Sunday, 11 August 2019

The Joy of Sleep

I had thirteen hours of sleep last night. Thirteen hours. I can’t remember the last time that happened. I woke briefly in a windy, blue, bleary dawn and rolled over and went back to sleep. I woke later in the morning, and, in a blinking half-doze, let the dogs out. They took one look at the Hebridean weather and came trotting back in again. Just a half hour more sleep, I thought. The next thing I knew it was lunchtime.

The good body, I told myself, really did need a rest. That must have been some sleep debt that I built up.

I thought of all the other people running around on not enough sleep and too much caffeine and that faint, humming sense of strain that comes from not listening to the good body. I reckon that’s pretty much everyone in modern life, except for those clever professors who do sleep studies. I thought: no wonder so many of us Britons are rowing about Brexit and shouting at each other on Twitter and forgetting our famous good manners. Our brains, not given enough time to restore themselves in the night, are stretched until they twang.

I am self-employed. I’m pretty rubbish at time management, so I always feel as if I am behind on my four jobs, but, theoretically, I could easily give myself eight or nine hours’ sleep a night. Nothing simpler. I’m not a junior doctor or in the emergency services. I don’t work the night shift or have a small, wakeful child. And yet I don’t. I rub along on about six hours, on average. Sometimes, I have as little as four. On the bad insomnia nights, which greet one in middle age, I battle through the day on two. 

This isn’t just bad decisions. (‘You could go to bed now,’ says my sane, adult voice. ‘Just look something vital up on the internet, or make notes for a dazzling new idea,’ says my irrational, luring, fatal voice, and then it is after 1am, and I know that tomorrow is already buggered.) I think it’s the culture. Life now seems about speed and flash and cramming as much in as possible. Sleep is for wimps. Those mistresses and masters of the universe are always telling everyone how they got to the top by rising at 4.30am. I read something the other day about Mark Wahlberg getting up at 2.30am to work out in his gym. And he takes millions at the box office. If I get up at sloppy seven, then I’ve already lost the race. 

This holiday, on the lovely, distant island of Colonsay, has been a revelation for me. I was supposed to come with friends, but they fell away. Although I was sad that I would not be in this ravishing place with my best beloveds, I was secretly thrilled at the idea of being on my own. 

I used to go away on my own when I was very young. In my twenties, I drove from Los Angeles to Seattle and back again all by myself, and once took the solitary scenic route to the South of France, spending two delightful nights in backwoods hotels off the beaten track, where chickens pecked graciously beside the breakfast tables and the other diners cast me furtive looks, half curiosity, half pity. 

I did not care. I ate delicious French food and wrote it all down in my Moleskine notebook and pretended to be a white Russian spy or an incognito film star. (I had rather grandiose ideas about myself in those distant days.) 

The first time I went to New York I was nineteen and all alone. I headed straight for the Oak Room at the Plaza, because that was where Scott Fitzgerald used to drink, and a barman called Mose with a W.C. Fields bottle nose made me the best bourbon sour I ever had. I made friends with a visiting professor of psychology from Florida, in town for a conference. When his  wife arrived to take him away for dinner, she gave me a kind, concerned look, and said, ‘You take care out there, honey.’ 

Later that night, I ate in one of those Jay McInerney sort of restaurants with a man called George Whipple the Third. (George Whipple III! How on earth did I even know someone with a name like that?) I told him about the kind wife and he shrieked with laughter so loudly that half the Brightness Falls clientele turned round to look. 

‘The Oak Room!’ He stuttered. ‘That’s where all the hookers go!’ The kind lady, we decided, was clearly worried that such a young Briton was already on the game. 

So, I have always gone away by myself, but not like this, and not for many years. And I’ve never gone anywhere where I could simply do nothing. I’ve sat on the beach, staring out to sea, and done nothing. I have luxuriated in my bed as the wind and rain whipped the little white house on the north of this tiny island, and done nothing. I have found a beautiful sun trap and rested in a creaking wooden chair overlooking the hills and done nothing.

Well, not quite nothing. I have read a lot and thought thoughts and cooked food and had two ideas for two new books. But there is nobody to say, ‘Let’s go here, or do that, or plan this.’ There is no rush or schedule or To Do List. 

And I have slept. I’ve slept and slept and slept. The good body cried, ‘At last, you are listening to me. And what I need is renewal and restoration.’ 
I think: perhaps I have been tired for the last seven years. Perhaps for even longer than that. Perhaps that’s why I’ve made some rotten decisions and inexplicable mistakes and felt like I am always chasing my tail. Perhaps that is why I have been mystified at all the things I have left undone, or been late about, or simply glossed over. Perhaps that is why I often feel baffled or disorganised or as if I am running on fumes.

Perhaps everyone, I think, should be sent to a Scottish island once a year, a place where there is hardly any internet, where clocks mean little, where doing nothing is a high art, where the good body can ask for a pause and be listened to. Perhaps it should be paid for by the government. It might save millions every year - the money squandered on lost productivity and NHS bills and unnecessary divorces. (It must be hard to be civilised in a relationship if you are tired all the time.) Perhaps a little island where nothing much happens is the answer to half of modern ills: a gentle place where harried humans can be reminded how to rest, and be themselves again. 

Thursday, 20 June 2019

The Story of Estimate. Or, In Which Dreams Do Come True.

The Gold Cup six years ago was one of high emotion and high drama. I wrote it all down, and I’m so glad I did. I’m reproducing it here, because the story of Estimate always deserves to be told. 
It’s an edited version of a much longer story. Before the Gold Cup, another wonderful filly, Riposte, had brought the house down by winning for Lady Cecil, the widow of the late, great Sir Henry Cecil, who had died not long before. It was the stuff of dreams. The idea that Estimate could then go and win for the Queen seemed a dream too far, on that fairytale day. And yet, in racing as in life, there really are sometimes happy endings. 

Here it is -

21st June, 2013.

The Gold Cup is the glittering highlight of the Royal Meeting of the week. It is two and a half miles, a colossal distance. Most flat horses are simply not bred to run this far. There was a huge field, although because of the fast ground runners were dropping like flies. The promising High Jinx was out; Dermot Weld decided he could not risk the delicate legs of Rite of Passage. At the top of the market, driven there by a combination of sentiment and hope, was the ravishing bay filly, Estimate.

Estimate belongs to the Queen. Last June, I was there to watch her win the Queen’s Vase to extravagant emotion, in the jubilee year. I fell in love with her then and I have followed her ever since. She is a lightly-built filly; she does not look like a mighty stayer. But she has a dreamy temperament and the will to win, and she is improving all the time.

On paper, she had something to find. The trip was four whole furlongs into the unknown; on strict official ratings, she was well down the field of fourteen. She would have to produce a rampant career best.

I resisted my stupid soft heart, and tried to find the rivals who would bring her low. Simenon was the danger, I decided, with proven form at course and distance, and the wizard that is Willie Mullins in charge.

But as the start neared, I gave in to the heart and bashed all my money on the little mare. Yes, she was up against the boys; yes, it was a fairytale too far; yes, she had something to find on the book. But blast it, I wanted her to win more than anything, and if anything could find that little bit extra for the big occasion, she could.

She is such a kind and genuine horse. Channel Four showed a clip of her in her stable, and she was as dopey and dreamy and affectionate as a dear old donkey, nuzzling up to her lass, making silly faces, soaking up the love of her faithful human. It made me more entranced with her than ever. Bugger the book I thought; this is my girl.

And I switch into the present tense, because it feels in my head as if the drama is happening all over again.

As Estimate goes round the paddock, with her owner watching intently, she shows all of her brilliant big race temperament. On a warm day, there is not a hint of sweat on her bay flanks. Then, suddenly, without in any way becoming flighty or over-wrought, she gives two little bucks. They are balanced perfectly on the fulcrum of exuberance and determination. They sketch an arching parabola of intent. My mother and I look at each other, hope rising in our eyes.

‘She’s ready,’ we say to each other, in trembling voices. ‘Oh yes. She is ready.’

The late cash comes pouring in, perhaps from the seasoned paddock watchers, perhaps from the sentimental royalists. Estimate shortens in to 7-2, veering violently from sixes this morning. I add my cash to the party. I’ve loved this horse for a long time; I damned if I am going to let my old loyalties lapse. I can see all the doubts for what they are. But my money must be where my mouth is.

Estimate comes out onto the course, all on her own. She canters down to the start with her head high and her ears pricked, collected and balanced, looking around her as if taking in every inch of the fine spectacle. She has a little white snip on her dear nose, and, in my fevered mind, it starts to blaze like a flashing sign.

And, they are off.

The sultry summer’s day turns misty, and, through a sudden murk, Estimate’s white flash shows brightly. She takes up a good position, one off the rail, four lengths off the pace. Ryan Moore lets her down and gets her beautifully settled, so her natural rhythm can assert itself. Her long, narrow ears go back and forth in time with her hoofbeats.

Past the packed stands they go. The faint sounds of whistles and applause can be heard, before they are off again into the country, where the race will begin to unfold.

The massive white-faced German raider is running strongly in front, tracked by the two staying stars, Colour Vision and Saddler’s Rock. Estimate is tidily tucked in behind. Into Swinley Bottom, she is perhaps the most well-balanced of the entire field, happy in her dancing rhythm.

Four out, the field bunches up. ‘There is Estimate,’ says Simon Holt, his voice rising, ‘with every chance.’

Jockeys are starting to crouch lower now, not yet kicking on, but indicating an increased momentum. Ryan Moore is rocking Estimate gently into a quicker pace. Colour Vision, who won this last year but has been disastrously out of form ever since, is suddenly full of running. The brilliant Johnny Murtagh is releasing Saddler’s Rock. Simenon is unleashing a withering run down the outside. In the midst of this, in a small pocket of her own, Estimate is quietly running her race.

And then Moore asks the question, after over two miles of searching turf, and Estimate answers. The answer is: 'Yes.'

She surges forwards, chasing the mighty grey in the Godolphin colours. She gets past him, inch by inch, but the race is not done. Two big fellas come charging at her: the Irish Simenon, the French Top Trip.

All three horses are now in full cry. They are so close together you could not put a cigarette paper between them. For a horrible moment, I think that the slip of a girl will be swallowed up by the roaring boys.

At home, in our house, with the indigo Scottish hills visible though the window and the bluebirds questing at the window, everything erupts. I am on my feet, bawling at the top of my voice. My old mum, who has seen Nijinsky and Mill Reef and the Brigadier, is shouting: ‘Come on, Ryan’. Stanley the Dog, who clearly believes we have suffered some kind of catastrophic event, is howling and jumping and barking his head off. Only the sensible Stepfather sits silent, riveted to the action, a small oasis of calm in the roiling storm.

I look away, unable to watch, convinced the brave filly is beat. It’s too much to ask; it’s too much to hope. She’s never been anywhere near this distance before; only the very best fillies are capable of beating the colts. She’ll fade, fold up, be done on the line.

But I turn back, and there she is, with her little head stuck out, her glorious stride lengthening, every atom in her body speaking of her will to win. I gather one last wild howl of hope.

GO ON GO ON GO ON,’ I shout, ignoring the family, ignoring the leaping dog, ignoring everything except the fierce battle of those last, terrifying strides.

Simenon’s determined head comes up to Estimate’s shoulder, the great momentum of his powerful quarters pushing him forward. Will the bloody finishing post never come?

Somehow, somehow, the good filly keeps going. It is as if she is saying to the others: 'No, boys, not today. Today is my day.'

And there, at last, is the line, and she has a precious neck in hand, and Ryan Moore is crouched up almost at her ears, carrying her over the finish.

’I CAN’T BELIEVE IT,’ I shout.

As if my entire family is deaf, I yell again: ‘I CAN’T BELIEVE IT.’

We hug, we jump in the air, we weep lunatic tears of joy.

It’s just a horse. It’s just an old lady in a lilac dress. It’s just a race. On a strictly rational level, it is hard to know which is more absurd: the racing of horses or the hereditary monarchy. But humans are not rational animals. Even in the most empirical of us, the magical thinking sometimes overwhelms. I can’t help it: I love the Queen. I love her for her dignity and restraint and good old British stoicism. I love Estimate, for her sweetness and strength and bloody-minded determination not to give up. I swear she had a Sod You, Boys look in her eye as she flashed past the post. And I love racing, where these beautiful herd animals may show all their mighty, fighting qualities.

And so I shouted and cried and leapt in the air, even though I am forty-six years old and I should know better.

The filly came back to the paddock, the Queen walked down to greet her, the crowd went insane. People did not know what to do with themselves. The gleaming golden cup was presented, and the Queen, who really has been around the block more than most, who has been coming to Ascot since the fifties, who knows all about the dreams of horses not quite coming true, stared at it as if she had never seen anything so lovely in her entire life. She looked as delighted and disbelieving as a child. Her fairytale had come to life.

And that, my darlings, was Ladies’ Day at Ascot, when four tremendous females, two equine and two human, wrote a story that will stay stitched into the memory of everyone lucky enough to have witnessed it.

Friday, 31 May 2019

My Day of Jubilee. Or, in Which I Finally Run Out of Fucks.

Today, my darlings, is my Day of Jubilee. It is my Independence Day. I have finally decided to set myself free.

I realise, at the dear old age of fifty-two, that all my life I’ve been skipping about trying to please people. This sounds rather lovely, but it’s actually ghastly. I worry about what those people think, most especially what they think of me. I empathise so hard with their feelings that sometimes I have to go and have a little lie-down. I try to be the grown-up, not for its own sweet sake, but so that people will say, ‘Look at her, being the grown-up.’ 

It’s not just near friends and relations. I worry about what complete strangers will think. I want people to like me, even if I think they are idiots. (That may be the very definition of insanity: wanting even the people you don’t like to like you.) I want people to like me on Facebook and Twitter. I want the people who read my books to like me. I want more of those insidious little thumbs-ups. I want huge red hearts for every single red mare post. If people don’t love the red mare enough, the world might stop turning. 

And this very morning, at about 6.22am, I realised that I’d had enough. With one bound, I was free.

Of course, it’s not quite one bound. There has been a lot of practice bounding. There have been tentative steps and small experiments and schooling runs. There has been a vast amount of processing of emotions. There has been gazing at the navel and contemplating the bizarre vagaries of the psyche and trying to answer the Universal Why. 

There has been a rather terrifying embrace of vulnerability. There have been admissions of shame. There has been a lot of asking for help. If you are going to change your entire life, I discover, you can’t do it on your own.

Today, the cumulative effect of all that came together in a glorious final act. I was liberated. I did not have to mind any more. I could let all the people - the Norma Desmond people, out there in the dark -  think exactly what they wanted to think. I could let them mock or disapprove or sneer. I could let them not like me. (Imagine that!) I could let them laugh at my absurd dreams, my wild passions, my intense loves. Because their dream is not my dream, and that is all right.

I’m so tired of the slightly sick feeling in the stomach and the ache in the throat when I think that someone is angry with me, or belittling me, or putting me down. I get a hollow feeling, and a pressing on the head, and I carry a low cloud of despair about for thirty-six hours. That is usually how long it takes me to talk myself down off the ceiling. I’m sick to the teeth of talking myself down off the ceiling. I could be doing so many more lovely things with my time.

Even if I turn myself inside out like a pretzel, I’m still not going to please all of the people all of the time. I know this is so Captain Obvious that the captain needs to be promoted to Brigadier, but it’s taken me a while to believe it, right down in my gut. I’m an optimist, so I think I truly believed that if I was fabulous enough, then everyone would get with the programme. It would be a festival of fabulousness and finally, finally, I would be vindicated. I would get the external stamp of approval, and everything would be fine, and I would never feel sick and stupid again.

I would not have the terrible crash when my mustang bursts of enthusiasm were met with blank stares. I would not have the smash of shame when my brilliant idea was rejected. I would not have the crawl-into-a-cupboard-and-die feeling when I expected a red rosette and got given a dunce’s cap instead. 

This morning, as the birds sang their dawn song, I saw that I’d got everything the wrong way round. The only stamp that counts is the one on the internal passport. The only control I have is over myself and my own decisions. I have to let all the other people go. I have to let them dream their own dreams and do their own thing and believe their own beliefs. Some of those will clash with mine, and some of them won’t. But they are not my business. 

The strange thing is that I learnt all this from my red mare, and from the people who have helped me along that grand, thoroughbred journey. I’ve learnt that to get her right, I simply had to turn myself into the best human I could be, the steady, reliable, imaginative human she needed, and the rest would take care of itself. That’s how I ended up riding through the Scottish hills with a single finger on the rein and a song in my heart. It’s the same with ordinary life. I’ll go on trying; I’ll do my best; I’ll run my own race. And some people will love that and some people won’t.

I have finally, finally, run out of fucks. I’ve given so many, for the wrong reasons, to the wrong ends, for the wrong people. The box is empty now. That’s it. I’m done. 

Tuesday, 16 April 2019

A Big Day

Today, I sent off a manuscript to my agent.

I’ve had so many crashes and smashes in my writing career that I had almost given up on the traditional publishing route. I could not deal with the whole dog and pony show, the reliance on whim, the alarming shifts of the market. One day, what you are writing is in fashion; the next, everyone wants something and someone quite else. The endless returning of each manuscript for the endless rewrites started to feel not like work, but like purgatory.

So I thought I’d be a literary entrepreneur. I started publishing my own, idiosyncratic horse books on Amazon. I would press the miracle button and my books would be amazingly available from New Mexico to New Zealand. I began an online writing service, where I acted as a coach and mentor and editor. I could reinvent the entire process, and I would never, ever have to have a meeting again. (I am a fairly extreme introvert, so I absolutely loathe meetings. I am crap at jolly working lunches. I am catastrophic at selling myself in any way.)

And then, out of the blue, my agent suddenly got in touch and asked about the novel for which I had entirely given up hope. It sat, huge and pointless, in my bottom drawer. It had been rewritten so many times, but it was never quite right. 

Astonishingly, she had not forgotten about it. She had been talking of it to complete strangers. Incredulous and invigorated, I got it out and dusted it down and had a look at it. 

Usually, when this happens, the book feels old and stale. It had its moment, and it missed it. This one, however, still hummed and thrummed with life. I could see the places and see the characters and see the slightly eccentric world I had created. I fell in love with it, all over again. As I worked it and worked it, I felt hope rise in me. When I got to the last chapter, I made myself cry. 

Well, I thought, if it makes me cry, then it might make the Dear Reader cry too. 

For four days after finishing this latest edit, I sat with my bad critics, my voices of fear, the gremlins in my head. They had a tremendous party. They told me that it would be the same old, same old. It would be the burst of hope, followed by the crash of disappointment. The complete strangers would have met another agent, with a more thrilling manuscript. The market would shift, yet again. The manuscript would be sent back. My heart would break. The window of Waterstone’s would seem like a bitter dream. 

Don’t expose yourself to that, said the gremlins, shrieking with drunken laughter. Do you really want to fail, for the hundredth time? Run back to your comfort zone, and stay there, with a nice bottle of gin.

Finally, I summoned the Fuck It voices. I love these voices. They really don’t give a stuff. They say, ‘Fuck it, if you don’t try, you’ll never know.’ They say, ‘Sod the world, it’s your book, and it’s beautiful, and you love it, so send it.’ 

So, half an hour ago, I dug myself out of my hole, put my Fuck It hat on, and pressed send. 

Off it has flown, my great big book, into the open spaces where critical eyes may gaze upon it. It’s galloping now, over the prairies, across the Steppes, and who knows where it may find itself? 

And what if the worst comes to the worst? What if the computer says No? Well, I can still press the miracle button and some lovely reader in Albuquerque will be my very own Waterstone’s window. 

Wednesday, 27 March 2019

The Gift of Helpless Laughter.

One of the oldest and dearest friends rang this morning. She is the Indispensable Friend. There are a very few that I absolutely could not do without and she is one of them.

We talked about many things. Then we recalled one of the more absurd stories in our past. She had met a tremendously dull, slightly creepy European aristocrat. He was one of those ones whose family takes up about six pages in the Almanac De Gotha. He almost instantly proposed. (We were in our twenties, and we would do anything in those days, but this was quite weird, even for us.) The Almanac De Gotha is not her book, and he was not her person, so she politely said no.

A while later, she was having lunch with a tremendous old gentleman who really did adore the Almanac De Gotha and dreamed of having forty-seven quarterings. I never quite worked out what quarterings were, something to do with very grand coats of arms, but this gent knew all about them and loved them. 

My friend told the story of the creepy aristo and the proposal. The old gent sat bolt upright. In our memory, he banged his fist on the table. ‘You must marry him at once!’ he cried, as if refusing such an offer meant the end of the world as we know it.

We laughed a lot as we remembered this. My friend said, ‘Just imagine if I had married him. My poor children would have spent the rest of their lives looking for their chins.’

This is not funny on paper. In life, it was hysterical. The thought of those poor chinless half-Euros tickled us until we could hardly speak. We took the joke and ran with it. We went through every single lost item scenario and applied it to the search for a chin. ‘I know I had it somewhere,’ we stuttered. ‘Now, what did I come in here for?’ we said, imagining that moment when you walk into a room and you can’t remember what you were looking for. Oh, yes: chins. 

See? It’s just not funny. But it was so funny to us that we wept with laughter. And I came inside after my walk in the woods and thought: write that down. I want to write it down because my memory is shot and I won’t remember it in five minutes, let alone in five months. I want to write it down because that kind of helpless laughter at a not funny joke is the absolute crest and peak of perfect friendship. 

I often vaguely take it for granted, thinking that everyone has it with everyone. But they don’t. It’s rare and precious. It’s that melding of minds, that finishing of each other’s sentences, that starting to laugh before the line is half-uttered. It’s the thing that can pull me out of the doldrums, give me sunshine on a rainy day, allow me to survive the Brexit madness. Whenever things seem too mad and bad, I can pick up that telephone and hear that voice and the world steadies on its axis.

That’s a gift. It’s the gift of laughter and joy and complete understanding. I write it down because I want to put it in the box where the cherished things live. On a dark day, when I can’t find the light, I can come back to this and read and smile and be reminded.

Friday, 1 February 2019

The Art of Photography

I absolutely love taking photographs. I feel a bit naked and slightly panicky if I go somewhere without a camera, in the same way that I feel profoundly uncomfortable if I go out and find I’ve left my notebook behind. (This is why I have unfeasibly big handbags, the kind of thing that would make Lady Bracknell have kittens.) But I can’t, hard as I try, learn how to master the art of photography.

I really have tried. I have asked kind and brilliant friends. The amazing Fay Vincent told me some gloriously clever things. Generous people write long essays on Photography for Beginners on the internet. And yet none of it goes in. 

I can’t even understand the Rule of Thirds. This is possibly the most basic rule of photography. It’s the visual equivalent of the simple declarative sentence. I know the simple declarative sentence like I know how to breathe. I’ve been learning it since I wrote my first novel at the age of fourteen. It is my comrade in arms and my old friend. 

I sometimes say, slightly fancifully, that Churchill won the war with simple declarative sentences. This of course is not quite true. But he did rally a desperate nation with them, and gave battered, bewildered Britons the gift of hope. 

‘We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.’ 

There is nothing more simple or more declarative than that. 

There is not a single word that you have to look up in the dictionary. This is language a child of eight could use with confidence and delight. Yet those lines thump into the heart with the power and accuracy of an arrow shot from an archer’s bow. 

But I can’t get the Rule of Thirds. What third? Where? And how? 

The moment the language of photography gets at all technical, which it does very quickly, my brain becomes befuddled and mildly resentful. It’s like string theory to me. I have a friend who does string theory, and for him, it’s like reading Enid Blyton. It’s so obvious and wonderful and true. He’s a musician as well, and he thinks of physics like music. To him, the universe vibrates with music, as if the vast spaces of the cosmos are playing Mozart sonatas. Imagine that. I hardly can.

So, I’ve decided to stop torturing myself. The language of light and composition is not a language I shall ever speak, just as I shall never speak Mandarin. I shall go on snapping, in my amateurish way, for sheer pleasure. I look and squint and try to find something interesting. I hunt for beauty as a truffle hound hunts for truffles. Sometimes, I find it. Sometimes, I get lucky. There is no skill in my pictures, but there is an awful lot of love. And that gets me far enough. 

But I do take my hat off to those people who do it properly. It is a great art, and a science too. Behind the charming ease of the finished product is years of knowledge and learning and practice. When I see a great photograph now, I don’t take it for granted. I know what it takes to achieve that kind of consistent greatness. I have scratched around the edges, and I see the devotion and the conviction and the hard work that is required. Someone has done something marvellous, and respect is due. 


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