Friday, 29 April 2016

The joy of friendship. Or, how one human can make the sun come out.

Everyone is talking about the weather. It continues bitter and bleak and bolshie. It is almost May, and humans and horses are rugged up as it if is deep mid-winter. The sky is the colour of shattered dreams and everyone I meet sighs rueful, resigned sighs. We must bugger on, but, like an old mare out at pasture, we long for the sun on our backs.

The Beloved Cousin calls, and, in my heart, the sun comes out.

I wonder about the power of friendship. Does it mean more now because I am deep in the woods of the middle of life? Is there something about heading towards fifty that makes a human cherish the kindness, laughter, wisdom and general loveliness of someone known for thirty years? Do I feel a passionate gratitude for those staunch friends because I know now how rare a gift they are? Or is it that the accumulation of memories, happy and sad, comical and tragic, build up into a soaring cathedral of wonder? Perhaps it is all those things.

We make plans. We love the plans and grow as excited about them as if we were girls. She tells me a funny and naughty story which begins with the thrilling words: ‘You must never repeat this.’ (We have kept many, many secrets over the years.) We range over some mutual friends. So and So gave a party; Such and Such has an enchanting new girlfriend.

We discuss the Euro-argument and the anti-Semitism row in the Labour party. We contemplate, rather gravely, whether the slow-down in China is going to capsize the world economy.

We fall into an antic, delighted, passionate gallop through Pride and Prejudice. We both love Jane Austen like a sister, and I am re-reading Pride and Prejudice for the second time in six months. ‘It’s like having your best friends to stay,’ I say, laughing. ‘I love spending time in their company. It’s like having you to stay. I breathe a huge sigh of relief and pleasure.’ We delve deep into the psyche of Mr Darcy. It’s not just pride, we decide, it’s that he is a classic introvert. We run through two or three of our favourite scenes. Some of them we can repeat word for word. ‘We are such geeks,’ she says, gusting with laughter.

Then, just for fun, we have a quick canter through Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights and the Sword of Honour Trilogy.

She tells me something perfectly adorable which The Smallest Cousin has said, and I am so shaken with hilarity that I can’t speak, but just gasp with laughter down the telephone.

We run through a thorny problem I had not long ago which has turned out to lead to something much, much better than I could have hoped. ‘It’s so funny,’ we say, ‘how those things which you think are disasters so often end up being the best thing that could have happened.’ We are old ladies, and we have learnt a lot of life lessons, most of them the hard way.

Imagine that, all in one conversation.

As always, she leaves me better than she found me. She lights up the day, so I don’t care any more about the horrid weather. She has the amazing talent of growing more wonderful with every passing day. She is not static or stuck; she does not rest on her laurels or grow complacent. She’s always thinking of new things and figuring out the conundrums of the human condition and wading into the thorny reaches of the psyche. She always has a new theory for us to ponder, or has refined an old one and given it a little lemon twist. She is a remarkable human, and she is my friend.

That is sunshine, indeed.

Thursday, 28 April 2016

The pin.

This week the weather blew in again from the Arctic and spring was vanquished. There was some sun, but there was snow too, horrid bitter blizzards, messy and bleak. The wind howled down from the north, mocking my puny plan. I felt furious and defeated, stumping through the mud to tend to the mares, crossly racking up my daily word count, so grumpy that I refused even to write the blog. You all have weather, literal and metaphorical; I was not going to add to it.

Then, today, something wonderful happened. Within a single hour, I whooped, I wept, and I laughed for sheer happiness. All human emotion was there. I was alive again.

It is quite rare that the weather defeats me, and of course it was not just the weather. I am a countrywoman, and I have an array of absurd hats. I have spent the last four months covered in mud, cracking the ice on the water trough, leading the horses through once-in-a-century floods. I believe in stoicism and buggering on.

The weather defeated me I think because I was faking it, a bit. I had got myself lost in the maze of false expectation. I was expecting spring, and for a moment it glimmered with promise, and then it was snatched away. At the same time, it was six months since my mother died, and I had been getting glimpses of normality. I could go in and make the dear Stepfather his breakfast and cheer him up without having to put on a false front. I could make normal conversation and laugh in an unforced way. I could, once more, see the beauty without squinting for it. I was expecting that this new normal meant the storm was over.

When the literal storms came back, a metaphorical storm returned. Things are going, from the house my mother and stepfather shared. Each day this week, I would go in, and there would be another blank space on the wall. The chair that she sat in, which always had on its arm a delicate Kashmiri shawl I had given her, had been shipped off to auction. There was just an empty space where it had been, with only four melancholy dimples in the carpet to mark its place.

I wanted to cry, but I was not going to cry, because of the new normal, because of the stoicism, because of the expectations. It was six months on and I had work to do and I don’t want to be one of those people who are always leaking like a watering pot. On I stumped, furious at the weather, averting my eyes from those empty spaces.

The sun came out this morning and something was released. It started with the red mare. She let all her thoroughbred glory shine in the light. We cantered round in a vast circle, mapping the set-aside, gathering power and speed, rolling in harmony. Her Aston Martin engine purred beneath me. She was on a loose rein, entirely in command of herself, all poise and elegance, but I let her go on a little, and we picked up speed, and that was when I felt the power and the glory. That was when I whooped out loud into the bright air.

Then I went to cook the breakfast. The dear Stepfather had a little collection of things out on the table. ‘The moving men found this,’ he said, pointing. ‘When they took away the chest of drawers.’ I thought we had done all the stuff. (They are only things I kept telling myself, but some things are more precious and meaningful than others.) I looked, and looked again.

‘Oh,’ I said, my voice coming out in a dying fall. ‘I know that box.’

It was a small, leather, dun-coloured jewellery box with my great-grandfather’s initials on it in faded gold. I did know that box. When I was twelve, I used to open that box every Saturday in the winter and sometimes on Wednesdays too. I opened it now, hardly able to believe that it would still have the thing I remembered in it.

But there it was. It was my mother’s stock pin, a simple, elegant item in low gold, with the familiar dull gleam of use on it. ‘I used to wear this,’ I said to the dear Stepfather. ‘On my pony, Seamus.’ Seamus was the forerunner, the first great love of my life, the one that paved the way for the red mare.

And that was when I burst into tears in the middle of the kitchen.

The dear Stepfather bore it very well. I mopped my eyes and made a joke and we talked of other things. I think that perhaps he quite likes the odd bit of weeping, despite the fact he is a stiff upper lip sort of gentleman, because there it is – a living proof that someone else misses her too.

I cried because six months means nothing, because the new normal comes and goes like radio static and is as impermanent, because stoicism only gets you so far. I cried because this person I loved somehow managed to hold on to that precious object, in its little box, through moves from one side of the world to the other, through a catastrophic fire which took almost all our belongings, through divorce and despair. I loved that pin and I wore that pin on some of the happiest days of my life. And there it was, nearly forty years later, like a dear, shining miracle.

The chair is gone, but the pin is still there.

And then I ate my eggs and drove up to HorseBack and watched some veterans ride their good horses with joy and determination and it was such a happy sight that I exclaimed in delight and shouted ‘Well done, good work, look at you all,’ and took my pictures and came home and wrote 1399 words of secret project and felt like a human being again.

The mare started it. She nearly always does. She has the gift of giving me back to myself. Yesterday, I stood with her in the field, in that bitter, whipping wind, her head on my shoulder, and I said to her: ‘You got me through this, you know.’ She is a horse. She does not know. But perhaps, in some tiny, mysterious part of her, she does know, just a little. 

Everyone needs something, someone to get them Through This. It does not matter if it is a human or a place or a passion or a tree. It can be a belief or a view or a dog. Everyone needs something. I got a horse. I got a horse of such beauty and grace and shining authenticity that she lifts me up and gently sets me back on my feet again. I don’t know how she does it, but she does.

Friday, 22 April 2016

A good week.

A most enchanted morning. The sun shone and the high clouds sailed across the sky and one of my very favourite members of the extended family came to help me with the horses. I wanted to get my little brown mare out for a nice walk, to start getting her back to herself after her horrid operation. We took her and the red mare out in hand, through the marvellous trees, along the burn, past the sheep, by the blue hill, back down the shady drive to the field. The mares pricked their ears and had a swing in their step; the humans talked and talked and talked and laughed and laughed and laughed. There was a huge amount of sweetness. It was a glorious way to start a day.

I think a lot about gratitude. Although I sometimes get a bit scratchy and grumpy with those blissed-out Zenny types who bang on about gratitude lists and Welcoming the Abundance, I do know they are right. Gratitude for all the small, lovely things that are sometimes taken for granted is very important, I believe. As we walked, my beloved relation and I said to each other, in slight wonder: ‘Aren’t we lucky?’ We looked at the trees and the hills and the sky and the lambs and the beautiful mares, walking sweetly behind us, and felt that amazing luck.

Not everyone wants this. A lot of people love the hurly and burly of urban life, need the shot of worldly sophistication that cities bring, thrive on the crowds and the culture and the antic street drama. We are two old countrywomen, brought up with horses and livestock and earth and weather. To us, the trees and the hills and bright air are as majestic as a cathedral.

I was still smiling when I went to HorseBack, and there I smiled some more, as I watched a group of young people rise to a whole set of challenges with enthusiasm and grace. They were inspiring, and I was inspired. I went home and did a whole lot of HorseBack work, whilst sneaking a peak at the charming Perth festival, one of my favourite race meetings of the year. My veteran friend, who was at the course, sent me increasingly jubilant messages as he backed every winner on the card.

Then I wrote some of my secret project. I have written many hundreds of words this week, and I suddenly look up and realise, rather to my surprise, that I have a book-length manuscript on my hands. I don’t quite know how that happened. I sat down and put my cussed hat on and gritted my teeth and said fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke and took a risk. It’s the most speculative of secret projects, and it could be a blinder or it could crash and burn. But I am in the home straight now, and I feel a little glow of pleasure and pride and rank astonishment. (All those words; where did they come from?)

Even more to my surprise, I realise it has been a good week. It was good not because I was straining every sinew to make it good. The stars aligned. I worked hard and I felt the sun on my back and I laughed at the dogs as they played in the long meadow and I greeted the new lambs and I wished the Queen a happy birthday in the privacy of my own head and I smiled as the reluctant daffodils finally came out. The red mare was at her most mighty crest and peak of sheer, raging loveliness. The little brown mare is healing, and her sweet spark is returning. I spoke at length to the Beloved Cousin, which always makes any week better, and discussed Europe with the dear Stepfather. I read a fascinating book about the Second World War and watched some old episodes of the West Wing, my standing treat.

I am learning to live without my mother. I miss her all the time, but that missing no longer tears my heart from my chest. I remembered my glorious dad, who died five years ago yesterday. I remembered him with love and pride and pleasure instead of the haunting shades of melancholy. I miss him too. I wish they were both still here, but I have them safe in my heart. They go with me now.

So, what with one thing and another, a good week is not something I can take for granted. It feels like a bit of a present, as if someone wrapped up something charming in a brown paper parcel and sent it by the post so that Pearl the Postwoman would have to knock on my door and get my signature. A good week is quite something. 

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Our own dear Queen.

The sun shines this morning, and I look at pictures of the Queen in the paper. She looks very elegant and calm, like a majestic ocean liner. Gor bless her, and all who sail in her. In a way, she is the British ship of state, and she does sail serenely on through turbulent seas.
            I shall never meet the Queen, I think, a little regretful. Lots of people do meet her. They meet her at flower shows and Lord Mayor’s banquets and garden parties and I don’t know what. They meet her when she opens a hospital or inspects the troops. They shake her hand and they don’t forget it.
            I did see her once, in a room. I was just arriving and she was just leaving. There was a murmur and a rustle of evening dresses as the women curtseyed while she moved past. I flattened myself against a friendly wall and stared. She has an incandescence which does not show in photographs, as if she is lit by some inner light. Also: she glides. A flash of diamonds, a beam of that famous smile, another murmur, another rustle, and she was gone.
            At this stage, those who believe in a republic will be chewing their arms off. This week must be agony for them. Our own dear Queen is about to be ninety, and all those who admire her will be getting misty-eyed. This outpouring of affection drives the anti-monarchists bonkers.
I used to be one of those old bolshies. I thought it perfectly absurd that a mere twist of birth led to someone ruling a kingdom and wearing a crown. It made no sense, not in this modern age.
            As I have grown older, I see that it is one of those things that is indeed absurd, but also, oddly, works. (I love things that work.) The doughty traditionalists' argument of continuity and steadiness has some validity. But really, it is not a question of a rational argument, of who is right or wrong. It’s a question of love.
            What the most strident Queen-bashers don’t understand is that they are at risk of sounding like crashing snobs. The crossest republicans are mostly metropolitan chattering classes. I used to be one of them, with my urban, bien pensant, liberal bleeding heart, so I know what I’m talking about. When they sneer at the Queen and at the monarchy and at the whole royal family, they think they are being tremendous femmes and hommes du peuple. They seem to believe sincerely that they are speaking up for the man on the Clapham omnibus, the woman in the street. They are taking a stand against those ghastly posh people, with their green acres and their huntin’, shootin’, fishin’, their stately piles and their family jewels. They are fighting for the Ordinary Decent Britons, who shall never wear a tiara or sit on a throne.
            In fact, the irony is that it is those very Ordinary Decent Britons who love the Queen the most. It is not posh people who adore the Queen. The posh people say things like: ‘Oh, the Queen. Don’t know how she does it. Marvellous.’ And then they go back to contemplating something much more important, like Labradors or the 3.30 at Sandown. They are not the ones who line the Mall on state occasions to watch the carriages go by, or buy commemorative plates, or queue up to look round Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle. They don’t wave Union flags joyfully below that famous balcony or wait outside Crathie Church to see the royal party emerge or send off for special coins from the Mint. No, the people who do that are the very people that the furious anti-Queenies insist they are speaking for.
            Ah, say the republicans, clearing their throats; well, you see, false consciousness. I am relieved to admit that even at the height of my own chattering class, bleeding heart pomp, I never uttered those words. They are so bloody patronising that they make me want to punch someone in the nose. Here, little people, you think you love the Queen, but you don’t really, because she is the one who is Keeping You In Your Place. Every time you wave your stupid flag, you are instrumental in your own oppression. We, however, we clever, right-thinking republicans know what is good for you better than you know it yourselves.
            Can you imagine anything more snobbish than that? It puts the most patriarchal old Tory in the shade.
            I do love the Queen. I love her steadiness and her sense of duty and her thriftiness and her passion for horses. I love that she knows the stud book back to front, and can confound the most storied breeders of racehorses with her encyclopaedic knowledge. I love that she understands, better than anyone, the glory and might of the thoroughbred. I love that she wears sensible shoes.

            It may not be cool or hip or fashionable to love the Queen. How the sneerers would curl their lip if they could see me stand to attention when the National Anthem is played as I watch the racing at the Royal Meeting. I don’t care. I am an ordinary Briton, and I wave my little flag.  

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

The beautiful books.

The sun shone. All the daffodils are out now and the tiny new-born lambs are skipping in the fields, watched over by their serious mamas, and it feels as if spring is coming. The kind gentleman who has always tended my mother’s garden and who tends it still, as if in memory of her, looks up at the sky and says: ‘But they say another late snow is coming.’ This morning, snow feels far away.

The dogs splash in the burn; the little brown mare does polo turns and rodeo tricks by herself in her paddock; the red mare does a dreamy dressage canter with me on her back. Yesterday, I wrote 2951 words of secret project; today, there were another 1904. I am bash, bash, bashing away.

I spent yesterday among quite another kind of book. The dear Stepfather has been collecting books for thirty-five years. He once worked in the book trade, and he is a connoisseur of the first edition. He has first editions of Osbert Sitwell and Anthony Powell and other fine 20th century writers, but his great collection is of Evelyn Waugh. The funny thing is that Evelyn Waugh is one of the people who made me want to be a writer. I read Vile Bodies when I was sixteen, and I wanted to write a book exactly like that. Thirty-three years later, I stand in a sun-lit room, looking at a pristine first edition of that novel.

The collection is moving on now. It is going to be sold. The beautiful books, with their inscriptions in Waugh’s hand, and their book plates, and their provenance, will go on to delight other humans.

It’s a bittersweet moment. I’ve loved those books. Quite often, I make the dear Stepfather take one down from the shelf and tell me about it. I heft the lovely object in my hand and think of its history and admire its design. I was so used to going into the house and casting my happy eyes over that cabinet of delights.

Yesterday was our last day with them. We played with them like children, got them out and turned the leaves and exclaimed over them. ‘Tell me about this one again,’ I said. ‘And oh, look, this one.’

This morning, they are gone, on their long journey south. A nice young man with a beard came and packed them up and drove them away. There is a space in the cabinet, where all the glory used to sit.

They were only objects, after all. It is right that they go out into the world to give pleasure to others. But I shall miss them very much. It was a rare privilege to know them. 

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

A missing day.

There are good days and bad days and perfectly fine days and surprising days and day that I wish were over. And then there are the missing days. Today was a missing day.

I had to clear out some things of my mother’s. We’ve done most of the big stuff. These were small unimportant things in small unimportant drawers. I had promised my stepfather I would do it before he came home, and I’d been putting it off.

The little things made me laugh and broke my heart. In one small drawer I found a fairly peculiar implement, something between a brush and a comb, which I could not identify. I squinted at it. It had writing on it. It was a hairbrush brush. My mother had a brush for her hairbrush. She must have been so delighted on the day she discovered that. Perhaps she found it in one of the catalogues she liked. Ah, she would have said, at last someone has invented something really useful. Now, she would have said, I can keep those hairbrushes in spit-spot order.

There were a few sweet necklaces which I think must have been given to her by the grandchildren and the great-grandchildren. There were some empty jewellery boxes. What was in the Cartier box, I wondered? It was old and shabby, probably from the fifties, but she had kept the empty box all these years. Perhaps my father got her a lovely jewel after a big win at Cheltenham. Perhaps the jewel went west, but the box stayed to remind her.

In the bottom drawer there were lavender bags and an elegant voile envelope with seven immaculate cambric handkerchiefs folded inside. The handkerchiefs almost finished me off. Does anyone even buy handkerchiefs any more, in this age of the disposable Kleenex? Well, my dear mother did.

Most of the time, I understand well that my mother is not here any more. I am growing used to that hard fact. One of the most important stages of grief is acceptance, and I work diligently at that one. There is no point in crying for the moon. Life is life, and facts are facts, and this is what happens to every human. Every human will miss another human. Every heart will break. I get good and stoical about that.

And then there are moments when I damn well do cry for the moon. I want her back so much I can’t stand up. I want one more joke, one more conversation, one more word of wisdom. The chair where she used to sit is so empty, so haunting, so doleful. The house is so lost without her. I am lost without her. She was my mum, and I miss her.

I take a breath, and gather up all the little things that would mean nothing to anyone else but which mean the world to me. I take the seven handkerchiefs. I gather myself, because one must always gather oneself. I go to my desk and shake my head and write 2880 words. The words are not flying free today, but have to be quarried from surly stone. Yet there they are, after hours of effort.

I let my shoulders come down and turn philosophical. This is life; this is how the missing is. Some days it is hardly there at all. Some days it knocks you to the ground. Some days I am lost; some days I am found. That is how it goes.

Monday, 11 April 2016

A happy ending.

Not long ago or far away, there was an Irish man who was very good at his job. He had a son who played the drums and cooked glorious food and had an adventurous spirit, according to all those who knew and loved him. And his son died. The Irish man must have wondered, as everyone who is faced with sudden, tearing tragedies wonders, whether being good at his job was enough any more. Perhaps he wondered what the point of it all was. I think I would have.
            On Saturday, that man trained the winner of the Grand National.
            Perhaps there was a point, after all.
Mouse Morris is a bit of a legend in racing. He doesn’t really go by the book. He doesn’t wear a smart Trilby like Willie Mullins and he famously smokes about forty fags a day and he’s always got a little glimmer of mischief in his eyes. He is known for his uncanny ability to get a horse right for the big day. And he did that on Saturday in spades.
            The extraordinary thing is that he has not just suffered a crushing blow in the last year, with the loss of his beloved boy, but that Rule the World, the horse who stormed round the elbow as if Aintree was his spiritual home, has never won a steeplechase in his life. He’s been plagued with injury, he’s never run over anything like four and a quarter miles, he’s never set foot on the Aintree turf. I did all my homework, and I had to put a big cross next to his name. In the Racing Post, they do a thing where they put all the Grand National markers against each horse, and then do a tick or a cross. Distance, course form, all that kind of thing. Many Clouds, who did not run his race after all, had a tick in every single box. Rule the World had one.
            He was ridden by a nineteen year old jockey called David Mullins, who had never seen the Grand National fences until he walked the course on Saturday morning. That’s another thing you look for, when you have your beady punting hat on – a jockey who knows these fences, who knows the elephant traps, who can plot a course and keep his or her horse out of trouble. This young man had not so much as clapped eyes on Aintree.
            Everything on paper was wrong. Everything on the day came gloriously, wildly, madly right. The horse hunted round as if Aintree was everything he was waiting for, the young jockey rode a peach, the wily old trainer’s faith was rewarded. Even Michael O’Leary went from flinty businessman to emotional human when he wept on national television.
            Mouse Morris could not speak, he was so overwhelmed. He managed to say, to Clare Balding: ‘I’ve got to give up the fags.’ Which is surely the best ever reaction to winning the world’s most famous race. A little later he said, of his son: ‘He was looking down on us.’
            Rule the World won the Grand National at 33-1 and I did not have a penny on him and I was as happy as if I had hit the jackpot. That’s what this race is all about: the unlikely story, the heart-warming moment, the authentic emotion.
            And the best result of all was that for the fourth year running, all the gallant equines went safely home to their yards.
            Now it’s an ordinary week again, and I have work to do and I must put on my Captain Sensible hat and crack on. 

Saturday, 9 April 2016

Bittersweet. Or, reflections on the Grand National.

My friend in the shop who keeps the Racing Post for me each Saturday is a great betting man. This morning, I run into him as I go to pick up my paper and we fall with delight to discussing the wonders of Many Clouds, the each-way chances of Goonyella, the staying prospects of Silviniaco Conti, and whether Black Thunder might give Sam Waley-Cohen a nice spin round. ‘He hasn’t quite got the form in the book,’ I say. ‘But I’ve got a sort of feeling. Sam Waley-Cohen has the best record over the Aintree fences of any jockey riding.’ 

My friend gives me one of his glimmering sidelong looks. ‘It’s the Grand National,’ he says. ‘Anything could happen.’

I am so excited that I point out Many Clouds, whose picture adorns the front page of the Racing Post, to the ladies at the till and try to explain the true glory of him, what a brave, honest horse he is, and how his trainer was an old friend of my late father. ‘It almost feels like family,’ I say, in a burst of exuberance.

One of the ladies, who is also my friend, smiles in appreciation. But the other one, whom I don’t really know because she is usually in the back office running the show, looks at me coldly and says: ‘I think it is cruel. That racing over fences.’ She makes an expression of ultimate disgust.

That is one big bucket of cold water. I look at her, uncertain. ‘Well,’ I say, rather quietly. ‘I grew up in it, you see. I saw how happy the horses were. It was my father’s life’s work.’

I felt very sad for quite a long time after this. I had been so happy when I got up, as excited as a child on Christmas morning. Now I plodded home in the dour Scottish rain, demoralised and deflated.

It’s just one person, I thought. The Grand National always makes some people cross. Everyone must have their opinion. Because if there is one thing I believe in as much as I believe in the gallant heart of Many Clouds, the bone-deep horsemanship of Leighton Aspell, the enduring talent and honourable spirit of Oliver Sherwood, it is freedom of expression. Everyone must think and say what they will.

But I could not shrug it off. I tried to make the argument in my head. I’ve done this many times, because every time I see a horse get injured in a race I turn away in sorrow and despair, and I have to talk myself down off the ceiling.

Horses can injure themselves, sometimes fatally, in the field, on a quiet road, even in their stables, if they get cast. A sudden colic, a ruthless infection, a brutal grass sickness can finish them off. I’ve spent the last three weeks bracing myself for the possibility that my own little bay mare could die, even though she was in the hands of the best vet and the best surgeon in Scotland, and although she is now on the mend she is not quite out of the woods.

Nobody sees those injuries and deaths on television, and so nobody makes a fuss about them. But they still exist. I think of all the horses who endure a living death, the riding school ponies booted about by people with no feeling for the sensitive equine mind, the sad livery cases who sit in the stables bored witless until their owner comes to visit once a week. I think: if I were a horse, I would like to be one of those racing athletes, fit as twenty-seven fiddles, fed and groomed and exercised to perfection, flying over the Lambourn downs on those dazzling mornings I remember so well from my childhood, with the larks on the wing and the scent of freedom in the air.

I think: no human can make a half-ton flight animal do anything it does not want to do. The dear old Mad Moose, who became beloved for his ornery character and most determined ideas, told his humans very clearly that he no longer liked racing when he took to refusing to start. He was actually rather good at running at speed over jumps, but one day, just like that, he had had enough. The humans tried this and tried that and eventually believed that he meant what he said. Now he does dressage, and he is as happy as a bug. He was not being silly or naughty, he was merely expressing his own opinion, and luckily he had people who listened to him.

But all this is the rational side of it. It could not lift my bashed spirits. I still felt sad and crushed. I suddenly realised what it was. The childish, emotional, irrational part of me says, when the antis come out: you are calling my father a monster. You are calling all those grand racing titans from my childhood years – J Lawrence, Fred Winter, Fulke Walwyn, Dave Dick, Eddy Harty – those giants of the game I remember as lovely, funny, kind gentlemen, on whose knees I sat before I even knew what a Grand National was, let alone that some of them had won it, sadists and brutes. And that breaks my heart.

I know that is not precisely what is happening, but that is what it feels like. 

My father’s horses were happy horses. I wonder how many people who shout about cruelty have ever been to a National Hunt yard. I wonder whether they have gone into a box before dawn and woken one of those sleeping athletes, heard the low whicker of greeting, seen the soft, wise, liquid eye, stroked the majestic neck. I wonder whether they have watched them mosey out for first lot, swinging down the lane on the buckle, pricking their ears as they turn up to the gallops. I wonder whether they have gone down to the yard in the quiet time before evening stables, and seen the beautiful thoroughbreds dozing in the afternoon sun, at ease with themselves and the world. I wonder whether they have witnessed the care and thought and love that goes into these equine lives.

I was going to write a joyful, absurd, dancing blog today, about my adoration for Many Clouds, about my memories of going to the great race with my father, when we used to run into the Irish at the Adelphi and have a party and then go out on the course at seven-thirty the next day to see the horses stretch their legs, when it seemed that half the racing world was gathered in the morning mist and everyone had a tot of brandy in their coffee as a little heart-starter. (I don’t think they do that any more. I’m perfectly certain that Willie Mullins does not break out the cognac before breakfast. He is far too busy piling up Grade Ones and wearing his special hat)

It turns out that this is a different kind of writing, much more bitter-sweet. I feel the loss of my parents very much on big race days, and the unexpected cross word in the shop hit that enduring bruise and left its mark. But then all sweet has a little bitter in it. That, says the resigned, been-round-the-block voice in my head, is life. 

Friday, 8 April 2016

My own little Annie Power. Or, every post is a winning post.

Annie Power won, cantering round in a Group One like a composed dressage horse, and the love burst out of my heart like an exploding rocket. She has grown very regal, with all the composure and aplomb and grace of an empress, and she kindly surveys her subjects and allows them to pay homage to her, as is her right.
            All horses have their characters, and all are as unique as snowflakes, but the great ones get this imperial aspect as they grow in stature. It is what my mother used to call the look of eagles. She always said that Arkle had it, and later Kauto Star and Frankel. Annie has it now. Something has shifted in her. She was always very good, but now she floats above the herd, on a higher plane. She is soaring into the realms of the unforgettable. I think people will tell their grandchildren that they were there when Annie Power won the Champion Hurdle, or sauntered to victory at Aintree. She is stamping herself into the collective memory, and there is something profoundly moving in that.
            I think about why I watch all these races and watch all these horses and rush to finish my work each morning in a frenzy so I can spend the afternoon with these flying thoroughbreds, who feel like friends to me.
            I think it is an almost unique combination of the aesthetic and the visceral. Almost all of these racing horses are astonishingly beautiful. They have their different shades of beauty. Annie Power is well named. She is not a pretty mare. She is all power and muscle and granite strength. Her stable-mate, Vroum Vroum Mag, has a gentle sweetness to her, and much more defined features, and is known at home for her kind nature and her willingness to do anything that is asked of her. Cue Card, who also brought the house down yesterday, and especially this house, has a bright, flashy, fine handsomeness, and an antic, dancing disposition. Vautour, who runs today, has something charmingly old-fashioned about him, and would not look out of place in a Stubbs hunting scene.
            They are also beautiful in action, stretching their carved legs in a searching gallop, rising in a perfect arc over the stiff birch, gathering themselves for the final effort.
            And then there is the visceral aspect, the heart and guts and glory. There is the pure joy of watching fierce athletes do what they were bred to do, at top speed, at the edge of their capabilities. There are the ones who really want it, who fight like tigers, who dig deep, generously offering every last inch of themselves without question. That calls to some ancient instinct in me, the one that loves courage and spirit and devil may care. That is the part which throws caution to the winds and says what the hell, that does not stop to be sensible or contained or respectable.
            I rode my own little Annie Power this morning. I did the thing which is now becoming traditional when Annie struts her stuff on a racecourse. I threw the reins at the red mare, stood up in the stirrups, and shouted: ‘Come on, Annie’. I let her roll under me, seeing the woods ahead through her pricked chestnut ears, trying to imagine what Ruby Walsh must see when he jumps the last on that mighty mare and sees only empty green racecourse in front of him, and the winning post beckoning like a gleaming beacon.

            We will never win anything. She could not see the point of racing at all, and trundled round merrily at the back, blithely oblivious to the disgrace she was bringing on her illustrious bloodlines. (I find this very funny, but her poor breeder must have wanted to cry.) I was never brave enough to tread in the footsteps of my father and ride over fences. But all the same, out in that quiet Scottish field, with all that thoroughbred power under me rolling happily along on a loose rein, I feel the glory and hear the shouts of the crowd and know that, for us, every post is a winning post.

Thursday, 7 April 2016

The words refuse to fly.

Some days, the words fly out of the ends of my fingers as if someone has sent them by post. I quite often wonder where the words come from. When they are flowing easily, I feel that I can take no credit for them. They appear and I transcribe them and that is all.
            Of course my rational self knows that the words arrive because I have been thinking and pondering and cogitating, so that by the time I sit down to the physical act of typing all those thoughts are queuing up to go into language.
            The irrational self says: bloody hell, where did that come from?
            Lately, I’ve been on a roll. Even on the grumpy days, those dear words were there, available to me, ready to rumble. I’ve been racking up massive counts, and even though I know it is not about the numbers, and quantity does not always trot along with quality, there was a humming satisfaction in that.
            Today, I sat down and had to dig the damn words out with a spoon. I did not really know what I wanted to say. I could not find the correct adjective, and I love a correct adjective. The prose had no flight in it, but was dourly and resolutely earthbound.
            Keep typing, keep typing, said the stern Mary Poppins voice in my head. Spit spot.
            So I did, because I can’t write only when I have inspiration in me. The whole point of being a professional, if I can use that word without falling down laughing, is that I write on the bad days and the low days and the stupid days. I can’t just wait for the magic to happen. I have to bash on when there is no stardust.
            I think this is a bit of a lesson for life. I’m a huge believer in bashing on, even when I would much rather give up and hide behind the sofa.
            Down in the field, new birds are arriving all the time, the living embodiment of spring. I am not a twitcher, and I can hardly tell my great tit from my warbler, but I love the birds even if I don’t know what their names are. ‘Hello, hello’ I say out loud, to the happy visitors, as if I were an ambassadress at a diplomatic reception.  The person who pitched up today, looking very fine, was, it turned out, a female chaffinch. (I looked her up on the RSPB bird identifier.) She was so splendid that I was slightly disconcerted to find that she is ‘the second commonest breeding bird’. I felt rather cross on her behalf. There was nothing common about her. As I watched her perch on the fence and flash her tail I thought she looked entirely remarkable and not at all ordinary.
            The mares are happy, covered in mud, still holding on to their winter coats just in case, still looking more like Exmoor ponies than descendents of Northern Dancer. I did some made-up dressage with my red mare today, and she was majestic. ‘Those transitions,’ I exclaimed. She nodded her wise head. She knows all about transitions.
            And today is Annie Power day, as my favourite racing mare comes to Aintree fresh from her triumphant romp in the Champion Hurdle. Any day that is Annie Power day is like Christmas morning for me.
            So there were many good things. But there were no good words. I bished and boshed and bullied them out, and they fell flat and sullen onto the page.
            Better tomorrow, I told myself, a little rueful and chastened. Tomorrow, the words will wake up and sing.

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Dance, dance, dance.

After my moment of happiness amidst the dung, of course I had The Crash. This happens so often that I don’t know why I do not see it coming. I get caught in a category error. I think that one shining moment of joy means that I am now set on the path to joy, instead of understanding it as a thing complete in itself.
            I was in such a filthy mood for the last two days that I could not even write this blog, because I did not want to burden you with scratchiness and crossness and fury. Despite myself, I want to give you the good bits. So much rain falls into every life that I do not want to add to the deluge. Here, I want to say, here is your little ray of sunshine.
            In the end, as the small slights and wounds and lacerations piled up, I found myself on the back on my red mare, in the middle of a dull Scottish field, the sky over my head the colour of dashed dreams, weeping like a child.
            After that, it was better. Little things had piled up, and I was so invested in this idea that I could be happy now I had had my revelatory moment, that I ignored them. Every morning, when I go into the house my mother and stepfather shared, where we spent so many happy times together, and find it empty, it is a little bruise on my heart. Even though my mother was confined to her bed for the last months of her life, she still made that house beautiful. Her life spread through it. She had two kind ladies who came in to do the work she could no longer do herself, and I had not realised how much she must have spoken to them and encouraged them to arrange everything in just the way she liked. She was like a set designer, making the stage come to life.
            Now that house feels forlorn, the life going out of it day by day, as my stepfather is away on a family trip. I was trying to be matter of fact about that, and refused to acknowledge how much it wore on my spirit. Don’t make a fuss, said my old school voices; be stoical, carry on. Then the brown mare had a wound that would not heal and no matter what I did it still looked hideous and sore and I suddenly thought that despite her having come through her operation, she would die of blood poisoning. People were cross with me, for three different things that were All My Fault. There are few more demoralising things than people getting cross with you when you know you are in the wrong. (The horrid part of me always wants to be in the right, so the doing of the wrong things and the severe tone of voice people use when they point this out are excruciatingly humiliating to me.)
            All this built up until I felt defeated. So I sat on the horse and cried.
            And today the sun came out and I wrote 2624 words of my secret project and I remembered about the most important dance of modern life, which is the One Step Forwards, Two Steps Back Shuffle. I do this dance all the time. I should know the steps by now. Ah, said my kind, adult, sane mind, which had not been able to get a word in edgeways for forty-eight hours, it’s not the end of everything; it’s just that dear old dance.

            A line from an old song came into my head. ‘Dance, dance, dance, little lady, leave tomorrow behind.’ I am not a little lady, but I damn well can dance.

Friday, 1 April 2016

Amidst the dung.

Today, I was happy. Properly, purely, authentically happy. Right down to my boots.

It did not last all day. It was a long moment, in a specific place, but it was real and true. 
          I had not felt like this since my mother died. I have climbed back up onto the rocky shore from the sea of grief. I began to have flashes of normality, could laugh proper shouty belly laughs, could enjoy simple pleasures. I started to lose the feeling that I was hanging on my fingertips, or being the spectre at the feast, or having to conceal my true feelings so that I did not frighten the metaphorical and actual horses.
          I started singing again. This is always a good sign, although it is perhaps not so welcome for the poor mares, who have to put up with me warbling out of tune as I give them their hay. I brushed my hair and even occasionally put on my lipstick. Colour came back into my cheeks. I got work done. I did not want to burst into tears three times a day.
            But all the same, there was the low drum-beat of loss. The pleasures were fleeting and near the surface. Sometimes I felt I was forcing myself to feel them, just a little, almost as an act of defiance. This life, this loss, this blow would not get me down, would not finish me off, would not wreck everything.
            The happiness today was organic, and came up from the earth, and spread through me, at first so unfamiliar that I did not know what it was. It was like running into a very old friend you have not seen for years and having to do a quick double-take before you recognise them. Oh yes, I said, it really is you.
            And where did it happen, this revelation? What was I doing? Was I gazing at my beloved hills, or up in the mountains, or listening to Bach? Was I contemplating a sea cruise or an African safari? Had the agent just rung up and told me she had sold the book in eight territories?
            I was standing in the rain, shovelling shit.
            This is making me laugh so much I can hardly type.
            The sky was the colour of despairing pigeons, a bitter east wind was blowing, and I had on my maddest hat, the one I bought from the village shop for seven quid, to keep the rain off. The horses, muddy and rugged up, were eating their hay and giving me little quizzical looks out of the corner of their eyes, because I was belting out an old Cat Stevens number. The piles of dung seemed to accumulate around me, and no matter how many I cleared, I would find another secret cache. (I sometimes think the mares do it for a joke.)
            Here, amidst the dung, I was happy.
            The universe looked down on me and laughed its most ironical laugh.
            The funny thing is that only this morning I thought: I must give the Dear Readers some fine prose. My life is really not that riveting. It involves canines and equines and green soup and going to the Co-op and endless word counts. Sometimes the most fascinating thing that happens is a shocking revelation on The Archers. Recording it is interesting to me, because I like to look back and see what I did, but it’s pretty pedestrian for everyone else. The whole point about me is that I am a writer, so I should make the attempt to do something interesting with language. The poor Dear Readers put up with so much. They deserve a break. I shall give them some ravishing paragraphs, I thought.
            This was my grand resolution. And then I go and write about shovelling shit.

PS. It was too dreary today for pictures. The photograph is from a sunnier moment. A Dear Reader was asking about the beech avenue, and so here it is. 


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