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. 


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