments when I miss her so much that I don’t know what to do with my very physical self. And there are moments when I accept her loss, understand the new reality, which is a world without her in it. This is what time does. It allows the grief to settle and gentle. It makes a new place for the lost person, a safe place, stitched deep inside, so that you can carry them with you in your heart, wherever you go.

I think of her when I am with the horses. I think of how proud she would be when the red mare is soft and tender with the great-nieces up on her mighty back. I think of how she would be pleased that at last the little brown mare is on the road to recovery, is settling in and becoming part of the family. I think of my mother when I watch the races. I know exactly what she would have said when the fleet, courageous Minding, a filly who is slight in body but monumental in heart, fought her way through the jumbling pack, so dense and messy that it almost knocked her off her feet, and ran away with the Oaks. 

It was one of the bravest things I ever saw on a racecourse, and I could hear my mother’s voice in my head. She, like me, knew that there is nothing tougher in the world than a really tough mare, nothing more loyal, more willing, more unflinching. (Minding’s trainer, the master that is Aidan O’Brien, said of his filly before the race: ‘She would cut off her leg for you.’) My mother would have had the dying fall in her voice that she used when in the presence of greatness. Minding was greatness, and I wish my mum had been alive to glory in it.

One of the most precious gifts you can give a horse is time. Time to settle into a new place, time to learn new things, time to feel at home. If you give them your own time, offer them the present of learning to read them and understand them and trace the mysterious shadows of their equine mind, they will give you everything in return. Humans too need time. The gift you can give yourself is time. The new reality can’t be hurried. You can't rush grief, or skip the hard parts, or push yourself on before you are ready. Time is a miracle, like that. So, today, I can remember happy birthdays past, when I went to the house and cooked special festive food and brought flowers, instead of mourning birthdays present, when the loved one is no longer here.

Time does not erase, nor does it fix everything. It is not a soaring upward curve; it is not the Whig School of history. Tomorrow, I may cry. Today, I am singing.

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

What do you do about Gerald?

Come with me, Dear Readers, on a little thought experiment.

Imagine you know a person. Let us call him Gerald. Gerald does not know you very well, nor do you know Gerald very well, but he is in your life in the way that people sometimes are.

Gerald, blithe and bonny and with the very best of intentions, does something fairly regularly which you find catastrophically annoying.

Actually, annoying is not a very good word for it. You do end up feeling grumpy and resentful and annoyed, but at first the thing itself is not so much annoying as smothering, and battering, and even sometimes slightly alarming. There are moments, before you talk yourself down off the ceiling, when it feels as if it denies your very sense of self, your sense of agency, your sense of discernment. This, you know, is absurd, since the thing itself is so small as to be insignificant. So you end up not in an existential vortex, but just quite annoyed.

The problem is that Gerald has absolutely no idea of all this. Gerald thinks he is being kind and helpful. Gerald is kind and helpful. This makes you even more annoyed, because how can you be annoyed with nice Gerald and all his good intentions? You start to fear that you are not the decent human you pretend to be.

Well, any sane person is almost certainly saying, could you not simply ask kind Gerald to desist?

You could. That would be the Occam’s Razor solution. But the problem is that you don’t really know Gerald well enough. You fear that however politely you phrased it, the request would sound churlish and uncharitable. It would be a rejection, of sorts. It could come out all wrong, and cause pain.

Then you start to wonder: perhaps it is your very own problem. You reckon that if you put it to a straw poll, there might be quite a lot of people who think that what Gerald is doing is perfectly acceptable. Those people might look at you as if you are a bit nuts in the head. So maybe the solution lies not in confronting Gerald, but in confronting yourself.

You wonder whether this is the essence of being a grown-up. People are always going to do things that you do not like. They are going to tell you things that upset you, and neglect to do things that would make you happy, and carelessly trample all over your finer feelings without knowing what it is they do. Why is it their responsibility to put themselves in your rather eccentric shoes? Perhaps it is your job to butch up and deal with it. The world, after all, does not revolve around you.

Essentially, you have two choices. A: You ask Gerald not to do the thing, and you risk hurting Gerald’s feelings for no particularly good reason. Or, B: you work sternly on yourself and realise that you are not the star of your very own opera and that it is your responsibility to deal with your singed feelings and not other people’s job to step around your tender sensibilities when they have plenty of sensibilities of their own to be worrying about.

What would you do?

My feeling is: B.

Bugger. I’m pretty much convinced that B is the only answer. Which means that I have to be the grown-up. I like to think that I am a grown-up but the truth is that there are times when I find it very tiring. I quite want to be six years old and lie down in fury and drum my heels on the floor. But I am nearly fifty, and throwing all the toys out of the pram is not a good look, at this age. Bugger, bugger, bugger. 

Still, it's quite a relief to have worked all that out. Now I have to go and rummage for my sensible hat and put it on my sensible head and march out in my sensible boots to face the sensible day. 


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