Tuesday 10 March 2020

Cheltenham. Gratitude Redux.

At the beginning of 2020, I resolved to write every day about gratitude. I would keep a gratitude journal, counting all my blessings, one by lovely one. It relapsed, as these things often do. But today, as the Cheltenham Festival gets into its great, raking stride, the gratitude is shooting into the stratosphere.

How can I count the ways?

I’m grateful that someone - I should know who, and I think he might have been some kind of reverend gent - looked at the glorious natural bowl that is Prestbury Park and thought, ‘I know. We’ll set the best thoroughbreds in the land running round there.’

I’m grateful that there are brave, tough, humorous, talented men and women who ride those thoroughbreds with skill and grace. 

I’m grateful that there are women and men who train those horses, who are up at dawn and worrying until after midnight about legs and backs, about distances and ground, about minds and hearts. I’m in awe of how they take victory with humility and defeat with stoicism. They live with hope and disappointment, and most of them treat those two imposters the same. 

I’m grateful that there are hundreds of thousands of people who will go to the races and shout their equine heroes and heroines home. I love the Cheltenham crowd, because they know what they are about. They aren’t just there for the beer. They’ll often give a horse who finishes second or third the most rousing reception of the day, because they recognise courage and they love a trier. They adore plucky underdogs and they know what it takes to get up that hill. 

I’m grateful for Twitter on days like this. I can’t make the five hundred mile journey south, so I sit in my room in Scotland, watching on the box. But I’m not alone. I’ve got my online racing crew, and we make bad jokes and compare hats and soothe each others nerves and share the love. 

I’m grateful for the extraordinary Cheltenham ground crew, who have spent the last few months fretting over every blade of grass, every birch twig, every drop of rain that falls. When I switch on and see that magical sward of emerald turf, I know who I have to thank.

I’m grateful for the women and men behind the scenes, the ones who look after these grand horses every day of their lives. I know their life; I grew up with it. I know the dedication, the adoration, the sheer, relentless work. I know the long hours and the impossible dreams and the lack of sleep. When you see them out on the course, screaming and hollering and jumping up and down, they are not doing it for money or fame. It’s because those are their friends out their, their boon companions, their beloved compadres. 

And most of all, I am absurdly grateful that the thoroughbred exists in the world. It was invented out of whole cloth, from the Arabs and Barbs and Turks, whose speed and majesty and power was crossed, over three hundred years ago, with the strength and kindness and sturdiness of native Irish and English mares. Whoever came up with that idea was a genius. The stories are legion, and often improbable. The Byerley Turk, the big Daddy of them all, fought in the Battle of the Boyne. The Battle of the Boyne! (He shows up in the pedigrees of both my mares, and every time I see his name, I get a little thrill.)

The horses you will see out there this week are not just athletic machines, dourly programmed to win. They have their quirks and idiosyncrasies. They are packed with character and charm. I swear that some of them even have a sense of humour. They have many of the virtues you would look for in a human: they are gutsy and genuine, honest and strong, authentic and kind. They are also crazy beautiful, so that this festival is an aesthetic feast, on top of everything else. 

As I rode back from the shop on my red mare, where we had been to collect my Racing Post, I thought that today might be a day for the girls. Few things in life make my heart dance like a really brilliant, tough mare, and there are a some of those running today. I’m hoping that the dazzling, elegant Epatante and the powerful, absurdly talented Benie Des Dieux might make it a Ladies’ Day to remember.

And now, we are off.

Tuesday 14 January 2020

Gratitude: Day Fourteen.

The gales blew all day and Scotland looked dour and cross. So today I am extremely grateful that the electricity is still on and that a tree did not fall on my head.

Monday 13 January 2020

Today, I am grateful that I have excellent gumboots.

I’m especially grateful that my excellent gumboots do not have a hole in them.

I’m grateful that I’ve got a hat that keeps off the weather.

I’m grateful that when my friend and my landlord ring me up to tell me that the horses are out, they sound amused, rather than cross. (Landlords do not always want thoroughbreds galloping about over their nice, neat grass.)

I’m grateful that I only had to halter the red mare, and the other two followed happily on their own, as if they were off to a party. I looked at the red mare as we walked home. She had that look on her face that means she can handle anything. I adore that look. It means we are in it together and we’ll set everything to rights and we are a supertop old lady team.

I’m grateful that when I decided that, tough as these horses are, rugs were called for, the herd gathered themselves in a nice circle and stood like saints whilst I wrangled with the straps. Everything was flapping about like mad, because of the gales, but you would have thought that each mare had a devoted handler at her head. One of the things I’ve always loved about the horsemanship I practise is that you can put the rugs on in a thunderstorm without having to tie anyone up. The Standing Still Olympics come into their own.

And I’m grateful that I could stump home, windswept and damp, to find a warm house with the roof still on. I’m appreciating every inch of that as I type this. I’m just hoping that the power lines don’t come down. But I’ve got blankets and candles and two dear lurchers to keep me warm.

Saturday 11 January 2020

Gratitude: Day Eleven.

My gratitudes are very simple today. 

There are two of them.

First, the red mare gave her young friend Cara the most gentle, gracious, tender ride this morning.

‘That,’ said Cara, turning a beaming face to me, ‘was my first trot out in the open all on my own.’

Cara is eleven. She hasn’t ridden for that long. She has a beautiful natural seat and a matchless spirit, but she lacks experience. I’m responsible for her and so I err on the side of caution. 

She mostly rides my little bay mare, and when we go out, I keep her on a leading rope. These mares are the kindest horses in the world, and they are rigorously trained, but they are still thoroughbreds. They have an enormous amount of power and speed. I don’t let just anyone loose on them, because it would be like putting a seventeen-year-old driver in charge of an Aston Martin.

Cara asked to ride the red mare this morning because she thought the little bay mare needed a rest. I applied my caution rules, because these two are not regular partners, and also because the red mare is a whole hand taller. It’s a much longer way to fall.

But the red mare does something enchanting when a child is on her back. She carries them with as much care and protectiveness as if they were her own young. She often looks as if she is carrying a tea tray loaded with priceless Spode china. It’s something I’ve never seen in any other horse. And she was so happy and relaxed, and her young rider was so bright and confident, so I gave Cara the rope and let her go along on her own. 

And then we chanced a trot. My dear old duchess, who had clearly been up all night practising with the dressage squirrels, gave the most delicate, smooth, poised sitting trot I’ve ever seen. Above me, her youthful rider looked down in triumph. Her first trot, out in the open spaces, all on her own.

‘You just rode a sixteen hand ex-racehorse in a perfect trot,’ I said. ‘You should feel proud.’ 

Later in the day, I went down to check on the horses. I ran my hands up and down the red mare’s mane and scratched her in her sweet spots and laid my palm on her forehead. 

She breathed into me. 

‘Thank you,’ I said, ‘for taking such care of that dear girl.’

And the second gratitude was that Bryony Frost and Frodon won the big race of the afternoon, jumping and galloping with all their customary zest and boldness. The pleasure I got from that was all love. I had no money on them, only my heart. I love them because they love each other, because they are both enthusiasts, and because they have the same glorious, bright, fighting spirit.

So, it was thoroughbreds that made my day, as they so often do.

Friday 10 January 2020

Gratitude: Day Ten.

This experiment is revealing some fascinating things, even just ten days in. 

There have been moments when I have resisted gratitude, which feels bizarrely weird. Surely it should be a joyful and straightforward process? What could be lovelier than paying thanks for all the good fortune in one human life? Apparently, the complicated psyche does not always think so. 

There have been days when I’ve found it hard to choose. 

There have been times when I have felt entirely bogus.

There have been fears of being obvious or boring or wrong.

All the contradictions and subterranean elements of the mind are, apparently, coming out to play.

But today the gratitude is utterly simple. It’s for friendship. It’s for the old, old friends with whom you can be your absolute and utter self. It’s for that moment when you can pick up the telephone and a beloved voice is there and even though you haven’t spoken for a while, you pick up right where you left off. You can stand in a Scottish field in the gloaming, with the receiver pressed against your ear and you can laugh and you can cry and you can question and you can affirm. My goodness, what a rare privilege that is. What balm for the singed spirits, what restoration for the soul, what a lift to the heart. 

The funny thing is that after this incredible, intense, beautiful conversation with someone I have known and loved for over thirty years, someone with whom I have shared history, someone who knows all my secrets and my quirks and my moments of flakiness and who has told me all hers in return, a much newer friend rang up.

We have only shared intimate thoughts and feelings for the last two years or so. You might think that nothing can replicate those old, profound relationships, and yet there is a kind of soul sister connection that does not seem to rely on time.

It’s a completely different thing, and yet it has all the same pleasures. It’s all about being known and accepted and admired, and knowing and accepting and admiring right back. It’s galloping about over twelve different subjects and shooting off on tangents and then coming back at the end and laughing over the ground we have covered.

So I got it all, today. It’s love, really, in every single one of its many guises. It’s a great, big, fat outpouring of love. And I think every human being needs that. So I am more grateful than I say, as the first full moon of the year rises over the land.

PS. The photograph is not a good photograph. I took it yesterday. The red mare and I were riding and the gloaming was coming in and there was not much light. Everything is slightly blurred, and you can’t quite see the full glory of that moon. But it shone down on me and my thoroughbred and it made me feel as if there was some kind of sign or hope or blessing. That moon is how I feel now, so I don’t mind that nobody is going to be writing home about my photography skills. I think you get the feeling from the blurry picture, and that’s all that matters. 

Thursday 9 January 2020

Gratitude: Day Nine.

Today, I was grateful for the Scottish sunshine. The gales of yesterday blew themselves away, and, after some early cloud, the sun came out and shone down on the land, lighting it with a kind of gentle beam. Look here, it seemed to be saying; look at what I can make the colours do.

Scottish light is not like any other light. It’s part of the reason I moved here. I fell in love with the light. I used to go to Italy a lot when I was younger, and it reminded me of old Italian light. It felt ancient and venerable, and cinematic at the same time. After twenty-one years, that light still astonishes me.

I had a lovely meeting with the people I work with. I do about five jobs, and this is one of them, and it gives me a sense of meaning and a sense of belonging. And then, in the afternoon, the tiniest great-niece, who is only six, appeared with the posse to do the horses, and she ran about shrieking and laughing and smiling her head off. We normally have incredibly strict rules at the field about doing everything slowly and carefully, with no sudden movements. The horses had come galloping out of the woods when we called them, so they were a bit hopped up on adrenaline. Normally, I would make everyone lower their energy and beam out calmness to bring the mares down, but I soon saw this was absolutely useless with the tiny person. She was like a little firecracker, and there was no taming her. 

And then I looked at the mares, and I saw them all regarding her with the kind of adoring, indulgent looks that old aunts give their favourite nieces, and I knew that it didn’t matter. They stepped carefully round her and did not mind the kinetic energy at all. ‘Let her be,’ they seemed to say. ‘She can shoot off in ten different directions at once and spread joy wherever she goes.’

And that was what she did. The moon blazed down on us as the gloaming fell, and the older children laughed and smiled, as if they could remember what they were like when they were that age. 

The grand finale of gratitude was when my English tutee arrived to brush up on her Prufrock. She’s got her mock exams coming up and I was getting her ready for them. I felt a huge weight of responsibility to her, to send her into these dreaded exams with a sense of self and a swing of confidence. She’s much cleverer than she thinks she is, but I’m always trying to get her to believe in herself more, to get rid of the blocks that stop her keen instincts and her interesting mind expressing themselves to their full degree.

So I think I had a slight sense of doom; that we weren’t quite ready; that I couldn’t help her enough. But she was dazzling. Her insights were startling and her spirits were high and her choices were all utterly brilliant. ‘You are ready,’ I said to her, in delight. ‘You’ve managed to get to the heart of one of the most complex poems in the English language, one which professors and scholars are still arguing over. You’ve absolutely nailed it.’

She doesn’t like compliments much. I’ve noticed that quite a few of my young people have trouble with praise. But she looked right at me and she gave a little smile and she nodded her head, as if she finally believed me. I see now why teachers regard their jobs not as a career, but as a vocation. I’m not sure I ever felt such a pure sense of achievement in my life. I think she’s going to amaze herself in those exams. And to feel I had a small part in that makes me happier than I can say.

Wednesday 8 January 2020

Gratitude: Day Eight.

All right, I give up. When I started this Gratitude Project, I was determined that it would not all be about horses. Even though it’s a private experiment, I knew that some people out there in the world would read it, and I knew that many, many of those people would not be horse people. I would write about life and the universe and everything. It would not all be clip-clop and trot on.

I would not, not, not be a horse bore. After all, my red mare has her own Facebook page, with her own self-selecting band of fans, and I can get all my love and passion out there, in a safe space.

And then I realised that pretty much every bit of my gratitude so far has been to do with thoroughbreds, or my quiet Scottish field, or the sweet young girls who come there every afternoon. It’s to do with Clova the Connemara finally doing a grand, expressive, relaxed walk on a loose rein, and leaving her anxiety behind. It’s to do with watching the little bay mare with her small friend Cara, and seeing the great tidal currents of love that run between them. It’s going down to the field like I did today and finding three beautiful, bright faces looked at me, with their ears pricked and their eyes gleaming with expectation, and the red mare letting out a low, rumbling whicker of welcome. (Oh, my beating heart.) 

It’s to do with horses I don’t even know, like the ravishing Laurens, whom I cheered on with banshee howls for the last few seasons. I saw a little clip on Twitter this morning of her swinging away on a date with her very first stallion. I loved everything about that clip. She was all polished up, just like a human female going on a first date. She had the smartest blue tail bandage. She went up the ramp of the horsebox without hesitation, and I thought, ‘What a good girl’ with as much pride as if she were mine.

Whenever I go on Twitter now, I almost shut my eyes, because every trending subject is War, or Iran, or Trump, or Airstrikes. I’m a bit fragile at the moment and I can’t deal with the terror of what might happen. (When I woke up this morning, I thought that my gratitude list might have one item on it. It would be - I am so grateful that I am not Donald Trump.) But there is lovely Laurens, going off to her romantic assignment, and I think well, perhaps everything will be all right after all.

Perhaps that is why I am more obsessively focused than ever on my horses. They are a still point in a mad world. They know nothing of geopolitics, or tribalism, or the military-industrial complex. They don’t care where Boris Johnson went on holiday. They have absolutely no opinion about who is going to be the next Labour leader. They are not quarrelling about Brexit or shouting about trade deals or bitching about which columnist has said what. They are not woke, and they have no use for virtue-signalling. 

They are completely and absolutely and utterly themselves. They embody authenticity. They also have a beautiful capacity for peace, in its most profound sense. They teach me to live in the moment when I am with them, to practise a kind of mindfulness I never thought I’d be capable of. And if I do that, they go into a dreamy trance of Zen, and I can feel the stillness and the contentment and the wholeness coming off them in waves. For that second in time, everything is right.

I’ve got a bit of a bug, so I’ve been doing a lot of sleeping, but this afternoon I tottered down to the red mare and took her out for a gentle ride. I really did feel ridiculously weak, but she carried me kindly out into the big meadow. The sky was clear and singing over our heads and the moon, which only five minutes ago was tentative and new, was almost full. It had on its full face, and it smiled down on us. I’m missing a beloved friend who died not long ago, and I looked up at the moon and thought that somehow he was up there, in the moon, of the moon, belonging to the elemental part of the world. So I said hello to him and told him I hoped that he was peaceful and safe.

And then the mare offered me a canter. For a moment, I hesitated. I really am quite wobbly, and we haven’t done a collected canter for ages. Unheralded, uncharacteristic dark thoughts rushed into my head. What if she trips, or swerves, or something disastrous happens? I nearly said no. Then I thought: you have to be brave and you have to believe, even when you are not feeling very strong. So I let her go, on a completely loose rein, and she found her perfect rhythm and cantered about that field in a glorious, big circle, as if we’d been schooling every day.

Oh, I was grateful for that. 

So, I’m afraid there is going to be a lot of horse. That’s just the way I am, and I can’t apologise for that. It’s where my joy lies. But what I do think is that horses are never just horses. They really are metaphors for life. They are all about believing, and being a bit braver than you think you are, and thinking about something bigger than your human self. They are about living in the moment and not rushing to judgement and not taking everything personally. They are about allowing yourself to be creative and to use your imagination and to take risks. They are about connection and harmony and love. And those things are universal, I think. I hope. I believe. 

Gratitude: Day Seven.

Today, I am really, really grateful for my children.

The funny thing is that I don’t have any actual children of my own. I never wanted to have any. This is often presented in the media as a dramatic, headline-grabbing decision. Every so often, the traditionalist newspapers run some tragic article about the freakish, childless females. Then other women get cross, and say it should be ‘child-free’ because words matter. I used to be one of the cross women. I’m not cross any more. It’s just my thing. I knew that bringing up another human being was not my skill set, and I didn’t see why I should make some poor small person suffer because I might regret it when I was fifty. 

Well, I’ve had my menopause now, and I don’t regret it. It was one of the sanest decisions I ever made. 

What confuses people is that I absolutely love children. I find them funny and fascinating and they lift my spirits and give me hope for the future. I just wouldn’t be any good at being around them all the time, because I’m an extreme introvert, and I need solitude and quiet. 

And quite by chance, I got some children after all, in the best possible way. It was the horses that did it. They acted like child magnets. So I ended up with a posse of youthful horsewomen, who come every day and play with my mares. Even on the dourest day, they make me smile. One of them is my great-niece, who is eleven, and today was the last day of her holidays, so she rode her sweet pony and the posse came with and I ambled along behind on the red mare. 

It was a bitter, windy day, with sudden squalls of rain, but nobody minded. I let all the children go on ahead, and I watched as they gossiped and giggled and told each other their mysterious, childish stories, the ones that grown-ups will never quite understand. And I felt ridiculously lucky. 

It’s lovely being the aunt, and being the Chief of the Posse. I don’t have to tell them to do their homework or brush their teeth. I have the luxury of being the person of fun, so I can have silly jokes with them and let them tell me stories of the teachers they don’t like and I get to be the keeper of their secrets. I do give them a bit of a life lesson every so often, and they politely pretend to be interested. (I try to think of all the things I wish I had known when I was twelve, and I tell them that.) I try to make everything as lovely for them as possible, and then, when my work is done, I can go home and shut my door and be quiet. 

I think that if I did not have these young ones in my life, I might be a bit sad. The hopefulness and the eccentricity and the wild imagination of youth is a beautiful thing. It stops me getting too lost in the stern, rule-based world of the adult, and it makes me believe in the future. It’s a great luxury and a great privilege to spend time with my dear little ones, and I never take that for granted.

Monday 6 January 2020

Gratitude: Day Six.

I hit some kind of weird wall yesterday, which I can’t quite identify. A lot of people I know are struggling a bit at the moment. The news seems so overwhelming just now, and even if you try to avoid it, it sneaks in through the cracks. The mad sabre-rattling with Iran, the untamed fury of Brexit, Australia burning: every headline makes the heart shudder.

Today, for no known reason, my ship steadied. 

Today, I decided I was going to be grateful for life. 

I’m grateful for the life and spirit in my sweet young band of horsewomen, who are still youthful enough to think that everything is worth smiling about. 

A friend lost his heart horse today, and so I’m keenly grateful for the life in my mares, for their beauty and funniness and kindness. 

I’m grateful for the sky above, which had ten different colours in it as we rode this afternoon. It was deep indigo in one place, and a bright rose in others. 

I’m grateful for the living moon, which beamed down on us. I’m grateful for the life in these Scottish hills and trees. Even at this time of year, when everything is sleeping, there is still a sense of the living earth, of all the slumbering plants getting ready to start growing again in the spring. 

I’m grateful that even when life feels a little bit of an upward haul, there is still beauty in everything. Sometimes, you just have to squint a little to see it. But there it is, humming away, singing its song.

Gratitude: Day Five

I had a great big gratitude ready to go and then I went home and got cross and refused to write it. There it was, waiting for me, ready to make my life better and improve my mental health and lift my well-being and all the things that gratitude does and I absolutely stuck my toes in. 

The fourteen-year-old in me came out. She was bolshy and oddly inconsolable. She has a sort of despair, which I think her contemporary counterparts sometimes have, about the world. She is superteen and hormones all over the shop and everything in black and white and all extremes flying. I’m not sure that I was quite like that when I was fourteen, but my inner teenager is like that. 

She also loves a bit of self-sabotage. So instead of doing work and good things like this gratitude list, I sat up all night furiously reading Jon Ronson’s book about internet shaming. It’s a brilliant book, but I have read it before and it’s not exactly designed to spread peace and light. It shines it torch into the dark side of human nature, and I finally went to bed convinced that we are all going to hell in a handcart.

Because of all that, I’m writing this a day late. I’m calmer now, and I can remember the gratitude thing with a more settled mind. I was grateful for coincidence, and for serendipity, and for memory. 

I had to go to the feed place to get the horses all their delightful food. (I think I’m grateful for that too - to have a wonderful horse shop a charming seven-minute drive away. It’s such a pretty road and the people in the shop are kind and helpful.) I put on Radio Two, because it was the time of day when there is nothing good on Radio Four. I only rarely listen to Radio Two and, at the very moment I turned the dial, there was one of the great, iconic songs of my childhood.

It’s such a funny song, and it’s such an unexpected song, and it’s a song I had completely forgotten about. It’s a man called Gary Shearston doing a cover version of I Get a Kick Out of You. Why did we all love it so much, when I was seven? It’s madly seventies, with a terrific violin section and a bit of cello, and a boom boom boom of percussion after the last chorus. Shearston, whom I had never heard of before, and have never heard of since, was doing that kind of can’t sing singing that was very fashionable then, in the Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan manner. The emphasis on certain syllables is hysterical. ‘I get no kick from coc-AYNE’ he sings, obviously having a ball.

The drawing room of my youth flooded back. That was where we used to listen to music and sing and dance. It’s where my father used to play his tea-chest, and where his friends, Jimmy and Perce, used to come and play the guitar with him. It’s where the parties used to happen, every Saturday night, when everyone from the racing world would roar up in their cars and carouse into the night. I used to creep down in my dressing gown and watch them all, and take a secret sip out of wine glasses left on the low, walnut tables. 

There was so much music in my childhood. Bands and musicians would roll up. There was always someone from the Clancy Brothers or The Dubliners or The Seekers. An outfit called The Springfield Revival used to appear, very young and very beautiful, and I fell hopelessly in love with their willowy singer, who was tall and slender and had a smile that could light up the room. There was a serene, shy woman called Paddy Grey who was one of the only people who could bring the crowds in the house to hushed, pin-drop silence, her voice was so mesmerising. And when there were not people playing, Mum would open up the old gramophone and get out all the 45s and act as an extremely elegant disc jockey.

How lovely it is, to remember all that. And all from one chance song on the car radio, which I only heard because I was running fifteen minutes late to go and get the feed. The world does send its gifts, even when the times feel turbulent. I’m glad that I’ve decided to write them down. 

Saturday 4 January 2020

Gratitude: Day Four.

I’m grateful today for patience and belief.

Just over a year ago, I took on the training of a Connemara mare for my great-niece. The sweet pony was christened Clova and we all adored her from the moment she arrived and she was so dear that I thought I’d be able to get her soft and relaxed and happy in a heartbeat.

It didn’t turn out like that. She’d had a lot of different homes, as ponies often do, and the move to us seemed to be a bridge too far for her. It was as if she’d given her trust to humans one too many times, and just as she was starting to feel settled, the horsebox would arrive and she’d have to move on. So she had, entirely logically, decided to defend herself from and brace herself against the world. She wouldn’t even entirely trust that my mighty red mare, the most devoted protector of the herd, would look after her.

So we had many, many steps backwards. There were times when I thought I’d over-faced myself, and that I would never find the key. I felt a keen responsibility to the very youthful human who was going to ride the little mare, and I was terrified I was going to let her down. (The small human, who has the heart of a lion, was never worried. She had, from the start, more faith in me and more faith in her pony than either of us had in ourselves.) 

I plugged on through the doubts, trying this, trying that, asking for help, desperately attempting to build belief. And in the end, with a lot of encouragement and advice, I found it. The pony found it. Patience and time and not giving up paid off. This morning, the youthful jockey and her sweet mare galloped up a Scottish hill as if they could fly.

We’ve still got a way to go. Clova can still have her doubts. Her confidence can wobble and she can become slightly overwhelmed. But I think she knows that we are her people now, and this is her home, and the good herd is her herd. And that is a beautiful foundation stone on which to build.

Patience and belief. These are two of the singing virtues that my horses teach me every day. And the mares do have to teach me every day, because I can waver and wobble and forget. So I am grateful to them too. 

And I’m grateful to the enchanting children who come and play with the horses, who amuse Clova and remind her that life can be fun, who make the field a place of laughter and merriment and adventure. These young horsewomen are natural believers, and they teach me something every day too. 

Belief is hard, I think. It’s too easy to lose faith. You have to push yourself into believing, into keeping hope alive. But what I have found is that if something is worth it - if it’s a heart thing and a soul thing and spirit thing - then I will keep on pushing, however much of a flake and a failure I sometimes feel. That’s why horses are such inspiring teachers. You have to do it for them. They need you to be brave, and because they don’t speak English or have the prefrontal cortex for complex ideas, you can’t explain to them why you think you don’t have it in you. 

I think children are a little the same. They have the same straightforward authenticity. I can’t let the young ones down, just because I’m feeling a little bashed and bruised and frayed around the edges. So I dig down and scrape up the last remnants of belief and put my faith together with cussedness and binder twine.

And then - then - we are all galloping up that literal and metaphorical hill, as if nothing in the world can stop us.

Friday 3 January 2020

Gratitude: Day Three.

Today, I am grateful for the weather.

The British famously talk about the weather. Even though I know this is the most terrible cliché of Britishness, like queuing, saying sorry, and enjoying a nice cup of tea, I still do it. I do it at the garage and in the post office and in the shop. Everyone in the village does it. Quite often, they will refer to some mysterious authority. 

‘They say snow is coming in.’ 

‘They say it’s going to get bitter next week.’ 

‘They say that February will be bad.’

The ‘they’ is never specified. I often imagine it is some old farmer, a sort of ancient mariner type, who can simply look up at the sky and sniff the wind and know whether it will be sleet or gales.

We also talk a lot in my neighbourhood about our own curious little micro-climate. Our weather forecasts are often dramatically wrong. We regularly have the highest or lowest, wettest or driest. (This actually is probably confirmation bias. I don’t notice when Kidderminster or Ashby-de-la-Zouch is the hottest or wettest, but I feel oddly proud and pay close attention when my village gets the prize.) Famously, when it is pouring with rain down the valley in Aberdeen, or when the entire seafront is blanketed in haar, the sun shines brightly on our little village. 

The great irony is that the British always talk about the weather but we don’t really have weather. We don’t have three year droughts or tornado seasons. We don’t have dust storms or ice storms or bitter blizzards which last for days. We tend to grumble if the mercury tips over thirty degrees in the height of summer, and if a little snow falls on London, half the public transport grinds to a halt. 

And the reason I am grateful for that today is that the plight of Australia is at the forefront of the national consciousness. A whole country is burning, and it’s almost beyond imagination. I read stories about people sheltering on the beach with their horses and dogs, of a man who went to help a neighbour save his house, only to come back to find his own burnt to the ground, of city-dwellers unable to breathe. I’ve talked to Australians who are in mourning for a whole nation, who fear their beloved land will never be the same again. My heart aches and breaks for them.

And even as I remind myself to be grateful, I go down to the horses and hear myself say, ‘Oh, this wind is bitter.’ A little bit of bitter wind! That is the worst of my weather problems. 

But there was no rain or sleet or snow, so my posse of young horsewomen and I took the mares up the hill. The sky was clear and singing with colour and the hills were indigo in the afternoon light. It’s the funeral today of a dear friend, five hundred miles away in the south. I could not go, so I cantered my red mare up to the top of the hill and I said my own goodbye. These hills are my cathedral, and I’ve committed many spirits to them, when I could not go to the formal service. I did it for my godfather, and a young cousin who died in a pointless accident, and an old cousin who went full of years. I did it for my mum, who refused to have a funeral, so I gave her one of my own. I rode the mare and sang a song and recited some Yeats. It was one of the greatest funerals I ever went to.

And on all of those days, on all of those sad farewells, the weather was kind. The sun shone and the mountains were bright with majesty. There was peace and stillness, so the souls could fly to the heights.

So my gratitude today is to this dear old temperate climate, which never throws too much at us. It’s easy to forget how lucky you are until you see what other people have to face. I’ve never been to Australia, but my heart is there today.

Thursday 2 January 2020

Gratitude: Day Two

Today, I was profoundly grateful for the internet.

I had been asked to do a podcast with my friend Jane Pike on creativity. I’m a bit late to the podcast party, but I’ve been catching up like mad. I love the whole idea, and I love the amazing variety, and I love that funny and fascinating people can put their thoughts out into the world. So being asked to do one was rather thrilling. That the invitation should come from Jane was especially delightful.

Jane works as a mental coach for riders and horse people in general. She’d observed that what was holding a lot of people back with their horses was not lack of technical skill, but the blocks in the human mind. (It’s all the usual suspects - fear, shame, terror of being judged, the committee in the head which tells you that you will never be good enough.) So she started a programme where people could work on those brutal mental blocks. I adore her wisdom and generosity and good-heartedness, and I find that her teaching helps me as much with life as it does with horses.

And this evening, even though she lives in New Zealand and I live in Scotland, we were chatting merrily away about creativity and imagination and authenticity and courage and letting your inner three-year-old come out to play. All through the miracle of the internet.

The truly wonderful thing is that we have never met in life, but I think of her as my friend. We communicate a lot through FaceTime and messages and the general back and forth which the internet makes possible. If it were not for this astounding technology, she would be on her side of the world and I would be on mine, and we would never know the other even existed. The thought of not having her brilliant mind and her rebel sense of humour in my life makes me sad. But I don’t have to be sad, because there she is, on the other end of a line that travels over thousands of miles of ocean and time and space. That is something to be grateful for.

I’m also grateful to my red mare. I’m always grateful to my red mare, because she is so beautiful and comical and interesting and fine, and because she teaches me something every day. Today, though, I’m grateful to her for a very specific reason. Because of her, I have made connections with human beings I would otherwise never have met. This is true in my real life, and it is true in my internet life. She’s been like a little heart connector, busy introducing me to new people and new ideas and new groups. It was because I needed to be a better person for her that I sought out Jane. It is because of her that strangers have become friends.

The older I get, the more I think that connection and love are everything. And because this grand thoroughbred canters about the internet - she has her own Facebook page, as she is too marvellous to be confined to a small Scottish community - she connects me with minds and hearts all over the world. That really is something quite extraordinary. And I am more grateful than I can say.

Wednesday 1 January 2020

Gratitude: Day One

I’m absolutely hopeless at New Year’s resolutions. I have a cussed streak which makes me kick against anything obligatory or mandated. But this year, I would like to make a change. I’m conscious that I have so much good fortune in life, and I don’t want to fritter that away with pointless worries and thoughtless frets and negative thinking. I like to think that I’m a roaring optimist, and so, in some ways, I am, but I am keenly aware that I have a fatal tendency to run doomsday scenarios in my head. So I spend lunatic amounts of energy worrying about things which have not happened and which might never happen.

I’ve been reading a lot about gratitude over the last few years. I understand its power and I understand that it is a discipline which can change your life. Yet I never quite practise it. I throw a sop here and there to the gratitude gods, but I don’t devote myself to their service. And I think I would like to.

I’m rather cautious about doing this on the blog, because I fear it may get frantically dull. I really am grateful, almost every day, for my fingers and toes. Especially my fingers. They are typing these words now, at seventy words a minute. Imagine that. They really are my life and my livelihood. I think I might be grateful to them every day. There may come a moment when you wish I would shut up about my damn fingers. 

There will be other regular loves. I love my opposable thumbs. I’m idiotically grateful that I have legs which can walk. They carried me down to the field this afternoon, where I stood with my mares and breathed in their peace and life in the gloaming. I looked up at the new moon, and I was grateful for the moon, and the sky, and Scotland, and the stillness, and the beauty, and the fact that I don’t live in a noisy city. 

I was grateful for my eyes, which allowed me to look at the beauty. And come to think of it, I am grateful for the people who invented spectacles and the people who make spectacles, so that I can see the beauty in clear focus.

I was grateful for my funny lurchers, bounding about with merriment and joy. Even though one of them ate a whole camembert this morning. I was looking forward to that nice bit of cheese. But it is only a bit of cheese.

I’m grateful that I can sit in my quiet room with heat and light. I think I might be writing that sentence quite a lot in the next year.

I’m grateful that there are kind people on social media and that there is racing on the telly and that there is good in the world. I’m grateful that there are dedicated humans out there who have rescued the Duke of Burgundy butterfly from extinction. I didn’t even know there was such a butterfly until today, and I did not know that it was in mortal peril. And now I know that thousands of devoted souls have worked to save it. That really is something.

I’m grateful for my mind. I’d like to expand it this year. I’ve got an idea that I should try and learn something new every day. I’m not sure whether this will be possible, but I’ll give it a go. Today, I learnt about the butterfly and its saviours. (Yesterday, I learnt that some horses are prone to holding their breath, and that you can get them to relax and breathe by using the canter. That is a rather niche fact, but it is the kind of thing that gives me pleasure.) 

Perhaps the new thing every day might stop the gratitude list from growing stale and dull, but I still think there may be rather a lot of repetition. Because of this, I’m going to start it quietly. The blog had rather gone into hibernation anyway, and I’m not sure how many people come here any more. So I feel that I can write things here which are almost private. I need the discipline of publishing, but I don’t want to be stymied by the terror of boring an audience into losing the will to live. 

So, if you are reading this, it will be our secret. Who knows? It might be more fascinating than I think. I’ll obviously try not to be a crashing bore, but I can’t make any guarantees. And if you are kindly accepting that risk, then I am grateful for your forbearance.

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. 


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