Wednesday, 27 August 2014

The ice bucket challenge.

I did the ice bucket challenge this morning.

Since it went viral, there has been the inevitable backlash. Oh, say the doubters, surely giving to charity should be a quiet, private thing. It should not involve show-offs prancing about on the internet. A very thoughtful and rather charming Australian news anchor politely declined to nominate any individuals, and instead challenged everyone to make the world a slightly better place. He added that the whole shooting match could be seen as a waste of water, and that one might be better donating to Water Aid instead.

I absolutely see the intellectual point of these arguments. They are all true. Besides, I did not much fancy a bucket of water over my head. So I kept quiet, and vaguely hoped the thing would pass me by.

Then my friend Jay Hare nominated me. He is a Royal Marine, and as I remarked in my video, you don’t say no to the Marines. The intellectual arguments went out of the window, and the instinctive took over. I could of course just donate, and skip the whole look at me with my bucket aspect. But I had the strong and immediate feeling that it would be curmudgeonly to refuse. Part of the whole experience is the element of fun and idiocy and sharing with the group. I don’t think it is showing off; I think it is being stitched in to the collective, and that is one of the great strengths of this internet age. I was galvanised, even if there would be cross people who tutted at one more damn bucket video.

Someone I loved very much died from Motor Neurone Disease. It is a brutal thing, and if a nutty viral trend is getting it more money and more awareness, that surely can only be for the good.

I was also suddenly excited about the possibility of involving the red mare. This was fairly high risk. I pride myself on the desensitising work I’ve done with her, but what if she freaked out, for all to see? She is a thoroughbred, after all. Still, there was no question that I should do it without her. She would be the Debbie McGee to my Paul Daniels. (Very lucky that the red duchess does not read English; I’m not sure how pleased she would be with that comparison. She almost certainly sees herself more as a cross between the Duchess of Devonshire and Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey. If she had eyebrows, she would raise them.)

I had only twenty-four hours to organise the thing, and I had no video equipment. A faint sense of panic nipped in.

All the stars aligned. My sweet family was available, at the shortest notice. The Younger Niece and The Sister swung into action. My sister does not go on the internet much, and had not heard of the challenge. ‘You want me to pour a bucket of water over your head?’ she said, at first, entirely baffled.

‘That is correct,’ I said.

‘Oh well,’ she said, with equanimity. ‘I suppose I can do that.’

The red mare was more than ready for her close-up, even though she was slightly surprised to find that instead of slow work and breakfast she was being made into an internet queen.

My mother, when told of the thing, looked at the grubby coat I wear to do the horses and said, in a very dry voice, ‘Well, that jacket does need a wash.’

The water was a blinding shock, but afterwards I felt wildly energised. My sister ran me a nice bath so that I could warm up, and we reminisced about our old dad, who used to turn the water in his early morning shower from boiling to freezing before he went out to ride first lot. He would bellow as the cold hit him, but it set him up for the rest of the day. We wondered whether we should follow his example.

The whole thing was enchanting, from the brilliance of my clever horse, to the sweetness of my dear sister, to the lovely laughter of my niece, who was holding the video camera. It was one of my beloved Small Things. Of such small things is the good life made.

And it taught me something else. I shall never, ever again carp at television presenters. Speaking to camera is really difficult. I wanted to say a few words before the water hit, and my arms appeared to have a life of their own, waving about as if they were channelling Sir Patrick Moore. I also seemed to have developed an odd swaying motion. I wished for a moment afterwards that I had not waved the arms about so much, and that I was not having such a rotten hair day, but then I realised that this is not about me at all. It really was not the time for vanity. The mad waving and the bad hair made it all the better, in a way. I was not some polished public person, but a very ordinary woman, in a field, with a horse.

The horse, of course, was not ordinary at all. If she does not get a television gig after this, I shall eat my hat.

There was no camera on hand, so here is a screenshot from the video. The amazing mare did not MOVE A HOOF:

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It’s a hopeless picture, but it gives you the sense of the brilliance of that red girl.

As I finish writing this, my video has finally gone up on Facebook. The absurd thing was that the planning and filming took about fifteen minutes, whilst managing to download the video clip, locate it on my computer, make it compatible with Facebook, and get it up there has taken three hours. Every avenue I tried contained a furious error message. It was the wrong type of file; Facebook would not recognise it; it downloaded from the niece’s camera to the most obscure part of my computer which refused to share it with anything else. At one point it disappeared altogether and I had to spend ages ransacking my entire hard disk. When I finally worked out that I could share it from Microsoft Movie Maker, that horrid application would only allow me to post it with an advertisement for itself, rather than the words I wanted to write. When I tried to edit the words, it simply deleted the entire video, which had already taken forty minutes to load. I had to start ALL OVER AGAIN.

I went into gritted-teeth tech rage. Only the most bloody-minded refusal to be beaten got me through. Somehow, this feels quite appropriate. The thing itself was quite easy. Getting wet is not the worst thing that can happen to a person. Donating money was easy; the lovely MND Association make it as straightforward as falling off a log. Getting the video out nearly made my ears fall off. But there should have been some element of sacrifice, even if it was only time and a bit of fury.

All the arguments against this kind of thing are perfectly logical. But, my darlings, it was a riot. It felt like an unalloyed Good Thing, on so many levels. If you are nominated, go for it. If you can find a red mare to star in your challenge, all the better.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

A day in brief.

1637 words of book written. Twenty pages edited.

Hats in the air work with the red mare. Important trailer practice. She self-loaded. (She is so clever that I need new words for clever.) Then: a canter out in the hayfields of perfect lightness and containment, as if she were channelling her inner dressage diva. And to finish: a sweet slow ride with her little Paint friend. My heart filled to overflowing.

Try not to think of the awful shoutiness of last night’s debate on Scottish independence. You know that I have a strict rule on this blog about ad hominem. But the tutting old great-aunt in me said: that Mr Salmond really should learn some manners. (Am clearly in a minority in this, since everyone else said he won, hands down. Cross aunt says: by yelling?)

HorseBack UK work. Quite pleased with the pictures from Blair.

A dream of more time. Always, always, more time.

But Stanley the Dog is sweet and funny and makes my mother smile at breakfast, which is always a shining and good thing.

Wonder where to buy jump-leads.

Think of books I have to read and things I must look up.

Faint sense of relief that it is very average racing today, so I do not need to have a bet. The memory of dear Beacon Lady from yesterday sustains me.

Feel faintly guilty that this blog is written in cheap and intermittent telegraphese. Have I no deep thoughts for you?

Must make soup.

Sometimes I think the story of my life is: must make soup.

Suppose it could be a worse story.

 

No time for the camera today, so here is a quick blue hill and a beautiful red girl:

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Monday, 25 August 2014

A small thought on happiness.

The blog may be a little spotty in the next couple of weeks as I am up against a hard deadline and my brain is about to explode. Forgive me.

Today though, it turns out I do have one small thought.

This weekend I went to the Blair Castle International Horse Trials, as part of my work for HorseBack UK. The team did a mighty demonstration there, and it was my job to record it.

Blair is in one of the most ravishing parts of Scotland. I drove through the indigo and purple glories of Perthshire, with the glancing early morning sun shining ancient and amber over the folded hills. I have not been to a three-day-event since I was a child, and it was rather thrilling to see so many powerful and supremely fit equine athletes.

The worry always in this kind of situation is that I should look at the gleaming stars and think of my scruffy, muddy mare back in her quiet field, and feel inadequate. Why were we not winning silver cups and red rosettes? Why was she not getting the first prizes which she deserves?

I’ve been thinking about happiness lately. I have read quite a lot about the science of happiness (it really appears that such a nebulous concept is now being codified) and I have, you will be amazed to hear, several theories of my own. Most of the theories, you will be even more amazed to hear, revolve around love and trees.

My enduring line is that high expectations are the enemy of happiness. I think what I really mean by this is unrealistic expectations, or wrong expectations. Comparing yourself upwards and wanting what you don’t have both factor in to this equation. Why am I not like this? Why can I not have that? More and more, I come back to the immediate, and the small. Love what you have. Cherish what is, not what might be.

Because I’ve been thinking of all this, I had no batsqueak of longing, when I saw the Blair stars. They do what they do, and the red mare does what she does. She does not need a silver challenge cup, since she is the holder of the perpetual trophy which lives in my heart. She does not need to prove herself with prizes. She is perfect just the way she is.

Instead of wondering why we were not jumping and competing and doing dressage and winning things, I noticed the qualities Red has which those brilliant competitors perhaps do not. She needs no fancy tack. No martingales or drop nosebands or Pelhams for her. She goes sweetly within herself in a rope halter. She will come to a dead stop from a fast canter if I say the word ‘and’. (This has happened by accident. I was teaching her whoa, and I always prefaced it by and, so now ‘and’ is all she needs. She is that clever.) She can free-school with such astonishing precision that she will now do transitions from my body alone. I merely raise my energy for a trot and lower it for a walk. (It is at this point that the crazed voices in my head start shouting MIRACLE HORSE!!!!!)

But actually, even that is not required for happiness. Of course I love that she can do all these things. I am so proud of her on some days that I feel my entire body might just take flight, and soar away over the Scottish hills. Yet, the happiness part is more earthed, more humble, more ordinary than what she can do. It lies in what she is: in her gentle presence, her kind face, her horsey horsiness.

It lies in these pictures. This is what she does when I arrive at the gate each morning. She looks up, thinks, nods, seems quietly pleased, and mooches over, with her eyes bright and her ears pricked. This is not one of the many things I have taught her to do. She just does it. She is a mare at ease with herself and her human. That, that, is the gift; that is what makes my heart sing.

I’m not sure there is a secret to happiness. I’m not sure there is supposed to be. But if ever anyone were to ask me advice on the subject, I would say: think small. It is in the very small that some of the greatest joy is found.

My morning love:

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And here are the majestic Perthshire hills, through which I was lucky enough to drive on Saturday, and which also bring me simple joy:

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PS. Here is another small story about taking delight in the ordinary things. There is a horse I adore called Beacon Lady. She is not a famous horse, and she will never make the front page of the Racing Post. But she is tough and willing and she has a fabulous quirk: she only likes Brighton and Epsom. Those two courses are where she does all her winning.

Her connections recently put her up in grade, out of the unremarkable handicaps she had been winning, and she had the slight humiliation of trailing round behind  much, much better horses. Today, she was back at her own level. Still, there were good reasons to think she would not win, and the bookmakers reflected this when they priced her up at 10-1 first thing. I whacked a tenner on her out of love and loyalty. If I did not back her, she would of course know, and never forgive me. (You see how well my battle against magical thinking is going.)

It was raining so hard that the cameras could hardly see the start through the gloom. Beacon Lady did her usual thing of loping round right at the back, about twelve lengths off the pace. Even though I am used to her doing this, I did not take it as the most brilliant sign. Then her good jockey switched her to the middle of the track, so she had plenty of room, and sent her for home. The sweet girl lifted her head, as if to say: I’m at EPSOM, my favourite place in the world. She put her sprinting shoes on, and scorched through the mud and murk, leaving the rest flailing in her wake.

I’m not supposed to be watching the racing today. I’m far too busy writing 2332 words. But I stopped the clocks for Beacon Lady, who will never trouble the headline-writers, but who is always above the fold in my heart. A handicap at Epsom in the rain on a Monday is virtually the definition of a small thing. It will have me smiling for the rest of the day.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

An afternoon off. Or, York Glory.

Even though I am running up to deadline and my shoulders are around my ears and there are not enough hours in the day, today I am taking the afternoon off. I have written 1060 words, and done some editing, and now my desk is cleared, and I am going to watch the racing at York. Because it is Australia Day.

Australia is a mighty chestnut, as red as my red mare, but twenty times as fast. He has a sprinkle of stardust about him, and he’s coming back from a nice summer rest to, I hope, delight me again with his power and speed and brilliance.

There is also a horse running today who lives in my heart: the charming, compact grey that is Kingston Hill. I fell in love with him last season not because he is so talented, but because he is so nice. It’s an odd thing to say about a top-flight racehorse, but it is true. His good character shines out of him like a sudden shaft of sunshine on a cloudy day. Even when he was a baby, he took the hurly burly of victory with a touching equanimity, a lovely matter-of-fact getting on with it attitude. I suspect he is a stoic. I hope he gets his moment of glory this afternoon.

I’m going to go and sit with my mother, and we shall watch the dazzling equine beauties soar over the Knavesmire, one of the loveliest tracks in Britain. The Yorkshire crowd is famously one of the greatest in the world, warm and enthusiastic and knowledgeable. And the Ebor meeting always gathers a feast and festival of thoroughbred talent. I adore it.

As I watch, I shall think of my sweet girl, bred to win the Oaks, her pedigree packed with storied names, and how she trundled round at the back in her racing days. I think she just never saw the point of it. This morning, she was going so lightly that I offered her a gallop. She thought for a moment of putting her sprinting shoes on. I watched her ears flicker, and felt the mighty engine start to rev up. ‘Come on,’ I said, ‘you can go.’ And then the dowager duchess reasserted herself, and she decided on a nice stately canter instead, bouncing gently over the emerald grass, complete within herself, not needing to prove anything to anyone. At York, her fleeter cousins will be hitting top speeds of forty miles an hour, every sinew stretched, every muscle bunched, every ancestral voice reminding them of their will to win. And my slow old girl will be dreaming happily in her field.

I feel there is almost some kind of parable in that, but I’m not sure what it is. It makes me smile, that is all.

20 Aug 1

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Polly the Cob teaches me a lesson.

2259 new words written. Twenty pages edited. Brain falling out of my ears.

I never quite understand how writing can be so enervating. I understand that the brain uses up a vast amount of energy, but still, I am not working down a mine. Yet, as I hit 4pm with two hours of work still to do, I feel as if someone has put the thinking part of my mind in a blender. What, who, how, why? it splutters. A faint grey mist descends over my vision. I squint at the screen, like an old lush trying to light a cigarette. Where was I? Who am I?

Deep breath, count to ten, start all over again. I’ll get it done.

Actually, the deep breath bit worked quite well. I think when I am up against a hard deadline I often forget to breathe. I really should have learnt yoga in my formative years.

Because of all this brain melt, there is not much blog for you. But you know I love nothing more than sharing a story, so I’m going to redirect you to the HorseBack UK post I wrote this afternoon. It is about Polly the Cob, a sweet coloured mare rescued by World Horse Welfare from a life of appalling neglect and suffering. She now works at HorseBack with veterans and servicemen and women who have undergone life-changing injury or walk the long road of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

I am always grousing about the lazy assumptions people make about thoroughbreds. (How dare anyone suggest my glorious Zen mistress of a red mare is hot and wild and nuts in the head, I yell, in the echo chamber of my furious mind.) Cobs come in for their fair share of cheap stereotypes too. I had never known a cob until I met Polly, and even though I fight labels with every fibre of my being, I did think that they were not necessarily my cup of tea. Without being conscious of it, I had imbibed the nasty prejudices: big and hairy and slow and heavy. I have been shown the absolute idiocy of this. Yet another equine teaches me yet another life lesson.

Polly is a dear, and I love her. And she does a lope off a kiss as expertly as if she were secretly a Quarter Horse, underneath those flying feathers.

Never assume. I’ve actually been writing about that very subject this morning. I had it down, in theory. But it took a gentle little cob finally to drive it home.

Here is the link to her story: https://www.facebook.com/HorseBackUK/photos/a.269393705567.184638.197483570567/10152608849455568/?type=1&theater

And here is her pretty face:

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I love this one. I swear she was posing for the camera as she spotted me:

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Monday, 18 August 2014

The Young People.

I’m always slightly surprised when an entire demographic becomes stigmatised. Show me your working, I want to yell, with my empirical hat on. The Young People, who are so glorious in my eyes that they deserve capital letters, constantly get it in the neck. Oh, the young, with their texting and their gaming and their rising inflections and their like whatever, their inability to write a coherent sentence and their ‘Gr8 to c U’. Oh, oh, the youth of today, who are so coddled they do not know they are born, with their selfies and their instant messaging and their internet obsession and their tragically short attention spans.

This is, of course, old news. If you look at the letters and diaries of the Edwardian generation, the parents of those famous Bright Young Things from the 20s and 30s, you find them filled with despair for the fecklessness and self-indulgence of the pleasure-seeking generation. Many of those same young things went on to fight and die in the Second World War. They turned out not to be quite so feckless, after all.

I’m a huge fan of The Young People. In my experience, they are thoughtful, polite, generous and industrious. The ones I have met cannot all be freaks and anomalies. In my work at HorseBack, I see a lot of the young. Some work as volunteers, some raise funds, some participate in the Youth Philanthropy Initiative. One group walked, cycled and canoed clean across Scotland in aid of HorseBack. The grown-ups who were with them came back inspired, their faith in human nature raised sky-high. The teenagers on that hard challenge never faltered, never complained, and offered help without being asked. I refuse to accept that they are outliers.

I have two lovely young people stories for you today. Both of them are very small stories, but they gave me a pleasure so profound that I wanted to tell you of them.

Yesterday, I promised my mother I would cook her a chicken risotto. I went to the shop. Disaster. No Arborio rice.

A young man was stacking the shelves. Dared I ask him? He would surely think that I was one of those poncy middle-aged, middle-class women, asking him for fancy rice. What was wrong with some nice mince and tatties? Besides, he was busy.

I scuffed my feet and diffidently asked whether he might not have a secret stash of risotto rice in the back. To my astonishment, he did not sneer. Of course he could go and have a look, nothing could be less trouble.

He came back, his face fallen. There was no secret stash. He could not have been sorrier if it were for his own mother. Never mind, I said; thank you so much for taking the time.

I wandered off to gaze at the shelves and replot the lunch in my mind. Perhaps a nice pilaf instead? Pilaf seemed a very poor relation, somehow. I was oddly demoralised by the whole thing.

Suddenly, the young man appeared, beaming and breathless. He brandished the very last packet of Arborio rice in the shop. ‘It was hiding behind the Basmati,’ he said, barely able to conceal his joy.

I could hardly believe it. He had not given up. He had gone and rummaged about on my behalf, and appeared with his prize. I stuttered and gushed. I told him of my delight, of my amazement; I said that he had just made one old lady very happy. ‘I hope your mother enjoys it,’ he said, still grinning all over his face.

‘You have made my day,’ I said.

The smile blazed brighter. ‘Then my work is done,’ he said.

Two days before this happy moment, the post arrived. The post is usually a grave disappointment. It consists of intrusive flyers, charity appeals, cross messages from the council, which clearly believes I am hiding a family of five in my attic and thus cheating on my council tax, and bills. Nobody writes letters any more. Most especially, according to the groaners and grumblers, the Young People do not write letters, because of course they are far too busy composing illiterate texts to pick up a pen.

There was a letter. It was from a Young Person. This particular gentleman had just left university. I had met him at the birthday party of my younger niece a couple of weeks ago. He was exactly my type: witty and thoughtful and very slightly subversive and absolutely his own person. I had done my crazy aunt schtick, and hoped it was not too much.

Apparently it was not too much. The young gentleman had written a letter simply to say that he had loved meeting me. That was the burden of his song.

Another old lady was made very, very happy.

Although I am approaching fifty, most of the time I do not feel that old. Some of the time I feel quite young and quite foolish. But I am keenly aware that to a twenty-one-year-old I must seem perfectly ancient. I am always in danger of falling into the PG Wodehouse aunt trap, and flashing my cloven hoof, and embarrassing the poor niece in front of her friends.

The young gentleman reassured me that this was not the case. What sweetness.

I love these stories because they fit in with my theme of the small things, the tiny, daily, unimportant things which would never make the headlines and yet bring me dancing joy. I like recording the small things, so that I may look back and remember, on the days when the clouds come. But I also love these stories because they are happy reminders to all those grumbly grouches that the Young People should not be written off. Despite all rumours to the contrary, they delight and surprise. I take all my hats off to them.

 

Today’s pictures:

Too busy for the camera today, so here are some photographs I took of the glorious young people who came to my sweet niece’s 21st birthday weekend. You can see why I was so taken with them:

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And one of my favourite candid shots of the niece herself, looking, I think, a bit like Julie Christie:

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The thing that struck me about this group was how affectionate they were to each other, how courteous they were to the older generation, and how particularly touching they were with the very little children. You can see in the pictures one set of boys being perfectly enchanting with my great-niece and nephew. They had been dancing till dawn night, and they had all their friends there to talk to, but they took time to play football with the smalls. That’s right up there with the waiter test in my book, as far as character goes. Five gold stars, of the most glittery variety.

Oh, and here is the old aunt, at the party itself, with the glad rags on, just so you can see that I am not always cantering about with hay in my hair and mud on my boots:

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But still, PG gets the last word:

“It is no use telling me there are bad aunts and good aunts. At the core, they are all alike. Sooner or later, out pops the cloven hoof. ”

Ha. That is why I cropped the picture.

Friday, 15 August 2014

No words left.

What a blog I had for you today. It blossomed in my head as I brushed my teeth. It unfurled its brilliant petals as I rode the red mare, who was in her best mood, almost certainly because I was not making her round up sheep. It kindly put itself on hold as I wrote 1574 words of book and spent two hours on my HorseBack UK work. It got a little bit grumpy as I watched the 3.20 from Newbury. (It may have also been dismayed that I seem to be mixing my metaphors.) And then, as I sat down to type – phhhtttt, it was gone.

Carry a notebook, I tell my writing students, when I have writing students. You may think that idea is so shimmering with wisdom and grace that it shall never wander away. You would be wrong. How lovely it would be if I could follow my own advice.

Talking of which, I think the mighty blog was about advice. I pummel my cerebral cortex to no avail. There was something about wisdom and ordinary truths and life lessons and learning from the mistakes of others. All I know is that it was going to be a carnival, and now the carnival has moved on, to another town, and all I can do is watch it go.

You have to tell them something, yell the strict voices in my head. It’s Friday. They’ve had a long week. They want to go out with a bang. Give them some good stuff, preferably not involving sheep. If the strict voices were marking my report card, they would write: COULD DO BETTER.

Bugger it, says my human voice. You have written 10, 731 words of book this week. Admittedly, this is a slightly stupid amount, and probably 7,731 of those words will have to come out in the second draft, all the dead darlings lying bloody on the stage, like the last scene of Hamlet. But still. Your brain is telling you there are no more words. Not everything has to go into words. Sometimes, life can just be. You don’t always have to be explaining and investigating and digging for human truths. Sometimes, you can just pull the ragwort and listen to the Today programme and spend time with the family and laugh at the dog and ride the mare and watch the swallows, as they do that precision flying which seems like a miracle every time you see it. Not everything has to go into words for it to be real.

That, my darlings, is my story, and I am sticking to it.

 

Today’s pictures:

All my photographic energies this week have gone into HorseBack, so today’s pictures are a rather random selection from the archive:

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Here is one of the HorseBack pictures I took this week. There were a couple that really did make me quite proud, and this was one of them. This gentleman was a navy pilot, and he had never sat on a horse before in his life until Wednesday. Pretty impressive stuff. Oh, and he only has one leg:

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I’m ashamed to say that I used to be afraid of physical infirmity. I became hysterically British and embarrassed and did not know where to look or what to say. I was like an absurd parody of Fawlty Towers: for God’s sake, don’t mention the war. Since working at HorseBack, I have become almost blasé about the thing. I hardly notice prosthetics or missing hands or fingers or feet any more, because I have never met so many people who refuse to let physical challenges stop them from doing what they want to do. The spirit and character is so strong that it makes the rest seem unimportant.

And yet, it is important. It is worth mentioning. Learning to ride a horse from scratch is hard enough. Learning to balance in the saddle with one limb is that much harder. At the very same time, the vital part of this picture is exactly what you see, rather than what you don’t.

I’m not sure I ever learnt so much from one group of humans. It’s not just that I am no longer afraid or awkward when I meet someone with a missing limb or crashing PTSD; that I no longer see otherness or difference. It’s that I have learnt from their example the supreme importance of bashing on, rising above, not complaining, seeing the possible, joking about things which probably should not be joked about, refusing to be confined to a box or a label, and just damn well getting on with it.

My friends Baz and Jay went up Ben Nevis this week. They have two legs between them. They are Royal Marines, and Marines can do anything, but even so. Jay told me yesterday, as matter of fact as if he were describing a trip to the shops: ‘When we were lying in Headley Court, Baz said he wanted to climb Ben Nevis. So I said I’d go with him. And that’s how it happened.’

I don’t know about you, but if I were lying in a rehabilitation facility after being blown up, I’m not sure my very first thought would be that I wanted to go up Britain’s highest mountain. But that’s the Marines.

Jay and Baz hate it when I throw adjectives at them. They are too modest. They are doers, with no time for fancy talk. So I’ll confine myself to one.

Dauntless.

Ha. It turned out that there were some words, after all.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

The glory of sheep.

Today, I rounded up sheep.

It was mighty.

The red mare and I had gone out for a quiet ride when suddenly, over the brow of a small rise, we came upon a crazy flock of sheep, skittering about in all directions. It was a bit of a Gabriel Oak moment, I must admit.

Without thinking, I went into cowgirl mode. I circled the wheeling flock and brought them into order. On the other side, I saw the old farmer and his two grandsons, one on a quad bike, one with a sheepdog. ‘Which way do you want them to go?’ I shouted, reining the mare this way and that.

The farmers here are three generations. There is the old farmer, who has officially retired, but who, in reality, comes every day to check the ewes. He loves those animals, and casts his wise eye over them to see that all is well, missing nothing. There is the young farmer, who runs the show and works harder than any man I ever met, rising before the dawn and finishing his day in the dark. I have seen him doing the silage at ten-thirty at night, with his tractor lights blazing. Then there are the young boys, the grandsons, learning the ropes, understanding the land, developing those life-long habits of industry and striving.

There are few things I love more than observing knowledge passing down the generations. As I watched this good farming family at work, I felt something real and true stir in me.

The red mare had no such misty thoughts. ‘Excusez-moi,’ she said. ‘I am a racehorse, descended from generations of Derby winners, and you want me to do what?’

‘Bugger this for a game of soldiers,’ she said. ‘I’m going back to the paddock, to my nice, explicable Paint friend, instead of hanging out with these inexplicable sheep.’

‘Come on,’ I said, ‘it will be fun.’

By this time, I had a picture of us in my head, all wild and free, galloping across the plains of Wyoming with the wind in our hair, cutting cows like we had been born to it. In reality, we were one extremely duchessy duchess, and one scruffy middle-aged woman, wearing a distressingly mundane crash helmet and smeared spectacles, making absurd whoop whoop git onnnn noises.

Still, dreams die hard.

And for a moment, we were in the green grass of Wyoming, as the mare regally consented, and we cantered alongside the quad bike, the sheep running before us in perfect formation, under the lime trees, across the main road, and up to the long sloping meadow to the west. We damn well were My Friend Flicka.

My friend Jim, who does not have a head filled with green grass fantasy, saw us lope by and laughed so much he practically fell over.

My other friend, the owner of the Paint filly, drew up in her truck. ‘You’ve been doing what?’ she said.

‘Herding sheep,’ I said, as if we did it every day. The red mare snorted, as if to express how far beneath her dignity the whole thing was.

More gales of laughter.

‘I do admit,’ I said, ‘we weren’t exactly asked. The farmer did look slightly surprised.’

The red mare nodded her head, as if to say: who could blame him?

We waved our goodbyes, and went for a little racehorsey gallop to celebrate. Then I got off and walked her home, thinking she deserved the weight off her dear back after all that hard work.

‘You rounded up sheep,’ I told her, out loud. ‘You are a sheep-horse. You contributed something to the community.’

I swear that she almost rolled her eyes at me. Sheep, schmeep, she was clearly thinking.

I’m not sure I ever felt so important in my life. The 2601 words of book I wrote afterwards, even the HorseBack work, could not touch it. Today, it was the sheep that counted. It was something so small and ordinary, it could hardly be seen by the naked eye. It was moving some livestock from one field to another. Yet, in that wonderful moment, I felt we were part of something, doing something useful, stitched into this good Scottish earth. My red duchess may have been the slowest racehorse in the history of the sport of kings, but damn, she can move an ovine. The glow of it fills me still and makes me grin like a loon.

When the news is crazy and the world seems mad and the sorrows fill the pages of the papers, I cling on to the small things as if they are the life-raft which will stop me drowning. As I get older and more bruised, I believe it is in the ordinary that salvation and solace come. When I was young, I wanted to be extraordinary. I wanted the marks of worldly success. I wanted to do remarkable things. Now, I think that the greatest fortune and luxury is being able to know and love ordinariness.

Today, the ordinary came in the form of sheep. Take it where you can find it, I think to myself. It may not be everyone’s idea of glory, but for one shining moment, it was mine.

 

Today’s pictures:

You want me to do WHAT??????:

14 Aug 1

With those?:

14 Aug 4

Instead of hanging out with my nice dozy friend???:

14 Aug 3

But you know, if this writing lark does not work out, I think we’ve got a future in herding.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

A little bit viral. Or, the kindness of strangers.

Yesterday, at 10.47pm, I went viral.

It was absolutely terrifying.

I only went a little bit viral. I was not trending on the internet. But Stephen Fry retweeted the piece I wrote about Robin Williams, and for about ten minutes it felt like all hell was breaking loose.

A smashing packet of emotions broke over me. First of all, I was wildly excited that Stephen Fry, a man I admire keenly, whose books I have read, whose comedy has made me laugh since I was a raw teen, even knew who I was, let alone liked something I had written. I had been awarded that finest prize, the Fry challenge cup, and in my mazy mind I did a cantering lap of honour, all flags flying.

Then, complete strangers started saying kind things. My heart swelled and warmed. I was Sally Field. They like me. They really like me.

The strangers soothed me, because I had been fretting about the whole shooting match. I worry always when I address any serious subject, and I twist myself up into a pretzel about the rights and wrongs of writing about the death of a stranger. The fear is that it is an intrusive, even rude, thing to do. The danger is that one is doing the empathy tap dance. Look at me, caring. It should go without saying that everyone who admired Williams and who laughed like a drain at his comedic brilliance would feel sad. I had not let it go without saying. I had said, as if somehow I was important.

Then, just as I was smiling in astonishment, the terror hit.

I inhabit a very small, very private part of the internet. I have a tiny, gentle group of Dear Readers, who know all about my equine obsession, the ludicrous voices in my head, the enchanting Lurcher antics of Stanley the Dog, my ardent love of these blue hills. They put up with me with gentle grace, and seem to understand and forgive my shortcomings.

Now, someone had thrown open a door onto a huge new world, with a crowd of unknown people in it. They would expect something. I could not just tell them about the dancing canter I had this morning on the red mare, as the swallows practised their low flying in the hayfields, so that I whooped with joy into the bright air. They would want their money back. Mare, schmare, they would say; give us the good stuff.

The fact that this whole odd phenomenon happened on Twitter was even more worrying. I suddenly had a boatload of new followers, on the strength of that post on death and depression and the frailty of the human heart. But I use Twitter almost exclusively to indulge my passion for racing, with the odd grumble about people not answering the question on the Today programme. I had sold these new arrivals a pup. They would go back through my timeline and be baffled to find endless musings on the 3.30 at Kempton, intemperate shouts of joy about the beauty and power and grace of Kingman, and wild expressions of love for the genius that is Ryan Moore. Ryan what? they would say, scratching their heads.

The last tweet I posted before the Twitter storm hit was this: ‘Quite adorable. Royal Connoisseur, 2nd and 3rd in virtually all his races, pricks his ears in amazed delight as he sees the winning post.’

Royal Connoisseur is not a famous horse, for all his rather grand name. He is a bay gelding who has never won a race. He was running in a maiden at Thirsk, on an unremarkable cloudy evening, with £3000 going to the winner. I was particularly taken with him, because when he saw the winning post coming towards him, a wide sward of green turf before his eyes instead of the equine hindquarters he was used to looking at, he really did lift his head and prick his ears in triumph. A look of delighted amazement spread over his handsome face.

Horses are like humans in one way: confidence can make all the difference to them. They can grow demoralised if they are always the bridesmaid. Once they’ve got their head in front, their old herd instincts call to them, and they grow in stature. It’s a touching thing to watch. But it’s not exactly life and death and the whole damn thing. Those poor new followers, I thought. What will they think?

I had, for those ten minutes, a fleeting flash of what it must be like to be famous. I’ve always thought fame was something I would not wish on my worst enemy. Years ago, John Updike wrote that it was a mask that eats the face, and that hard line has haunted me ever since. You are no longer your own person, but belong to the world. People suddenly have a sense of entitlement, and an odd intimacy, as if they know you. The famous are quite often put into a box, and if they dare to jump out of that box they are ruthlessly punished. They are judged, and found wanting. Even if they are adored, the adoration comes with caveats: the expectations must be met. They are tall poppies, and every armchair critic is sharpening the scythe.

Luckily, the internet moves at warp speed. It soon settled down and went to shine its light on someone else. I could return to quiet normality.

I was also very lucky because the sudden rush of people responding to the post did so with lovely humanity and generosity of spirit. I met only kindness, in that frightening new space. It was as if they were all saying: it is all right, we come in peace.

The caravan will move on. It is already trundling off into the middle distance. I shall go back to tweeting about the 2.15 at Hamilton, and writing of the dearness of my red duchess, and offering goofy little slivers of my very ordinary life.

The fear subsides. It was, looking back, rather a lovely moment. I wrote something heartfelt, and unknown humans responded from their own good hearts. Out in the brave new world, I found all the same kindness of strangers that I encounter in the old world. Fortune smiled. I smile back.

 

Today’s pictures:

Stan the Man and Red the Mare, with tractor:

13 Aug 1

Goofy face:

13 Aug 2

Noble face:

13 Aug 4

Serene face:

13 Aug 3

She really was light as thought today, all willingness and generosity. I hardly had to ask. She just gave and gave.

Then, after the ride, I went up to do my HorseBack UK work. I watched veterans who are missing limbs learn to ride. This is always a useful corrective, not just because of the Perspective Police, but because they find me, in the nicest possible way, slightly absurd, and mob me up with glee:

13 Aug 5

Then, as if the universe was making sure that I did not get above myself, after my glancing moment in the sun, Patrick the Miniature Horse asked if I would scratch his quarters. This, it turns out, is his dearest wish. It would have been rude to say no. So there I was, on my knees, with a tiny arse in my face, which seemed about right. ‘I know my place,’ I shouted, as the shutter clicked:

13 Aug 7

The flappy wings of hubris have no chance, faced with that.

And one final word - of thanks, to all of you who came to this quiet space yesterday, and generously wrote your own words, and made me smile and smile with your kindness and grace.

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