Tuesday, 28 February 2017

My good Samaritan. Or: faith in humanity restored.

Today, I went from sheer joy to sheer terror within ten minutes.
I had ridden up to HorseBack for my riding lesson. It’s about two and a half miles along the Deeside Way and it’s a pretty ride. The red mare was then very brilliant and very brave in her lesson and did many new and gloriously clever things that made me smile and whoop. An old friend appeared which was a real treat and so I started the ride off home in tearing spirits.

Perhaps that was the problem. Perhaps the spirits were too high. Perhaps the hubris demons were chattering in my ear. Across the road there is a place where I have to get off and fiddle with a gate. It’s quite tricky, with a chain and a padlock and not much room to move and it’s on a slope. Usually, I loop the reins over my arm, but what with the spirits being so high and the head full of hubris demons having a bloody cocktail party, I just put a hand on the rein. It’s the red mare, I thought; she invented the Standing Still Olympics.
And then something flew out of the bushes and made her start and that rein was out of my hand and I stared in horror and disbelief as her great thoroughbred quarters disappeared round the corner.
She’ll stop, I thought. She just got a fright. She’ll trot off and then she’ll stop.
She did not stop. She’d had a long morning and she’d worked hard and she was damn well going home.
I famously can’t run. I don’t really know how to run. I ran. I sprinted after her, breath coming in great fearful gasps. I could see death and disaster in my mind, as if I had walked into the middle of a horror film. Panting and sobbing, I called in the cavalry. ‘Don’t worry,’ said the soothing voice of my brilliant teacher. ‘I’ll get the quad bike out.’
The path ahead was ominously empty. I’ve ruined everything, I thought, running and sobbing. One moment of thoughtlessness and I’ve lost the light of my life.
A car, coming slowly down the road, flashed its lights and stopped. The most wonderful gentleman in Scotland said: ‘Have you lost a horse?’
I scrambled madly over a fence and across a ditch and into his incredibly clean car. A beautiful liver chestnut spaniel put its comforting wet nose into my hand as if in reassurance. ‘You are so kind,’ I said, my breath coming in great gulps. ‘I’m so afraid.’
He turned round and went back up the road and there were kind, clever people who had stopped their cars and were not panicking. There, galloping up the road as if she were in the Oaks, was the red mare, right as rain. Another brilliant gentleman leapt out of his car and I leapt out of my brilliant gentleman’s car and the red mare saw the gap and swerved into a heavenly safe green field. I’ve never loved a field so much in my life. I showered garbled thanks on my saviours and ran after her. She stopped, and looked at me, as if to say: where the hell have you been? She dropped her head and I picked up the rein and I had her back.
There had been no death and disaster. Everyone was all right. I had been petrified by the thought that not only would the mare be injured, but that she might cause a crash. But there, in the pale Scottish sun, was everyone in one lovely piece. I rang the cavalry to tell them they could stand down. I rode home, chastened by my own stupidity.
This morning, the news was truly awful. There was one horrifying story after another. There was cruelty and abuse in care homes and prisoners barricading themselves in their cells because they were too frightened to come out and helpless refugee children from Syria facing unspeakable dangers from predatory men. I had thought that I was going to write a blog about how on earth one could maintain one’s faith in human nature against that barrage.
I do have faith in human nature. I have a great big fat belief in the human heart. I choose to think that most people are mostly good. I think that they try hard, often against horrendous odds, and that they all want to love and be loved and that they want to leave the world a little better than they found it. This is my most profound creed. The news was battering that creed. Perhaps I had been wrong all along and I was going to have to face that wrongness.
And then my good Samaritan stopped his clean car and took me to save my mare.
One kind act in a world of sorrows does not make everything all right. It does not wipe away all that bad news. But you know, it’s something. It’s Shakespeare: ‘How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a naughty world.’ It’s an amulet, a totem, a mark of faith.
I could not even thank my kind gentleman properly. I was in such a state and although I think I did say ‘thank you, thank you’ I was mostly panting and gabbling. I have a tiny dream that someone might see this, on the internet, that someone might know a practical, generous man with a maroon car and a beautiful liver Spaniel, one that looks as if it is a proper working dog, and that person might ask that man if he was driving along the A93 at lunchtime today, and might say: you know, that lunatic woman with the horse would like to thank you from the bottom of her heart. And all the other people in cars were so good and kind and sensible, and seemed to know exactly what to do, and did not hoot their horns or look furious, but seemed concerned and ready to help.

Instead of being filled with despair at the state of the world and the battering ram of the bad news, I am now filled with a diffuse, almost disbelieving love for all those people whose names I shall never know, because they were so stalwart and good and proper. I was an idiot, and I deserve a rap on the knuckles and a stern talking to, but instead I got the benign consolation of the group. It was as if, in that moment, on that country road, with the slumbering blue hills looking down on us, there was the wisdom of crowds instead of the madness of crowds. It was as if, just for a few minutes, everyone gathered together to do what they could for that errant horse, all their focus and purpose directed like a laser on restoring the situation to safety and normality.
Perhaps that is a little romantic of me; perhaps some of them were drumming their fingers on the steering wheel and cursing. But it did not feel like that. It felt as if that disparate group cohered, and put its arms around me, for all my folly, and said: don’t worry, it will be all right. And it was all right.

I was so blinded by fears and imaginings that I would not even recognise my rescuer. But somewhere out there is one man and his dog, who did a very, very good turn to a frantic human in dire need. And that candle throws his beams an awful long way.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Following my own advice.

In Seventy-Seven Ways to Make Your Life Very Slightly Better, I wrote a chapter on sharing with the group. I wrote about writing things down, letting things out, telling your friend who will not point and laugh but will be funny and wise. All these are very good and true and really do make things an awful lot better. The problem is that I did not write a chapter on how to take your own advice.

By the time you get to fifty, you know stuff. It amazed me, when I wrote it all down, how much I did know. I was quite impressed with myself. And then, knowing all the things I know, I find myself not doing those things.

Today, I did the things. I was in that kind of portmanteau sadness that is hard to shake off. Someone had been thoughtless and quite ill-mannered, which was a little thing but had hurt rather. One of my mares has been suffering from ill-health for a while and the vet came yesterday and had his get ready for the worst face on. And then there is the big thing, the main thing, which is too dull to bore you with, but is like a hydra with ten heads and makes my heart ache and my head ache and my very bones ache.

And this morning, I talked about it and the response was absolutely pitch perfect. What I need in doleful moments, when everything is aching, is a combination of empathy, wisdom, and spit-spot. I need the Poppins voice to stop me falling into the pit of self-indulgence. I need a certain steeliness. And there it was, and I got everything off my chest and I ended up laughing instead of crying.

The thing is still the thing. But because of my kind listener, I now have a slightly different perspective on the thing, and that is what makes all the difference. I wrote all that in my book and sometimes I forget all that.

Say the thing. Let it out. Rely on the kindness of the people you love.

You don’t, I remind myself, get a damn prize for trying to fix every damn thing all by yourself. 

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Another very kind gentleman.

A very sweet thing happened today. It was a small thing but it felt like a big thing.

I don’t accost famous people on social media. I don’t do it in real life, so I don’t do it online. I think famous people have a perfectly rotten time when it comes to privacy, so I believe it is only good manners to pretend that one does not recognise them at all.

There is also another thing about famous people on social media. If you reply to one of their posts or tweets it can be seen by everyone who follows you, so it can look as if you actually know the famous person and are slightly showing off about it. I find the whole thing excruciating, so I leave it alone.

This morning, however, I broke my golden rule. I did it without thinking.

In Britain, we have a much loved cricket commentator called Jonathan Agnew. He is a bit of a national treasure himself and he is part of the majestic and mighty national treasure that is Test Match Special. Test Match Special, for my foreign readers, is a radio show that broadcasts test matches in their entirety. That is right. The dear old BBC actually gives over five days of air at a time to the labyrinthine machinations of the long game. For quite long periods of this time, absolutely nothing is happening. The players are at lunch, or having a tea break, or taking time for a drink. There are no advertisements or pauses of any kind on TMS, so the commentators and pundits simply keep on talking. They make jokes, they read out letters and now tweets and texts from loyal listeners, they take the piss out of each other, they famously eat cake. The cake is sent in by the fans of the show. ‘And thank you so much to Mrs Miggins for the delicious Victoria sponge.’ (Even as I type this, I imagine readers in non-cricketing nations shaking their heads in bafflement.)

One of the idiosyncrasies of Test Match Special is that almost everyone gets a nickname. So Agnew is Aggers. There is also Tuffers, and Blowers, and Daggers; in the storied past there was one of the greatest of them all, the legendary Johnners.

I grew up with cricket and have vaguely followed cricket all my life. I remember people getting passionately excited about the devastating West Indies sides of my youth, and have vivid memories from my teenage years of the force of nature that was Ian Botham. I veer in and out of cricket consciousness, and I’ll never really know where a silly mid-on actually stands, but during the big tests, especially The Ashes, I will take days off to listen to Test Match Special. It is stitched into my cultural life as deeply as any British thing I know.

So, this morning, when I saw someone being disobliging to Aggers on Twitter, I wrote a line before I could think better of it. The disobliging person had accused Agnew of trying to be cool and was very disparaging about it, so I wrote: ‘you will always be cool to me’. Of course the absurdity of all this is that no cricket commentator in the history of the game has ever been cool, tried to be cool, or even thought about the nature of coolness. This is cricket, not indie pop. Blowers, the current elder statesman of the Test Match Special Team, will exclaim ‘Oh, I say’ at an extravagant shot and calls everyone, from ten-year-old fans to cabinet ministers ‘My dear old thing’. But in their anti-cool, in their sublime indifference to fads and fashions, in their absolute adoration for this inexplicable game, the TMS posse are in some ways the very definition of cool. So I was half joking and half serious.

I sat there feeling slightly embarrassed. Poor Aggers. He must be accosted by strangers every day. Each morning, his letterbox must be stuffed with charity requests and offers of speaking engagements and a myriad of demands. And now some middle-aged female was sending him rather familiar tweets.

I looked at the dogs, ruing the day. They stared back, entirely unimpressed.

And then there was a little bing and a bong and there was a reply. And it wasn’t just the usual thumbs up sod off cursory reply that I would have expected. It was the full 140 characters and it had a joke in it and it wished me a lovely day.

I was amazed. That, I thought, is a proper human being. He’s just as nice in life as he sounds on my wireless. It was such a tiny thing, but it can be hard replying to complete strangers on the internet. There’s a thing about tone and it’s not very British and it’s just awkward. Sometimes, it’s easier to ignore the whole thing. There are minefields and elephant traps everywhere. But Aggers did it with grace and style and put a smile on my face.

I’m thinking a lot about kindness at the moment. That was kind, I thought. Do one kind thing every single day, I thought, and the world will be a slightly brighter place. From wherever he was, Aggers shone a ray of light this morning, and it fell on me.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Kindness, kindness and yet more kindness.

Someone I love did something so elegant, so courteous, so big-hearted today that it left me without words. I mouthed helplessly at the telephonic instrument. Adjectives ran through my head like ticker-tape, but none of them was good enough. In the end, rather faintly, I said: ‘You are the greatest gentleman I know.’

Apart from the elegance and the gentlemanliness and the goodness and the general rising above the petty and the common and the mean, there was an enormous amount of kindness in what my Great Gentleman did. It was kindness on an epic scale; kindness as a force that could move mountains or change the world or transform the weather.  It was kindness not as a sweet, bland, mimsy thing but as a muscular, transformative, difficult thing. Sometimes the easy thing is not to be kind. The easy thing is to be cross and resentful and self-regarding and entitled and filled with blame and bile. The easy thing is to stomp and rant and shout and roar and point the finger. You, you over there, you are to blame for my misfortune or my rotten luck or my shitty day.

To be kind is often to rise above all that cheap clamour. It is to expand the heart, not narrow the eyes and shrink the mind. It is the big rather than the small, the generous rather than the mean, the empathetic rather than the selfish.

I quite often think about the people who don’t make the headlines. I mean the people who really are rather heroic in their daily lives. They don’t win Oscars or Grammys; they don’t hit the front page or rake in fat salaries. But they face chronic pain with dignity or bear aching hearts under bright smiles or incrementally, quietly, resolutely make the world a slightly better place. I spoke to a friend today who demonstrates a daily bravery. He would loathe the word and find it embarrassing, but luckily he does not read this blog so I can speak of his stoicism and courage. Every day he faces one of those situations that is near unbearable, that stretches the human heart to its limit, that is lacerating and unfair. He does not make a fuss. He does not ask for special treatment. He never, ever complains, not even by the tone of his voice. He is one of the millions of people who privately, away from the clamour and the spotlight, do something remarkable in their ordinary lives.

I think of virtues like that too. I think kindness is one such. It doesn’t sound very sexy or thrilling. It’s not a song and dance virtue. It does not wear a top hat and tails and shimmer and shine like Fred Astaire. It sometimes sounds a little like a consolation prize. (‘Well, she was no beauty, but she was really very kind.') But the older I get and the more bashed about the edges and the more impatient with the superficial and the specious, the more I cherish bone-deep, authentic, no messing virtues like kindness. 

My Great Gentleman rose in greatness today, although the odds were all stacked against him, and I watched him in awe and wonder. ‘You know,’ I said, ‘if I could love you more, which obviously I couldn’t, I would.’ He laughed for quite a long time. 

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Ride straight. Or: the importance of the great teachers.

Today I did something I was afraid of. I jumped a course of jumps. 
Last year I signed up for a charity challenge to do a one-day-event. I haven’t done dressage or cross-country or show-jumping since I was fifteen and I’m now fifty. Since getting my red mare I went back to scratch and educated myself in an entire new school of horsemanship, which I’m just getting the hang of. She herself was bred for the flat, went for polo after racing, and has never competed in a show in her life.
Of course we would sign up. It’s for charity.
The jumping scares me witless. It scares me because I’m afraid of having a crash and wounding myself and not being able to look after the animals and it scares me because I’m afraid that I will make a fool of myself in front of people. You’d think I’d be used to making a fool of myself but apparently I’m not. Or there are some fools that are more equal than others. Or something.
Despite all this, today the mare and I rode three miles down the valley and jumped a course, in front of many people and with many, many opportunities for folly. And I did not fall off and we did not have a crash and I was so enchanted with the brilliance of the red mare that I did not care what anyone thought.
It was very wonderful and I did a lot of whooping and felt quite proud because I had faced my fears, but the big life lesson is that I did not do it on my own. I had a teacher. I accepted help. I am very, very bad at accepting help. I have some bizarre need to do everything on my own. I don’t want to be that demanding, needy, hopeless person who haunts my imagination like a cautionary tale.
One day, I shall get it into my thick head that everyone can’t do everything by themselves. No man is an island, and no woman either.
There are lots of interesting and clever tactics to boost one’s own confidence and many psychological aspects to ponder and many books to read. Such things should be pondered. If one can make a thing better, so one should. But nothing, nothing, builds confidence like someone who has faith in you. And I mean proper faith. Not mimsy, molly-coddling, oh you sweet thing of course you can do it kind of bollocks. That’s no good. The gentle hand on the shoulder, the sympathetic look in the eye, the consoling note in the voice that teeters on the abyss of the patronising – no, no, none of that is what you need. What is required, what makes all the difference, is someone who stands on the ground and shouts: ‘Ride straight.’ Because that person knows you can ride straight, and wants you to ride straight, and has the belief that you can ride straight, and then, suddenly, like a flapping great miracle straight from flappy old heaven, with celestial choirs singing their heads off and everyone playing their harps, you ride straight. Yes, you damn well do.
I don’t really know how it works. Some people simply are great teachers. I had one, years ago, who made me feel I could do anything. He was called Mr Woodhouse and I can see him now, with his quizzical look and that faintly fanatical gleam in his eye. All the other teachers thought I worked hard but missed the top grade. (Eager, but a little bit second-rate, intellectually.) Mr Woodhouse thought I could go all the way. And when I walked through the great arch into Canterbury Quad for the first time, it was completely because of him.
University wasn’t a thing in my family. My brothers and sister did not go. My mother did not go. My dad went for about five minutes, found it all ‘far too difficult’ and gave up academic work and ran the drag and went for sherry once a week with Hugh Trevor-Roper (‘have you heard of him, darling?’) until it was decided with great goodwill and enormous mutual relief that he should go down. I had one eccentric Irish godmother who insisted I should go to Oxford but everything thought that a tremendous joke until Mr Woodhouse, who was a very serious man indeed, coached me through the exam and got me there.
Some teachers just have that gift, that special extra something, the thing that does not quite go neatly into words. They look like everyone else and they sound like everyone else and they don’t seem to do anything extraordinary, but it’s all Dead Poets’ Society with them. It’s Captain my bloody Captain and standing on the desks and thinking perhaps one can be remarkable after all.
And that is why I did the thing I was afraid of today, not because I was brave, or I was clever, or I was bold, but because there was one of those talented ones, on the ground, shouting ‘Ride straight.’
They were tiny little fences. This charity thing is entirely obscure and will be over in the blink of an eye and people will hardly know it even happened. But it’s huge to me. It’s quite weird when both your parents die. It’s so normal and natural and expected. It’s what happens to everyone. You are fifty years old and you know how life works; you know about funerals and grief and letting go of the Dear Departeds. Inside, however, there is a voice that is wailing: I’m an orphan, I’m on my own, I don’t know what happens next. No wonder I ran headlong into a challenge. It was some kind of existential howl of mere presence: look at me, I am not nothing, I can do stuff.

I feel as if I have to reinvent my life now out of whole cloth. Everyone has gone. The dear Stepftather has gone to the south and the nieces have gone to the south and my sister and brother-in-law have gone to the south. There was a family enclave and now there is me and the lurchers and the two mares. I don’t know that I leaned on that family but it was there and it felt like something. My mother was a quarter of a mile away and I saw her every morning. I made her breakfast and I made her laugh. And now that’s all gone and all changed and there are great open spaces where people once were. 
So I have to learn to ride straight. I have to make new paths in those open spaces, carve new tracks in the trackless wastes. I need confidence for that, and hope, and a voice in my head that says you can do this, just like I had today, over those absurdly small jumps that frighten me so much.
Ride straight, my darlings; ride straight. 

Monday, 13 February 2017

Eight Days. Or: still absolutely no idea what I am talking about.

Eight days without cigarettes!!! EIGHT DAYS. Clearly this has reduced me to Trumpian capitals and exclamation marks. Which is yugely sad. 
There is no nicotine in my body. (My poor, poor body; what I have been doing to it.) The usual four thousand chemicals – can that really be true? – are no longer being pumped through my veins.

I’m going to try not to become a stop smoking bore. I think there will always be a part of me that loves it even though I know it uses its power for evil rather than for good. There will always be a part of me that loves the reckless smoker, the one who doesn’t give a fuck, that person I always thought I wanted to be. Hell, roll the dice, take the chance, shoot in the dark. I didn’t want to be sensible and think about the future and be the grown-up. I have a faintly rueful sense that I am saying goodbye to some odd fantasy of myself as a swaggery rule-breaker.

The funny thing is that this morning I went down to my red mare and obeyed all the rules. I’m training for a charity challenge to do a one-day-event this year and we’ve got to work hard and get our no messing hats on. Today, instead of being a bit cavalier about it as I can sometimes be, I went through the correct steps in the correct order. I did not throw caution to the winds, but kept caution safely in my pocket. We’ll do this, and then the next thing, and then the other thing I said; everything in its proper place. And it was tremendously proper and I bloody well was the grown-up and it didn’t feel dull at all. It was so lovely it made me laugh.

The brain is still not working well and my concentration is still buggered and I am still incredibly tired. Years and years of shit are being excavated I suppose and my poor neuronal pathways are having to be reset or something. I go to bed at seven-thirty like an old lady. The dogs think this is hysterical and sprawl all over the blankets with their paws in the air as if they are doing a special dance or practising circus skills.

I would like to sharpen up. I miss being sharp. But I’m starting to think I don’t miss the thing itself. I think I feared missing the idea of the thing, the fantasies that went along with the thing, the luring associations that clung to the thing. I think perhaps that is the hardest part to put down. 

Friday, 10 February 2017

Concentration buggered.

Concentration absolutely buggered. Is that in the literature? I can’t remember, since I’ve got no concentration. I go to the Google every five minutes and type things like: ‘stop smoking – nicotine’ and ‘stop smoking – dopamine’ and ‘STOP SMOKING HELP’. Then I read like a mad woman and then five minutes later I can’t remember what any of  it said.

I think I’m supposed to be cranky. I’m not especially cranky. This morning at HorseBack (stay outside, stay outside) I was actually quite perky. There was a very lovely group of visitors and they and the horses were all doing good work and the sun was shining off the snow and life seemed filled with point and meaning. I need point and meaning and am happy when I have them. I really am awfully simple.
But then I had to go inside to my desk to finish my HorseBack work and the concentration was so bad I had to make a list. The list said things like: ‘Do Work. Write Blog. Do HorseBack Pictures. Write Red Mare Post. Walk Dogs. Give Horses Hay.’ I’m surprised it did not say: ‘Breathe In and Out. Put One Foot In Front Of Another.’
I’m also very, very slow. It’s taken me all day to do the HorseBack stuff. I’m going to have to send a shame-faced note to my agent telling her that a deadline needs to be pushed.
Still, the hugely good news is that I think my dopamine receptors or producers or whatever they are called are still working. Apparently, too much nicotine can trash the poor little darlings almost beyond redemption. But I only have to look at a photograph of my thoroughbred with snow on her ears or Darwin the Dog with icicles on his whiskers to feel happy and glad. So that really is something. Five minutes after the happiness and gladness the shouty voices yell ‘Smoke the world!!!’ and I beadily take their measure and decide that they are more annoying than anything. I can deal with a bit of annoyance. I don’t enjoy it but it’s not the end of everything. I can go back to the sweet pictures of my dear animals and get my dopamine shot.
I just wish I did not feel that I am having to relearn the English language and the rudiments of actual life. But I expect that it just a thing. And I expect it will pass. It will be quite lovely to be able to write a coherent sentence again. I am looking forward to that day.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Just imagine that.

I blink at the screen like a confused owl, slightly amazed by so many kind comments, both here and even more on Facebook. I always find it astonishing that it is the posts about hopelessness and fecklessness and pointlessness that get the biggest and most generous response. In a world gone mad, I tell myself I must be cheerful and fine, that the tap shoes must go on and the show tunes be sung. Nobody wants to read about someone else’s problems, not when the world is so oppressed. No, no, no, make ‘em laugh make ‘em laugh make ‘em laugh; that’s the ticket.

In fact, when I write cheery posts, they are usually read by three men and a dog. When I lose the edit button and have a proper wail, a chorus of strangers rises up to cry: me too.

I do know this and I always forget this and I’m always amazed by this.

Still, I should not let this reminder allow me to tumble into self-indulgence. This is not going to become a misery memoir. I’m going to keep it snappy. Because you know, the will to live.

So, it is now Day Four. To my intense delight, my mouth no longer feels as if someone has lit a match in it. I feel this is surely a great step forward. Every single Google search informs me that my body is now free of nicotine. Each human I meet seems inordinately pleased that I shall no longer be ruthlessly poisoning myself. 

I spend a lot of time outside. I never smoked outside, it was always a thing of office and desk and work, so I pull my trapper’s hat over my eyes and stump off to HorseBack and do work there. When I get back, I take longer than usual with my own horses. I find myself riding and laughing at five in the afternoon, because the end of the day was always a real smoking point. If I’m outside, if I’m with the good equines, then I’m all right.

And then I go inside and this crazy haze of voices starts yelling at me: fuck everyone, fuck it all, smoke your head off. Go on, shout the voices, you are not one of those bourgeois sensible people who do the right thing. You are a creative, you know no rules, you should live on the edge, play a little Russian Roulette. And besides, shout the wild voices, what about Great-Aunt-Nellie with her forty Woodbines a day and her still doing the Can-Can at ninety?

I start to tell the voices to shut up. They are so loud and sweary and sneery. They think I am a bore. Giving up smoking is such a bore. Depriving oneself of anything is a bore.

Then I think: no, no, First Amendment, freedom of speech, no safe spaces in this brain. So when I am walking back from the horses in the chill and the gloaming, I say, out loud, to the shouty voices: why do you want me to smoke?

They get a bit stuttery and shuffly. They don’t really know. They’ve got a slight self-destructive kick that they don’t especially want to talk about and there’s something about dulling the senses that they can't entirely explain. The shouty voices don’t really want to admit it but sometimes they find the world a bit much. It’s all a bit too big and scary and indecipherable and if they are busy smoking they’ve got a faint haze between them and the impossible stuff.

I stare at the shouty voices. ‘Oh my goodness,’ I say to them. ‘You are more properly nuts than I am. You actually believe that if you stay in your room and smoke you won’t have to worry quite so much about what is going on in the labyrinthine head of Donald Trump.’

They really are shuffling their feet now. They sort of do think that.

Somehow, I have no idea how, smoking for me has become a retreat, a pulling up of the drawbridge, a defence. I feel startled and mildly ashamed. I thought I was the bold sort who looked fears in the whites of their eyes. It turns out I’d really like to stop the world and get off. It turns out that I’ve turned tobacco into some kind of analgesic.

So the cravings come, hard now, with all their bonkers irrationality and their shouty voices. I reckon I’ve had about eight today and I’ve seen them off with a variety of tactics.

Tomorrow, I think, faintly, my cilia might start moving again. The cilia are beautiful and vital and I was paralysing them. Imagine, I say sternly to the shouty voices, those little darlings wafting about again like Noel Coward wannabees at a cocktail party or young artists interpreting the world through the medium of dance.

Just imagine that.  

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

I put that gasper down

I have given up smoking.

I feel rather stupidly embarrassed that I should have to write that sentence, because what the buggery bollocks was I doing, smoking in the first place?

I grew up in the Lambourn valley in the seventies and everybody smoked except for my dad, who never fancied it. The trainers used to smoke at first lot, sitting on their hacks, and the owners smoked and the vets smoked and the farriers smoked and the jockeys smoked and the lads smoked. Away from real life, away from the downs with the larks on the wing, in all the old black and white films I loved, every luminous star smoked. Humphry Bogart smoked and Lauren Bacall smoked and in order to show they were really sexy leading men used to light two cigarettes and hand one to Bette Davies. (In her pre-Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? days.)

But then there were the eighties and nineties and people learnt about health and death and mortality figures. So then I had no excuse. I couldn’t simply dream of Lauren Bacall any more. It was all fag ash Lil and get your leg amputated.

I gave up a couple of times and then started again. It really was my drug. How I loved my addiction, my jailer, the brute on my back. I loved the white and gold Marlboro packets and the rustle of the silver paper in the top and the first puff on a new stick. I loved buying fags by the yard, as if stocking up on some unimaginable luxury; staring happily at the rows of shiny packs, pushing into the box marked Denial the fact that I might as well take out a stack of fivers and burn them on a bonfire. 

I ruthlessly ignored the slight rasp in my throat and the faint sense of burning in the mouth. (There is a point where your mouth feels permanently singed, but you, being an idiot, decide that’s actually quite pleasurable. That is how far in the black hole you are.) I can’t give up these beautiful things because they are my friends and they’ve been with me since I was a teenager when my family was in turmoil and I didn’t have anywhere to live and I changed houses like they were buses and my mum was in tears all the time. But I had my crafty, secret fags and my secret smoking buddies and that sort of made everything all right.

Actually, I suddenly realise this is not what I mean to write at all. The ancient history is ancient, and quite dull. I meant to say that I have been coiled in cognitive dissonance for the last couple of years: thinking I loved something that I knew was going to kill me. That’s a sodding big stone in the mental shoe. I’m sometimes a bit sniffy about people in cognitive dissonance, but now I see perhaps that was Freudian projection, because I was dissonancing all over the damn shop. There is no justification for something that will do the human body so much ill, but the magical mind, the addicted mind, the scared mind will make up such stories.

I even believed that I would be the freak who would get away with it. Everyone had a Great-Aunt Nellie who lived till ninety and was on sixty Woodbines a day and still cracking on. I would be Great-Aunt Nellie.

In the end, it had to stop. I was so embarrassed that I was fifty and still smoking that I did not want to tell anyone. I’ll just quietly stop and then everyone will forget I was so silly, I thought.

In my evil, arcane mind a voice was saying: don’t tell anyone because you’ll give in after a week and if you haven’t told a soul, nobody will know you have failed.

Now I stare that voice in its maniacal, lizard brain face and say: fuck off. I want to ride until I am eighty and I don’t want my leg cut off and I don’t want to stop and catch my breath halfway up the stairs. I don’t want to make my nieces cry because I died ten years before I needed to. I want to have those ten years so I can read all the books and write all the books. And if I tell people then I have witnesses. Not witnesses to scold or suggest or offer advice, I don’t want them, but witnesses to witness. Everybody needs a witness. If I fail, I fail, and I’ll tell you about that too.

So, I slink out of the shadows, looking about like a wary night creature, wondering if people will laugh and point. It’s been three days now and I can’t tell you what it’s like. It’s nothing like before. Those two efforts were a piece of piss. This is like being kicked all over by a furious Shetland pony or being trapped under a heavy piece of furniture. Everything hurts. I don’t really even want a cigarette because my whole body has gone into spasm and all I can think of is the physical pain. I drink pints and pints of water and make acres of green soup. I clamber out of bed, walk the dogs, see to the horses, and then collapse back under the blankets. I put the Rachel Maddow Show on like a bedtime story, so I drift in and out of feverish sleep with the latest Trump iniquity threading through my dreams.

It is exactly like having a very heavy flu. Is this, I wonder, astonished, what I have done to my body?

The first two days are all sleeping and hydrating. I so, so wish I could tell you I simply made the decision, had a nice cup of ginger tea, and got on with it. I can’t stand those people who make a five act opera of everything. But I’m afraid this was quite dramatic. I could not function on any meaningful level, and I was embarrassed about that, too.

Then I ran into a dear friend in the chemist. I had gone for Panadol, for the pain. She looked absurdly beautiful and healthy. It was a dour, dull day and she shone into it like a radiant sunbeam. ‘I’ve given up smoking,’ I blurted out. She was my first witness. She looked perfectly delighted and not judgy at all. I went home and put some more Trumpian lunacy on the computer and went back to my strange, fractured sleep.

Today, I feel more like a human. I went up to HorseBack to do some work and meet some new people and some old people. I wondered if I looked or sounded slightly peculiar, but I busked it. Luckily I had one of those mad trapper’s hats to hide under, the kind I always think that countrywomen in Canada must wear, with the fur and the flaps.

I go home and have a sudden yearning for my old friends. Just one, I think, couldn’t do any harm. Surely? I eat more green soup instead.

This is a bit of a bastard for me because all my life I’ve believed in willpower. A barrister once said to me: ‘You can’t make things happen simply through an act of will.’ I thought: that’s all you know, arguing things you don’t believe for money. (This was pure defiance, since really I have a vast respect for barristers.) The awful thing is that I always did think that will would be enough. I was not naturally terribly clever, but I swotted away with so much furious determination that I passed all the exams. I’m not naturally a brilliant rider, but I went to Mrs Payne and Anthea the Dressage Coach and gritted my teeth and kicked on and won more prizes than I probably should have. It was will that drove me on, in school and on ponies; will, and a sort of cussed refusal to be beaten. If I did not have will, then I had nothing.

But that smug old advocate was right: will alone is not enough. Nicotine is a sneaky bastard and smoking is so psychologically convoluted that just saying no doesn’t quite cut it. How I wish it did. It makes me cross that it doesn’t.

I have given up smoking. I’ve told you now. You are my witnesses. I feel like crap and I feel relieved and I feel livid and I feel liberated and I feel melancholy and I feel bright as new paint and I feel despairing and I feel fired with hope. All at the same time. It’s bloody tiring but I think it is worth it.

Friday, 3 February 2017


I'm in a huge work storm just now, so I'm going to have a little break from the blog.

For those of you who like the horse stuff, there is the red mare page on Facebook. I have to write a bulletin there every day, because I'm training for a charity challenge to do a one-day-event this autumn. I want to record our progress so I can see where we are and what we still have to do.

For those of you who like the dog stuff, there are obviously many, many Stanley and Darwin pictures on Facebook too.

I love this dear old blog. It's where I come to stash my happy memories, so that one day I may dig them up when I am old and grey. It's where, occasionally, I admit to my hurts and weaknesses, on the days when I can no longer do a tap dance. It's where I remind myself about the small things and how important they are. I love that there are Dear Readers here who have been with me from the start and put up kindly with all my idiosyncrasies.

I don't want to do it from duty, stuffing it into five minutes at the end of a fraught day. So I'm going to run into the work storm with my special all-weather hat on and let this space lie fallow for a week or two. Back soon.


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