Monday, 29 January 2018

The Smallest of the Small Things.

Today, I had to do a lot of very, very ordinary things. I did all those horrid jobs that I had been putting off, like getting all the final numbers for my tax return. I am the Queen of the Procrastinators. They should give me a special crown. I read all those articles about how to get things done, and obviously because I am reading about getting things done instead of getting things done I never get anything done. I have lately embarked on a classic mid-life crisis self-improvement programme. I’m really getting the trick of turning negative thoughts into positive thoughts and facing one’s human fears and all that malarkey. And yet I still seem incapable of getting off my procrastinating throne. This is a fairly melancholy reflection when I’m about to be fifty-one. Fifty-one. Surely I should be a grown-up by now?

Of course, the job that I dreaded most turned out to be perfectly easy and fairly painless. I got it done in about half an hour. I’d spend a month worrying about it and putting it off and then I took half an hour to do it.  The tax return had hovered over me like an evil spirit and then - poof! - it was gone. All that fuss, all that angst, and in the end it was just a bit of adding up. 

Anything to do with money makes me feel incredibly stupid and inadequate. I think of all the people out there who appear to understand it and who keep notes about incomings and outgoings and who are responsible about their bank statements. I just close my eyes every time it comes to paying the hay bill. So I dreaded the tax return like you dread the dentist. And then, it wasn’t so scary after all. My venture into self-publishing also turned out to bring in more than I had thought. Actual humans are out there buying my actual books, despite the fact that I have no talent for self-promotion and a morbid British fear of anything that might look like blowing one’s own trumpet. The hay bill will be paid for another winter.

The farrier came, which was the lovely part of the day. We stood outside in the bitter wind and the glancing sunshine and spoke about horses and hooves. The red mare, who does not need to be held for the farrier, whom she loves, stood immaculately, entirely untethered, and went into her little dreamy trance. I feel ridiculously proud when she does this. What a treat she must be for the farrier, I think, every single time. I don’t care about the mud and the cold and the hay bill, because I can watch this magnificent horse being her magnificent self, beaming her Zen waves of peace into a grateful world.

A friend came to help me pick up the piles of dung and we collected crap and talked about the meaning of life and laughed quite a lot.

And then I went home and wrote 2709 words of my new secret project.

It was the most unremarkable, most ordinary of days. I live a very small and ordinary life. I had rather stopped doing the blog because the smallness and the ordinariness seemed too absurdly unimportant to write down. Those poor Dear Readers, I thought. I must wait until I’ve got something big to say. The months and weeks went by. The Big remained elusive.

I’m returning now to the small. I like recording the tiny joys that nestle in the ordinary. My ambitions have changed so much as I’ve got older that now I think if I can make one person laugh on one day, then that day is not wasted. The farrier laughed, and my friend with the dung laughed, and the red mare would have laughed if she could. I bloody well got my tax return together. I wrote words which until this morning did not exist. 

Don’t write a day off, I think to myself, merely because it did not have anything vast or meaningful in it. I start to believe that finding meaning in the very, very small may be the secret to life. 

Saturday, 27 January 2018

For Whom the Bell Tolls

On Tuesday this week, the death was announced of Richard Woollacott. He was forty years old.

The Racing world went into shock. The last time most people who love racing had seen him was in the euphoric post-race interview after his game, bonny horse Beer Goggles had beaten all the big boys at Newbury. Nobody really saw Beer Goggles coming. He had come up through the handicapping ranks and he was sent off at 40-1. Beer Goggles did not know he was the outsider in a strong field. All he knew was that he felt powerful and confident and full of beans and he was damn well not going to be beaten. He stuck his head out all the way to the line. And his trainer, who had brought him so far, beamed his giddy, infectious smile out of a million television sets.
And now that smile would never been seen again.
The internet had one of its rare moments of good behaviour. The grieving family had asked for privacy, and the massed ranks of social media gave them privacy. There was no speculation. Instead, the tributes poured in, from people who had known him for years, since his pointing days, to people who had only watched him on the telly. ‘I will remember him for always having a big smile on his face,’ said Richard Johnson, the champion jockey who had ridden Beer Goggles to glory.
Then, Richard Woollacott’s wife Kayley put out a statement of heartbreaking elegance. Mental illness had got him. She said, with a generosity and grace that left me in awe, that it was too late for her beloved husband but it was not too late for others. Three days after she lost the father of her children, she was raising awareness about suicide, about the brutal ruthlessness of mental illness, and starting a fund in Richard Woollacott’s memory. Not only that, but she wrote of him with such lyricism and love, talking of all his talents, of all his shining lights, but not ignoring the darkness that took him in the end. It takes a very rare human to be able to do that.
Any death is a shock. In fact, it’s shocking how shocking death is, when it is the one fact of life that all humans know. But there is something peculiarly shocking about a suicide. From the outside, it can be hard to understand. I went to funeral of a cousin who killed himself and I remember the stretched, pale faces of incomprehension. Why did this happen? How did this happen? What could we have, should we have done? I remember searing guilt mingling with the grief. If I had only rung him one more time, got him round, really sat down and talked.
I think when people are that far into the dark, no light can penetrate. That’s what is so terrifying about mental illness. It is indiscriminating and it is relentless and it does not give a damn for the human heart. It is a wrecker, and it will smash anything in its way. It seems almost impossible that the brilliant, smiling man who had triumphed on that happy day at Newbury now no longer exists. And what he did was indeed brilliant. Beer Goggles did not start out as a star. Richard Woollacott turned him into one. He did that. He built that horse up and gave him strength and confidence and kept him sweet and kept him right so that by the time Beer Goggles faced his biggest test, he knew he could fly. Will he wonder, as he goes out today at Cheltenham in front of a crowd united in grief, where that human is, the one who made him believe in himself?
The crowd will be united. It will come together because racing does come together in times like this, as if it were a big family. Everybody knows each other and everybody sees each other every week, come rain come shine, come triumph come tragedy. Everybody knows how glorious it is and how tough it is. Everybody gets up at five in the morning and everybody cannot sleep until they’ve done one last yard check to make sure those equine athletes are dozing peacefully in their boxes.
The crowd, and the people watching at home, will unite to mourn a very special man, by all accounts generous and kind, a horseman and a gentleman. Everybody loved him. But they will also unite because the shadow of this illness has passed over almost everyone. It’s a brother or a mother, a friend of a friend, crazy old Uncle Bernie whom everyone laughed at until the laughter abruptly stopped. Mental illness thrives in the shadows. It feeds off shame. It is mystifying and people are often afraid to speak of it. What, after all, do you say? The incredible Woollacott family have taken the darkness and shone some light into it. They have asked that this race day be not only about their own wrenching loss, but about everyone who is struggling against this most pernicious of foes. That is an act of courage for which I have no words.
John Donne had the words. He wrote, many, many years ago:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
Each man's death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

Nobody needs to ask today for whom the bells toll. They toll for everyone. But should the bright, bonny Beer Goggles roar up that Cheltenham hill and shrug off his challengers and race to the line, the bells will ring out in heartfelt, bittersweet glory and gladness. 

Friday, 26 January 2018

Emeralds in Dung Heaps

This week has been a tough week. I got bruised and wounded and suddenly missed my mother so much that I found myself one night in the kitchen at eleven o’clock, swamped by Railway Children tears. If you asked me, I would have said I did not get much done. I survived. I was hanging on by my fingernails.
Writing is a dangerous job, because you can always make excuses. Your hours are flexible. It’s tempting to say that you are simply not in a sane, productive frame of mind, so you will do other things. You’ll do what you grandly call research, which generally means wandering about the internet, being distracted by fascinating but entirely irrelevant pieces of information. (This week, for instance, I discovered a tiny village in Russia where the temperature is minus sixty-two and the women have icicles on their eyelashes. It was actually rather a groovy look.)
I did not feel at all productive. I felt a bit battered and a bit flattened.
However, I’m starting a new project and I laughingly think of myself as a professional, so I set  my timer and forced myself to get some words on the page. Because of my scattered frame of mind, I convinced myself that I had not done much, simply spun my wheels.
This afternoon, I did a word count. I wrote eleven thousand words this week. Life had taken me out behind the woodshed and duffed me up, but there are those dear old words, existing where there once was nothing. I’ll have to go back and cut and refine and rewrite in the second draft. Many of those words will disappear again. The dead darlings will litter the stage like the bloody corpses at the end of Hamlet. But there are those words, and nobody can take them away from me.
I worked my horses. My five-year-old great-niece came and rode my red mare and smiled with joy and waved her arms in the air as the grand old duchess walked gently round the field. Someone gave me a compliment. I talked to a kind woman about the thickets of psychology and she smiled and said, ‘Thank you, that was really helpful.’ I thought I was banging on, but I had been helpful. Sometimes I think all I want to do now, in this strange time of middle age, is to be helpful. I used to want to win prizes and see my name in the paper. How one’s ambitions change.
I made someone laugh and I paid someone a compliment and I spent one whole evening running round the internet leaving kind comments with little lovehearts under every single photograph or post that made me smile. I quite often do this when I’m feeling doleful. I have this weird theory that when you feel you’ve got nothing left to give, the best thing to do is to give something, even if it is just a little red heart on Facebook. It’s not much, but it is a kind of offering. It's a tiny act of hope.
This is my bad week. The power of the negative internal voices can be so strong sometimes that they wipe out everything else. They are like Donald Trump shouting ‘Fake news.’ They loathe the truth. They are the evil emperors of confirmation bias. They see only what they want to see. I’m damned if I am going to let them win.
So I write down my small things. My good things are all very, very small things indeed. But the small things add up. It was a bad week, and it was a good week. It was a human week. Everybody gets duffed up, from time to time. Everyone feels vulnerable and bruised and wrong. There are mistakes and regrets, searing moments of doubt, the stumbles and the falls.
There are the emeralds in the dung heap, shining in the muck. The dung heap will always be the dung heap, but oh, oh, those glorious, glittering gems.

I suspect that there may be something good in every bad week. It’s just that sometimes you have to dig it out with a pitchfork. I think it is worth the effort.


Blog Widget by LinkWithin