Saturday, 25 March 2017

Flying the flag for Freedomville.


On Friday morning, I rang a wise friend. ‘How is dear old London?’ I said.
She said: ‘You know how it is. Rather quiet yesterday, with lots of helicopters overhead, and then today it’s as if everything is back to normal.’
I remembered that exactly after the Admiral Duncan bomb, when I was staying in Soho, and Old Compton Street was like an open air memorial the day after. And the day after that, the crowds were gossiping and hurrying and laughing and the boulevardiers were out and the cool media types were running into the looping studios and London had got her mojo back.
‘Can I be rather bathetic?’ I said.
‘Of course,’ said my wise friend, who puts up with a lot.
‘Well,’ I said. ‘Someone came to the blog and called me petty and passive aggressive and a coward. Also, not a nice person.’
Slight pause. ‘Ah,’ she said. ‘I see.’
The absolutely dazzling thing was that she did see and she set the thing in context and saw what it all meant and we laughed quite a lot and I thanked her from my heart and then I went and fed the horses and wrote some book and did my work for HorseBack and walked the dogs and went about my ordinary life.
I have a technique for when people are angry with me on the internet. The attacks used to hurt like buggery and I would get so upset I had to shut myself in a darkened room. I felt ashamed about this, as if I were being the wettest of weeds. So I devised a strategy. It is: give permission. Not to the actual person – that ship has already sailed – but to everyone. Freedom of expression, I cry, flying my flag of liberty. Everyone must think what they think and say what they say. I make out my imaginary certificate, hung with official seals, and stamp it with a socking great stamp. There. Now all the keyboard warriors are living in Freedomville, and must type exactly what they please. The old lady in me does wish that there was a little less fury, the restraint of good manners, perhaps not the automatic knee-jerk of ad hominem. But if I get to express my own opinions, so must everyone else.
This particular jeremiad had a lot in it, and it made me think. Oddly, it did not make me cry. (This kind of stuff usually does. I told you I was wet.) The writer was wrong about some things, but she was right about others. I have an awful lot of human flaws, and she hit some of them right on the bullseye. I can absolutely fall into the ugly pit of passive aggression. I’m absolutely terrified of confrontation, and sometimes I hit back at people whilst pretending that I am being perfectly reasonable and charming. I think I’ve got my inner bitch locked up in a room like the first Mrs Rochester, and she bloody well climbs out the window and puts on a hat and goes on the rampage. These are not my finest hours and I am not proud of them.
I am, as the writer points out, shockingly repetitive. I get hold of beloved tropes and phrases and quotes and flog the poor buggers to death. I used to yearn to be original, but I don’t think that’s ever going to happen. If I had a report card on this one, it would say, in stern black letters: must try harder.
I also have a habit of going into a defensive crouch when someone says something disobliging. So the accusation of cowardice is not a million miles off the mark. I should come out swinging. I should get sweary and make jokes and draw on my Blitz spirit. Yes, I should probably say, I’m not fucking perfect and thank you so much for fucking saying so and now will everyone just fuck off.  Instead of which I retreat into my room and feel a bit bashed and bruised and gaze at my navel in a most unsatisfactory manner. I long for every day to be a butch day, but it isn’t.
Ignore the critics, everyone always says. I’m not so sure. I’ve made someone absolutely incandescent with fury and I think that deserves some attention. Another of my acute weaknesses is that I have a secret desire for everyone to think I’m fabulous. It’s a revolting wish, and I try every day to let it go. Here, that tragic part of me says, I’ve done a lovely tap dance for you, tell me you love it. The rational part of me knows that some people will hate it. There she goes again, they will say, livid and disgusted, with her buggery jazz hands and her bogus hat. The irrational part of me says: but I did a dance. The plaintive voice says: is that not worth one flower?
Here is what happened. A long time ago, I wrote a post about love. Someone wrote a comment on it. I was rather hurt and crushed by the comment, and later I put it into a book I wrote. It was in a chapter on unsolicited advice. I have a visceral dislike of unsolicited advice and I used the incident to illustrate why. The way I saw it, possibly with the sliver of ice in the writer’s heart that Graham Greene wrote about, was that something had been written in a public forum and I had a perfect right to say what I felt about that. (Freedomville! Fly the flag!)
Yesterday, out of the blue, I got a long response. I’m going to reproduce it here because I want it out in the open, not hidden away in the comments section. I want to hold to my belief in freedom of expression. There are a couple of errors of fact – I did not call the writer smug or de haut en bas, I said that unsolicited advice has that air about it. But the person feels what she feels and I’m not going to argue with that. In some ways, I’m sad she’s gone from the blog, because I’d like her to see that I’m not deleting her words as she said I would, but putting them right up front, where they can be seen. As long as nobody is shouting fire in a crowded theatre, everybody has the absolute right to express their opinion, think their thoughts, feel their feelings. That is what modern democracy and liberalism are all about. The thought police are not going to bash down the door; nobody is going to take you away in the night for not adhering to the state line. Words, beautiful, vivid, expressive words, are free, and some people really did fight and die for that freedom. Don’t shut it down, I think: open it up. It’s a gaudy festival, not a cold three-line-whip.
Some of you will agree with this; some of you won’t. I think some of it is right and some of it is wrong. But I’m damn well not going to go and hide in my darkened room. It deserves its place in the sun.
Here it is:
Tania,
I have been a loyal reader (and commenter) on your blog for several years. When I saw that you had a new book out, I excitedly went to Amazon to take a peek at it.
And, there, in black and white, I saw that you had written about… me! Or, more specifically, flayed my skin off in a scathing, passive-aggressive manner for giving “unsolicited advice”. I went back to your blog to read exactly what I had written in the comment section, to refresh my memory.
As my last comment to you, I would like to respond. (You know, in an honest way, directly to you, not writing it in a book so you don’t have a chance to reply.)
1. When you write a blog and leave the comments section open, the things people write there are not “unsolicited”. If you didn’t want to hear what people thought, you should have disabled the comments section. Having an open comments section is giving people implicit permission to express their views. It’s a common part of blog culture. For you to “make an example of me” – to dedicate an entire chapter of What Tania Thinks You Shouldn’t Do to my “unsolicited advice” is really the pot calling the kettle black, sister.
2. You write that my comment was “not meant as a rebuke” – so you admit that you knew my intentions were good. The fact that you decided to throw a hissy fit because I dared to suggest that you keep an open mind to something is entirely your problem, your choice.
3. You said that I had “effectively told you that you do not know your own mind.” You, who spend your life changing the way horses behave, looking for the “perfect canter” (when they probably just want to be left alone, as they are very capable of being perfectly horsey without help), can’t tolerate a person (who has encouraged you and clapped for all your successes, and cried right along with you when The Duchess and Pigeon and Myfanwy and your mum died) saying “hey, I know what you mean about this, but keep an open mind to other possibilities”… “hey, I know you have experienced this thing, but I have experienced this other thing, and since we are both human beings, it’s possible you might experience this other thing too.”
4. You write “One Valentine’s Day, I wrote a piece about how I do not really do romantic love. ONE Valentine’s Day? Are you kidding? You’ve written about that topic over, and over, and over again. You repeat yourself constantly, whether it’s “I was going to write this great blog today, but all the words have gone.”, et al, and etc. and etc. forever. I had to wade through at least five posts on the topic to even find the one where I left my horrendous, offensive, “unsolicited” comment.
5. You criticize my comment, using the word “smug”, immediately followed by the phrase “de haut en bas air”. Wow, good thing you’re not smug or superior, Tania. All of us regular folks always hate a “de haut en bas air”, rahhly we do.
You’ve had your little spite, you hurt my feelings in a public forum, and did a good job of it. Thanks for letting me know that you’re really not a nice person, no matter how many dogs and horses and hills you go on about. You’re petty, and passive-aggressive, and you’re a coward.
I'm not signing this because you know exactly who I am, having been so singularly offended by me that you dedicated a whole chapter to me in your book, and I'm sure you'll delete this comment from your blog immediately, just as I am deleting you from my blogroll.
P.S.
As far as your “passionate declaration” about “not doing romantic love”? I retract my advice, Tania. You’re doing men (or is it women?) everywhere a big favor. Stay single. Please. Good romantic relationships require guts, up-front honesty, and willingness to give and take opinions and ideas. You wouldn’t understand.

There. It’s out. I freely admit that the getting it out is slightly self-indulgent. It’s a psychological thing. I need it out of my head and onto the page. And since it’s Saturday and I’m allowed to indulge myself on Saturdays, here is the offending chapter too:

Chapter Five: Don’t say the thing. Or, the fatal error of offering unsolicited advice.
           
Whilst there are things one should say and not merely think, there are also things one should think and not say.
            There are some people who take an overweening pride in their honesty, their plain dealing, their straight talking. All these are good things, but, pushed too far, they can tumble into narcissism and self-importance. Do other humans really need to know exactly what someone thinks of their life choices, their personal belief systems, their taste in clothes? I start to believe that unsolicited advice is not only bad manners, but an act of aggression. Who died and made some earnest expert the judge and jury?
            I see this giving of opinions all the time. People tell other people, in real life and online, what they should be doing with their husbands, their wives, their children, their dogs, their horses, their jobs, their hamsters. The rise of social media has turned everyone into a pundit, so that this spreading of opinions has gone viral.
            One Valentine’s Day, I wrote a piece about how I do not really do romantic love, of how I believe much more in all the other loves, the ones that are not written about in poetry and plays and pop songs. I wrote of the love of place, of family, of friends, of words and trees and stars and hills. I waxed eloquent. I must admit that I was pretty pleased with that little hymn to the other loves.
Someone came along, and, in the most well-meaning way, stomped all over my passionate declaration. I was wrong, said the helpful person; romantic love was marvellous and I should keep myself open to it or I would be missing out.
The interesting thing about this was that it was clearly meant as a kind and useful piece of advice. The writer obviously believed that I was motoring down the wrong road, and she was pleased that she was there to set me right. I suspect she might have been horrified to know that I felt it like a whack in the solar plexus.
            Her comment was not meant as a rebuke, but it felt like a rebuke. Fury descended on me like a sandstorm, stinging my exposed skin. It was just one person, with an opinion different to mine, and it took me a while to work out why I was quite so cross. I think it was because someone had come along and effectively told me, without being asked, that I did not know my own mind.
Women get this quite a lot, and it drives me nuts. I spend many hours pondering the good life and trying to get my existential ducks in a row, and this person had effectively told me that all that was for nothing; she knew better. There was nothing mean or unkind in her remarks, but they hit me like a kicking mule. When I want to know, I thought furiously, I will ask.
            Unsolicited advice is a way of saying: I know best. It has a faintly smug, de haut en bas air to it, the lofty certainty that the speaker has cracked the secret of the universe whilst you are still flailing around in the swamp. As a result, it almost never helps. Even if the advice is good, the fact that it is uninvited already has the person to whom it is directed cross and resentful and deaf.
            Everybody is going to make mistakes. That is how they learn things. You can’t stop them from tumbling into error, or make them do what you want them to do or think what you want them to think or like what you want them to like. If a young person came to me this minute and asked me for two suggestions about life they would be: learn to touch type, and never, ever give unsolicited advice.
Sometimes, it is kind and right and polite not to say the thing.


Right. I really am finished now. If any of you have actually read this far, I think you deserve a prize. 

Friday, 24 March 2017

No brain left.



I was going to write you another incredibly long blog. All day long, it unfurled in my head, sentence by sentence. The Dear Readers won’t mind, I thought, if I ramble on for a bit. They are tough and stalwart, I thought; they can take it. I did the horses, and I wrote many hundreds of words of book, and I did the Facebook page I keep up for The Happy Horse, and then I turned to my HorseBack work. Some quick snaps, I thought, and then I’m done. It will only take half an hour.

Four hours later, I was still at it. So much wonderful stuff happened at HorseBack this week, and there were so many stories to tell about the young people on our Youth Initiative and the veterans who were taking part in our mentoring programme and the volunteers who make the whole thing possible.

Just one more picture, I thought. Just one more story. I’ve seen this place change lives and save lives and I want very much for people to know about it. In my small way, I act as their shop window, presenting their work to the world, and you can’t do that in half an hour. It’s a proper responsibility and I have to do it properly.
I’ve never done any voluntary work before and it’s given me a new perspective on life. Since I am crap at time-management and useless at logistics, I sometimes feel like a hamster on a wheel. Scrabble, scrabble, scrabble, eh Mr Gibbon? Sometimes, because of the goofiness, I don’t give it the serious attention it deserves. But today I damn well did. And so there is no brain left for the blog. I used it all up. Very sorry about that. It went down fighting, in a good cause. 
Happy Friday everyone. I hope you all have a lovely weekend.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Philip Larkin was right.


Yesterday, just after writing a rather whimsical blog about the smallest of the small things, I turned on the internet and saw that something was happening. I went at once to the BBC (in times of uncertainty, I go always to the BBC) and there, on the rolling news, a ghastly parade of shocking and confusing events was unfolding. There was a policeman down, a car rammed into railings, fallen humans scattered, grotesquely, over Westminster Bridge, parliament on lockdown, a bloody knife on the ground. There were police vans and ambulances everywhere. There was a lot of shouting.
Gradually, as the eyewitness reports started to come in, as hollow voices told their stories down fuzzy mobile telephone lines, the news people began to make sense of it, to impose some kind of coherent narrative. Terrorism had come to London.
Earlier in the week, I had been thinking of the IRA. I grew up in the seventies, and bombings and murders and atrocities haunted the nightly news. My father lived in Ireland when he was a boy and was steeped in the history of that island. I remember him turning away from the awful bulletins and swearing, in profound despair. Car bombs, nail bombs, viciously enormous bombs that could level a building, those were the stuff of my youth. I remember the dead horses in Hyde Park and dear old Sefton becoming a national hero. I remember a friend of the family losing his sister-in-law in the Harrods bomb. I remember the bandstand in Regent’s Park. I remember, when I was a teenager, my mother begging me not to go into the West End. I went anyway – ‘Don’t worry, Mum, I’ll be fine’ -  because I thought that if I stayed away from the big shops which were being targeted at that time, then the bombers would have got their victory. (I was sixteen and convinced of my own immortality.)
Everyone said that Ireland would never heal. The British had left too many scars, over too many years, and the sectarian hatreds were too deep. I thought that the shooting and bombing and hating would go on forever. And then, amazingly, it stopped. The old haters got together and put their differences aside and signed a peace agreement and nails bombs in the centre of London now seem like ancient history.
The new terrorists have different hatreds and different reasons. They can seem a lot less determined than the IRA. After 2005, when they struck hard, at the heart of the nation – the buses, the underground, the ordinary transport that millions use every day – they did not press home their advantage. If I were a nihilist commander who hated the infidel West, I would have sent my troops in whilst London was reeling. But despite fairly constant reminders from the authorities that Britain was still on high alert, that the risk factors were flashing amber, the terrible infidels were left to go about their business, buying their fancy coffee and wearing their short skirts and indulging in their godless capitalism and drinking their unholy drink. It’s not like the old days, I was thinking this week, when terrorism really did seem like an almost daily fact of life.
So there were layers on layers of shock. Brussels and Paris and Nice should have been warning signs, but I was lulled into a false sense of complacency. Even when I once went to visit a friend in parliament and had to get my special pass and go through the airport-style security, I did not have any shiver of premonition or danger, but made happy jokes with the coppers and showed them my new boots, bought specially for the occasion. I’ve met a few close protection officers over the years, in various contexts, and they do have that steely look in their eyes, that thousand yard stare that convinces me they could kill an attacker using only their thumb, but they were all distinguished by their sharp humour and precise talent for irony. They carried no sense of being besieged by a power they could never defeat.
I felt a sense of unreality as I watched the news, the gaudy, gory pictures, the familiar made entirely unfamiliar. Even though this has happened in London, on and off, for my whole life, it felt entirely odd, not real at all. It was a tragedy and a horror and an affront.
I went onto Twitter to find out more; by this stage I had a curious desperation for information, as if facts could make sense of the nonsensical. There were the usual shockmongers, the stern judges leaping to conclusions, the ones who were taking advantage to push their own agenda. Donald Trump distinguished himself by saying vaguely there was some ‘big news’ coming out of London, while his son displayed a curious lack of humanity by attacking the mayor. And then I noticed something almost stranger than the strange events happening in Westminster. The people were dividing into two camps.
There were the negative people, who were posting hideous pictures and getting angry and shouting for vengeance, and there were the positive people, who were focusing entirely on the acts of bravery and heroism, on the humans who had run towards the danger instead of away from it, on the silver linings to this dark cloud.
Someone said that doctors and nurses had, en masse, poured out of St Thomas’s Hospital to tend to the wounded on Westminster Bridge, even though nobody knew yet whether the attacks were over. There were confused fears of a possible car bomb and information was sketchy. But those dauntless platoons of the NHS had no thought for their own safety and went to help.
The story of Tobias Ellwood went viral. Ellwood is an MP who had served in the army and, it turned out, knew the vicious face of terrorism very well indeed. His brother had been killed in the Bali bomb, and he had flown out to retrieve the body in the heartbreaking aftermath. Now, he was near the police officer who had been stabbed. As everyone was directed to take shelter inside, he ran in the opposite direction, towards the stricken man. He gave mouth to mouth and attempted to staunch the bleeding from too many wounds. He did not hesitate.
Back on the bridge, passers-by were comforting injured strangers, doing what they could. The emergency services arrived and, from all reports, did their job with an extraordinary efficiency and coolness. Nobody, at this stage, knew whether the area was safe, whether there was another blow about to fall. But the paramedics and the police and the doctors and nurses and the ambulance drivers all went into the breach.
I started retweeting only the messages and thoughts and reports from the positive people. Perhaps it was a faint denial of reality, but I wanted to focus not on the death and destruction but on the staunchness and courage. I have a dogged belief that the good always trumps the bad, in the end; that love always conquers hate. I’m not sure whether this is true, but it is my creed and I have to stick to it. There was one man who had wrought havoc, and broken hearts, and ended lives through some twisted belief system. There were hundreds of ordinary people who were doing extraordinary things for their fellow humans, not from any ideology or because of something they read in a book, but because of their plain, authentic humanity. That, I thought, is what counts. That is why, in the end, terrorists don’t win.
And this morning, as the news started to settle and the dust cleared and the facts became clear, the shock and horror and outrage turned into something quite else. The people of London went about their usual business as the people of London do. There was a proper moment of grief and remembrance for the dead, a minute’s silence for Keith Palmer, the policeman who had fallen in the line. A sombre crowd of police officers stood in tribute, and, in a packed House of Commons, all the MPs bowed their heads. The silence took place at 9.33am. I was not quite sure why this was. Then I heard that 933 was PC Palmer’s number.
There was a curious lack of bombast. I did not hear the usual swagger about how the devotees of terror would rue the day, or anything about retribution. Nobody was going to be bombed back into the stone age. The mood was much more concentrated on the bereaved families, the lost lives, the people who put aside any thought for themselves and went to help. There seemed to be a quiet pride that the Britons in the heart of the storm had conducted themselves with constancy and dignity and courage.
In tube stations all over London there are official white message boards. They generally carry mundane information, scrawled in felt tip, about broken escalators or delays on the line. This morning, they carried messages of hope. At Tower Hill, someone had written: ‘The flower that blooms in adversity is the rarest and most beautiful of them all.’ Underneath, in smaller letters, the unknown writer had added: #Londonisopen #Westminster #Wearenotafraid.
At Clapham North, someone had reproduced the lovely quote from Fred Rogers, which I first saw yesterday. ‘When I was a boy and would see scary things in the news, my mother would say: “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”’
Someone on social media had cleverly mocked up one of these underground service boards. It said: ‘All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON. Whatever you do to us, we will drink tea and jolly well carry on. Thank you.’
There was general indignation when it was discovered that some American pundits were saying that London in particular and Britons in general were cowed and beaten and in disarray. One MP tweeted that he was on a train to Westminster and that everybody was getting on with it, not a cowed or beaten Briton amongst them. Somebody else reported that on another train, packed with very young people, all the teenagers observed the minute’s silence at 9.33am. Katie Hopkins caused a storm by going on Fox News and, channelling her inner Lord Haw Haw, saying that the British were afraid and disunited. Easily the best response to this came on Twitter, where someone wrote: ‘Dear Fox News. No no no no no. We’re fine. Please ignore her.’
There was a sense that a correct balance was being sought for. There should be a proper acknowledgement of what had happened, a respect for the wounded and the dead, a compassion for the bereaved, an understanding for all those caught up in the maelstrom. Emotions should be expressed and felt. There should not be any denial. Security should be looked at and all procedures assessed. The security services always say they have to be lucky all the time, while the terrorists only have to get lucky once. One man did get through. That happened, and for a moment it felt like an attack on democracy itself.
But then, as many people started to write, there should be common sense, perspective, reason. I heard of a man who pointed out that twice as many children have probably died in Syria in the last ten minutes than were killed on that fatal bridge. He did not say this in any callous way, but with the desire to come back to the simple realities of the world. Shock insulates you from reality, and that is when the intemperate things are said and the sense of proportion is lost. When the Londoners went back to their usual routines this morning it was not because they were heartless and uncaring; they know, better than anyone, what had happened and what it meant. They went back to their business because they knew that was their only choice and maybe because they understood that living is the best way to honour the dead. If everything is not to fall apart, the centre must hold. Britons are creatures of the centre, in so many senses of the word. Their weapons are a certain pragmatism, an ability to laugh at themselves, a love of the ironic, and a profound respect for common sense. The British tend to be suspicious of extremes of any kind, averse to hysteria and hyperbole, most comfortable with understatement. Becoming unglued in the face of tragedy, as those American commentators suggested, would not be in the national spirit at all.
Love is love. Love for the departed, love for those who went beyond the call of duty, love for a grand old city which has taken so many blows over the years, love for those who rushed to help, love even, perhaps, for the institutions which many of us British like to mock but which mean something all the same – those loves are more powerful than any twisted theocratic absurdity, however reckless and murderous it might be.

Philip Larkin, that most British of poets, was right. ‘Rigidly, they persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths of time...to prove our almost-instinct almost true: What will survive of us is love.’

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

The small things are the big things.


The small things today were very, very fine. After I flailed my way out of the Swamp of Overwhelm, my eyes become open again to loveliness. Every day, I thought to myself, as I walked down to the field with my young friend Sophie, write down one good thing. Don’t just notice the one enchanting thing, write it down, mark it, be grateful for it. That may just be the secret of life.

Sophie is four. She likes coming down to help make the mares’ breakfast. ‘A bit more of this? Some of that? Oh, they will like this.’ They are very gentle with her and she has no fear around them and watching them together is enough to make the most battered heart expand like a flower in springtime.
After her mother came to pick Sophie up, I waved goodbye to them and took the mares down to a hidden glade in the west wood where there is the very first of the spring grass. They fell to grazing with such profound delight that it made me laugh out loud. I rang up a friend and we made jokes about generals. She has been spending time with some very splendid generals for her work and she kindly described the top brass in detail. This made my day.
Then the friend whose mare shares our paddock came down and we spent an hour clearing up dung. Shovelling shit is not my favourite occupation, but when you are doing it with a wise friend who is describing life as if she were a philosopher it becomes a keen pleasure. I felt all the things which have been besieging me over the last few days fade away, as if they meant nothing. We cleared eight wheelbarrows of dung and set the world to rights.
Then I ran down to do my HorseBack work. They are doing their Youth Initiative today, where they take children who are having trouble at school and teach them teamwork and leadership and how to look after and ride the horses. As I drove along the valley, thinking I was going to be late, I saw the group riding along the Deeside Way, a happy flash through the silver birches. I pulled over and leapt out of the car and snapped away with the camera. All but one of those children had never known a horse until they came to HorseBack and now they were riding through the woods. Even more wonderful, all the children had a veteran by their side, as both moral and practical support. It was one of the best sights I have ever seen.

These are small things, in terms of great wide world. They are small things when put up against the terrifying news headlines and the stories of death and despair. They are huge things to me, so vast in implication that I can hardly chart their depths. The more I go through life, the more I get thrown about by the swings and roundabouts, the more I bash into thorny existential mysteries which leave me bruised and bewildered, the more I think: cherish those small things. If I can hunt down one every day, like a questing hound sniffing for truffles, then at the end of each year there will be 365 moments of laughter and pleasure and gratitude and grace. That’s enough to fill a book. And that is a book I can take down, as Yeats once said, and slowly read. 

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Clambering out of the Swamp of Overwhelm.

In the last few months, I’ve gone through swinging emotional arcs. At the bottom of the arc, there is the treacherous Swamp of Overwhelm. The Swamp of Overwelm is an absolute bugger. It’s a bugger because it doesn’t have any signposts or keep out signs and there are no fences. I flail about in it, not quite knowing how I got here.

It’s that thing when there has been no specific event or action or heartbreak. Nobody has called up and said something cruel. Nobody has died for at least a year. Nothing catastrophic has happened. There’s just that sudden, amorphous moment when it’s all a bit too much.

It’s that time when you can’t really cope with the small things. The small things – not my beloved small things, like moss and trees and the low whicker of the red mare, but the horrid, messy, muddly, niggly  small things – take on a towering aspect. There is a lot of ‘I can’t’. I can’t make that telephone call, answer that email, deal with the fact that the dog has been sick. It’s all too buggery much and I want to slam that door and tell the world to fuck off.

When these times come, as they have in the last couple of days, I try various techniques. I literally wrote the book about this so I should be able to crack it. I try to take pleasure in the tiny things. I try to call in the Perspective Police. I try to perform random acts of kindness. I remember how much I love stoicism, and I attempt to be as stoical as hell. I list all the things for which I am grateful. I tell myself not to be a wimpy weed and to butch up. I shout in the field.

Usually all these things really do work. I’m quite proud of how these things work. This time, these things did not work. I was in the swamp and there was no way out. Sod it, I thought; is this what the fifties are going to be like? I’ve only been fifty for a couple of months and I’m already exhausted.

This morning, I had to get my act together. I had to ride down the valley to my jumping lesson. My mare and I have signed up for a charity challenge to do a one-day-event to raise money for bone cancer research, so I have to have those jumping lessons. I was so mired in the Swamp of Overwhelm that I nearly rang up to cancel, but I thought that was really too tragically weedy for words, so I got on my fine thoroughbred and rode down the Deeside way.

I have to concentrate when I ride that grand creature. She’s half a ton of flight animal, bred over three hundred years for speed and strength, so I can’t be arsing about and feeling sorry for myself. I have to give her the right stuff or she becomes fretful and then it all goes to pot and I am likely to fall off.

Along we went, and there were a few glitches in the machinery so I worked hard to smooth those out and to get the lovely cogs running smoothly. I started to feel a small flicker of achievement. At least here was something I actually could do. On the way home, I decided to throw caution to the winds. Let’s go, I said to the mare. It’s a three mile stretch and for about a mile and a half of that I stood up in my stirrups and crouched over her dear withers and let her roll. Run your race, I told her. And there she went, into her fast hunting canter, every part of her great, athletic body working in time, every inch of her in harmony with every inch of me. She was straight and true and brave and bold. She was not afraid. She was like that bit at the end of Secretariat, the original Big Red: ‘he laughs at fear, afraid of nothing; he does not shy away from the sword’.

And there, suddenly, just like that, I was out of the swamp. I was so overjoyed, with the brilliance of the good, genuine horse, with the glimpsing of the light at last, that I rang up The Beloved Cousin. She and I have known some griefs, in the thirty years of our friendship, and we’ve been through a lot of them together. I told her about the ride, and I told her about the swamp. ‘Oh yes,’ she said. ‘I’ve had that exact thing in the last two days.’ I was so relieved and happy that I practically fell over. We discussed our swampy days; we laid them out on the table and picked over them and tried to make sense of them. We did not have any definitive answers but we had a whole boatload of empathy. ‘Yes, yes,’ we shouted at each other. ‘That’s it.’

Simply hearing her kind, clever, sympathetic voice was enough to banish shadows. ‘You know,’ I said, ‘this last one was so stupid and blah and pointless that I very nearly did not ring you up to tell you about it. I thought the whole thing was so boring.’

The swinging emotional arcs, we decided, are simply what life is, at this point of middle age. There may perhaps be the shiny, swaggery people who can roll on through, who don’t get stupidly upset over trifles, who always know what to do, who do not find themselves overwhelmed. We are not of their number. We rather wish we were, but we’re working with what we’ve got. We are, at this point in the road, having to pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off, over and over again.

I think of that good friend and that good horse. Between them, in their very different ways, they brought me back onto sure ground. The sun is shining and the birds are singing. When I went into the shed to make the red mare her breakfast, there was a little robin on the feed bin. He’s been with us all winter and he’s looking pretty pleased with himself just now, because I think he’s made his nest and his wife is sitting on it. I’ve been trimming the mare’s mane and all the little bits of hair have gone from the ground and I hope it was my robin who took them. I imagine his very splendid nest entwined with elegant chestnut hairs.

When the swamp has me, I can’t see the robin. He’s just some dumb old bird. When I’m back on the high ground, because I rode my race, because I talked to my oldest friend, the robin is everything: a ravishing thing of beauty, a symbol of hope, an amulet against despair.


Friday, 17 March 2017

Gold Cup day. Or: in which I hope for a happy ending.


The thing about Cheltenham is that you’ve got to want everyone to win. My dream horse, my little underdog, could not pull off the fairy tale yesterday; he ran beautifully for a long way and then found it all happening a bit too quick for him. He’ll go home to his field and have a lovely summer holiday and they’ll send him chasing next year. The disappointment bites keenly when your favourite does not come flying home, and then you have to look up and realise that someone else’s dream has come true.
There is always a reason to be thrilled for those dreams. There is the seventeen-year-old who started out riding in pony races in Ireland and stormed up the hill for his first festival win. Seventeen! When I was seventeen I was listening to Leonard Cohen records and weeping over a unrequited love. Even more fantastical, his horse was fifty to one on the morning of the race, because he had a habit of refusing to jump off. Nah, don’t fancy it, he would say, and everyone would have to go home, shaking their heads. They took him to the sands at Laytown, perhaps in an effort to freshen him up and get him interested, and he took one look at the beach and said: you must be joking, I’m not a sodding donkey. In the Supreme, he pricked his ears and gunned his mighty engine and looked down the fabled turf and said: now, that’s more like it. And he ran all over them, under his teenage rider.

As the glittering star that is Douvan, who was supposed to bring the stands to a roar with an exhibition round, got the first two fences wrong and never found his stride, that disappointment left room for the old boy Special Tiara, who has been delighting crowds with his bold, front-running style for the last five years, to pick up the baton and give a surprise win to his brilliant jockey, Noel Fehily. Fehily is a modest man, a lovely horseman and a ravishing judge of a race, who doesn’t always get the credit he deserves. As he went to pick up his trophy, he took his two tiny children with him, and I thought: those little ones will remember that moment for the rest of their lives. That’s a memory nobody can take away. It was a dream for Special Tiara’s trainer too, another fine horseman called Henry De Bromhead, who has had a bit of a torrid time when his biggest owner suddenly moved all his horses away. Owners do this and they have every right; they pay the bills, after all. But it’s always a blow for a yard, and to see Bromhead come back to take one of the championship races felt right and fair.

A bit of fairy tale stardust can scatter even on the big boys, for whom this game is more serious business than the stuff of dreams. Usually at Cheltenham, you can set your watch by the Mullins and Walsh battalions. They park their tanks on the lawn and that’s all she wrote. But this year they had a rotten first couple of days, with hot favourites getting beaten and their great star flickering and fading. Willie Mullins has also lost one of his big owners, when Michael O’Leary took sixty horses away. There was a lot of gossip and speculation, but Mullins stayed elegant and silent on the subject. All the same, it must have hurt when one of those horses, Apple’s Jade, beat Mullins’ two mares for her new yard.

‘That’s racing,’ said Ruby Walsh, with his philosophical hat on, but it seemed strange to see that even these giants are mortal. And then, yesterday, the little firecracker that is Un De Sceaux took the bit by the teeth and decided that enough was enough. Un De Sceaux was always a tearaway, screaming off in front and taking reckless chances with his fences, but he seemed to have settled down a little as he has grown older. He almost appeared a little subdued lately, as if some of that fire had burned low. In the Ryanair, he had a few questions to answer: he was going up in trip and people were not sure if he would stay up the hill, and the ground was drying out when he really likes it soft. He’s quite small and lightly built, and he looked touchingly diminutive in the paddock against the other great, muscled chasers. Racing is a superstitious business and it seemed as if a bit of a hoodoo had fallen on the Mullins camp, even though they had finally got one on the board with Yorkhill.

Un De Sceaux had no questions in his fascinating mind. The fire was back. Ruby tried sensibly to settle him into third, but the horse wasn’t having any of it. He took a unilateral decision and soared off into the lead in a flat gallop. His jockey, seeing there was no point in having an argument, let him roll. Oh, oh, I thought, watching in amazement, if he’s not going to stay, we’ll see that soon enough. ‘Desperate to get a breather into him,’ said the commentator, gasping at the astonishing leaps. Un De Sceaux had no thought for a breather; the further he went the faster he went. He was standing off a mile away and getting as far the other side. Ruby, by this stage, was riding him like he stole him. Any caution was long thrown to the winds. He can’t possibly keep this up, I thought.  

He did keep it up. He galloped and jumped, stretched and leapt, and he flew up that long hill as if it was not there. I’m not sure I ever saw a braver performance, from horse or jockey. It did have a fairy tale quality to it, as the polite Willie Mullins smile glimmered and twinkled under his elegant hat, and my racing posse on Twitter made naughty jokes about Michael O’Leary having to present Mullins, the man he deserted, with his own cup. (In the end, he got Mrs O’Leary to do it, and there were some naughty jokes about that, too.)

And then, just to put the stamp on the day, they won the Stayers’ Hurdle and they won the mares’ race with their beautiful Let’s Dance, who lived up to her name, foxtrotting from last to first with a glimmering, gleaming run, shimmying through horses, picking her way from left to right, doing a tango to the line.

Today, they could win the Gold Cup with Djakadam, who has been the bridesmaid twice and might just get the apple blossom and be the bride. But they’ve got to get past Colin Tizzard, who will have been up at dawn to milk his cows. (Actually, I’m not sure whether Colin Tizzard still milks his cows himself, but it’s a picture I like, and I hold it in mind like an amulet. He’s probably the most down to earth man in racing, a true gentleman of the soil, a countryman to his boots, and whenever I see him interviewed I smile with pleasure, as if all is well with the world.) Tizzard has got dear old Cue Card, who has been running brilliant races since he first won the bumper by ten lengths at 40-1. Cue Card is one of those who has been around for ever, and he’s been up and he’s been down, but he always seems to soar back to brilliance just when people have written him off. He is owned by a charming lady called Jean Bishop, who does not have an airline or a hedge fund, is not a plutocrat or a billionaire, but is one of those quiet stalwarts of the jumping game, the kind who keep the sport going. She used to have him with her husband Bob, but Mr Bishop died and now she goes to the races on her own. I find her small, upright figure almost unbearably moving, as she goes to see her brave horse without the husband who loved him so much.

If Cue Card could win at the age of eleven, the roof would come off the stands. He’s a tall, handsome horse, who carries his head high, and the racing public have taken him to their heart. But he’s got to get past the younger legs of his stablemate Native River, who has carried all before him this season. I adore Native River. He’s a sanguine, relaxed sort of horse, and has a sweet way of going, lobbing along as if he does not have a care in the world. When they first had him they did not think they had a Gold Cup horse. He’s a relentless galloper, accelerating away when everything else has cried enough, and some people said he’s just one of those grinders, a dour stayer without the sparkle of brilliance needed for the top level. He’s only seven, but he’s so composed that he seems as if he has an old head on young shoulders, and he’s getting better all the time, and he’s so willing and so genuine and I could see him skipping round those big fences with his ears pricked and defying the doubters who question his class. He’s classy enough for me, with his big white face and his battling heart.

Any of these three would be a story, any of the rest of the field would be a dream; it’s an open race this year and someone will write a tale. As in all the races, I think that even if my favourite or my fancy does not run their race, someone else will be having a moment of sheer delight for which they have worked and worried and planned and hoped.

In the end I think: just come home safe. Not all horses do. It’s the shadow over the sun. No matter how much I tell myself that any horse can go at any time – cast in the box, sudden grass sickness, an unsuspected infection, a wrong step in a slow canter – when I see it on the racecourse it breaks my heart. Nicky Henderson, who was a friend of my father’s and is one of the nicest men in racing, set a festival record this week which may never be matched. Yesterday, caught in the cruel highs and lows of all sport, he lost one of his heart horses, Hadrian’s Approach. ‘He was a lovely person,’ he said, in bottomless regret. Mortality is a fact for all horses: Willie Mullins lost the brilliant and beautiful Vautour in freak field accident at home. Kauto Star came safely through a long and dazzling career and retired to do dressage, which you would have thought was the safest of all disciplines, but he died from another of those pointless, heartbreaking accidents. Every morning when I go down to my mare, I feel a singing relief that she is still there, in one piece, having made it through the night. I think I’ll get her to a glorious old age, but even though she is not running out on the racecourse any more, I can’t take a minute with her for granted. She is vulnerable as all horses are, and I seize every moment I have with her with a passionate gratitude.


So today, as I turn on, wondering which story will be written, which dream will come true, which tale will be told, I hope for all of them to run their race and come home, for all of them to get their happy ending. 

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Dream the dream. Or, the inspiring story of Tobefair.

In Carmarthenshire, not far from the Welsh town of Nantycaws, there is a small National Hunt yard of eight horses. In that yard lives a fella called Tobefair. He is not trained by a household name, nor owned by one of the titans of the game, nor did he stalk round a brightly-lit sale ring as the thousands of guineas clocked up before tense eyes. He in fact cost nothing. That’s right. Nothing. Zero pounds. Few things in life are free, but this thoroughbred was. He was given to his owner in the form of barter: Michael Cole looked after a couple of foals for breeder Richard Kent, and in return, Kent gave him Tobefair. Kent told the Racing Post: ‘Tobefair was born in the middle of a recession and we couldn't give him away so I gave him to Michael Cole as a present; there wasn't a penny made out of the horse at any stage of his life. But I'm glad for Michael, he sends us mares every year and is a very nice man.’ To continue the rags to riches theme, Cole decided he could not afford the training fees on his own, so he formed a syndicate with regulars from his local pub, none of whom had ever owned a racehorse before.

In his early days, Tobefair did not know whether it was Christmas or Easter. He was sent off at 100-1 and 40-1 in a couple of his novice races and got beat by a hundred lengths and forty lengths. If you look back at his form you see six inglorious defeats. And then something strange happened. He changed yards, and he started to win. He was still being sent off at 7-1 and 8-1 and 10-1, not exactly backed into hot favouritism, but he started winning and he kept on winning.

It’s hard to know what happened. His new trainer, Debra Hamer, told the papers: ‘the penny dropped’. But you think she is being modest. Quietly, cleverly, patiently, she found the key to this horse who cost nothing, and she sent him out in seven races to seven wins. He went up 62 pounds in his winning spree, and you can imagine the handicapper sitting at home and scratching his head. I don’t think any horse ever has gone up 62 pounds in two seasons.

The other lovely thing about Tobefair is that he is not a showboat. He likes to start off his races at the back, where he promptly goes to sleep. He is not a slick hurdler, flicking through the birch. He’s a sturdy jumper, meeting his obstacles squarely and giving them plenty of air. When other horses are rolling away in front, Tobefair often needs bustling along. It is as if his jockey – almost always Trevor Whelan – needs to say: ‘Come on, fella, we actually are at the races.’ Tobefair sometimes needs to be told this a couple of times, and then he wakes up and shoots forward through the field, almost as if he is having a bit of a laugh. ‘Sorry, Trev,’ he seems to be saying, ‘I didn’t know you were serious.’

And once he and his rider have come to this happy agreement, the bravery and honesty of the horse gleams out like a sunbeam. The questions come, and Tobefair answers every one with a hilarious yes. In his ravishing seven race streak he has won pretty and won ugly. He’s won easing up and he’s won all out. He’s won on good to firm ground in the summer sunshine, and he’s won on heavy in the driving snow. Apparently, at home what he most likes is rolling in the mud. He’s bright and bonny after his races, and eats up with gusto. If he was a person, he’s the kind of chap you’d want by your side on a long road trip or in a tight fix.

And now, after that sixty-two pound leap, after that long winning run, after that funny old start when he couldn’t be given away, this fine, genuine thoroughbred is lining up at Cheltenham, the Olympics of the racing season. Debra Hamer has not only never had a runner at the festival, she’s never even been there. When asked about this she said, cheerfully, that she had young children and no time. The pub syndicate have hired two buses and are probably motoring down the M4 even as you read this, with a song in their hearts.

The festival is the great unknown. Brilliant horses have been undone by the atmosphere and the hurly burly and the murderous hill. Yesterday, Douvan, the nailed-on certainty for the mighty Willie Mullins and the dazzling Ruby Walsh, reached for the first three fences, never found a rhythm, and packed up. Tobfair could take one look and say: no thank you. He’s had a couple of hard enough races lately and they could leave their mark. He has not met competitors of the calibre he will see today. He could try his heart out and it might not be enough. In a way, simply getting there is the story of the season. And yet, I can see him shaking his sweet ears and thinking: damn it all, let’s have a go. I can see him galloping on when others have cried enough. I can see his incredible mental attitude and his ability to make a scorching mid-race move standing him in good stead. He’s a strong horse, sturdy in mind and body. I’ve seen him be bashed into and not deviate. I’ve seen him get a bit of a wobble and straighten himself up and run doggedly for the line. He battles and he stays and he does not seem fazed by anything, and those are precious qualities at Prestbury Park.

He was the ante-post favourite, but now he’s on the drift, wandering out to 10-1, as if the serious punters simply can’t believe in fairy tales. The horse that cost nothing can’t land one of the biggest prizes of the season. The people from the pub can’t beat the Rich Riccis and the Michael O’Learys, with their millions and billions, with their financial wizardry and their airlines. The tiny yard can’t compete with the Mullins and Elliot and Henderson and Nicholls battalions.

Or, perhaps they can.

Last year, I wrote a book called The Happy Horse. It sounds a bit hippy and a bit dippy, but I believe that if you can get a horse relaxed and soft and easy in its skin, that horse will give you everything. Not everyone thinks about making their horse happy. They want to win prizes and do flying changes and compete at the highest level and everything else is second best. Happiness, to many people, is a nebulous concept that sounds idiotic when applied to an equine. I think Debra Hamer and her husband, who work very much as a team, understand about making horses happy. Tobefair has all the signs of a half-ton flight animal who is at ease with himself. He does what he does not because he is a brilliant natural talent, but because he is confident, and willing, and responsive. When Trevor says go, go, go, Tobefair says: you betcha, baby.

He might find one or two too good today, as so many hopeful horses have in the past. This meeting is the blue riband, the championship lap, the mountain peak. There is no disgrace in not quite reaching the summit. But if Tobefair could run his race and put his dear nose in front, sixty thousand people will stand to him, with their heads held high and their hats in the air. They will salute him not because he’s odds-on, or streets beyond the rest, or carving his name into the history books, but because he is an honest horse with a fighting heart, who tries his best and gives his all. He’s one for the little people, for the ordinary people, for those who scrap and struggle against the odds, who don’t have the credentials, who aren’t considered the shining stars. He’s one for those who dream of slipping the surly bonds of earth, and dancing the skies, high in the sunlit silence.


(Photograph of Tobefair reproduced with the very kind permission of Michael Harris.)

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Love, and missing.

Last week, my beloved cousin came to stay. She and I have known each other since we were nineteen, and we’ve been through every emotional stretch: heartbreaks, deaths, funerals, failures, joys and delights. Her husband is the dazzling horseman who sold me both my mares, and he makes a joke about when I go to stay with them in the south: ‘you two start talking the moment you get out of the car, and you don’t stop until you are driving up the drive again.’ He’s right. We have never stopped talking for thirty years. It’s the best talk I ever knew.

I put her up on the red mare, and they fell in love with each other from the very first moment. Watching the two of them together made my heart sing. They really are my two favourite people in the world, and I wanted them so much to understand each other’s wonder, and so they did.

It’s a year and a half since my mother died, and in the last months I have congratulated myself for grieving Mum well. I went straight at it, not looking to right nor left. I knew at least this much about grief: you have to do it. You have to run at it. You can’t hide. I thought I had done that, but something odd has happened lately. I’m missing my mother so much I can’t breathe. I’m a huge believer in time, and I thought time had done its thing. The ache fades, normality returns, joy can again shine through. My mare gives me joy every morning, and I can make jokes, and I can smile. And then, just when I think it’s all over, it comes at me again.

The beloved cousin knows all about the death and the grief. I was with her through her mother, and her father, and her brother. She was with me through my dad, and it was to her house that I drove after my father’s funeral, as the bosky hedgerows bowed their heads in a brightly absurd spring afternoon.
Sitting with her in my quiet house, I thought how chipped around the edges we are, from life, from loss, and how we somehow got good at buggering on. If you have a friend like that, you can deal with anything.

All the same, I feel a fragility, which alarms me a little. I thought I could put my head down and charge on. I thought I only have sorrows to face which everyone faces. I thought I could forge on into a bright future, that I could make that future exist through will and stoicism and determination. I compare grief often to the sea. It is a thing of waves and storms and tides. The tides ebb, and flow. I had learned to sail over those big waves, and now they are bashing me a bit again.

Perhaps this is how it is for everyone who loses someone they love. The brightness falls, and rises, and falls again. All of which is a long way of saying: I miss my mother. I miss my father too. It’s Cheltenham this week and I think of them both, because this was their place. My father twice soared up that hill; his name is still carved on the silver trophies that will be presented this week. My mum watched him, and she knew the giants, talking in the stands with Fred Winter and Fulke Walwyn and Vincent O’Brien, dressed in her elegant coats and her chic hats, watching the bright stars with her focused race glasses. She was not merely a chic and soothing presence on the racecourse, she qualified the hunter chasers, going out in all weathers, a tiny human on vast, powerful, fit thoroughbreds, galloping and jumping flat out all day long. (Despite the fact that his father was the master of the Mid-Surrey Drag, my dad did not much like hunting, and was most happy when Mum would do the work.)

The legacy they gave me was a love for the thoroughbred and a fighting heart. They taught me good manners and if in doubt be kind and never, ever to give up. They taught me enthusiasm, and to laugh at myself, and always to be the person who bought the first round. They had gloriously glaring flaws, and you could write a book about their human frailties, but they left me with some tacit virtues that cannot be beaten.


As I write this, I think of the horses they loved. I think of the love they passed on to me. I think of the great blazing beauties out on the Cheltenham turf, and the sweet, gentle equine athletes in the stable where I grew up, and the kind, soft mares who now live in my Scottish field. I am a bit bent of out shape just now, for all that I put a good face on it. I am a little tired and bruised. I am more overcome with the missing than I would have thought. But my parents left me love – the example of love as much as the giving of love. And that, I think, will in the end pick me up and get me through.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Cheltenham, Day One.


The last few weeks have been rather fraught and complicated for reasons too catastrophically labyrinthine and dull to go into. But this week – ah, this week.  This week is simple. This week is pure pleasure. This week I’m not even going to pretend to do any work, because every horse I love will gather under the benign shadow of Cleeve Hill. In the grand natural amphitheatre that is Prestbury Park the finest thoroughbreds in the land will come and strut their stuff. There will be the talking horses and the stalking horses, the fresh princes and the old warriors, the tough mares and the raw, unfinished juveniles, just learning their jobs, all spirit and hope. 
There will be the handicap blots and plots, the lively outsiders and the rampant superstars. The mighty yards will send in battalions – great fleets of boxes will sail over the Irish sea with the Mullins and Elliot armies, ready to go to war. Colin Tizzard will get up and milk the cows before he brings out his favourites for the Gold Cup. The small yards have no regiments, but out of their ten or twenty horses they find one who might make the big boys sit up and take notice. Cheltenham is the great equaliser, when a horse bought for pennies can rise to greatness, while an aristocrat costing hundreds of thousands may disappoint.


The pros will be there, and the Corinthian amateurs; the drinkers and the punters, the duchesses and the plutocrats and the ordinary Joe who saves all year for this meeting. It’s a crowd united in love, for the occasion, for the craic, for the Guinness, for the wild beauties who fly over the storied turf, wearing their hearts on their sleeve. There’s something pure about those horses, about the jumping and the galloping, the blazing talent, the pure speed, the will to win. I’ve no idea who will soar up that hill into the halls of glory, except for Altior who should give a masterclass in grace and power. I’ll get to the stage in a moment when I want them all to win, when I’m so in love with all of them that I’d like every one of those equine athletes to come home in a lovely line across the course. They all deserve it. They are so brave and they try so hard and they lift my heart like nothing else.

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