Saturday, 30 June 2012

In which life takes me out behind the woodshed and gives me a good pasting

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Do you ever have days when it all gets too much? I am having one of those days. I woke up wobbly, grew progressively wobblier, and then fell right over, flat on my face.

It was nothing in particular. I love the particular. I crave the discrete. It’s that rational, empirical part of my brain kicking in, the one I believe in, the one that will keep me safe from magical thinking and conspiracy theories and false promises. I like reasons for things. This happened because that happened; x plus y equals z. I like things to make sense.

A voice is now shouting in my head, like a rather exasperated person calling from the next room. ‘It’s life,’ the voice is shouting. ‘That’s life.’ The voice puts its hands on its hips and rolls its eyes and goes off to do something more interesting.

When it is this non-specific sorrow, it’s always the smallest thing that sets it off. Sure, you’re a bit tense, your teeth are a bit grindy, the weather is shit, everything is getting on top of you, but you’re fine, because you are a healthy human living in a free democracy in the 21st century and you have all your fingers and all your toes and a roof over your head and the ability to type. And then, you suddenly find yourself sobbing in the kitchen because you burnt the soup.

I am fretting about my book. It’s not just the glitch. It’s that I didn’t nail it. I worked and worked and bloody worked. I worked evenings and weekends. I murdered all my darlings. I wrangled and strangled and struggled and strived. And it’s still not right. Sometimes a book just falls into place, like a gift from the sky. Backwards was a bit like that. Sometimes I dance with the book, whilst a full orchestra plays in the background. And sometimes, it doesn’t matter what I do, how hard I try, it just won’t come out right, and instead of a full sense of achievement I am left with a haunting sense of lost chance.

My poor mum is not very well, and I wish that were not so and that there were some miracle doc who could make her better. She is very brave and stoical about it, but I wish she did not have to be brave and stoical. There is a low humming fret about the dear old Pigeon. She looks well and runs for her stick and her coat is glossy, but sometimes now, when she gets up after a long sleep, she is a bit wobbly on her pins; she sways like a sailor on a high sea. This is the small, terrifying reminder of her great age, a daily sign that I may not have her for so very much longer and I try not to think about it, because it kills me.

Every day at the races last week, for all the joy, I saw the ghost of my dad. I remembered him in the Irish bar, which, like him, does not exist any more, drinking Guinness with his tall friend Bill. I’m really sad he could not see Frankel run his great race.

So, all these small things gather and swarm but I am fine, I am fine, because look how lucky I am. I sometimes refuse to give in to melancholy, on rather bizarre moral grounds. If I give in to sadness and grouchiness, when I have so much outrageous fortune, then I feel it is somehow offensive to those people who have terrible lives. If I am living in a war zone, or in fear or tearing poverty, then I may complain. It’s a bit nuts, but it also contains a grain of truth. I get very grumpy with those people who have good lives but still complain and whine and make dramas where there need be none. One damn well should appreciate one’s good luck, if one is lucky enough to have it. Otherwise it’s such a waste, and I hate waste.

I knew that life had beaten me, for this one day, when the smallest of small things precipitated a storm of grief. It was the horse. I went up this morning and she ignored me. (I am ashamed even writing this it is so stupid, but the blog is the place of truth, so you must have it all.) Sometimes she does this. She is doing horse stuff; she is not necessarily in the mood for human contact. Usually it makes me laugh, and I rib her about being a dozy old donkey face. Sometimes she raises her head and whinnies and gallops to me, and that makes my heart rise like a helium balloon, but sometimes she is just eating, and does not wish to be disturbed.

I should be pleased about this. It means I have produced a relaxed horse, an animal who is not needy. She really is at home here. But because of all the swirling non-specific stuff, today I took it as a terrible rejection. All my abandonment issues gathered themselves into a mighty army and marched out to do battle. The inner wail, armoured in wrong constructions and category errors, rose in despair. My mare does not love me any more, it cried, idiotically. I had no defence against it, so there I was, stomping about a green field in my muddy gumboots, tears streaming down my face, whilst my horse quietly grazed.

And that was when I started writing this in my head. Writing is the thing that makes sense of the things that do not make sense. The exasperated voice is right: it is just life. Sometimes I find life very confusing indeed. But if I can put it into sentences, with their lovely commas and semi-colons, their cadences and phrases, their sub-clauses and modifiers, then it takes on some explicable form. I really do think that is why I write at all, because the only place that life may make any sense at all is on the page.

I am winding down now, my fingers tapping slower and slower over the keyboard. My shoulders are coming down. The storm is passing. I feel the echoes of it in my body still, like an ebbing tide. (I always know when my emotions are high, because I start mixing my metaphors.) The Pigeon is dozing beside me. Outside the window, a rare sun has appeared from behind the clouds and is brightening the beeches and the chestnuts to a singing lime green.

It is very simple, after all that. Mostly I am cheerful, but some days I am sad. Today I was sad. It’s not failure; it just is. I am going to sit very still for a while. Then I shall watch the Northumberland Plate. I’m going to have a tiny fiver each way on the mudlark Montaff, and give him a good shout. Slowly, slowly, if I do not make any sudden moves, everything shall return to normal.


Today’s pictures:

30 June 1

30 June 2

30 June 3

30 June 4

30 June 5

The Duchess’s little apple tree. I thought too of her, today:

30 June 10


30 June 11

I, on the other hand, may be disturbed at any moment of the day or night, as long as there is love or stick or biscuit in the equation:

30 June 15

Today’s hill:

30 June 20

Friday, 29 June 2012


Posted by Tania Kindersley.

The Younger Stepbrother, his Best Beloved, and the two step-nephews are staying at the moment, all the way from Canada. Today, observing the merest break in the cloud and the hint of sun, I rushed up and said: ‘Come and see the horse.’

They came to see the horse. I worked with her a bit first, to get her in the required dopey mood (she is always much happier and more settled after she has worked) and then they arrived and everything was merry as a marriage bell. She was immaculate. The littlest fella looked a bit apprehensive to start. After all, he is three feet high and she is half a ton. I could see him trying to work the whole thing out, his small face wary and contemplating. Was this friend or foe? I suddenly thought horses and children are not so very different, in that instinctive way.

One of the lovely things about Red is she is quite enchanting with children. She is gentle and delicate with them, filled with consideration and politesse. It’s one of the dearest things I’ve ever seen in a horse. By the end, the small fella was feeding her Polos from his tiny little hand, grinning all over his face. They parted fast friends.

What was fascinating though is that the older nephew turned out to be a natural. He is twelve years old, but looks older; tall and willowy with the face of a poet. You can tell when someone is good with horses the moment they approach the animal. People who don’t know anything about them tend to march up, from the front, and immediately start petting the creature. This can be quite alarming for a horse, because of their eyes being on the side of their heads. It’s also, if I can say this without sounding like a 1970s hippy, an invasion of personal space. I teach my mare good manners, and I treat her with politeness in return. The good, polite way to approach a horse is a little from the side, so they can get a good look at you. Then you hold out your hand so they can have a sniff of you. You watch for the moment of consent. It is often signalled by a miniscule nod of the head. Then you can stroke them and gentle them. A small, unspoken contract of mutual respect has been signed.

The real horse people, I have noticed, almost always offer the knuckle. This is mostly common sense; a horse can’t bite a hand offered in that way. It’s a kind of loose fist, not bunched and tense, but open and easy. The Older Nephew did exactly that. Red looked at him, sniffed his hand, nodded her head, and there they were, instantly recognising each other. He was incredibly thoughtful and relaxed and sensitive to her. It was a wonderful thing to see in a boy of that age.

The reason for the title of this post is that then there were photographs. Snap, snap, snap, went the Older Nephew. I was delighted he was taking pictures of my beautiful girl, and arranged her in elegant poses in front of the mountains. But then I noticed he was taking a few shots of me. Horrid, ancient vanity kicked in. My hair was plastered to my head from an earlier rain shower, I was wearing my smeary old spectacles, and a most unflattering baggy t-shirt which I had flung on in a hurry that morning, already muddy and grubby from working with the mare. Oh no, went the inner wail, he’ll take those pictures back to Canada and all the nice Canadians will think: who’s that scruffy old bat with the lovely horse?

I’ve been thinking about vanity a lot lately, partly because my book is about beauty, and how it affects women, and partly because of Ascot. People dress up for Ascot; there is a strict dress code and it’s regarded as a time for fashion. I rummaged around in the back of my wardrobe and flung together five outfits composed of twenty-year-old jackets and my sternly practical boots. I did have a moment when I looked at the sleek, chic women, and felt a twinge of inadequacy. But I had come for the horses; I needed to be comfortable and able to run from the paddock to the stands. I thought: the real beauty is with the equines; as long as I look respectable, it does not matter what I am wearing.

When the vanity klaxon went off this morning, I thought: bugger it, it’s the beauty of the mare that matters. That is what the interested Canadians may see. In the photographs, I shall look like exactly what I am: a rather scruffy, muddy, middle-aged woman. Perhaps I shall look happy, because I am with a creature I love, and my family was admiring her. I shall not look sleek or elegant or any of those things that sometimes I long to be. But those things are not really important. Sometimes, if I do see a flattering picture of myself, nicely posed, with kind lighting and a good angle, I do get a burst of happiness. It is very fleeting. It’s not the real, bone deep, important stuff.

The important stuff is that I have a glorious horse with whom I have done weeks of work, with whom I am developing an unbreakable bond of love and trust.

I explained the theory of join up to the family this morning. It’s a slightly counter-intuitive method of sending the horse away, so that it then comes back to you. Rather rashly, I decided to demonstrate. Red does not always perform when there are people there. She gets distracted and wants to go and talk to the visitors instead of concentrating on me.

‘See,’ I said, flicking the rope at her. ‘I send her away like this.’

She walked off. I kept her moving. When we do this alone, sometimes it can take ten or fifteen minutes, because we are working in a huge field and it depends on her mood. Oh dear, I thought, as they all stood and watched, this could be a disaster. They shall think I am a nutty old fool. Then a miracle happened. Within a minute, she turned, and came to my shoulder. We walked in a circle, and then back to the little observing group. I stopped; she stopped. They stood with their mouths open. I felt like dancing a little dance.

I sometimes forget how strange the natural horsemanship can look to people who have never seen it before. There was a fine thoroughbred, a racing and polo mare, in a wide open field, attached to my side as if there were an invisible thread between us. I felt passionately grateful to her that she had done her stuff when there was an audience. I think now, as I write this, slightly rueful, that I can never free myself from vanity altogether. I might be able to talk myself out of the photograph vanity, but that little moment was a vanity of its own. Look at me! See what I have done with my horse! Look, Ma, no hands!


Today was a day of sunshine and showers. At least the sun came out, which felt like a present. And I suppose the one good thing about all this rain is that it has made everything very, very green:

29 June 1

29 June 2

29 June 3

29 June 4

29 June 5

Action hens:

29 June 8

Red’s View:

29 June 9

This is almost my favourite of her faces. It’s not her most beautiful, regal face, but her dopey old donkey look, with a bit of grass coming out of the side of her mouth, like an old boy chewing a straw:

29 June 10

The lovely eye:

29 June 11

And watching her view:

29 June 12

And the Pigeon, who also has the gift of being delightful with children, and who has captured the hearts of those two boys. Having a bit of a sniff about:

29 June 13

Caught in the rain:

29 June 14

And so very ready for her close-up:

29 June 14-001

The hill, in one of our rare moments of sun:

29 June 16

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Bread and circuses

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

I am very tense indeed. There is a glitch with the book which means it cannot yet be read by the editor.  (It’s too dull to go into the logistics and merely thinking about it makes me want to cry.) So I have to be a grown-up and wait, for who knows how long, for the verdict on the rewrite.

I am grumpy about the endless bad weather and gloomy about the state of the economy. There is very little good news, just now, it seems. The glory of Ascot seems in another world.

I go up to my mare. She is in the most enchanting of her moods; her moochy, dopey, old donkey mood. She is so sleepy and the weather is so dreich that I give her a day off, and just stand with her for half an hour. That’s all I do: stand, in a field, in the rain, with the beautiful head of my beautiful horse resting, heavy and trusting, on my chest. And I feel better.

It made me think about bread and circuses. The Old Gentleman who comes to do my lawn was round a couple of days ago. He is old farming stock and I love talking to him and hearing tales of the land. I told him I had been in the south for the races.

‘Ah,’ he said, nodding his sage old head. ‘All those people cheering and shouting while there are no jobs and there is no money. I’m not sure what they have to cheer about.’

He is usually sanguine and smiling, so this was quite unlike him. I thought perhaps it was not the time to tell him about Frankel the Wonderhorse.

‘Perhaps it’s when times are bad that people need something to distract them,’ I said.

I can hardly watch my favourite political shows any more because it seems that no one knows how to rescue the country. Certainly, no one has a clue how to save Europe. They all fly off and have very important meetings and look very serious and grave and earnest. Then they come out of the very important meetings and not a damn thing has changed. I believe in politics; it is rare I grow disillusioned. But just now, it seems that no one really knows what to do. Watching The Daily Politics at the moment is like watching Dr Who: I have to do it from behind the sofa.

What with the weather and the book and the economy and everything, I have invented a small bread and circus of my own. In the afternoon, I take an hour or so off, and I watch the racing. I have a little bet, a pound here, a fiver there, and shout on my fancy. Yesterday, I had a six horse accumulator. Five of them won. I was looking at five hundred quid from a two pound stake. It just needed a nice horse called Pitkin to do his thing and I would be rich.

He finished third.

I thought very much of my dad. This was exactly what he used to do. Maybe blood really is thicker than water, I thought.

More fun than the punting is watching some of my favourite old horses and discovering new loves. Yesterday, there was the glorious Lexi’s Boy, who danced round with his ears pricked, having the most romping good time; and then a new filly I had not seen before called Oh Poppy, who also runs with her head up and her ears forward and an expression of delight about her. There was also the keen pleasure of watching the seventeen-year-old Willy Twiston-Davies get his horse home in the tightest of finishes, flashing past the line a nose in front, in the big race at Carlisle.

Twiston-Davies is not only incredibly young to have such talent and drive, but he does the rather amazing thing of riding over the jumps and on the flat. Very few jockeys switch between disciplines, because they require quite different skills, and also differing physical attributes. I’ve seen Twiston-Davies ride over the huge Aintree fences, and now, it turns out, he can triumph on an outsider in the closest of finishes in a fast flat race.

I know it really is the terrible great-aunt in me, but every time I see him ride I think: his mother must be so proud.

Racing, I suddenly think, is the perfect bread and circus. It has the aesthetic pleasure of the horses, the thrill of the bet, the human stories, the intellectual demands of studying the form, even the prettiness of the green turf. Sometimes, when it is stinking weather here, I’ll tune in to dear old William Hill TV, and there will be the lovely emerald sward of Bath, say, or Newton Abbott, bathed in sun. Somewhere in this benighted old country, I think, there is at least a ray of sunshine.


Too wet to take the camera out, so here are a few pictures from the last days:

28 June 1

28 June 2

28 June 3

28 June 4

28 June 5

Action hen:

28 June 8

(That one is especially for the Dear Reader who loves the hens.)

Myfanwy the Pony:

28 June 8-001

Red the Mare:

28 June 10

Red’s View:

28 June 9


28 June 12

I love that slightly quizzical look. I love all her looks, but that one is one of my favourites.

The hill:

28 June 15

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Rain, horse, dog, soup, friends, grumpiness, sweetness. Or, in which I cannot think of a snappy title

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

The rain rained. Everything went a dull, sludge colour. I attempted not to become downhearted, and failed.

Red the Mare was at her dearest and best, which rallied my spirits somewhat. She showed off some of her fancy moves for The World Traveller, who had come out to give porridge to the chickens. I always get a stupid thrill when the work we do together is witnessed. Look at me! Look at me! With my fancy pants horse whispery nonsense! Actually, I love the fancy pants horse whispery stuff. I love that I can get my flighty thoroughbred to stop when I say stop and to move elegantly backwards at the merest signal from my index finger.
I did some work. I thought about some other work which I must do and am not yet doing. To take my mind off it, I made some yellow split pea soup with saffron and took it to my mother.
I watched the rain a bit more and wondered if it would ever be sunny again.
I took an hour off and watched the racing. A lovely, bonny horse called Lexi’s Boy was running and I put a proper bet on him and he galloped all the way round in front with his ears pricked, as if to say this is the most fun I had since the old queen died. To great shouts from me and woofs from the Pigeon, he won by four lengths, happy as a bug.
I contemplated tidying the house and decided against it.
I went back up to the ponies. Red rested her head on my shoulder and dozed off and I thought: I really can’t be grumpy when she does that.
Just as I was done for the day, my old friend The Expatriate rang up, her voice carrying faintly down six thousand miles of transatlantic line. There are many things I love about her. She is clever and funny and kind and other (by which I mean she sees the world from a slight angle). But perhaps what I love the most is that we have known each other for so long that we don’t even have to say something funny to fall into helpless laughter. There is twenty-eight years of subtext, so it can be a pause, a tone of voice, an inflection, and there we are, stuttering and hopping and heaving with hilarity.
I put down the telephone, feeling very lucky and filled with ineffable fondness.
I was a bit grouchy and blue today. I was sad about Nora Ephron and Campbell Gillies and the fragility of life. I was crashing to earth after the euphoria of Ascot, because every day can’t be Frankel day. But then there was a lot of equine and canine and human sweetness, so it was sort of all right. And the soup was absolutely delicious, even though I say so myself.

Pictures are from yesterday because of the rain:

No hill today; it is quite lost in the cloud.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

In memory of Campbell Gillies

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

I was going to write such a light-hearted blog today. I spent two hours up with my mare and my dog and the funny little Welsh pony, working, playing about in the field, grooming everyone, doling out love and carrots, getting my hands filthy after keeping them clean and posh for the five days of Ascot. I was going to give you some more thoughts on the brave Black Caviar and the mighty Frankel, the two stars of the show.

Then I sat down and turned on Twitter and heard of the sudden, shocking death of the young jockey Campbell Gillies. He was twenty-one years old and he suffered a fatal accident whilst on holiday.

Here was a young man of great physical courage, who risked his life and limb every time he went to work. People sometimes forget that about jockeys, as they easily carp and criticise when a bet goes south. Those who ride horses for a living get to do a job they love, with beautiful and bold animals. On the other hand, their life is exceptionally hard and rigorous.

There is the endless travelling, the battle with weight, the need for exceptional physical fitness. Their muscles are like steel hawsers and they must keep them that way. They will often get up before dawn to ride work, then travel to one or two race meetings, and return home in the dark. They might have the joy of riding a winner, but they might have to boot some badly-schooled old dope through the mud and the rain.

Not every day is the glory of Ascot or Cheltenham; there are miserable wet Wednesdays at tiny tracks in front of four men and a dog. I remember years ago going with my dad to Huntingdon, where the fog was so thick that we watched the horses set off and disappear into a wall of mist. Everyone went back into the bar, had whisky macs, and came back out six minutes later to see the field straggle out of the gloom and past the winning post.

There is the politics of dealing with the owners, some of whom want to give their own instructions, not all of whom understand enough about racing to understand why their dear old slow coach will not win everything in sight. Often, in these cases, it is the poor jockey who gets the blame.

And, of course, there is the jeopardy. Shoulders dislocate, legs snap like twigs, bones and sinew groan and crush under the weight of a falling horse. Jumping at speed is the most hazardous, but even on the flat accidents can happen. I saw the brilliant young jockey, William Buick, have a hideous fall last week at the royal meeting.

The irony is that a young man who pursued this tough life should die in the benign circumstances of a Greek holiday. It was his one week in the sun, and it seems particularly horrible that it should have ended in such senseless tragedy.

His greatest moment came in March this year, giving the lovely young hurdler, Brindisi Breeze, a storming ride up the Cheltenham hill to victory. In a double sorrow, Brindisi himself was killed in a freak accident only a few weeks ago, when he jumped out of his paddock in the night. The yard of Lucinda Russell and Peter Scudamore, where the horse was trained and where Gillies worked, must be in a very dark mourning today. There is no consolation in this kind of loss.

There is a family in grief, and, in weighing rooms around the country, an empty peg. Campbell Gillies was not only a really talented and hard-working man, but much beloved by his fellow jockeys. A true gentleman, they said of him; a legend, never a dull moment, always a smile on his face. One headline said: racing in mourning, and that is not to overstate it. Too much goodness and talent snuffed out; so much promise lost.

One must not fall into cheap sentiment or easy anthropomorphism, but the horses he rode will feel the gap too. Gillies loved them and worked with them every day. Equines may not love in the way humans do, but they have their own horsey hearts. (There is even some recent science showing that horses recognise their owners’ voices; there is, if not love as we understand it, trust and bond and attachment, something, perhaps, as profound and important as what we know as love. My mare certainly cantered to the gate when I returned from my trip to the south, shaking her head at me as if to say: where have you been?) My guess is that the thoroughbreds whom that young fellow knew and rode so well will sense his absence.

Death is the final mystery; no one really knows what happens after. I do not have a heaven, or believe in an afterlife, although I do know that the dear departed live on in the hearts of those who loved them. But sometimes I wish I had that simple belief. I wish there were some great racetrack in the sky, an eternal Cheltenham hill, where Campbell Gillies and Brindisi Breeze could gallop together always. Perhaps, in some sort of way, in the memories of those who saw them on that triumphant day, there is.


This lovely picture accompanied the tribute in the Racing Post, taken at Lucinda Russell’s yard:

Campbell Gillies at Lucinda Russell's yard - 2011

Picture by John Grossick.

And with Brindisi and Russell, on their lovely day of victory:

Photograph uncredited.


Today’s pictures are of Scotland in the sun. I nearly did not put pictures, it seemed insensitive after such sad news. But I suppose it is a life must go on thing. I hope that was the right decision:

26 June 1

26 June 2

26 June 3

26 June 4

26 June 5

26 June 9

26 June 9-001

My girls:

26 June 11

26 June 14

26 June 15

26 June 15-001

26 June 10

26th June 10

The hill:

26 June 20


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