Tuesday, 23 May 2017


For the last ten years, I thought that radical fundamentalist terrorists were amateur hour. Every single death is a tragedy; every single loss breaks someone’s heart. But if you are trying to bring down Western civilisation, I thought, you’ve got to try a bit harder than this. After every outrage, every cruel, pointless killing spree, everyone went back to normal. They did not throw up their hands and say: you were right, bring on the Caliphate. They did not shroud themselves in yards of cloth and stop sending their girls to school.
It’s not quite normal, of course For some people, for the bereaved, for the wounded, for the traumatised, there will never again be normal. But France and America and Britain and Belgium and all the other seats of Satan went on shopping and squabbling and voting and joking and working. People still got drunk on a Saturday night and weeded the garden and felt the jolting miracle of new life when a baby was born.
And then there was Manchester. For a moment, this did not feel like amateur hour. But then the voice of rage in me said that was exactly what it was. The furious voice said: it was the act of the craven, the howl of the already defeated, the addled shout of the lost argument. You want to tear down Britain, for whatever crazed reason, and you kill our children. You choose the softest, most innocent target. Is that what you call the big league? Do you really think that is going to work?
Whoever did this has broken human hearts into a hundred smashed pieces. They have engendered shock and grief and perhaps fear. They have disrupted ordinary life on the streets of an ordinary city on an ordinary Monday night. But they have achieved nothing. I don’t know whether they do this truly in the name of some notion of religion, in the shadow of some great god, or whether it’s just the spasm of a nihilist death cult. I don’t know what it is they really want. Perhaps their spirits are so curdled with hate that they simply want hate to win. Hate never wins.
I got to the feed shed this morning, on a quiet sunny day in Scotland, and found my friend already there, making the horses their breakfast. It seemed impossible that there was death and destruction out there in dear old Blighty. We looked at each other with tears glittering in our eyes and then we exploded with rage. We were so furious we were shaking.
My friend has a daughter who adores Ariana Grande. ‘They are killing the children,’ we said, in fury. Those daughters were my friend’s daughter. Those daughters were my little Isla who comes to ride the red mare every Sunday. We don’t know those children but they are our children. We swore and stomped our feet and could not stand still. Some stupid fuck thought it was a good idea to blow himself up and take undefended innocents with him.
We talked of Manchester. There is something about Manchester. You don’t mess with Manchester. Its people did not cower behind closed doors, but came out onto the streets, to help. Mancunians were opening their houses to the stranded, giving blood, offering lifts, guiding lost people through the cordoned-off streets. Taxi drivers from Liverpool drove over to give free rides to those who needed them. The Luftwaffe tried to bomb Manchester into submission and that did not work. The IRA gave it a go, with even less success. This new attack will not work any more than those others did. Hope, cussedness, life itself, will rise again.
The dealers in death can kill. That is all they can do. They don’t build anything up or make anything better or leave any enduring legacy. If they want to bring Blighty to its knees they will have to get every single school dinner lady, every farmer, every nurse. They will have to get the beekeepers and the physicists and the poets. They will have to take out the studio managers who keep Radio Four on the air, and the people who save endangered species, and the vets. They will have to smash the Chelsea pensioners and the buskers and the bobbies on the beat. They will have to destroy every single one of Shakespeare’s plays, and every one of Churchill’s speeches, and every line Jane Austen ever wrote. They will have to cut down the old oak trees and demolish Stonehenge and reduce the Tower of London to rubble. They will have to crush the indomitable spirit of the people of these rocky, rainy islands, and I don’t like their chances.
I am so angry I am shaking. I can write these defiant words, and I do feel defiant. I do believe, in my deepest heart, that love will always conquer hate. But that does not bring back the dead. Four hundred miles south, there is a parent whose life will always have a piece missing. I think of those mothers, those fathers, those sisters, those brothers, those friends. Their lives just got torn up, like a piece of paper. And for what? For some twisted idea that the haters hardly even understand themselves? It’s so much waste: wasted lives, wasted tears, wasted, aching hearts.
Britain is a tough old bird. It is an ancient country, and it’s taken its blows and survived. I read a lot about the Second World War and I’m reading yet another book about Churchill at this very moment. Every time I trace that part of our island story, I can’t quite believe that Blighty came through that darkest hour. I don’t know how the people of London survived the Blitz, or the citizens of Coventry came through their firestorm, or daily life reasserted itself in the beleaguered cities and ports. I don’t know how those young boys went out on no sleep to fight off the swarming Messerschmitts on mockingly sunny days in 1940. I don’t know how Britons dealt with the daily fear of invasion, when it seemed that nothing stood between them and the unleashed fury of the Third Reich.

They must have been angry too, and tired, and frightened. Somehow, they stood together, and prevailed. Hate, I think, does not, must not, will not win.  

(The picture is of  the Manchester Blitz, and is from the collection of the Imperial War Museum.  Sadly, no photographer is credited, but someone was out there on the streets, doing sterling work.)

Sunday, 9 April 2017

One For Arthur.

Yesterday, a rather curious thing happened. The horse who won the Grand National was not even mentioned in running until just before the second last.
I had backed the horse who won the Grand National, but because I could not see him and nobody mentioned him, I spent most of the race thinking my money was down the drain. About half way through I spotted a loose horse with a white face a bit like his and thought, oh, he’s fallen and nobody saw it. Hold on a second, I thought, One For Arthur doesn’t fall. In his entire racing career, he’s never had a single fall. I thought: what on earth is going on?
I madly squinted at the screen, but I could not see him. It was all happening too fast. I kept looking for his white cap but I could only see the pale blob of the McManus colours.
Afterwards, as I watched the race back, I realised that if I had been watching Racing UK instead of ITV, I would have been more reassured. Their commentator mentioned One for Arthur at the thirteenth fence. But even there, I would have had trouble. It wasn’t the commentators’ fault. Arthur was so far back in the field that he often dropped off the television picture altogether.
I had put my money on One For Arthur because I loved him, because he’s one of the most honest horses I’ve ever seen, because despite being a gentle stable favourite he’s tough as old boots, because he won brilliantly at Warwick last time out over a marathon trip, and because he is Scottish. One for Scotland, I kept saying.
Of course Arthur isn’t really Scottish at all. He’s an international man of mystery. He was bred in Ireland and both his grand-sires were American. His great-grandsire, Northern Dancer, was Canadian. He is, like many thoroughbreds, a citizen of the world. Despite his kind, honest face, his journeyman racing style, and his absolutely enormous loppy ears, he turns out to be unbelievably posh. He’s got aristocrats of the flat all over his pedigree – champion milers and Derby winners and conquerors of the Breeders’ Cup turf. I know absolutely sod all about breeding, it’s such a recondite art and science, but that seems to me an astonishing heritage for a horse who has just won a race over four and a quarter miles. (If the brilliant Jim McGrath were here, he would no doubt shake his sage head and smile his twinkly smile and show me the bags of stamina that exist on the bottom line.)
But Arthur is trained in Scotland, in the green fields of Kinross, by the admirable Lucinda Russell and her assistant, Peter Scudamore. So he counts as Scottish, for his friends in the north. One For Arthur is one for Scotland, the first National winner trained north of the border since Rubstic, almost forty years ago.
It was the Scottishness that excited me as I gazed out over my own Scottish hills and woods and valleys, but it was that victory at Warwick which really gave me hope. As the race grew closer and I went through the form over and over again, I felt sure that Scottish flags would be flying. Almost every horse had a question mark, as they so often do in this race. The ones who had been here before, like Saint Are, were getting a bit long in the tooth, or were, like The Last Samuri, heavily weighted. There were some who had questions over their stamina and some who did not much like big fields (some horses get very claustrophobic and hate to be crowded) and some who were not the most reliable jumpers.
One For Arthur didn’t seem to have that many questions. He’d been over these fences before, and closed like a train in the Becher Chase, and although he’d never run over this far before, he had finished over a long distance in his last race ‘like a fresh horse’ as the commentator said that day.
The only thing that started to worry me, as the sun shone and shone and shone on the antic Aintree crowds, was that the ground was drying up. Arthur had form on good ground, but the consensus seemed to be that he liked it soft. Peter Scudamore admitted that as the ground grew firmer in the sunshine he wouldn’t have minded putting Arthur in the lorry and driving him straight back to Scotland. It wasn’t just the rattling hooves that made me fretful. I knew that the drying ground meant the field would go off at a hundred miles an hour. One For Arthur is not a flashy front-runner. He tends to mosey round at the back and make his move late. I was fearful that he would not keep up with the frantic early pace and get too far out of his ground and then it would be too late, and all his honesty and all his heart would be in vain.
In the old days, National heroes often used to hunt round at the back for the first circuit, getting into a nice rhythm, keeping out of trouble, waiting for the field to thin out, and then pick up the tired horses towards the end. The received wisdom is that, as the race has changed over the years, a jockey can’t do that any more. The rather wonderful thing is that Derek Fox, only twenty-four and having his first ride in the race, rolled back the years and did absolutely precisely that. He might have been John Oaksey or Michael Scudamore or Bob Champion. For all his youth, he did it the old-fashioned way.
So there I was, trembling hands clutching my pint of Guinness, staring and squinting at the television screen, unable to see my brave boy, convinced he had been lost in the melée. Blaklion, one of the favourites for the race, was blazing off in front, jumping for fun, and seemingly full of running. And then, suddenly, there was Arthur. He seemed to appear out of the pack like magic. Two fences to go, and the commentator spotted him for the very first time. ‘One For Arthur is making significant progress,’ he said, a faint note of surprise in his voice.
Significant progress was right. The bonny fella was swinging along, and, in a gloriously bold manoeuvre, he rolled past six, seven, eight, nine horses as if they were standing still. Derek Fox didn’t even have to ask him a question, he simply pointed him in the right direction and Arthur said: yes, yes, let’s go.
And then, just as he was finally getting into contention after that long, long hunt at the back, as my heart was beating and my hopes were rising, he jumped the second last and went smack into Blaklion, who was slowing down. This would be enough to bring lesser horses to their knees. Even if they could stand up after a thirty-mile-an hour collision, many of them would have entirely lost their stride and their rhythm and their momentum. Some of them would find their confidence faltering and would need to be nursed back into the race. Arthur did not even blink. He did not deviate. He simply kept on galloping as if Blaklion were not there.
I remembered vaguely having seen him get hampered and pick himself up in exactly the same way somewhere before. He’s not a great big slab of muscle who looks built to shoulder aside other runners, but he is fiercely tough. He seems, if it is not too fanciful a thing to say, to have a rather sunny view of the world. He can have an early race stumble or a coming together and he doesn’t let it fret him. If he were a human, he would be an optimist. Yes, he seems to say, life happens, but I’m still going to run at it at full tilt. Many great horses have a mental resilience as much as a physical strength, and good Arthur, for all his reputed sweetness (‘a real gentleman, a massive softie,' they say of him at home), seems to have that streak of mental steeliness in spades.

Coming to the last, he forged into the lead, almost hurdled the final fence, roared round the murderous Elbow where so many horses hit the wall, found the rail, stuck his neck out, pricked his ears, and ran straight to the line, leaving the field streaming behind him like fluttering banners in a light wind. His only conceivable danger was the gallant Cause of Causes, rallying in second, but Arthur was not for catching. He won by four lengths and you felt he could have made that six or seven if he’d wanted to. He’s not a swaggery horse. He didn’t need to prove his point. He’d done exactly what he needed to do and that was enough.
After the post, he came back to a nice trot, tilted his head politely at the people who came rushing up to put water on him on this hot day, gave a little look at their buckets and sponges as if to say: don’t mind me, you go ahead and do what you have to do.
I had been shouting ‘GO ON ARTHUR’ at the top of my voice. Now I shouted: ‘I DON’T BELIEVE IT.’ And: ‘Arthur did it.’ And: ‘Oh, oh, oh, you beautiful boy.’ And then I burst into tears, because brave horses like that always make me cry and I had thought all was lost and the dream was over, and then that dream came to shining, shattering life at the very end.
One For Arthur was not really an underdog, when you looked at what he had done. He ticked, as they say, an awful lot of boxes. But somehow he felt a bit like an underdog. He was trained in one of the smaller National Hunt yards, north of the border, not one of the huge operations in Lambourn or Ireland. His trainer had spent the night before the race not in a swanky hotel, but in her camper van in the car park. He was not ridden by a household name, one of the giants of the weighing room, but by a young man who had broken his wrist only a month before and had barely passed the doctor. He was owned not by a plutocrat or a multi-millionaire, but by two very jolly women who had known each other from childhood and who, by their own account, decided to buy a horse together after having a few gins. Ed Chamberlin of ITV Racing had got very excited about The Golf Widows, as they call themselves, after their victory at Warwick, liking the fact that you don’t have to be a super-rich owner with a string of stars to win some really nice races, and there had been a bit of publicity about them and their good horse in the weeks before the race, but, for all that, Arthur was hardly mentioned in the preliminaries.
The talking horses were Blaklion, Vieux Lion Rouge, and Definitly Red. (The story went round that Definitly Red was spelt like that because the man who registered his name filled in the form after having a few drinks in the pub. I’m sure that’s not true, but I’d rather love it to be true.) There was a bit of chat about the mighty Mullins/Walsh combination and the Gigginstown posse. In the Racing post, of the six top tipsters only one chose One For Arthur. There was someone on Twitter who loved Arthur so much they had taken the Twitter name One For Arthur and backed him off the boards for weeks. And at fourteen to one, he was high enough in the market, not a forlorn hope at 50-1. (There was some suspicion that it was patriotic Scottish money and people who were called Arthur or knew someone called Arthur. A lot of Grand National betting comes down to the name, as the once-a-year punters pick their fancies not on form but on superstition and whim and sheer what the hell.)
So staunch, stalwart Arthur had rather slipped off the radar, and as he gently hunted round at the back nobody had thought to look for him. As he came from the clouds, from that impossible position, having made no fuss, getting on with the job in his reliable, likeable fashion, it seemed as if the forgotten horse was suddenly being recollected. Here I am, he said, still going. Remember me?
Oh, yes, I said. I remember you, you absolutely brilliant boy.
As the dust settled and my mind cleared and my heartbeat returned to a vaguely normal rhythm, I went back over the replays, trying to see how it had been done. He had the jumping, that was for sure. I don’t think he touched a twig. He had the toughness, as he forged on after that incident at the second last. He had the stamina and the fitness and the enthusiasm. He had a great partnership with his jockey, was given a lovely, sympathetic, patient ride. Fox did not panic, did not hassle his fella, but let him find his rhythm (rhythm wins races, the sages always say) and gave him all the time in the world. Those two knew each well and had faith in each other, and that counts for an awful lot.
In the end, I think that a lot of that great victory was a victory of character. If horses are understood and handled well, they grow easy in their skin and at home in the world. They reflect what their humans put into them. The team at Lucinda Russell’s yard have made Arthur what he is. I think he is a naturally honest, open, confident horse whose innate character has been allowed to shine because of the way he’s been treated.
I thought of this because of what happened just before the race. As the build-up grew, some horses and jockeys got excited and charged the tape and the starter had to call them back. In the front line, there was One For Arthur, who moved immediately into a willing canter, thinking it was time to go. As the false start was called, his jockey circled him back around. A lot of horses at this stage, hopped up on adrenaline, throw their heads in the air, resisting the instruction from the saddle. They are the products of three hundred years of breeding, for speed and strength. They are flight animals, and their ancestral voices are calling to them.
Sweet Arthur, as courteous as a courtier, bowed his head and turned gently around, as if he was saying: fine, Derek, whatever you say. No rush, he seemed to be saying.
Looking back, I almost think the race was won there. That horse was so cool, so poised, so polite, so responsive that he wasted no energy: not in the paddock, not in the parade, not on his way down, not at the boiling cauldron that is the start. Any racecourse is ludicrously designed to make a horse wig out. Horses are biologically programmed to be suspicious of sudden movement, of unknown environments, of shadows (they have poor depth perception and can see shadows as canyons), of random noise. That is what kept the species alive over thousands of years. On a big day, such as the Grand National, all this hullabaloo is ratcheted up to a Spinal Tap eleven and some of the more sensitive types can go over the top and lose their race before it even starts.
Some horses have more sanguine temperaments than others. They are individuals, just like humans, and, just like humans, there are some who can barrel their way through life, blithe and bonny. Some are naturally more wary, more prone to lose their confidence, more likely to become unsettled. If those horses have good humans around them, who understand them and listen to them, they learn to build confidence and have trust.
I think One For Arthur is a genuinely nice horse, but he also has a team around him who are horsewomen and men to their bones. So he can go into the crazy atmosphere of the big day, with the tannoys and trumpets and teaming crowds and still say: yes, Derek, whatever you want. He has read his Kipling. He knows how to keep his head while others are losing theirs.
Brilliance in horses is a mysterious thing. It’s hard to say that One For Arthur is not a creature of joyful natural talent, after what he did yesterday. But on paper, he was not the classiest horse in the race. He may, however, have been the most straightforward. He stayed entirely unruffled, sweetly willing, gloriously genuine, answering every question with a mannerly yes. A picture was posted later that night of him back at home in his box, looking as composed and relaxed as if he’d just come back from doing a quiet bit of work on the gallops. It sounds too bonkers to say that Arthur won the most famous race in the calendar because he’s a really nice person, but I have an irresistible suspicion that his niceness and his goodness and his willingness all helped give him wings.

After all the jubilee and turmoil and wild celebrations were long over, I went down to the silent field where my own thoroughbreds were dozing, waiting for their tea. I smiled at my sleepy red mare. ‘Arthur did it for Scotland,’ I said. She gave me a look. She blinked, entirely unimpressed, because she does not speak English and she does not know what the Grand National is. I laughed, and put down her bucket of feed. She whickered happily. The rattle of that bucket is a language she does understand. She never saw the point of racing, but she sees the point of a damn good bit of food. I felt reality return. I get tremendously carried away by the big days. One For Arthur is a great athlete who went out and did his magnificent job, but he, just like my slow red mare, will care not for the glory or the silver trophies or the heaps of newsprint that will be written about him in the wake of his flying victory, but that his reliable human will be pitching up with his own bucket. I suspect it might have an extra carrot or two in it today. 

Friday, 31 March 2017

Absolutely no idea what I'm talking about. (It appears to have something to do with cardboard boxes.)

The work storm is still blowing a hooley. There are now 19,000 new words. This is easily the craziest project I ever started. At the end of each day I feel as if someone surgically removed my brain and hit it with a baseball bat.

The small things continue very small. The pied wagtails have arrived. Mr Wagtail, for I think it is he, smiles and bows at me in the field each morning. I have heard the first woodpecker, the first cry of the oystercatchers, but not seen the birds. They remain ghostly presences, calling out their different songs. I did some HorseBack work and wrote something for the red mare’s Facebook page. She has a book to promote, so there must be stories to spread the word. Also, I always think that she could die at any time. I don’t mean this in a ghoulish way, but in a realistic way. Horses are fabulously fragile: one random infection or a false step in the field can do for them. She is the love of my life and because she is written down she’ll always live with me.

I do actual chores. I’m crap at chores. No, no, I think to myself, I can’t possibly do chores now, I shall do them tomorrow. Today’s chores are not glamorous. There is a lot of sweeping of floors and taking vast cardboard boxes to the incinerator. Because clever Amazon Prime has me in its beam, I now buy everything from dried Marigold flowers (good for the mares’ digestion) to Wagg liver treats (good for the dogs’ training) from there and smiling women and heavily tattooed men arrive at the door with boxes big enough to enclose a small tractor. The boxes are so big that they often can hardly fit into the door. I then have to manhandle them into the car (also quite small) and take them to the great pit where my neighbouring builders burn their rubbish. The slots of the recycling skip in the village are far too pathetically small to even entertain such monsters.

I love the convenience of the deliver to the door. I curse and loathe those absurd boxes. I stare at them balefully as they loll drunkenly about the house, making it look like one of those places to which ITV sends decluttering experts who purse their lips and mutter under their breath.

Today, I grasped the fuckers with both hands and got rid of the lot. This is not exactly a prize-winning achievement, but I have a holy sense of satisfaction, as if I have done something properly good. The small things, it turns out, do not only have to be love and trees and moss and whickers. The dullest chores can sometimes make me feel like a saint.

I even listened with attention to PM whilst I tidied the kitchen this evening, so I have some hazy idea of the rewriting of twenty thousand European laws. When I was very doleful about Brexit I said to the dear Stepfather, with a slightly hollow bravado: well, at least the lawyers will be pleased. There will be lots of work for the lawyers, and lawyers spend money, so they’ll keep the economy going, I said. The lawyers will buy Maseratis and go out for expensive coffee and raise consumer confidence, I insisted. I was joking. But now I think I might have been closer to the mark than I knew. 

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

The perfect storm.

I find myself in a sudden work storm. I’ve been searching about for the impetus to go ahead with a new project. The problem is that I had four on the go. One is an old one, half finished, to which I could go back. One is new, just started. One exists, but needs a huge amount of editing and reworking and ordering and I’m not convinced it is viable anyway. (I think it was one of those ones that sounded good on paper, and does not quite work. Sometimes I have to be ruthless with those ones.) I’ve been dithering about, moving back and forth between all these not entirely satisfactory projects, rather uninspired and feeling as if I were wading through mud. Then, out of the blue, lightning struck and the one I really wanted fell into my head, fully formed. This happens sometimes. I just have to take dictation.

So I started writing it. It’s rather eccentric, like so many of my favourite projects, and I don’t care. It’s rolling out like a great, cresting wave. I’ve done thirteen thousand words in six days. This is an absurd amount of words. Usually, when I’m writing that fast, I go back and find it is all buggery bollocks. But I like these words, as I read them back. Yes, I think, those really are some words.

When a storm hits like this, it takes me out of the world. I turn on the wireless and I hear the news, but my brain does not process the news. I look at my Facebook timeline, where I subscribe to every single site about American politics, British politics, and world news. I read the sentences, but my brain does not process the sentences. I know vaguely that people are very cross about The Daily Mail and Nicola Sturgeon’s legs, that Donald Trump and the Republicans have screwed up their healthcare bill, that Tesco has done something unspeakable, and that everyone is very cross about the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. These things exist in a liminal state, on the edge of my consciousness. Normally, they would be things that would interest me deeply. I’d want to look them up and find out more about them and have informed opinions on them. As it is, they scroll past me as if they are on some kind of blurred tickertape. I’m not even watching the racing. I can’t tell you whether it is Kelso or Market Rasen today or who is running.

All that exists is this book in my head and the ground under my feet and my good animals. The animals become very real in this odd, twilight mental state. They are my anchors to reality. When I walk the dogs or work the mares, they are animate and present and vitally important, pulling me back into the moment. Everything else is glimmering, shimmery shades of grey.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Flying the flag for Freedomville.

On Friday morning, I rang a wise friend. ‘How is dear old London?’ I said.
She said: ‘You know how it is. Rather quiet yesterday, with lots of helicopters overhead, and then today it’s as if everything is back to normal.’
I remembered that exactly after the Admiral Duncan bomb, when I was staying in Soho, and Old Compton Street was like an open air memorial the day after. And the day after that, the crowds were gossiping and hurrying and laughing and the boulevardiers were out and the cool media types were running into the looping studios and London had got her mojo back.
‘Can I be rather bathetic?’ I said.
‘Of course,’ said my wise friend, who puts up with a lot.
‘Well,’ I said. ‘Someone came to the blog and called me petty and passive aggressive and a coward. Also, not a nice person.’
Slight pause. ‘Ah,’ she said. ‘I see.’
The absolutely dazzling thing was that she did see and she set the thing in context and saw what it all meant and we laughed quite a lot and I thanked her from my heart and then I went and fed the horses and wrote some book and did my work for HorseBack and walked the dogs and went about my ordinary life.
I have a technique for when people are angry with me on the internet. The attacks used to hurt like buggery and I would get so upset I had to shut myself in a darkened room. I felt ashamed about this, as if I were being the wettest of weeds. So I devised a strategy. It is: give permission. Not to the actual person – that ship has already sailed – but to everyone. Freedom of expression, I cry, flying my flag of liberty. Everyone must think what they think and say what they say. I make out my imaginary certificate, hung with official seals, and stamp it with a socking great stamp. There. Now all the keyboard warriors are living in Freedomville, and must type exactly what they please. The old lady in me does wish that there was a little less fury, the restraint of good manners, perhaps not the automatic knee-jerk of ad hominem. But if I get to express my own opinions, so must everyone else.
This particular jeremiad had a lot in it, and it made me think. Oddly, it did not make me cry. (This kind of stuff usually does. I told you I was wet.) The writer was wrong about some things, but she was right about others. I have an awful lot of human flaws, and she hit some of them right on the bullseye. I can absolutely fall into the ugly pit of passive aggression. I’m absolutely terrified of confrontation, and sometimes I hit back at people whilst pretending that I am being perfectly reasonable and charming. I think I’ve got my inner bitch locked up in a room like the first Mrs Rochester, and she bloody well climbs out the window and puts on a hat and goes on the rampage. These are not my finest hours and I am not proud of them.
I am, as the writer points out, shockingly repetitive. I get hold of beloved tropes and phrases and quotes and flog the poor buggers to death. I used to yearn to be original, but I don’t think that’s ever going to happen. If I had a report card on this one, it would say, in stern black letters: must try harder.
I also have a habit of going into a defensive crouch when someone says something disobliging. So the accusation of cowardice is not a million miles off the mark. I should come out swinging. I should get sweary and make jokes and draw on my Blitz spirit. Yes, I should probably say, I’m not fucking perfect and thank you so much for fucking saying so and now will everyone just fuck off.  Instead of which I retreat into my room and feel a bit bashed and bruised and gaze at my navel in a most unsatisfactory manner. I long for every day to be a butch day, but it isn’t.
Ignore the critics, everyone always says. I’m not so sure. I’ve made someone absolutely incandescent with fury and I think that deserves some attention. Another of my acute weaknesses is that I have a secret desire for everyone to think I’m fabulous. It’s a revolting wish, and I try every day to let it go. Here, that tragic part of me says, I’ve done a lovely tap dance for you, tell me you love it. The rational part of me knows that some people will hate it. There she goes again, they will say, livid and disgusted, with her buggery jazz hands and her bogus hat. The irrational part of me says: but I did a dance. The plaintive voice says: is that not worth one flower?
Here is what happened. A long time ago, I wrote a post about love. Someone wrote a comment on it. I was rather hurt and crushed by the comment, and later I put it into a book I wrote. It was in a chapter on unsolicited advice. I have a visceral dislike of unsolicited advice and I used the incident to illustrate why. The way I saw it, possibly with the sliver of ice in the writer’s heart that Graham Greene wrote about, was that something had been written in a public forum and I had a perfect right to say what I felt about that. (Freedomville! Fly the flag!)
Yesterday, out of the blue, I got a long response. I’m going to reproduce it here because I want it out in the open, not hidden away in the comments section. I want to hold to my belief in freedom of expression. There are a couple of errors of fact – I did not call the writer smug or de haut en bas, I said that unsolicited advice has that air about it. But the person feels what she feels and I’m not going to argue with that. In some ways, I’m sad she’s gone from the blog, because I’d like her to see that I’m not deleting her words as she said I would, but putting them right up front, where they can be seen. As long as nobody is shouting fire in a crowded theatre, everybody has the absolute right to express their opinion, think their thoughts, feel their feelings. That is what modern democracy and liberalism are all about. The thought police are not going to bash down the door; nobody is going to take you away in the night for not adhering to the state line. Words, beautiful, vivid, expressive words, are free, and some people really did fight and die for that freedom. Don’t shut it down, I think: open it up. It’s a gaudy festival, not a cold three-line-whip.
Some of you will agree with this; some of you won’t. I think some of it is right and some of it is wrong. But I’m damn well not going to go and hide in my darkened room. It deserves its place in the sun.
Here it is:
I have been a loyal reader (and commenter) on your blog for several years. When I saw that you had a new book out, I excitedly went to Amazon to take a peek at it.
And, there, in black and white, I saw that you had written about… me! Or, more specifically, flayed my skin off in a scathing, passive-aggressive manner for giving “unsolicited advice”. I went back to your blog to read exactly what I had written in the comment section, to refresh my memory.
As my last comment to you, I would like to respond. (You know, in an honest way, directly to you, not writing it in a book so you don’t have a chance to reply.)
1. When you write a blog and leave the comments section open, the things people write there are not “unsolicited”. If you didn’t want to hear what people thought, you should have disabled the comments section. Having an open comments section is giving people implicit permission to express their views. It’s a common part of blog culture. For you to “make an example of me” – to dedicate an entire chapter of What Tania Thinks You Shouldn’t Do to my “unsolicited advice” is really the pot calling the kettle black, sister.
2. You write that my comment was “not meant as a rebuke” – so you admit that you knew my intentions were good. The fact that you decided to throw a hissy fit because I dared to suggest that you keep an open mind to something is entirely your problem, your choice.
3. You said that I had “effectively told you that you do not know your own mind.” You, who spend your life changing the way horses behave, looking for the “perfect canter” (when they probably just want to be left alone, as they are very capable of being perfectly horsey without help), can’t tolerate a person (who has encouraged you and clapped for all your successes, and cried right along with you when The Duchess and Pigeon and Myfanwy and your mum died) saying “hey, I know what you mean about this, but keep an open mind to other possibilities”… “hey, I know you have experienced this thing, but I have experienced this other thing, and since we are both human beings, it’s possible you might experience this other thing too.”
4. You write “One Valentine’s Day, I wrote a piece about how I do not really do romantic love. ONE Valentine’s Day? Are you kidding? You’ve written about that topic over, and over, and over again. You repeat yourself constantly, whether it’s “I was going to write this great blog today, but all the words have gone.”, et al, and etc. and etc. forever. I had to wade through at least five posts on the topic to even find the one where I left my horrendous, offensive, “unsolicited” comment.
5. You criticize my comment, using the word “smug”, immediately followed by the phrase “de haut en bas air”. Wow, good thing you’re not smug or superior, Tania. All of us regular folks always hate a “de haut en bas air”, rahhly we do.
You’ve had your little spite, you hurt my feelings in a public forum, and did a good job of it. Thanks for letting me know that you’re really not a nice person, no matter how many dogs and horses and hills you go on about. You’re petty, and passive-aggressive, and you’re a coward.
I'm not signing this because you know exactly who I am, having been so singularly offended by me that you dedicated a whole chapter to me in your book, and I'm sure you'll delete this comment from your blog immediately, just as I am deleting you from my blogroll.
As far as your “passionate declaration” about “not doing romantic love”? I retract my advice, Tania. You’re doing men (or is it women?) everywhere a big favor. Stay single. Please. Good romantic relationships require guts, up-front honesty, and willingness to give and take opinions and ideas. You wouldn’t understand.

There. It’s out. I freely admit that the getting it out is slightly self-indulgent. It’s a psychological thing. I need it out of my head and onto the page. And since it’s Saturday and I’m allowed to indulge myself on Saturdays, here is the offending chapter too:

Chapter Five: Don’t say the thing. Or, the fatal error of offering unsolicited advice.
Whilst there are things one should say and not merely think, there are also things one should think and not say.
            There are some people who take an overweening pride in their honesty, their plain dealing, their straight talking. All these are good things, but, pushed too far, they can tumble into narcissism and self-importance. Do other humans really need to know exactly what someone thinks of their life choices, their personal belief systems, their taste in clothes? I start to believe that unsolicited advice is not only bad manners, but an act of aggression. Who died and made some earnest expert the judge and jury?
            I see this giving of opinions all the time. People tell other people, in real life and online, what they should be doing with their husbands, their wives, their children, their dogs, their horses, their jobs, their hamsters. The rise of social media has turned everyone into a pundit, so that this spreading of opinions has gone viral.
            One Valentine’s Day, I wrote a piece about how I do not really do romantic love, of how I believe much more in all the other loves, the ones that are not written about in poetry and plays and pop songs. I wrote of the love of place, of family, of friends, of words and trees and stars and hills. I waxed eloquent. I must admit that I was pretty pleased with that little hymn to the other loves.
Someone came along, and, in the most well-meaning way, stomped all over my passionate declaration. I was wrong, said the helpful person; romantic love was marvellous and I should keep myself open to it or I would be missing out.
The interesting thing about this was that it was clearly meant as a kind and useful piece of advice. The writer obviously believed that I was motoring down the wrong road, and she was pleased that she was there to set me right. I suspect she might have been horrified to know that I felt it like a whack in the solar plexus.
            Her comment was not meant as a rebuke, but it felt like a rebuke. Fury descended on me like a sandstorm, stinging my exposed skin. It was just one person, with an opinion different to mine, and it took me a while to work out why I was quite so cross. I think it was because someone had come along and effectively told me, without being asked, that I did not know my own mind.
Women get this quite a lot, and it drives me nuts. I spend many hours pondering the good life and trying to get my existential ducks in a row, and this person had effectively told me that all that was for nothing; she knew better. There was nothing mean or unkind in her remarks, but they hit me like a kicking mule. When I want to know, I thought furiously, I will ask.
            Unsolicited advice is a way of saying: I know best. It has a faintly smug, de haut en bas air to it, the lofty certainty that the speaker has cracked the secret of the universe whilst you are still flailing around in the swamp. As a result, it almost never helps. Even if the advice is good, the fact that it is uninvited already has the person to whom it is directed cross and resentful and deaf.
            Everybody is going to make mistakes. That is how they learn things. You can’t stop them from tumbling into error, or make them do what you want them to do or think what you want them to think or like what you want them to like. If a young person came to me this minute and asked me for two suggestions about life they would be: learn to touch type, and never, ever give unsolicited advice.
Sometimes, it is kind and right and polite not to say the thing.

Right. I really am finished now. If any of you have actually read this far, I think you deserve a prize. 

Friday, 24 March 2017

No brain left.

I was going to write you another incredibly long blog. All day long, it unfurled in my head, sentence by sentence. The Dear Readers won’t mind, I thought, if I ramble on for a bit. They are tough and stalwart, I thought; they can take it. I did the horses, and I wrote many hundreds of words of book, and I did the Facebook page I keep up for The Happy Horse, and then I turned to my HorseBack work. Some quick snaps, I thought, and then I’m done. It will only take half an hour.

Four hours later, I was still at it. So much wonderful stuff happened at HorseBack this week, and there were so many stories to tell about the young people on our Youth Initiative and the veterans who were taking part in our mentoring programme and the volunteers who make the whole thing possible.

Just one more picture, I thought. Just one more story. I’ve seen this place change lives and save lives and I want very much for people to know about it. In my small way, I act as their shop window, presenting their work to the world, and you can’t do that in half an hour. It’s a proper responsibility and I have to do it properly.
I’ve never done any voluntary work before and it’s given me a new perspective on life. Since I am crap at time-management and useless at logistics, I sometimes feel like a hamster on a wheel. Scrabble, scrabble, scrabble, eh Mr Gibbon? Sometimes, because of the goofiness, I don’t give it the serious attention it deserves. But today I damn well did. And so there is no brain left for the blog. I used it all up. Very sorry about that. It went down fighting, in a good cause. 
Happy Friday everyone. I hope you all have a lovely weekend.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Philip Larkin was right.

Yesterday, just after writing a rather whimsical blog about the smallest of the small things, I turned on the internet and saw that something was happening. I went at once to the BBC (in times of uncertainty, I go always to the BBC) and there, on the rolling news, a ghastly parade of shocking and confusing events was unfolding. There was a policeman down, a car rammed into railings, fallen humans scattered, grotesquely, over Westminster Bridge, parliament on lockdown, a bloody knife on the ground. There were police vans and ambulances everywhere. There was a lot of shouting.
Gradually, as the eyewitness reports started to come in, as hollow voices told their stories down fuzzy mobile telephone lines, the news people began to make sense of it, to impose some kind of coherent narrative. Terrorism had come to London.
Earlier in the week, I had been thinking of the IRA. I grew up in the seventies, and bombings and murders and atrocities haunted the nightly news. My father lived in Ireland when he was a boy and was steeped in the history of that island. I remember him turning away from the awful bulletins and swearing, in profound despair. Car bombs, nail bombs, viciously enormous bombs that could level a building, those were the stuff of my youth. I remember the dead horses in Hyde Park and dear old Sefton becoming a national hero. I remember a friend of the family losing his sister-in-law in the Harrods bomb. I remember the bandstand in Regent’s Park. I remember, when I was a teenager, my mother begging me not to go into the West End. I went anyway – ‘Don’t worry, Mum, I’ll be fine’ -  because I thought that if I stayed away from the big shops which were being targeted at that time, then the bombers would have got their victory. (I was sixteen and convinced of my own immortality.)
Everyone said that Ireland would never heal. The British had left too many scars, over too many years, and the sectarian hatreds were too deep. I thought that the shooting and bombing and hating would go on forever. And then, amazingly, it stopped. The old haters got together and put their differences aside and signed a peace agreement and nails bombs in the centre of London now seem like ancient history.
The new terrorists have different hatreds and different reasons. They can seem a lot less determined than the IRA. After 2005, when they struck hard, at the heart of the nation – the buses, the underground, the ordinary transport that millions use every day – they did not press home their advantage. If I were a nihilist commander who hated the infidel West, I would have sent my troops in whilst London was reeling. But despite fairly constant reminders from the authorities that Britain was still on high alert, that the risk factors were flashing amber, the terrible infidels were left to go about their business, buying their fancy coffee and wearing their short skirts and indulging in their godless capitalism and drinking their unholy drink. It’s not like the old days, I was thinking this week, when terrorism really did seem like an almost daily fact of life.
So there were layers on layers of shock. Brussels and Paris and Nice should have been warning signs, but I was lulled into a false sense of complacency. Even when I once went to visit a friend in parliament and had to get my special pass and go through the airport-style security, I did not have any shiver of premonition or danger, but made happy jokes with the coppers and showed them my new boots, bought specially for the occasion. I’ve met a few close protection officers over the years, in various contexts, and they do have that steely look in their eyes, that thousand yard stare that convinces me they could kill an attacker using only their thumb, but they were all distinguished by their sharp humour and precise talent for irony. They carried no sense of being besieged by a power they could never defeat.
I felt a sense of unreality as I watched the news, the gaudy, gory pictures, the familiar made entirely unfamiliar. Even though this has happened in London, on and off, for my whole life, it felt entirely odd, not real at all. It was a tragedy and a horror and an affront.
I went onto Twitter to find out more; by this stage I had a curious desperation for information, as if facts could make sense of the nonsensical. There were the usual shockmongers, the stern judges leaping to conclusions, the ones who were taking advantage to push their own agenda. Donald Trump distinguished himself by saying vaguely there was some ‘big news’ coming out of London, while his son displayed a curious lack of humanity by attacking the mayor. And then I noticed something almost stranger than the strange events happening in Westminster. The people were dividing into two camps.
There were the negative people, who were posting hideous pictures and getting angry and shouting for vengeance, and there were the positive people, who were focusing entirely on the acts of bravery and heroism, on the humans who had run towards the danger instead of away from it, on the silver linings to this dark cloud.
Someone said that doctors and nurses had, en masse, poured out of St Thomas’s Hospital to tend to the wounded on Westminster Bridge, even though nobody knew yet whether the attacks were over. There were confused fears of a possible car bomb and information was sketchy. But those dauntless platoons of the NHS had no thought for their own safety and went to help.
The story of Tobias Ellwood went viral. Ellwood is an MP who had served in the army and, it turned out, knew the vicious face of terrorism very well indeed. His brother had been killed in the Bali bomb, and he had flown out to retrieve the body in the heartbreaking aftermath. Now, he was near the police officer who had been stabbed. As everyone was directed to take shelter inside, he ran in the opposite direction, towards the stricken man. He gave mouth to mouth and attempted to staunch the bleeding from too many wounds. He did not hesitate.
Back on the bridge, passers-by were comforting injured strangers, doing what they could. The emergency services arrived and, from all reports, did their job with an extraordinary efficiency and coolness. Nobody, at this stage, knew whether the area was safe, whether there was another blow about to fall. But the paramedics and the police and the doctors and nurses and the ambulance drivers all went into the breach.
I started retweeting only the messages and thoughts and reports from the positive people. Perhaps it was a faint denial of reality, but I wanted to focus not on the death and destruction but on the staunchness and courage. I have a dogged belief that the good always trumps the bad, in the end; that love always conquers hate. I’m not sure whether this is true, but it is my creed and I have to stick to it. There was one man who had wrought havoc, and broken hearts, and ended lives through some twisted belief system. There were hundreds of ordinary people who were doing extraordinary things for their fellow humans, not from any ideology or because of something they read in a book, but because of their plain, authentic humanity. That, I thought, is what counts. That is why, in the end, terrorists don’t win.
And this morning, as the news started to settle and the dust cleared and the facts became clear, the shock and horror and outrage turned into something quite else. The people of London went about their usual business as the people of London do. There was a proper moment of grief and remembrance for the dead, a minute’s silence for Keith Palmer, the policeman who had fallen in the line. A sombre crowd of police officers stood in tribute, and, in a packed House of Commons, all the MPs bowed their heads. The silence took place at 9.33am. I was not quite sure why this was. Then I heard that 933 was PC Palmer’s number.
There was a curious lack of bombast. I did not hear the usual swagger about how the devotees of terror would rue the day, or anything about retribution. Nobody was going to be bombed back into the stone age. The mood was much more concentrated on the bereaved families, the lost lives, the people who put aside any thought for themselves and went to help. There seemed to be a quiet pride that the Britons in the heart of the storm had conducted themselves with constancy and dignity and courage.
In tube stations all over London there are official white message boards. They generally carry mundane information, scrawled in felt tip, about broken escalators or delays on the line. This morning, they carried messages of hope. At Tower Hill, someone had written: ‘The flower that blooms in adversity is the rarest and most beautiful of them all.’ Underneath, in smaller letters, the unknown writer had added: #Londonisopen #Westminster #Wearenotafraid.
At Clapham North, someone had reproduced the lovely quote from Fred Rogers, which I first saw yesterday. ‘When I was a boy and would see scary things in the news, my mother would say: “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”’
Someone on social media had cleverly mocked up one of these underground service boards. It said: ‘All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON. Whatever you do to us, we will drink tea and jolly well carry on. Thank you.’
There was general indignation when it was discovered that some American pundits were saying that London in particular and Britons in general were cowed and beaten and in disarray. One MP tweeted that he was on a train to Westminster and that everybody was getting on with it, not a cowed or beaten Briton amongst them. Somebody else reported that on another train, packed with very young people, all the teenagers observed the minute’s silence at 9.33am. Katie Hopkins caused a storm by going on Fox News and, channelling her inner Lord Haw Haw, saying that the British were afraid and disunited. Easily the best response to this came on Twitter, where someone wrote: ‘Dear Fox News. No no no no no. We’re fine. Please ignore her.’
There was a sense that a correct balance was being sought for. There should be a proper acknowledgement of what had happened, a respect for the wounded and the dead, a compassion for the bereaved, an understanding for all those caught up in the maelstrom. Emotions should be expressed and felt. There should not be any denial. Security should be looked at and all procedures assessed. The security services always say they have to be lucky all the time, while the terrorists only have to get lucky once. One man did get through. That happened, and for a moment it felt like an attack on democracy itself.
But then, as many people started to write, there should be common sense, perspective, reason. I heard of a man who pointed out that twice as many children have probably died in Syria in the last ten minutes than were killed on that fatal bridge. He did not say this in any callous way, but with the desire to come back to the simple realities of the world. Shock insulates you from reality, and that is when the intemperate things are said and the sense of proportion is lost. When the Londoners went back to their usual routines this morning it was not because they were heartless and uncaring; they know, better than anyone, what had happened and what it meant. They went back to their business because they knew that was their only choice and maybe because they understood that living is the best way to honour the dead. If everything is not to fall apart, the centre must hold. Britons are creatures of the centre, in so many senses of the word. Their weapons are a certain pragmatism, an ability to laugh at themselves, a love of the ironic, and a profound respect for common sense. The British tend to be suspicious of extremes of any kind, averse to hysteria and hyperbole, most comfortable with understatement. Becoming unglued in the face of tragedy, as those American commentators suggested, would not be in the national spirit at all.
Love is love. Love for the departed, love for those who went beyond the call of duty, love for a grand old city which has taken so many blows over the years, love for those who rushed to help, love even, perhaps, for the institutions which many of us British like to mock but which mean something all the same – those loves are more powerful than any twisted theocratic absurdity, however reckless and murderous it might be.

Philip Larkin, that most British of poets, was right. ‘Rigidly, they persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths of time...to prove our almost-instinct almost true: What will survive of us is love.’

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

The small things are the big things.

The small things today were very, very fine. After I flailed my way out of the Swamp of Overwhelm, my eyes become open again to loveliness. Every day, I thought to myself, as I walked down to the field with my young friend Sophie, write down one good thing. Don’t just notice the one enchanting thing, write it down, mark it, be grateful for it. That may just be the secret of life.

Sophie is four. She likes coming down to help make the mares’ breakfast. ‘A bit more of this? Some of that? Oh, they will like this.’ They are very gentle with her and she has no fear around them and watching them together is enough to make the most battered heart expand like a flower in springtime.
After her mother came to pick Sophie up, I waved goodbye to them and took the mares down to a hidden glade in the west wood where there is the very first of the spring grass. They fell to grazing with such profound delight that it made me laugh out loud. I rang up a friend and we made jokes about generals. She has been spending time with some very splendid generals for her work and she kindly described the top brass in detail. This made my day.
Then the friend whose mare shares our paddock came down and we spent an hour clearing up dung. Shovelling shit is not my favourite occupation, but when you are doing it with a wise friend who is describing life as if she were a philosopher it becomes a keen pleasure. I felt all the things which have been besieging me over the last few days fade away, as if they meant nothing. We cleared eight wheelbarrows of dung and set the world to rights.
Then I ran down to do my HorseBack work. They are doing their Youth Initiative today, where they take children who are having trouble at school and teach them teamwork and leadership and how to look after and ride the horses. As I drove along the valley, thinking I was going to be late, I saw the group riding along the Deeside Way, a happy flash through the silver birches. I pulled over and leapt out of the car and snapped away with the camera. All but one of those children had never known a horse until they came to HorseBack and now they were riding through the woods. Even more wonderful, all the children had a veteran by their side, as both moral and practical support. It was one of the best sights I have ever seen.

These are small things, in terms of great wide world. They are small things when put up against the terrifying news headlines and the stories of death and despair. They are huge things to me, so vast in implication that I can hardly chart their depths. The more I go through life, the more I get thrown about by the swings and roundabouts, the more I bash into thorny existential mysteries which leave me bruised and bewildered, the more I think: cherish those small things. If I can hunt down one every day, like a questing hound sniffing for truffles, then at the end of each year there will be 365 moments of laughter and pleasure and gratitude and grace. That’s enough to fill a book. And that is a book I can take down, as Yeats once said, and slowly read. 

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Clambering out of the Swamp of Overwhelm.

In the last few months, I’ve gone through swinging emotional arcs. At the bottom of the arc, there is the treacherous Swamp of Overwhelm. The Swamp of Overwelm is an absolute bugger. It’s a bugger because it doesn’t have any signposts or keep out signs and there are no fences. I flail about in it, not quite knowing how I got here.

It’s that thing when there has been no specific event or action or heartbreak. Nobody has called up and said something cruel. Nobody has died for at least a year. Nothing catastrophic has happened. There’s just that sudden, amorphous moment when it’s all a bit too much.

It’s that time when you can’t really cope with the small things. The small things – not my beloved small things, like moss and trees and the low whicker of the red mare, but the horrid, messy, muddly, niggly  small things – take on a towering aspect. There is a lot of ‘I can’t’. I can’t make that telephone call, answer that email, deal with the fact that the dog has been sick. It’s all too buggery much and I want to slam that door and tell the world to fuck off.

When these times come, as they have in the last couple of days, I try various techniques. I literally wrote the book about this so I should be able to crack it. I try to take pleasure in the tiny things. I try to call in the Perspective Police. I try to perform random acts of kindness. I remember how much I love stoicism, and I attempt to be as stoical as hell. I list all the things for which I am grateful. I tell myself not to be a wimpy weed and to butch up. I shout in the field.

Usually all these things really do work. I’m quite proud of how these things work. This time, these things did not work. I was in the swamp and there was no way out. Sod it, I thought; is this what the fifties are going to be like? I’ve only been fifty for a couple of months and I’m already exhausted.

This morning, I had to get my act together. I had to ride down the valley to my jumping lesson. My mare and I have signed up for a charity challenge to do a one-day-event to raise money for bone cancer research, so I have to have those jumping lessons. I was so mired in the Swamp of Overwhelm that I nearly rang up to cancel, but I thought that was really too tragically weedy for words, so I got on my fine thoroughbred and rode down the Deeside way.

I have to concentrate when I ride that grand creature. She’s half a ton of flight animal, bred over three hundred years for speed and strength, so I can’t be arsing about and feeling sorry for myself. I have to give her the right stuff or she becomes fretful and then it all goes to pot and I am likely to fall off.

Along we went, and there were a few glitches in the machinery so I worked hard to smooth those out and to get the lovely cogs running smoothly. I started to feel a small flicker of achievement. At least here was something I actually could do. On the way home, I decided to throw caution to the winds. Let’s go, I said to the mare. It’s a three mile stretch and for about a mile and a half of that I stood up in my stirrups and crouched over her dear withers and let her roll. Run your race, I told her. And there she went, into her fast hunting canter, every part of her great, athletic body working in time, every inch of her in harmony with every inch of me. She was straight and true and brave and bold. She was not afraid. She was like that bit at the end of Secretariat, the original Big Red: ‘he laughs at fear, afraid of nothing; he does not shy away from the sword’.

And there, suddenly, just like that, I was out of the swamp. I was so overjoyed, with the brilliance of the good, genuine horse, with the glimpsing of the light at last, that I rang up The Beloved Cousin. She and I have known some griefs, in the thirty years of our friendship, and we’ve been through a lot of them together. I told her about the ride, and I told her about the swamp. ‘Oh yes,’ she said. ‘I’ve had that exact thing in the last two days.’ I was so relieved and happy that I practically fell over. We discussed our swampy days; we laid them out on the table and picked over them and tried to make sense of them. We did not have any definitive answers but we had a whole boatload of empathy. ‘Yes, yes,’ we shouted at each other. ‘That’s it.’

Simply hearing her kind, clever, sympathetic voice was enough to banish shadows. ‘You know,’ I said, ‘this last one was so stupid and blah and pointless that I very nearly did not ring you up to tell you about it. I thought the whole thing was so boring.’

The swinging emotional arcs, we decided, are simply what life is, at this point of middle age. There may perhaps be the shiny, swaggery people who can roll on through, who don’t get stupidly upset over trifles, who always know what to do, who do not find themselves overwhelmed. We are not of their number. We rather wish we were, but we’re working with what we’ve got. We are, at this point in the road, having to pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off, over and over again.

I think of that good friend and that good horse. Between them, in their very different ways, they brought me back onto sure ground. The sun is shining and the birds are singing. When I went into the shed to make the red mare her breakfast, there was a little robin on the feed bin. He’s been with us all winter and he’s looking pretty pleased with himself just now, because I think he’s made his nest and his wife is sitting on it. I’ve been trimming the mare’s mane and all the little bits of hair have gone from the ground and I hope it was my robin who took them. I imagine his very splendid nest entwined with elegant chestnut hairs.

When the swamp has me, I can’t see the robin. He’s just some dumb old bird. When I’m back on the high ground, because I rode my race, because I talked to my oldest friend, the robin is everything: a ravishing thing of beauty, a symbol of hope, an amulet against despair.


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