Friday, 28 November 2014

Friday pictures.

I’ve given you far too many words this week, so here are some pictures on which you may rest your tired eyes. I’ve been going through the archive for my HorseBack work and stumbled upon these in the process. I have absolutely no technical idea about what makes a good photograph and just choose the ones I like, even though they are often flawed. This feels like a bit of a lesson for life, since I am always battling my competitive and perfectionist urges. I blame my girly swot childhood, when I always wanted to be top of the class. Actually, I don’t blame anything, since that way victimhood lies. They are character traits which need corralling, so they do not ruin everything and make me tired. Ambition can be a lovely thing, and must do better is a fine cry, but lashing oneself for falling short of an impossible peak is sheer folly. Balance, as always, is everything. (Oh, God, I was not going to do words today, and then I started typing, and my fingers appear to be spilling out platitudes. I really do apologise. It’s been a long and rainy week.)

Anyway, here are your Friday pictures – hills and dogs and mares and leaves and trees. All my favourite things:

28 Nov 1

28 Nov 1-001

28 Nov 2

28 Nov 3

28 Nov 4

28 Nov 6

28 Nov 6-001

28 Nov 9

28 Nov 10

28 Nov 12

28 Nov 17

28 Nov 21Some very, very kind comments this week; thank you for them. They do make me smile. Have a wonderful weekend. My extended family is gathering, so I’m looking forward to a very happy two days.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Day in brief.

Rotten, raw weather, but a ray of metaphorical sunshine comes out as the red mare and the little Paint and their humans go for a perfect ride. The mare needs neither stirrups or reins as I lounge on her back like an old cow-hand and let her go along under me, happy as twenty-seven nuts. She does dazzle me, with her goodness and cleverness and willingness. And, I think, the really lovely thing is that we are friends.

Despite my ruthless aim to cut and slash and kill all those darlings, I write one thousand new words. This is absurd and I am quite cross with myself. But the new scene was needed, and so it had to be written. The book stretches in front of me, still far, far too long. Shall I ever learn brevity?

Stanley the Dog does not care about the weather. He is in cracking form, exceptionally excited to see his girlfriend, who is a ravishingly beautiful dalmatian. Their preferred method of courting is to run around in vast circles, their bellies close to the ground, their muzzles stretched out in racing glory, their long, athletic legs hurling them forward at top speed. Their two friends, a pair of handsome golden retrievers, watch them with slight bafflement.

I watch a couple of races. I win some money, I lose some money. There is one particular Willie Mullins novice who is having his first go. Generally, they either love it or hate it. The ones who can’t see the point are quickly sent into other disciplines. (My own sweet slow girl was honourable retired after three disastrous races, where she sloped round at the back, with not an ounce of competitive spirit.) This fella adored it. He pricked his ears in the Irish sun and bounced over the emerald turf, every muscle in his fine body saying oh, yes. He’ll have happy memories now, of doing his job well, of leading the herd, of jumping for fun, of winning. He’ll almost certainly enjoy the rest of his career, because of that dancing introduction.

The rain continues to fall. We feed the horses and give them their hay and make sure they are settled for the night. They are stoical in the weather. The humans grumble, but the equines manage a touching prick of the ears as if to say: don’t worry, it’s not so very bad. The mare gives her sweet, humming whicker. Even in the gloom and the dreich, my heart expands like a flower in springtime.

Today’s pictures:

Just time for a couple, from sunnier days:

27 Nov 1

27 Nov 2

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

In which I accept the mystery.

A very interesting work day today. I should know every damn thing there is to know about writing a novel by now. I’ve read all the manuals and even sat at the feet of a master and listened in awe and wonder. I’ve read most of the great novels and watched for how the mechanics work. But it’s a long time since I wrote a fiction, and I’m rusty. It’s coming back, bit by bit, and I watch the returning memory with interest.

Today, I thought: a crucial change does not have to be a big thing.

There are themes which need developing and deepening and characters who need more nuance and complexity. It’s all a bit bland and straightforward at the moment. I need to put my twisty little firestarter hat on. I had been rather daunted by some of the changes that were required, until I reminded myself of the power of smallness. You really can transform a chapter by adding a couple of lines. A profound shift does not require five new ten-page scenes. A line here, a word there, and the thing suddenly shimmers off the page. If a scene falls flatly, plodding along without that mysterious galvanic element, you can merely cut a paragraph or two, add three lines of dialogue, throw in a dash of weather, give it a smell (smell is really important and often overlooked in novels) and – le voilà – GORDON’S ALIVE.

Obviously you have to read that last part in a Brian Blessed voice for it to make any sense.

Anyway, once I realised this, I dashed off with the smoothing iron and did all my work in about ten minutes so I now can sneakily treat myself to the 2.45 at Fontwell, which is very cheering.

There are days when I plug away, putting in hours and hours and achieving nothing. And then there are bright, light, dancing days, when I suddenly get the point, and do what needs to be done in double-quick time and sit back with a sense of flushed triumph. How did that happen? I ask myself.

Nobody knows. Writing, like the thoroughbred, contains an insoluble mystery. One can learn it and practice it and codify it and get better at it, but there is a part of it which bears no explanation. Why do the words suddenly fall into the head, as if they have been sent? Where do they come from? Why are there days when everything is rotten and gone to hell, and days when everything works like a magic trick?

Nobody knows.

I do not know why my red mare will trot around me in perfect circles, as collected as a dressage horse, attached to no rope, responding sweetly to the merest body language. I’ve studied herd behaviour and learnt profound methods from the Australian horseman whose wisdom I follow, but I still don’t really know why she will do that. It still feels like a mystery and miracle.

This morning, after a display on the ground good enough to win gold medals, she stood quietly as I got on, did her lateral flexion as sweetly as if she had been secretly taking a course in the night, and walked out into the Scottish fields, as contained and poised as an ambassadress. She did perfect transitions from voice only. Usually, I cheat a bit, giving her a little cue from seat or legs. Trust her, I thought. She knows. So I really did just do one click for trot, and said walk for walk, and did not move my body or my hands at all, and there was the pin-sharp response, as light as air, as accurate as geometry, as beautiful as dreams.

I don’t know when anything has made me so happy. It was a deep, spreading delight, a flinging disbelief, a wild joy. How do you thank a horse, I wondered, for such gifts? She got strokes and love and scratches on her withers and extra breakfast, but I’ll never really be able to thank her in a way she can understand.

Accept the mystery, I thought.

I thought: I really am turning into an old hippy at heart.

I am a rationalist, and I like reasons for things. I like digging out the bones and working things out and having some good logic on which to rest my feet. But in the two things I love the most, in writing and in horsing, there is an essential mystery and I must let that be. Perhaps it is in that mystery that the joy lies.


Today’s pictures:

Just time for one, no prizes for guessing what it is. I’ve been hopeless about pictures lately, but I’m busy and pressed and in the crowded days something always has to give, and at the moment it is the camera. Very sorry about that.

26 Nov 1

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

A small ambition.

I met some absolutely fascinating people today. One of the great things about my work for HorseBack is that I encounter people I would never otherwise come across. My horizons are widened and I am offered glimpses into worlds I might not know about. But most often, these meetings are just sheer pleasure.

They were the kind of people where all it took was one smile, one shake of the hand, one ‘how do you do?’ and we were off to the races. I joke about not getting out much, but I really don’t get out much. My social skills can grow dank and rusty. I am capable, in the wrong company, of being struck with catastrophic shyness, so that I can only speak in halting platitudes. If I get the right people, however, there is no stopping me. With these ones, there were quickly jokes, galloping conversation, happy laughter, even a bit of teasing, which normally takes long-term intimacy to achieve.

What was it, I wondered, which made them so charming and easy? What was it in them that drew out my very best self and allowed it to dance?

We did not have that much in common. I keep horses; they keep Aberdeen Angus. I write books; they make whisky. I am a racing geek; their faces were blank when I mentioned Nigel Twiston-Davies. We were different ages, and from different backgrounds.

There was a glimmer of shared cultural references, a nice reading between the lines, at once getting the joke, not having to explain anything. But it ran much deeper than that.

They were, I think, two exceptionally nice people who were very comfortable in their own skins. They were radiators. (Two types of human, my wise old friend The Designer used to say: drainers and radiators.) They were enthusiasts. They saw at once the positive. They were And people rather than But people.

I think a lot about being comfortable in your skin. It’s a gaol one tries to achieve with horses. If you train a horse well and give it good leadership, it has an ease in itself which means that disaster is much less likely to strike. A horse who is confident in the world is much less prone to bolt or buck or rear or panic. Humans who are comfortable are a pleasure to be around, because they don’t need to prove anything. They allow space for others, seeing no necessity to colonise everything themselves and plant defensive flags. They don’t have to show off or hog the conversation or put anyone down. They can understand arguments which are not their own, and do not take needless offense. They can laugh at themselves, and bring out the laughter in others.

I think this ease, this sense of proper self, is a good goal, because of the lovely ripple effects. People talk a lot about how to be happy, and I’m not against that, although I think happiness is a nebulous thing which can have twenty different interpretations. I read a really peculiar article by a ‘happiness expert’ yesterday. This professor of joy wrote proudly: ‘I have never read a novel in my life. There are only so many hours in the day and I have decided to fill them with activities rather than made-up stories’. Each to each and all that, but it seemed to me quite radically odd to dismiss War and Peace and Middlemarch and Persuasion as pointless made-up stories. I am still wondering whether the whole piece was a spoof. Perhaps in very, very small letters at the end it really said: ‘as told to Craig Brown’.

So, the pursuit of happiness comes with complications and problems of definition. But being comfortable in your skin is a solid, known feeling; it endures. It has nothing to do with mood or outside influences or changes in circumstance. One may be sad, and still comfortable in one’s skin. I’m not sure if one can learn it, or get it from a book, or achieve it through striving, but it is rather my ambition. When I see it, in its pomp, as I did this morning, I watch with awe and wonder the sheer pleasure that it brings. I spent forty minutes with two complete strangers, and I drove away feeling better about everything.


Today’s pictures:

25 Nov 1

25 Nov 2

This person is entirely at ease with herself at the moment. She is woolly and muddy and scruffy, absolutely a horse, happy that the rain has stopped and we are working again, back in our routine. She gave me a free-school this morning of such poise and grace that I kept her going and going, just so I could watch the beauty:

25 Nov 4

I bang on a lot about the red mare and the love. The love is of course the overwhelming thing. I swear my heart has grown bigger since I’ve had her. Every day, I feel huge, huge love, that never diminishes or grows ordinary. But she also gives me daily aesthetics. Even as scruffy and covered in mud as she is, she is still a creature of glorious muscles and athleticism and moving parts. When she does her collected dressage trot at liberty, as she did this morning, I really do catch my breath, it is such a thing to see. Everyone needs beauty in their lives, and she gives me that gift daily, on top of everything else.

Monday, 24 November 2014

A quick thought for a Monday.

There is a special mistake in rational thinking which actually has a name. I can’t remember the name. A clever Dear Reader will know. It’s when a person does a thing and you then think the person is a thing.

So: someone shouts, and you think, goodness that’s a shouty man. Someone loses their temper, and you tell yourself that is an angry woman.

This mistake is the sister to confirmation bias. Once you have decided the person is grumpy, or arrogant, or brilliant, you then tend to notice the grumpy or arrogant or brilliant things they do and disregard all the sunny, humble or goofy things they do. Those things do not fit into the theory, so they are ignored. Almost all humans do this. Some do it more than others.

I’m always on the hunt for lazy thinking. I try and catch myself in it and have a stern word with myself. I don’t like it because I think it is closely aligned to bad manners, and also any reductive assumptions drain the human condition of all its fascinating contradictions and complexities. Labels are dull, quite apart from anything else.

I think of this as I try to give light and shade to my characters, so they will have three dimensions and sing off the page. I think of it when a Twitter storm springs up, and people take one remark or one mistake and refuse to allow any other adjective apart from their own. (How does anyone know what Emily Thornberry was really thinking when she wrote ‘image from Rochester’? I can think of at least five possible interpretations, but no, ghastly metropolitan sneery snob is the only accepted conclusion.) I think of it as I work my mare. She was immaculate this morning, light as air, soft as thought. Yesterday, she was snorting and bucking. Oh, a moody mare, many people would say. I know all about people assuming that females are a slave to their hormones, and I won’t have it. She is not moody, she is a sentient creature, and each day brings something new. I won’t apply a label, and that means I work better with her, because I’m not marching in with a horrid box-set of assumptions.

I don’t like lazy, reductive thinking because it is not useful. (It is certainly not beautiful, so William Morris would strike it off his list at once.) The older I get, the more I love the useful. I was once a bit of a dreamy idealist. I liked the big theories and the high notions and thought they probably could change the world. Now, I like very much things which work, even if they don’t sound wildly poetic. I like things which contribute something, which get things done, which add some small increment to the sum total of human happiness. (And equine happiness too.) So there will be no crass labels here, no moody mares, no oestrogen-battered females. There will be no ‘they are all the same’, no bland labels, no group-think. It’s quite tiring, because I have to stay on watch for my own weakness like a sentinel on a castle rampart. But I think it is worth it.


Today’s pictures:

Just time for two quick beauties:

24 Nov 1-001

24 Nov 2

Sunday, 23 November 2014

A very long, very shaggy horse story.

Author’s note: This really is FOR THE HORSE PEOPLE ONLY.

I’m doing something different today. Some of you will know that I use a method of horsemanship with my red mare which comes down from the great founding fathers of Ray Hunt and the Dorrance brothers. The very specific techniques I use are learnt from a brilliant Australian horseman called Warwick Schiller. He has a very good internet forum, where I occasionally post stories about the red mare, and everything she and I are learning together, and the happy progress we are making in what is, to me, a new school. I like sharing with the group, with people who are going through the same process. Since this is an absurdly long story, I thought I’d post it as a blog instead of cluttering up the Schiller timeline. It is a Sunday, and I don’t normally write a blog on a Sunday, so I felt I could indulge myself, and that the non-horsey Dear Readers would allow me the latitude.

Here we go:

I’ve been away for a while and it’s been raining non-stop for three weeks, so the mare has not been worked, and has mostly been standing still under her favourite tree. In the weather, she and her Paint friend do that stoical switching off thing, and some of their field is flooded, so they don’t work off their energy in the usual way. The clouds cleared for five minutes on Friday, so I rather rushed into a bit of groundwork, eager to fit it in before the downpours came again.

Whoop, whoop, cried the mare, rodeo time. I’m not sure whether it was a bit of boundary-testing, general high spirits, the fact I had hurried her instead of slowly going through our usual steps, the sun on her back, the stored energy, or a combination of all of them, but instead of my dozy old donkey, I had a leaping, bucking creature on the end of the line. (We don’t have a round pen, so I was doing circles on the rope.) She has not done anything like this wild carry-on for months and months, and for a moment I watched in awe as all her thoroughbred blood asserted itself, she grew a hand before my eyes, and she stuck her posh nose in the air and snorted like a steam train. Her tail was vertical and flying like flags. Her trot was that high, flinging, Spanish Riding School of Vienna gait that almost defies physics. That, I thought, is half a ton of flight animal, with her adrenaline up.

In the old days, I would have been afraid. I would have toughed it out, even though quailing inside, probably called out whoa, whoa in a too-loud voice, pulled on the line. I would have thought she was being ‘naughty’ and possibly even got a bit cross with her, out of fright. I might have taken it personally. As it was, after everything I have learnt in the last year, I had remedies. I stayed steady and sent her on and let her get it out of her system. I absolutely refused her random attempts to change direction and kept her going forward. More snorting and some plunging, farting bucks. (The fart-buck slightly ruins her duchessy image.) It took about three and a half minutes before she realised that none of this was getting her anywhere, and the inside ear twitched towards me and she began responding to cues in her usual light and intelligent fashion. In the blink of an eye, I had my beautifully schooled girl back, and there she was, doing an enchanting collected trot to some inner music, carrying herself with composure, describing perfect circles around me.

I think a lot about this method of horsing and why I like it so much. It’s very practical. It makes all the daily things we do easy. There’s no pushing or barging or pulling. I don’t have to get nervous that I will be knocked over at tea-time, as she takes her polite three steps backwards and knows that she is required to stay out of my space. It’s also that working this method means that 90% of the time I have a calm, reliable, responsive horse.

But, perhaps most importantly, it comes into its own on the rare occasions when everything goes a bit Pete Tong. Horses are horses. You can school them and teach them and trust them and get them to trust you, but there is always the possibility of the unexpected. The difference is that now, when it does go a bit wild and woolly, I KNOW WHAT TO DO. I know that sounds very simple, but for me it is a revelation. Because of the new knowledge, I don’t have to be scared; I have a steady purpose. I don’t have to get cross about the wrong thing, I just make it hard. Sure, I say, you can leap and buck if you want, but you’ll have to work. Over here, I say; here is the right thing, which is easy. Oh yes, she says, I remember. And she makes the good choice and remembers her best self and all is harmony again.

After all that drama, this morning I woke to find the sun had finally, finally returned. Scotland was in her pomp again. I ran down to the field, ready to celebrate the weather. We would work, we would ride, we could do anything. The Horse Talker was there, working her Paint. The red mare was watching with interest. I noticed that there was a glittery hula-hoop propped against the gate. Ah, I thought. Desensitising. We have not done any imaginative desensitising for ages. Every morning, I do our regular version, throwing the rope across the mare’s back and whacking it on the ground while she does not move a muscle, and then rubbing her all over her neck and back until she is so relaxed that she practically goes to sleep. In the early days we did tarpaulins and flags and balls and even one of those silvery capes that marathon runners wear after a race, but lately it’s just been the standard version.

A glittery hula-hoop, I thought with glee. There’s fun.

I picked it up. It had lots of little maraca beans inside it which made a shushing, swooshing noise. UH-OH, shouted the red mare. Off she galloped, tail back up in the air, doing the steam-train snorting again.

‘Oh, dear,’ I said, ruefully to the Horse Talker.

‘Yes,’ she said sagely. ‘You are going to be here all morning.’

The red mare tried to pretend she was rounding up her little Paint friend, but was in fact clearly trying to hide behind her.

‘No,’ said the Horse Talker firmly. ‘You can’t come here.’

The problem with this kind of horsing is that it’s like Mastermind. I’ve started, so I’ll finish. If I show the mare a thing she’s afraid of, I have to work through it, or she’ll get the idea that she can escape a problem with a bit of gallopy snorting.

Bugger, I thought. What was I thinking? We were supposed to do lovely, slow groundwork. Why the hell did I pick the damn thing up? And why did she decide that swooshy maraca beans sound exactly like an evil tree snake that is coming to get her?

So into the small paddock we went. I had to remember every single thing I’d ever learnt about pressure and release, about timing and feel, about body language. She was genuinely frightened of this mad new object and was off in the clouds, doing her wild tail-in-the-air trot, snorting as she went, trembling a little at the same time.

It took an hour. I approached, I retreated. I did everything in tiny, tiny steps, so she would not be flooded. After a while, as she was dropping her head and the snorting and eye-rolling had stopped and the tension had left her neck, I rather naughtily threw away the rule-book and decided that singing would be fun. For no known reason, I went through the entire Simon and Garfunkel back catalogue. ‘Cec-il-ia, you’re breakin’ my heart, you’re shakin’ my confidence daily.’ The mare twitched her ears and relaxed.

It suddenly made me laugh that she can deal with the genuinely quite frightening sound of me singing, but the shush-shush of a maraca bean hula-hoop sends her into transports of fright. By the end, I was walking round her as she stood like a statue, waving the terrifying object over my head, shaking it all about, and singing: ‘I’m one step ahead of the shoe-shine, two steps away from the county line, just trying to keep my customers satisfied, satisfied.’

At the very end, I stood by her shoulder, and showed her the glittering article one last time. She bent her head and sniffed it. I rubbed it on her wibbly lower lip. ‘There,’ I said, ‘that didn’t eat you, did it?’

I did not expect that I should spend this morning teaching my mare to accept a sparkly hula-hoop. But who knows how many mad hula-hoop-wielding maniacs we may meet out on the trail? Now we truly are prepared for anything.

I love teaching this beautiful creature the ways of slowness. That’s the point of all this, for me. I’m too old for a crazy horse. I’m not the wild thruster I was when I was young. My middle-aged bones creak. My body does not spring back in the way it used to. I want a dear, stately, dowager duchess, so I can feel safe. I’ve got her so that most of the time she is so soft that a child of six could handle her. But I do rather love that every so often, that thoroughbred spirit does still rise. It’s mostly for the aesthetics. When all those wild ancestral voices are calling to her, she is a truly ravishing sight to behold. I can see all those Derby winners in her bloodlines, and right back to the three original sires, who came from the sands of Araby. It’s as if, in those high moments, she is a living history lesson.

The weather is going to hold and tomorrow I’ll go back to basics and we’ll return to our good, serious routine. We’ll work the steps in a proper manner and eschew the unorthodox. We’ll get back to dozy old donkey and I probably won’t see that floating, tail-in-the-air, snorting horse for a while. But I’m oddly glad that she is still there.


The friends:

23 Nov 1

After all our work this morning, waiting for her very well-deserved breakfast:

23 Nov 2

Friday, 21 November 2014

In which a Dear Reader asks a question. I answer it.

For a glancing moment, the sun comes out and Scotland glimmers and glitters in the light. The red mare lifts her head, amazed. Then the clouds roll in again and we are back in the brown soup. Despite this, I feel oddly happy. Good work this week, and a lot of action, and even some admin. (I made at least two dreaded telephone calls and sent some put-off emails.)

A Dear Reader asks: ‘Any advice on how to silence the Monologue of Doom?’

I am delighted. I really, really do know the answer to this question. Her query was specifically about writing, her desire to shut off the beastly, destructive, critical voices who say that every sentence is a crashing disaster, but I think that the technique I use can be extrapolated to all areas of life. I suspect that an awful lot of people have a fairly persistent monologue of doom. (I love that phrase, by the way.)

For the writing specifically, the first thing is to give yourself permission to do an absolutely rotten first draft. In fact, you must sternly instruct yourself to write nothing but buggery bollocks. The only important thing is to get the words down. It’s at this stage that you need to get your muscles going and your sinews stretching, almost feeling the process as a physical one. Don’t think too much; get those fingers moving.

This achieves several things. It gives the mean voices nowhere to go, since when they say ‘Well, that’s a ghastly construction,’ you may cheerfully agree. This pisses them off mightily, and they may well decide to leave and go and see if they can wreck another party. It gets you cooking, so that you may pile up many, many words, which is encouraging. The thing grows, and gives you hope. By allowing yourself to be absolutely crappy, you may find that you come up with flashes of brilliance. If you go too carefully to start with, trying to get everything right, your wild inner creative can never fly. You will amaze yourself when you read the thing back to find dazzling thoughts you never knew you had.

However, and this is the stern part, you must know, all the time you are doing this unfettered, crazed writing, that you will go back with your critical hat on. Because you have planned this, you are in charge, and you may select the good critic, not the wrecking ball critic.

The good critic is perfectly lovely and every human has one. The good critic does not deal in shame and hysterical hyperbole. She knows that just because you get something wrong it does not mean that you are wrong. He understands that a mistake does not invalidate you as a human being. The good critic has perspective and is judicious.

The good critic says: right, that part does not work, let’s have a bash at licking it into shape. (In the same situation, the bad critic says: that part does not work, therefore you are an unholy mess of a human and should probably never go out in public again.) The good critic is constructive, and suggests improvements. He is stern and rigorous and will not put up with sloppiness. She is hopeful and galvanic and always believes there is a way through, even if you have to work your arse off to get there.

There is an enchanting idea with horses, which comes out of the old cowboy school of Ray Hunt and the Dorrances. It is this: it is very, very important to allow your horse to make a mistake. Some people desperately hold on to their equines, always preventing them from going near the wrong thing. In this way, the horses grow tense and nervous and never learn anything. The cowboy notion is to let the horse make the mistake, and then show it a better way. You don’t punish it or make it feel stupid. You simply say – if you do this, over here, like this, everything will be much, much easier for you.

I think this works with humans too. I think this is what the good critic knows. Everybody makes mistakes. Even Tolstoy and Jane Austen will have written shoddy first drafts. In the starting stage of a novel, which nobody ever sees, there will be terrible longeurs, and stretches of pointlessness, and glaring over-writing, and characters which do not cohere, and phrases which are worn and banal. The difference between a writer and a good writer is that the good writer REWRITES. I put this in capital letters because it is so important. And I mean rewrites. Over and over again, draft after draft, until some kind editor or agent gently removes the manuscript from crabbed and reaching hands.

I find it quite useful to give my drafts names. At the beginning, there will be narrative drafts, and character drafts, and dialogue drafts. As you get into the weeds, there will be platitude edits, and repetition sweeps, and semi-colon drafts. I am so obsessive that I quite often do a platitude edit and a cliché edit. Which may be threading the needle a little too finely, even for me.

The final thing, which applies I think to life as well as to writing is: give yourself a choice. Do this consciously. You may want to say it out loud or write it down. It’s quite important that it is out in the world.

Say to yourself: well, you can listen to the Monologue of Doom, and convince yourself that you are pointless and useless and feckless and hopeless, and should go into the garden to eat worms. You are perfectly welcome to do that, if that is what you want. Or, you can listen to your sensible, kind, rigorous voices, who tell you that nobody’s perfect, who tell you that with a little graft and application and determination you can get the thing right. You can choose to listen to the useful voice. The mean, destructive voice has no utility. You can pay heed to it if you want, but it won’t get you anywhere, except to make you feel horrid and send you into a defensive crouch. If you want the defensive crouch and the existential angst, for whatever reason, that’s fine. You are a grown-up. It is your decision.

This sounds so stupidly blatant that it’s almost absurd. But it really, really does work.

It’s a psychological trick, I think. It’s an opening up, rather than a closing down. It gives you dignity. By offering yourself a choice instead of merely scolding yourself for hopelessness, you are treating yourself as a sentient human with agency, rather than a captive pawn in a chess game played by unseen hands.

And sometimes too, I think of my kind self. I have a mean self, a judging, carping, lashing self. I generally direct this inwards, although sometimes, sadly, she does escape into the wild. The most salutary reminder, when the Monologue of Doom is raging out of control, is the thought that I would never, ever say to my best beloveds the horrid things I say to myself. If the people I love come to me and tell me that they’ve fucked up and they don’t know what to do, I do not break out my nastiest voices. The kind self lifts her head like a bird dog and reminds the beloveds of all their fine points, their good skills, their fighting hearts. The kind self ruefully tells them that they are not alone, because everyone screws up sometimes, most of all me.

You can choose to build up, or you can choose to tear down. It really is your very own choice.


Today’s pictures:

The light is like a despairing dull beige haze, so no camera today. As I went to the archive, I hit at once on these two pictures, taken by my friend the Horse Talker. Since I have hardly mentioned the red mare, it seems only right that she gets the visuals. In keeping with today’s theme, I laugh ruefully at my absurd riding outfit and my goofy face. I’m never going to look like a posh girl on a horse and that’s all she wrote. I don’t care. I care about the joy, which streams out of these shots and reminds me, as if I need reminding, that this beautiful girl lifts my heart every single damn day, and brings out my better angels, and makes me whole.

21 Nov 2


I also love her slightly resigned look in these pictures. I was coming home for a good groom and some breakfast, she is clearly thinking, and you expect me to stop and do idiot Posy Posington? Don’t you know who my grandfather was? Isn’t all this poncing about rather beneath my dignity?

PS. It’s been a long week and I’m quite tired. I always fear that when I write a blog on writing I shall include frightful howlers and typos and there shall be pointing and scoffing. But my eyes are crossing too much to do another proof-read. So please forgive my mistakes.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

A small thought on writing.

Good work today. The mists are slowly clearing. Yes, yes, says the unflinching, critical brain (the good critic, who is galvanised and constructive) this part needs beefing up, and this part needs cutting back. There must be more obstacles, it says, firmly. This sounds a bit manipulative and phoney, as if the story is not arising organically, but I have a fatal tendency to fall in love with my characters and so make everything too easy for them. The rule of fiction is that there must be barriers to overcome, or there is no drama and no tension. The rule of life, which is rather different from fiction but also obtains, is that rarely do things easily fall into place, as if mere wishing might make them so.

Therefore: make it a little harder.

Then there is the thing of voice. My other weakness is that quite often many of my characters take on the same cadences of speech. It really is too phoney to give them all their own distinctive tics, but a little judicious differentiation is important. Voice can also reflect character. This fellow does not use adjectives, because he is a direct, getting on with it sort. That kind of thing. I have at the moment one woman who speaks as if she has walked out of a 1938 black and white film, and I’m having a lot of fun with that.

The actual cutting is still not going that well. The thing is still far, far too long. This feels like self-indulgence to me. One must not pander to markets or even readers, but I am keenly aware that humans live busier lives than ever before. I sometimes think a very long book is almost an act of passive aggression on the part of the author. Everyone can sharpen up. I recently read a very, very long book by a very, very famous writer, and the first three chapters could have been done just as well in ten pages. WHERE IS THE BLUE PENCIL? I found myself shouting, furiously. The writer was doing a lot of very writerly writing, as if to say: look at me, with my literary sensibility. I felt it was an awful form of showing off, and it took me out of the fictional world and made me cross.

Even the most brilliant natural talent needs editing. I always think of that famous manuscript of The Wasteland, with Ezra Pound’s frenzied markings all over it like a palimpsest. The sad story is that now, once writers get very successful, hardly anyone dares to edit them at all, so that just as they reach maximum brilliance the quality of their work often goes sharply downwards. It is not that they have been ruined by fame. It is that they are not cut. Also, there are very few devoted editors of the old school. There are few Maxwell Perkins any more, and I feel regretful for that.

For all these reasons, I have to be fierce with myself. I don’t care that you think that sentence sings and dazzles, I tell myself sternly, IT MUST GO.

It will still be a flawed book, because all books are flawed and because I’m not quite in the top rank. When I was young and ambitious, I thought I would be. I thought if I read hard enough and worked hard enough and practiced hard enough, I’d be the kind that won prizes. I’m not. I can write well enough to bring pleasure, but I don’t have that ruthless, diamond brilliance of the very best.

Perhaps that is not a bad thing. The very best gave everything to their work, and tended to be drunk and mad and despairing in life. I think always of sottish F Scott and furious, bonkers Hemingway, and Mrs Woolf with the voices in her head which she could only stop with stones in her pocket and a running river, and Dorothy Parker, who somehow lived into old age, but existed in a twilight of sad hotel rooms, unrequited love for Mr Benchley, and dog shit.

Being in the second rank is not so bad. It’s about right. It does not mean I do not strive. I strive like hell. Even in this funny little blog I strive. I think: if, each day, I can give them one good sentence, then it is worth it. If I can get one passage of prose to dance, then it’s all right. It’s just that I have no false, luring expectations of glory.

What I really love is doing the work. I love that every day I get to play with language. I love that language is my medium, and I know it and understand it and am friends with it. When I was young, I did want a prize. I wanted an outside agency to award me something. Now I know that the very fact that the work itself brings me joy is the prize.

That, and the wild good fortune of flexible hours, so that I can pause for a moment and watch the 3.30 at Plumpton.


Today’s pictures:

Are from the archive. I scrolled through entirely at random, and picked the ones which stood out. One day, I shall manage to tidy up my photograph files, but at the moment they creak and groan like over-filled bookshelves, tottering gently in the bowels of the machine.

20 Nov 1

20 Nov 2

20 Nov 5

20 Nov 7

20 Nov 10

20 Nov 14

20 Nov 18

20 Nov 20

20 Nov 22

20 Nov 22-001

20 Nov 24

20 Nov 27

20 Nov 27-001

PS. Slightly geekish note - I was never so glad in my life to find that Windows Live Writer was working again. It disappeared yesterday, and I had to resort to the horror that is Blogger. I know I should be grateful for any free bit of software, and I do not take it for granted that I have a nice blogging platform for which I do not have to pay. But it really was devised by sadists. Quite apart from making all formatting and the inserting and sizing of photographs fiendishly difficult, it forces you to redo all your paragraphing if you ever want to edit a single line. So much as press the edit button, and you see all your lovingly-placed gaps removed, as if by an evil, mocking hand. Why would anyone do that? At what meeting did everyone sit down and say: oh, I know, THAT’S a good idea?

PPS. As one of the Dear Readers has astutely noted, I am madly writing two books at once. I keep telling everyone, from HorseBack to my family, that soon I shall be back to normal and not rushing everywhere with a manic glint in my eye, fighting time, and it never quite happens. I would not recommend writing two books at the same time, especially when both of the early drafts have come out ludicrously long. At the moment, I am wrangling 154,000 words and 120,000 words. One book is very nearly ready to be seen by publishers; one may take me beyond Christmas. The agent is excited, but flinty, discerning humans, keenly aware of markets and demographics and trends, will still have to say: yes, please. It’s kind of a nutty way for a grown-up to make a living, but, apart from touch-typing at eighty words a minute, it is my only skill. And, as I have said, I do love it so. Even on the bad days, when my shoulders are up around my ears and I can’t see a way through, I still love it.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

The Small Victories. Or, a slightly unexpected event.

More dull rain. Working working working. Head full of book. Excellent HorseBack meeting. Galvanised.

Despite the weather, I worked the red mare on the ground this morning for the first time in a couple of weeks. I’ve been away, and it’s been pouring and pouring, so she’s had a long holiday. Usually, she goes round like an old dote, running through the steps she knows so well, her head low and her neck relaxed. Today, I don’t know what it was, she suddenly felt all her racehorsey, thoroughbred blood. Whoop, whoop, she went, putting on her best Spanish Riding School of Vienna act, leaping and plunging, letting out mighty bucks which made me laugh. I let the rope out and sent her on. You want me to do WHAT??? she said. Huge amounts of snorting, tail stuck vertically in the air so it flew like flags, that astonishing thing where she grows a hand before my very eyes. She is normally so low and relaxed that I sometimes forget how big she is. When her dander rises, I remember, with awe and respect, that I am in the presence of a half-ton flight animal.

After about five minutes of this malarkey, she returned to her poised, dowager duchess incarnation, and was as cool and immaculate as a dressage horse. She remembered the merest voice cue, the lightest bit of body language. Once again, her ears twitched towards me, listening to what I wanted. The gentle harmony between us was restored.

I don’t know what it was – the long time off, the awful weather, a testing of the boundaries, a pure moment of high playfulness. I loved it, because it reminded me that she is, after all, descended from storied champions, and all that glorious animating spirit lives in her, however sweetly trained she becomes. There is nothing dull or shut down about her.
I loved it because I knew how to deal with it. In the old days, I would have been frightened, and possibly even grown cross or fractious in my fright, as humans do. Now, I know the good techniques, I know exactly what to do, and more than anything, I know her. I took care to remain away from those bucketing back hooves, but I was not afraid. And with a little steady calm and perseverance, I got my kind girl back. There was no shouting or drama; I let her work it out of her system, and steered her through it. I admit, I felt quite proud of myself.

As always, I log the small things, the tiny, private victories. I made my mother laugh, I wrote a decent line or two for a good charity, I was not fazed by a mighty red mare challenge. The book goes along, and I start to see the shape of it and know the people who inhabit it. Stanley the Dog searches doggedly for mice in the feed shed, only his determined lurcher tail visible, sticking out of the hay. He never actually catches a mouse, but he never gives up trying.

This dreich could bring one down. The atmospheric conditions at the moment make me feel as if I am swimming in a bowl of old soup. Everything is brown and drowned. It is relentless, day after day of low, brooding skies and despairing rain. But there are enough tiny, existential sparkles of light to illuminate my days. On, on, on I bugger, recording my small victories, the ones that are of absolutely no importance to anyone but me, winning my own, tiny, challenge cups of the mind.

No time for pictures today, just a couple of shots from the archive. Hard to believe that this dozy, butter would not melt person can transform herself into a fiery, plunging, snorting creature. It was only for a moment. Just to show she's still got it going on.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014


There was so much joy in the south, and so much love and laughter, and that glorious thing of a friendship which goes back almost thirty years, and children I have known since they were born. There is nothing quite like it. After a week with my best beloveds, I feel like a better human being.

But as always, I am delirious to be home. Even in the dreich and the mud and the murk, I sing songs as I mix the morning feeds and stuff the haynets and potter about in the shed. Outside, the red mare is grazing at liberty in the set-aside, where there is still something that might be called grass. This is our morning ritual. I let her out of the field to wander at liberty. She could gallop off to see the cows, but she doesn’t. She just mooches about in the open spaces and then comes and sticks her dear white face through the door of the shed, looking at me enquiringly, as if to say: ‘Are you doing that properly?’

Stan the Man is antic with delight. He has a lovely time always with the dog-sitter, but is gratifyingly pleased to see me. There is the tremendous lurcher thing he does, gathering all his energy into his athletic body and twisting and turning and leaping, so that he looks like an animated apostrophe. He is also very happy to be back to my mother’s house for breakfast, where he can see her and my stepfather and his special friend Edward the Terrier. They are a most unlikely couple and they adore each other. They dance around, Little and Large, playing special games of their own and panting at each other with love.

I whack back into work. I have returned to the second of the secret projects, neither of which are really secret any longer, but both of which started on spec. This is a fiction, and it’s a long time since I told a story. I have to remember the rhythms of it, how to keep the narrative taut, what to tell, what to leave out. I like this story and am pleased to go back to it. We are in serious Dead Darlings territory now, because there are 154,000 words, and that is far too many. Great cadres of them must die. I wield the bloody axe, ruthlessly. There are also additions, and decisions about the characters. This one must be put into the background, this one must be beefed up. Writing a novel takes ages because you have to live with your characters for a while to get to know them. Each morning now, I wake up and think: oh yes, that’s why that person did that. Slow revelations come and make sense of the thing. You can’t hurry it, although it drives me mad that you can’t. I’d love to be able to invent them on a dime, write a nice shopping list of traits, and be done with it. But they reveal themselves like onions, the layers peeling off to reveal the heart within, and the process can’t be rushed.

Dear old Scotland is drenched and melancholy, but I love her so much I don’t care. One day the sun will shine again. In the meantime, there is only sunshine in my heart.


Today’s pictures:

Far too gloomy to get the camera out, so here are a few snaps from my week away.

The Beloved Cousin sent these from her telephone – me with my sweet homebred friend Cocky Locky, and the three small cousins by a dam they built:

18 Nov 1


And a couple of the dear herd. I always stupidly took the camera out late in the day, as the gloaming was coming in, so that the light was gone and the quality of the pictures is not that good. But you can still see the sweetness:

18 Nov 3

Even though this one is terribly blurred, I rather love it:

18 Nov 5

Another blurry one, but worth it for the dearness:

18 Nov 9

Almost in focus:

18 Nov 12

Well, being pin-sharp is not everything:

18 Nov 19

Even though I have absolutely no technical knowledge, I do sometimes have a bit of secret pride when I manage to take a decent picture. But I rather love that these ones are not very good. It reminds me that the search for perfection is, along with high expectations, the absolute enemy of happiness. It reminds me that it is all right to be a bit scruffy and goofy and not the best at everything. My horrid competitive streak, which always wanted to be the top of the class, has to be smacked down every so often. So I think of putting these pictures up as a sort of salutary lesson. Good enough, my darlings; good enough.

Monday, 10 November 2014

The Sweetness of Family Life.

As always, I slightly forget the absolute enchantment of the family life with the Beloved Cousin. For enchantment it is. There has been a lot of cooking, picking the last vegetables from the garden, walking, admiring the apples still on the apple trees, watching the ravishing polo herd have their happy winter off, and playing with the ravishing black dogs.

The Youngest Cousin has turned into a mine of wisdom and information. She looks at me very seriously and says things like: ‘You know, being pretty is not important. Being kind is. And being happy.’

Grave pause.

I say: ‘How do you know that? Did someone tell you?’

Slightly reproachful look.

‘I do a lot of thinking, you know.’

She is six years old.

Then, gathering momentum – ‘Boasting is no good. Nobody likes a boaster.’

‘No,’ I say, chastened. I hope she is not referring to me. I think of all those blog posts about the wonders of the red mare and all the clever things she does. Has the Youngest Cousin been secretly reading the internet? And disapproving?

Then she moves swiftly on to information. ‘Do you know how many dinosaur names I know?’

‘No, I don’t.’

She kindly lists them.

‘Do you know that whales can hear from really far away? A thousand miles sometimes?’

‘I did not know that.’

She puts her head on one side. ‘They talk to each other,’ she says, slightly wistful.

‘What do they say?’ I ask.

‘Oh, I don’t know. ‘Hello, I’m lost’ I expect.’

‘I see,’ I say, trying to keep up.

She switches subjects like a London taxi turning on a sixpence.

‘Do you know how the Germans started the Second World War?’

I’m on slightly surer ground now. I perk up.

‘They invaded Poland?’ I hazard. ‘Or the Sudetenland?’

Dismissive frown. ‘I don’t know that country, but they were very, very cross with the English.’

‘Yes,’ I say. ‘I expect that’s what it was.’

Then I get a little break while she watches an episode of Scooby Doo.

Soon, she is back for more. She fixes me with her basilisk stare. ‘Do you know?’ she starts. I have begun to see there is a pattern here. ‘Do you know?’ is her newest and most regular conversational gambit. I sit up straight and concentrate.

‘Do you know,’ she says, ‘that King Henry put gunpowder in the holes so that when the Spain came THEY BLEW UP?’

I retire from the field, defeated. I have no memory of the Spain being blown up. Can she mean the Device Forts?

I know better than to ask.


Today’s pictures:

The focus and the light is a bit dodgy in some of these, but you can see the loveliness in them, even though I lack the technical skills to make them good photographs. One of my greatest joys is watching a herd at play. Most of the horses you see here were working incredibly hard through the summer, top athletes at the peak and crest of their game. Now, they just get to be muddy, furry, playful, rowdy equines, with not a bother on them. It’s one of the finest sights in the world. It is also, I reflect joyfully, the way a true horseman keeps his herd, natural and fleet and free.

10 Nov 1

10 Nov 2

10 Nov 5

10 Nov 6

10 Nov 7

10 Nov 8

10 Nov 8-001

10 Nov 9

10 Nov 11

10 Nov 12

10 Nov 14

10 Nov 18

10 Nov 18-001

10 Nov 19


10 Nov 19-001

10 Nov 21


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