Friday, 16 March 2018

A Price Worth Paying

I sometimes dream of those sanguine, swaggery people, who bowl through life, laughing at the blows. I wonder what it would be like to be those people. I yearn to be those people. I wonder: do those people actually exist, or are they only real in the winding corridors of my mind?

On Twitter this morning, someone called me prejudiced. I defended myself as politely as I could, but he kept coming. He was convinced that I was a prejudiced person, as surely as if he spoke to me every morning. He is a complete stranger. I have never communicated with him in my life. He got prejudiced from one jokey tweet.

Over the years, I’ve learnt some pretty good internet resilience. I have all kinds of mental tricks. I am sometimes quite proud of these. I am not sanguine or swaggery, but I had to teach myself to toughen up a bit for the hurly burly of social media. Today, all my good tricks deserted me. I felt profoundly shocked and hurt.

I was rather dismayed. Can I really be such a wimp and a weed? I was having a lovely morning, dreaming of Might Bite winning the Gold Cup, and I allowed one unknown human to wreck it. I felt shaky and hollow.

I took a deep step backwards. Perhaps I cared so much because he was secretly right. Perhaps I think I have this tremendous open mind, when in fact, as I get older, I am allowing calcified prejudice to snap that mind shut. Perhaps I have fallen into lazy thinking and cheap assumptions, all the things I hate. Perhaps I’ve been talking a good game all this time, and, underneath, nasty little bigotries have been making their smug and cosy nests.

I thought about this for a long time. I should be thinking about what is going to win the Foxhunters’; instead, I was furiously examining my brain for bugs. It’s exhausting. But perhaps I should thank that man for not letting me slide into complacency.

Perhaps the blow hurt so much because Cheltenham hurls me into a storm of emotion. By the fourth day, I have no reserves and certainly no defences. It always makes me think of my father, and miss him more than usual. My old uncle died on Saturday, and that gave the melancholy feeling of the end of an era. It was his time and he had run his race and he went in grand style, but it is very sad, all the same. 

It’s only the third Cheltenham without my mother. I used to collect her Racing Post each morning, deliver it to her, cook her a sustaining breakfast, and listen to her talk with joy of Ruby and Annie and all her other favourite horses and humans. She would tell me tales of Arkle, and Vincent O’Brien, and Michael Scudamore, and Fred Winter, and Dave Dick. She had known well the giants of the game, and she remembered them all with spreading fondness. One of the saddest days after she died was the day I went into the shop and told the sympathetic ladies that the Racing Post order was now for one.

It’s not just loss, this week. It’s that I can’t ever tell myself it’s only a horse race. I fall in love with these brave, beautiful, brilliant thoroughbreds as if they were my own. When Katie Walsh cried in front of the cameras as she spoke of seeing her brother with his broken leg, I felt her love and worry as if she were part of my own family. I feel for the small trainers, up against the big boys. Yesterday, the bonny Sam Spinner carried the flag for the little guys. He bowled along with his ears pricked, as if knowing that he was there for something special. When he was swamped by the chasing pack, my heart cracked. Yet nothing awful happened. He ran with honour and he’ll be home now, in his stable, happily eating his hay. He’ll be back. He is still a glorious horse with dazzling talent and courage.He'll fly the flag on another day.

I’m trying to teach myself not to mind too much. This lesson is not going that well. I have literally lost my voice from shouting my loves home, and I feel as if I have nothing left in the tank. I’m running on fumes. And this is my holiday. This is supposed to be fun. I’m going to need a holiday to get over my holiday. There will have to be medicinal amounts of green soup and iron tonic.

But then, I believe in passion. I believe in love. I believe in going all in. There’s a price to pay, in raw vulnerability, but I’m starting to understand that vulnerability is a good thing. It’s not an easy thing or a comfortable thing, but I think it’s an important thing. Caring about something with every fibre of your being is quite tiring, but indifference must be a long, slow erosion of the spirit. Perhaps the price is worth paying.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Bryony and Blackie: a Partnership for the Ages

In the world, there is a young jockey called Bryony Frost. Almost nobody outside of racing knows her name. In racing, pretty much everyone knows her name. On ITV, the commentators certainly know her name. They have started to say things like ‘Another big Saturday win for Bryony Frost.’ Another, in fact, has become associated with her name. ‘Another terrific ride from Bryony Frost.’ She’s not a fluke. She rides good races on a wet Monday at Plumpton and she rides good races on a dazzling Saturday at Ascot. She gives it everything, every time.

And when she finishes her race, her face splits into an almost disbelieving smile and the first thing she does is throw her arms round her horse’s neck. As she does her victory walk back to the winner’s enclosure and hears the applause, she points her finger at her horse. ‘Don’t clap me,’ she seems to be saying, ‘clap him.’

The horse, most often, is Black Corton. He’s quite small and absurdly determined. He’s a bundle of energy. He doesn’t know that he started off as a bit of a nothing horse. A summer horse is the faintly patronising expression, meaning one of those who is not going to be a winter champion, who can canter round on good ground and clean up whilst the superstars are having their holidays. The thing is, nobody told Black Corton. He just kept on winning. There was a point when he seemed to be running every week, and the more he ran the better he got.

Nobody told Bryony Frost either. Or, if they did, she knew better. She smiled her beaming smile and whispered in Blackie’s ear and off they went, to the big meetings, on the winter ground, when they were supposed to get found out. That fantastic run had to end some time. Except it didn’t, and this afternoon they line up on the grandest stage of all, with a fighting chance at the festival.

Bryony Frost is a properly good jockey. She works astoundingly hard. She takes the knocks and learns from her mistakes. Paul Nicholls, her boss, is not a sentimentalist. He did not give her a chance because he likes her smile. He gave her a chance because she earned it. She’s intelligent in a race and she is cool under pressure and she’s got beautiful hands and wonderful balance. More importantly than all that, horses run for her. It’s the gift all jockeys long for. Her horses give her that little bit extra.

I think it’s to do with belief. She believes in them, and they believe in her right back. The thoroughbred is so intelligent and so sensitive that it can almost feel intuitive. Bryony Frost sends her messages of belief down the reins and her horses hear them.

The partnership she has with Black Corton is one of the most touching things in racing. They adore each other. They have a harmony and an understanding that is poetry to watch. They are force multipliers: when they are together; the combination of their fierce fighting hearts adds up to something wilder and greater than the sum of the parts. I think he would jump the moon if he asked her to.

They are up against the big boys today. The form book says they probably won’t win. But just getting here is a championship all of its own. Whatever happens, you know they will acquit themselves with honour. If they must go down, they’ll go down fighting. But I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we see that streak of black courage storming up the hill, with Bryony crouched low, murmuring her words of magic in Blackie’s ear. My heart beats even as I picture it in my mind. Yet, in a way, hours before the race even starts, they’ve already won.

Friday, 9 March 2018

Good Stuff: Day Nine.

1. I finished the first draft of my new book. Sixty-six thousand words exist which once did not exist. I’ve gone so fast and hard at this one that my head feels as if someone has unplugged all my neurones. It’s like having extreme jet-lag. But I have the holy sense of achievement, which is like no other feeling.

2. The mares found some grass this morning, the first grass they have seen for two weeks. They were so elegantly and gently pleased. I watched them with absurd delight.

3. I’ve had a lovely time checking out the Cheltenham previews. The best one was the Nicky Henderson show. Of course it was not billed like that. There was a stellar panel, including Nico De Boinville, Jessie Harrington and Paddy Brennan, but Henderson stole the show. 

He’s the epitome of the old school of National Hunt trainers, the kind they don’t really make any more. He was a great friend of my father’s, and I remember him fondly from childhood days. 

In the world now, so many of the people who are the great, famous successes put on a polished persona, often speak in incomprehensible jargon, walk and talk with a swing and a swagger. Nicky Henderson does none of those things.

Henderson does an almost impossible job with what management types would call insane variables. A thoroughbred is not a machine, or a balance sheet. You can’t simply tick all the correct boxes and watch your share price soar. Those horses sometimes simply get out of bed the wrong side. They have moods and thoughts and feelings. Might Bite, Henderson’s Gold Cup hope, is such a famously complex character that nobody really knows what is going on in his brilliant head. 

And yet, as the festival approaches, with all its pressures and all its expectations and all its make and break, there is Nicky, making wry, dry jokes, mostly against himself. I love that someone can be so damn good at his job and so comical and authentic at the same time. 

He famously wears his heart on his sleeve. When he has a big winner, you can guarantee that the camera will pan to the stands and catch him with tears in his eyes. I think the tears are not just tears of victory, but of love and admiration for the brave equine athlete who has made his trainer's hopes and dreams come true. 

When I’ve done this amount of work in such a blast, all my own emotions are very near the surface. I have no defences, and no place to hide. Everything makes me laugh or makes me cry. So I find it oddly reassuring that there are other humans out there, at the top of their field, who find it impossible to put on a composed front. The things that matter, matter. And so there is the laughing, and there is the crying, and damn the consequences.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Good Stuff: Day Eight.

1. The sun came out and gentled the snowscape. The mares were goofy and comical and delighted. I took their rugs off for the first time in a week and they looked so gleaming and beautiful that I stood for twenty minutes, gazing at them with love and wonder.

2. I did the hard stuff today. I tackled the chapters that had not worked. I ran at the subjects that were so knotty I rather wished I had not started them. I made myself go far, far out of my comfort zone. I wrote 2509 words and edited forty pages. My entire body aches. But I have a holy, exhausted sense of achievement. I fucking well was a proper writer today. I didn’t busk it or fake it. I was all in.

3.  I made some chicken soup. I need chicken soup. It was really, really good chicken soup. It has spinach in it for strength and garlic in it for health and chilli in it for va va voom.

I love you for going with this Good Stuff challenge. I don’t have any idea what I’m doing at the moment. When I’m in a work storm like this, I can’t make sense of actual life. So this could be absolute nonsense, for all I know. I have no way of telling.

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Good Stuff: Day Seven.

1. 5066 words today. This is why the Good Stuff is going to be very pithy indeed. I’ve used up all my words. I have no words left. You shouldn’t really do five thousand words in a day. I think it buggers up your neuronal pathways. My brain is fizzing and snapping as if all the electrical circuits are shorting. But I’ve got to get this bloody book done and I’m motoring now.

2. It took me an hour to get the mares all settled for the night with their hay and their feed. This sounds like a bad thing, but in fact I choose it as a good thing. Even though I was stomping through the melting snow, which is still a foot high and almost impossible to walk in, making my middle-aged oofing noises, I suddenly felt that I was doing a proper job. This was some clean, tough physical labour. I’ve always admired people who work the land or work with their hands. I could pretend I was one of those people. It felt much more serious than sitting at a poncy desk writing poncy words. I liked that it was hard. I did a good job, for creatures that I love more than life.

3. I got my windscreen wipers fixed. This is huge. It’s the kind of errand I loathe and I was convinced there would be sucking of teeth and talk of getting parts from Aberdeen. Instead the lovely garage man laughed at my jokes, summoned James the Mechanic, and got the thing fixed on the spot. James had many special implements, mostly wrenches. I watched him in keen admiration, as if he were playing Bach or speaking fluent Russian. He knew precisely what was wrong with those damn wipers and which wrench to use. I loved him for that. ‘James,’ I said, slightly breathless. ‘You are an amazing man.’ And then they wouldn’t let me give them any money. That’s about four good things in one.

PS. The photograph is from Sunday, when the red mare went for a special snow walk with her friend Ellie. That was Good Stuff, turned up to eleven.

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Good Stuff: Day Six.

It was one of those bad snow days. The picturesque whiteness has been replaced with sloppy, slushy filth. As it was all starting to thaw, another huge dump came from the east. It was cross, wet snow, determined to make everything worse. Now there is grumpy sleet.

But, into every sleety day, a little sunshine must fall. And there were three good things.

1. I had a good meeting. I never have meetings. I am not a meeting sort of person. If I do have to have a meeting, I usually sit in the corner, feeling like a fool. But today’s meeting was with lovely people and I said at least two useful things.

2. The power has not gone off. I cannot tell you what a good thing this is. We are very prone to power cuts and I sit furiously in the freezing dark, covered in blankets like an Inuit, reading by candlelight, longing for soup, wondering how Jane Austen managed. The house is warm and dry and the lights are on and I have some of the carrot soup left. This is huge. This is like living in a palace. I will never be ungrateful for anything ever again.

3. One of the little girls from my Saturday posse came after school to help me feed the mares. She’s a very gentle person of eleven or twelve and the mares love her. She made up the feeds and strung up the haynets and then sweetly led the horses back down to the bottom gate. I was doing rather a lot of middle-aged huffing and puffing as I foundered through the deep snow but my young companion was smiling as if she were having a grand treat. She actually thanked me when her intrepid dad came to collect her, as if I had done her a huge favour. I felt very touched and rather humble.

Oh, and I did a shedload of work and some of it was even good work. There is more goodness in each day than I suspected. I am huffing and puffing, literally and metaphorically, and I am yearning for spring. My little snowdrops, which were just getting ready to flower, have disappeared under the ruthless drifts and the birds, which were singing, have gone silent. But three good things, three good things. They will keep me going until spring finally gets the memo.

Monday, 5 March 2018

Good Stuff: Day Five.

No sooner had I started my brilliant challenge than I went into a furious grump of a mood and refused to write down any good things at all. In fact, even in the grumpiness, there were at least six good things over the weekend. A lovely horse called Headway won in spectacular fashion with my money on his back and all the little girls came to play with the mares and I had a lovely chat with a friend and the mares and I went for an enchanted walk in the silent snow. But still, I could not possibly write those because I was far too invested in feeling like crap.
Today, the snow was still thick on the ground but the sky wept sullen sleety tears, as if in mourning for a spring that will never come. Everything is icy and slippery and dirty and messy. The horses have gone into their stoical, shut-down mode, when all they need from humans is food. They have no time for love in this sort of weather.
But I have scraped together three good things, even on the dourest and dreichest of Mondays.
1. The temperature has finally gone above zero and the water trough is no longer frozen. This means I don’t have to schlep back and forth from house to field with slopping buckets. I am more pleased about this than I can say.
2. I had a long and soothing conversation with someone I really needed to have a long and soothing conversation with.
3. I discovered that carrots are even better for you than was once thought. This pleases me for many reasons. One is that the Co-Op has just started selling ‘misshapen carrots’ which are only very slightly bent and are half the price of normal carrots. The second is that because of such a bargain I bought bags and bags and made them into carrot soup. The third is that I had forgotten how delicious carrot soup in fact is, and now I have remembered I am eating it for every meal, including breakfast. I adore soup for breakfast.
Let’s face it. March is turning out to be a load of buggery bollocks. The forecast is for endless sleet for another two weeks. There will be no riding and even walking is perilous, as the slush thaws and freezes and thaws and freezes so there is no safe place to put your foot. I can’t go all Pollyanna on your ass, because every time I turn on the news something perfectly dreadful has happened. The Leader of the Free World appears to have lost any senses he might have had. Evelyn Waugh was once asked about Ulysses and he said that he could hear James Joyce ‘going mad, sentence by sentence.’ That’s rather what I feel about Donald Trump. I hardly even dare turn on the wireless now. It’s too terrifying to think what he might have done next.
So it’s not all bluebirds and butterflies at the moment. But I think I am going to doggedly try for my three good things every day. It’s an act of faith. Or hope. Or something. It’s something.

Friday, 2 March 2018

Good Stuff: Day Two

I was so cross and singed today that I thought I would not be able to find three good things. But I dug about, and there they were.

1. Two of the red mare’s Saturday posse had a snow day, so they appeared at the field. These are the young girls who come and see us every weekend and work with my mares. I’ve collected them in an entirely haphazard way, and I teach them the foundations of horsemanship and it turned out to be one of the most rewarding things I ever did. They are all eleven and twelve and they make me laugh. These two pitched up, smiling and twinkling at the thought of spending time with the horses on a school day. They took the mares out into the snow and played with them and the thoroughbreds, who have been stuck in the field all week, blinked and sighed with pleasure.

2. I found an old letter of Scott Fitzgerald’s which I had completely forgotten about. It has some of the sagest writing advice I’ve ever read. It shook me out of my complacency and made me remember what you have to do to write well. I found it through the miracle of the internet and I felt very grateful for that miracle.

3. Galvanised, I wrote 2139 words. I felt so furious and stuck all day that I had convinced myself there would be no writing. I would do research, which is a euphemism for crossly reading books and pretending that is work. Thanks to dear, dead F Scott, I wrote and wrote and wrote until my head almost fell off.

This would definitely have counted as a rotten day, had I not written down the three good things. Even the sweetness of the young girls with the mares would not have been able to overcome the pervading feeling of rottenness. But now I've written the good stuff down, the shades are receding. Rottenness is not going to have me, not today. 

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Good Stuff Challenge 2018

I have a brilliant friend who runs a Facebook group. Last month, she asked the group to do a twenty-eight day Good Stuff Challenge. The idea was to write three good things, every day. No matter how rotten you felt or how crappy the day was, you could find three good things in it. You could dig them out with a spoon.
Today, I thought I would continue the challenge on my own. It’s over now, for that group. February is finished, and we all wrote our good stuff. But I loved it so much I want to see if I can do it every day for the rest of the year. It’s going to be my Good Stuff Challenge 2018.
I think it’s important because I’m flailing a bit, in this part of my middle life. I’m not drowning, but I’m not always waving, either. I feel the pressing weight of old griefs and future frets bashing down on my head. Three good things every day is a way of keeping my head above water.
I quite often start things like this and then let them lapse. Writing three good things every day is harder than you might think. But I’m going to try.
Today, my three good things were:

1. I had to ferry buckets of water from the house to the field to fill up the frozen water trough for the mares. This is quite a bore. But I decided to look at it as a privilege, not a chore. I had the arms to carry the buckets and the working tap at home to fill them and my dear old car to transport them, and I was keeping my mares alive. They seemed very pleased when I pitched up in my snow hat, huffing and puffing, to give them the precious water. It was a good job, and I did it.

2. I had a lovely chat with my friend George in the shop this morning. The light was just coming up over the snowscape and we talked about Cheltenham and our hopes for the festival. As we were speaking of Nicky Henderson and Willie Mullins, a very, very smart man came in. He was wearing a covert coat that would not have been out of place in Savile Row. I was covered in mud and hay from the horses. ‘Goodness,’ I said, involuntarily. ‘A clean person.’ He looked rather apologetic. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said. I smiled. ‘Don’t apologise,’ I said. ‘I am in awe of the clean people.’ He said he’d got halfway to Banchory before the roads got to bad so he was giving up. He was going to buy a bag of coal and go home and make a fire. I hoped that he would not get his lovely coat dirty.

3. I wrote 874 words and I made carrot soup and soda bread.

If you’d asked me, I would have said this was a fairly blah sort of day. But as I write down my three good things, I realise it was much, much better than I thought. Three good things. I think they may have a curious power..


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