Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Irish the Pigeon



One of the great things in my life is Radio Four randomness. This is when I turn on the wireless at a time I don’t usually listen to it and find some extraordinary gem that I want to remember to my dying breath. Sometimes I come in half-way through and have to listen and listen until I understand what the programme is about. Sometimes it is so magical and unexpected that it makes me laugh and clap my hands like a child. There was a heartbreaking one about Violet Szabo’s daughter, Tania. There was one about a man who played the piano to elephants.

This morning, out of a clear blue sky, there was one about two men, some whistles, the Pitt-Rivers Museum and a pigeon called Irish. The very fact that there is in the world a pigeon called Irish makes me feel better about almost everything. But in a way, the two men were more enchanting. One was a very gentle, rather soulful musician. He had a smile in his voice, not one of those forced someone-told-me-to-do-it voice smiles that some presenters use, but a slow wondering smile as if he could not quite believe all the beauty in the world. The other was a gruff, wry Yorkshireman, with a self-deprecating sense of humour. You would have thought those two men would have been oceans apart, but Irish the Pigeon brought them together and they set up a glorious, comical, fond relationship which was most unexpected.

I think a lot about culture. Everyone talks about Britain and class but I’m not sure it is class so much that keeps people behind their barricades, but culture. The things that bind me to other humans are shared interests, references, jokes, even favourite songs. I have tribes – racing tribes, and horse tribes, and growing up in the seventies tribes, and Leonard Cohen tribes. Accent and background mean nothing in those groups, but culture means everything. Those two men came from diametrically different cultural poles, but they made a little tribe of two and there was something almost heartbreaking about it.

Sometimes, I think, all it takes is one pigeon. And especially a pigeon called Irish.

Friday, 21 July 2017

The glorious kindness of strangers.



I am heroically, catastrophically hopeless at getting things done. I can write a book in three months, which I have just done, but can I return an email or put my hand on a vital document or pay my bills on time? Can I hell.

In the heroic, catastrophic prairie of hopelessness where I live, my car tax came up. Because the little disc no longer sits on the windscreen telling me when it needs to be renewed, I of course completely forgot about it. The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency politely wrote to tell me, but I simply saw DVLA on the envelope and thought, rather crossly: what do they want? I assumed it was some stupid new regulation and simply tossed the brown envelop onto the Pile of Doom.

Eventually, after I got the fourth brown envelope, I thought that perhaps they really did want to tell me something and discovered, to my horror, that I had been breaking the law for a whole month.

Now, if you are as catastrophically, heroically hopeless as I am, it turns out that you have to jump through a few hoops. If you are that late with your tax, specially numbers no longer work and you have to find the vital documents that I can never find. I tried the kind man in the post office, but he could not help, so, with my heart in my boots, I rang up the DVLA. I was expecting sucking of teeth, shaking of heads, and that sliding note of judgement that the catastrophic people get. Because the missing vital document would have to be replaced, I assumed I would have to take the car off the road for six weeks and then what would I do?

The girl – and she was a girl, very young, in her early twenties I would guess – did not suck her teeth. She did not judge me. She was funny and understanding. I explained about the vital document and how it could be anywhere. ‘You sound like my mum,’ she said, laughing. I laughed too, in delighted surprise. ‘Your mum is my soul sister,’ I said.

Even more wonderful, she had a solution. Yes, she could do this clever thing and that efficient thing and this instant thing. All would be done in the blink of an eye and I would be legal again and the horrid brown envelopes would stop.

I don’t know what bureaucracy is like in the places that you live, but in Britain, this is unheard of. I often find myself doing the nasty passive-aggressive thing of saying, ‘Well, what would you do in my position?’ And the person on the other end just changes the subject. When you get into tangles like I do, often that tangle is a Gordian knot and there is no untying it and that operative on the end of the humming telephone almost seems to be taking delight in the fact that there is no way out.

Not my DVLA girl. She was happy, she was blithe, she was brilliant. She had energy and kindness and generosity in her voice. I bet she’s a really good friend, one of those ones that her nearest and dearest turn to when they want a shoulder to cry on. She had a faint Welsh lilt to her voice and I could imagine her growing up in the valleys, getting up at dawn to help with the magnificent Welsh sheep. She took something I had been dreading, something that made me feel stupid and idiotic, something that dragged at me for the last twenty-four hours and made it easy and fun. She did not appear to think I was catastrophic.

That’s a gift. One complete stranger fixed me up and brightened my day. I bet she’s the kind of person who makes everyone smile when she walks into a room. I wish I had asked her name. I was so overcome with surprise and relief that I did not have time to think straight. I would like to have rung up her supervisor and said: give that brilliant woman a raise. I’m going to post this on Facebook and I have a slight dream that among my friends and friends of friends, someone will say: hey, I know lovely Anna who works at the DVLA. And then she will know how she transformed the day of one muddly, middle-aged woman.

I think it’s unlikely. I think my stuttering thanks will have to be enough. I think she will remain unknown to me. She’s going to be one of the George Eliot people, in Middlemarch. This is one of my favourite quotes in the world, and I’m so glad to be reminded of it. There’s another gift she gave me. ‘But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.’

Actually, I don’t think someone as vivid and alive as that would ever had an unvisited tomb, but I think what Eliot meant is that the history of the world is written about the big people, the ones who fought the battles and changed the law and lit up the stage. They get monuments, and parks named after them, and statues in Whitehall. What she meant was that life is made wonderfully better by those ordinary people who don’t have grand memorials, who do lie in small, quiet Norman churchyards, whose names do not echo down the years, but who made their world a beautifully better place in their own small, delightful way.

Friday, 14 July 2017

The Thing.



I love the word thing. I use it all the time, far too much, because I am so fond of it. I especially like the expression ‘I did not even know that was a thing’. I think the young people use it, or perhaps it came from America. I’ve almost certainly heard it on the Rachel Maddow Show.

Anyway, today the thing rather overwhelmed me, in a most idiotic way.

There was a thing that someone else was going to do and then he did not do it so I had to do it. It’s a boring thing and normally I do it myself but because I had expectations that the thing would be done I felt a lunatic resentment. I rang the person who was going to do the thing and he laughed and said he hadn’t really done the thing and then he smiled, not in a ‘yeah, whatever’ way but in a ‘the sun is shining and what can it matter way?’ Clearly, to him, it was not a thing. In all senses of the word.
There is a third party who was also expecting the sanguine fellow to do the thing and I was so cross that I nearly rang up The Third Man to tell this stupid story. I asked my friend Sophie, who is five, what she thought. ‘Never tell tales,’ she said, solemnly.
Bugger, I thought. I’m going to have to be the decent person and suck it up. At this stage, I started feeling quite saintly. I am going to do the right thing and get on and not tell. A faint gleam glimmered off my halo.

And then I stopped. The thing is so small it can hardly be seen by the naked eye. In the world, North Korea is rattling its sabres and the Trumpsters are doing unspeakable things with random Russian lawyers and Brexit is going off the rails. My thing is not a heart thing or even a head thing. It’s not a family thing or a love thing or a grief thing. It’s one of those tiny daily pinpricks that live in the pincushion of life.


I thought: what is wrong with me? I’ve dropped my perspective down the back of the sofa and I’m so proud of my perspective. I have Perspective Police and everything. I loathe to blame hormones, but I am going through the menopause and however much red clover I take I do feel very peculiar at the moment. Is that a thing? Or is it just the middle of life and the dark wood and all those roads less travelled? I’m all Robert Frost just now; he is my consolation and my guide and my balm. The woods are lovely dark and deep and I have miles to go before I sleep.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Memories of the Royal Meeting: Riposte, Estimate, Lady Cecil and The Queen.

On this day, four years ago, there were two fairy tales at the Royal Meeting. There were two stories of such high emotion, such blazing glory, such impossible odds that I hardly have words to describe them. I am, however, all about words, so in my instinctive way, I wrote them down. I’m so glad I did. They are stories I never want to forget. Best of all, in a lovely act of synchronicity, they are stories of two great fillies and two great women.
(For my non-racing readers, Sir Henry Cecil, one of the greatest and most beloved of all trainers, had died not long before the meeting. His widow had taken over his licence and she and the team at Warren Place were keeping the string going even as they dealt with their grief. It was a time of keen loss for the whole racing world.)
On the 21st of June 2013, this is what I wrote:

All meeting, there were two things I quietly, almost secretly, dreamed might happen. They were in the hardly-dare-hope category. Then, after all the drama of the week so far, they suddenly both happened, as if they had been inevitable all along.
Yesterday morning, with my forensic betting hat on, I had picked Lady Cecil’s nice filly Riposte for the Ribblesdale, because she was the only one of the principles who had winning form over the distance. Ascot is a deceptively testing course. From a distance, on the television cameras, it looks gorgeously smooth and flat, but in fact it has nuanced undulations and a stiff uphill climb. 
Trainers are not idiots. They do not want to be disgraced on this biggest of stages. They will not send horses here if they think they will not stay. But still, that little D by the side of Riposte flashed at me like a beacon.
I took eights first thing, for a paltry amount. I was still flinty and scientific, admitting doubts; the filly was stepping up in class, she had something to prove. I was damn well not going to let my heart rule everything.
I’ve been watching the Cecil horses all week, hoping and hoping, longing for the memory of Sir Henry to set the crowd alight. There was a close call with Tiger Cliff, but, as the days went on, I started to resist the siren song. Dick Francis once wrote that there are no fairy tales in racing. I sternly bashed down the fired expectations.
But as the off grew closer, even as Winsili wavered and then hardened as the favourite, I decided that my lovely Riposte would give the best riposte of all. I threw last-minute cash at her, in the way I often do, as if the horse herself would detect my lack of loyalty if I ratted.
I did not say any of this out loud. I was watching with my mother and I did not want to raise the old lady’s hopes. I said, diffidently: ‘I quite like the look of this Riposte.’ And that was all.
As the stalls smacked open and Simon Holt began his call, Riposte imitated her close relation Frankel in his last start on this very course.
She fell out of the stalls, completely missing the break. Oh, well, I thought, privately, that’s that. It’s very difficult to remedy that lost start. Tom Queally had to roust her along without setting her alight. For a moment, as he pushed her into the race, it looked as if she might boil over. But then the good girl came back to herself and settled into her running. She wasl on the outside, towards the back, but she had found her rhythm.
At half way, she had settled and was running well within herself. But there were still only two horses behind her. Then Queally, cleverly, patiently, started to creep into the race, his sympathetic hands nursing his girl along.
And then, at about two out, he did something radical, even rash. He gave Riposte a great push, asking for a huge burst of speed. She put on her sprinting shoes, passed five horses in a matter of seconds, and hit the front. In a flash, she was out on her own; nothing in front of her but a wide, searching sward of green.
Would she last up that testing incline? Would that intense effort have taken too much out of her? Would she get lonely out in front, all on her own?
All these questions muddled through my mind. But the lovely filly had every answer. She never deviated, running straight and true to the line under only hands and heels, spread-eagling her field.
Without at all meaning to, I burst into tears. I do this in big races in which I am absurdly emotionally invested. I did it for Desert Orchid, all those years ago, when he defied a mud-splattered afternoon and fought his way up the murderous Cheltenham hill, running on fumes and guts and glory. I did it for Kauto Star’s great comeback at Haydock on that dour autumn day, when everyone said he was finished. I did it for Frankel at York, when people were not quite sure if the wonder colt would see out the mile and two.
It is what my old Irish godmother describes, vividly, as ‘tears coming out at right angles’. I don’t think I’d realised until that moment how much emotion I had invested in that good filly, how the memories of Sir Henry rode on her honest back, how the thought of that grieving team at Warren Place had infected my racing spirit.
Normally, when a jockey passes the post in front at the Royal Meeting, there is the instant flashing smile of victory. It is the dream of every rider on the flat to win here. But Tom Queally did not smile.
He did that thing with his mouth that you do when you are fighting tears. The muscles tightened and the corners turned down and the face set. He is not a man of public emotion. One sensed that if he had been alone he would have cried like a baby. As it was, he was fighting to hold it together on this most public of stages.
He put his hand out and ran it over Riposte’s ear, with the exact gentle touch that Sir Henry had for his fillies. As the camera angle shifted, the jockey’s back was slumped and head bowed, as if in defeat.
The microphone was stuck in his face, and he said, on a long breath: ‘It’s been a tough, tough week, and I know a lot of people are struggling. But it’s great she did as well as she did and I’m sure Henry’s looking down and helping us.’
Queally had that raw, disbelieving look on his face that I remember so well from when my father died. The lovely victory must have brought it all back for him. Sir Henry’s death was not a surprise; he had been ill for years. But with men like that, impossible thinking sets in. You believe they will defy the docs and live forever. I had a message from someone who lives in Newmarket only today, saying she still could not believe that she would walk down the street and not see him. Men like that are institutions, stitched into the life of the place they embody. Death seems stupid and impossible.
The camera pulled back to show the stalwart travelling head lad, his face bleak as granite. The young lass, leading in her conquering heroine, dissolved into streaming tears.
Then came the most poignant moment of all. Lady Cecil, who has taken over the licence from her late husband, rushed forward in the winner’s enclosure, going straight for Queally. The two hugged, and in that hard embrace you could see all the tension that comes with great loss. There must have been so many moments on the Heath when it was the three of them, so many breakfasts, so many post-mortems, of triumph or disappointment. There is a thing, when you lose someone, of wanting the person who understands the most. In that winner’s circle, at Ascot, with the colours of Prince Khalid Abdullah shining like a beacon just as they had in Frankel’s last, mighty victory, I think that for Lady Cecil Tom Queally understood the most.
At this stage, Lady Cecil’s face had the raw, undefended look of someone who has suffered tearing loss. But she was in front of the world. She had to step up to the microphone. Clare Balding, with every inch of her sensitivity and professionalism, conducted what must have been one of the hardest interviews of her career. She knew all these people; she had grown up with them; there was no disinterested distance for her. But she was on national television; she had to ask the questions.
Looking back on it now, I am amazed that Lady Cecil did not just walk away. Connections who have nothing like her excuse have turned from the microphone; I’ve watched famous owners ruthlessly snub post-race interviewers. And yet, in one of the most graceful acts I have seen on a racecourse, she generously offered herself, in all her loss, squaring her shoulders and lifting her face up in its naked emotion.
She looked up to the sky, gathered a faltering smile, and said: ‘First of all, that was for Henry.’
There was a terrible pause.
‘For the Prince, and for all the staff at Warren Place.’
Then she rallied. ‘I don’t really have the words to say what I am feeling.’
Bugger everything, I thought; there are no words. And yet this tremendous woman kept on. ‘He was just adored, by so many people. I mean, people who’ve never met him, just loved him. And...’ She shook her head, running out of words. ‘What can I say?’
Another sympathetic question from Balding; another brave answer.
‘We hardly dared dream that we would have a winner. I just thought, God he would have been relishing this. Everyone knows how he loves Ascot.’
And there it was, the present tense. The most revealing, moving moment of all; the marker that the master of Warren Place is not yet gone in the minds and hearts of those who loved him.
She tailed off, and Clare Balding moved in to rescue her. ‘You need say nothing more, you’ve been so brave, so strong. Well done.’
But Lady Cecil was not finished. Like her lovely, fighting filly, she took another run at it. ‘Keeping busy is what’s keeping us all going. If we had nothing to do, I think we’d all fall to bits.’
Clare Balding, the seasoned pro, faltered herself, in the midst of that boiling cauldron of emotion. Suddenly hardly able to get her own words out, she said, almost in a whisper: ‘It’s the best result of all.’
And the sweetest thing was that the cameras then cut to Riposte, being led away, her intelligent ears pricked, her kind eye gleaming and bright, her head held high. The good ones, the competitive ones, seem to know when they have won. Tom Queally said once of Frankel that as the colt seasoned and grew in stature, he began to understand that the noise and acclamation which should really alarm a flight animal was in fact a homage. ‘He soaked it all up; he knew it was for him,’ Queally said after York.
Riposte is not in that legendary category. She is a nice filly, with a lovely talent and a willing attitude; she may rise to some heights, but perhaps she will not go down in history like her imperious relation. But all the same, in that moment, she had a little look of eagles in her fine eye.
There were many things for which Sir Henry Cecil was famous. One of them was being good with fillies. Wining the Oaks eight times was not a fluke. Bizarrely, there is sexism in the horse world just as there is in the human. People talk of fillies and mares being difficult, unpredictable, hormonal. Mare-ish is a horrid, lazy insult, casually hurled. But I think what Henry Cecil knew is what anyone who has loved and worked with a female equine carries in their heart. If you are gentle and kind and patient with a filly, she will give you everything, every last inch of loyalty and trust and fighting spirit. So it was intensely appropriate that in this dramatic week, in this Royal Meeting which started with a minute of silence for its native son, it was one of his girls who came good for the old fellow.
As the emotion subsided, there was the rushing realisation that this was not yet the end of the drama of this extraordinary day. The very next race was the Gold Cup, the showpiece of the week. It is two and a half miles, a colossal distance. Most flat horses are simply not bred to run this far. There was a huge field, although because of the fast ground runners were dropping like flies. The promising High Jinx was out; Dermot Weld decided he could not risk the delicate legs of Rite of Passage. At the top of the market, driven there by a combination of sentiment and hope, was the ravishing bay filly, Estimate.
Estimate belongs to the Queen. Last June, I was there to watch her win the Queen’s Vase, to extravagant emotion, in the jubilee year. I fell in love with her then and I have followed her ever since. She is a lightly-built filly; she does not look like a mighty stayer. But she has a dreamy temperament and the will to win, and she is improving all the time.
On paper, she had something to find. The trip was four whole furlongs into the unknown; on strict official ratings, she was well down the field of fourteen. She would have to produce a rampant career best.
As I had with Riposte, I resisted my stupid soft heart, and tried to find the rivals who would bring her low. Simenon was the danger, I decided, with proven form at course and distance, and the wizard that is Willie Mullins in charge.
But again, as the start neared, I gave in to the heart, and bashed all my money on the little mare. Yes, she was up against the boys; yes, it was a fairy tale too far; yes, she had something to find on the book. But blast it, I wanted her to win more than anything, and if anything could find that little bit extra for the big occasion, she could.
She is such a kind and genuine horse. Channel Four showed a clip of her in her stable, and she was as dopey and dreamy and affectionate as a dear old donkey, nuzzling up to her lass, making silly faces, soaking up the love of her faithful human. It made me fall more in love with her than ever. Bugger the book I thought; this is my girl.
And I switch into the present tense, because it feels in my head as if the drama is happening all over again.
As Estimate goes round the paddock, with her owner watching intently, she shows all of  her big race temperament. On a warm day, there is not a hint of sweat on her bay flanks. Then, suddenly, without in any way becoming flighty or over-wrought, she gives two little bucks. They are balanced perfectly on the fulcrum of exuberance and determination. They sketch an arching parabola of intent. My mother and I look at each other, hope rising in our eyes.
‘She’s ready,’ we say to each other, in trembling voices. ‘Oh yes. She is ready.’
The late cash comes pouring in, perhaps from the seasoned paddock watchers, perhaps from the sentimental royalists. Estimate shortens in to 7-2, veering violently from sixes this morning. I add my cash to the party. I’ve loved this horse for a long time; I damned if I am going to let my old loyalties lapse. I can see all the doubts for what they are. But my money must be where my mouth is.
Estimate comes out onto the course, on her own. She canters down to the start with her head high and her ears pricked, collected and balanced, looking around her as if taking in every inch of the fine spectacle. She has a little white snip on her dear nose, and, in my fevered mind, it starts to blaze like a flashing sign.
And, they are off.
The sultry summer’s day turns misty, and through a sudden murk, Estimate’s white flash shows brightly. She takes up a good position, one off the rail, four lengths off the pace. Ryan Moore lets her down and gets her beautifully settled, so her natural rhythm can assert itself. Her long, narrow ears go back and forth in time with her hoofbeats.
Past the packed stands they go. The faint sounds of whistles and applause can be heard, before they are off again into the country, where the race will begin to unfold.
The massive white-faced German raider is running strongly in front, tracked by the two staying stars, Colour Vision and Saddler’s Rock. Estimate is tidily tucked in behind. Into Swinley Bottom, she is perhaps the most well-balanced of the entire field, happy in her dancing rhythm.
Four out, the field bunches up. ‘There is Estimate,’ says Simon Holt, his voice rising, ‘with every chance.’
Jockeys are starting to crouch lower now, not yet kicking on, but indicating an increased momentum. Ryan Moore is rocking Estimate gently into a quicker pace. Colour Vision, who won this last year but has been disastrously out of form ever since, is suddenly full of running. The brilliant Johnny Murtagh is releasing Saddler’s Rock. Simenon is unleashing a withering run down the outside. In the midst of this, in a small pocket of her own, Estimate is quietly running her race.
And then Moore asks the question, after over two miles of searching turf, and Estimate answers. The answer is: Yes.
She surges forwards, chasing the mighty grey in the Godolphin colours. She gets past him, inch by inch, but the race is not done. Two big fellas come charging at her, down the outside; the Irish Simenon, the French Top Trip.
All three horses are now in full cry. They are so close together you could not put a cigarette paper between them. For a horrible moment, I think that the slip of a girl will be swallowed up by the roaring boys.
At home, in our house, with the indigo Scottish hills visible though the window and the bluebirds questing at the window, everything erupts. I am on my feet, bawling at the top of my voice. My old mum, who has seen Nijinsky and Mill Reef and the Brigadier, is shouting: ‘Come on, Ryan’. Stanley the Dog, who clearly believes we have suffered some kind of catastrophic event, is howling and jumping and barking his head off. Only the sensible Stepfather sits silent, riveted to the action, a small oasis of calm in the storm.
I look away, unable to watch, convinced the brave filly is beat. It’s too much to ask; it’s too much to hope. She’s never been anywhere near this distance before; only the very best fillies are capable of beating the colts. She’ll fade, fold up, be done on the line.
But I turn back, and there she is, with her little head stuck out, her glorious stride lengthening not shortening, every atom in her body speaking of her will to win. I gather one last stupid howl of hope.
GO ON GO ON GO ON, I shout, ignoring the family, ignoring the leaping dog, ignoring everything except the fierce battle of those last, terrifying strides.
Simenon’s determined head comes up to Estimate’s shoulder, the great momentum of his powerful quarters pushing him forward. Will the bloody finishing post never come?
Somehow, somehow, the good filly keeps going. It is as if she is saying to the others: no, boys, not today. Today is my day.
And there, at last, is the line, and she has a precious neck in hand, and Ryan Moore is crouched up almost at her ears, carrying her over the finish.
‘I CAN’T BELIEVE IT,’ I shout.
As if my entire family is deaf, I yell again: ‘I CAN’T BELIEVE IT.’
We hug, we jump in the air, we weep idiot tears of joy.
It’s just a horse. It’s just an old lady in a lilac dress. It’s just a race.
On any rational level, it is hard to know which is more absurd: the racing of horses or the hereditary monarchy. But humans are not rational animals. Even in the most empirical of us, the magical thinking sometimes overwhelms. I can’t help it: I love the Queen. I love her for her dignity and restraint and good old British stoicism. I love Estimate, for her sweetness and strength and bloody-minded determination not to give up. I swear she had a Fuck You Boys look in her eye as she flashed past the post. And I love racing, where these beautiful herd animals may show all their mighty, fighting qualities.
And so I shouted and cried and leapt in the air, even though I am forty-six years old and I should know better.
The filly came back to the paddock, the Queen walked down to greet her, the crowd went insane. People did not know what to do with themselves. The little golden cup was presented, and the Queen, who really has been around the block more than most, who has been coming to Ascot since the fifties, who knows all about the dreams of horses not quite coming true, stared at it as if she had never seen it before. She looked as delighted and disbelieving as a child.
And that, my darlings, was Ladies’ Day at Ascot, when four tremendous females, two equine and two human, wrote a story that will stay stitched into the memory of everyone lucky enough to have witnessed it.


 PS. I can't show you pictures of Estimate and Riposte, for copyright reasons. Today's photograph is of my own little dancing thoroughbreds, not as talented on the racecourse as those mighty girls, but as much of a champion in my own heart.




Friday, 9 June 2017

Nobody knows what is happening.



Last night, I put on my special Hat of Democracy and went out in the pouring rain to vote. I did not go with a dance in my step. I went grumpily, out of duty to the Pankhursts.

But the funny thing is that it was like a party, at our tiny village hall. There were dogs and helpful people with umbrellas and the old and the young. Well, I thought, rather startled, the democratic process is still in rude health. This cheered me immensely. I’m not tribal. I gave up tribalism years ago, because it was so tiring and often led to shouting. I want a government that works and gives people a chance. It’s not very sexy, but that’s what happens when you get to fifty and won’t leave the house without a hat on. That people were there, voting, minding, leaving their mark, seemed to me a great good.

In the small hours of the morning, the democratic process, in its rude health, came out and did the fandango. It got stroppy. It punched a few people on the nose, because it could. It confused all the pundits and the pollsters and the psephologists, and it made David Dimbleby say ‘bloody hell’ on an open mic. (For my foreign readers, this is a bit like The Queen saying bugger.)

Twitter overheated and had to go in for repairs, its broken engine letting out great gasps of steam. All over the country, people who had planned to go to bed did not go to bed. Nobody knew what was happening. Jeremy Corbyn went in and out of his house like a jack-in-a-box, at least one MP appeared to be drunk on national television, and Ken Clarke stood square in his Hush Puppies and called everyone an idiot. (I love those elder statesmen, in the twilight of their careers. They have nothing to lose and no reason to stay on message, so they come out and say exactly what they think, and it’s like a tall glass of water.)

In the morning, the rumours started: on the telephone, on social media, in the street, on the email. ‘Did you hear?’ said the gossips, in shock and delight. ‘Did you hear?’ Did you hear that one Tory described Theresa May’s bus as the Bus of Fucking Failure? Did you hear that Conservative ministers are saying they did not know what was in the manifesto until they saw it on the BBC? Did you hear that Boris is already on manoeuvres? Did you hear that May would not consult anyone except for Nick Thing and Fiona Thing?
The fierce rain of criticism rained down on the Prime Minister for a campaign that left people utterly baffled. The strange psychological power of expectations meant that Labour were being hailed as dazzling giant-slayers, even though they actually lost. Never was a defeat celebrated so much as if it were a victory. Everyone on the Left was dancing in the streets, because the young people came out, because even some of the Scots came home, because the hard Brexit landslide turned out to be a chimera.
There were wild conspiracy theories that the Conservatives had thrown the election on purpose because they knew, in their secret hearts, that they could not climb Mount Brexit.
Here in Scotland, the SNP juggernaut was picked up as if it were a Tonka toy and thrown off the road. There, said the voters, fed up with independence obsession and dire education results and the bonkerness of the Named Person plan, take that. The glittering, gleaming irony was that it was Scotland that stopped a complete Tory meltdown, even though the joke was for many years that Scottish Conservatives were as rare as giant pandas.
The DUP, a small group of Northern Irish politicians, came blinking into the spotlight, like people who had spent many years living in a cupboard. Everybody had to scramble to remember who they were and what they stood for. Now, they were the kingmakers, the only people who could keep the government alive.
‘What do you think,’ said a friend, pensively, ‘that the Queen is going to say to Theresa May?’
Nobody knows, I think. Nobody knows anything. I have absolutely no idea what the electorate was trying to say or what this election means or where dear old Blighty will go from here. The democratic process, having had its little joke, has caught a bus to the seaside and is eating Brighton rock, leaving the country to wonder and ponder and gossip and speculate and bitch and celebrate and mourn.

I dream, idly, of a government of all the talents, a little like the one we had in the war. There were a lot of very poor performers in this election, but, in tiny offices and unsung constituencies and dark Whitehall corridors, there are good men and women of thought and talent. There are interesting people who did interesting jobs before they stood for parliament – doctors and soldiers and experts in foreign affairs – and when the government totters, as I suspect it will, I dream that they might all be called up, from across the party divides, to steer the ship through the stormy seas. 
That would never happen, of course, but wouldn’t it be lovely? These are serious times, which call for serious people. Nobody out in the front of these campaigns seemed to me very serious, or not serious enough. I yearn for a Dream Team, who would make all the nonsense make sense.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

The New Rules. Or, The Battalions of the Ordinary.



Right. Britain has had three of these outrages in short order and I see that already a set of mores is being established. The British have an odd relationship with rules. They love rules (we Britons have unspoken rules for everything, especially saying sorry when someone else has bumped into us) but at the very same time, there is a cussed British desire to break the rules. However, there are, out there, floating in the zeitgeist, a new set of tacit rules being born.

As the first shock and sorrow settles, the shoulders are straightened and stoicism reasserts itself. There is a game of Second World War bingo as the Blitz spirit is invoked, Churchill is quoted, and someone says that if the Nazis could not finish us off then a rag-tag of nihilists aren’t going to do it.

There is the first slightly inappropriate joke. The joker says: too soon? Sometimes it is too soon, sometimes it isn’t.

Donald Trump writes something completely asinine on Twitter.

Someone unexpected – after Manchester it was James Corden – captures the spirit of the nation and goes viral.

One idiot who has been at the gin talks about ‘bombing them back into the stone age’.

The police and emergency services are brilliant. There is a warming glow of national pride at the brilliance. Every time, there is amazement and awe for the people who run towards the danger.

People help. The stories of the helpers start spreading and everyone concentrates very hard on those stories, as the best kind of silver lining.

There is a great deal of carrying on. We must carry on shopping, working, going to the park, going to the pub, walking the dog, voting, watching the football, or the terrorists have won.

The left say it’s nothing to do with religion; the right say it’s all to do with religion. A few bigots with no social skills get very excited because they think they were right all along.

Everybody says something must be done. Nobody quite knows what that something is.

Hard-liners who clearly have no friends start politicising a tragedy. Good-hearted people with many friends tell them to shut the fuck up.

In America, a pundit or broadcaster or newspaper will choose an infelicitous phrase or display a tin ear or get completely the wrong end of the stick and the Ordinary Decent Britons, as one, rise up in indignation. They punish the folly with devastating irony.

Some brilliant person will start the perfect hashtag. This time is it #ThingsThatLeaveBritainReeling. The resulting running jokes revolve almost exclusively around the great British talent for embarrassment. There will always, always be an unexpected item in the bagging area.

The BBC will be magnificent.

Everybody wants to chase Katie Hopkins out of town with pitchforks. She appears not to care.

JK Rowling will usually win the internet. (Four minutes after I wrote that sentence, she just did.)

A small, faintly obsessive subset of the population breathes a huge sigh of relief when it hears the theme tune to The Archers. If The Archers are still on, then the world must still be turning on its axis.

There will be a great deal of talk about love and community and standing together. There will be someone who gets furious about this and writes an impassioned article about how sentiment is not enough. That person will be right and wrong at the same time. The people who believe in love and community and togetherness will go on believing in those things.

Those who have hastily changed their profile picture on Facebook must wrestle with the excruciating dilemma of wondering how soon they can change it back without looking callous.

Tea always features strongly, in all its incarnations. In the secret heart of every Briton is the humming belief that the cure to all ills is a nice cup of tea. I don’t even like tea and I believe this.

Those of us of a certain age will remember the dark days of the seventies, when the IRA made bombing seem a fact of almost daily life. I remember my father swearing at the nine o’clock news as yet another act of violence was reported. I thought that would never end, not in my lifetime. Yet somehow, it did.


Slowly, carefully, small seeds of hope will sprout in a million hearts. As the worst side of human nature explodes into a quiet evening, so the best side of human nature will rise to brighten the dawn. 

There is the curious power of ordinariness. Social media will be filled with responses to the latest attack, and some of those responses will be mad and some will be magnificent. But alongside that, there will be the glorious, galvanic power of the ordinary. People will post pictures of their children, their dogs, their ponies (obviously the ponies are the finest tonic), of a family trip to the local or a walk on the beach. The punters will be trying to figure out who will win the 3.10 at Listowel and the psephologists will be puzzling over the latest polls and the pedants will be wincing over every misplaced apostrophe. I quite often say that love conquers hate, because I have to believe that is true. But today I think: what really wins is the very, very ordinary. There is a defiant glory to the ordinary. The battalions of the ordinary, I think, can match any army in the world.

Breaking news.

1.45am. Across the way from my house, there is a grand old cow barn. It was built in the nineteenth century, by a gentleman who adored his cows and wanted them to have a palace. It is known as the Coo Cathedral and now it is a place where weddings are held. Tonight, there was such a raucous party going on that I could not sleep. I went out just now to take the dogs for a walk and found a magical sight. The entire granite structure was lit up and music was pouring out into the still night air. As a happy band sang The Bonnie Banks O’ Loch Lomond, a sinuous mist rose from the ground and a bright moon sailed in a dark sky. I looked at the scene, trying to take a snapshot in my mind. It was one of the most magical things I ever saw.
I came back in and took one last look at the internet before bed. Somebody said something about London Bridge falling down. Another person said they were praying for London.
My brain went into its familiar state of incomprehension. For moments, I did not understand. Then I checked and checked and went to the BBC and I could see that something shocking and strange and terrifying was happening.
I had been thinking about Kabul, in the last few days. I did not know what to think about that or what to write about that. Kabul was on fire, and the atrocities came, one after another. They were bombing funerals. I had written about Manchester, but there are times when you run out of words. I thought about Kabul, but I did not know what to say about Kabul. Humans are flawed, and frail, and there is only so much shock that can be processed in any meaningful way. Distance should not matter, but it does. The things that happen close to home strike harder, because, well, home is home.
There’s also the blind nature of hope. If I keep putting one foot in front of the other, keeping on with the normal, concentrating on the ordinary, everything will be all right. Equilibrium will return. I think most people believe this, and it is a blatant survival mechanism.

London was my home for a long time. I knew that great city like a sister and I loved her and she made me laugh and gave me joy. Borough Market and London Bridge are instant familiars, with cultural markers and known associations. And yet, I am five hundred miles north, as this news breaks. As this news breaks, I have come in from one of the most glorious, magical Scottish nights I ever saw. That’s the dissonance. That’s what makes my brain start to snap and sizzle, as if the neurones are exploding in incomprehension and disbelief. How can there be such peace and loveliness here and such carnage and panic there? As I get older, I sometimes think it slightly comical that I know nothing. When I see such news, the knowing nothing becomes a black, blank space. 

Saturday, 3 June 2017

The Derby.



The minds who invented The Derby were fiendish minds. I love their fiendishness, and thank them across the almost two hundred and fifty years since they came up with the idea. It really did come from a dinner and then a party. I suspect drink was taken. The race was named on the flip of a coin. I doubt the gathered company knew they were starting the most famous, most coveted, most idiosyncratic flat race in the world.
            Every year, when I think of The Derby, I wonder that any horse can win it, ever. You need so many qualities, an almost impossible package.
            The horse has to have power and balance. The cambers of Epsom are brutal. At the beginning of the race, the course climbs swiftly to a height of about twenty double decker buses. The first thing these fine thoroughbreds are asked to do is slog up a hill. Then, as they crest the rise and catch their breath, the ground drops away from them. For a long way they are galloping flat out downhill.
            Have you ever galloped down a hill on a half-ton flight animal? I’ve trotted my sweet mare down hills and even that is pretty hairy. She is fourteen years old, was slow as a boat when she raced, and is now a poised dowager duchess who teaches children to ride. But even so, trotting her down the Tarland Way is an act of trust. The ground falls away in front of me and I have to sit back and trust her completely to find her footing like a mountain goat. I imagine doing that perched over the withers of a race-fit colt, bred to be the best of his generation. I can’t even imagine what that must feel like, and imagination is my business.
            You need a kind of brute strength too. The cambers and turns lead to jostling for position. A horse might get bumped in to, thrown off his stride. In a big field you can get boxed in, and a horse might have to forge his way out of the melée.
            You need the tensile balance of a dancer. As the terrain shifts under him, that horse must stay perfectly balanced, change his legs, keep his body together, maintain his rhythm.
            You need courage. Those horses are being asked the biggest question of their young lives, and they need proper guts.
            You need speed, but you need stamina too. It’s a long mile and a half, so the thoroughbred has to stay, but has to have the quickness to put on a burst of velocity and fly to the line.
            You need manners. From the moment the horse comes into the paddock, to being saddled up, to parading in front of the stands, to the hurly burly of the race itself, that horse is going to be asked a huge amount of questions. The polite horse says yes, of course. If you get a horse who is saying no, no, no, a huge amount of energy is going to be wasted. Some of the greatest of the greats have got away with being tricky, because they were so much better than anything else. Nijinsky was famously complex, but he could still skitter about the paddock and then go out on the track and boss his field. All the same, courtesy is a huge advantage.
            A lot of people think having intelligence helps too. The intelligent horse will take all the jamboree in his stride, looking about with interest rather than becoming overwhelmed by the spectacle. And with intelligence comes temperament. A horse who is easy in his skin, at home with himself, will take the wild preliminaries with sanguine grace and save his power for the moment the starter lets him go. Sheer talent is not enough. There was the sad sight of Dawn Approach boiling over so that even the soothing hands of Kevin Manning could not reassure him. A brilliant horse threw away his race, because the occasion was all too much for him.
            Epsom is a roiling cauldron of humanity. Very few courses have an antic infield. At The Derby, there is not only the seething crowd in the stands, but over the other side of the course there is a funfair, massed ranks of gleaming buses, and a roaring party. Horses used to the gentle heath of Newmarket will never have seen anything like it in their lives.
            And, of course, you need raw talent. You need the diamond brilliance that comes with three hundred years of breeding. You need that extra special something, that sprinkle of stardust, the mysterious element that makes you catch your breath.
            All that, in one ravishing equine mind and body. That is why whoever wins The Derby is a horse of horses.
            I’ve no idea which shining star will emerge today. It’s an impossible Derby. There are more question marks than I can shake a stick at. I can make a good case for at least ten of them. I would not be at all surprised if something scooted home at 40-1. It’s that kind of year.
            I’m not going to try and be clever. There’s no point poring over the form. I’m going to have two little love bets. I’m backing the horses that I want to win. I’m on Permian, even though I think he might not quite be top, top class. But he’s tough, and courageous, and willing, and he tries, and he’s improving all the time. He’s got a fighting heart and a lovely mind. And I’ll put a little bit on Eminent, although I’m not sure he’ll stay. He’s a very bright horse, and he’s a Frankel, and he’s got great power and scope, and he’s absurdly handsome. I love the way he goes about his business, and he, like his trainer, is a great gentleman.

            The Derby. It’s bonkers. Those fiendish minds really did come up with something for the ages. 

Friday, 2 June 2017

The Secret Environmentalist.



A very, very bonkers theory comes into my head and does a little dance. 

The bonkers theory is that Mr Trump has been doing a massive double-bluff all this time. I think he might be the greenest President ever. All the years when people thought he was merely living in golden towers and building vulgar resorts and pissing off the people of Aberdeenshire, he was in fact secretly hugging trees and reading Silent Spring.

When I first heard all the nonsense about Pittsburg not Paris and the bizarrely plaintive and oddly Freudian question ‘At what point do they start laughing at us?’, I felt the cold stone of despair sink in my stomach. There go the polar bears, I thought. The ice caps are buggered. Everyone had better start learning to grow their own food and begin stocking up on tinned goods. I put on my end of days hat and wondered where I had stashed the strong liquor.

But then I watched as the internet started to reveal a startling festival of defiance. Everywhere I looked, on the news, on the online newspaper sites, on the social media, people were standing up and saying no. It was like the iconic scene in Spartacus. Everyone was Spartacus.

What was so extraordinary was that it was not just the usual suspects. It was not the hippy dippy cohort in their beanie hats who think that Big Business would like to flood The Maldives with their bare hands. It was Big Business. It was stiffs in suits, the kind of people one would normally assume do not give a damn. It was China, for goodness’ sake. It was old school Republicans and rampant capitalists. The governors and mayors were digging in their heels, because the states and the cities would have their say. Newly minted President Macron stepped forward and had a dazzling moment in the sun.

I suddenly thought that poor old Bono and Leonardo di Caprio must be weeping into their tea. They’ve been trying to rally the troops for years, but they could never achieve anything like this. No concert or campaign or publicity stunt that they could muster would come close to uniting the entire world in a resolution to save the world. In one master-stroke, an elderly, incoherent, orange gentleman had brought the globe together. Donald Trump, madly, was teaching the world to sing. No other individual could get Mark Zuckerberg and Goldman Sachs and Exxon Mobil to read from the same page. On one side was Bashar Assad and some die-hards in Nicaragua and the American President and the mysterious entity that is Steve Bannon, and on the other side was everyone else.

The environment can feel very demoralising. What is happening to it can seem so big and inevitable and unstoppable that one puny human can feel powerless in the face of it. The moral conundrums are twisted and legion. Are you really going to tell a developing country that it can’t burn fossil fuels as the rich nations rest on the power that those very same fuels have provided for decades? Some of the renewables are beset with boondoggles and dodginess as subsidies reward those who need the money least. The local environment can feel at odds with the global environment. Good intentions get lost in the maze of politics and money. The head begins to ache, and many people retreat into a despairing apathy. However many eco-friendly lightbulbs I use, thinks the baffled human, I can’t save the polar bears.

The latest galloping Trumpism has galvanised those despairing humans. If the Chinese and the CEOs and lovely Justin Trudeau and the Mayor of Pittsburg are all in it together, maybe the planet is not doomed. The saving of the planet is suddenly at the front of a billion minds, and those minds are defiant and determined. Trump has turned worries about climate change from the low hum of background noise to the headline act.

I am an irredeemable optimist. This sounds perfectly charming, but in fact it’s very tiring. I hunt for silver linings like a pig hunts for truffles, and often my silver linings turn out to be made of lead. If you believe in the best – of people, of the world, of the human heart, even of history – you court an awful lot of disappointment. There is a great deal of picking oneself up and dusting oneself off and starting all over again. I may have gone too far this time. Perhaps, after all the kerfuffle, everyone will return to their default mode, which is sticking their heads in the sand like a flock of tired old ostriches. But I think this might be a sea change. The sight of the most powerful man on earth saying he does not give a bugger has made people realise that they really do give a bugger. They have woken up to find some surprising bedfellows. A furious cussedness is spreading, everywhere you look.


Perhaps this is an utter disaster, and that’s all she wrote. But I think there is a much more interesting and hopeful story. I think there is something shining and galvanic and surprising, between the lines. Perhaps, bizarrely, Mr Trump has made Thracian gladiators of us all. Perhaps this is the moment when millions of souls realise they have nothing to lose but their chains. 

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