Sunday, 31 July 2016

The last things.

Another day, another breakfast with the dear Stepfather, another small pile on the table. The very last things are going from my mother’s house. I find this exceptionally melancholy and have to make a lot of antic jokes to cover up the fact. Everybody has to go through the things, I think. They are just things. But there is something about the final remnants of a life which is almost unbearable.

In the picture, you see my grandparents. They were such an odd couple. (At least I can say things like this now without my mum giving me a reproachful look. She knew they were quite odd, but staunchly never said so.) My grandmother was a mystery. She never stopped talking her whole life, and yet she never said anything which elucidated the mystery. My grandfather was a reinvention.

You see the monocle? He rarely took it off. I think he wore it in the bath. It was the emblem of his reinvention, the mark of the country squire into which he fashioned himself. Look at the tweeds, look at the pipe, look at the ugly pile behind him. Squire to the fingertips. But he was born in Wanstead Flats. (For those of you joining us from foreign stations, Wanstead Flats is a rather forlorn suburb of London. It was not, in 1888, where the landed gentry lived.) My grandfather never spoke of his family, but there was some thought that they were greengrocers. He became an actor, a standing dish in the West End, much loved and admired and famous for his comic timing. He took the money he earned and bought his tweeds and rented one country house after another and got a string of splendid hunters and stuck that monocle in his eye and became the gentleman he wanted himself to be. He was a gentleman at heart, but not the kind you could look up in Burke.

For all that he was a tremendous snob – not in the way of looking down on people but in the way of wanting so very dearly to be a posh cove – he was also tremendously brave. He joined the RAF in the First World War, and flew those terrifying aeroplanes that were practically made of paper. When the Second World War came, he was in a play in the West End. He asked his producer to let him out of his contract and went at once back to the Air Force and joined up again. To his chagrin, they said he was much too old to fly. (He was fifty at this time.) Instead, they put him in the control tower at RAF Benson. According to my mother, the young pilots adored his resonant actor’s voice, and felt comforted when they heard him calling them home.

Nobody knows to this day where my grandmother came from. She insisted she was descended from Danish princes and American robber barons. But she lived in a world entirely of her own. She talked and talked and talked and, for all those words, the mystery remained. I rather like the idea of the Danish princes. When I was young and foolish, I thought I was Hamlet, so it felt excessively appropriate. I think those dear old Danes lived in her imagination, actual only to her.

So there they are, those two made-up people, in their curious, dated clothes, leaning on their garden fence, looking curiously real and curiously unreal. I look at them, with quizzical fondness, and wonder: who were you?

The funny thing is that one of the very few facts I know about them for sure is that they loved horses. My mother inherited this love, married a man who had that love, and they both passed it on to me. That fire burns strong in my heart to this day, as I go down to the field and murmur private words into the dear ears of my thoroughbred mares. So something survives, and that something is very real indeed. It’s a pretty fine inheritance. I'll take it every day and twice on Sundays.

Friday, 29 July 2016

Rays of light.

Up and down and round the houses I go. Existential complications swarm at me like angry bees. But there are sudden, dazzling shafts of light. I go up to HorseBack to watch a man in a motorised wheelchair work a horse. There is nothing to bring one to a sense of perspective like seeing someone who has been paralysed at a young age rising above that catastrophic injury.

What was interesting about this particular man is that he was not doing any sort of gung-ho, watch me overcome schtick. He had a job, and he was going out to do it. He was matter of fact, low-key, and quite reticent. As I watched him work, I could see why he had been so brilliant at the rugby which eventually felled him. He was utterly focused, concentrating always on the next step, on what he could improve, on what he could learn better. You can’t not notice that someone is in a chair, but as he bonded with his horse, that chair faded into the background and the human spirit revealed itself. I became fascinated with him and impressed by him not because he was a man in a chair, but because he was a man with a mission.

In quieter, less dramatic waters, the great-nieces came this morning to ride. The middle niece rode the red mare off the lead rope for the first time and they forged a glorious new partnership. The oldest niece zoomed round an obstacle course with a blazing smile on her face. The baby niece, four years old, had her first sit on the mare and decided that the broad, mighty thoroughbred back was the place she was going to stay. We had some difficulty in persuading her to get off.

I feel tremendous pride in my horse at times like this. I’ve taught her a lot of things. She did not get as relaxed and soft as she is by eating magic beans. But her tenderness and dearness with the children is really to do with her own kind heart. She recognises precious cargo when she sees it, and she carries it with gentleness and loving care.

Those were the shining lights, illuminating the darkness. I’m struggling with some stuff. It’s complicated, messy, grievous stuff and it makes my heart ache. But there are good humans and good dogs and good horses and the dear old trees and hills which lift that bashed heart. I have a sort of percentage rule. I accept that life contains frets and sorrows and blows. I don’t shut my eyes to those, but try to run towards them. But as long as I have a decent ratio of goodness and kindness and laughter and beauty to balance them out, then I’m all right. If the percentages work out at around the sixty-forty mark, I’m fine. When we dip below fifty-fifty, I have to concentrate. I have to dig for the daily beauty, the one true thing, the shy silver lining, the elusive shaft of light. Sometimes, I don’t have to dig so hard. Sometimes the sun comes out, all on its own.

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

A cloud over the sun.

A tangle of intractable complications and sadnesses has me in its web. I think I am being tremendously stoical and putting on a good front, because I believe in stoicism and good fronts. In the end, I stand in the green field and tell a friend. She listens for a long time and then smiles kindly and says: ‘I had guessed.’ That good front, I think, needs work.

The friend is wise and true. She is a brilliant person for sorrows because she does not put on the pity face, or do the special voice, or tell me to butch up, or offer solutions. She just lets me get it all off my chest and then says something sage and then says something that makes me laugh. I feel profoundly soothed.

The tangle will get tighter and sadder over the next few days and then will loosen, a little. It is not made up of single spies, but of battalions. I stare very hard at the things of beauty in my daily life; the dancing dogs, the dear mares, the kind friends, the tall trees, the words written on the page. I squint beadily for silver linings, and there aren’t many, just now.

I always feel affronted by the bracing people who tell one to cheer up. There are things in life about which it is correct to be sad. One is not carved of pitiless marble. I hate dwelling and self-indulgence; I try not to wallow. But sometimes sad things happen and they make the heart ache and there is absolutely no point in pretending that they do not. 

Friday, 22 July 2016

The art of stillness.

I write 2872 words. Bash, bash, bash go my fingers on the keyboard. I see to the horses and walk the dogs and make my stepfather his breakfast and we talk about the madness that is Donald Trump.

Yesterday, I sat for forty minutes and listened to one of the most interesting men I know. Usually, when I see him I am in a rush. I have to get back to my desk, I have many miles to go before I sleep. I put my head round his office door, wave at him manically, perhaps stop for a couple of minutes of chat, explain why I must fly. Yesterday, I had twenty-seven things to do, but I made myself sit down and not think about any of those things. He started talking and I thought: oh, this is the good stuff. I thought: bugger the world, I’m going to get off. I actually concentrated on stilling and softening and opening my body language, so that it said: I am here, I am present, I am not thinking about what I have got to do next. I am listening to you and that is all.

It was a rather magical forty minutes. It was very quiet in that room, and there was just the interesting man, and his stories of things that I shall never know and can hardly imagine, and his vast store of knowledge. He is a seeker of knowledge, and he shares it with easy generosity, never showing off or trying to make a point or intent on making himself look good. He does look good, but not because he tries to. This lovely knowledge poured out and I kept still and mostly silent and merely tried to absorb as much of it as I could. I love the interesting people. The interesting people make it all worth it.

Oddly enough, I’d had some interesting stuff from the vet, earlier in the day. I’d taken the mares up to have their teeth done. One of them needed a post-operative wound treating. There was a bit of bad news and some fairly intricate treatment. I like to watch the vet at work and I like listening to him. But I could not be still and present in that situation, because all the frets swarmed round me like flies. My poor little mare, with her wound, and the threat of her bloody buggery sarcoids coming back, haunts me. I feel a little helpless and hopeless. Her wound is my wound. So, in reaction, I do a lot of nervy talking. I am tense as a guitar string. I take in some of the interesting stuff, but I can’t sit there and let it flow over me like I do with my friend in the quiet room, because I am too busy covering up emotion with pointless speech.

I always think the vet must think me a little bit nuts, on account of the pointless speech. I wish I could say: don’t pay any heed, it’s just that damn monkey mind, chattering fearful things in my ear. I wish I could explain that I can’t quite do the art of stillness when I’m fretting about that horse. I try to do matter of fact and hopeful and stoical, and sometimes I make a decent fist of it, but inside I’m wailing like a child.

She’ll be all right, that sweet horse. We’ll get her right in the end. And in the meantime, I shall go away and work on the art of stillness. I’m too damn old for the pointless speaking. 

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

The smiling men of Loch Muick.

Darwin the Dog sees two likely fellows and bounds over to make friends. There have been new people coming and going outside my window for a couple of weeks and I wonder what they are up to. Now the incurably friendly puppy has broken the ice, I can ask them.

They are smiling men, very young, probably just out of university. I grin at them from under my absurd, battered hat, and ask them what they are doing. ‘Oh,’ they say, beaming, ‘we are fixing the path at Loch Muick.’

Loch Muick is half an hour to the west. When I first came to live here, I used to drive about the country, looking in wonder at the mountains and the glens. I could hardly believe that if I took the road a mere twenty minutes to the north-west, I would find myself in proper wilderness, with not a house or a human for miles. On this crowded little island, this felt like a miracle.

I discovered Loch Muick by accident, since it is hidden away. I took a tiny road along the south of the Dee, and found myself twisting and turning through mossy plantations of silver birches, and then moving upward into dense pine forests. I was in the beginnings of a valley, tight and close, rather magical, like something out of the fairy tales of my childhood. Then, the road took a sudden turn and the glen opened out like a great book.

There it was, wild and wide and glacial, speaking vividly of its ancient beginnings. The floor of the valley was flat and expansive, with a river running through it in sapphire blue curves, and herds of deer gently grazing. I remember thinking that it had a look of South America about it; it was very familiar, but very foreign at the same time. The mountains rose up on either side in almost perpendicular folds, like grave guardians of this secret place.

At the end of the glen, there was a shining silver loch with its high sentinel cliffs and a sliver of bright beach at its eastern end. I stared and stared at it, in awe and wonder, astonished that I should have this much beauty on my doorstep.

Now, I don’t drive about the country. I have work to do, livestock to care for, my voluntary job, and family obligations. There is never enough time for life, let alone going on tour. But there were these smiling young men, going up into that fairy tale and making the path good, so that people can walk through the beauty without falling into potholes.

‘Do you know this country?’ I say.

‘No,’ they say, smiling more broadly than ever. ‘We come from Dumfries, we come from Edinburgh.’

They bend down to stroke Darwin, laughing at his antic disposition. I think how glorious it was that there are young people who came from Edinburgh to make the path at Loch Muick fine. I want to ask whether they are volunteers or on some kind of work experience or what. I feel goodness and kindness flowing out them in waves. I long to know why they have chosen this good job instead of any other.

But we all have to get on, so we smile some more and part ways, in great good humour with each other.

It was a tiny moment, but it gave a lustre and a gleam to my day. Afterwards, I felt glad that because of the blog, this small conversation would be written down and recorded. I would always have a memory of the grand young men, because I had put them into words. I would forget them otherwise. I have a sieve memory and too much of the important stuff tumbles through the holes. I want to remember this, I thought. In two, three, four years time, I want to be able to look back and think of those boys, by the side of that silver loch, making their path.

Saturday, 16 July 2016

Friendship and kindness and love.

As all the drawers are emptied, I take home each day small files and folders of papers. My mother kept everything. There are cards in wobbly childish writing saying: I love you Granny. There are notes from old friends, from her dear husband, even one from the Spanish Ambassador. (I can’t read the writing, so have no idea what that is about.) I can’t save them all. Sometimes I have to throw away things with words of love written on them. This feels like sacrilege. Do we find love so often that we turn it off the box?

In one of the piles, I find a flimsy telegram. It is typed in the faded capital letters of a lost time. It is very simple. It says: ‘You transformed a sad week into one S and I adored because of friendship kindness and love.’

I remember well the man who wrote that. He is one of the cohort of the great old gentlemen, the ones who remember the war. He was very sweet to me when I was a raw teen, doing the thing that the finest gentlemen do, which is treating me not as if I were a callow youth, but as if I were in fact the Spanish ambassador. (The father of the Beloved Cousin used to do the same thing. I think of it every week. It is one of the great gifts in life, and it leaves an enduring legacy.)

This particular gentleman had polio when he was young, so he was slightly lame. He and my mother used to go to the same dances, in those far-off days when people went to dances. My mother was very shy, and used to find them torture. The grand gentleman was not yet grand, but diffident and with a gammy leg. The more dashing girls found other partners. But Mum always danced with him. She did not care about the leg.

Thirty years after those excruciating social gatherings, he wrote her a telegram about friendship and kindness and love. Thirty years after that, I found the slip of paper, almost transparent with age, which she had preserved in a little leather case where she kept her most precious correspondence.

It’s not a bad epitaph. If someone ever wrote that of me, I should think that I had had a good life.

Not everyone chooses friendship and kindness and love. As the hectic news rolls daily off the presses, it is clear that these simple virtues are not at the top of everyone’s list. They seem so simple and so obvious, almost as if they fall from the sky like gentle rain. But they are not obvious to every human, and they do not simply fall. They, like all the important things in life, must be chosen. They are active virtues, more robust and stalwart than they sound. They are what Shakespeare meant when he wrote: so shines a good deed in a naughty world. They make a difference. They can transform something sad into something adored. I have written proof. 

Friday, 15 July 2016

There are no words.

I never know what to do when tragedy strikes, out in the world. My own world is very small, and, in some ways, very sheltered. When I go down to the field each morning to let the dogs play and to tend to the horses, it feels as if we are hidden from all the bad things and the mad things and the sad things. Nobody can see us there. We are sheltered by a high hill and stretches of dense woodland. I have a friend who shares the field with me. Her young daughter christened it The Magic Paddock, and there is something magical about it.

My house is small and sheltered too, but the world comes in there when I turn on the wireless or switch on the internet to hear the news. There, suddenly, in vivid colours, is that distant, outside world, with its living and dying, its tectonic shifts, its sudden political shocks.

As social media gallops and wheels in its wild, wide prairies of news, there can be almost an imperative to say something. Sometimes it feels as if everyone must react to everything, must have an opinion, must choose the right thing to say. I find the right thing to say almost impossible. Sometimes, I don’t say anything at all, because mere paltry human words in the face of unspeakable grief and loss and horror seem pointless and gimcrack. A huge thing has happened; why should anyone need to know what my own small feeling about it is? It can seem self-regarding, jumping on any passing bandwagon. Look at me, caring. On the other hand, to speak about ordinary things can seem callous and stupid. Can I really put up a picture of Stanley the Dog on Facebook when eighty-four people lie dead in the street?

But what word do you use for those eighty-four lost souls? Even the language of Shakespeare and Milton seems to come up short. It is shocking, and heartbreaking, and beyond human imagination. It is mad and wrong and lunatic. Yet every word one slaps on the horror seems too thin and small.

All the same, people will write the words, will stretch out uncertain fingers for the words, will try to make the nonsensical make sense with the words. Some good, wise people will use the right words, to reach out across oceans and incomprehensions, across time and distance, from one wounded heart to another. Some people will have the words, and will act as stalwarts, as witnesses, as consolers, if any consolation is to be found.

As I stood in that hidden, magical field this morning, with my little brown mare, who is the kindest, sweetest, most gentle animal I ever met, there were words in my ear. I was listening to a portable radio, and something rather extraordinary happened. It was Desert Island Discs, and Nicole Farhi was on. The programme had obviously been recorded some days before, and as she said, blithely and happily, that she grew up in Nice, I felt a visceral shock. She could speak of Nice with innocence, because she did not know what was to happen there. It was haunting and moving and added an extra twist to the tragedy. It somehow made it more touching that she was such a lovely woman, charming and engaged and thoughtful. She was all light and goodness, on such a dark day.

And then she chose Ne Me Quitte Pas by Jacques Brel for one of her records. I listened to that beloved singer of songs singing ‘don’t leave me’ in the quiet Scottish morning. The mare rested her sweet head against my shoulder. I thought of all those people, celebrating in their happy, peaceful streets, in the moments before tragedy struck. I thought of the ones who had left, against their will, torn violently from life and laughter by actions the human mind can barely understand.

It was a very strange moment. Listening to that most tender of voices was both lovely, and heart-rending. It is a time when words are not enough, and yet Brel had the right words. ‘I will make a kingdom where love will be king.’ If only it could be so. If only. 

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

You are not alone

I send a long and fond email to a very old friend. He’s facing up to some things just at the moment, so I think a lot about the tone. Tone is important. I suspect that people don’t want sympathy so much. The thing the men and women at HorseBack dread most is the pity face and I learned to put that away long ago, although I do still sometimes raise my eyebrows when they tell me a good getting blown up story. Sympathy sounds lovely, on paper, but in life it can be almost patronising. I like empathy better. But empathy has been hijacked by the welcome the abundance brigade, so I always feel like a real old charlatan whenever I write it down.

Anyway, I am British, so as I write the email I make jokes. I want my friend to know that I love him and I’m thinking of him and he is not alone. I can’t quite say that in some many words, which is why I make the jokes. That’s how it works. He can read between the lines. A bit of mild swearing is also useful. Sod ‘em all.

It’s the old saw of: you are not alone. People write a lot about the rampant individualism of the West, the out of control narcissism, the atomisation of society. I think this is a bit overcooked, but it has a grain of truth in it. Alfred Adler, my favourite of the psychologists, wrote a great deal about the importance of community. He believed that for the good life, you need to be stitched in to the human family. I think quite a lot about being part of something bigger than myself. On my more bonkers days, I believe I am a citizen of the world; on the saner days, I feel a little bit better about everything when I have a nice conversation with the ladies in the village shop.

So, when someone is going through it, I don’t say: poor you, or cheer up, or it will all be fine. I make a joke and say, either overtly or by implication: I know just how you feel, I am thinking of you, I can imagine what that is like. You are not alone.

It’s not magic beans. It does not fix anything. It will not miraculously transform a fraught situation. But as they used to say in The Big Chill: ‘you do what you can do.’

You dear Dear Readers did that for me yesterday, with your kind hearts. Thank you for that. It means a lot. 

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Here is the deal.

Here is the deal.
I get to write anything I damn well want.
And you get to write anything you damn well want.
That is the joy of freedom of expression.

You, Dear Readers, have no limits. You can be kind or you can be cruel; you can be charming or you can be rude; you can be generous or you can be mean. You can dangle your modifiers or split your infinitive or curse like a sailor on shore leave. That is the great good fortune of living in a liberal democracy at the beginning of the 21st century. People fought and died for free speech. The first thing the dictators do is burn the books. Liberty of thought and word is a gift, and it is your gift.

You can even, if you choose, tell me that I make you want to be sick in a bucket.

I must admit, that one hurt a bit. It took me five whole days before I could laugh about it. Suddenly, it struck me as not wounding but gloriously comic. I really don’t get up in the morning thinking: now, my plan is to make someone sick in a bucket. Yet, apparently that is what I do. I probably should not laugh. I probably should try much, much harder not to make people sick in buckets.

The direct personal attack is an interesting thing. I’m not very good at dealing with it. I have this theory that when someone says something disobliging, the most important thing is to give them permission, in the privacy of one’s own head. For whatever reason, they need to plunge in the knife. It can be classic Object A, Object B: one is furious and miserable and in despair over Object A, one takes it out on Object B. Whatever the origin, the attack exists and it has come at you. The only thing to do is to let it run its course, because everyone must think what they will, hold the opinions they hold, and say what they must say. Freedom of expression is not all bluebirds and butterflies. It has to allow the dark side.

I quite like this theory but it’s not always that easy to apply. If one is vulnerable, no amount of rational thought can stop the sting. One is only human, after all.

In the last few weeks, my stepfather has been dismantling the house my mother made. He is to go and live in the south. This is a good decision, but it is a very sad decision. For five years, I made him and my mother breakfast every day. It was our fond ritual. I made them Easter and Christmas lunches and birthday celebrations and special dinners too, but it was breakfast that was the thing. Since my mother died, I have gone in each morning to make the dear stepfather his eggs and to see if I could bring a smile to his face. If I could, my work that day was done.

Now, there is this slow dismantling. Every week, there is a moving van with smiling men taking away pieces of furniture. There are blank spaces on the walls where pictures used to be. The chair my mother sat in has gone. On the breakfast table when I arrive there is now a little pile of things found in some drawer or other: a folder of cuttings, old photographs, my grandfather’s wallet. These are the very last remnants of a life, and they break my heart.

I’m trying to be butch about it, because this is life. People die and people leave. This is what happens to everyone. I am not special. All the same, it is a long, low melancholy, the distant roar of a withdrawing tide. It is very much the end, and however much I paint my brave face on, I am sad underneath the smile.

So when the harsh words came, I had no defence. That freedom of expression went whoomp, whack, wallop into my solar plexus. Bloody hell, I thought, that really, actually, properly hurt. One must take the knocks, in life, learn to roll with the punches, but it is never a lovely thing to be told you are vainglorious. (Vain, excessively boastful, with swollen pride, from the 14th century root of worthless glory. Oh dear, I thought, am I really that? How very unBritish. How very much not what my mother brought me up to be.)

I took myself away from the internet for a bit, rather bruised and battered. (When wounded, I always have to withdraw for a bit, go to somewhere quiet, take time to talk myself down from the ceiling.) I thought about this blog. Is it really worth doing it, if it makes people sick in buckets, if they find it an egregious exercise in vainglory? I had some tiny hope of occasionally adding to the sum total of human happiness, if the light was coming from the right direction. Instead, it seems I am adding to world nausea. Perhaps I should just stop. I do this for sheer pleasure. I like writing; I like recording my own small days; I like being able to go back and see what I was doing a year ago, or the year before that. It’s good match practice too. Daily writing is a fine way of keeping your muscle memory sharp, like doing scales and arpeggios. I like that there are readers from Sri Lanka and New Zealand and California It makes me feel like a citizen of the world.

But it’s such a tiny thing, and if it were gone nobody would notice, and I could find another form of daily words. Perhaps it would be rather a relief. I would not have to encounter the angry voices, the unsolicited advice, the strict instructions, the bald litany of my appalling failures. (I'm certain all this is very good for character-building, but it's not my favourite thing in the world.) 

I ponder. I ride the mares and walk the dogs and drive my stepfather to the airport and do my work and read a very long book about the Second World War. I wonder and think.

And then I decide: sod it. This is my freedom of expression too. If I want to write a load of buggery bollocks, I shall write a load of buggery bollocks. I shall do it with my head held high. I shall do it whilst wearing my special hat. I shall do it with a spring in my step and a song in my heart. 

I shall get knocked down, and I shall pick myself up and dust myself off and start all over again. So keep your buckets handy. 


Blog Widget by LinkWithin