Friday, 27 December 2019

Life Lessons Can Come in the Most Unexpected Ways.

The day after Christmas, I did something wrong. It was also pretty stupid. I do wrong and stupid things all the time, but this one was in public. 

I idiotically waded into a fox row. 

There is a barrister on Twitter whom I follow. He tweeted something about having killed a fox. It sounds almost impossibly thick of me, but I didn’t pay much attention to that. He has always seemed an intelligent and humane man, so I think I assumed he was either exaggerating for shock effect, or had done it to put a wounded animal out of its misery, or was protecting his chickens. It was the responses that drew my attention. They were all very much on the side of the fox. And this triggered something deep inside me.

I know now what I did not know then: it was a core belief. A very kind person sent me a fascinating article about this later in the day. Core beliefs are ideas that are so much a part of you that, when they are challenged, your brain feels it like a physical attack. Your amygdala fires up, and you go into the fight reflex, just as if you were protecting yourself from a marauder with a gun. This is why you sometimes react disproportionately to something which, really, in the wide scheme of things, does not matter that much.

One of my core beliefs, I realise, has always been that foxes are bastards. I had never examined this or challenged this. I grew up in the countryside, and had seen the pitiful corpses of chickens and bantams after a fox had been. Everyone around us had such stories. I knew also of the tiny lambs carried off by what I grew up to see as ruthless predators. 

Another of my core beliefs is fairness. To my childish mind, it was incredibly unfair not only that foxes picked on vulnerable creatures who had absolutely no chance of fighting back, but that they did not - or so I believed - kill to survive, but for pleasure. Why else would they kill every single poor chicken, but take only one? 

This childhood belief was bolstered, as I grew older, by the fatal outrider of confirmation bias. I only paid attention to stories about foxes behaving badly. There! I thought. See! They are the serial killers of the animal world. The shining knights in armour were the beleaguered farmers, desperately trying to protect their flocks and fowl from a wily enemy. The stories we tell ourselves are crazy powerful, and this one had an almost mythical strength in my mind. 

Everywhere I looked, it seemed, there were defenders of the fox, taken in by the fluffy cuteness, whilst nobody seemed to be standing up for the chickens and the lambs. And that was what was I believed was happening on Twitter, as the furious hordes weighed in. 

I’ve been struggling this Christmas. One of my oldest and dearest friends died suddenly not long ago, and I’ve been wrangling with my old companion, grief. There can be a fury in grief, but I told myself I had no anger at the unfairness of a light gone out too soon. I was going to mourn my friend in a straight, honest way. I would look the sadness in the whites of its eyes, and accept my own vulnerability. Of course, it’s never as simple as that. I don’t think I was doing good, straightforward grieving at all. I was pretending that I was managing, when in fact I was drowning, not waving.

And all that hidden, denied anger over the profound unfairness of a wonderful person taken from the world found its release on social media. (There are several levels of stupidity in what I did, but to march into a public row when I was missing a layer of skin was possibly the most foolish. I’m far too sensitive at the best of times, but in sorrow I have absolutely no defences against anything.) 

So I said something asinine about not understanding why everyone was defending the fox when foxes are the Charles Manson of the animal kingdom. What about the chickens? I said. Then, in the middle of what I did not realise was an amygdala hijack, I compounded the error by adding two tweets on my own timeline. I deleted them all once I realised my absurdity, but I think I said something about how I did not understand why people were allowed to dislike any animal except the fox. You can not be fond of cats, I said, but you have to love the adorable fox.

As you can see, pretty much everything I wrote was factually inaccurate. I was also anthropomorphising, a sin I sternly try to avoid in all other circumstances. But my blood was up; my core beliefs had been threatened by the crowd; I was beyond rational thought.

What happened next was horrible at the time, but is really interesting to me now. The mob - and that was what it felt like - turned on me. It felt like they were the foxes, and I was the chicken in the coop. I was 'disgusting' and 'moronic' and 'a revolting hypocrite'. This was partly because of the Charles Manson thing, I think, but also because of the context. It read as if I was cheering on the bloke with the bat. I believed, in my folly, that I was sticking up for the chickens. (You can see from this how clouded my brain was.)

I felt stunned and flayed and frightened. I tried to gather my wounded wits. I remembered that I had seen a truly beautiful thing on Facebook not long ago. A gay man was attacked by a women who made a violently homophobic remark. Instead of scolding her or shaming her, he met her with extreme empathy and kindness. By the end, they were friends, and she was no longer making horrible remarks about homosexuality. The power and grace of that response, and the courage too, stuck with me. 

I could not reply to all the angry strangers, but I did engage with a few. I took the kind gentleman (I wish I could remember his name) as a model. ‘Thank you so much,’ I wrote, pushing myself to be genuine and not passive-aggressive, ‘for pointing that out’ and I went on to find something good in the fury. There were good things, if one bashed through the abuse. There was passion and honesty and directness, so I emphasised those. I admitted my tweet was badly-worded and impulsive, which it was, and I ended up in harmony with a vegan who started off being incredibly angry, and ended up being gentle and courteous. 

Among the rage and the insults, there was good information. Inspired by this, I went and looked up some facts about foxes. One of the good arguments was that they are only following their natural instinct when they kill, and that to give them human intentions of ruthlessness, or murderous glee, or evil cunning was a category error of the worst degree. And that is quite correct. My core belief, which I had never tested, was wrong. I learnt something about the natural world. 

I think I will always feel sorrow and pity when I see a group of decapitated chickens, but I won’t ascribe it to some malicious delight on the part of the predator. Pretty much everything I said yesterday was wrong. It’s quite painful to let go of a profound belief, but it’s liberating too. And I can still believe in fairness, I just don’t have to lay unfairness at the feet of the foxes. Nature, after all, is red in tooth and claw, and that is a reality, not a moral choice.

What I also learnt was to think before I type, most especially in times of vulnerability. I had been trying to protect myself, as I navigated the stormy seas of painful emotion, and instead I laid myself bare. I ruined my own Boxing Day, which is usually one of my favourite days of the year. I managed to feel a wash of joy when the beautiful, bold Clan Des Obeaux won the King George, but the bruised, battered feeling of having been set upon returned almost at once.

I was upset by the venom and the intemperate language, and I was also upset by my own wrongness and folly. The fury that rained down on me, I saw, was because those other people probably had their own core beliefs threatened. I kept thinking - why can’t they just tell me they don’t agree, or they think I am in error, rather than calling me names? I see now that this is the red mist of the amygdala, which goes straight for ad hominem. It is the most ancient part of the brain, and the least under the control of modern humans. It does not deal in ‘Perhaps you might find you are mistaken’. It goes straight for ‘You are a truly bad person and must be destroyed.’ 

I rather wish the people who turned on me in outrage might read this, so they can see that, although their methods were brutal, they did teach me a lesson. They taught me not to go on the offensive or the defensive, but to part the curtains of pain and see whether there is a greater truth. Which, of course, there was. I’d been trading in non-truth, in this particular area, and now I am enlightened. They won’t read it, because they don’t follow me. They are part of the wider Twitter universe, and they will have moved on to the next big story by now. But I’d like them to know that they did me a favour. Another of my core beliefs is of the absolute majesty of good manners. I have discovered that sometimes a bit of rudeness can shock open the hard nut of an entrenched belief. 

I write my mea culpa anyway, even if it will only be read by seven people and a goat, because here is yet another of my core beliefs - you have to embrace your mistakes. You have to lean into them, you have to bash through the humiliation, you have to make amends. 

I also learnt something beautiful, in all my wrongness. I learnt that there is a huge amount of kindness and restraint in the turbulent waters of the social media. There must have been many, many people among my three thousand and something followers who thought, ‘Goodness, she’s got in a frightful muddle on this one.’ Only one of them (one!) was critical, and that criticism was very mild. The others either politely ignored my raddled thinking or could see that I was not quite myself and held their fire. Many, which is astonishing, were gently sympathetic, as if they could tell that I'd got myself into a fix of my own making.

I have not said much publicly about my lost compadre. I do not want to make a parade, and also I have this powerful feeling that it’s not my grief to write about. It belongs first to his family, and there is a matter of privacy and respect. It is, truly, not all about me. I always want to write about everything, because that is how I make sense of the world. It is how I have always mended my broken heart. But this was not my story to tell. (I mention it cautiously here, because I think it’s an important strand in this parable, for about three different reasons. It’s an example of how grief can make you clumsy, and how denied parts of sorrow will find their route out in curious ways, and how just trying to be stoical and British does not always work.) 

I had, however, referred to it in oblique ways, and I think my thoughtful, good-hearted Twitter band must have sensed there was something going on. So they gave me a pass on the moment of fox madness. And that in itself is a truly remarkable thing, and something that touches me very much.

There, it is all out now. I wish I had been able to make it pithy, and funny, and wry. But it wasn’t really any of those things. It prompted a new perspective, and a great wash of tears which I had been bottling up inside, and a rueful, relieved acknowledgement of my own flawed humanity. So perhaps Boxing Day was not ruined after all. One learns good life lessons in the most unexpected ways. 

Wednesday, 30 October 2019

The Russian.

A Russian philologist wants to be my friend. 

I stare at the request on Facebook. The first thing I think is: mafia. Isn’t that terrible? I don’t think War and Peace, or The Cherry Orchard, or Torrents of Spring. I don’t think of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto, or of the 1812 Overture, or of anything by Rimsky-Korsakov. (I don’t actually know any music by Rimsky-Korsakov, but it’s the most brilliant name in all of classical music and I just love typing it.) 

I am appalled. I have accidentally become a Russian bigot. And after everything I tell myself about not making assumptions. There is lovely Eugene the philologist, and I at once think that he must have done something extremely dodgy in oil and gas. It would be like him looking at me and thinking that because I am British I must be a football hooligan and drink tea all day and hang upon every word of Nigel Farage. Only worse.

I’m making a bit of a joke to cover up how appalled I really am at my own thought processes. 

And here is the even more terrible thing - Eugene looks incredibly nice. He is young and smiling, with an open, friendly face. There are pictures of him with an extremely pretty and equally smiley young woman. (Just the kind of thing, says my subconscious, which is still on the dodgy oil and gas kick, that a mafioso would put up, to throw people off the trail. The real Eugene is probably about sixty and lives with his mother.)

I want to say - ‘when did we all get so suspicious?’ - but it’s not we, it’s me. I can’t shuffle this off onto the universal we. This is my own shocker. And it’s not only suspicion of strangers, it is a peculiar and particular national stereotyping. I don’t look at all French people and think: garlic, Sartre, cinq à sept. I don’t think that they are all intellectual snobs who practise infidelity like the old time religion and smoke forty Gitanes a day. I don’t look at the Italians and think ‘mafia’, even though they invented the mafia. 

What the hell is going on?

I suppose it may be the wicked work of the availability heuristic. I love the availability heuristic and speak of it often. (You can see what fun I am at parties.) I don’t love it for what it does, which is bad, but for how it sounds on the ear, which is good. 

The availability heuristic makes you believe what you last heard and what you most heard. That’s why if you do hang upon the words of Nigel Farage and his cohort you probably believe that all the problems in dear old Blighty are due to Johnny Foreigner coming over here and taking our jobs and stealing our women, and that the moment we get rid of those pesky Eurocrats we benighted Britons shall be free. I watch a lot of news and I’m very interested in American politics, so I see a lot of Putin. I see him with his glassy face-lift and his dead, assassin’s eyes and I think of his days in the FSB and I know perfectly well that there is something rotten in the state of Denmark. I think of all his cronies and how they got their money and I don't think it was by working hard and going to bed early.

And I know someone who knows someone who was married to one of the oligarchs, and I know that this someone had to take six bodyguards and four black Range Rovers every time she wanted to go to the shop for a pint of milk. 

The last time I was in London, there were new Russians everywhere and there was something about the way they spent their money which made me uneasy. (It was very weird. They were all young men in extremely sharp and slightly too shiny suits, and they lounged about, smoking cigarettes and casting sidelong glances at the women who passed by, and they gazed at their spanking new Ferraris and Porsches with lascivious eyes. I was brought up to dislike overt adoration of money, and they made me very, very uncomfortable.)

So those are my availability hubristics, and they are all bad. The days when I used to go to see Uncle Vanya at the Donmar and Ivanov at the Almeida are far behind me. In those days, I thought all Russians had poetry in their soul. I thought they were the most romantic and the toughest people on earth. They could sing ancient folk songs with tears in their eyes but they could still survive Stalingrad and the war and the long years of Soviet oppression. I remember a friend of mine coming back from a train trip to Russia in the late eighties and saying that every time he got off the train he would be approached by enterprising, youthful Russians, beaming at him and saying, ‘Hello, young Western peoples. You sell shoes?’

They survived the queues for bread and the no shoes and the daily terrors of dictatorship. They somehow kept their spirit when they were surrounded by drabness. And they still had poetry in their soul. What people could do that?

And now, because of Putin and the thugocracy, the first thing I think is mafia. That’s my own cheap laziness, but it’s also their fault, those thugs that run Russia now and who are always in the news. And maybe it’s a little bit the fault of the news itself. They don’t tell us the good stuff any more, if they ever did. The newshounds are too interested by the strange president with his unreadable face and the billionaires who own half of Mayfair and the shady men with the polonium near Salisbury cathedral. And who can blame them? Those are incredible stories. But they are not the only story.

This is the second time this week that I have had to talk myself down from the window ledge of false assumptions. Being back on the blog is very good for my self-awareness. (Although it’s slightly tiring, finding out that my flawed self is so very flawed.)

I feel better, so I decide I shall be friends with Eugene and stop jumping to such horrid, unfair conclusions about someone I have never met. I think: I’ll just look up Cherkasy University, where he studies. Just to see. 

Cherkasy University looks enchanting. The students appear to do wonderful things with folk architecture, and flora and fauna, and differential equations. Everything looks very sunny. 

I’ll just see where it is, I say to myself, imagining it to be in some glorious, wild part of the Urals. 

It’s in Ukraine. 

Eugene is not a Russian at all. He’s a plucky Ukrainian, who almost certainly would like the Crimea back. He’s not a front for the old and gas hoods, or a mafia bot who wants to be friends with me because he wants to steal the election. He is a saintly freedom fighter standing up for his beloved homeland. 

I look at what I have just written. 

I’ve never met a Ukrainian in my life, but, in my mind, it appears, they are all plucky. And patriotic. And ready to fight for liberty. I’m sure that if I dug a little further, I’d probably find I believed they all played the balalaika and were cheerful in the face of adversity.

And there I was, all this time, thinking I was a lovely small-L liberal, with my open mind and my ability to see both sides of the argument and my refusal to give in to stereotypes. 

This not making assumptions business is going to be harder than I thought. 

PS. I suddenly realise that just because you go to university in the Ukraine, it does not mean you are Ukrainian. It's perfectly possible that Eugene comes from Vladivostok. In the end, it doesn't matter, because he's taught me a most valuable lesson. 

Tuesday, 29 October 2019

An Unexpected Poet and a Meeting in the Woods.

I call, merrily, ‘Goodbye, Gilly. Lovely to see you.’
I wasn’t at all merry an hour earlier. I woke up, as I sometimes do, with a sense of pressure and portent. I usually put into action a potent combination of hippy dippy and spit-spot to deal with this waking doom. Some days it is easier than others.

I’m wrestling with a big piece of work, which is in danger of winning the fight. I have lost all faith in my elected representatives. The Brexit omnishambles makes me want to chew my own arm off. And I made the mistake of watching some American political programmes last night, and came face to face with the latest Trumpish incarnation. (I often think of the brilliant and extremely naughty Evelyn Waugh line about James Joyce and Ulysses. ‘You can hear him going mad, sentence by sentence.’ Mr Trump makes Joyce look like an amateur in the bonkerness stakes.) 

Oh, and I’m in the middle of the dear old menopause, so there are hormonal storms which blow up out of nowhere. 

Which is why, this morning, I had to bring all my Mary Poppins and all my Blitz spirit and all my All You Need Is Love to bear. I had to hunt for the silver linings like a truffle hound. I had to go out and forage for the good stuff. 

This blog is called The Small Things for a reason. It is in the small things that I find my daily salvation. And today I found my first consoling small thing on Twitter, of all places.

Someone had retweeted a poem by a man called Nick Asbury. It was so good that I didn’t have any words for it, and I live by words. All the usual superlatives I use - brilliant, dazzling, stunning - somehow felt gaudy and gimcrack. 

I went and investigated this Mr Asbury. It turns out that he has written daily poems about the news, and Brexit, and the current political madness. That sounds rather mundane and demoralising, but he’s somehow turned base metal into gold. 

I can’t even begin to express how human, funny, melancholy and lyrical the poems are. He’s taken some of the things that make me feel slightly sick every day, and turned them into the stuff of dreams. I know a bit about writing, but I have no idea how he does that.

And, as if the universe was giving me an extra present, it turns out that there is also a Sue Asbury, who makes ravishing pictures which match the poems in spirit and soul. So there is prose beauty and visual beauty.

I don’t understand, I thought, how I have lived in the world and not known about the Asburys.

The sense of doom lifted. There is goodness and fineness out there, if only one digs a little. And I went out into the woods with a little lift of hope in my heart. The dogs ran about in their usual giddy way, filled with the hilarity of living, and the sun was shining and the air was clear and the colours were gleaming and beaming. I made some videos for the writing group I run. ‘Get momentum into your sentences,’ I said. ‘Give them somewhere to go. Let them dance.’

I thought about my own sentences. I thought of letting them run across the open plains like Mongolian ponies. (My current favourite writing metaphor.)

It’s all right, I thought. I shall make it through this day. It won’t be a masterpiece, but it is saved. The Asburys saved it, and the Scottish sunshine saved it, and the woods saved it, and the lurchers saved it; all the small things saved it.

And that was when we saw Gilly. I was absurdly pleased. Gilly is a very big, extremely handsome and comically friendly dog. We see him often in the woods, and he likes to play with my boys whilst I have a chat with his human. This morning, he was not with his usual person and the smiling woman walking him looked slightly surprised when he bounded up to me and I greeted him with cries of joy. I explained how we usually see him with his other human. Her face cleared, as if reassured that I was not a complete freak. 

And we talked for a moment, about our dogs, about how funny and sweet Gilly is, about the bright autumn weather and how lucky we are to have it. The smallest of small things. We did not speak of the meaning of life or the secrets of the universe. It was a tiny, ordinary interaction, a matter of quick minutes. But it meant something. It was a little fillip, a reminder that not everyone is shouting and arguing and accusing each other of treachery. Some people are walking their dogs and being polite to strangers in hats. 

And that was why, when I waved in farewell and called out, ‘Goodbye, Gilly,’ I said the words merrily. You can’t just expect loveliness to be there, waiting for you each day, when you wake from troubled dreams. You have to go out and find it. 

Monday, 28 October 2019

In Which The Asda Man Teaches me a Life Lesson

One of the things I really enjoy in life is thinking that I am a pretty decent person. I can’t tell you how much pleasure it gives me. I sit about and say to myself, ‘You know, you really are quite decent.’ I would be incredibly happy if, after I died, someone said, ‘She was pretty decent and she tried her best.’ I’d also like it if they mentioned the hats. I’m very proud of my hats.

And here is one of the things that pretty decent people don’t do: they don’t make assumptions. My dad taught me that, not by word but by example. He took people exactly as they came. If they made him laugh, he loved them. If they didn’t, he didn’t. (He didn’t hate them. I don’t think he was capable of hate. But he could not love the bores.)

This morning, I realised that I make assumptions all the time. 

I’d just got back from the farrier when the Asda man arrived. He is one of the very nicest of all the Asda drivers and I was pleased to see him. The sun was shining and we smiled madly at each other and talked about the autumn colours. Darwin the Dog and Stan the Man, equally delighted to see this beaming human, came out to say hello. 

There was something about the way the Asda Man spoke to them and handled them that struck me. 

‘You really know dogs,’ I said.

‘Oh, yes,’ he said, smiling more broadly than ever. ‘I used to work dogs.’

Working dogs well is one of the skills I admire the most in the world. I am slightly in awe of people who can work dogs. So I shot my eyebrows up into my hat (today, a rather fetching Scottish bonnet sort of article) and asked him more.

It turns out he used to work attack dogs for the Ministry of Defence.

Attack dogs! For the MoD! That is so hard core that I practically fell over. 

I wish I’d had time to ask him more, but all the groceries were unloaded by this stage and he had to go to his next delivery. 

We beamed at each other some more. 

‘I’m always pleased to see my regular customers,’ he said, and I felt the human warmth coming out of him like sunshine on a dark day and I wondered how many people he touched, every single day, with his kindness and his friendliness. 

But here is the assumption part. I was profoundly surprised by his revelation. I realised that I didn’t expect someone who drives a delivery truck to have been a hot-shot attack dog supremo. Which means that I must have a whole subliminal box-set of expectations about the kind of people who deliver goods. 

I sternly asked myself: what are those assumptions? Well, I suppose it’s a comparison thing. It’s not performing brain surgery or doing physics. It’s not one of the headline-act pursuits, like training the winner of the Gold Cup or playing Hamlet at the National Theatre. 

Now I stop to think of it, I realise that it must require a fairly demanding set of skills. You’ve got to be able to deal with difficult people, and be prepared for emergencies, and keep calm and carry on. I imagine it requires an ability to improvise. You’ve got to work those funny little hand-held computers and not panic when the machine says no. If you are really good at it, like your man today, you will make it more than just a job, and sprinkle a little happiness wherever you go. 

And I had just put it down as one of those ordinary, everyday jobs that I don’t stop and think about for a single second. 

There was nothing ordinary or everyday about that gentleman. He was rather an extraordinary human being, and he’d clearly led an out of the ordinary life. 

And he taught me a lovely lesson. From now on, I’m going to treat everyone as if they were a professor of neurobiology or someone who knows every last thing about trees. There is no such thing as the ordinary or the everyday. Everyone has surprising talents and remarkable character traits and unexpected back-stories. And everyone is more than the daily work they do. 

I think that I knew that in my head, but did not quite feel it in my heart. My subconscious was stuffing complex human beings into neat, reductive boxes. That is not what my father taught me. I know better now. 

Sunday, 20 October 2019

Farewell to Wicklow Brave. Or Thoughts on Life, Death and Horses.

Last night, on an American racecourse, a bold and beautiful Irish horse died. 

Wicklow Brave was well named. He was brave. He was also supremely idiosyncratic and wonderfully characterful. He had a mind of his own, and no human appeared to be able to make it up for him. And when he flew, he flew. 

In what nobody knew would be his final race, he was in the lead, looking as if he would surely win, when he fell at the last. It was one of those nasty, awkward falls, when you just know something is wrong. 

Racing Twitter, who had stayed up late, started sending out messages of distress. Because everybody loves Wicklow Brave. He’s won on the flat, he’s won his bumpers, he’s won over hurdles, he’s won over jumps. Very, very few horses win at the festival and win a St Leger, but Wicklow Brave did. He’s one of those standing dishes who seems to have been around forever, and many, many people have taken him to their hearts.

It took an hour before the news came through. He had broken his shoulder and had to be put down.

I’ve never met Wicklow Brave in my life, but I cried for him as if he were my own. Across the ether, many others were doing the same. He really was adored, and the good and generous tributes came galloping in.

And then there were the batsqueaks of objection, of criticism, the first stirrings of fury. ‘I hate the jumps’. ‘This is why I can’t watch racing’.

I understand this well. When something so heartbreaking happens, I always think I can never watch again. It sounds mad to those who don’t follow racing, but these horses feel like friends. You fear for them, hope for them, cheer for them and cry for them. The loss of someone like Wicklow Brave makes me wonder whether the angry voices are right.

And that’s when I have to take a deep breath, leave emotion behind, eschew magical thinking, and come back to reality. Statistics are complicated things, but here’s something I read - in one study, horse owners reported that 63% of injuries happened in the field at home. Here’s another: two horses die every week on the roads. So my sweet ex-racing mares, dreaming in their Scottish fields, their speedy days only a distant memory, are still at risk of death or catastrophe, much like their cousins on the racecourse. 

Here are the other things I worry about, every day - a sudden colic, an inexplicable grass sickness, a false step when we are cantering down the valley, a foot in a rabbit hole. Nobody sees that on the telly, and nobody will say they hate seeing horses being kept by a middle-aged woman in a squashed hat and ask for it to be banned. This is, I think, because humans are emotional creatures, prone to category errors, and desperately bad at calculating and understanding risk. (This is why so many people, including me, are afraid of flying, despite the poor rationalists repeating the numbers, over and over. I read once that you are more likely to die by donkey than aircraft. How the donkey would kill you was not explained.)

I have to think of all this and try to sort it out in my head because I love thoroughbreds and I love the people who love thoroughbreds. Racehorses were my entire young life. They were my north and south, my east and west. My father, who rode and then trained jumpers, was not a monster who ran his horses to death for money. Nor were the funny, kind, eccentric, generous people who came to our house in the Lambourn valley. They loved their horses and cherished their horses and admired their horses and wept for their horses. I saw my father inconsolable when he lost a great fighter. But I also saw the stoical, determined resolution the next day, when first lot had to go out and life had to go on. There was a sort of earthed, countryman understanding of life and death. Dad, and the men and women he worked with, paid tribute, marked the loss, felt the grief, and knew they had to keep going for all the other horses who relied on them.

I think too, at times like this, of horses in the wild. They have a flinty ruthlessness that comes from fifty million years of evolutionary biology. They will leave the old, the halt, the lame, and move on. That is how horses survived over the millennia. In some ways, I think they understand mortality better than we humans do. 

And yet, for all that flintiness, I have watched my own red mare grieve for a fallen companion. This sounds like the worst kind of anthropomorphism, but grieving is the only word I can give it. She stood guard at the place where her friend died for four days, lifting her head, watching intently, whinnying. And on the fifth day, as if she understood and accepted the loss, she moved away and put her head down again to graze. Loss is loss; respect is due; and life went on.

So, what do you do, if you love horses and you love racing and you find yourself sitting on a Saturday night, writing stuttering words about the death of a horse? Do you turn your head away in disgust and resort to words of fury? Do you condemn the whole game? Do you rage and blame?

Or do you choose to cling to the positive? 

Wicklow Brave is gone. Depending on your belief system, he has returned to a peaceful nothingness, to that place he was in before he was born, or he is running free over celestial plains. I mourn him and salute him and think of all the people who loved him and looked after him every day, the ones who will miss him most. I think of how funny he was, and how brilliant, and how not quite like other horses. I think of how well remembered he will be, and how well his loss is being marked. 

Does that matter? Well, if you go to see Oliver Sherwood, he’ll take you up on the gallops and show you the tree that they planted for Many Clouds. The whole string rides past it most mornings, and the riders smile and remember. And I think that does matter. 

I will go on watching. I grew up in this game and it’s too far in my blood ever to get it out. Every time I turn on the racing, I have my father with me. I will go on watching and I will remind myself that British racing is the best-regulated in the world and that the horses get the finest care. I’ll think of all the people I know in racing and how much they love their charges and I’ll think of all the happy yards I’ve lived in and visited, where you can feel the contentment in the air. I’ll try to stay on the rational side of the street: all horses can have accidents and die, it’s just that with racing you see it on the television. It happens to famous, beloved horses in front of a crowd. That’s the difference. 

I think of what is most important, which is the living. I write about living horses every single day. I sometimes write about the household names, but mostly I tell simple stories of my red mare and her little bay friend. I do this for love, and sometimes for self-indulgence, but also because I’m always trying to learn more, to move forward, to be a better human for those enchanting thoroughbreds, to understand more of their horsey minds, to venture across the species barrier. I find that writing it down helps to keep me up to the mark. And I like to dispel the disobliging myths about thoroughbreds in general and ex-racehorses in particular, so that more people will realise what wonderful, kind, versatile creatures these animals are. 

I think, at the last, of all the times I’ve watched Willie Mullins horses go round the pre-parade ring at Cheltenham. The atmosphere at the festival is so thick you could cut it with a carving knife, and even the most experienced horses can get a little rattled by the noise and the energy. But, almost without exception, the Mullins horses mosey on round with their heads low and their ears soft and their necks relaxed, as if they were going for a nice walk at home. That’s a true testament to a happy yard and a whole lot of devoted humans. I know, from everything I’ve seen and heard of Wicklow Brave, that he had a great life. And that, I think, in the end, is what is important. I choose to remember the life. 

Sunday, 6 October 2019


Out in the world, far away from the Brexit shouting and the political shenanigans, there is a horse called Enable. Today, she is going to go out onto the smooth green turf of Longchamp to try and make history. Few horses have won the Arc De Triomphe twice. No horse has won it three times. Enable is going to give it a shot.

What can this possibly matter? It’s only a horse; it’s only a race. But there is something about this horse and this race. There is something about this mare and this team and this jockey. There is something about this moment. ‘She is Enable,’ says Imran, who looks after the great thoroughbred and rides her every day. He smiles, as if there is nothing left to add.

What is it about Enable? Well, to start with the obvious, there is the beauty. She does not have a delicate, show pony prettiness. She has the grand, blooming beauty of a powerful athlete. She is all muscle and sinew: she is absurdly strong in the shoulder and magnificently deep in the girth. When Frankie Dettori asks her to go, she lowers herself and lengthens her stride as if she is defying the laws of physics. She pins her long, elegant ears back to her head in the classic pose of the boss mare, almost shouldering lesser creatures out of the way. The moment she passes the post, she pricks those ears and lifts her head, ready for her close-up.

There is also the brilliance. Most talented horses, even the great champions, have an off day. There are those mysterious times when they simply do not run their race. Nobody really knows why. Enable always runs her race. She always pitches up, swinging. She’s won her last fourteen contests, including a clutch of Group Ones. And she hasn’t done it the easy way. She’s travelled the world; she’s done it on different ground, on different courses, over different distances. Last year, she went to the glorious jamboree that is the Breeders’ Cup, and, in a land that practically invented razzmatazz, she dazzled the Americans. ‘They treated her like a film star,’ says Frankie, and she did not disappoint.

Then there is the courage. Enable has not always floated to victory. She has scrapped for it too. Last year, she won the Arc by a whisker when she was only 85% fit. This year, she threw herself into the heat of battle with Crystal Ocean, officially the best horse in the world at the time, and almost cowed the colt out of it. I think she broke his heart that day, through sheer guts and an inexorable will to win. She’s got raw bravery to go with her brilliance.

She has a dazzling array of enchanting qualities, the sort of things you would look for in a human. She is eternally enthusiastic, relishing her work, banging at her box to get out in the morning. John Gosden says that she always wants to go with the first lot, ‘so you don’t make her wait for second lot’. She has a bright aspect and an intelligence you can see at the races, as she comes into the paddock with her head held high, surveying the crowd as if she knows they are there for her. ‘Look on my works, ye mighty,’ she says. ‘Hello, mere mortals.’ Some horses, even the great ones, don’t care for the hullabaloo; they are flight animals after all. But there are some, and Enable is one of these, who seem to soak it up, to feed off the energy, to understand, somewhere in their horsey heads, that these teeming humans come in peace. And, rather amazingly, for a steely, finely-tuned athlete, she is a very nice person. ‘She’s so friendly,’ says Imran, beaming.

In racing terms, she is the ultimate. She has dazzling tactical speed, which means Frankie can put her anywhere he wants in the race. She is incredibly genuine, so when she asks her a question, her answer is always yes. She is unusually versatile - she can sit off the pace and wait to pounce; she can grab a race by the scruff of its neck and make everyone else play catch-up; she can settle quietly in mid-field and steal through the gaps. Even if she gets caught out wide and has to go round the houses, she’ll still fire her booster rockets and soar to triumph. 

In Dettori, she has the perfect partner. He respects her so much that he wins top races with, as John Gosden says, ‘hands and heels and one flick of the whip.’ He visits her in the mornings, just for a little chat and a Polo. The last time Enable and Frankie were together in public, this professional sportsman - one of the greatest jockeys ever seen, with a racing brain second to none - burst into tears on national television. Usually, Frankie never stops talking, but on that day, he could hardly get a word out. And when he does have the words, the one he uses most often is love. 

Perhaps that is why today is so special. It is about love, not money. Everyone involved with this mare has plenty of money already. The punters are not going to make their fortunes, because she will go off at long odds-on. There are no franchises, rubbing their hands - there won’t be Enable t-shirts or Enable theme parks. She’ll go quietly off to stud after this and have her brilliant babies and those of us who watched her and cheered her on will be left only with memories. 

I think the crowds love her because she always turns up for them. She never lets them down. She is all authenticity, in a world of fake news and fake outrage and fake politics. She would not know a shoddy thought or a mean emotion if she saw one. She gleams above us humans, in those mysterious plains across the species barrier, like something pure and true. In a time when gracelessness seems a public currency, she is all grace.

It doesn’t matter whether she wins today. The weight of history is against her. The rain has come to Paris, and very soft ground might blunt some of that invincible speed. It’s the Arc, where anything can happen in the hurly-burly. Fifteen wins on the trot might just be one too many to hope for. 

If she can do it, she will go into the pantheon of the immortals, and I shall shout and cheer and cry. Like Frankie, I love her. But all that matters is that she comes home safely and goes to Prince Khalid’s pristine paddocks and has her fine foals. 

Whatever happens, she has left an indelible mark on those who have been lucky enough to see her in action. She is truly a horse of the heart, and she owes no debt. She has given of herself, generously, freely, and she is a champion for the ages. 

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.


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