Tuesday, 31 January 2017

A very, very happy day.

Despite the fact that I was pretending to be very butch about it, I was rather dreading hitting fifty. I know it’s only a number and it doesn’t really mean anything, but I felt the cruel whoosh of life galloping past my ears and wanted to say stop.

As is so often the case, the dread of the thing was nothing like the thing itself.

The thing was bloody marvellous.

Once I was in it, I realised I didn’t feel any different and that age could be a mere state of mind. (I expect I won’t think that when I’m eighty and I have to be winched onto my horses with ropes, groaning about my replacement hips, but fifty can exist in the mind for now.) I had one of the most glorious days I can remember. The bright frost glittered and gleamed and the sun shone and the dogs raced along the burn and I cantered the red mare up the hill to look at the snowy mountains.

Family and friends rang up and sent messages and I talked and talked and talked. I got sweet presents and enchanting cards. Two of the people I love most in the world staged a birthday surprise of epic proportions. My jaw actually fell open as if I were in a cartoon and I lost the power of speech, which is not something that happens to me very often. It was more surprising and more brilliant than if Sir Mark Todd and Sir AP McCoy had pitched up singing show tunes. (I think everyone needs a brace of singing equine knights in their lives.)

Fifty, schmifty, I thought. This is a blast. I want to be fifty every day and twice on Sundays.

One of the most touching things was my Facebook page. I scrolled down message after message, making little ah-ing noises and letting out rueful chuckles and sudden shouts of laughter. There were horse pictures and dog pictures and antic emoticons by the score. There were messages from close family and extended family, people I knew when I was a child, friends from my teens whom I have not seen for thirty years, the best beloveds I talk to every week and the ones I have not seen for too long because I never get to the south just now. 

There were the internet friends – people I’d met on Twitter whilst cheering some great chaser home, and people I’d run into on horsemanship forums, where we had discussed how to get a soft canter on a loose rein. There were people I’d bonded with over the intricacies of herd behaviour or people I’d become friends with because they remembered my dad in his glory days. There were people who’d found me through the red mare and her little brown cousin, or their love of my sweet Stanley’s adorable lurcher ears, or their delight in dancing Darwin the Dog. There were the blogging people, my first online buddies, and the people who shared my adoration of the thoroughbred, and the people who would not know one end of a horse from the other but who sweetly and patiently accept my equine obsession. There were my HorseBack veterans, who  put up with my bad jokes and strange hats and my habit of yelling at them to hold it right there because I've found the perfect angle with my camera even though they know perfectly well I don't have a clue what I'm doing. There were people from Australia and America and New Zealand and all parts of this dear old island nation.

There is a fashion in certain circles to sneer at the internet. Oh that social media, say the sceptical; don’t you have a real life to go to? For me, real life and virtual life trot together as happily and harmoniously as the Queen’s Windsor Greys coming down the straight mile at the Royal Meeting. But there is no doubt that there is a lot of ugliness out there in the wilder corners of the web. The opposing political gangs square up against each other and the gender wars break out as if the Pankhursts never happened and only this morning I saw some toughs cursing at each other because they could not agree on what was going to win the Gold Cup. (‘Thistlecrack? Cunt.’ At which point I felt slightly faint and had to go and have a little sit-down in a darkened room.)

But there, there on my page was this generous, embracing, expanding expression of human kindness and affection. I write a huge amount of nonsense every day and put up idiotic amounts of horse and dog pictures and sometimes get all hippy dippy on your arse because I do really want to teach the world to sing, and I often forget the edit button and sometimes let my flakiest self roar around like a Mongolian pony out on the Steppe. Even I sometimes wonder if I am going to be arrested by the Too Much Police. And yet nobody seemed to mind and they all took the time to say happy birthday and make the horse and dog jokes and I smiled so hard my cheeks ached with it.

There is a lot of crossness and a lot of intemperance and a lot of the very worst of human nature running around unchecked on the social media, but there is the very best of human nature too, and I think that wins. It won yesterday, for me. It won in a canter with its head in its chest. It will definitely stay the extra two furlongs and if it were running in the Gold Cup I'd back it ante-post right this minute, even against Thistlecrack himself.

I can’t thank all those kind people enough. Faith in human nature can be a fragile thing and sometimes when I am insisting on believing the best instead of the worst I feel as if I am rolling a boulder up a hill. Not yesterday. The dazzling Facebook posse made my day.

Friday, 27 January 2017

In which I am a little bit of a wimp.

I wrote a long and rather serious and possibly controversial blog today. Then I stared at it in doubt. Did I really want to wade into those treacherous waters? Did I want the comments section to turn into a debating club? Did I want to set angry hares running?

It’s a sweet, sunny, mild day outside, and I spent the morning taking a four-year-old friend to see the horses – ‘Can I make their breakfast? Can I brush them? That looks like a good brush.’ Then I went and did my HorseBack work and then I came back and did my own work. My horrid bug has gone, and I made some excellent carrot soup. Everything was small and quiet and rather lovely.

No, I thought, pressing the delete button, I don’t want to get into bomb-throwing. I think it’s probably rather pusillanimous of me, but I don’t feel sturdy enough to take the slings and arrows. I’ve always been rather envious of the people who love nothing more than a juicy shouting match, but I loathe confrontation. I have the slightly tragic yearning for little birds in their nests to agree. 

Someone said something to me this morning with which I radically disagreed, and I bent over backwards to see his point. It was his point, after all, and he felt very strongly about it, and who was I to take it away from him? So I scrabbled about until I could find some common ground on which we could stand, and, rather diffidently and with much use of irony, I put a little of my opposing point of view, and we tacitly agreed to disagree. He said his piece and I said my piece and it was not an argument at all.

As I was making the soup, I stood in the kitchen and thought: I’d like only to write kind things about people. There are politicians and pundits out there who drive me batshit nuts in the head. I think some of them are using their power for evil instead of good and I think some of them are not decent human beings. I could leap onto my soapbox and rant and wail; I could run for the moral high ground and plant my flag. Occasionally, I do, but I always feel rather grubby afterwards. Am I so flawless? Is my opinion so important? Does my voice really need to be heard?

Yet I think of all the people who did shout and did protest and did stand up and be counted. Without them, I would not have the life I have. The suffragettes fought a bloody good fight, and I’m not sure they did that so I could stay silent and keep my head down and not frighten the horses.

I can’t work out where the balance lies. I’m always looking for balance, and I’m never quite sure that I find it.

On the Today Programme this morning, Jim Naughtie was talking about Tam Dalyell, who has died. ‘He was a man of immense kindness,’ said Naughtie. Yes, yes, I thought; that is an obituary. That is how I would like to be remembered. Kindness, kindness and more kindness. I used to want to be remembered for charm and wit and brilliance. (I was very young and very idiotic.) Now, I’d like to be thought of as kind. It’s not very cinematic and it won’t make any headlines, but without it, there is nothing.

That’s why I slightly hate myself when I start waving my critical flag. Even if the criticism is well-founded, it still makes me feel a little shoddy and arrogant and cheap. But without the good critics, there is no progress. I don’t want to be a carper, but I don’t want to be a wimp either. Couldn’t it be like training a dog, says my slightly tragic hippy voice. Ignore the bad and reward the good? Instead of wading into every fray with all guns blazing, hunt down the good stuff, the hopeful stuff, the kind stuff, and shine a light on that instead? Could that be my mission, should I choose to accept it? 

Thursday, 26 January 2017


I’ve been feeling a bit ropey for the last few days. People in the village say there is a bug going round. But I don’t have time for bugs: I have work to do and livestock to look after. (At one point, I decided that I was feeling slightly ill because of the Trump bug. Every time I saw the footage that is going round the internet of him ignoring his wife on the steps of the White House I felt faintly sick.)

Today, the buggery bastard bug got me, so instead of soldiering on I went back to bed and slept and slept and slept. My kind friend saw to the horses and I could cancel everything. I am typing this with palsied fingers and a rather swimmy head but I’ll be better tomorrow.

In the swimmy head, some random thoughts twist and dive. They are mostly to do with the fact that I am fifty in four days. I’ve been practising for this milestone for the last six months by saying in life and writing on the page ‘I am fifty years old’.

The rational part of me knows this is just a number and does not really mean anything. The irrational part is going: holy fuck, I am FIFTY YEARS OLD. The zeitgeist, which must always have its say, tells me that fifty is a big deal for a female. It is the age, apparently, when you become invisible. I’ve never had a problem with this. I think it’s because I was never a beauty. I’m exactly as visible now as I was when I was twenty because my schtick is not a dewy complexion and ravishing cheekbones, which may be ravaged by age, but bad jokes and antic conversations about the meaning of life and eccentric hats. The hats are getting more important as I get older and nobody can ignore a woman in a hat.

What I do have a problem with is the slightly odd idea that being fifty means I should be a grown-up. I don’t really know what this means, but my Mary Poppins voice is telling that it is something to which I should aspire. I’m not quite sure how to be a grown-up. Today, in the spirit of adulthood, I decided to deal with one of my piles. Even though I was feeling very tottery from the horrid bug, I stared beadily at the pile and thought I had its measure. My life is made up of piles – papers, laundry, clothes, things I can’t always identify. I shove the piles into baskets and corners and the Cupboard of Doom and tell myself tragically that because I am a creative I simply don’t have the organising gene.

This pile was of clothes. Why I can’t fold them up and put them away like a normal person I have no idea. Anyway, I dragged them out of their muddly basket and sorted through them, and there, to my delight, was a very old friend. It was my favourite cashmere cardigan. It was the one that never bobbled and never got moth and never shrunk in the wash and never lost its shape. ‘Oh,’ I said, out loud, ‘there you are.’

It’s about fifteen years old and I could not remember where I’d got it. Was it one from the glory days, when I had some cash and used to indulge myself? Was it from Harvey Nichols or that chic little boutique in Cirencester where the Beloved Cousin and I once bought the most elegant Danish coats? (Best coat I ever had. Nothing like the Danes for coats, I discovered.) I looked at the label, and laughed and laughed. It was from Marks and Spencer. Dear, dear old Marks and Sparks, in the days when they weren’t trying to do fashion, but simply made lovely, honest basics, the kind of clothing you really needed rather than thought you should wear because some magazine said so.

I don’t know why this made me so happy, but it did. I’ve never been a fashiony girl, although very occasionally I would go mad with a famous name. I have a Dolce and Gabbana coat that I bought when I was twenty-seven and it is so beautiful that it hangs now on my bedroom door and I gaze at it as if it were an artwork. I have a Vivienne Westwood jacket which is so groovy that every time I put it on I feel as if I am a character in a novel. But I never had the knack for modishness and now I spend most of my time surrounded by mud and hay and live in a uniform of Gap jeans and sensible jumpers and sturdy gumboots. It felt right that my favourite lost garment was not from some storied designer but from a shop which is as plain and British as Marmite and talking about the weather.

I thought about the plans I had for my landmark birthday. I was going to write a best-seller and give a huge party in the cow barn opposite my house and all the old friends would come and we would dance like we used to when we were eighteen. The rather shaming part of me thought they might bring loot. There might be more cashmere cardigans and the Fairfax and Favor boots I yearn for and perhaps a jewel. Because you know, fifty requires some serious presents.

As it is, I’m on an economy drive and there will be no party and I found my favourite old garment so I don’t need any presents. The family is scattered all over the place and my mum and dad aren’t here any more and it will be just like any ordinary Monday. Two of the people I love most in the world are going to give me a cocktail and that’s all I want. The only present of which I dream, I suddenly realise, is a lifetime supply of the good hay from the kind farmer. (Although if Amigo suddenly rang up and said they were choosing the red mare as their new model and giving her a set of their unbelievably smart rugs I would die of happiness.)

I won’t be dancing and I don’t think I’ll suddenly turn into a grown-up and I won’t stare at my face and cry because it has wrinkles on it. I think perhaps I might feel a little more galvanised: time is shooting past me and I’ve got to write all those damn books that dance in my head. The anticipation of fifty is a thing, but then I’ll be it and it won’t really be a thing after all. I’ll ride my sweet mare and watch the dogs race along the burn and I’ll discuss with my friend in the feed shed when we should ring the kind farmer and get more of the good hay. I’ll feel passionately grateful that I have this Scotland and these hills and these trees. It wasn’t where I expected to end up, when I was young and wild and urban. I found my way here quite by chance. But the peace and the beauty are perhaps my best present of all.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

What old friends can do.

I am being a bit hopeless and goofy at the moment, so I’m feeling a bit hopeless and goofy. The hopelessness and goofiness did not arise as some amorphous emotion; they came because I’m doing some fairly stupid things I should not have not done, and not getting done the sensible things I should have done.

So: hopeless and goofy.

As I sit, trying to pull myself together, an adored old friend rings up. We talk about family and work and politics. We laugh a lot. There is good news about two best beloveds who are in remission from galloping cancers. The old friend is roaringly successful. He does things every day at his office that I cannot imagine. He’s worked incredibly hard all his life and he finally hit the jackpot and I was never more pleased for anyone, he deserved it so much. 

I tell him about some of the goofiness and hopelessness. He has never been hopeless or goofy in his life. He is clever and funny and practical and bloody brilliant. He does not scoff or sneer at my weaknesses. He does not seem even slightly surprised or horrified. He makes a joke and does some empathy and then gives me some sterling advice which I had asked for.

As the conversation comes to an end, he hands the telephone to another old friend, who wants to say hello. ‘We miss you,’ he says. ‘Come south soon.’

Both these men have done some really big stuff. They run things. They make a difference to things. They put in the hours and made it to the top of their fields. They, I think ruefully, would not let the horses wander off and leave hoofprints all over somebody’s lawn. (My poor landlord. I don’t know how he puts up with me.) They carry the garlands of success on their noble brows. But they are exactly the same as when we were all absurd teenagers together, thirty-two years ago. They have that slight sheen that comes with worldly success, as if an operative polishes them every day, but they have no bombast, no Trumpian swagger, no whiff of superiority. They are miles above me in the rankings, but it makes no difference. They still laugh at my jokes and render me speechless with hilarity and make me feel better with the very sound of their dear voices.

I sometimes think that failing is easy. Of course I don’t mean that entirely. Failing is horrible and makes me want to shout and swear and spit. But one has so much practice with failure. It’s deep in muscle memory. Everybody does it. Succeeding, however, can be hard. Not everyone knows what to do with success. Some people are ruined by it. I’ve known people who started chucking all their old friends once they grasped the golden ring, and would have odd dinners for famous people they had only met once. I’ve known people who really did change. Not my boys. They are as they ever were: most happy when they are poking fun at themselves. And not, for one second, afraid of the hopelessness and goofiness, which they take in their easy stride.

I put the telephone down, feeling as if the whole world is lighter and brighter and more explicable. That is what old friends can do.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

In which I make a rather sad bet.

I love reading journalists with whom I disagree. I think it’s very important, to keep that creaking old mind open. For years, I’ve read The New Statesman and The Speccie and probably shouted at them both equally. (I have to admit that The Spectator is funnier, and I think this may be because right-wing journalists are much less afraid of pissing people off, and so let rip in a way that the left-wing political commentators don’t dare.)

As I get older, I stomp more and more to the centre. I gave up tribalism years ago, mostly because it seemed to me to lead to such bad manners, and I’ve always had the fatal liberal disease of seeing both sides of every argument. The extremes on both sides tend to make me sad and cross. I like the calm, polite centrists who seem to embrace empiricism and rationalism, such as David Aaronovitch and Matthew D’Ancona and Philip Collins and Danny Finkelstein. I get very twitchy and doleful when I’m out on the edges with Melanie Phillips or Polly Toynbee or Owen Jones or Janet Daley. However, even with those four, I sometimes have the faintly startling feeling of occasionally agreeing.

There is one member of the commentariat who entertains me weekly but with whom I never agree, and that is James Delingpole. That does not mean he is right and I am wrong or the other way round; it simply means I’ve never in my life read a sentence of his and nodded my head and thought ‘you know, he’s really got a point’. This may be because he sets himself up on purpose as an antic contrarian, purposely insulting people like me whom he depicts as ghastly, elitist, bleeding heart wimps, huddling on the soggy middle ground and believing in climate change and the Scandi miracle.

This week, in The Speccie, he wrote a triumphant article claiming that Donald Trump is going to be the greatest president since Reagan.

I do not agree with this. Surprise, surprise.

I’m not going to cite chapter and verse. It’s not a fight that is worth having. I can list reams of half-truths, insults, flat-out lies and spurious promises, and those on the other side will simply say LIBERAL MEDIA, or but what about evil Killary? I can’t forgive the bullying and shaming of Ghazala Khan, whose son was killed in Iraq. The other side probably think I’m an idiot for minding. (I’m actually not sure what the defence of this egregious act was, and can’t imagine what defence there might be.)

Anyway, that’s not the point. I simply wanted to mark the moment. Delingpole thinks Trump is going to be the greatest. I think Trump will be the worst president since Nixon. In four years, one of us will be right and one will be wrong. The gambling part of me, the part that I inherited from my old dad, who was such a punter that when the racing was frozen off in winter he would go to the betting shop and put his money on the dogs even though he knew nothing of greyhounds, quite wants to put money on it.

The funny thing is that I’d adore to be wrong. I love America and I don’t want her to stagger and stumble. America is that incredibly rare thing: a country that is founded on an idea. Dear old Blighty grew up in true mongrel fashion: a bit of the Romans here, some Vikings there, oh look here come the Celts, and, zut alors, voila the Normans. There’s no founding notion, not even a written constitution. Ordinary Decent Britons believe in fair play, not blowing your own trumpet, queuing and a nice cup of tea. The Americans, on the other hand, who started from scratch with their radical notions and their frontier spirit, believe that all men are created equal (and women too, I expect) and that they have certain inalienable rights, which include life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That’s in the founding document. That is stirring stuff. That is an idea.

Of course the problem with soaring ideas is that frailed, flawed humans sometimes have trouble living up to them. But it’s something to aim for. It’s the mountain peaks, rather than the dirty valley. And I would hate to see that scuffled and shuffled underfoot.

365 Days of Shakespeare.

Comedy of Errors.

I missed my Shakespeare yesterday, as the day galloped away with me. This day was almost galloping too, but I sternly said: I can stop and have ten minutes of beauty. And the very first lines I read were these:

It is thyself, mine own self's better part,
Mine eye's clear eye, my dear heart's dearer heart,
My food, my fortune and my sweet hope's aim,
My sole earth's heaven and my heaven's claim.

There. That is beauty for you.

And, in a wicked twist of genius, Shakespeare then goes from swoony beauty to a festival of insults. Dromio and Antipholus have a very, very naughty conversation about a most unattractive woman. It is obviously very unsisterly of me to find this so funny, but I can’t help it. The whole exchange is much longer than this, and if you want to look it up, it is Act III, Scene II.  

Here is a little taster:
Then she bears some breadth?
No longer from head to foot than from hip to hip:
she is spherical, like a globe; I could find out
countries in her.
In what part of her body stands Ireland?
Marry, in her buttocks: I found it out by the bogs.
Where Scotland?
I found it by the barrenness; hard in the palm of the hand.
Where France?
In her forehead; armed and reverted, making war
against her heir.
Where England?
I looked for the chalky cliffs, but I could find no
whiteness in them; but I guess it stood in her chin,
by the salt rheum that ran between France and it.
Where Spain?
Faith, I saw it not; but I felt it hot in her breath.
Where America, the Indies?
Oh, sir, upon her nose all o'er embellished with
rubies, carbuncles, sapphires, declining their rich
aspect to the hot breath of Spain; who sent whole
armadoes of caracks to be ballast at her nose.
Where stood Belgia, the Netherlands?
Oh, sir, I did not look so low. To conclude, this
drudge, or diviner, laid claim to me, call'd me
Dromio; swore I was assured to her; told me what
privy marks I had about me, as, the mark of my
shoulder, the mole in my neck, the great wart on my
left arm, that I amazed ran from her as a witch:
And, I think, if my breast had not been made of
faith and my heart of steel,
She had transform'd me to a curtal dog and made
me turn i' the wheel.

Naughty, naughty, naughty. But irresistible.

There is another excellent insult later on – ‘thou peevish sheep’. I can just see a peevish sheep now, all ornery and pissed off.

And then, one more final line of beauty – ‘here we wander in illusions’. Yes, yes, that will do.

Monday, 23 January 2017

The missing, the mother, the thoroughbred.

I’m thinking of writing a sequel to The Happy Horse. This is partly because I love writing about horses, and partly because people seem to have enjoyed the book very much and some of them kindly asked for more. So I’ve been going back through the archives to see if there is enough material to make a book.

The archives is a very posh way of saying: pages and pages of red mare love. Five hundred pages, to be precise. If this is to make a book, it will need some ruthless editing. The dead darlings will litter the stage, as if they are in the last scene of Hamlet. There is also, you will be amazed to hear, quite a lot of repetition. I shall have to put my steely hat on and cut and slash and shape and form.

This morning, I found a very touching passage about my red mare and my mother. Those of you who have dead parents will know about the missing. After a while, time does its thing and the grief and the ache and the almost physical pain subside. I no longer feel as if I am carrying around sorrow like a huge bucket of water. I learnt to put my burden down. Normal life reasserts itself; there are ordinary moments of quiet happiness. The savour returns. There is a point. Life, in other words, really does go on. 

But the missing never disappears. It may find itself a nice place in the heart where it can rest, and do no harm. It does not dominate and dictate and make everything else seem thin and gimcrack. It simply comes out, from time to time, like a kind of memento mori. I’ll be going along and all of a sudden I miss my mother so much I can’t breathe. Ah, I think, there you are, you dear old Missing. You’ve bashed open your cupboard door and are running free over the plain. (You are also making me mix my metaphors in a rather alarming manner.)

It can be a bit of a shock, when the missing comes in without warning. Occasionally, I feel faintly resentful. It’s been fourteen months now; surely some of the sharpness must have worn off by now? Then I become philosophical. This is how it works. Love is love; the missing is always the missing. It’s probably best not to bang on about it, but it is there and it will always be there and sometimes it will bring smiles with it, fond remembering smiles, and sometimes it will bring tears. Imagine, I think to myself, if it were not there. That would be awful, profoundly wrong, as if the world were out of whack.

There is nobody in the world like your own mother, and of course you are going to miss her. That, really, is all she wrote.

What is so lovely about the idiotically obsessive writing I did about that horse is that I recorded my mother too. Mum adored the red mare and every time her eyes fell on that sweet thoroughbred face they lit up. One of the greatest legacies my parents left me was an understanding, admiration and love for the thoroughbred, and I use that legacy every single day. 

Stitched in to all that bonkers horse writing is the good human stuff, the memories of my mother, the small moments of utter sweetness.

I found this one today and I’m reproducing it here. It made me smile. I miss my mum and I’m not ashamed of that. But I have words, many hundreds of them, that keep her with me.

This is what I wrote:

There are many, many reasons I love my red mare. I love that she turns all stereotypes about thoroughbreds, ex-racehorses, chestnuts and mares on their head. Any good horse person knows that an equine will reflect back at you exactly what you put in. Breeds do vary – some are bred for speed, some for strength, some for steadiness – but all horses are individuals, and have characters as discrete as snowflakes. To say that every cob is this or all Arabs are that is as inaccurate as saying that all men like cars or all women crave shoes.

A thoroughbred is likely to be sensitive, clever and fast. That is the result of years of careful and tightly controlled breeding. Many of them are also very brave, and exceptionally willing. But you will get dear old dopes, and ones who are a bit windy, and others who are absolute jokers. Some are as genuine and straightforward as the day is long; some are capable of being a bit of a monkey. Some like strength and drive from their riders; some yearn for quietness and softness.

My girl is clever, funny, generous, willing and kind. She likes steadiness and calm. She adores routine. She has a goofy love for very small children, who make her flutter her eyelashes and soften her eyes. She has a mighty talent for stillness, which is why I think of her as my Zen mistress. She likes listening to conversations, twitching her ears and going into a little doze of pleasure. She is fond of humans, thinking them good things.
She is about as far from the loon thoroughbred of ill-informed myth as you could get.
I love her for all these reasons. But the thing that made my heart lift most this week is that she makes my mum smile.

My mother is not terribly mobile and has to deal with a lot of pain. She is very stoical about it. To cheer her up, I ride the half mile to her front door to show her the red mare’s sweet face. Each time, my mother’s own face lights up. My dear stepfather feeds the good mare apples. Only he is given special dispensation from our strict rule of not feeding by hand. The mare is gentle and polite with him, lipping quietly at his fingers until all the deliciousness is gone. This makes my mother laugh out loud.

Then I show off a few paces, and do some figures of eight, and trot off down the long field towards home. The mare pricks her delicate ears, leaving pleasure trailing in her majestic wake.

What is it with the horse? an old friend asked, a while ago. There are a hundred answers to that question. I could get philosophical and say that horses teach humans everything about authenticity. They are perfect professors of existing in the present moment. They have their priorities straighter than anyone I ever met. They care nothing for the superficial, and everything for the profound, unshowy virtues, like reliability and kindness and understanding.

I could say it’s a matter of aesthetics. In an often ugly world, a good horse is a still point of beauty. I could say it is the challenge – my old saw about the half ton flight animal under the ten stone human. Sometimes, I think it is the most simple thing: doing honest, physical work in the open air.

And there is the funniness too. The red mare is a natural comedienne She makes me laugh every single day. She is a fascination of complexity too – both a duchess, and a conscientious and responsible lead mare. (It touches me daily to see how seriously she takes that important job.)

But just now I think it is that this delightful creature can bring a dancing smile to my old mum’s face, by the very fact of her simple presence. She is better than any medicine. There is something in that which goes beyond words.

Friday, 20 January 2017

365 Days of Shakespeare.

I start on The Comedy of Errors, which is another play I do not know at all. To my absolute astonishment, on the very day that Donald Trump is inaugurated, I find that he is not the only one who has ever wanted to build a literal or metaphorical wall. In his first speech, Duke Solinus illustrates the fear of The Other, and the baleful consequences that can result.
            The other fascinating thing is that this is a perfect example of Freud’s idea of the narcissism of small differences. Since I am starting to think that Mr Trump is a Freudian case study, I find this very appropriate. Everything changes, and nothing changes.

Merchant of Syracuse, plead no more;
I am not partial to infringe our laws:
The enmity and discord which of late
Sprung from the rancorous outrage of your duke
To merchants, our well-dealing countrymen,
Who wanting guilders to redeem their lives
Have seal'd his rigorous statutes with their bloods,
Excludes all pity from our threatening looks.
For, since the mortal and intestine jars
'Twixt thy seditious countrymen and us,
It hath in solemn synods been decreed
Both by the Syracusians and ourselves,
To admit no traffic to our adverse towns Nay, more,
If any born at Ephesus be seen
At any Syracusian marts and fairs;
Again: if any Syracusian born
Come to the bay of Ephesus, he dies,
His goods confiscate to the duke's dispose,
Unless a thousand marks be levied,
To quit the penalty and to ransom him.
Thy substance, valued at the highest rate,
Cannot amount unto a hundred marks;
Therefore by law thou art condemned to die.

If I’m going to carry the Trumpian parallel to its nth degree, I’d say that the most telling line is ‘excludes all pity from our threatening looks’. Those of us who know the story of what Trump did in Aberdeenshire understand well that he does not do pity.

Right. Now I am a few scenes in and it is very, very silly, and very confusing. I think Shakespeare was having a real laugh with this one. I am having to frown and squint to keep up. But there is, as always, the raging beauty of the words. Here is Antipholus of

Sweet mistress--what your name is else, I know not,
Nor by what wonder you do hit of mine,
Less in your knowledge and your grace you show not
Than our earth's wonder, more than earth divine.
Teach me, dear creature, how to think and speak;
Lay open to my earthy-gross conceit,
Smother'd in errors, feeble, shallow, weak,
The folded meaning of your words' deceit.
Against my soul's pure truth why labour you
To make it wander in an unknown field?

My favourite line is – ‘the folded meaning of your words’ deceit’. It is the use of folding that makes it so perfect.

Stopping now, before my brain short-circuits. I see that I’m going to have to concentrate with this one. And it reminds me of what my friend the playwright and I shouted at each other with gaudy glee on the telephone the other day: the thing about Shakespeare, we bawled, is that he really, really does not give a fuck.

From weakness comes strength.

The astonishing thing about confessing to weakness is that it brings a renewed wash of strength. I still don’t really know how this happens.

I’m always banging on about human frailty, but the irrational voices that shout in my head tell me that I must not admit my own. Rationally, I know that all humans are flawed and frail, having midnight terrors and cracked plate three in the morning dark nights of the soul. Every one of my heroines and heroes has flaws. Of course they do, because they are human.

Yet that stupid shouty voice says: don’t tell them. Don’t say it out loud. Don’t startle the horses, don’t bore people to weeping, don’t make them lose the will to live. It’s so boring, say the shouty voices, who have always had too much gin. Sing another song, boys, says the voice that has been listening to Leonard Cohen; this one has grown old and bitter.

So even though I know it is irrational, I think: give them the good stuff. Plaster a smile on your face, pretend that you can do everything yourself, stuff down those doubts and fears and black presentiments of doom and do your bloody tap dance. You are not here to bore people to death with your crappy moments and your hopeless moments and your moments of utter failure. Throw your arms in the air and sing a show tune.

Yet every time I drive those irrational, garrulous voices from the room (usually by telling them there is another bottle next door) and look the hard truth straight in the whites of its eyes and admit it, I feel not only as if I have put my burden down, but as if I can stand up straight and carry on. People do not, as the shouty voices insist, run screaming from the room. They smile a little ruefully, and sigh a little regretfully, and nod their heads a little thoughtfully, and say the magic words. They don’t say: it will all be fine, or snap out of it, or of course you will find a way. They say: me too.

And then one is not a random individual, but part of the collective. Humans, like horses, are herd animals. Even someone as far along the introversion spectrum as I needs the power and reassurance of the group. No man is an island;  nor no woman either.

I hit the wall. I felt the terrible, snapping jaws of despair. I thought, for a moment, that I could not see a way through. I went into a defensive crouch. I hoped nobody would notice. And then I said the thing and the good humans said me too and then I rallied. I did not do this alone. Kind strangers said kind things and close friends gave words of wisdom and sweetness. I love to be alone. I crave solitude like a drunk craves whisky. But I must not fall into category error, my bête noire. Just because I like to be alone, that does not mean I have to do everything alone. Sometimes, I can hold out my hand and ask for help.

And you, the group, were magnificent. I feel humbled and thankful. 

Thursday, 19 January 2017

365 Days of Shakespeare.

I’ve been rather wrought low over the last couple of days, so I did not even read my Shakespeare. This was an act of folly, since he makes everything better.

I’m back now, coming to the end of As You Like It, and, as usual, Rosalind gets the dazzling lines. I think Shakespeare really loved her. She is one of the creations he had the most fun with.

Pray you, no more of this; 'tis like the howling
of Irish wolves against the moon.

With my writer’s hat on, I observe that it is the use of ‘Irish’ in that line which makes it dazzle and dance. If those wolves had been any old wolves, they would not have jumped off the page in the way they do. Sometimes, it is one word that makes all the difference.

Finally, Orlando, who is, if I am being very carping, a tiny bit under-written, gets a universal verity:
I sometimes do believe, and sometimes do not;
As those that fear they hope, and know they fear.

I’d completely forgotten what a good character Touchstone is. I love this little summation:
I have trod a measure; I have flattered
a lady; I have been politic with my friend, smooth
with mine enemy; I have undone three tailors; I have
had four quarrels, and like to have fought one.

I have undone three tailors! That is the shaft of absolute genius. Poor undone tailors, what did they ever do to deserve it?

And if the tailors were not enough, Touchstone really gets into his stride, like a champion racehorse coming into the home straight:

I did dislike the
cut of a certain courtier's beard: he sent me word,
if I said his beard was not cut well, he was in the
mind it was: this is called the Retort Courteous.
If I sent him word again 'it was not well cut,' he
would send me word, he cut it to please himself:
this is called the Quip Modest. If again 'it was
not well cut,' he disabled my judgment: this is
called the Reply Churlish. If again 'it was not
well cut,' he would answer, I spake not true: this
is called the Reproof Valiant. If again 'it was not
well cut,' he would say I lied: this is called the
Counter-cheque Quarrelsome: and so to the Lie
Circumstantial and the Lie Direct.

I can almost see Shakespeare as he wrote this, his face filled with glee, thinking: bugger it, I’m just going to have some fun.

Then of course they all get married and the cross duke stops being cross and the deposed duke is restored to his estate and all is joy and light. Everyone gets what they want. It is the happiest of happy endings, all tied up in a pretty bow, all done in the twinkling of an eye. And clever Rosalind gets the very last word:

It is not the fashion to see the lady the epilogue;
but it is no more unhandsome than to see the lord
the prologue. If it be true that good wine needs
no bush, 'tis true that a good play needs no
epilogue; yet to good wine they do use good bushes,
and good plays prove the better by the help of good
epilogues. What a case am I in then, that am
neither a good epilogue nor cannot insinuate with
you in the behalf of a good play! I am not
furnished like a beggar, therefore to beg will not
become me: my way is to conjure you; and I'll begin
with the women. I charge you, O women, for the love
you bear to men, to like as much of this play as
please you: and I charge you, O men, for the love
you bear to women--as I perceive by your simpering,
none of you hates them--that between you and the
women the play may please. If I were a woman I
would kiss as many of you as had beards that pleased
me, complexions that liked me and breaths that I
defied not: and, I am sure, as many as have good
beards or good faces or sweet breaths will, for my

kind offer, when I make curtsy, bid me farewell.


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