Friday, 12 February 2016

A sweet dog story.

The temperature drops and the snow comes in. It’s light gentle snow, although the air is hard and frigid. The dogs find the whole thing enchanting; the horses are stoical and hunkered down for the duration.
This morning, a very sweet thing happened.
            Each day, I go to my stepfather’s house and make him breakfast. We have excellent eggs. Today, it was a mushroom omelette. I take Darwin the Dog and Stan the Man and they have their breakfast there too.
            This morning, as I arrived, I saw a father and daughter walking their dog near the house. I waited for a bit in the car, as Darwin is incurably friendly and cannot help rushing over to any new human he sees and I did not want him capering about the place. But the daughter was very, very tiny and walked very, very slowly and I realised it would be ages before they were out of sight.
            So I decided to wrangle D the D in through the front door, not giving him a chance to escape. Stanley, sight-dog that he is, had spotted the party and instead of charging on ahead of me and opening the door, leapt out of the car and tore off after the little group, barking with excitement. He loves making friends too, but he can’t help being noisy about it. I know that he is racing off to play, but if I were a person out for a quiet walk and saw this barking hound roaring down the drive I would be a little daunted.
            I got Darwin in and rushed back, shouting for Stanley, who was by now happily sniffing the nice little spaniel and seemed not to be causing too much trouble. He cantered back, looking very pleased with himself, and I put him in the house and went back to lock the car.
            I looked down the drive at the tall figure and the tiny figure and the capering dog. I knew what they must be thinking. Stupid woman, can’t control her dogs, bellowing like a fishwife. I felt rather ashamed. I should have had both canines on leads and I didn’t. The child was very, very young, and I feared she might be scarred for life.
            I was about to slink back into the house in shame when I changed my mind.
            I ran down the drive and caught up with the little group. ‘I’m so sorry,’ I said. ‘I do hope your daughter was not frightened. I do apologise.’
            The man nodded and smiled, entirely unfazed. His small girl, huddled up against the weather in a thick coat and bobble hat, looked up quizzically. ‘Oh,’ the father said. ‘Don’t worry. She’s used to dogs.’
            I explained about Stanley and how he was still a bit insecure from being a rescue and that although he wanted to be friends he could not help the barking thing. I apologised again.
            The father smiled and nodded and said more nice things.
            Then, down the avenue, hurtling like a bullet, came Stan the Man. He can famously open any door and he was clearly tired of waiting for me and had come to see what I was doing. ‘Oh,’ I said, in embarrassment. ‘Here he is.’
            There was no barking this time, just a lot of dancing and tail-wagging. I explained to the little girl about the escape artist. ‘He can open doors,’ I told her. ‘So he’s come to find us.’
            She looked at me, her eyes round and curious. ‘Big dog,’ she said. ‘With his paws.’
            ‘Yes,’ I said, pleased she got it. ‘He opens doors with those naughty paws.’
            Then we talked about the snow and about dogs in general and all was merry as a marriage bell.
            I loved about twenty things about that moment. I loved the little girl and her staunch bravery and her questing mind. I loved the kind father with his sanguine view of the world. I loved their excellent snow outfits. I loved that Stanley came back and showed them his best and kindest side. I loved that I made the decision to catch them up and apologise instead of hiding in the house, muttering like Muttley, convinced they thought me risible and hopeless.

            It was a tiny story, and a rather profound one at the same time. This will be the kind of story I shall be very, very glad that I wrote down. It’s the kind of story I like to remember.

Thursday, 11 February 2016


I stand in the kitchen, doing the washing up and listening to quiet voices talking about the life of Rumi and wondering what is the best way to economise on Fairy Liquid. (Buy in bulk? Amazon Prime? A trip to Costco?)

Outside, the sky is doleful and drab. 

I keep thinking: this is what forty-nine looks like.

I think: I shall never see Kathmandu. I’ve never especially wanted to see Kathmandu and the thought of intrepid travel has always filled me with a slight dread. But still, I know now that I shall never see it. I find this faintly demoralising, although the stern KBO part of me squares its shoulders and says really, worse things happen at sea. I know a man who until two years ago had never been south of Stonehaven.

I think of old travels. Should I write about those? Should I remember those? For some reason a picture flashes into my head of my friend Pete the screenwriter in a hotel room in Galle with very high ceilings. It was a pink room, or apricot perhaps. I had come from three weeks in India where I was the only Western human to put on weight, and was feeling rather hot and buxom. Pete had a very cool, delicate best beloved at that time. She was called Veronica and she was dark and beautiful and tiny and incredibly nice. Did we call her Ron? I can’t remember. I think we might have done, in a slightly ironic way. I think also that we ran into each other by complete chance.

I remember that hotel. It had probably not been refurbished since 1930 and felt like a lost age. There were acres and acres of polished wooden floors and very high ceilings. I think I drank a great deal of iced beer.

I did run around quite a lot when I was young. I have been south of Stonehaven. I think: I shall be like a camel and live off my hump.
After all this nonsense, I got on with the day. Horses, dogs, political breakfast discussion with the Stepfather, 1249 words of book. I even ran some errands and got some boring jobs done and managed a couple of logistical matters of shattering dullness.

Out in the world, scientists are beside themselves because they have discovered gravitational waves. (I think that is what they are called. My internet is still running like a drunken snail so I can’t look it up. Or, I could look it up, but it would take half an hour. Oh, oh, oh, how I miss celerity. I know I should ring BT Internet but I’ll get a huge amount of fudge and waffle and nothing will be resolved. Broadband in my part of Scotland has just ground to a halt and that’s all she wrote.) I love few things more than very excited scientists coming on the wireless sounding like children at Christmas. The markets are wobbling and Sir Bernard Thing and the man from Google are refusing to apologise for anything or to explain anything or to act like rational humans in any obvious way. 

My day is finished now and I’m going to turn off the news and read a book. 

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

The pendulum swings.

The internet has been on and off for the last few days. Sometimes it flashes a furious amber at me and goes off altogether. Sometimes it moves at a surly and glacial pace. In these times, one can go onto it, but it’s like driving along with a slow puncture, so there is no point. All the flashing, glancing pleasure of online is lost. I miss the political reports from New Hampshire where people are feeling the Bern; I miss the baby pandas; I miss the bulletins from my friends about their dogs and horses and families and lives. I realise how much I love these little ticker-tape updates – somebody has gone to Edinburgh with her daughter, someone has been to Hampton Court Palace, somebody else is doing something fascinating with poetry. I like the little triumphs, the flushes of pride when a child does something small but marvellous, the comedic rue when the dog snaffles the Sunday joint.

In real life, I read books instead. That is the good side of the internet being off; it gives me much more time and attention span to read. I’m reading a book about the evolution of the horse. I’m becoming slightly obsessed with the dawn horses, those funny little scampering creatures who look absolutely nothing like the grand thoroughbred I ride every day. The dawn horses. It’s the best name for a thing ever.

Darwin the Dog is increasing in cleverness and now can do sit, wait, and lie down. I am especially pleased about lie down. The sun came out for two whole days and everyone in the village talked about it. ‘It does cheer you up,’ said the kind man in the chemist. I’m wrangling with my work, trying to get all my ideas in a row. The stepfather and I discuss Europe every morning over breakfast, and, this morning, the fundamentals of political thought. We like that kind of conversation although the dogs get so bored their ears practically fall off.

I miss my mother about twelve times a day. I get a sudden reminder, and then a shot of intense sorrow and regret. I’m trying not to have the regret, because it’s such a pointless emotion, but it pierces me like an arrow. I saw her every day, but I wish I had talked to her more, listened to her more, asked her more. And now it is too late. I find this almost unbearable.

The days have moments of high normality. This morning, I cantered my red mare up the hill and looked at the mountains. Everything was usual and peaceful and fine. I do my work and make a green soup and listen to Radio Four and walk the dogs and all that is usual and fine. And then I get whacked round the head with the missing and the yearning and nothing is normal or fine at all. It’s like having an internal pendulum, swinging between the two states of ordinary life and extraordinary loss. I don’t want to be this person, the person who writes about grief, which is odd and foolish since I greatly admire people who can put sorrow into words. But still, I don’t want to be that person. Yet I have to write it down because it is my reality and words are the things that stop it overwhelming me.

This evening, in the gloaming, under a shining sliver of crescent moon, I stood in the field and told my mare a story. She loves the sound of the human voice, and so instead of just talking nonsense to her I told her an actual story, as one might tell a child a fairy-tale at bedtime. She listened gently, resting her head on my shoulder, and then she let out a very long sigh. I could not quite tell whether it was in sympathy, or acute boredom. I laughed a bit and stood with her some more. Her world is so steady, so sane, so immediate, so authentic. It brings me peace. 

Friday, 5 February 2016

An ordinary day.

One ride on one thoroughbred, two walks with two dogs, some fairly blah weather, a quick bit of HorseBack work  and one thousand three hundred and forty-nine words of book. (I have started yet another secret project.)

It was not really a memorable day, not one for the ages. I did not think deep thoughts or cook anything delicious or even really contemplate the trees. I got the things done that needed to be done in a rather workaday fashion and felt vaguely resentful about the gloomy old drizzle. It was the kind of day when I saw the mud, not the field.

I’m only writing this down because I’ve got the stupid idea in my  head that the last year of my forties must be catalogued in full. (Why? Why? I don’t exactly think that the University of Texas is going to be ringing up for my papers; they are far too busy gazing with love at their collection of Evelyn Waugh’s letters.)

So, that was my day. It was not a good day, or a bad day. It was just – a day.

At which point the cheerleader voices in my head start shouting but you did some work, and you rode a horse, and you still have your opposable thumbs and the ability to type. And, say the slightly sterner voices: you can move around under your own steam, you are not living in a theocracy, and you have clean running water coming out of the taps. And you have a brain to think with and eyes to see and Scotland just outside your window. So what if it was a bit blah and Stanley the Manly ate half a pat of butter and the weather is rotten? There may not have been pom-poms and marching bands, but you got some things done and tomorrow you will get some more things done and not every 24 hours is going to win a prize.

Those stern voices can be quite tiring sometimes, but they are almost always right.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

The trees.

Yesterday I came across a file called ‘Gathering information for my NEW PLAN.’
It contained one sentence. That sentence was: ‘Look up the precise meaning of attenuation.’

I have absolutely no memory of the NEW PLAN. I made it in January, so it’s not very old, and it also must be quite particularly thrilling, since I put it in capital letters and I rarely use capital letters. So it was a recent, wildly exciting PLAN which had something to do with attenuation.

Nope. Nothing.

Actually, I’m very glad I brought up attenuation. I have just gone and looked it up and it does not mean exactly what I thought it meant. I would have said lessening or thinning. In fact it means much more than that. A reduction in the force, value or effect; a reduction in the amplitude of a signal, electric current, or other oscillation; a reduction in the virulence of a pathogenic organism or vaccine. It can also mean the gradual loss in intensity of any kind of flux through a medium (I don’t think the kind that contacts the spirit world, although I’d pay money to see that). And in physics, apparently, there is the attenuation coefficient, which  is the basic quantity used in calculations of the penetration of materials by quantum particles or other energy beams. I absolutely did not know that.

So at least I learnt something today, even if I have absolutely no memory of the NEW PLAN.

The day dawned fine and hopeful, although the sky has now clouded over and is the colour of dashed dreams. But for the morning, I had brightness and lightness. I rode the brown mare and then went and looked at the trees. I’m always banging on about the trees. I pretty much think the meaning of life is love and trees. Today I stopped for a moment and really, really looked at them. One of my great sadnesses is that trees are very difficult to photograph. They look so magnificent in life and so paltry through a lens. The only way I can show their beauty is to zoom in very close on a tiny part of a tree, or take a distant view of the treeline. I tried this morning to capture a particularly magnificent Scots pine and it simply did not work. But in a way this had its marvellous effect because I had to photograph it with my eyes. So I put the camera down and looked and looked and looked. I can see it now, seared into my retinas. I cannot show it to you, but I have its elegance and grace in the privacy of my own head.

It made me realise that whilst I talk about the trees, sometimes that is lip service. Quite often I am in such a rush, my mazy mind filled with so many thoughts (and NEW PLANS, obviously), my to do list so winding and long that I do not stop and see. I run past the trees as if they were not there. I take the trees for granted. This is a shocking dereliction. My new NEW PLAN is never, ever again to walk past a tree with my eyes closed.

One of the trees, a dear gnarly old oak, had some of its branches torn away from the recent storms. The spiked stumps of shattered arms reached up to the sky. I stared at it for a while, thinking it was a bit of a parable or an emblem. It was middle age. By this stage in life, all humans have lost a few branches to the storms. But the tree is still there, still beautiful and useful, still meaning something, still giving pleasure. I like that idea.

After the horse and the trees and walking the dogs, I ran some errands in the village. I saw something as beautiful as that oak. There were two old people, probably in their eighties, man and wife, walking together very, very slowly. The slowness of the walk was because of some physical limitation – some lameness, perhaps the aftermath of some illness, some soreness in the limbs or the joints. They were helping each other, every inch of their bodies tuned to each other, tenderness in every step. I wondered how long they had been married. Fifty years or more, I guessed. There was something about the way they walked that suggested they knew each other very, very well, and had done for so long that they could not remember or imagine not knowing everything about each other. I stood still and watched them, entranced. They were so absorbed in each other that they did not cast me a glance, so I could observe without rudeness.

Since I have an Olympic medal in forgetting (oh, that poor, lost NEW PLAN) I shall not remember those people. I shall lose the memory of the awe and wonder I felt as I watched them. That is why I have written them down. Now they shall always exist, here on the page. In year, or maybe two, I’ll stumble upon these paragraphs and that couple will return to me, as vivid and moving as they were today under the gentle Scottish sky.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

The good, the bad and the ugly.

Yesterday was so awful that I did not have the heart to write it down. I had the mean reds. The wind was blowing a hooley and the rain lashed with bitter viciousness and there was no good to be seen. I growled at the horses, shouted at the dogs, roared at myself, and believed that nothing would come to any good.

There is a rage in grief. I’m getting quite a lot of that now. There are sudden hurling outbursts of sheer fury, usually at inanimate objects – the fucking car that is always going wrong, the stupid cooker that is making horrid noises, the idiot internet which suddenly goes off for no reason. It is classic Object A, Object B. I am obviously really, really cross that my mum died. I’m taking out that fury on something, anything, but that awful fact.

I think I’m also cross because although I know this stuff takes a long time, the competitive, girly swot part of me wants to be able to do it in double quick time. Whenever I have a good day, I make a category error. The competitive swot thinks: ah, I’ve finished. The sane adult, who is very, very slow and takes ages to catch up, finally observes: it was just a good day. It doesn’t mean that your heart is mended or you are out of the woods.

Then I get cross because of the irrational part of myself which is indulging wrong beliefs and wish thinking. I know the woods are dark and deep; I know I have miles to go before I sleep. So why do I keep falling for the siren voices of wrongness?

Because I am a human being, is the maddening answer.

So, it’s up and down and round the houses. It’s the struggling part. The emotion is no longer pure, shooting out of one involuntarily. This is the messy bit, when one is trying to come to terms with reality (always a faint problem for me), getting it a bit right and getting it a bit wrong, catching a glimpse of the light, being hurled back into the darkness.

The irony is that lovely days are the enemy, in some days. I see them not for what they are, in themselves, but as misleading proofs.

It’s been rather a relief to realise all this. I can stop yelling at the dogs now (they just turn and give me yeah, whatever looks) and direct my rage at its correct target, which is the buggery bollocks of mortality and loss. I miss my mum, and sometimes that makes me cross.

In the green field on the hill, I have two dear remedies for all ills. When I go up to work the horses, all the mess and detritus and garbage falls away. This morning, I got onto my little brown mare. Even though she was a polo pony beyond compare, I’m starting her from scratch in the kind of cowboy horsemanship I like, very different from what she was used to. So we’ve been working on the ground a lot, just hanging out and getting to know each other, becoming friends. I’ve hardly ridden her at all, because I want to dig the foundations deep. I had not planned on riding her this morning, but she was in such a good mood that I hopped on, on a whim.

Usually, when I sit on her, I can feel her Ferrari engine revving under me at full velocity. This morning, there was the low purr of the Aston Martin. I felt amazed and delighted. We wandered about the pasture, like two old cowgirls in the green grass of Wyoming, doing some basic exercises. A lot of horses have a no in them. She was filled with yes.

You would like me to do this? Yes.
You want me to do that? Yes.
You think we should go there? Brilliant idea.

She is so kind and gentle and bright and bonny. By the end, I was riding with no irons and no reins. I taught her to stop from voice. (Yes.) I showed her how to back up with a quick signal from my feet which a great American horseman taught me. (Of course.) And then we stood in the sun and I leaned down and stroked and stroked and stroked her dear teddy bear neck and told her over and over how brilliant she was. She pricked her little ears and looked very pleased with herself.

This was a gift that came out of a clear blue sky, after 36 hours of crossness and sadness and general blah. Horses are supposed to get tense and twitchy if they sense darkness in their human. I try to leave all my baggage at the gate, but that old suitcase has been weighing me down. The little brown mare does not care. She is so mentally sturdy that she lets all the nonsense go by. And so she restores me, and the wings of my better angels begin to flap, and, in the end, I can give her what she deserves.

I always say that the best remedy for frailty is to confess it. The Dear Readers are wise, and know very well that every day can’t be Doris Day. Yet there is always an element of fear when I have a little wail, the fear of vulnerability that revelation brings. I can’t do jazz hands and step ball change at the moment. I’m getting through the days, trying to do my work and keep my spirits from flagging too much and meet all my responsibilities. Sometimes I feel defeated and overwhelmed. Sometimes I have to admit that. Then I take a deep breath and lift my head and decide that I shall just keep buggering on. I think that if there can be one moment of joy and delight in each day, however fleeting, all is not lost. Today, my small, sweet thoroughbred gave me a moment that felt like a miracle.

Monday, 1 February 2016

Write it down, write it down.

Write it down, write it down, say the voices in my head.
Which voices?
The ones which have suddenly decided that since I was forty-nine on Saturday, it is now my absolute duty to record every moment of the year before I am fifty.
I don’t really know why. Because it is a milestone; because life is whistling by my ears; because I am terrified that I shall get to that big age and say ‘Where did all the time go and why did I not do more with it and what is the point of it all anyway?’
If it is written down, at least I shall have 365 pages of something, that exist, like proofs that I was here. Or something.
I don’t really understand it, but those voices are very shouty, so even though I am tired and my brain has fizzled out like the kind of old wiring that electricians suck their teeth over, I’m writing it bloody well down.
There was sleet and a wild, biting wind. Despite this, I got on my horse first thing because I love her and I miss her and I’m fed up with letting the weather come between us. She was not especially impressed, particularly when we reached the top of the field and found horizontal sleety rain in our faces and a wind as bitter as Sarah Palin. (She really is very, very bitter. I know she thinks she is perky, but I sense bitterness.) Then the little brown mare came roaring up the slope as if to say what the hell are you two doing? so we all trundled back down together. I felt like something out of the Green Grass of Wyoming, riding one horse with one hand and herding another.
            Then it was work work work work. There was a small pause for dog dog, as Stan the Man and Darwin the Dog went outside in the weather and wrestled about like Alan Bates and Oliver Reed. (Sometimes I have to avert my eyes.) Then more work work work. Then a visit to the vet, which went completely awry when Stanley escaped the locked car, dashed across Station Square, let himself into the vet’s office and stared balefully at Darwin and me, waiting politely for the second puppy vaccination. Everyone thought it was hysterical.
            I braved the wind and fed the horses and then there was more work.
            All this mad activity is because I had another deadline. I’ve given up talking about deadlines, because this is now the fifth time I’ve reworked this book and I’ve started to believe it shall never be finished. The agent, who is discerning and brilliant, never lets me off the hook. So there has been restructuring, a change of emphasis, two complete re-writes, and I don’t really know how many polishes. I can’t see straight or focus my eyes or decide if it is any good or not.
            One day, if I am very lucky, it might be published by an actual publisher and go into an actual bookshop and be read by actual humans. Then I have to worry about whether anyone will buy it. But that is long in the future, and as I drove back from the shop tonight after doing some errands I thought: best hope is that it  might be quite good. I have got very slick at managing my ambitions.
            This is all quite dull, say the critical voices. Is this the best you can do for your last year in your forties? Could you not give it a bit of va va voom?
            No, I bloody well couldn’t. Some days have no voom. Some days are very ordinary and quite tiring and entirely pedestrian. I can’t do a tap dance to order.

            Today was just what it was. It was cold, and I got some stuff done. Some days, that has to be enough.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

The red mare teaches me a life lesson.

I especially set up a Facebook page for my red mare so that I would not endlessly bore the poor Dear Readers with her here. I know that some of you really had had enough. One or two people said so, in terms. But today she taught me something very valuable which goes for human life as well as horse life, and it was far too long for a Facebook post so I'm telling the story here. This is not, I promise, the thin end of the wedge.

This is how the story went:

Today, I never felt so grateful for the perfection that is the thirteen foot rope. Today, my red mare, my sweet, dozy dreamer, the one I put children and beginners on, had one of her most splendid wig-outs.

How can this be? you ask. I might have once asked the same thing. Not that kind, gentle soul, the Zen mistress, the keeper of the peace.

‘What happened,’ Ray Hunt used to say, ‘before what happened happened?’

The red mare is a creature of perfect storms. She can deal with one thing, she can deal with two things, but she can’t deal with the third. Or at least, she can deal with anything if I have been doing my work right. If I have not, then the storm blows up. She is a duchess of absolute safety; if she feels secure she can do anything. If her safe world gets cracks in it, she expresses herself with tremendous vehemence.

The immediate happening was that the little Paint filly was taken away for a long walk. They haven’t been parted for a long time and this was way out of the routine, and the red mare is a very responsible lead mare and does not like people going away without a permission slip. But even so, separation anxiety is something we put to bed years ago. Yet there she was, carrying on, screaming and calling, pulling herself up to her full height, tail in the air, snorting like a freight train, looking no longer like an Exmoor pony but like the racehorse she once was.

Ah, well, I thought. I’ll work her. That’ll get it out.

It did get it out. In all the mighty ways that a half ton thoroughbred can get things out of their system. We had the racing around at top speed, the rearing, the bucking, and, one of her signature moves from the old days, the rear-plunge-twist-buck combo.

That was when I blessed that thirteen foot rope. If a horse wigs out on the end of a lunge line, you’ve got nothing but a tangle and a wreck. If it does it on the end of a traditional short lead rope, you have to drop the thing and run. Those thirteen feet allowed me to stay at a safe distance from that powerful body and squint my eyes at her and gather clues. There is no such thing as bad behaviour, only good information.

It was fascinating. She was not being naughty or silly, words which have absolutely no application or meaning when it comes to horses, but are sadly too often used. She was genuinely upset, even a little frightened.

So I moved her on through the rodeo. I wasn’t scared, because she has not a bad bone in her body. I was not going to stop her. She genuinely needed to run and jump, to get all that tingling emotion out of her great physical self. I stood steady and directed that jagged energy. I moved her hindquarters back and forth, and then yielded the shoulder. I did a lot of sharp turns, to get her mind on me and off her demons. I did several changes of gait, up through the gears, from walk to trot to canter and back down again. Because I sensed she really did want to run, when she gave me a nice dancing canter I ran alongside her for a bit, as if we were playing. I didn’t want to batter her into submission with work, but balance up her mind again with as much lightness as I could.

Eventually, we stopped and her head came down and I let her rest. After a while, I rubbed her poll and her ears and talked to her for a bit. Then the head went back up and there was a bit more yelling, so we went through the turns and yields again. We did some moving forward and backing up, and what I call creative leading, where I mosey about all over the place, describing circles in the grass, stopping and starting, making sure I had her focus.

At last, I had to stop and go back to my desk. I was not quite sure whether I had done enough to get all the trouble out, although she was much calmer than when we started. As I slipped off the halter, I wondered whether she would gallop off into her twenty acres like a brumby. But she stayed by my side, very politely, until I left. Then she walked away under her own control.

As I walked down the hill, I pondered the good information. In the early days, I would have seen this as a huge failure. If I was doing everything right, then she would never be bucking and plunging and yelling on the end of a rope. I might as well give up and work with rare goats. Now, I take it not as failure, but as another valuable page in the classic novel that is The Red Mare.

There are two things that horse hates. One is when I get cocky. The moment she hears the hubris angels flapping their wings, she lets me know about it. The other is when I am not firm and consistent enough. She craves strong boundaries; that is part of her desire for safety.

I think lately I had got a bit cocky. I’d been thinking about how brilliant the mare was and how settled and relaxed and what a poster girl, and not concentrating on keeping those boundaries strong. What with the floods and the frosts, looking after her has been a matter of atavistic survival, with no work to merit the name. It is possible that I had let a few bad habits creep in.

And on top of that, there she was, in her new field with a new routine, with a human whose mind was not on the job. I’ve been feeling very vulnerable and worried and a bit fearful lately, about a lot of different things which are crashing together, some of them out of my control. For all that I swear I never take emotions into that field, I think I had been bringing my jangly self instead of my steady self. The brown mare is so mentally sturdy that she does not seem to mind this; she was not shrieking and galloping and snorting, just looking about her in vague interest. But the red mare believes that once I’ve got the jangles nobody can save her from the mountain lions.

Whatever is going on in my human life, I have to separate that from my horse life. She’s had to put up with me in deep grief after the death of my mother, and then in the absorbing sadness which comes afterwards. She’s had to put up with me being fretful and distracted and in a nervous worry. She was saying to me, in the way that only she can: enough.

There is nobody in the world who teaches me such good lessons as she. This was a dilly. Sometimes you have to put your own self aside, for the sake of somebody else. If I cannot give that mare peace of mind, then I have nothing. So I square my shoulders and remind myself of first principles and go back to the beginning.

Friday, 22 January 2016

The moment

I’ve been thinking quite a lot lately about the moment. People say it is all one has. The past has gone, the future is not yet here, but there – there – is the moment. If you are very clever, you can live in it.

I find the moment fairly impossible. I’m always thinking about what I’ve got to do in the next ten minutes, the next week, the next year, the next decade. Crack on, I say to myself, eyes cast into the future. Sometimes I feel nostalgic or sad or regretful about the past. I wish I had done that, or said this. Why did I not save for a rainy day? How could I have been so reckless or improvident or foolhardy? (Pick your adjective; they all come home to roost, like cross chickens.) I sometimes think I have been idiotic with time; I should have used it better, packed in more.

Yes, says the one sane voice in my head, who is very quiet and does not always get heard, but that is how you miss your life. Anchor yourself in the moment, says that quiet voice. Ha, says the critical voice, who has had too many negronis and wants to hurl more adjectives around, fucking hippy shit.

This evening, I had a perfect moment. I was running late all day because my car was buggered and there was garage business. I did not take the dogs out for their afternoon rumble until it was dark. But there was a great, graceful moon beaming out of the indigo sky and we could see quite well. Stan the Man and Darwin the Dog roared about, delighted with everything – the grass, the scents, each other, the world – and I walked up to the beech avenue. There, at the old fence, were two gentle shadows. I sensed them before I saw them, all their lovely sweetness and peace flying off them in waves. There were my good mares, dreaming their day away.

It is a huge field, the one they moved in to after the flood, about twenty acres at least. They mostly favour the far western end, up on the hill. I think they like the view. But this evening, in the dear old gloaming, they were at the near fence, as if they were waiting for me.

So I stood with them for a while, and scratched their ears, and told them of their own loveliness, and felt their soft, teddy bear coats, and gazed up at the moon, which was sailing over the dark outlines of the trees like a stately galleon on a Sargasso sea. The dogs gambolled about, playing their own intricate games.

This is your life, I said to myself. This is the moment. Don’t feel bad about the past, or fretful about the future, just stay here for a while, with these kind creatures and this mighty moon and this good Scotland.

It was very fine. It was a moment.

Then my monkey mind said: go in at once and write it down. Write it down, write it down. Which of course is slightly absurd, because the moment should be enough, but I was already thinking of the sentences and contemplating the Dear Readers and wondering what photograph I should choose. The monkey mind can only take so much hippy shit.

It was a moment though. Yes, it was.

Friday, 15 January 2016

A small good news story. Or, the nice man from Scottish Fuels.

If you are a goofball like me, with the organisational skills of a hamster, then good customer service is an absolute essential. Just as the temperature swung down to minus three, I noticed that I had let the heating oil get perilously low. In a panic, I called Scottish Fuels late yesterday afternoon. The very efficient gentleman explained that Tuesday would be the delivery day, because the tanker that would be in my area today was already booked up. I explained my goofiness and said that I had all but run out of oil and instead of being a bit sneery, as he had every right to do, he laughed kindly and said he would do his best. He could not promise, but he would try.

I turned the heating off to save the boiler (it explodes if the tank runs dry), put on two cardigans and a hat, and the dogs and I hunkered down for the duration. I thought probably Monday at best. If the tanker was booked up, it was booked up. I would just have to do starjumps, I reflected, as I cracked the two inches of ice on the horses’ water trough. (I had to use a special implement, kindly given to me by the resourceful Stepfather.) Keep the circulation going, I thought. Also: make chicken soup, which I goodly did.

At 2pm, I heard a familiar throaty rumble. It couldn’t be, I thought. I live opposite a building yard, and they have endless huge trucks chugging in and out. It would be one of those, I told myself, stifling false hope. But Stan the Man and Darwin the Dog and I ran out to have a look, just in case.

There was the smiling Scottish Fuels man, cheerfully unrolling his hose.

Darwin, who is very pleased to see everyone, dashed up and tried to kiss the man on the nose. I said, pointing at the dog: ‘I’m not going to jump all over you, but that is exactly what I feel like.’

The smiling man looked at the dog, looked at me, suppressed the faintest flicker of terror, whether at the jumping remark or my resolutely unflattering hat I could not tell, and explained that he had a few last litres left and knew I was in need and had brought them to me.

‘I can’t believe it,’ I said. ‘I only called yesterday.’

He explained that when the tanker gets booked up, it does not mean that all the oil will be in fact delivered. People apparently order more oil than they need, so along the way he collects a surplus here and a surplus there. He left me until last, hoping that there would be something left in his great truck and so there was.

He told me all this with great good humour. He was not doing that jobsworth thing of making a tremendous put-upon performance of it, as some people might. He was not judging me for being the kind of flake who lets the oil run out in January. He seemed genuinely pleased that his plan had worked and he could keep me warm.

The AA, who occasionally have to come and help me in equally flaky situations (the last time was to change a tyre, because I had picked up a nail and I had lost the magic unlocking socket; no problem, said the smiling operative, and boosted the thing), employ people of a very similar character. I asked the changing the tyre man whether it was AA policy only to employ exceptionally nice people. I was joking, but he said that yes, that was exactly their policy.

I wonder if Scottish Fuels do the same thing. I had tried three other heating oil companies before I found them, with disastrous results. Those companies clearly thought me an idiot, and there was always a ten day delay on everything. The answer to every question was a resounding and rather triumphant no. I was always having to go to bed in my hat like Scrooge, because the house was so cold.

My paltry custom can make no difference to the Scottish Fuels bottom line. I have a small house and the amount of money I pay them is vanishingly small, in corporate terms. I’m never going to buy a mansion and keep it at the temperature of a greenhouse. If I went elsewhere for my oil, they would not miss me. Yet they treat me as I were the Queen of Sheba, with a hundred palatial rooms to heat and a bill in the thousands.

I don’t know quite why I love this story so much, and why it has brought such a smile to my face. The last couple of weeks have been rather fraught, with the floods and all. I’m missing my mother and I’m rather under the cosh in professional terms and I have been floundering a little bit, one way and another, which is why I have not been writing the blog. I knew that anything I wrote would end up being a wail, and I did not want to bore you with wailing. Suddenly, here at last was a story that was not a wail.

Out in the world, the news is, as it seems to be all the time now, bad. Even when it is not about great human tragedies like Syria, it is about personal tragedies like David Bowie, whose death hit my cohort as a hammer blow to the heart. He was the voice of our teenage years, and he was the one who made us feel we were not alone. He was the one we listened to when we slammed the doors of our lonely rooms and felt all that gawky, hopeless teen angst of not being understood and not fitting in. Bowie understood, and now he was gone. That mighty voice had fallen silent for the last time.

Even when the news is not death news, it is about corruption in high places and corporate malfeasance. I’ve almost got into that hippy thing of thinking that all big companies are devoted to fleecing the consumer and laughing at the poor drones who sheepishly hand over the cash. But here was a little good news story: a nice company, peopled by proper humans who did not speak jargon or stonewall or take the money and run, but who kindly made the effort to go the extra yard.

I value warmth because I spend a lot of my life outside, getting muddy and chilled and wet as I look after the mares. When I come inside, I sit at a desk frowning at my computer screen which is not much cop for the circulation. I feel the cold acutely. Those nice people brought me literal and metaphorical warmth.

Since I’ve been away from the blog, I’ve been thinking about it, on and off. I never really know what it is for. I used to think that I could use it as a promotion tool, ruthlessly pimping myself so that people would buy my books. When that did not work, I thought that I could use it as a daily exercise in prose, good for the writing muscle.

Lately, I’ve been thinking that it is the simple thing of having a record. I don’t have the discipline any more to write a diary, but I like having some written memories of my days. I’m at that stage with my mum when she is going now into the past. I feel that is probably a good thing, a right thing, a proper part of grief, but it’s also a sad, panicky thing. Her presence is fading. There are so many things I shall forget. I have crazed moments when I wish I had written down all the things she had said, the stories about Arkle and Vincent O’Brien and Lester and Peter O’Sullevan, her memories of childhood and of watching my father ride in races, her sudden deadpan remarks. Then I find that I did write some of them here, and I am passionately grateful. There is something here at least that is not lost.

I’d like to remember the nice man from Scottish Fuels, even though it is the smallest and most inconsequential of stories. So I tell it to you, and when I have forgotten it I shall be able to look back through these pages and remember. I can, as Yeats said, take down that book and slowly read.

Thursday, 31 December 2015

Reasons to be cheerful.

I cried today. Not for my own sorrow, but because I heard a gentleman from Syria on the wireless. One of the BBC’s foreign correspondents had known him and his family quite well and was catching up on their story, on what had happened to them because of the war. (I think this was it; I came in half way through in one of those serendipitous moments when I just happen to be in the kitchen and I happen to press the button for Radio Four and there is all humanity, speaking to me.) This man had been driven from his home town, although some of his family and friends still seemed to be there – ‘Ah, they are bombing now, can you hear?’ said one of them when the journalist rang up. ‘Should you not hide?’ said the journalist. ‘No, no,’ said the crackling voice, cheerfully, ‘we are used to it.’

The gentleman who had been driven from his town said, at the very end of the programme, to this gentle man from the BBC: one day we shall go back there, God willing, and we shall play some football. It seemed he had run some kind of football club and he had kept a diary of all their fixtures and who had won and who had scored, and it was this diary he wanted to find, to show his friend from the Beeb.

So, I cried. Because there was all human life: hope, courage, love, loss, fear (I shall show you fear in a handful of dust), humour, grace under pressure, an amazing and dauntless optimism. Will that man ever go back to his town? Perhaps not. But he has faith; he believes. Across a long cultural divide, those human hearts are just the same as this human heart. There is the hope for better things.

Sometimes I don’t know what to do with the world. There are all the private griefs, but there are the great global griefs too. How does one carry those? Empathy is sometimes the very devil. My sister can’t listen to the news any more, it makes her too sad. I listen to it, furiously, thinking that if they can go through it – those refugees, those victims of war, those women in the Congo – then I can damn well listen to it. Sometimes I laugh a twisted laugh, thinking that if those women of the Congo knew that there was one middle-aged, middle-class female standing in the middle of a muddy field worrying about them they would not really feel that much better about things.

Down in the village, everyone is talking about the floods. There is a dauntless Blitz spirit in the shop and everyone is wishing everyone a happy new year. They are pumping out the Co-Op with fire trucks and there are police cars flashing past, packed with serious officers. At my field, the water is subsiding and the mares are as poised and composed as if they were going to a diplomatic cocktail party, just as if they had not spent yesterday afternoon walking through water up to their hocks as we led them to the higher ground. 

I’d had a sudden moment of doubt as I left them in their flooded field, as the gloaming fell and the night rolled in, and had told the red mare sternly that it was her job to look after them. She takes her responsibilities very seriously, and she did look after them, and they are entirely unruffled. 

There are rumours of tragic sheep which I don’t want to think about. (My neighbour, a man of the land, is steely. ‘They were warned,’ he said. ‘Everyone knew to move their livestock.’) That’s very north-eastern. There is a streak of granite in the people here, just like the stone that runs through this part of the country. It took me a while to get used to when I first arrived, with my soft southern ways, but now I love it and admire it.

My gumboots will never be dry again. I’ve tried everything but the neoprene lining has soaked up the water like a sponge and there is a terrible squelching when I put them back on. I am resigned to wet feet and soggy socks. The dogs think the whole thing is hysterical and gambol through the water with their heads held high. I make soup and feel passionately grateful that my house is dry and the power is on.

I feel equally grateful that my village is here and my house is safe and I don’t have to shout down a crackling line to a journalist about the bombs. I don’t really do New Year resolutions, but I think that every day of 2016 I am going to make a list of my good fortune. Reasons to be cheerful, one two three. 

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Everybody knows.

In a small village like mine, everybody knows.

The posties know. ‘You’ll be wanting to get this Christmas over then,’ said Pearl the Postwoman this morning, giving Stanley the Manly his customary Bonio. (She really is one of the nicest women in the world and a brilliant postal operative to boot.)

The window-cleaners know. ‘I’m so sorry to hear about your mum,’ said the head window-cleaner, with great gentleness, after he polished up my windows.

The lady in the chemist knows. ‘You have a good Christmas now,’ she said, with a speaking look. She lost her own mother in the spring, so she too will have a first Christmas without a mum.

The ladies in the shop know. They give me the kind smiles of understanding as I buy the traditional bottle of Madeira for the gravy.

All the florists know, because I have been in that shop buying funeral flowers and wake flowers. Today, I wanted to get the dear Stepfather a little bunch of eucalyptus and a little bunch of red tulips. The top florist, making these up into enchanting bouquets (very plain, tied up with elegant stone-coloured string; none of your fancy ribbons or vulgar sparkly yuletide nonsense), said: ‘It will be hard for you, this year.’

The Rotary Club does not know, and I put on my best jolly smile for them as they pack up my shopping in the Co-op, which they do every year to raise money for good causes. I make little Christmas jokes with the gentlemen and wish them a happy day.

The knowing is rather lovely. Nobody makes a song and dance about it. The grief is accepted and acknowledged and treated with gentle respect. It is all very elegant and very touching.

The rain lashes down and then the sun comes out, that thick amber winter light which is like the light of old Italy.

I’m not going to do a big Christmas lunch. Last year, I cooked lunch for my mother and stepfather because the rest of the family had gone south. It was very fine and very lovely and the next day Mum and I had a grand time watching the King George. I can’t go into that house tomorrow, in all the jollity, knowing she is not there. I said at breakfast this morning, to the extended family: ‘I know my limitations.’

They understand and they don’t understand. Most people think that to refuse Christmas lunch is a sad thing. To me, it is a vast relief. I go for a special festive dinner tonight and then tomorrow I have silence and space.

I decided to make the day a useful one. I’m going to man my HorseBack Facebook page all day, because there are veterans for whom this time of year is not like a John Lewis ad. I’m going to put up lots of pictures and invite them to use the comments section if they need to talk and make a safe space which is not all about mandated merriment. That feels about right to me. I think my mother would approve of that.

I’m going to make a chicken for myself (that’s why there is Madeira still for the gravy) and play with my mares and my dogs and look up the form for the King George. It’s one of the best renewals for years, with almost every horse in with a fighting chance. They are all old friends, mighty warriors I have loved for a long time. I shall be quite torn by old loyalties and newer loves. I think in the end I shall go with Don Cossack, because I so adore his way of doing things. He is so laid back that even when he is running in a top class race he looks as if he is ambling out on a gentle Sunday ride. He lollops over his fences, usually quite far back, watching all the rushing ones up front with his wise old eyes. Then, as they all get to scrubbing away before him, he pricks his ears, engages turbo drive, and floats past them on a roar of acceleration and brilliance. He makes me laugh with love and joy. He’s a real old-fashioned sort, long and athletic with a straightforward, honest head and an intelligent outlook, nothing flashy about him except the sheen on his dark coat, the kind of horse my father would have adored.

It will be hard this year. But it will sort of be all right too. Loss is loss, and must be honoured.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015


So sorry I've been off the blog for a few days. I'm a bit up and down and the whole Christmas thing is quite hard. I am, however, posting some pictures and thoughts on Facebook. Oddly, I find there is less pressure there. (The pressure all comes from the mazy corridors of my own mind. And is quite absurd.) Here, I have an ridiculous notion that I have to give you some decent prose and a sort of story and some kind of proper thought. The lovely thing about Facebook is that I can write two lines and put up a nice horse or dog picture and my work is done. So I'm putting up a link to that page until I'm back in the saddle again.

I miss my mother a lot. I'm finding the first Christmas without her hard. I know that many of you know exactly what this is like.

There was a very sweet moment on Tuesday when I took the presents up for my extended family - two grown-ups and four small children and one old friend who has been a part of our family for twenty years. The sun was shining and when I got there the oldest of the children was making gingerbread Christmas trees. For a moment, everything was better.

I even took a photograph of the package -

Link to the Facebook page is here:

Friday, 18 December 2015


Rode, made breakfast for the dear Stepfather, wrote 3,447 words, watched a couple of lovely races at Ascot, adored the dogs, adored the horses, made a few plans. Laughed and laughed, right from the belly, for the first time in a long time. 

It wasn’t that kind of sad laughter that you do after a loss, where all humour has a tinge of melancholy to it. It was pure, proper guffawing. 

I was sitting on the red mare at the time, and I found the thing so funny that I actually fell on her neck, unable to sit up straight. (She was practising for the Standing Still Olympics at the time and did not move a muscle, despite the rocking and rolling human on her back. She is such a shoo-in for Rio I would put your shirt on her.) 

It was something that the friend who shares my paddock said. It does not bear translation, so I won’t try to explain it. It was an in-joke about my sweet, funny mare, and nothing really tickles me more. She makes me laugh just being her own, dear self; when the brilliant human observation was added the whole thing was irresistible. 

The way always to make my father laugh the most was to tease him about some idiosyncrasy of his own. The more people told him stories about his own absurdities and catastrophes, the more he would laugh. His shoulders would hop up and down and he would gasp oh oh oh and he would start crying with mirth, so he had to take his specs off and mop his eyes. There was a story about a brown shoe in a shop in Wantage which his old friend Bill Payne used to recount, and, no matter how many times he told it, it made my father helpless with laughter. 

I inherited this from him. If you want me to weep with laughter, tell me about my own idiocies. (I can sometimes make myself laugh by telling some of them to myself.) Now I discover that my second funniest thing is a little tease of my mare. Even funnier was that as we shrieked and whooped about her own ridiculous quirk, she stood blinking at us, maintaining her dignity with as much aplomb as if she were an empress on a royal progress.

How lovely to think of all that laughter.

I start to remember this now, from after my dad died. The grief crashes in waves obliterating everything, so that all one can do is try to survive. Then, the crashes start to slow down, come farther apart. They can still slam one to the beach, knocking the breath from the body, but they are not now fatal. One is not drowning but waving. I am no longer clinging to the wreckage, but am swimming on my own. The sea is still stormy, but my arms and legs are working again. I don’t get cavalier about this. I remember that none of this can be rushed. Time is the only thing that works. Well, time and love and trees and soup and red mares and good friends and the kindness of strangers and the good old British Blitz spirit and a lot of protein and some stoicism and sharing with the group and writing it down and trying to get enough sleep and going gently and sometimes even just being a bit damn cussed.

Of all the loves, the one with that mighty red mare is the most profoundly consoling. All are vital to me, and all are healing, but she has the miraculous ability to banish sorrow entirely for the time I am on her back. It’s like she throws a switch. When I ride her, my poor singed emotions find their rest. So it is appropriate that she was the one who made all that glorious laughter. 


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