Friday, 31 October 2014


The work starts to shift. People sometimes wonder why it takes so long to write a book. I wonder why it takes so long, especially when I can bash out fifty words a minute when I’m really cooking. It’s not the word count. That’s not even a sliver of it. It needs a lot of gestation, after the initial words are down. You carry it with you and think and think and think and think. The 153,000 are there, far too many of them, but you can’t see which ones must die. So you walk and gaze and ponder. Then, one morning, you think: ah, the mother must go. So it’s hasta la vista, Mama.

There’s also a ruthlessness which takes time to arrive. At the beginning, the precious manuscript is like a baby bird, every passage coaxed out with tenderness and gentleness. It must be done in a safe private place, with no cruel editing eyes to see.

Then, you get a bit tougher in the second draft. You are coming out into the light.

Then, you have to get absolutely bloody. It’s because of the Dear Readers. You can’t write a book with a readership in mind, thinking I’ll crack that market. If you do that, all authenticity is lost. You have to write the book you want to read. But as the drafts go on, the actual Readers swim into view. They are busy. They do not have time for your self-indulgent flourishes. They want a good story and some good prose and perhaps a little bit of universal wisdom or human condition. They like a laugh. They are not there to watch you do acrobatics.

I’m reading a book at the moment by a very famous writer whose editor is clearly too afraid to wield the blue pencil. Page after page of showing off prose dance before me. A scene which could have taken ten pages rolls on for three chapters, with some very, very writerly writing. I shout in my head: what’s wrong with a good old declarative sentence? If it goes on like this, I’ll never have time to ride the mare.

That’s when the ruthlessness comes in, and why. It is the least the Readers deserve. Oddly, by this stage, it is really not all about you. But this mental shift too takes time. I’m just reaching it now. I feel my sinews harden and my resolve shine.

In ordinary life, I make breakfast for my mother, and go down to do the horse. My sister arrives and walks round the block with us. The red mare is delighted since this means that she does not have to do schooling or transitions or anything fancy, but can just mosey along without reins, my hands scratching her withers as she drops her dear heads and sighs with pleasure. We are going so slowly that she can stop and say hello to some children on the avenue. She adores children. She loves the sound of human voices too, so the low rhythms of the Sister and I chatting are her deep delight.

I have no interest in Halloween, but the great-nieces and nephew are coming round later and I make them a chocolate fridge cake. I know they would prefer commercial sweets, but I think of them getting loaded up with sugar and additives and decide that, for the sake of the grown-ups who will have to put them to bed afterwards, some nice black chocolate and nuts and honey and raisins, with no terrifying E numbers or artificial colouring, might be better. I swish about, doing my domestic goddess schtick, making some soup at the same time, something I have not had time for in ages.

The radio is on. A Day in the Life comes on. The first part of it was written about my uncle. He died in a car crash and my father got the call very late and had to drive up the M4, through a black, frigid December night, to identify the body. He left my mother, eight months pregnant with me, at home. He never spoke of that midnight drive. I can’t imagine it. Sixty bleak miles, with a dead brother at the end of it. And then the sight of the body on the slab, that beautiful golden boy whom everyone loved, all the life and promise smashed out of him. My grandmother never really recovered. I’m not sure my father did either. The beloved name was rarely spoken throughout my childhood, as if the very sound of it was too much to bear.

I think of what my dad survived. Not just near-fatal falls on horses, back and neck broken twice, shoulders dislocating like clockwork, an ear ripped half off, but a grief so dark that it could not be put into words. And yet, somehow, he managed to be the life and soul of every party, bringing light with him wherever he went, so that people’s faces lit up and they stood a little taller, basking in the glow of his funny, idiosyncratic charm. It was only at the very end that the demons got him, when he was too battered and tired and defeated to defend himself.

I think of the slow, gentle, private life I live, in these Scottish hills. It is what I can manage. I don’t want to ride in the Grand National or be a shining star. I just want to write some sentences and think some thoughts. I want to watch Stanley the Dog with his stick. I want to walk round the block with my sweet red mare. Lucky for me, that is what she wants too. She was bred to be a champion, but it turned out she did not have the character for it. She is a tender soul. She loves the slow quiet as much as I do. It’s a sort of miracle that we found each other.


Today’s pictures:

Are from the week. They are not the best in terms of photographic quality. But they show the sweetness and that is what I want today.

31 Oct 1

31 Oct 2

So muddy and scruffy and happy:

31 Oct 3

31 Oct 5

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Why not choose the good?

I’ve suddenly had a spate of cold calls. Some bugger has obviously sold my telephone number for ready cash and now they are all piling in.

I do get these occasionally, but I have a patent method of dealing with them. They are usually about double-glazing or kitchens, and the moment the person starts the spiel I say, very politely: ‘May I stop you there? I’m a tenant.’

They can’t get off the telephone quick enough. One gentleman was really nice, roared with laughter, apologised, and said cheerfully: ‘You should not be on this list at all. I’ll make sure you are taken off it.’

‘How kind you are,’ I said, and we had a lovely chat.

Even if you don’t rent, say you do. The callers hate it.

But these new ones are different; they want to maintain my washing machine and do my electricity. They ask all kinds of questions. I fob them off with a variety of vagueness, elaborate courtesy, and apologies. It’s a horrid job, ringing up strangers, and not their fault they work for rotten people.

I think, as I go into the kitchen to make strong coffee: who sits down in a room and says ‘I know. Let’s start up a company where we ring up people who have not given us their number and try to flog them things they don’t need.’ What childhood trauma or lack of love leads to that kind of bleak thinking? It’s fine for me, a minor irritant in a busy day, but if you were someone vulnerable from age or bereavement or illness, living alone, I imagine you could feel beleaguered and besieged. I’ve heard rumours that some of the companies like to target the old, thinking they are a soft mark, and that if you are over seventy you can get as many as five of these calls a day.

There are so many huge horrors in the world: militias and fanatics and dictators. North Korea has been in the news lately and I can hardly read of the misery. But there are a lot of small bads too. This sort of heartless, grasping business model is a daily bad.

It’s no wonder the corporate class is not beloved. I suppose they don’t care, as they come on the radio and spout their empty jargon. Occasionally, you hear a good business person come on and speak like a human and even make a joke and it’s like a flower on a dung heap. What I find so odd is that if you are clever enough to set up a company that works, you are in a position to do good things in the world. You could use your power for good instead of evil.

John Lewis is the shining beacon of this, with happy employees who are invested in the business and go on special John Lewis holidays at their lovely houses in Wales or somewhere. They have the best customer service in the country and sell useful items that people want. (My latest John Lewis delivery was free, and arrived in the north-east of Scotland, an area that makes many carriers purse their lips and suck their teeth, in two days flat.) They are one of the few companies that rode out the recession and they are nearing iconic, national treasure status. If they can do it, why can’t everyone?

Then one reads of Tesco, whose leaders appear to have lied about profits, trashed the company, been famously awful to their suppliers (they make small farmers despair), had a devastating effect on local shops and high streets, and now are walking away from the wreckage with their fat bonuses intact. It’s enough to make screaming lefties of anyone. I’m pretty soft centre-left, but when I read stories like that I want to nationalise the means of production on the spot and start singing the Internationale and break out all my old Billy Bragg albums.

I think a lot about choices. Everyone has choices. I see them in action on the internet. You can be one of those angry people, spreading hate and bile under your assumed screen name, or you can write generous, encouraging comments and share pictures of baby pandas and add to the sum total of human happiness. The old-fashioned grandmothers of a lost generation used to say: it’s nicer to be nice. I know it sounds hopelessly hello sky, hello clouds, and irredeemably weedy wet, but why would you not choose the good?


Today’s pictures:

Amazingly, there actually are some from today.

Here is one of the HorseBack course participants, having her first sit on a horse ever. I’m always incredibly impressed by this. My parents put me on a pony before I can remember having conscious thought, which is another reason the red mare feels like home. I try to imagine how it must feel when every single thing is alien and odd. They were very brave and good, these women:

30 Oct 1

(Mikey was a sweetheart too. He is one of my favourites in the HorseBack herd, the most affectionate and dear fella, but with a strong character and defined ideas of what he does and does not like.)

The view in the gloaming:

30 Oct 2

30 Oct 3

The autumn leaves in my field:

30 Oct 4

And the autumn horse. She does not really like the summer. She gets too hot and the pollen bothers her. This is her dream time of year. She can get all muddy and furry and not give a damn about anything. It is this time of year that she becomes her most horsey self. She was so happy this morning that I did not ride her, but just worked her on the ground and then hung out with her at the feed shed, chatting to her and scratching her sweet spots and laughing like a drain when she managed to liberate the meadow-herb treats from their barrel, with a look of absolute triumph on her face. When she is in this mood, I like to be near her, to catch the waves of content as they spread from her glorious, powerful body, as if she is emanating joy. Here she is, this afternoon, as the light was starting to fade, coming up for her tea:

30 Oct 7

I’m not sure I ever loved anything in quite the way I love her. It’s not the biggest love, obviously, because she is not a human. It’s not like the family or the old friends. It is an amazingly simple love, profound and enduring as the earth. It has a lot of astonished gratitude in it. It’s a bright, clean, true love, and it makes me laugh and smile.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

A different reality. Or, the perspective police pay me a call.

After my good news collapse, it was salutary to go back to my voluntary work today. Working at HorseBack reminds me of many important things, mostly my own luck, as well as the capacity of the human spirit to rise above almost unimaginable lacerations and set-backs and troubles and wounds.

Today, they were working in a new partnership with the Venture Trust. Usually at HorseBack, I see veterans and servicemen and women, as that is their main focus. But the effect of the horses is so great that they have started branching out – in the last season, they have worked with young teenagers who are having trouble at school, and women who, coming from a background of often terrible abuse, have ended up in trouble with the law. The Venture Trust, which is a dazzling organisation, is devoted to giving second chances to people who have got lost in the criminal justice system, who have been labelled and written off. This week, they have brought a group to HorseBack.

I am always in a rush at the moment, because I am insanely attempting to write two books at once. As the agent line-edits one so that she can send it back for a final polish, I turn back to the other, which is at the third draft stage. One is fiction and one is non-fiction, so I have to stay sharp, and keep my brain versatile, so it can turn on a sixpence like a London cab. My professional life was dealt a blow a while ago, so these are effectively comeback books, and the odds are high. This is why I get stretched and panicked, and am always cantering about like a befuddled brumby.

I was going to do my usual dash, snap, chat, and depart. But the women were so magnetic, and the people who work with Venture were so fascinating, and the morning session was so transformative, even in the short hour I watched, that I forgot to be in a hurry. This was time well spent.

The kind of abuse in the people that Venture helps is sustained, inescapable and profound. Its victims are in a prison cell before the actual jail door slams. For many of them, the only analgesic that works is a fatal combination of drink and drugs. They lose any sense of agency. Venture takes them and shows them that they do have choices and they do have selves, underneath the layers of cruelty and judgement that has been heaped upon them.

They were so nice and smiling and brave. They admitted that they did not know horses and were pretty terrified of them. But they followed the good steps of the HorseBack method, squared their shoulders and made themselves the kind, reliable leaders that the equines need, took heart at the response of the gentle animals, and triumphed. One woman, who said her stomach was in knots of fear, did a hooking on exercise in the round pen, and managed to get her half-ton flight animal going round nicely on her cue, changing direction, turning in to her, following her steps, all at liberty. It was a perfect display, and the look of elation and amazement on her face was beyond price. I whooped and hollered, unable to help myself. It was such an achievement. I felt like crying.

I’ve faced a bit of adversity in my life, but nothing above the average. I have the usual middle-aged scars of death, divorce, loss, rejection and heartbreak. I’ve had failures and humiliations. But, unlike these people I saw today at HorseBack, I’ve never had to deal with sustained cruelty or unending despair, or that kind of awful invisibility suffered by those who are not considered by society to be a conventional success. Unlike the men and women who have served, I have never had to face hand to hand combat, or lurking IEDs, or a hidden enemy filled with fanatical hatred. I have never had to watch my best friend die.

Volunteering for a charity sounds like the kind of nice, cosy, middle-class thing that women of my age do. You get to the stage where you are conscious of putting something back, of needing a bit more meaning, and so off you go. It’s very expected and very ordinary. I did not really anticipate, when I embarked on it, that I would see people and hear stories that are so out of the ordinary that they make my very brain feel as if it is reconfiguring itself, as if the neural pathways are mapping new, unknown routes. My eyes have been opened to experiences and pain and courage I did not know existed.

I bang on all the time about my sweet red mare, and how she has changed my life and given me hope and solace, and how, when I am with her, the sea of troubles is swept away, and there is only goodness and calm. She loped today, a real Western lope, on a loose rein, out in the open grassy spaces, so relaxed and collected within herself that I fell on her neck with love and gratitude. She’s always held a tension in her canter, and today it was gone, and we damn well were The Green Grass of Wyoming. I imagine that when I recount these red mare stories, some readers might think there is an aspect of hyperbole, that sometimes I am getting over-excited and imagining something that is not there, and perhaps I am. But three miles west, along the wide blue valley, under the gentle gaze of these eternal hills, there really are horses who really are changing lives. And I get to see that. That is a gift more precious than rubies.


Today’s pictures:

One of the brave women, after her triumphant turn in the round pen:

29 Oct 1

My own little life-changer, having an extra-special treat after her glorious performance this morning:

29 Oct 1-001

She really was very pleased with herself, and she’s got a bit of a look on her face as if to say: yes, I really do deserve this. And so she does.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Good news.

The agent calls, with words about the manuscript. The words are good. She is sharp and full of business; she does not do gushing or sentiment. The words that send my heart soaring are not lovely darling lovely adjectives, but unadorned bald ones, about selling and territories.

Writing is an oddly helpless business. You can put the words in the right order and get all your ducks in a row and polish your paragraphs until they glimmer and gleam, but there is still no guarantee that anyone will like the thing, or want to sell it.

As usual with good news, I collapse in a heap. I’m oddly good at bad news. I get cussed and grit my teeth and think of the bastards not getting me down. I have no defence against good news.

Back tomorrow, when I shall have recovered.


In the meantime, here is Handsome Stanley:

28 Oct 1

Monday, 27 October 2014

The red mare makes my heart sing.

Author’s note: I really had intended to tell you something which was not about the horse today. But the red mare was so lovely this morning that it had to be recorded. My work is on full beam stress at the moment, with all kinds of pressures. In the midst of the maelstrom, this kind horse gives me a still small voice of calm, and there are not that many people you can say that about. So she gets her moment in the sun.


Quite often, I want to be somewhere else. When I am buying boring food in the boring shop, I want to be at home, at my desk, writing my book. When I am running dull errands to the post office, I want to be wrangling with the pacing in Chapter Fifteen, and working out whether that sudden tense shift works or not.

The place where I do not want to be anywhere else or think about anything else or fret about anything else is on the back of my mare.

We went for an adventure this morning. The little Paint had done a majestic escaping act yesterday, due to my arrant incompetence, and had been on a Magical Mystery Tour of her own. It seemed only fair that today they should both go out. It was the prettiest autumn morning and we had the time.

We took them on a new route, a perfect carnival of every single thing that should make a flight animal roll its eyes. Flapping washing, builders’ fencing, shiny tarpaulins, mysterious collections of barrels, men with power hoses, workers in high visibility articles, savagely barking German Shepherds hurling themselves against a boundary fence – not one of these could make the clever girls turn a hair. ‘Ha, HA,’ I shouted, hysterical with pride. ‘See how brilliant they are. All that groundwork really paid off.’

As I was gleaming with delight, showing off my thoroughbred champion through a pristine housing estate, the most prim and proper collection of houses I’ve ever seen, without a speck of dirt on the roads or a rogue leaf on the lawns, I imagined people inside, peering out, thinking ‘I wonder if that mare’s grandsire won the Derby?’ The Paint filly’s father is so famous that people send their mares to him from far and wide, and he has won so much silverware that I imagine his local joiners are in full employment, building new cupboards for the cups. Any silent observers were surely in for a treat.

At this point, the red mare, who likes to bring me back down to earth when I am going loco, lifted her tail and dumped a lovely line of healthy green dung on the immaculate tarmac. ‘Oh, I expect it will blow away,’ said the Horse Talker, quite unfazed. ‘Don’t worry.’

But I have a terrible bourgeois streak in me. I could not leave the mess. I leapt off, told the mare to stand, and left her slightly baffled in the middle of the crescent whilst I hid the droppings under someone’s laurel bush. ‘Compost,’ I shouted. ‘They won’t mind, will they?’ I raced back to the mare, who had not moved a hoof, and leapt on. The street reverted to its previous untouched state.

On the way back, I was in full bragging mode. The Horse Talker is used to this and listens kindly, in quiet amusement. ‘Oh, they are so perfect,’ I bawled. I listed all the frightening things they had walked past without batting an eyelid. I noted that both horses had been on the buckle the whole time, in their rope halters with no bits in their mouths, relaxed and biddable and like the polite ladies they were. ‘You know,’ I shouted, ‘I really think they are miracle girls.’

At which point, a black and white cat shot out from behind a dustbin. The red mare is used to dogs, but the sinuous flash of a feline is novel to her. Neat as a cat herself, she pivoted on her hocks and performed a dashing pirouette, worthy of the Spanish Riding School of Vienna. It was a fast turn, quite unexpected, and in the old days it would have had me off. This time, I went with her, not even unbalanced, as if I had asked for the manoeuvre myself. She and I are one person, I thought, happily. She snorted. I could feel her heart beating. She had had a proper fright.

‘It’s all right, old lady,’ I said, rubbing her withers. ‘It was just a cat.’

In the old days, the dial would have gone to ten and stayed there, and I would have had to get a horse packed with adrenaline home, clinging on with more hope than expertise. Now, quickly reassured, comfortable with herself and her world, she understood that the danger had gone and was not really a danger anyway, and reverted to her dear old donkey self and put her head down and stretched out her neck and walked home without my hands on her reins.

That’s the difference,’ I hollered, in wild joy. I was so happy, I laughed and laughed and laughed, as if someone had made the best joke in the world. ‘Best spook in the world,’ I cried. ‘Just one little moment of alarm and then back to sweetness and dearness.’

There has been an outbreak of anti-thoroughbred prejudice on the internet in the last few days, and I had got angry about it. I was going to write a whole essay about the might of the thoroughbred: the beauty, the bravery, the power and the glory. I was going to prove, point by point, how remarkable the breed is, how fine, how clever, how bonny and blithe. I would give examples; I would show my working. Those idiot people with their narrow minds would rue the day. Yes, there is a lot of power under the bonnet, even in such a dear old slowcoach as the red mare, who could not be fagged to race when that was her job and merrily sauntered round at the back, not seeing the point at all. There is that blue blood and that high spirit. But all they need is a steady human and good work and they become steady themselves, as docile as the sweetest cob.

I won’t write that essay. Closed minds will stay closed, however much I ransack the thesaurus for different words for wonderful. There is no point my ranting and raving. I can just tell the small story of the perfect ride and hug the memory of my poster girl to my heart and bask in the joy she brings. The pressure of work pushes on my head like a heavy iron plate, but every time I am on her back, the lightness comes and my monkey mind is stilled and my sense of self is restored and my sanity is preserved. Everyone needs their one true thing, to keep them whole. She is my one true thing.

27 Oct 1

PS. One of the Dear Readers asked about the Paint and whether she is ridden. She has a lovely owner who shares the field with me, and, as you can see, we ride out together when time allows.

PPS. The Horse Talker sent an email to the owner of the laurel bush, explaining about the droppings and apologising. He sent the loveliest message back, saying that he had been longing for dung and could we bring him some more. Clever red mare, I thought, even happier than before. Clearly she took one look at that garden and divined that her offering was just what was needed. She really is Champion the Wonder horse and no mistake.

Friday, 24 October 2014

A good week.

I am back to my other project. Two hundred and thirty-five pages have been edited this week. I am still not being strict enough about killing the darlings, and need to go back again and be more bloody. I sharpen my mental knives.

In the world, the gales have dropped and the sun has come out and the horses are calm and settled, growing their teddy bear coats for winter. The vet comes to give the flu shots and smiles and says: ‘They look well. Very happy and relaxed.’ I beam, as if a teacher has given me 100% in a test. My stepsister and her family arrive from the south. I ride the red mare up to see them and they stroke her and give her apples. She takes the deliciousness with polite, delicate gestures. We don’t feed by hand usually, but still she knows how to be courteous when the rarity is offered.

The Stepsister and I stand on my mother’s steps and talk, about life and love and children and dogs. The mare drops her head and dozes, listening to the human voices, her ears occasionally flicking, still as a statue. I break off from the conversation, suddenly overcome with pride. ‘When she is like this,’ I say, ‘I think of her as my Zen meditation, the only thing that shuts off the monkey mind.’

The Stepsister observes the mare keenly. ‘But she is always like this,’ she says, her voice bright and admiring. Another 100%. I practically fall off, I am so delighted.

We ride back down the avenue with no irons and no reins. Must deepen my seat, I think, remembering how I was taught that as a child, going over the cavalettis with my arms crossed, although in this case the no irons and no reins is more of a jubilee – look at this amazing creature, who can carry herself kindly with no steering. The mare, as if she has set her inner radar, navigates a true line. I rub her withers and tell her how brilliant and clever and good she is. I think again, for the thousandth time, how lucky I am to have her, and how much a part of her I feel, and how transformative she is.

I plan the weekend. It is going to be a working weekend. That is fine. Work is good. It is hard at the moment, because I must be ruthless and ruthlessness is not one of my talents, but I also take pleasure in it. I look forward to getting to my desk and putting my flinty thinking cap on.

I think: I’m a bit scruffy and a bit muddly and a bit disorganised. All the logistics I was supposed to do this week have not been done. The To Do list remains fairly unticked. But the leaves are turning, and the baby beeches down by the horses’ paddock gleam as bright as lollipops, and Stan the Man is having a fine time finding tremendous sticks that fell from the trees in the big gale, and my family is gathered, and oh, that red mare is at her crest and peak of goodness and beauty. And she got five stars from the vet.

It’s a very small life. I like that it is small. It’s writing and thinking and riding and walking and making my mother eggs for breakfast. There are no headlines in it. But this week was a good week, I think, after all that. It’s not a bad thing to be able to write.


Today’s pictures:

Are actually from today, for once.

24 Oct 1

24 Oct 2

24 Oct 4

24 Oct 5

24 Oct 6

Stan the Man had what I believe the very young people call a play date, as some of his friends arrived in the set-aside. In the background you can see two dozy girls, clearly thinking – what are the humans doing with those silly dogs when they could be gazing at lovely us?:

24 Oct 8

Stanley the Manly adores this very girly girl:

24 Oct 9

The whole pack:

24 Oct 10

The sweet, gentle face of Autumn the Filly:

24 Oct 12

Red, with her best background. I love that she matches the leaves:

24 Oct 14

About to go for our sweet ride. Oh, those crazy thoroughbreds, with their temperaments:

24 Oct 15

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

A morning story about thoroughbreds and too much love.

‘I worry about you and that horse,’ says my mother, at breakfast.

‘I know,’ I say. I do know. I know at once what she is going to say. ‘Because I love her too much.’

My mother nods.

‘You love her too much.’

We do not need to spell out what this means. It means that if anything were ever to happen to her, I should be undone. This is true, and it is one of things which occasionally haunts me at night.

‘If one of these books takes off,’ I say, ‘I’ll get in touch with Lucinda Russell or Nick Gifford and see if they have a little mare who needs a nice retirement home.’

(Both these trainers have excellent rehoming schemes and run brilliant yards, producing kind, polite horses.)

My mother frowns.

‘Does it have to be a racehorse?’ she says.

‘Yes,’ I say.

She has good memories and bad memories of the racehorses. She used to have to qualify hunter chasers with the Surrey Union drag. Eight times out, minimum, to be witnessed by the Master and Field Master, or some such. ‘It was funny country,’ she said. ‘Lots of woods, lots of trees and ditches. And I was qualifying this horse and it turned out that he hated trees. He used to go round in circles and try to get me off. People were quite shocked.’

She paused, taken back into the distant past. ‘I’m not sure that all of the Surrey Union people were so very sophisticated.’

I love the idea of sophistication being needed to understand the mazy workings of the thoroughbred mind.

She smiles, blindingly. ‘But then I had Vino,’ she said. ‘He came from Ireland and he had never seen timber before. I had to teach him. You know, to jump gates and things. But he was brilliant in the end. Oh, I loved him.’

I can hardly imagine this tiny creature up on a great big hunter chaser, going hell for leather through the woods. Dragging is much more frightening than usual hunting, since the artificial scent is laid and all the huntsman has to do is follow it. There is no stopping and milling about outside coverts. It’s just galloping and jumping all day long. My father’s mother, even tinier than my own mum, used to hunt sidesaddle. ‘I was so terrified,’ she told me once, ‘I used to take a huge slug of brandy and then shut my eyes.’

After Vino, there was Mary, another Irish hunter chaser, whom my mother loved even more. She knows all about the love and the loss. Vino got a horrible disease and had to be put down. She can still remember the moment that Frank Mahon, our adored vet, came into the kitchen and said there was nothing more he could do for the old fella. It must have been almost fifty years ago, but that snapshot lives vivid in her mind. ‘Oh, how I cried,’ she says.

‘A racehorse,’ I say, reverting to the original subject, ‘has seen everything and done everything. And you know, if you get one who hasn’t taken to racing much, they are so happy just to live the quiet life. A nice slow old plug.’

My mother brightens. ‘Yes,’ she says. ‘A slow old plug.’

‘Besides,’ I say. ‘They are home to me. They are what I know. They are what I grew up with. I love all those Quarter Horses I see at HorseBack, but it is still an unfamiliar breed. I have to learn them, from scratch. When I’m with a thoroughbred, I think: oh yes, I know you. You are my people.’

There is an odd thing about breeds. All horses are complete individuals, so making sweeping generalisations is mad and wrong. On the other hand, certain horses are bred for certain jobs. A Highland is going to be very different from a thoroughbred. Within this imperious breed I love so much, you will get brilliant ones and dull ones, goofy ones and lazy ones, sharp ones and funny ones. The ex-sprinter I know up the road is a very different character from my sweet, dopey red mare. But all thoroughbreds do share characteristics, going back to those three foundation sires and the good English and Irish mares they were bred to.

They tend to be quick, sensitive, clever and reactive. Most of them are very honest and try very hard. They are bred to go forward, and they are creatures of the air, not earthed like the native breeds. I think they have what humans would identify as pride; most of them know when they have won, and are keenly pleased when they have done anything well. They are tough, in mind as well as body.

A lot of them are also extraordinary gentle, especially when faced with vulnerability. You hear endless stories of thoroughbreds being enchanted with children. My own mare goes into a trance when she sees a child, becoming very still and fluttering her eyelashes and breathing out in delight through her nose, holding out her velvet muzzle to say hello. My father did not think twice about letting me go in to the match-fit chasers he trained, when I would try and help him out on dark winter dawns at morning stables, when I was too small even to lift a full water bucket.

Those early mornings are too almost fifty years ago. Well, forty-three years. There is a lot of my childhood I can’t remember at all. But I remember morning stables. I remember those horses. They were where I started; they are what I have come back to, with gratitude and love.

If one of the books takes off, I shall get a dear mare, who never quite made the grade out on the bright green turf, and the red duchess shall have a friend, and there will be someone to console me should the worst ever happen, and my mother can stop worrying.

Out in the field, Red lays her head gently against my shoulder and I meditatively scratch her sweet spot and get the glorious scent of her in my nostrils, and say: ‘I do love you far too much.’ She nods. She knows. She doesn’t mind.


Today’s pictures:

A lot of work at the moment, so the camera has not been out. I am still trying vainly to rationalise the archive, and here are some old shots I found:

Girls and Stanley the Dog, let out to graze at liberty in the set-aside, before the second paddock was built:

22 Oct 1

22 Oct 2

22 Oct 2-001

22 Oct 6

22 Oct 6-001

22 Oct 7

22 Oct 9

This is one of my favourite cow shots ever:

22 Oct 10

The look of love. The thing that makes me laugh is that it was a very windy day, and the red mare’s mane is blowing up in the air like that of a punk rocker. My tragic helmet hair, on the other hand, does not move:

22 Oct 11

22 Oct 20

I do remember this day. I took about forty snaps of the duchess, because of the whole thing with the red coat and the autumn leaves and the symphony of colours:

22 Oct 23

I love that she is so soft and meditative in this one. I do talk all the time about her Zen aspect, and she does sometimes go off into a little dream, as if she is contemplating the Universal Why:

22 Oct 26

(Actually, she is almost certainly wondering when the hell the humans will stop taking damn photographs and give her some tea.)

22 Oct 29

22 Oct 32

PS. The last thing my mother said to me this morning made me shout with laughter. We were talking about one of those legendary huntsmen that all old horse people know. ‘You know,’ she said, with a bit of a twinkle. ‘He had an extraordinary success with women. I don’t know why. He was very hard on his wives, as hard as he was on his hounds.’

Small pause.

‘Actually,’ she said, ‘I think he was harder on the wives. He liked the hounds better.’

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

The boy in the black suit.

This morning, in the shop, there is a boy dressed in a tight, sharp black suit and pointed black shoes. It is as unexpected as an Eames chair in a farmyard.

It’s almost a mod look, but not quite mod. It is inflected with a faint hint of Goth, which is highlighted by the trace of eyeliner. It is all urban. Those drainpipe trousers and winklepickers are not what we usually see, in these parts.

In these parts, people tend to dress according to their tribe. There is the tweedy lot, with their LandRovers and their corduroy; the sporty lot, who go to one of those shops that sell something I think is called outerwear and is made of the kind of fabric that people go to space in; the tidy lot, who are always immaculate and respectable and perfectly pressed and make me feel very scruffy indeed. Then there is my tribe, which is what I think of, in the nicest possible way, the dirty lot. These are the people who work outside, who have mud on their boots and their hands and sometimes, as in my case, their faces, whose clothes have nothing sartorial about them, but are purely practical, built to withstand livestock and weather. We do not have young men in sharp black suits.

I smile. I remember those boys. I think I used to kiss those boys. They were the ones who loved vinyl, and spent a lot of time listening to old Nick Drake and Gram Parsons records. They loved Van Morrison, but not the famous tracks, the obscure difficult Van at his most Vannish tracks, like TB Sheets, which they put on every mix tape they made.

I’m at the age now where my youth is far enough away for the string to snap. I realise that I spent a lot of time pulled back into the past. I think I defined myself by the things I did in my late teens and early twenties. This summer, when I went back to Oxford for my gaudy, I realised it was not mine any more. I’d always been so proud of Oxford. I was not supposed to be clever enough to go, but there was a muddle in the headmaster’s office, and I ended up going back for my seventh term by mistake, to cram for the exam. Might as well have a go at it, I thought, although all my teachers said that it was a bridge too far. I was all prepared for Bristol, hoping I might find a nice room in Clifton, when the letter came. My mother stood at the bottom of the stairs, gazing at the thin piece of paper. ‘What is an exhibition?’ she said.

That was a defining feature for a long time, as all the girly swotting finally paid off. This summer, I let it go. I gave those golden stones and stately quads back to the young people who own them now. It was melancholy and liberating at the same time. I don’t need this any more, I thought. You can’t go around your whole life thinking: well, look at me, I went to university.

I think it was a thing in my mind because I did not come from an academic background. I lived among horse people, and they really did only talk about horses. My father could work out of the odds of a five-race accumulator in under a minute, but he had no idea who John Stuart Mill was. The people of the Lambourn valley did not read de Toqueville, so it felt very novel and thrilling to me as I sat in tutorials about him, with the venerable old prof who knew him as well as a brother.

The boy in the black suit was a whistle from that distant past. For a moment, I remembered it all. Then I had a nice conversation with the lady in the shop about the weather – ‘blowing in from the Atlantic,’ she said; ‘I hope we don’t get hit too hard,’ – and went to make sure the red mare was settled for the storm to come.


Today’s pictures:

Ready for the storm:

21 Oct 1

21 Oct 2

This is Red’s stern predator alert face. She knows she has a job to do:

21 Oct 3

The dramatic idea of Preparing for the Storm is of course absurd, because all it means is rugs and a slightly bigger than usual breakfast. The girls are perfectly able to deal with the weather themselves. The red mare takes up her position at the highest point of the field, well away from dangerous branches, and watches for mountain lions, whilst, in her shadow, the little Paint safely grazes. Horses are much tougher than one thinks. It is the humans who are frail, and fret. Or this human, anyway.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Say the thing.

Someone just sent me one of the nicest emails I’ve ever had in my life.

A nine-year-old person uttered a fine, fine compliment. Her mother wrote it down and passed it on to me.

It was like being sprinkled with stardust.

Despite my best intentions, I spend quite a lot of time scolding myself. I must write faster and better; I must be more organised; I must make all those vital telephone calls that I never make. One day, says the dark voice in my head, you are going to have to tackle the cupboard of doom.

I know that this chastisement is stupid and pointless. A bit of stern galvanising talk is a good thing. One must crack on. But the random, low-level chuntering at perceived hopelessness is only lowering, and achieves nothing but gloom. It is the kind of thing that you would never say to another human, only to yourself. I know better, and yet on those damn voices chatter.

And there, out of a clear blue sky, came the kind voice of a child, and that voice silenced all those inner critics with one sentence.

The particularly lovely thing is that it was passed on. It did not have to be. They might have laughed together and kept it to themselves. But they did not.

I quite often write: say the thing. By this I mean: express the love, utter the encouragement, make the compliment. This sounds very obvious, but it is not always straightforward. For Britons in particular, it can be almost embarrassing. We are supposed to be phlegmatic and deprecating; we bring grumbly complaining to Olympic levels. Too much enthusiasm and appreciation may be seen as gushing and bogus. This is particularly true in this part of the world, where the character is as granite as the land from which it comes. The Scots of the north-east do understatement so sternly that it is often interpreted as rudeness by people who are not used to it.

Say the thing, say the thing, I chant to myself in delight.

Almost everyone is a little bashed and bruised; almost everyone has a private tape which runs on a loop, listing their shortcomings. If you tell them something lovely about themselves, you can shut off that damn tape, even if only for a moment. You can, for a moment, give them their best self back.

Say the thing.


Today’s pictures:

Have been trawling through the archive, trying to tidy it up. I take far too many pictures and do not delete the duds as I go. Naughty. As I made a slightly feeble attempt to wrangle the thing into some kind of coherence, I found these:

20 Oct 1

20 Oct 2

20 Oct 4

20 Oct 5

20 Oct 6

20 Oct 9

20 Oct 10

20 Oct 12

20 Oct 15

20 Oct 16

20 Oct 21





The funny thing is that the kind email had a pay it forward aspect. So galvanised was I by the sweetness, that as I waded through the archive, I put together a little album for the Beloved Cousin, of her family, from happy days in the summer. It’s a very small thing, but I think it will make her smile, and it was a way of passing on the joy.


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