Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Remembering to listen.

I was talking to the farrier today about her horse. I adore the farrier and am genuinely interested in her horse and like always to hear the stories. But as I was out in the field with the dear red mare dozing as she got her feet done, I thought: listen.

I know about listening. I’ve written about listening. There’s a whole chapter in 77 Ways about listening. Yet sometimes I forget to listen. I get all excited and think about the thing I’m going to say next. My mind leaps about like a jumping bean and my voice rises to an inexplicable register and I can’t keep my hands still.

Stop, I said to myself. Hear what the farrier is saying.

So I stopped and I heard and that was better.

And when it was my time to speak I thought: what are the sort of things I love to hear about my own horses? A complete stranger made me almost fall over with joy the other day when he looked at the red mare and said: ‘She’s very gentle, isn’t she?’ That was like a Nobel Prize for me. A friend said this morning: ‘Oh, she is a brave girl.’ And sometimes people ask questions about her and I love that too. Say those things, I thought; say the things you would like to hear. Ask questions. Don’t just make blanket statements about what you think.

So I did that, and that was better too.

There are skills in life which seem so small and so obvious that the temptation is to think one knows how to do them. They are like the ABC. They are taken for granted and not considered. Today, I went back and considered. I think listening well and using empathy and not making everything about you are all tiny things that add to the sum total of human happiness. They spread a little brightness instead of adding to the dark. Take a deep breath, I tell myself, and count to ten. Remember how to do the obvious things well. 

Monday, 16 January 2017

365 Days of Shakespeare.

Very tired after a stupidly long day of extreme work, so I can’t say anything useful about As You Like It. I’m just going to copy my favourite passages of the day and leave you to enjoy them.

O coz, coz, coz, my pretty little coz, that thou
didst know how many fathom deep I am in love! But
it cannot be sounded: my affection hath an unknown
bottom, like the bay of Portugal.

O, I know where you are: nay, 'tis true: there was
never any thing so sudden but the fight of two rams
and Caesar's thrasonical brag of 'I came, saw, and
overcame:' for your brother and my sister no sooner
met but they looked, no sooner looked but they
loved, no sooner loved but they sighed, no sooner
sighed but they asked one another the reason, no
sooner knew the reason but they sought the remedy;
and in these degrees have they made a pair of stairs
to marriage which they will climb incontinent, or
else be incontinent before marriage: they are in
the very wrath of love and they will together; clubs
cannot part them.

Both these are from Rosalind. She really does get all the best lines.

There. I’m happy now.

In which I make no sense at all.

I have a new idea cooking in my head and it is so complicated and so vivid and so antic that I can’t think about anything else. I have to speak bits of it out loud to try and get them into some kind of order. I get to the end of the day and realise I have absolutely no idea what is going on in the world. Buckingham Palace could have been stormed for all I know; Donald Trump could have run away to the South Seas; the entire cabinet could have resigned over Brexit.

I have not eaten anything since breakfast and am not entirely sure what my name is.

I slightly wish that I could approach things in a reasonable manner. Tomorrow, I’m going to attempt to make a better timetable and stop for lunch and listen to the news and generally act as if I were not fifteen years old. My brain swells and throbs and all the voices in my head are shouting.

It’s such an odd job, I think, rather ruefully. I have six people who did not exist two days ago now living in my mind. I can see them and hear them and am already a little in love with them. I know their secret fears and their greatest desires. If this one works out, they will live with me for the next year or so, until I know them better than I know myself. I’m pleased they have arrived, but they’ve come in such a rush that it feels rather like having a new puppy: enchanting but absolutely exhausting.

At least, I suppose, they will not pee on the carpet. One must be grateful for the small mercies.

Friday, 13 January 2017

365 Days of Shakespeare.

My daily Shakespeare is a perfect antidote to the mean weather outside. There have not been the havoc-wreaking storms the voices on the wireless were warning about, but it is still very cold and bitter. Inside, there is the warmth and comfort of dancing prose.

This is easily my favourite speech of the day. It is Rosalind to Orlando. In true Shakespearean fashion, she has dressed up as a man and is now making the fooled Orlando pretend to woo her as if she were his adored Rosalind, even though he thinks her a rather saucy boy. He is gusting and sighing and saying he will die for love and she won’t have any of it:

No, faith, die by attorney. The poor world is
almost six thousand years old, and in all this time
there was not any man died in his own person,
videlicit, in a love-cause. Troilus had his brains
dashed out with a Grecian club; yet he did what he
could to die before, and he is one of the patterns
of love. Leander, he would have lived many a fair
year, though Hero had turned nun, if it had not been
for a hot midsummer night; for, good youth, he went
but forth to wash him in the Hellespont and being
taken with the cramp was drowned and the foolish
coroners of that age found it was 'Hero of Sestos.'
But these are all lies: men have died from time to
time and worms have eaten them, but not for love.

And here she is again, in rattling form:
Say 'a day,' without the 'ever.' No, no, Orlando;
men are April when they woo, December when they wed:
maids are May when they are maids, but the sky
changes when they are wives. I will be more jealous
of thee than a Barbary cock-pigeon over his hen,
more clamorous than a parrot against rain, more
new-fangled than an ape, more giddy in my desires
than a monkey: I will weep for nothing, like Diana
in the fountain, and I will do that when you are
disposed to be merry; I will laugh like a hyen, and
that when thou art inclined to sleep.

I especially love the clamorous parrot and the new-fangled ape. Why should an ape be new-fangled? We shall never know. 

The small things add up.

On the wireless, doomy voices predict a thundersnow apocalypse. In the quiet Scottish field there is a bit of wind and a flurry of blizzard and then the weather gives up, as if it can’t be bothered. The horses, stoical to the last, hunker down under their favourite weather tree and look slightly askance when we tell them it is time for breakfast. Eventually, they mosey on over, as if conferring a great favour.

I have a small helper with me. She thinks the horses are perfectly splendid. ‘Can I stroke her? Oh, she is soft. She is furry. She is dirty.’ (The little brown mare had been having a roll and the top part of her neck that was peeking out of the rug was covered in mud.) ‘She is hungry. She likes that food. Can I stroke her again?’

The mares are obviously highly trained, so I trust them around small people, but really it is more their good heartedness than my dedicated schooling that digs the trust deep. The red mare in particular is an absolute goof for children. She goes very still and blinks her eyes at them and exudes peace and pleasure.

So, despite the bitter wind, the day got off to a roaring start. I went back to my desk and got things done. I even tidied up the house a bit, which made me wonder whether I have been kidnapped by space aliens and replaced by a pod. I usually allow what I euphemistically call an artistic muddle to develop. (I am a creative; I have no time for bourgeois pursuits like dusting. This is my story and I am sticking to it.) Rather inspired by the order, I did serious productive work for the first time in three days. Lately, I’ve been spinning my wheels, staring at the screen and pretending to do something useful while my brain feels as if someone has thrown a sack over it. Today, I was able to see the words properly and do something with them.

Out in the world, Donald Trump grows more and more inexplicable. On grave news programmes, august security experts come on and talk about whether or not he went to bed with twenty prostitutes in a Moscow hotel room. They speak of this with as much thoughtful gravity as if they were discussing The Four Last Things. I suspect he did not and that this story is throwing sand in the eyes. The real story is about the money, not the sex, and the money is much, much more shocking.

In my small room, the world recedes and the small things obtain. The dogs dance about, enchanted by the snow; I make tomato soup; I think of my sweet little helper this morning and how much untrammelled joy she took in those dear mares. I think: if every day has one moment of pure delight in it, that is enough. Write it down, mark it, give it respect. I become a little hokey and a little hippy and a little goofy, in grave danger of tumbling into platitude. Do one nice thing for one person every day, I think, even if that thing is so tiny it would hardly leave a scratch on the wide world. Say yes, instead of no. The small things may be small, but they all add up. 

365 Days of Shakespeare.

As You Like It.

I had forgotten how much I love this play. Every line is pure joy.

Here are my favourites from today. They are all short and pithy and entirely delightful to my eyes:

O wonderful, wonderful, and most wonderful
wonderful! and yet again wonderful, and after that,
out of all hooping!

I found him under a tree, like a dropped acorn.

I am he that is so love-shaked: I pray you tell me
your remedy.

Then there is this little exchange, which must be I think, where the expression ‘rhyme nor reason’ comes from:

But are you so much in love as your rhymes speak?
Neither rhyme nor reason can express how much.

I just looked up rhyme nor reason and in fact it was first used by John Russell in The Boke of Nurture in 1490. So Shakespeare gleefully pinched it and made it his own.

And then, to finish, there is an excellent goat joke. I’m not certain that there are many writers who manage to get goats and Ovid and the Goths into one sentence so effortlessly. I watch, as always, in awe and wonder:

I am here with thee and thy goats, as the most

capricious poet, honest Ovid, was among the Goths.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

The sun shines.

The wind drops, the sun comes out, the sky is blue. The fabled storm that is about to blow in feels like a distant rumour. The horses are dozy and soft and happy and the red mare gives me a canter of such grace and poise that I feel like crying with happiness. My friend and I stand in the feed shed filling haynets with the good hay and talk about life and unpredictable humans and small problems and the perspective police. This is the sort of conversation that makes me feel better about pretty much everything.

I go up to HorseBack and everyone is smiling and kind and I make some Marine jokes. It is always good to make a Marine joke to an actual Marine.

Someone said something very kind to me today. It was very simple sentence, but it meant the world to me. She said: ‘You do a lot for us.’ That was all. But it was like an unexpected present or a bunch of flowers. It made me think about how much humans need acknowledgement.

I’m a huge believer in the paying of compliments. It’s not very British and I have to fight against all my cultural instincts of reticence and not saying the thing. I believe in it so much that I wrote a whole chapter in Seventy-Seven Ways about the giving of compliments.

I do believe in them, but I thought this morning that it is the plain acknowledgement, the quiet tip of the hat, that has almost more power. It’s lovely to tell someone they are brilliant or dazzling or talented or clever, but I wonder whether it’s even more lovely to make a simple statement of ordinary fact. You showed up; you helped; you worked hard. I mean: the kind of unadorned statements that show somebody noticed. I mean the kind of sentences that do not need to be freighted with adjectives or hyperbole or gush, but act as little validations.

Everybody, I think, needs to have their passport stamped from time to time. Everybody needs to be seen. Everybody needs to know they are not taken for granted.

It worked for me, anyway. The grumpiness and scratchiness of the last two days fade into the background. Their work is done and they’ve got someone else to bother. The sun is shining, literally and metaphorically. The storm will come, in the night. But we’ll batten down the hatches and steady the buffs and ride it out.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

It can't be that bad.

‘Say something interesting,’ shout the voices in my head.
‘Hmm,’ says the writing voice, which has run out of ideas. ‘What kind of thing?’
‘You know,’ shout the furious voices, ‘something wise and true about life. A universal truth or something.’

I think and think and think. I can’t really find anything interesting. Today, I have nothing of interest in my brain whatsoever. The only thing I can come up with is that a job is much more fun if you do it with someone else. And this is only because my kind friend helped with the haynets this morning as the storm raged in and she was so funny that she turned a chore into a pleasure. Also, it’s not always true. Some jobs are more fun on your own. So I can’t even say that is a universal verity.

The winds have blown across the hills from the west and there are bitter flurries of snow. The horses hunker down with their usual stoicism and the dogs race around in keen delight. The dogs are tough boys and don’t give a damn about weather; the wilder the better for them.

I don’t like the winds. They make me jangly and I’m always thinking the internet is about to go down and what would I do if I did not have one more Trump outrage to read about and chunter over? (I’m still convinced he is doing all the lunatic things he is doing for a bet.) These are the dog days of January and I feel a bit fed up generally. When I sit down to work my brain does not dance and sing but feels as if it is wading through mud. My critical judgement is surly and blunted. I can’t tell what to keep and what to chuck. Is that a good sentence? Or not? Who can tell? I should be editing at a hundred miles an hour but instead I squint at the screen and think slow thoughts which don’t have much substance to them.

I’m getting better at the grumpy days as I get older. I used to see them as a mark of moral failure. How dare I feel out of sorts when there are people who don’t have shoes? Now I accept that I can’t do a tap dance every day. As long as I don’t take out the grumpiness on hapless bystanders, then it is perfectly allowed. All the same, the ruthlessly cheery voices in my head start chattering. You have a roof over your head, they say, with a sliver of reproach; and sweet horses and sweet dogs and a shed full of the good hay and heating that works and chicken soup simmering on the stove and the ability to type. So, say the chirpy voices, it can’t be that bad.

365 Days of Shakespeare.

I start As You Like It, an old friend. I nod my head happily as I read. 

One of the things I notice is how Shakespeare does not hang about. Once he has decided on a plot point, he gets the thing done. If they are to go into the Forest of Arden, into that forest they will go even if that rather dramatic event seems decided on the merest caprice of the cross duke. Never explain, never apologise.

And then, of course, there is one of my favourite bits in all of Shakespeare:

And this our life exempt from public haunt
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones and good in every thing.

I smile and smile and smile as I read it. Yes, that is a very, very old friend indeed.

It’s funny, when one stumbles upon the very famous passages. There are so many lovely ones that I could copy them all down. I won’t, because this would become longer than War and Peace. But there are some which caught the universal imagination and have lasted and lasted and lasted, so that four hundred years later schoolchildren can still recite them by heart. That is taken for granted, but if you think about it for a moment, it really is rather miraculous.

So here is the very, very famous:
All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.

And this passage is not famous at all, but I love it and I rather identify with it. They should put it in the all self-help books:

Sir, I am a true labourer: I earn that I eat, get
that I wear, owe no man hate, envy no man's
happiness, glad of other men's good, content with my
harm, and the greatest of my pride is to see my ewes
graze and my lambs suck.

I was feeling quite grumpy before I started my daily reading, because it’s horrid bitter weather out there and the wind is blowing and blowing. Now I feel better. One can’t help but smile when in the company of such prose.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

365 Days of Shakespeare.

All's Well That Ends Well.

 On we go now, into the final furlong. And here’s something lovely –
'Twas a good lady, 'twas a good lady: we may pick a
thousand salads ere we light on such another herb.

I especially like ‘such another herb’.

Another perfect little gem:
I am now, sir, muddied in fortune's
mood, and smell somewhat strong of her strong

I think it is the use of muddied that makes that so perfect.

And there, I have finished. Well, it is a very silly play and ends abruptly and inexplicably as if Shakespeare suddenly grew bored and wanted to go down the pub. I can imagine him writing ‘Will this do?’ at the bottom of the final page. But even though the central characters are entirely unsatisfactory, the supporting cast are magnificent and they have all the best lines. There is a running joke about a drum which is tremendous and I adore the naughty Lords. There’s so much beauty in the language that I don’t mind that the plot makes no sense at all. Although I imagine that it might be one of the ones that is better read than seen. I'm awfully glad I have read it anyway, and it made me laugh quite a lot and raise my eyebrows and occasionally gasp. Plot: nul points. Everything else:  ten out of ten. 

Monday, 9 January 2017

365 Days of Shakespeare.

Of course it turns out that it won’t quite be 365 days of Shakespeare, because I took the weekend off to ride my horse and watch the racing. A year of Shakespeare, then, which is not too dusty.

Almost the moment I start reading, I find this glittering gem –

Fare you well, my lord; and believe this
of me, there can be no kernel in this light nut; the
soul of this man is his clothes. Trust him not in
matter of heavy consequence; I have kept of them
tame, and know their natures. Farewell, monsieur:
I have spoken better of you than you have or will to
deserve at my hand; but we must do good against evil.

I think the insults in this play are very splendid indeed. The soul of this man is his clothes is a crusher indeed.

I absolutely love the Lords. This is the First Lord, with a tremendous universal truth:
The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and
ill together: our virtues would be proud, if our
faults whipped them not; and our crimes would
despair, if they were not cherished by our virtues.

And here is another roaringly good insult, this time from Parolles, who rather reminds me of Malvolio:
 I knew the young count to be
a dangerous and lascivious boy, who is a whale to
virginity and devours up all the fry it finds.

A whale to virginity, devouring up all the fry, is a conceit of absolute brilliance, although rather disgusting. I wonder whether Shakespeare sat in his room after he wrote that line and laughed and laughed. I think I might have done.

And one more magnificent, unbridled set of insults before I go, from Lafeu:

No, no, no, your son was misled with a snipt-taffeta
fellow there, whose villanous saffron would have
made all the unbaked and doughy youth of a nation in
his colour: your daughter-in-law had been alive at
this hour, and your son here at home, more advanced
by the king than by that red-tailed humble-bee I speak of.

I have absolutely no idea what a snipt-taffeta fellow is, but I know it cannot be good. And a red-tailed humble-bee sounds very dodgy indeed. I think Shakespeare had more fun that he could shake a stick at when he was writing this. I am certainly having a lot of fun reading it, although it is quite nonsensical in many ways. But that does not matter; one is carried along on a tide of language and brio.

An opinion is just an opinion.

Down at the field this morning, the sun shone. It shone with vigour. It shone with conviction. It shone with feeling. The mares basked and glowed in the light, as happy as bugs. My friend and I talked and talked and talked. We brushed the good horses and we talked of life, and marriage, and the peril of expectations, and cultural differences, and clashing opinions, and how it can sometimes be dangerous to get what you want.

At one point in the conversation, we looked at our mares. They were both standing still, at the end of their long ropes, facing us, lined up smartly as if they were about to do something very important for the Queen. ‘Goodness,’ we said to each other, ‘we think we are just chatting, but we are actually doing some work.’

Teaching a horse to stand still is quite an important foundational step in horsemanship. It’s a subtle one, because you don’t quite teach it. They learn it, by default. You don’t say: now you stand still. They learn that when you stop, they stop. And that is first step of them getting control over themselves, so that eventually you can canter on a loose rein in a perfect rhythm with no fussing or fighting or pulling.

The humans stood still for a while, watching the horses standing still. The little Paint had her show pony face on, ears pricked, front feet delicately placed together. The red mare had her dozy donkey ears and her wibbly lower lip and her Zen waves of peace. ‘You know,’ said my friend, laughing, ‘if someone came in the field now, they would say we are doing nothing.’
            ‘And yet,’ I said, laughing too at the absurdity, ‘we are doing everything.’

Then we took them out for some more active work and the little brown mare, back in her paddock, cantered about for the hell of it and did some polo turns and a bit of a rodeo as if to say: hey, I’m working too. It was so funny and beautiful that we all stopped for a moment to watch her.

I wanted to write that down because it was an hour of pure joy. It’s one of those crocks of gold I shall want to go back and dig up when I am old and grey. But it made me think, too. My friend and I are very different people and have chosen very different paths in life and have very different characters, upbringings and views of the world. We have very different instincts. When we talked and talked this morning, our opinions were, in some ways, a bit different. Yet we always come together in happy common ground, find a lovely bit of earth that we share, end up laughing and shouting yes, yes. (Actually, she does not shout. I’m the one who yells when excited.) Our differences do not disturb us at all. We don’t take them personally; in fact, we hardly notice them.

Out there on the internet, there is an odd thing about difference. Difference gets very personal, very fast. There is a strange combination of displacement, category error, extrapolation and projection. So, instead of someone saying well, you see the world a little differently than I do, that someone will say: your opinion denigrates mine, means you see me as an idiot, is an act of judgement. People tend not to say: I think your view is wrong. They say: I think you are bad. This classically happens between left and right, when everything goes tribal. The Trump voters don’t think the Hillary voters are mistaken, they think they are evil. The Hillary voters don’t think the Trump voters are incorrect, they think they are stupid and racist. Everything falls into a Manichean mess of light and dark.

Even in smaller matters this strange binary division can rear its confused head. People will get into spats about the simplest meme, or picture, or saying. I saw a thing a few weeks ago where people were sharing an adorable picture of baby donkeys. Only the sweet creatures weren’t donkeys, they were goats. And the goat people got really cross about the donkey people, because everyone should know what a baby goat looks like.

I’m a huge believer in difference. Imagine how dull the world would be without it. I quite often read articles by people I radically disagree with, because I want to keep myself on my toes and not let my mind slam shut and not fall into the terrible trap of the smug liberal. I freely admit that my live and let live is sorely tested by the Donald and his not very merry Trumpsters because I think he is egregious and dangerous and he has the power to make the world a more fragile and perilous place. And when I am tired and cross and I read something very stupid on the internet I do feel the growling monster that lives in the dark lair of my subconscious lift its head and start to snap and snarl.

But I do try to remind myself that a difference of opinion is just that: the expression of another opinion. It’s not a smashing down of me and everything I believe in; it’s not a judgement on everything I do; it’s not the end of life as I know it. I don’t have to suit up and wade into battle every time someone says something with which I don’t agree. It does not have to be a fight. I can say my piece and the other person can say their piece and then, just like my friend and me in the field, we can laugh about it. You say potato and I say potahto. And we really don’t have to call the whole thing off.

Friday, 6 January 2017

365 Days of Shakespeare.

On I go, with my new play. It’s really quite an eccentric story, but perhaps I notice that more because I don’t know it. A lot of Shakespeare is very eccentric and I think that he must have had so much fun, throwing all the rules out of the window. He certainly followed his whims where they took him and maybe that was part of what made him great. One gets the sense that a lot of the time he really did not give a damn.

And then, just as I am laughing or raising an eyebrow or thinking what? what? he smashes me with pure beauty, like in this speech of Helena’s, which is so filled with lovely language that I read it three times.

Poor lord! Is’t I
That chase thee from my country and expose
Those tender limbs of thine to the event
Of the none-sparing war? And is it I
That drive thee from the sportive court, where thou
Of smoky muskets? O you leaden messengers,
That ride upon the violent speed of fire,
Fly with false aim; move the still-peering air,
That sings with piercing; do not touch my lord.

Later, two tremendous lords appear, who are funny and interesting and unexpected.
This one has a fine turn for the frankly insulting -
Second Lord:
He’s a most notable coward, an infinite and
endless liar, an hourly promise-breaker, the owner
of no one good quality worthy your lordship’s

Well, that’s him told. I especially like the ‘hourly promise-breaker’. I know a couple of those.

And there is this line, which pleases me mightily, I’m not quite sure why. It has such a mordant and comical cadence -
First Lord:

Yes, yes, do let him fetch his drum, for the love of laughter.

The Second Lord then whacks me with something I absolutely do not understand -

Second Lord:
I must go look my twigs.

I have not the wildest idea what this could mean, but I absolutely love it. I am certainly going to go look my twigs at once.

The plot is getting rather Byzantine now, and I frown at the page as it twists and turns. I don’t really understand the motivation of half the characters but somehow that does not matter. I fulfil the first duty of the Dear Reader, and suspend my disbelief. I follow the beauty where it takes me.

In which I have absolutely no idea what I am talking about.

I had something absolutely dazzling to tell you today. It was all about life and the small things and what really matters. I must must must write that for the Dear Readers, I thought, practically falling over at my own cleverness. They will be so pleased, I thought.

Now, I have absolutely no idea what it was. Nothing. Not even a glimmer or a glance or a scratch in the back of the mind. Not a hint or a clue.

Bugger, I think. Sometimes flakiness really can go too far.

The day was raw and drab, but I did horse work and work work and HorseBack work. Some of the things that have been worrying me seemed less worrying. I’m never quite sure how this happens but it is always a most welcome delight. I tell myself sternly not to waste time and energy on worrying about things I cannot change, or things that have not yet happened, or things that float around in the universe in a random manner that is beyond my control. Sometimes I am able to take my own advice, and sometimes I am not.

At least I have ticked off everything on my To Do List. That is a red-letter event. Well, everything except one. At the bottom, in a furious scrawl, it says: TIDY FRIDGE. It’s nearly four and I’ve got to go and give the mares their tea. I would rather chew my own arm off than tidy the fridge. I’m going to take my chances. The housekeeping police may well break down the door and cart me away. There is definitely something in the back of the fridge which has taken on a life of its own and may be spawning cultures even as I write. But sod it, I’m not feeling butch enough for Marigolds and spit spot. I sometimes wish I were the kind of person who simply had a tidy fridge, but one must work within one’s limitations. I can write a sentence and wear a hat and get a red mare to do smooth walk to trot transitions from voice and that is going to have to be enough. 

Thursday, 5 January 2017

365 Days of Shakespeare.

I wasn't quite sure where to put my Shakespeare experiment. In the end, I've decided to add it as a bonus post rather than sticking it into the main blog. That way, anyone who is bored witless by the idea may exercise their right not to read it.

I missed yesterday because I was in a post-insomnia crash. So I started again today.

I am enjoying All’s Well That Ends Well very much. I haven’t read Shakespeare for a long time so I find I have to get my eye in. There are some speeches I have to read twice before I get the meaning of them. There are also the usual questions that the reading of an unfamiliar play brings. Why does Bertram despise Helena so much, and why does she love him so much? How is it that she cures the king so quickly and completely? Shakespeare is obviously entirely bored with the idea of this and wants it as a plot device, so the whole thing happens in a flash, offstage. One moment the king is dying and the next a slip of a girl has cured him completely. Why do the two lords Lafeu and Parolles loathe each other? And what on earth is the clown on about?

I think there is no answer to the last one. I’ve never really understood the clowns and fools in Shakespeare and I’m not sure that any modern entirely can. The jokes seem to be in-jokes for the 16th and 17th centuries, the kind of thing that audiences of the time would have absolutely got and which leaves the 21st century viewer vaguely uncertain and out of step.

What is lovely is that I don’t really care about the questions. The aesthetic pleasure is keen. Every so often I find a line which gives me as much pleasure as looking at a ravishing view or listening to a Bach suite.

These are the ones I chose for today:

It is like a barber’s chair that fits all buttocks,
the pin-buttock, the quatch-buttock, the brawn
buttock, or any buttock.

I love this because it is so naughty. I don’t usually like bawdy but I like this. Most of all, I really want to know what a quatch-buttock is. Or perhaps one should not ask.

Mort du vinagaigre! Is not this Helen?

I love this because I never knew that death of vinegar was an exclamation. I wonder whether it was in common use at the time, or whether Shakespeare was having fun with the language, or whether it was a wicked joke against the French.

The King:
...honours thrive,
When rather from our acts we them derive
than our foregoers.

I love this because it is a universal truth. Also, it seems that the king is a philosopher and a radical. For him to ascribe honour to one’s own actions rather than titles and position and wealth and lineage seems quite a surprising act, ahead of its time.

Go to, sir; you were beaten in Italy for picking a
kernel out of a pomegranate; you are a vagabond and
no true traveller; you are more saucy with lords
and honourable personages than the commission of your
birth and virtue gives you heraldry. You are not
worth another word, else I’d call you knave. I leave you.

I love everything about this speech. I love the kernel out of the pomegranate; I love the use of ‘saucy’ and ‘knave’; I love the rather mysterious picture of being beaten in Italy. I can’t tell whether that is actual or figurative.

My ten minutes stretched to twenty again, because I was having too much fun. I still have no idea how long this experiment will last or where it will take me, but it’s started off on a very happy note.

A slightly unexpected lesson.

The sun shone today, out of a vivid blue sky, and I learnt a small lesson in life.

I’ve been over-tired since Christmas. I missed my mother keenly and I let that missing out, so there were quite a lot of Railway Children tears. Allowing emotion to run through you is a good thing, but it is quite exhausting. My sleep patterns were a little erratic and the whole thing was quite wearing, so when I walked down to the field this morning I felt as if I were recuperating from a bout of flu. If I were living in Edwardian England, this would be the time for restorative beef tea and lying on a chaise longue.

As a result, I thought I would not ride my mare. I’ve got to get back into training for our Wobbleberry Challenge but I decided to give myself permission to take a couple more days off.

At first, preoccupied with this recuperative feeling, I thought I would simply give the mares breakfast and then go home quickly and sit very still. Because I’d given myself official permission, all pressure was off. Because there was no pressure, I then decided that I would not leave quickly, but hang out with the sweet thoroughbreds for a while.

The while stretched itself and grew longer. I pottered about, remembering why I love these horses so much, laughing at their gentle comedy, stroking their furry coats, chatting to them. The dogs danced about in the frosty air.

Because of the permission and because of the no pressure, I then thought, on a whim, that I might get on after all. The red mare was in a fine mood and she stood sweetly still in her peaceful little dream as I put on the saddle.

Just five minutes I thought. Just a little walk.

I let her wander where she would, which is how we always start a ride, and she took me on a great adventure, through the trees where I had to lie down on her neck so as not to be swept off and out towards the woods.

She then decided she was going to cross the old burn. She has never attempted such a Rubicon before and I hated to have to stop her. She was Columbus discovering the New World, but I feared the going was treacherous and we might get bogged down in the false ground. With a slight regret, I took charge and turned her back. I loved that she was exploring and I loved that she was feeling so bold and I loved that she was trying something new, all off her own bat.

In the end, we did quite a lot of good technical work. It did not feel like work because it arose naturally, on the spur of the moment.

And that was the lesson. If I had got up this morning, in my rather debilitated state, and lashed myself to go and do proper work and butch up and stop being such a weedy wet, the sullen, cussed part of myself would have dug in its toes and I would have had a furious argument going in my head before I even got to the field. The morning would not have been one of easy pleasure but of raging dispute.

As it was, I gave myself a break, and so the cussed part took itself off for a day by the seaside, and the sensible part, the part that gets things done, could gently come out and decide that it was time for action.

There is a fine line between galvanising and lashing, between encouraging with suggestion and demoralising with orders. I can’t let myself get lax and idle, but sometimes being gentle works better than being stern.

And the really sweet thing was that the mare seemed to pick up on my easy state of mind, and was as soft and sweet and responsive as I’ve known her. Nothing was an effort, nothing was an argument, nothing was a trouble. Yes, she said, and yes and yes and yes.

The dogs came with and the little brown mare watched with interest from her station under the tree and Scotland looked ravishing and I went home with a most unexpected feeling of achievement. It was not swaggery, look at me achievement. It was private and gentle and authentic. It was so quiet that I almost did not want to write about it. But it’s one of those ones that I want to look back on. I want to remember that sometimes letting oneself off the hook can lead to rather wonderful rewards.


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