Thursday, 15 February 2018

A Perfect Parade of Beauty and Love.

I have decided that living in the menopause is like living in an area at high risk of tornadoes. For stretches of time, everything is pretty normal. You occasionally catch an intimation of danger in a too-vivid sunset, or notice that the birds are doing something frankly peculiar. But you get on with your life, with your daily sorrows and joys and chores and pleasures. Then, wham, the fucker hits, far too fast and vicious for the early warning system. The people at emergency command don’t know what the hell to do. You dash into your hurricane shelter and batten down the hatches and exist on canned goods for the duration.
And then, one morning, you cautiously open your hatch and peer out. The sun is shining. The air is still. The livestock are grazing serenely. Your house is still standing. The storm has moved on, to ravage another town.
This storm was a bastard. It howled and wailed and moaned. It would not let me go. It lasted for four days. Today, the air was still again. I am still standing.
In the heart of the maelstrom, I posted a sweet picture of my mares, for Valentine’s Day. ‘My funny valentines,’ I wrote, the song playing in my head. Usually, on the red mare’s Facebook page, I tell endless stories of her charm and brilliance. I once did this in a slight spirit of show-boating. Look what I did with my grand thoroughbred! Then I started to see that I was writing the story of her life, of our lives together, so that when she gallops off to the great prairie in the sky, I shall still have her with me. I don’t do it now for claps on the back; I do it for its own sweet sake. I do it for love.           

I’m not very interactive. People come and leave kind comments and I have grown to recognise a few regulars, but I don’t really know much about my readers and I don’t ask them questions. I’m just glad and grateful that they are there. On the Valentine’s Day post, I most uncharacteristically asked for pictures. Show me the loves of your life, I said; I need photographs. I was so battered and gloomy that I thought a few nice horse pictures would cheer me up. I thought I might get about four.
The photographs came flooding in, the moment I stopped typing. I woke up this morning to find a hundred and thirty-five of them. Some were comical snapshots, a little blurred, some were photographs of rare quality and grace. They came from all around the world. There was the singed outback of Australia, golden and exotic in the sun. There were the lush hills of New Zealand, all blues and greens, speaking of life and growth. There was the sunset over the glittering ice of Norway, with a line of sharp mountains in the distance. There was the big country of America, the kind of country where you could ride all day and not see a human. There were the quiet shires of dear old Blighty.            

The horses came in all shapes and sizes. There were furry minis and giant workhorses. There were individual beloveds and happy herds. There were aristocratic Arabians and sturdy cobs. There was a Swedish warmblood and a ravishing Paint and a stylish Morgan. There were dappled greys and shining bays. There were adored veterans, old-timers in their thirties, dreaming their retirement away. There was Henry the Mustang, saying hello from Oregon.

There were horses on the beach and in the stable and grazing quietly in a lush pasture. There were roly-poly Shetlands and fine thoroughbreds. There was an ex-racehorse who had once run in the Melbourne Cup. There was a comical herd in Colorado and a dreamy show horse in England. There were groomed and gleaming ones and woolly and muddy ones. There were dreamboats who seemed to be posing for the camera and comedians who were larking about for the lens. There were glorious names: Atticus and Merlin, Zaf and Limerick, Beau and Ezra, Jasmine and Teazel. There was an Argentian polo pony, and a clutch of red mares.                

The cumulative effect of this was extraordinary. All these horses and all these humans had their own stories, their own characters, their own fascinating lives. The love poured out of each word, each picture. These were quiet, profound partnerships, where trust and understanding grew in green fields and hidden stables. They would not be seen on the front page of Horse and Hound; they were not headline acts. They were not famous horses, who could be seen on the television on a Saturday afternoon. But they were all the stars of their own movie, with their own talents and quirks, their own beauty and their own brilliance. They all made their humans’ hearts sing.

 From across the world they came, as if to a rally or a round-up. Here were the majestic creatures who comforted their humans in times of sorrow, who made the sun come out on a dour morning, who scattered the humdrum of daily life with a little glance of stardust.                

It was one of the best things I ever saw on the internet. The people who did not have horses sent pictures of charming dogs or dancing lambs. There were three mules, of such grace and loveliness that I caught my breath. Some people did not post a picture but left a message saying how much this parade of loveliness had cheered them up.
It cheered me up. It was so simple, so heartfelt, so human. It was a Best in Show of pure love.
I’m not sure why it moved me quite so much. Perhaps it was the generous authenticity. People were not shy. ‘Here is the love of my life,’ they wrote. The red mare is the love of my life and I sometimes feel a little foolish when I write that. She’s only a horse, after all. But this outpouring of pride and affection showed me that I am not alone, that there is no such thing as only a horse, that these joyous creatures who exist across the species divide, on their own mysterious plane, can lift the spirit like nothing else. They graciously consent to enter our human lives, to understand our funny little ways, to do the peculiar things we ask of them. They do flying changes and forge out into the hills like frontier settlers and leap over daunting obstacles. And when their work is done, they rest with us and give us peace.

It was a thing of absolute beauty, and I shall remember it always.

Thursday, 8 February 2018

The Glorious Power of Friendship

I woke rather grumpy and sluggish after a night of odd dreams. Four hairdressers were fighting over my custom. They were all gloriously camp and funny and I adored them all and did not want to hurt their feelings by choosing one over another. I have no idea what this can mean. I cut my own hair with the kitchen scissors and dye it out of a box from the chemist. Perhaps my subconscious is trying to tell me it’s time to go to a professional.
Sometimes, when I wake in a rotten mood, I write the day off before it has begun. I don’t know if this is a mid-life thing, my raging hormones getting the better of me. Perhaps it is just life. Anyway, today was going to be a written-off day. I could tell, as I brushed my teeth, that it was not going to come to any good.
I took the red mare out for a ride only because I am still determined to find my debit card, which I lost in the woods. But then the day started to change its complexion. My grand thoroughbred was at her most charming, fascinating, characterful best. She was being funny and interesting and my heart began to rise in my chest. Then my dearest cousin rang up. You should not really talk on the telephone whilst riding a half-ton flight animal, but the mare was going along on a loose rein like a trail horse so I took the calculated risk.
The conversation danced and sang. We told each other stories of the old days, which made me laugh so much I almost fell off. I talked the dearest cousin through the ride through the woods, so she could see it in her mind as she sat on her southern train. She was passing Swindon, I was telling her of the dappled Scottish sunlight in the mossy groves. She talked about Chekhov, which made me absurdly happy because I had not thought about him for a long time and I was glad to be reminded of how much I love that old Russian. (I rushed straight home afterwards and looked up three of my favourite of his lines.)
And there it was. The day was redeemed. One grand mare and one glorious human had put my scratchy, fractured self back together again. I went at once to my desk and wrote 1472 words. I felt galvanised and inspired. The world was possible again.
My life, this blog, everything I love – all are now composed of the small things. And in a way, a telephone conversation in a sunlit wood is a very small thing indeed. But having a friend who can put you back together with baling twine and glue is a vast thing. Having a friend who has known you for thirty years and seen you through all the deaths and all the despairs and all the heartbreaks is a huge thing. Having a friend who believes in you is an extraordinary thing.
It’s such a sturdy, delightful, enhancing love. It’s not the thing of hearts and flowers, of wild romance and high drama. It does not make headlines or get written into epic films. It’s the enduring love of someone who is on your side, in your corner. It’s the love that can banish grumpiness and self-doubt with a wave of its kind, generous wand.
It never ceases to amaze me, the friend love. It’s like the red mare, in that way. It’s a part of my daily life, so regular and usual that I could almost take it for granted. There is my grand horse, there is my grand friend. And without asking for anything in return, they give me glittering gifts beyond compare. 

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

In Which the Universe Sends me a Present. Or, Turning the Negative into the Positive.

This is a very, very long story. You might want to get a nice cup of tea.

Last week, my poor old car catastrophically failed its MOT. Luckily, the Garage Man is used to me and  my peculiar ways, and accept that I run my perfectly nice Audi as if it were an ancient Landrover. It goes across muddy fields and up potholed tracks and it is full of timber, hay, and horse feed. There are two dandy brushes and a rather nice leather girth on the front seat. It is not a thing of beauty, and but it’s got a lot of poke, and that’s all I care about. So he smiled with understanding and set about putting the jalopy to rights. This morning, I had to go and pay for it. At which point, I discovered I had lost my debit card.
The critical voices fired up in my head, high on gin. What an idiot, they said. How many more times are you going to lose that card? What are you going to do now?
The last time I lost the card was in the set-aside. Luckily, it had just been snowing, so the little blue bit of plastic showed up against the white. A new blizzard was blowing in and I found it just in time. Then, I promised myself I would never, ever again put that card in my pocket. Yesterday, for no known reason, I put it in my pocket. Now it was not in the pocket.           

I stumped down to the horses, chastising myself. A friend had come to take the mares for a walk. ‘Right,’ I said. ‘We are on a mission. We have to go to the woods and see if we can find my debit card.’ I had a picture of it nestling in some mossy grove, like Hansel and Gretel.
My friend took this on the chin.
Off we went to the woods, the mares moseying along behind us on their long ropes. We retraced my steps. We scoured the ground. We went up by the golf course and ran into the postie. I told him all my troubles. He took my number and said he would keep an eye out and call if he saw the errant card. That’s my village, I thought. Everybody is ready to help.
Of course there was no sign of the stupid card. The critical voices were doing their drunken cackle again when I suddenly looked at my red mare. She had her head up and her ears pricked. I suddenly realised where we were. We were looking at the Evil Golfers on the Hill of Doom.
The Evil Golfers on the Hill of Doom were the villains of my last horse book. They had become emblematic of everything I had not yet achieved with my horse. I wrote about them with as much raw honesty as I could, but I could not exorcise them. They haunted me.           

I’ve worked for four years to get my mare confident and relaxed. I’ve taught her coping skills. I’ve concentrated on getting my own head right so I can give her all the trust and belief that she needs. Working a horse in this way is not a technical thing. It’s not flying changes and kick on. It’s a soul thing. I’ve watched her go from an unsettled, uncertain, reactive creature who could not deal with a puddle to an easy, peaceful person who gives rides to children. I feel absurdly proud of this.                

But one day we went up to the woods by the golf course and she saw the Evil Golfers and she completely wigged out. I could not comfort her. Those damn golfers were had a cunning plan to kidnap her herd and she would not be reassured.
The Evil Golfers stayed in my head like a nemesis. They were the visible marks of how I had failed my horse. If I was good enough, if I was empathetic enough, if I was clever enough, I should be able to convince her that the golfers were just ordinary humans who had no intention of committing grand larceny.
Yesterday, on account of the car being in the garage, I rode the three and a half miles to do my work at HorseBack, a local charity for which I volunteer. It’s a long old trek, and the mare dealt with it pretty well. But on the way home, she suddenly had an Evil Golfer moment. She lost all her confidence. I still don’t know what it was that upset her, but the world was suddenly too much. I had to think hard and act fast. I tried a few things and I got her back, in the end. In the end, we cantered all the way home on a loose rein.
I should have been very happy about that and in some ways I was. She is a complex character and she always asks me for my best self. I was pleased that I had been able to set her to rights. But in the dim light of the evening, I started having the Evil Golfer angst. She should not be getting frightened if I am doing my job properly. I was missing something. I would have to go back to the beginning again.
I was also afraid that I had been quite hard on her. I had listened to her and I had been empathetic and steady, but I had also been very firm. Perhaps I had been too firm. Maybe we had taken a huge step back.
And then, this morning, she looked up to the Hill of Doom, the place that had once had her unglued, and pricked her ears and had a little think. I could almost see the thoughts running through her head. ‘Ah,’ she said. ‘This was the place where the Evil Golfers hatched their evil plots. But I don’t think they are going any of that nonsense now.’ And she dropped her head, relaxed her ears, wibbled her bottom lip, and went into her Zen mistress mode.
I stared at her in astonishment. Yesterday, her heart had been beating like a big bass drum at a phantom I could not see and now she could deal with the Evil Golfers.
I whooped. I exclaimed. I flung my arms round her neck. I told her she was the bravest mare in the world.
My friend watched this with polite interest. I told her the whole saga of the Evil Golfers and the endless chorus of the critical voices.
‘The amazing thing is,’ I said, ‘is that if I had not lost that stupid debit card we would never have come this way and I would never have known that the red mare has conquered the Evil Golfers. It’s the best present in the world.’
I felt like Charlotte Dujardin breaking another world record. It sounds a bit bonkers, but this is beyond question the greatest achievement in my horsing life. I felt like I could do anything.
The kind friend walked back with me and took me to the garage where she generously offered to pay the bill. ‘I have no card,’ I said to the Garage Man. ‘But I have a friend.’
He smiled at me. It was not a problem. I could come in and settle up when I was back to rights. He really does know my funny little ways. He’s a very nice man and I felt a warm feeling of belonging. People are talking a lot about community at the moment, and how it can literally save your life. It’s more important to life expectancy than eating well or laying off the hooch. There are TED talks about it.
I had so much community this morning. I had my kind friend. I had the lovely postie. I had my little herd, who do not fear the golfers. I had the understanding Garage Man.
‘I don’t think that would happen,’ I said to my friend, ‘if I were living in the Finchley Road. I am part of this village. They know me here.’

They know me, and my mighty horse knows me. She knows I won’t let the Evil Golfers get her. She could not have given me a greater gift than that conviction. 

Monday, 29 January 2018

The Smallest of the Small Things.

Today, I had to do a lot of very, very ordinary things. I did all those horrid jobs that I had been putting off, like getting all the final numbers for my tax return. I am the Queen of the Procrastinators. They should give me a special crown. I read all those articles about how to get things done, and obviously because I am reading about getting things done instead of getting things done I never get anything done. I have lately embarked on a classic mid-life crisis self-improvement programme. I’m really getting the trick of turning negative thoughts into positive thoughts and facing one’s human fears and all that malarkey. And yet I still seem incapable of getting off my procrastinating throne. This is a fairly melancholy reflection when I’m about to be fifty-one. Fifty-one. Surely I should be a grown-up by now?

Of course, the job that I dreaded most turned out to be perfectly easy and fairly painless. I got it done in about half an hour. I’d spend a month worrying about it and putting it off and then I took half an hour to do it.  The tax return had hovered over me like an evil spirit and then - poof! - it was gone. All that fuss, all that angst, and in the end it was just a bit of adding up. 

Anything to do with money makes me feel incredibly stupid and inadequate. I think of all the people out there who appear to understand it and who keep notes about incomings and outgoings and who are responsible about their bank statements. I just close my eyes every time it comes to paying the hay bill. So I dreaded the tax return like you dread the dentist. And then, it wasn’t so scary after all. My venture into self-publishing also turned out to bring in more than I had thought. Actual humans are out there buying my actual books, despite the fact that I have no talent for self-promotion and a morbid British fear of anything that might look like blowing one’s own trumpet. The hay bill will be paid for another winter.

The farrier came, which was the lovely part of the day. We stood outside in the bitter wind and the glancing sunshine and spoke about horses and hooves. The red mare, who does not need to be held for the farrier, whom she loves, stood immaculately, entirely untethered, and went into her little dreamy trance. I feel ridiculously proud when she does this. What a treat she must be for the farrier, I think, every single time. I don’t care about the mud and the cold and the hay bill, because I can watch this magnificent horse being her magnificent self, beaming her Zen waves of peace into a grateful world.

A friend came to help me pick up the piles of dung and we collected crap and talked about the meaning of life and laughed quite a lot.

And then I went home and wrote 2709 words of my new secret project.

It was the most unremarkable, most ordinary of days. I live a very small and ordinary life. I had rather stopped doing the blog because the smallness and the ordinariness seemed too absurdly unimportant to write down. Those poor Dear Readers, I thought. I must wait until I’ve got something big to say. The months and weeks went by. The Big remained elusive.

I’m returning now to the small. I like recording the tiny joys that nestle in the ordinary. My ambitions have changed so much as I’ve got older that now I think if I can make one person laugh on one day, then that day is not wasted. The farrier laughed, and my friend with the dung laughed, and the red mare would have laughed if she could. I bloody well got my tax return together. I wrote words which until this morning did not exist. 

Don’t write a day off, I think to myself, merely because it did not have anything vast or meaningful in it. I start to believe that finding meaning in the very, very small may be the secret to life. 

Saturday, 27 January 2018

For Whom the Bell Tolls

On Tuesday this week, the death was announced of Richard Woollacott. He was forty years old.

The Racing world went into shock. The last time most people who love racing had seen him was in the euphoric post-race interview after his game, bonny horse Beer Goggles had beaten all the big boys at Newbury. Nobody really saw Beer Goggles coming. He had come up through the handicapping ranks and he was sent off at 40-1. Beer Goggles did not know he was the outsider in a strong field. All he knew was that he felt powerful and confident and full of beans and he was damn well not going to be beaten. He stuck his head out all the way to the line. And his trainer, who had brought him so far, beamed his giddy, infectious smile out of a million television sets.
And now that smile would never been seen again.
The internet had one of its rare moments of good behaviour. The grieving family had asked for privacy, and the massed ranks of social media gave them privacy. There was no speculation. Instead, the tributes poured in, from people who had known him for years, since his pointing days, to people who had only watched him on the telly. ‘I will remember him for always having a big smile on his face,’ said Richard Johnson, the champion jockey who had ridden Beer Goggles to glory.
Then, Richard Woollacott’s wife Kayley put out a statement of heartbreaking elegance. Mental illness had got him. She said, with a generosity and grace that left me in awe, that it was too late for her beloved husband but it was not too late for others. Three days after she lost the father of her children, she was raising awareness about suicide, about the brutal ruthlessness of mental illness, and starting a fund in Richard Woollacott’s memory. Not only that, but she wrote of him with such lyricism and love, talking of all his talents, of all his shining lights, but not ignoring the darkness that took him in the end. It takes a very rare human to be able to do that.
Any death is a shock. In fact, it’s shocking how shocking death is, when it is the one fact of life that all humans know. But there is something peculiarly shocking about a suicide. From the outside, it can be hard to understand. I went to funeral of a cousin who killed himself and I remember the stretched, pale faces of incomprehension. Why did this happen? How did this happen? What could we have, should we have done? I remember searing guilt mingling with the grief. If I had only rung him one more time, got him round, really sat down and talked.
I think when people are that far into the dark, no light can penetrate. That’s what is so terrifying about mental illness. It is indiscriminating and it is relentless and it does not give a damn for the human heart. It is a wrecker, and it will smash anything in its way. It seems almost impossible that the brilliant, smiling man who had triumphed on that happy day at Newbury now no longer exists. And what he did was indeed brilliant. Beer Goggles did not start out as a star. Richard Woollacott turned him into one. He did that. He built that horse up and gave him strength and confidence and kept him sweet and kept him right so that by the time Beer Goggles faced his biggest test, he knew he could fly. Will he wonder, as he goes out today at Cheltenham in front of a crowd united in grief, where that human is, the one who made him believe in himself?
The crowd will be united. It will come together because racing does come together in times like this, as if it were a big family. Everybody knows each other and everybody sees each other every week, come rain come shine, come triumph come tragedy. Everybody knows how glorious it is and how tough it is. Everybody gets up at five in the morning and everybody cannot sleep until they’ve done one last yard check to make sure those equine athletes are dozing peacefully in their boxes.
The crowd, and the people watching at home, will unite to mourn a very special man, by all accounts generous and kind, a horseman and a gentleman. Everybody loved him. But they will also unite because the shadow of this illness has passed over almost everyone. It’s a brother or a mother, a friend of a friend, crazy old Uncle Bernie whom everyone laughed at until the laughter abruptly stopped. Mental illness thrives in the shadows. It feeds off shame. It is mystifying and people are often afraid to speak of it. What, after all, do you say? The incredible Woollacott family have taken the darkness and shone some light into it. They have asked that this race day be not only about their own wrenching loss, but about everyone who is struggling against this most pernicious of foes. That is an act of courage for which I have no words.
John Donne had the words. He wrote, many, many years ago:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
Each man's death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

Nobody needs to ask today for whom the bells toll. They toll for everyone. But should the bright, bonny Beer Goggles roar up that Cheltenham hill and shrug off his challengers and race to the line, the bells will ring out in heartfelt, bittersweet glory and gladness. 

Friday, 26 January 2018

Emeralds in Dung Heaps

This week has been a tough week. I got bruised and wounded and suddenly missed my mother so much that I found myself one night in the kitchen at eleven o’clock, swamped by Railway Children tears. If you asked me, I would have said I did not get much done. I survived. I was hanging on by my fingernails.
Writing is a dangerous job, because you can always make excuses. Your hours are flexible. It’s tempting to say that you are simply not in a sane, productive frame of mind, so you will do other things. You’ll do what you grandly call research, which generally means wandering about the internet, being distracted by fascinating but entirely irrelevant pieces of information. (This week, for instance, I discovered a tiny village in Russia where the temperature is minus sixty-two and the women have icicles on their eyelashes. It was actually rather a groovy look.)
I did not feel at all productive. I felt a bit battered and a bit flattened.
However, I’m starting a new project and I laughingly think of myself as a professional, so I set  my timer and forced myself to get some words on the page. Because of my scattered frame of mind, I convinced myself that I had not done much, simply spun my wheels.
This afternoon, I did a word count. I wrote eleven thousand words this week. Life had taken me out behind the woodshed and duffed me up, but there are those dear old words, existing where there once was nothing. I’ll have to go back and cut and refine and rewrite in the second draft. Many of those words will disappear again. The dead darlings will litter the stage like the bloody corpses at the end of Hamlet. But there are those words, and nobody can take them away from me.
I worked my horses. My five-year-old great-niece came and rode my red mare and smiled with joy and waved her arms in the air as the grand old duchess walked gently round the field. Someone gave me a compliment. I talked to a kind woman about the thickets of psychology and she smiled and said, ‘Thank you, that was really helpful.’ I thought I was banging on, but I had been helpful. Sometimes I think all I want to do now, in this strange time of middle age, is to be helpful. I used to want to win prizes and see my name in the paper. How one’s ambitions change.
I made someone laugh and I paid someone a compliment and I spent one whole evening running round the internet leaving kind comments with little lovehearts under every single photograph or post that made me smile. I quite often do this when I’m feeling doleful. I have this weird theory that when you feel you’ve got nothing left to give, the best thing to do is to give something, even if it is just a little red heart on Facebook. It’s not much, but it is a kind of offering. It's a tiny act of hope.
This is my bad week. The power of the negative internal voices can be so strong sometimes that they wipe out everything else. They are like Donald Trump shouting ‘Fake news.’ They loathe the truth. They are the evil emperors of confirmation bias. They see only what they want to see. I’m damned if I am going to let them win.
So I write down my small things. My good things are all very, very small things indeed. But the small things add up. It was a bad week, and it was a good week. It was a human week. Everybody gets duffed up, from time to time. Everyone feels vulnerable and bruised and wrong. There are mistakes and regrets, searing moments of doubt, the stumbles and the falls.
There are the emeralds in the dung heap, shining in the muck. The dung heap will always be the dung heap, but oh, oh, those glorious, glittering gems.

I suspect that there may be something good in every bad week. It’s just that sometimes you have to dig it out with a pitchfork. I think it is worth the effort.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

The Poppy

This year, somehow, the poppy got complicated. I heard a few pious people rather ostentatiously saying they were not going to wear one because a poppy glorified war, or some such thing. These people, I noticed, mostly lived in north London and would not know a firefight in the Helmand Valley from a hole in the ground, although that has nothing to do with anything except for the mazy workings of  my own mind. Luckily for them, millions of men and women fought and died so they did not have to live under fascism and so they can say what they damn well please. Luckily for me, so can I.
The poppy itself does not care. It exists in its own inanimate universe, accepting whatever meaning humans care to give it. It means something different to everyone who wears it. The old soldiers, who are not pious or ostentatious, who never speak about the war, who fought them in the fields and on the landing grounds, wear it, I suspect, for their comrades. I think they wear it for the ones who did not come home. They might wear it for their blood brother or their battle brother, for whoever fought with them on that day was their brother. Some of them wear it with pride and some of them wear it with a sorrow that goes beyond human words. Some of them wear it to staunch the slow act of forgetting; some of them wear it from simple respect. I will never know what they are thinking as they march up Whitehall, those old warriors holding themselves tall, perhaps for the last time. But I know that they are not thinking about the glory of war, because glory is not a word that veterans use.
I once heard a war widow say that when she sees people on the streets with a poppy in their lapel she feels that they are remembering her dead husband and the son he left behind. Of course she understands that most people have no idea about her beloved, but that is what she feels.
Some people wear the poppy with the very specific thought of the Flanders fields where the flower of a generation was cut down. Some people wear it for all the soldiers and sailors and fliers, in every conflict in every generation. Some people wear it because they don’t want to forget; some people wear it because they hope that never again will the best and the brightest be hurled, pointlessly and madly, into the canon fire.
I wear it for all those reasons. I think a lot about those boys of the First World War, and so many of them were no more than boys. I think about the girls too, the ones they left at home, the ones who nursed the wounded and ploughed the fields and kept the home fires burning, and who found, at the end of four bloody years, that everyone they ever danced with was dead. I think about the horses who strained and struggled through the mud, and who lay where they fell because nobody, in that filthy hades, had the time to bury them. They were athletic hunters and faithful farm horses and they must have been puzzled and frightened to find themselves in a place where there was no grass, no trees, no birdsong, but they went on doing their best until they could do no more.
And then I go forward in history, and think of the second great war with its millions of losses and its unmarked graves and its strafing and bombing, the mass killing that technology made possible. I go on through the later conflicts, in the Falklands, in the Middle East, in Afghan. I work, in a small way, with veterans, and they never pull rank because they have seen things that I cannot imagine and done things which I would never, in a hundred years, have the courage to do. They took me in and laughed at my jokes and my hats and my habit of hurling myself to the ground to get a good angle when I’m taking their photograph. Because of them, I know something about comradeship, and when I wear my poppy I think of them all.

I don’t wear my poppy with pride. I wear it with humility. I wear it for people who had, and have, a bravery of which I dare not dream. I wear it from respect. I wear it for memory. It’s a tiny act, once a year, but it means something to me. I am free to sit and write these thoughts in a liberal democracy with no secret police knocking at my door and that is, in part, due to the dauntless generations of fighting men and women who went before me. I wear the poppy to say thank you. 

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Fuck the Sock Drawer

I ring the Oldest and Dearest Friend. ‘This menopause,’ I say, as the dogs gambol in the meadow and drink from the burn, ‘how big do you think it is?’
She pauses for a moment. I can hear her thinking. ‘Well,’ she says at last, ‘it did send our mothers mad.’
‘I suppose it did,’ I say, rather mournfully. ‘Magsie went mad for years. Although,’ I add, ‘she was very eccentric by that stage so sometimes it was hard to tell. There were,’ I say, ‘a lot of specialists.’
‘Specialists,’ says the Oldest and Dearest. ‘Do you think that is what we will have to have? But think,’ she says, ‘of the power of hormones. Think of testosterone.’
I do think of testosterone, quite a lot .Years ago, a very wonderful man called Anthony Clare wrote a book about men. He was troubled by what he called ‘masculinity in crisis’. I remember some terrifying statistics about prison populations and violent crime – all the huge percentages were young men, under, I think, the age of twenty-seven. Clare thought that this could not be put down to societal problems or even psychological causes. He thought it was the shattering effect of testosterone. Testosterone gets boys into fights and crashes cars and puts tempers on a hair trigger. Much later, after the financial crash of 2008, there was a study which showed that these same young men, with their driving hormones, were much more likely to make highly risky investments than women or older men.
But then, I think, testosterone was probably what helped the species survive. It drove off the marauding tribe over the hill and killed the woolly mammoths and hunted for food. Testosterone flooded the battlefields of both world wars. The young men who took to the air and poured off the landing crafts and manned the capital ships saved the democracies in 1945.
Hormones, I think, are absolutely terrifying.
The Oldest and Dearest Friend and I compare notes. We both get days when we can’t see the point of anything, when we struggle even to do the washing up, when we want to shut the door and make the world go away. I’ve just had two of those in a row. The Oldest and Dearest tells me of a beautiful woman we both know who appears on paper to have a dream life, with everything one human could wish for, and who sometimes feels so lost that she hardly knows what her name is. This middle of life, we think, may be more complicated than we thought.
The Oldest and Dearest is, like me, a little bit muddly. There are days, she says, when she looks in sorrow at her bedroom and cannot even face doing the sock drawer and wishes instead that she could have a nice lie-down. ‘Well,’ I say, ‘that would be very sensible. Churchill insisted on a rest every afternoon when he could not be disturbed. A nice kip after lunch.’
She suddenly laughs. ‘Yes, yes,’ she says, ‘winning the war is much more important than tidying the sock drawer. Fuck the sock drawer.’
For some reason, we find this blindingly funny. We become breathless and speechless with laughter. ‘Fuck the sock drawer,’ we stutter at each other.
And, just like that, everything is all right. The wisdom and sweetness and funniness of an old friend is stronger than any hormonal hijack. I don’t know what is going on in my body at the moment but I think it is big. The sympathetic heart of my friend is, however, bigger. The blah menopausal mood, thick as fog, heavy as cement, demoralising as failure, is utterly driven away.
I put away the telephone, still laughing, amazed that I feel so much better. I get on my red mare and pony my little bay mare out into the meadows and look at the autumn trees. Mares are often accused of hormonal lunacy but these two are as soft and steady and calm as Zen mistresses. I ride with one finger on the rein and gaze at the beauty, of them, of the trees, of this dear old Scotland.

You can’t do everything on your own, I tell myself, sternly. Sometimes you have to reach out for help. You have to admit to weakness or frailty or simply being human. And then someone you love says ‘fuck the sock drawer’ and everything is all right again. 

Friday, 27 October 2017

I Will Show you Fear in a Handful of Dust

Not that long ago, I wrote a book called Seventy-Seven Ways to Make Your Life Very Slightly Better. Nobody read it, not even my agent. I published it myself but had no idea how to promote it, so it sank, very graciously, into the vast uncharted sea of the internet.
The funny thing is that I was really proud of that book. It came out of an idea I had in the week of my father’s funeral. I wanted to write a book called What to do When Your Dad and Your Dog Dies. (You can see I am all about the snappy title.) I wanted to write that book because I wanted to read that book and I found out, to my surprise, that nobody had written it. I’ll  have to write the fucker myself, I said, furiously.
I didn’t write that book, but after my mother died I wrote the equivalent.
The reason I’m proud of it is not that it is filled with shimmering prose, but that it is filled with some really quite decent ideas. I have to tell you, in a most vulgar way, that I surprised myself with my mid-life wisdom. It turned out that all those books I had read and all those sage friends I had talked to and all those thoughts I had thought had really produced something. I knew some stuff.
I do know some stuff. Here is the lovely thing about being fifty: you accumulate, over the years and years, some excellent stuff. You have learned from experience and mistakes and griefs. You get your priorities straight. (Mine, obviously, are love and trees.) You understand about the power of kindness and the importance of trying to behave well, even if you don’t achieve it all the time. If you are me, you write all that down and you astonish yourself.
Then, if you are me, you get to a point when you start stuttering and you realise, with a rather nasty shock, that there is a yawning gap between theory and practice.
I am shit hot at theory. Ask me anything. Ask me anything and I’ve got a theory for you. I know about cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias and projection and displacement. I really have read some books. I am, I discover, F for Fail at practice. It drives me nuts that I can know so much and still run into the sands when it comes to actual life. I keep thinking that I wish someone had written a manual about how to do life and then I realise I wrote that damn manual and it still isn’t enough.
I’m thinking at the moment about fear. I’m psychologically stuck just now, and I haven’t been able to work out why. I’ve been fooling myself because I can do the simulacrum of the high function. There are a lot of things in my week that I do well, that bring me joy, that give me a sense of achievement. I write about all those things and put them on Facebook. I take pictures of those things and make videos of those things with jaunty little soundtracks over the top and post them into the ether, saying, tacitly: look, look, look at me with my jazz hands.
Those things are good things, and I don’t denigrate them. They mostly take place outside, in the bright Scottish air, because they all have to do with horses. The problem is that I then go back inside and get stuck.
It’s fear, I finally tell myself. It was the second anniversary of my mother’s death this week so I was thinking about grief. I was thinking about the last six years and all those Dear Departeds – my mother, my father, my godfather, my dogs, my little Welsh pony, my friend, my cousin. I was thinking of the more distant relations and the old friends of my father, all of whom fell off their perches one after the other, so that it seemed an entire generation was going gentle into that good night. I thought: there is a lot of fear in grief.
Or, at least, there is a lot of fear in my grief. I hate to admit this but it is true. There is fear of mortality: everyone, including me, is going to die. There is fear of abandonment: everyone is going to die and leave me all alone. There is fear of failure: I shall never write the dazzling book of which I dream and then I shall die.
There is fear as I go down to the field and bask in the glory and might of my red mare, the beat of my heart, the light of my life. Some horrid, creaking voice in the back of my head says: don’t love her too much because she will die and you will be destroyed. The loving her too much ship has sailed, and it fills me with terror.
Another voice fires up. It says: why are you telling them all this? The Why Are You Telling Them voice has been yelling at me a lot lately which is why I’ve been off the blog. My tiny one-trick-pony frets and concerns and daily pleasures are too mundane and boring to make a blog, that voice says. I live a small life and I love that small life but I suddenly decided, as the fear got me, that it was too catastrophically dull to record. (It’s fascinating to me, but I thought it was not really fascinating for anyone else.) That’s why I started making the videos with the jazzy soundtracks.
I address the critical voice. I say, sternly, ‘I’m telling them all this because the only thing to do with fear is admit it.’ Write it down, write it down, says a benign, sing-song voice; that is a kind voice and it knows that everything is better when it is written down.

I have no buggery idea what to do with all these fears. I think they are a part of grief and I think they are a part of the middle of life and I think they are a part of being human. I can’t fix them up and pack them off. I can’t put them in a nice parcel and get lovely Pearl the Postwoman to take them down to the depot. I think I have to look them in the whites of their eyes. I think I have to keep staring at them until I have their measure. I think that I have to confess to myself that I am only human and humans get frightened sometimes. And perhaps then I shall stop being stuck. 

Friday, 8 September 2017

Not just getting by.

This is cheap as chips because I’ve been working my arse off all day and my brain has gone into its traditional fugue state. But I’ve decided to dedicate myself to the blog again so the Dear Readers, who were so incredibly kind yesterday, must have words. And it was a lovely day, for all that the Scottish monsoon rains came with sullen determination. I don’t mind about the rain. I simply put on my special hat and install sunshine in my heart.
The red mare did something ravishing this morning. I had a friend who needed cheering, so I handed her the grand thoroughbred, knowing the mare would do the trick. I can nod and empathise and listen and smile, but the mare works miracles. She was the one who got me through the death of my mother and there are no end to her powers. She did her work. I watched it in slight amazement. Even though I know she can spread her peace like balm, it always amazes me, every time.

The funny thing is that would have been enough, for one day. If that was all that had happened, I would have made this rainy Friday count. But I seem to be entering a newly galvanised state, as if all the griefs and sorrows and worries of the last two years are finally coming into their easy place. (There’s a point where you accept that the thing is the thing and stop fighting it. I know I should not fight, but I sometimes do. I wail, like a child, ‘I want my mum back’.) I have a novel determination to make things work and get things done and not be getting by on sixty percent capacity. I even made a special green drink for breakfast, which I haven’t done since I can remember. Since I can’t turn into a perfect person overnight, I did have bacon and eggs after, but still. Special green drink! With kale and ginger and everything! I shall now live until I am ninety and be roping imaginary cows like Tom Dorrance. Although of course his cows were real.
I plunged into all my work – work work and HorseBack UK work and making the red mare an internet star which is part of my secret plan. The secret plan is so secret that I don’t really know what it is yet but it’s to do with many, many horse books. (Are you amazed?) It was that kind of work storm where you don’t know what the world is doing. Donald Trump could have sent his armies to North Korea and I would be none the wiser.

So that all needs to be recorded. My mare made someone feel better and I did my work and I drank my green drink. This sounds so absurdly basic that even in a blog called The Small Things it might be barely visible to the naked eye. But for me it feels like a vast achievement. I have been, I hate to admit it, getting by. Getting by is not bad. Getting by is something. But I’d like more than that. I feel perhaps it is time to come back to full strength and force.

Unlike the Whig School of History, this will not happen in a seamless upward curve. I’ll fall back again. But I have the hope of it now, of that whole-hearted living in my small way, and that feels like a present when I least expected it. 

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Google hates metaphors.

Today, I go to a meeting with a brilliant internet expert. I have on my special technology hat and I’ve got my special organised notebook and I brandish my special writing everything down pen, so that I may take notes.

I take notes.

The Internet Expert, who is very nice and vastly knowledgeable and extremely patient about the fact that I still secretly live in the age of the pigeon post, looks at me directly and says, ‘Google does not like metaphors.’

My hat nearly falls off.

I open and shut my mouth like a bemused goldfish. I live by metaphors. Virtually everything I write is a metaphor. I’m not really sure what writing without metaphors even looks like.

The Internet Expert, who is kind and forgiving, sees my dismay. ‘I’m not talking now,’ she says, ‘as a human being, but as an algorithm.’

The bemused goldfish is now so baffled that it has lost control of its motor functions.

‘You have to write,’ says the Internet Expert, ‘for a fifteen-year-old. Your problem is that you write for PhDs.’

This, I think, sounds like compliment. It would be a compliment from a human; from an algorithm, it is a deadly indictment. I suddenly feel rather protective of the fifteen-year-olds. I believe in the young people.

‘Fifteen-year-olds are very clever,’ I say, driven to the last ditch. ‘When I was fifteen, I was reading Camus.’

The Internet Expert regards me with a little bafflement of her own. Camus of course sounds very grand, but it was only that L’Etranger was on the O Level syllabus. I did love the old existentialists, though, even if I did not always entirely understand what they were getting at. ‘Hell is other people’ sounds awfully good when you are fifteen, and goes very well with your adored collection of Leonard Cohen records.

‘All right,’ I say eventually. ‘I see that I am going to have to de-poncify myself. I am far, far too poncy.’

There is an interesting silence in the room. Nobody disagrees. People look at their hands. The special hat wilts a little.

‘It will go against muscle memory,’ I say, laughing at myself. ‘I suppose the fucking Google would just like me to be fucking Hemingway.’

Another fairly fascinating silence.

‘Sorry,’ I say. ‘I’m a bit sweary today.’

All this is not for me. It’s not for the red mare or any of my social media nonsense. It’s for the work I do at HorseBack UK. My job there is changing a bit now we have the Internet Expert, and she needs me to please the algorithms, and my idea of a charming Facebook post or an enchanting picture does not get the right demographics, or quite hit the right spot. Not everyone, I start to realise, sees the world through my own idiosyncratic lens. I’m very grateful to the kind expert, because she’s given me a good structure which I did not have before. I feel a little bit stupid, because all this is so, so far from the things I know. I love the things I know. I love knowing things. I love not feeling stupid. But this is 2017 and I am not wearing the hat of technology for nothing.

As I get home, I ponder all this. Some of the rules about being good at social media are a little dispiriting, like keywords and such, but some of them are in fact very fine writing advice. Hemingway would indeed have been very good at it. You need to get straight to the point. (I think dolefully of my terrible throat-clearing tendency.) Your title needs to tell your readers something. A short sentence and a short paragraph are better than a hundred sub-clauses. Clear, plain prose makes the Google happy, and in some ways, that damn Google is right. And, you know, I do love the fifteen-year-olds, so writing for them shall be a pleasure, not a chore. Bugger the PhDs. At last, I shall stop poncing about and write The Sun Also Rises. I am fifty years old, and I spy a whole new horizon. 

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

A good day.

A huge day. An epic day. Everything was vast.
I had a huge conversation with The Oldest Friend. As if we had not covered enough yesterday, today we ranged over the Brontes, the dark woods of the middle of life, literary figures who are surprisingly dull and charmless off the page, the best way to help a friend in need, and the rather astounding fact that Salman Rushdie is surprising fun at parties. (Apparently she has this one on good authority.)

I had a huge ride on the red mare. She started the day galloping about the set-aside under her own steam, as if the Triple Crown depended on it, and within half an hour she was riding three miles into the hills on a loose rein with her dozy donkey ears at their doziest and donkiest. I was so proud of her. She’s been off work for a long time with a wrenched neck from a mysterious field incident and she’s forgotten nothing. In fact, she’s better now than she has ever been. All the things that used to terrify the life out of her, she now takes in her calm and queenly stride. I wonder whether it has something to do with the sweet, gentle work her young friend Isla patiently did with her all summer. Isla is just twelve, and she could have spent her school  holidays going to parties or snap-chatting or whatever it is the Young People do. She chose instead to come and see the red mare three days in every week, and she walked her out in hand and did special remedial exercises with her and gently brought her back to health and happiness. It did not seem to matter to my youthful rider that she could not leap into saddle and canter off across the green fields. She did, with love and care, what I suspect most children and many grown-ups would find quite dull. And now the red mare rides into the hills with boldness and confidence and peace in her heart. I don’t think that is a coincidence.
And then, rather to my astonishment, there was a huge amount of work. I’ve been spinning my wheels lately, doing that awful busy-work which doesn’t really add up to much. You put words on the page but they are not good words, or they are the wrong words, or they are the right words in the wrong book. Today felt like something meaningful and real.
After all that my brain makes its traditional phttt noise and switches itself off, so that I have no idea whether any of this makes any sense or not. But The Dear Readers were so dear yesterday and today was such a huge day that I wanted to write something, even if it is not precisely prose that will blow your stockings off.

It was a good day. At this stage in my life, I don’t take those for granted.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

And the point is.

I had one of those conversations today with an old friend, one of the ones which makes everything better. We ranged over every subject under the golden sun and came to no consoling conclusions or dazzling answers but left each other with the best consolation of all, which is that we are not alone.
‘Sometimes,’ said the old friend, ‘you just do wonder what the point of it all is.’
We are not melancholics. We laugh a lot and see the beauty and are wild enthusiasts. We love the things we love with a fierce love. But we are fifty and a bit bashed by life and there are moments when it all feels a bit much. That’s when we wonder what the point of it all is, not so much in a despairing way but in a faintly baffled way.
I have been wondering lately what the point of the blog is. I do a lot of social media, partly because I genuinely enjoy it and partly because I have made my first foray into self-publishing and one has to polish the brand, or whatever it is called. The books are horse books and so the red mare is my brand. She has to trot out into the prairies of the internet more than ever now so that people might be interested and go and read her story.
So as she and I gallop about on the social media, it feels a little de trop to write a blog as well. Sometimes I genuinely don’t have time; sometimes I think the whole thing pointless and self-indulgent.
I realise today that it is self-indulgent, but in a rather lovely way. I was trying to tidy up some of my files and found the collected blogs of 2013. There were all the stories I had completely forgotten – about Stanley the Manly doing something comical and charming, about a racehorse I once adored who is now retired, about, of course, the red mare being magnificent. I thought: I’m so glad I wrote that down. I have a memory like a colander and all these ordinary but touching little tales would have been quite lost to me otherwise. There, suddenly, brought vividly to life, is my mother, who is now dead. I wrote her down, so she is still with me. When I miss her dreadfully, I can go back and read those stories.

I want to remember the telephone conversation I had today. I never take this particular Best Beloved for granted, because she is an extraordinary human being who has been there for me in every single triumph and disaster since we were nineteen. That’s a lot of laughter and a lot of tears. But I almost do take for granted that I can ring her up whenever I want and she will make me feel better about life. She will make me laugh so much that I can’t speak for half a minute. I want to look back and remember that we talked about her grandfather and the state of publishing and the abdication and the nature of prejudice and the complications of family and a hundred antic subjects. I’ll do twenty other things today, but nothing will make me feel as human and loved and real and alive as that conversation. That is, indeed, one of the small things. On paper, it is nothing more than a chat between two middle-aged women. In the heart, it is absolutely everything.
It is written now. It exists. It will be there, for the bad days and the sad days when I want to look back on the dancing, sparkling moments of happiness and feel comforted and reassured. That's the point.  

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

We have to talk about Donald

I have a friend who is an expert in worldly things. She has seen more worldly things with her actual eyes than I can shake a stick at. (She was one of those ones who went out on the ground and did the work that the politicians would not or could not. She fought the good fight.) Every time I see her I say, ‘We have to talk about Donald.’
And then we stare at each other in astonished silence.
Sometimes, I make a few spluttering noises. Occasionally she lifts her eyebrows into her hairline. I wave my hands about. ‘But,’ I say, ‘what, how, who, what?’
At the beginning, all the armchair jockeys had an explanation. He was an extreme narcissist, he had borderline personality disorder, he was a raving misogynist, he had the first signs of early onset dementia. Someone actually went and studied his sentence patterns and worked out he had the vocabulary and syntax of an eight-year-old. I think that’s being quite rude to eight-year-olds.
Now, he has galloped far, far away into the endless prairie of the inexplicable. I have started to think that he may simply be catastrophically, operatically, heroically stupid, but that is not quite an explanation either.
Here is what an eight-year-old knows. Nazis are bad. People who love Nazis are bad. Running cars into crowds of people is bad. The leader of the most powerful nation the world has ever seen does not appear to know that. How can anyone not know that?
As I look at the pictures of the Nazi rally in Charlottesville, at the clean, shining faces with their rictus of undifferentiated rage and their glinting, fanatical eyes, I wonder what it is that they do love. Is it the flags? Is it the uniforms? Is it the strange salutes? Is it the swastikas? Hitler, like Donald Trump, turned out to be catastrophically stupid. He could have wiped out the British army at Dunkirk, but he made his tanks stop so the little boats came in and the Royal Navy raced to the rescue and the BEF, which was lost, was suddenly found. He could have wiped out the British Air Force, but he suddenly turned the Luftwaffe on London, so that the cratered airfields could be rebuilt and the courageous new cohort of pilots trained. He invaded Russia, even though he was a student of Napoleon. I could have told him not to do that when I was fifteen. Anyone who has read about Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow knows that there is one golden rule in war and it is: Don’t Invade Russia. Just don’t do it. Have a nice cup of tea instead.
He screamed and raved and popped pills and never took responsibility for his actions and trashed his country and let his people starve, in the end, and then killed himself because he couldn’t face the consequences. That’s before one even takes into account one of the most monstrous mass killings in history, as millions of Jews, Roma, gay men, and people with mental illnesses were herded into camps and shot and gassed.
I don’t see what there is to admire. I don't know why American in 2017 are saving those flags. Even on his own terms, Hitler failed, as the Master Race turned out to be a crashing disappointment. He blamed the Germans themselves at the last, for not being the Ubermensch he wanted them to be. His fantasy of dominance crumbled to dust. So what are those fanatical marchers marching for? Complete and utter failure and infamy on every level? I genuinely don’t understand.
And when Trump looks at them and refuses to condemn them in terms – ‘many sides, many sides’ – what does he see? Something that speaks, in a way I can’t comprehend, to his reptilian brain? His new moral equivalence is perhaps the most baffling thing of all, this bonkers invention called the alt-left. The only moral equivalence would be if there were squads of devoted Stalinists marching in opposition, dreaming of the show trials and the purges and the gulags. Does nobody, from the White House to the street, read any history?
Living with the inexplicable is unsettling, for most humans. The reason that people love fiction is that novels and plays give shape and meaning to the random happenings of life. There is Chekov’s famous rule: if the gun goes off in act four, you’d damn well better see it being loaded in act one. One of the first questions very young children ask is: ‘why?’ I don’t think one ever grows out of that question. If I can see a reason for things, then I can deal with them, even if they are bad and sad. But what is happening now is so far out on the wild shores of the unexplained that I can’t see any form or meaning to it. It is the abyss of meaninglessness and it makes my brain ache, and my heart too.
Why? I mean, really, why?


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