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. 

Friday, 25 November 2016

The ship sails on.

After yesterday’s horrors, I wake this morning in a different frame of mind. The sun is shining and I walk the dogs down to the burn. Scotland glimmers and gleams in the light. ‘Well,’ I think, slightly hilarious, ‘if this ship is sinking at least we shall go down singing.’

A kind man in the village does something for me which makes my life very, very much easier. Not only that, but he speaks generous words of sympathy and understanding. I stand, rather overwhelmed by his goodness, in his little shop in my gumboots and my hat and my muddy coat, listening to his words of wisdom.

‘Thank you,’ I say about five times, overcome with gratitude.

Down at the Co-op, a small boy is helping his grandmother with her shopping. He is perhaps eleven. He is wreathed in smiles, as if helping the old lady is all he wants to do in the world. I buy courgettes for soup and as I get to the car, I hurl them accidentally to the ground. I fiddle about with the keys and a voice behind me says: ‘Here you are.’

A smiling lady has picked the things up and is handing them to me. I am even more overwhelmed. Is the universe just sending me loveliness today, because it can? ‘That is so sweet of you,’ I cry. ‘Thank you so much.’ We beam at each other, as if we have a secret compact.
Back at the house, the lovely man from Scottish Fuels has arrived, despite his hectic schedule. ‘We might not be able to get to you till Monday,’ they had said, and I had resigned myself to a freezing weekend. ‘Oh, oh, oh,’ I warble, my voice now entirely out of control. ‘You came. That is so, so good of you.’

He too smiles. Everyone today is smiling at me. ‘Not a problem,’ he says, cheerfully. He looks at my three jumpers and my hat and my boots and smiles even more. ‘Now you can take the jumpers off,’ he says. I am quite bored of sitting at my desk in my hat and my boots and my three jumpers. ‘Yes,’ I cry, ‘I really can. All thanks to you.’

The horses are happy in the sun and my kind friend has done all the hard work, putting out the haynets and filling up the frozen water trough. It is as if dear elves have come in the night and fixed everything up, so all I have to do is stand with the magnificent creatures and do the love. The little brown mare in particular wants the love, and when I turn to go, she follows me, to get some more. I give her more. There is no end to the love.

I work and work and work. Yesterday, I felt as if I were getting nowhere and that all the words were pointless. Today, the sentences made me smile and some of them were even quite good.

And then, as I pass the side door, I see a small package that has fallen behind a chair. A friend has sent me a proof copy of her book. ‘Oh,’ I say, to Stanley the Dog, who was hoping it was Bonios. ‘Just look at that.’

I’ll just read the first page, I think. Just a quick peek. Ten minutes later, I am conscious of a slight crick in my neck. I look up. I have read twenty-two pages, standing in the hall, my head bent in concentration and delight. It’s a beautiful book, funny and fascinating and true. It’s the real thing. And this good writer went to the trouble to send it. So much goodness and kindness, I think, in a haze.

Yesterday, everything went to hell. Today, everything went to heaven. I still don’t really know how or why that happens. All I do know is that I feel very, very glad, and soothed to my soul. On we bugger, the dear equines and the dancing dogs and I, up and down and round the houses, sometimes on a stormy sea, sometimes over a ravishing calm. This dear old ship is a bit creaky, and it sometimes leaks, and it is not in its first flush of newness and youth, but it does keep sailing on.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Not even soup for supper.

No riding today as the ground is too hard. It’s been minus six every morning for a week. The light is ravishing and Scotland glitters and gleams, pristine and white with hoar frost, but it’s no weather for working a horse.

This gives me extra writing time. I work and work and work. Suddenly, instead of feeling a holy sense of achievement, I grow furious and frightened. All this thinking, all this typing, all these words, will they ever add up to anything? Will the agent ever ring with that good telephone call? I hunch my shoulders, suddenly terrified that I will never be able to make this into a proper, grown-up job. I spend so much time counting my blessings and looking at the beauty and searching for the silver linings and concentrating on the small things and trying to be a half-decent human and, all at once, despite all this striving, everything falls apart.

I feel the fear and despair run through me like an ache, like a blow. Oh, bugger, I think; this again. It comes from time to time, often when I am least expecting it. I know every day can’t be Doris Day, but really, do we have to go through this again?

It’s probably because you are cold, says my kind, sensible voice.

I forgot to ring the nice oil people (they really are very nice and always deliver incredibly quickly and with a beaming smile) and so the heating is off and I’m sitting in three jumpers and a hat and my gumboots in the office with one convection heater battling the chill. That battle is not being won.

Yes, says the sensible voice, you are cold and you’re a bit tired and you’re missing your mother and you’ve only got yourself to rely on and you are responsible for the hay bill and sometimes that’s all a bit much. It’s only human, says the sensible voice, to have a bad day from time to time.

Fuck that for a game of soldiers, says the furious voice, who is eight years old and has had too much sugar. I’m just spinning my wheels and everything is gone to hell and each time I look at the internet there’s that scary and clever financial gentleman who says that Britain is going into its worst economic crisis for seventy years. And who is going to have money for buying books then? We are doomed, yells the furious voice, and there’s no point to anything.

Are we extrapolating a fraction too far? says the pedantic voice, who has been in a bit of a state ever since a top writer misplaced a modifier this morning. (This feels like the world gone mad to the pedantic voice.)

You could always make some nice soup, says the sensible voice.

Soup!!!! I suddenly remember that I put on some celery soup to simmer this morning before I barricaded myself in the office with the heater. I rush to the kitchen. There, tragically, smelling of burnt dreams, are the charred corpses of my little chopped celery sticks. They huddle in the scorched pan, looking slightly apologetic, as if they really didn’t mean it.

Now I can’t even have soup, I think. I am fifty years old and I can’t remember to take the pan off the hob. It’s bread and water for supper and no more than I deserve.

We could list your blessings, says the sensible voice, hopefully; that will make you feel better. Bugger that, I say. I know that I could talk myself off the ceiling, I know that thoughts define my reality, I know all the things I should and could do. I wrote a whole bloody book about all those things. But you know what? I’m livid and I’m having a shitty day and I can’t be arsed. I’m just going to stare into the middle distance and be furious and you can damn well stop trying to make me feel better.  

The sensible voice and the pedantic voice are now going shopping, because they’ve just remembered that there is something on special offer. Either that, or they’ve run away to join the circus and I don’t blame them. And I’m going to sit here in my hat and feel crappy for a bit. That is my plan.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

The tiny triumphs.


A grand day. The sun shone, and a dear friend and I took both mares out for a walk and stood in the sloping meadow looking out over the hill and talked and talked and talked. The dogs had already been dancing along the burn with their small friend who is four years old. ‘Where has that Darwin gone?’ she asked sternly, slight exasperation in her voice.

I did a lot of work and then had a huge ride with our training partners in the Wobbleberry Challenge. This was mighty on at least eight different levels. It was hard exercise for mind and body, it had some moments of pure beauty in it so that I cried out into the bright air with admiration and pride, and the red mare remembered that her grand-sire did in fact win the Derby and put her racing shoes on for a moment and I felt her power. That power used to frighten me; now it no longer does. Come on, old lady, I said, we are both far too advanced in years for such nonsense. And then she settled herself and reverted to her usual dowager duchess self and the ancestral voices that were singing in her head stopped their siren song.

It was a day of achievements. They are all very small, in the ways of the wide world. In my world, they are vast, and they make me smile as I think of them. A triumph can still be a triumph, even if it is so tiny that it can hardly be seen by the human eye. Record those little victories, I think, so that when the failures come, you can go back and read and remember.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

The beauty versus the ugliness. I choose the beauty.

I heard something very, very ugly on the wireless today. I was going to write about it. I started writing about it. And then something in me died a little, and I turned away.

I did my work. At the moment, I’m beginning a new project which has actually been requested by my agent. For the last two years I’ve been doing everything on spec, which means I write and write and write and the agent says, well, yes, very nice, but we need more changes and a bit of this and a bit of that and I wrangle away with version after version and then nothing gets published and I want to go and live in a barrel.

This one is an idea which we cooked up together and is aimed at an actual gap in the market. It is a heart project and a commercial project. You may imagine my delight.

Part of the new project involves going back and looking at old writing. I’m going to use some of the old writing for the new book, which also delights me as I hate waste. As I was rummaging around in the archives this morning, I found a conversation I had written down with my smallest and most adored cousin. It took place two years ago, and I have absolutely no memory of it.

Thank goodness for the blog, I think, smiling as I read the words. Thank goodness that I listen to those lunatic voices in the head which yell at me: write it down, write it down. Thank goodness this little piece of loveliness has been preserved.

I heard something very ugly and it shocks me still. I’m putting up something beautiful and sweet and funny and true against it. Everyone fights ugliness in their own small ways. This is mine.

Here it is, from November 2014:

As always, I slightly forget the absolute enchantment of the family life with the Beloved Cousin. For enchantment it is. There has been a lot of cooking, picking the last vegetables from the garden, walking, admiring the apples still on the apple trees, watching the glorious polo herd have their happy winter off, and playing with the ravishing black dogs.

The Youngest Cousin has turned into a mine of wisdom and information. She looks at me very seriously and says things like: ‘You know, being pretty is not important. Being kind is. And being happy.’
            Grave pause.
            I say, with interest: ‘How do you know that? Did someone tell you?’
            Slightly reproachful look.
            ‘I do a lot of thinking, you know.’
            She is six years old.
            Then, gathering momentum – ‘Boasting is no good. Nobody likes a boaster.’
            ‘No,’ I say, chastened. I hope she is not referring to me. I think of all those blog posts about the wonders of the red mare and all the clever things she does. Has the Youngest Cousin been secretly reading the internet? And disapproving?

Then she moves swiftly on to information. ‘Do you know how many dinosaur names I know?’
            ‘No, I don’t.’
            She kindly lists them.
            ‘Do you know that whales can hear from really far away? A thousand miles sometimes?’
            ‘I did not know that.’
            She puts her head on one side. ‘They talk to each other,’ she says, slightly wistful.
            ‘What do they say?’ I ask.
            ‘Oh, I don’t know.  Hello I’m lost, I expect.’
            ‘I see,’ I say, trying to keep up.
            ‘Do you know how the Germans started the Second World War?’
            I’m on slightly surer ground now.
            ‘They invaded Poland?’ I hazard, trying to remember what would count as the definitive starting gun. ‘Or the Sudetenland?’
            Dismissive frown. ‘I don’t know that country, but they were very, very cross with the English.’
            ‘Yes,’ I say. ‘I expect that’s what it was.’

Then I get a little break while she watches an episode of Scooby Doo.

Soon, she is back for more. She fixes me with her basilisk stare. ‘Do you know?’ she starts. I have begun to see there is a pattern here. ‘Do you know?’ is her newest and most regular conversational gambit. I sit up straight and concentrate.
            ‘Do you know,’ she says, ‘that King Henry put gunpowder in the holes so that when the Spain came they blew up?’
I retire from the field, defeated. I have no memory of the Spain being blown up.

Can she mean the Device Forts?

I know better than to ask.

Monday, 21 November 2016

An ordinary Monday.

Minus seven this morning. The water trough is sadly empty, containing nothing but doleful ice crystals. I ferry buckets of hot water back and forth in the car whilst the red mare serenely eats her breakfast. My oldest friend calls from the south and says that it is raining so hard that when she goes out to the car to do the school run it is like someone has emptied a bucket of water over her head. I look up at the limpid blue sky and feel grateful. It might be cold, but it is so beautiful that I need new names for beauty. Then the oldest friend makes me laugh so much that I can’t breathe. She can do this out of nowhere, turning on a sixpence like a London taxi. If I wrote down the actual words she said, you would not laugh at all. It’s all in the timing and the tone. It’s in the thirty years we have been best friends. I laughed and laughed, doubling over, slapping my legs like a character in a cartoon.

The world is very mad at the moment, but that extraordinary human can make me laugh as if everything were bonny and blithe. That sounds like a small thing, but I believe it is a big thing. I think it is a huge thing. I sometimes think it is everything.

I talked to a few friends today. We spoke of politics and children and fear and family life and our own flaws and the songs of Aimee Mann and the Scottish light and dogs and the oddities of the internet and Iceland. They are very good at subjects, the friends. They are always interesting. They make me feel better than I am. This is an absurd gift and they give it, easily, naturally, without asking for anything in return.

I edit ninety pages of a new project. There always must be a new project. My brain stretches and creaks as the dogs doze in the warm house.

The light fades. The sky grows translucent and beckoning, as if it is trying to tell me the secret of the universe. I must go and do the horses, I think. I must put out the hay. The secret of the universe can wait.

Saturday, 19 November 2016

A very remarkable thing. Or, memories of Kauto Star.

Five years ago, on a gloomy day at Haydock, something very remarkable happened. At that time I was in the aftermath of my father’s death,staying with my cousin in the south and doing things with her children, and I never could tell what day of the week it was. I was so immersed in family life that I had completely forgotten that it was the Betfair Chase and that Kauto Star was running. I’m not sure I even knew it was a Saturday.

Once I opened the paper and saw it was a day for the titans, I made the whole family watch. The youngest was three. I explained to them all about Kauto Star and his glory days and how he was getting on a bit now and people were saying he was past his best and that Long Run, the young pretender, was coming to take his crown. I explained that all horses have their time at the top and his had been glorious but that it was probably in the past. I told them that quite a lot of people were, in a slightly bossy way, saying that Paul Nicholls should retire the grand old warrior.

Interestingly, I was not in this camp. Eleven is old for a champion, but it’s not that old, and it was Kauto Star, and Nicholls wouldn’t be sending him out to disgrace himself. And then I got cross about the doubters, because I always get cross about the doubters, and I bashed twenty quid each way on for love and loyalty and the old times we had had together. I think I fully expected that he would finish second or third and I’d have a bit of a shout and get my money back.

And that was when the something remarkable happened, and it really was remarkable, and I’ve never been so glad that I wrote something down. I wrote it all down, every word, and I’m reproducing it here in memory of a great horse, perhaps one of the greatest, who made me laugh and made me cry and made me catch my breath in awe and wonder. I miss him still, as if he were an old friend, gone too soon. But nothing can take away the memory of that extraordinary day.

This is what I wrote, in 2011:

It started off as a very ordinary day. The sun was muddling through an autumn mist. The Pigeon was looking very regal. We went to watch the Godson do some riding. There was delicious chard from the garden for lunch. I am always rather amazed that anyone would have a garden with delicious chard in it.

Then, I noticed in the paper that Master-Minded and Kauto Star were both running today, at Ascot and Haydock. I have been so out of touch that I had not realised this was happening. For those of you who don’t follow National Hunt Racing, this is a bit like Vanessa Redgrave and Judi Dench appearing on stage together.

They are not only two magnificent champions, but they are real old troupers. Master Minded is not actually that old, only eight, but he’s been racing in this country since he was four, so it feels as if he is an enduring fixture.

What is interesting about him is that people have often been keen to write him off. If you look at his figures, you find an extraordinary list of victories: 13 out of 18 races in Britain won. I think it was that when he first started winning big races he did it in a way people hardly ever see. He would demolish highly talented fields as if they were a bunch of selling platers. He would jump and gallop everything into the ground with soaring disdain. He was so much better than everything else it almost felt embarrassing. He would win at Cheltenham by 19 lengths, and pull up as if he had only just gone for a mild training canter.

So it did not even take for him to get beat for people to start sucking their teeth and saying he was not really as good as all that. If he won a race by 9 lengths instead of 19, the knowing sages would nod their heads and all but tap their noses and say he was on the decline.

I’ve always stuck with Master Minded, because I haven’t seen that many horses as truly majestic as he in my lifetime, and it’s almost as if I want to reward him for that brilliance by keeping faith with him. (I’m a bit sentimental about racing, in a way of which my late father would certainly not approve; when it came to betting he was flinty as a hedge fund supremo.) As a result, I’ve lost a bit of cash on him over the years, but I’m a great believer in putting my money where my mouth is.

He lost his last race: he looked lovely on the first circuit, flat on the second, got fairly easily beaten. My twenty quid went down the drain. Never mind. I was not down-hearted. There is a thing about very great champions, a mystery, an enigma that will never quite be solved: some days, the world-beater shows up, some days, it’s just a very good horse, who can be beaten by something else on its top form. I still thought the real Master Minded would pitch up later in the season.

And then there is Kauto Star. He is eleven, which is old, in racing years. Not geriatric, but a sure veteran. The young pretender, Long Run, had come last season and taken the Gold Cup. Worst of all, he had usurped Kauto Star’s crown in the race he had made his own, the King George at Kempton. Bear in mind Kauto is the only horse in history who had won that race four times in a row, the last time by over 30 lengths, against some of the best chasers in the country.

He is the mightiest and most beloved champion since Desert Orchid: first horse ever to win a Gold Cup, lose a Gold Cup, and come back to regain it; first horse ever to win fourteen group one races. There was a time when he seemed almost unbeatable. In his early days, he used to put in terrifying mistakes, quite often over the last fence when it seemed as if he had everything sewn up; in his later years, he could put in exhibition rounds, making such mighty leaps that it seemed as if he had wings.

The thought was, though, that his great days were all behind him. People were muttering about retirement. Today, he was facing three tough miles, up against much younger horses, at least four of whom had big wins under their belts. He might fall, be pulled up, get tailed off; the talk was that if he did not run well today, he would be retired on the spot, and that is the last we would all see of him.

I’m going to give both my heroes another chance, I thought. I got distracted by children’s lunch, and did not get my bet on Master Minded on in time. Still, it was a great delight to watch him prove his knockers wrong, and trot up, back to his talented best.

Then there was an hour before Kauto. I’ll just put on a little twenty, I thought, mostly out of love. I was not sure he could do it. Long Run is a very, very good horse. I was acting on sentiment. Then I got a bit more forensic. Paul Nicholls had trained Kauto to the minute for this race; Long Run would be being saved for later in the season, and often does not run well first time out. I’ve always thought there is a little question mark over his jumping; he can go a bit flat and careless.

I examined the form. There were definite drawbacks over another of the two main dangers. Sod it, I thought; this really could be Kauto’s moment. Five minutes before the race, I put on another twenty. Sod them all, I thought: my boy is not done yet.

I explained some of all this to the children. They got very excited. They watched the quick replays of his earlier triumphs that Channel Four was showing, and decided they loved him. ‘Come on Kauto,’ they said.

Off the horses went. Kauto Star was jumping very well, but almost too stupidly well, standing off outside the wings. I was worried he would take too much out of himself. The lovely Ruby Walsh, his regular jockey, took him to the lead, and kept him there. He can’t stay in front for three miles, I thought, not at his age. But he kept pinging his fences, and was bowling along as if he did not have a care in the world. Ruby was so relaxed half the time he seemed to be riding with just one hand. It was delightful to see the two old pros in such perfect tune with each other.

‘Maybe he can do it,’ I said.

‘Come on, Kauto,’ cried the children.

‘No,’ I said. ‘He can’t do it. It’s too much to ask.’

But Long Run was making mistakes, and running a little ragged. Kauto was collected and foot perfect. He’ll fade, I thought. The younger fellas will come and pick him up.

Into the last four fences. I was on my feet. ‘Come on my son,’ I shouted.

‘Come on, Kauto,’ yelled the children.

The Pigeon was also on her feet, barking her head off, which is what she always does when I shout at the racing.

Three out. Kauto Star still in the lead, against all the odds. At this stage, I actually jumped onto an armchair and started bawling my head off. ‘Come on, you beauty, ‘ I yelled.

The Pigeon was jumping up and down on all fours.

‘Come on, come on,’ shouted the children.

The younger horses were gathering themselves for their final effort. Ruby still had not asked Kauto the question. ‘Oh just steady,’ I shouted. ‘Just stand up.’

The heavenly Ruby Walsh kept the old horse balanced and straight and steady, using only hands and heels, preserving all his energy for the final push. Everyone else was scrubbing away. I suddenly thought the mighty champion could do it.

Over the last, everything else faded away. Kauto was tired, but he’s not only a once in a generation talent, he’s got enormous courage. He does not give up. He just went on galloping to the line, brave and true, seven lengths in front.

The crowd went nuts. Paul Nicholls jumped in the air for joy. Ruby Walsh fell on the horse’s neck, hugging him. I was shouting and crying. The children were yelling Yes, yes. The Beloved Cousin looked at me in amazement. ‘He looks as if he could go round again,’ she said.

The King was back in his castle. He walked back to the winning enclosure, his ears pricked, his head held high. The crowd gave him three cheers, twice. No one could quite believe it. It was one of the best things I ever saw in racing.

So, it went from an ordinary day to an extraordinary double from two remarkable horses. I wish my dad had been here to see it.

Friday, 18 November 2016

Finding the balance.

The sun shines, brightly, bravely, from a sky the colour of periwinkles. Out in the field, the red mare is happy and mighty. We ride around like old ranch-hands. I throw my arms in the air and whoop at the universe.

This week has been up and down and round the houses. I have had to remind myself that everyone has their view, their vision, their path. I feel the things I feel so intensely that I sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that everyone sees the world as I do. I tell myself that false expectations are the enemy of happiness, and then I expect something all the same. The expectation is not met, and I feel as crushed as a small child who has dressed up in her best party frock, only to be told that she looks silly.

Not everyone, I think, is going to exclaim in delight when you tell them something that has made you so proud and happy that you thought your ears were going to fall off. Sometimes, the reaction will be an odd look, a kindly laugh, a faintly puzzled lift of the eyebrow. But I tell myself, that does not mean that the thing itself is diminished. The thing is still the thing, existing gloriously in the world, even if it is only in your world. And, I say firmly, with my grown-up hat on, you did not do it for praise or reward; you did not do it for claps on the back and marks out of ten. You did it because you love it.

I’m doing a lot of deep breathing. Let it all go, I tell myself. It’s been a funny, scratchy week, with little darts thrown at the heart. That’s fine. That’s what life is. Slings and arrows of outrageous fortune; the sorrows that flesh is heir to. It’s about balance, I think. Did the good balance the bad? Yes, it did. The beloved creatures were happy and beautiful; some work was done; there was a HorseBack day; the sun shone and the trees glimmered in the last of their autumn motley and I went and looked at the indigo hills. This morning, I saw the brave blue of the Dee, far below me as I hung on to the sturdy trunks of two silver birches, flashing at me like a beacon of hope.

Two old friends called, two of the oldest and the finest, two of the ones who go back over all the vicissitudes of thirty years. I hear the reassuring strength in their kind voices, laugh at the ancient jokes only we can understand, feel appreciated and got. Sometimes I think all anyone needs is to be got.

There is the kindness of strangers too, the generosity of people I may never meet who take the time to say nice things on the internet. The internet can be the Wild West, but it can be a place of consolation and kindness too.

The balance balances itself, delicately poised. The needle quivers, and comes to rest in the positive side of the dial. There is enough, I think. Stare hard at the beauty, hold hard to the luck, concentrate hard on never taking one single good thing for granted. That will do.

Thursday, 17 November 2016


There is stuff at the moment. Stuff, stuff, stuff. I didn’t write the blog for a couple of days because I did not really know what to say about the stuff. It’s the same old stuff and it’s quite catastrophically dull. Don’t tell them about the stupid stuff, says the stern voice in my head. They’ve all got stuff of their own; they don’t need to hear about yours.

I feel a bit stuck. I get stuck sometimes. I’m like a car whose gears don’t work. I’m in neutral, gunning my engine, going nowhere.

As always, when this happens, the one place where everything moves and flows and is good and right is on the back of my red mare. Her power and glory gives me strength. She does not get stuck. She moves out into the green world with her authentic mind and her athletic body and when we’ve done some good work she flutters her enchanting eyelashes and goes to sleep. She is at one with herself. I sometimes gaze at her in awe and wonder and try to work out how she does it. She is her own absolute self at every moment of every day.

Some of the best things I learnt about life, I learnt from this horse. I learnt about giving rather than demanding, about kindness rather than impatience, about concentration rather than showing off. I learnt the value of steadiness and consistency and clarity. I learnt about category errors. I learnt not to take out my messy emotions on her. My nonsense is my nonsense, and it is not her job to make that better. (Although of course she does, simply by being her fine self.)

I always think: why can’t you take that best self out of the field and apply it to humans? When I am with that horse, I am a far, far better thing. Then I get back to my desk and my ordinary life and I grow flawed and scratchy. My frailties flock back like homing pigeons, the little buggers.

Everyone has stuff, says my kind, rational, adult voice. Everyone deals with it in different ways. It’s not failure. You don’t have to shut yourself up in the Cupboard of Shame. You are human, that is all, and this is life, and there’s a supermoon and strange things going on in American politics and you still really, really miss your mum. You are not impervious, nor should you be.

At least, I think, I have that one true thing. Every day, for a couple of hours, I know what it is to give myself utterly to the happiness and well-being of someone else, even if she has four legs and does not speak English and cannot do abstract thought. This is not selfless, because the happier she is the better she goes and the more delight I feel on her grand back. But it is an offering, rather than a taking, and I find that oddly important and consoling.

I can write a sentence, I think. I know what to do with the language of Shakespeare and Milton. I have dancing, antic dogs. I have the hills and the trees. They will all endure, whilst the stupid stuff will pass.

Everybody has stuff. It’s in the contract. There’s no point in trying to fight it or getting bent out of shape or sitting furiously in a room attempting to think it away. Open yourself to it and let it run through you and know that soon, soon, it will sail out to sea, off to another port of call.

Monday, 14 November 2016

Try for better things.

I snapped at someone today. I am very ashamed of myself. I did not say anything rude or unkind, but the tone of my voice was rough and impatient. I try so hard to be polite and I fear I was rude.

This horrid snapping voice tends to come when I am driven into the ditch. It’s a three strikes and you are out deal. I can take the first thing, I can grit my teeth at the second thing, but the third thing sends me into the rude voice. This is not a voice I want to have. It is not my voice, I always think; I am not that sharp, impatient person. Of course I am that person, on rare occasions. I can’t slide out of it so easily.

When you work a horse, you are always thinking about what it really going on. Did she leap in terror at that pheasant, or was it nothing to do with the absurd old bird at all? Had the worry been cooking for a while, and had you done nothing to let that worry out?

So, rather startled by my own flying pheasant, which was that horrid cross voice, I go back to see what was really going on.

Two things I really hate are being told what to do and negativity. Sometimes these come together, in a hideous pincer action, where unsolicited instructions are given in a voice of doom. I want to crawl away into a hole somewhere. I love the answer to be yes. Why not take a flier? Why not try that oddity? Why not cast out into the unknown? Well, say the doomy people, you can’t do that, or that, and that is going to be a problem, and that won’t work, and that’s a lot of nonsense. I am a lot of nonsense. I’m used to being a lot of nonsense. I’ve been nonsense for my entire life and it’s not going to change now. I sometimes can pretend to make perfect sense for short periods if I really concentrate, but nonsense and I are old, old friends. Mostly people laugh at this, kindly, not with too much mockery. Sometimes, they point it out ruthlessly and I feel all the air go out of my antic red balloon.

And because I am crushed and squished and crashed, I stomp my feet and use the horrid sharp voice, in instinctive defence.

But here is the thing. And I really do believe this. You can’t make other people do what you would love them to do. It is not their job to take care of your tender feelings. It’s lovely if they do, but those ones are your three best friends and you great-aunt Maud who understands everything. Most people are far too busy thinking about their own singed feelings and their own lost dreams and their own fragile desires to have much time to worry about your little three-act drama. So the snapping is not only unfair and rude, but irrational and pointless.

A small voice, deep in the recesses of my tangled brain, says: be the grown ups. Roll with the punches, says that voice. Know that you don’t always get what you want. Allow other humans to say what they say and think what they think and then carry on along your own primrose path. Wave and smile, says the wise voice, laughing a little. Every day is not Doris Day.

I called a friend after the terrible snapping incident and she laughed and sympathised and did not judge and disentangled the tangle with wisdom and grace and then told me such an excellent dog story that I almost fell off my horse. The red mare, who was practising for the Standing Still Olympics, flicked her ear back towards me, in easy pleasure. She adores the sound of human laughter.

There are always two choices, I thought, as I sent her into a rolling cowgirl canter. I can lash myself into a frenzy because I was ungracious and sharp, or I can see why it happened and use that knowledge to make it less likely in future. Knowledge is power, as I said to the vet today. I love going to the vet. We talk about Donald Trump as he examines my little brown mare and he understands that it breaks my heart that she is not right and he does not do the empirical dry scientific thing but allows space for emotion. It looks like we are not going to be able to fix her up as we had hoped, but are now in the stage of managing her condition. Although officially I am filled with purpose and hope for this new plan, perhaps I am sadder about that than I will allow. Perhaps that was partly why there was the sharp, snapping voice. Everything has a reason.

Humans are not perfect, I tell myself, sternly. They make mistakes and are not always their best selves. But they can try and hope for better things. That is my resolution of the day. Try for better things. It’s not splitting the atom, but it’s something. 

Friday, 11 November 2016

With the dead.

At 11am on the 11th of November 1918, the guns of the Great War fell silent. Almost one hundred years later, I sit on my red mare, looking out over the snowy hills. We are at the top of a small rise, on rough ground, a gnarled old oak on one side and a bright beech, glimmering with its autumn pomp, on another. The ground is covered in hoar frost and there is a slight hint of mist in the air, almost like gunsmoke.

The church bells toll the hour.

The mare and I stand very still. I think of the dead. They were once called the glorious dead, but there was nothing glorious about that carnage. I think of the frightened boys and the weary officers and the doctors desperately trying to put back together shattered bodies. I think of the war horses struggling through the mud and the pointless bayonet charges and the blind generals.

Remembrance comes to me in two waves, each year. On the 11th of November I think of the First World War. On Remembrance Sunday, I think of all the dead, as the veterans of every battle from El Alamein to Musa Qala march up Whitehall, smart and upright, medals blazing on their chests, a haunting mixture of pride and grief and regret on their stoical faces.

After two minutes, I look at my watch and stroke the mare’s strong neck and say: ‘Right. Back to the living.’

As we strike our way down the slope and across the wide meadow, still in the shadow of the hills, I think of my own dead. It is just over a year since my mother died. I’ve been missing her lately, so much that I sometimes can’t breathe. Grief works in hard tandem with time; the two trot along like trained carriage horses. Time is good and true, and gradually, kindly, pulls the lance from the side and gives the wound the air to heal. The scar remains. Sometimes, someone says something or does something that slices the top off, and the pain is so intense that it makes me gasp out loud. The missing never goes away, but it comes at intervals now. The bashed heart begins to understand that there can be true happiness alongside sorrow, that grief does not cancel joy, but can live with it. Everyone in the middle of their life discovers this truth. It’s a hard truth but a consoling truth.

Early this morning, as the bright frost glittered and the mercury hovered at minus three, I read that Leonard Cohen had died. Songs of Love and Hate was one of the first albums I ever heard, at the age of seven. It was a bit of a leap from Puff the Magic Dragon, but I made it. I fell in love and I never fell back out. Cohen went with me to school, through the lonely years when I got things wrong and never quite fitted in with the group. (I did not understand how groups worked, and was always transgressing unspoken rules and being hurled out without a word of warning.) He came with me to my first grand romance. It was a hopeless romance and it made me cry a lot, and crying to Cohen made me feel less alone. The album of those years was simply called Songs of Leonard Cohen, and I listened to ‘Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye’ over and over and felt that he was tracing the contours of my heart.

He came with me through my older years. He was there through all the heartbreaks, all the family dramas, all the funerals, all the knocks and blows and shocks. He was the old friend who did not say pull yourself together, or you should do this, or you are hopeless at that, or butch up, but said instead, I know just how you feel because I have been there too. That is a great gift.

So, this morning, I wept for him as I would weep for a friend. I cried because he was a gentle soul and a great poet. I cried because my mother loved him, rather surprisingly (her other favourites were Neil Diamond and Harry Nilsson and The Carpenters), and whenever someone put ‘Diamonds in the Mine’ on the record player her eyes would light up with mischief and she would sing along, because she knew all the words. I cried because another piece of my childhood has gone.

I’ve mourned many of the great old gentleman in the last couple of years – a godfather, a cousin, an uncle, my father’s best friend – all of that age, the ones born in the thirties, who remembered the war and knew what stoicism was, and wildness and romance too. As they go, one by one, gentle into that good night, I feel an acute sense of loss, as if someone is slowly dismantling a wonderful old building, so that its venerable stones litter the ground like fallen giants. I have to pick up those stones and build something new from them. I, like everyone my age, have to build my own building.

All morning, I was with the dead. I carried them with me like a weight, the ones I knew, the ones I did not. And then, when I said to my mare, ‘Back to the living’, she pricked her ears and stretched out her great, powerful, thoroughbred body, and struck out into the green fields, and she was so alive, so present, so authentic, that the weight lifted and light returned. When you are on a creature who lives on a different plane, who is so elemental, whose mysterious mind you can only barely touch, whose every instinct is different than yours, and when that creature gives you her consent, across the species barrier, there is something so visceral about it that it is like a distillation of living. It is very pure, and very beautiful. I feel that I am in partnership with something much greater and finer than I can ever be. And that extraordinary feeling banishes the shadows. The dead retreat, with a melancholy, long, withdrawing roar. I think of Matthew Arnold. Ah, love, let us be true to one another.

There is a scattering sound, as the bright scarlet leaves fall suddenly from the trees, surprised by the hard frost. The mare opens her eyes. The leaves are done, for this year. But in the spring, the tiny buds will appear as if by magic, and the stinging emerald leaves will fight their way out and unfurl in their canopies of green, and the world will be new again.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016


I get on the telephone. I ring people up. ‘What the buggery just happened?’ we ask each other. Nobody knows. None of the conventional explanations seem quite enough. Was it the failure of capitalism? Was it the rise of social media? Did bloody Twitter make the difference?

‘All I hope,’ says one friend, ‘is that the poor Queen never has to sit next to him.’
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘State banquets for anyone else. Bhutan, Estonia, the People’s Republic of Absolutely Anywhere.’
We contemplate the horror of Donald Trump sitting next to the Queen. Then we contemplate the horror of Donald Trump. We discuss the elements of narcissism. It is such a doleful list.

After a while, I give up. I can’t read the news. It’s like one of those awful, nihilistic, purposely shocking novels that you’ve always avoided because you don’t want to sear your eyes with such shoddy prose. I read Persuasion instead, for the twentieth time. I need manners. I need wit and delicacy and good-heartedness and truth and a happy ending. I need sweet, kind Anne Elliot and dashing, adoring Captain Wentworth.

In the gloaming, down at the horse’s field, the good, quiet, trusting creatures eat their evening hay. I shake it into perfect piles for them and they breathe contentedly through their noses. An indigo mist is rising and a hunter’s moon sails, amber and serene, in a mauve sky. Everything is very real. The dogs dance and play, antic silhouettes in the fading light.

I think of the things one cannot change. Away across an ocean, a great country has been gatecrashed by a man of no mind, no manners and no morals. ‘America,’ I had said this morning, ‘gave us jazz and Dorothy Parker and Scott Fitzgerald and Hollywood and the Algonquin Round Table and Louis Armstrong, and now it gives us this.’

I wonder: will the world change? Perhaps the shock of the vulgar will make the good people, the brave people, the clever people stand up and do something magnificent. Perhaps, this time in four years, Elizabeth Warren, who is a real revolutionary instead of a fake one, who is a real femme du peuple instead of a prancing poseur, who is a proper human being instead of an empty suit, will be swept to power on a tide of relief. Perhaps the grown-ups will be the grown-ups. Swagger and bombast can only go so far.

I turn back to my book. ‘I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures. None of us want to be in calm waters all our lives.’ I think: I would not mind some calm waters.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

That is what a friend can do.

Yesterday, I was so bent out of shape that I could not even write the blog. I had a tipping point, and I fell into the abyss. In 77 Ways, I write a whole chapter about the tipping point. I was really proud of this because it was my own idea. I did not pinch it from the Wise People. I thought it up all by myself. It’s about that thing when one tiny remark, one minuscule set-back, one minor disaster can send you spinning out into space. You don’t think: ah well, the dog crapped on the floor. You think: this is the end of everything and I can’t cope and it’s all gone to hell.

I decided that if you could understand about your tipping point, you could head it off at the pass. You could look for the warning signs and start to protect yourself. You could eat more green soup, take more iron tonic, get more sleep. You could at once recognise when you were treading into the danger zone.

Theory and practice, my darlings. Theory and practice. My theory is so good. My practice is a constant embarrassment.

So I sat at my desk with my face set and my teeth gritted and a weight pressing on my head, unable even to type.

Today, the sun came out and the land looked pretty again and I felt the vague stirrings of ordinary humanity. I was no longer entirely a wreck. My friend was at the field, looking after her Paint, and I told her the whole sorry story. She did not fix anything or give me words of wisdom, although she is very wise, or tell me what was going on. She listened and nodded and understood. Two other people were involved in the tipping point, and she knew at once what was going on with them. So we sorted that out and then we galloped off into the steppes of human mystery. We talked about societal expectations and gender difference and the intricate psychology of marriage and why it is that some friends just get you and some don’t; we talked about displacement and category errors (my favourite subject) and children and literature and how life works when you are a bit different.

We talked about everything. We shook out the whole bag of tricks and scattered them on the floor and sifted through them.

This all took quite a long time. She was late for her life, by the time we had finished. She looked at her watch and said, rather ruefully, ‘I haven’t done anything today.’

‘Well,’ I said, ‘you have taken a great big sword out of my side, so that’s not quite nothing.’

‘Thank you,’ I said, waving as I drove off, ‘for restoring my sanity.’

That is what a friend can do.

It’s sort of a miracle really. You feel like crap and you feel a bit ashamed about feeling like crap and you crossly refuse to do anything about the crap and then a kind person with a sympathetic heart listens and talks and laughs and does not run away screaming and all the crap fades away as if it had never existed in the first place.

The red mare ate her breakfast with a secret, glimmering glint in her eye, as if to say: ‘those two old humans do love to talk.’ The great horseman who sold her to me is married to my oldest friend. He always says, with an equal glimmering glint, when I arrive in the south: ‘So, you’ll start talking the moment you get out of the car and you two will still be talking when you get back in the car to drive away.’ And it is true, because the power of those words is beyond price, beyond adjectives, almost beyond imagination. That talking, which makes people laugh, has kept me standing upright for thirty years. Here, in Scotland, the daily paddock therapy, as we call it, is the restoration to sanity.

I crave solititude. I live alone and I like doing things alone and I have a stupid pride in being independent. But you can’t do everything alone. Sometimes, when the tipping point comes and it all goes to hell in a handcart and you find yourself staring into the void, you need the incomparable balm of another human who really, really gets it. And they take you and put you back together, very gently, piece by piece, and you walk away and think: how did they do that? And: isn't it lovely that they can do that, and they take the time to do that, and they know exactly how to do that? Somehow, with kindness and thought and wisdom and humanity, they give you back to yourself. That is what friends can do.

Friday, 4 November 2016


For a moment, my life grows complicated. I look at the complication and think I can make this as Byzantine or as straightforward as I want. I can tie the knots tight, or untangle them and let them loose. There is a choice. Life isn’t just what happens to you, it is what you think about what happens to you.

I ring up the Beloved Cousin, my oldest and dearest friend, the one who has been with me in the trenches for thirty years. I can’t tell you how many complications we have been through together. There was one spring where we seemed to do nothing but go to funerals.

I ring her up and she listens to everything and then she gives her words of wisdom. She is all Occam’s Razor now, as she grows older and more and more sage. She slashes through a problem or a sadness or a tangle with wit and brio. Then we talk about Jane Austen and Trollope and shout with laughter about a joke which only we can understand.

I thank her. ‘I could not have got through this year without you,’ I say. This is factually correct and literally true. I try to explain it a bit. I say: ‘It’s having someone you can ring up when you are at your worst and you know that they won’t judge and they will listen and they won’t tell you what to do and they will make a joke at just the right moment. It’s that thing,’ I say, ‘of not having to explain yourself, because you know the person gets it.’
            We mull this over. ‘I’m not sure,’ I say, ‘that everyone has someone like that and I don’t take it for granted.’

In the spirit of simplicity, and in homage to the Small Things, I do a very small thing for a very magnificent person. I collect together some photographs of the magnificent person doing a magnificent thing, and I edit them and make them as good as I can get them, and I send them to her. She sends a message at once, of charming thanks. It really was a small thing; it took half an hour of my time. But it ended up having a big effect. ‘I will treasure those pictures and memories for ever,’ she wrote. I felt ridiculously tearful.

The funny thing is that I suddenly realised I was taking my own advice. I don’t do this nearly as often as I would like. In Seventy-Seven Ways, I wrote that when you feel emptied out, finished, beaten, the way to get yourself back is to do something for someone else. I completely made up this theory from some sticky-back plastic and one of Mum’s old Fairy Liquid bottles. (This is a Blue Peter joke that only Britons over forty will understand.) I did do some research for this book and found some nice empirical ideas that have studies and proofs behind them. But in some chapters I let my own flaky notions off the lead. This was one of those chapters. I decided that when you think you’ve got nothing left to give, you should give something. And it reminds you that the human spirit is infinite and that is a very comforting thought indeed.

I’ve had a long week and there are those horrid complications and I’m missing my mother a lot and I feel a bit beaten. And, in a very, very small and humble way, I did give something and the magnificent person gave right back and I’m going into this dark, wet Friday night with a song in my heart instead of a weight on my head. My flaky theory really did work. I’m more pleased and more surprised than I can say.

Ring up your best friend and tell her why you love her. Think about someone else instead of yourself, just for half an hour. Give something when you have nothing left to give. I have to keep writing these things down because I forget them, when the tangles come. My Occam’s Razor is sometimes rusty and blunt instead of shining and bright.

Love does it, in the end. All these small things are about love. Love and trees, my darlings; love and trees. And you’ll be all right.


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