Friday, 8 September 2017

Not just getting by.



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

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

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

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

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Google hates metaphors.



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

I take notes.

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

My hat nearly falls off.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another fairly fascinating silence.

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

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


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

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

A good day.



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

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

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

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

And the point is.


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

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

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

We have to talk about Donald

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






Thursday, 27 July 2017

A little bit crap.

This evening, I exist in a state of extreme mortification. I have done something which has upset and worried someone I love and admire. What is even worse is that the kind person has been really gentle about it, when shouting and swearing should have been the order of the day. Worse than that, the thing was completely avoidable and happened because I was careless, thoughtless and lazy. That’s a revolting combination.
It’s all very well, doing the apologising, taking responsibility and promising it won’t happen again, but it should never have happened in the first place.
As I walked down to give the mares their supper, I pondered what to do next. Endless self-laceration is not helpful, although I do deserve a damn good bit of laceration. Making a good plan and making amends is the best thing, if I can pull myself out of the defensive crouch of the truly crap.

And then it dawned on me, in a rather shocking moment of revelation, that ever since my mother died I have been a little bit crap. My father’s death threw me off my stride for about a year and then I got back into the swing of things and started to behave again like a human being. But ever since my mum went, I have been absolutely hopeless. I’m always having to apologise to people because I have not returned an email or replied to a letter or because I’ve done something idiotic and stupid like the thing tonight. I can’t bring any semblance of order to my office, my work teeters on the edge of complete disaster, I forget to return telephone calls. I am, in fact, really, really annoying. If I had to deal with me I would be in a constant state of mild exasperation.

I kept thinking it was the menopause. I’ve never blamed hormones for anything in my life but people do say it is a thing. I thought perhaps it was because there were quite a lot of blows after the death, one damn thing after another, some of which are entirely insoluble and must simply be lived with. I thought perhaps it was worry about my sweet little bay mare who was sick and might not have survived. Every month I had to face the fact I might have to put her down. (She is much better now and we have hope.) I wondered if it was just a second phase of life thing. I even wondered whether it was because there was so much madness in the news, what with the Trumpsters and the Brexiteers, and every time I listened to the Today programme I thought we were all doomed.

Now I wonder. Is it a grief thing? Is this what happens? If you have two dead parents in five years do you just go a little bit crap for a while? I’m rather hoping that is the case, or I’m in terrible trouble. I like reasons for things. If a mind scrambled by loss takes a while to cohere again then I can get to work. If not, I’m going to have to change my entire personality and start again.


Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Irish the Pigeon



One of the great things in my life is Radio Four randomness. This is when I turn on the wireless at a time I don’t usually listen to it and find some extraordinary gem that I want to remember to my dying breath. Sometimes I come in half-way through and have to listen and listen until I understand what the programme is about. Sometimes it is so magical and unexpected that it makes me laugh and clap my hands like a child. There was a heartbreaking one about Violet Szabo’s daughter, Tania. There was one about a man who played the piano to elephants.

This morning, out of a clear blue sky, there was one about two men, some whistles, the Pitt-Rivers Museum and a pigeon called Irish. The very fact that there is in the world a pigeon called Irish makes me feel better about almost everything. But in a way, the two men were more enchanting. One was a very gentle, rather soulful musician. He had a smile in his voice, not one of those forced someone-told-me-to-do-it voice smiles that some presenters use, but a slow wondering smile as if he could not quite believe all the beauty in the world. The other was a gruff, wry Yorkshireman, with a self-deprecating sense of humour. You would have thought those two men would have been oceans apart, but Irish the Pigeon brought them together and they set up a glorious, comical, fond relationship which was most unexpected.

I think a lot about culture. Everyone talks about Britain and class but I’m not sure it is class so much that keeps people behind their barricades, but culture. The things that bind me to other humans are shared interests, references, jokes, even favourite songs. I have tribes – racing tribes, and horse tribes, and growing up in the seventies tribes, and Leonard Cohen tribes. Accent and background mean nothing in those groups, but culture means everything. Those two men came from diametrically different cultural poles, but they made a little tribe of two and there was something almost heartbreaking about it.

Sometimes, I think, all it takes is one pigeon. And especially a pigeon called Irish.

Friday, 21 July 2017

The glorious kindness of strangers.



I am heroically, catastrophically hopeless at getting things done. I can write a book in three months, which I have just done, but can I return an email or put my hand on a vital document or pay my bills on time? Can I hell.

In the heroic, catastrophic prairie of hopelessness where I live, my car tax came up. Because the little disc no longer sits on the windscreen telling me when it needs to be renewed, I of course completely forgot about it. The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency politely wrote to tell me, but I simply saw DVLA on the envelope and thought, rather crossly: what do they want? I assumed it was some stupid new regulation and simply tossed the brown envelop onto the Pile of Doom.

Eventually, after I got the fourth brown envelope, I thought that perhaps they really did want to tell me something and discovered, to my horror, that I had been breaking the law for a whole month.

Now, if you are as catastrophically, heroically hopeless as I am, it turns out that you have to jump through a few hoops. If you are that late with your tax, specially numbers no longer work and you have to find the vital documents that I can never find. I tried the kind man in the post office, but he could not help, so, with my heart in my boots, I rang up the DVLA. I was expecting sucking of teeth, shaking of heads, and that sliding note of judgement that the catastrophic people get. Because the missing vital document would have to be replaced, I assumed I would have to take the car off the road for six weeks and then what would I do?

The girl – and she was a girl, very young, in her early twenties I would guess – did not suck her teeth. She did not judge me. She was funny and understanding. I explained about the vital document and how it could be anywhere. ‘You sound like my mum,’ she said, laughing. I laughed too, in delighted surprise. ‘Your mum is my soul sister,’ I said.

Even more wonderful, she had a solution. Yes, she could do this clever thing and that efficient thing and this instant thing. All would be done in the blink of an eye and I would be legal again and the horrid brown envelopes would stop.

I don’t know what bureaucracy is like in the places that you live, but in Britain, this is unheard of. I often find myself doing the nasty passive-aggressive thing of saying, ‘Well, what would you do in my position?’ And the person on the other end just changes the subject. When you get into tangles like I do, often that tangle is a Gordian knot and there is no untying it and that operative on the end of the humming telephone almost seems to be taking delight in the fact that there is no way out.

Not my DVLA girl. She was happy, she was blithe, she was brilliant. She had energy and kindness and generosity in her voice. I bet she’s a really good friend, one of those ones that her nearest and dearest turn to when they want a shoulder to cry on. She had a faint Welsh lilt to her voice and I could imagine her growing up in the valleys, getting up at dawn to help with the magnificent Welsh sheep. She took something I had been dreading, something that made me feel stupid and idiotic, something that dragged at me for the last twenty-four hours and made it easy and fun. She did not appear to think I was catastrophic.

That’s a gift. One complete stranger fixed me up and brightened my day. I bet she’s the kind of person who makes everyone smile when she walks into a room. I wish I had asked her name. I was so overcome with surprise and relief that I did not have time to think straight. I would like to have rung up her supervisor and said: give that brilliant woman a raise. I’m going to post this on Facebook and I have a slight dream that among my friends and friends of friends, someone will say: hey, I know lovely Anna who works at the DVLA. And then she will know how she transformed the day of one muddly, middle-aged woman.

I think it’s unlikely. I think my stuttering thanks will have to be enough. I think she will remain unknown to me. She’s going to be one of the George Eliot people, in Middlemarch. This is one of my favourite quotes in the world, and I’m so glad to be reminded of it. There’s another gift she gave me. ‘But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.’

Actually, I don’t think someone as vivid and alive as that would ever had an unvisited tomb, but I think what Eliot meant is that the history of the world is written about the big people, the ones who fought the battles and changed the law and lit up the stage. They get monuments, and parks named after them, and statues in Whitehall. What she meant was that life is made wonderfully better by those ordinary people who don’t have grand memorials, who do lie in small, quiet Norman churchyards, whose names do not echo down the years, but who made their world a beautifully better place in their own small, delightful way.

Friday, 14 July 2017

The Thing.



I love the word thing. I use it all the time, far too much, because I am so fond of it. I especially like the expression ‘I did not even know that was a thing’. I think the young people use it, or perhaps it came from America. I’ve almost certainly heard it on the Rachel Maddow Show.

Anyway, today the thing rather overwhelmed me, in a most idiotic way.

There was a thing that someone else was going to do and then he did not do it so I had to do it. It’s a boring thing and normally I do it myself but because I had expectations that the thing would be done I felt a lunatic resentment. I rang the person who was going to do the thing and he laughed and said he hadn’t really done the thing and then he smiled, not in a ‘yeah, whatever’ way but in a ‘the sun is shining and what can it matter way?’ Clearly, to him, it was not a thing. In all senses of the word.
There is a third party who was also expecting the sanguine fellow to do the thing and I was so cross that I nearly rang up The Third Man to tell this stupid story. I asked my friend Sophie, who is five, what she thought. ‘Never tell tales,’ she said, solemnly.
Bugger, I thought. I’m going to have to be the decent person and suck it up. At this stage, I started feeling quite saintly. I am going to do the right thing and get on and not tell. A faint gleam glimmered off my halo.

And then I stopped. The thing is so small it can hardly be seen by the naked eye. In the world, North Korea is rattling its sabres and the Trumpsters are doing unspeakable things with random Russian lawyers and Brexit is going off the rails. My thing is not a heart thing or even a head thing. It’s not a family thing or a love thing or a grief thing. It’s one of those tiny daily pinpricks that live in the pincushion of life.


I thought: what is wrong with me? I’ve dropped my perspective down the back of the sofa and I’m so proud of my perspective. I have Perspective Police and everything. I loathe to blame hormones, but I am going through the menopause and however much red clover I take I do feel very peculiar at the moment. Is that a thing? Or is it just the middle of life and the dark wood and all those roads less travelled? I’m all Robert Frost just now; he is my consolation and my guide and my balm. The woods are lovely dark and deep and I have miles to go before I sleep.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Memories of the Royal Meeting: Riposte, Estimate, Lady Cecil and The Queen.

On this day, four years ago, there were two fairy tales at the Royal Meeting. There were two stories of such high emotion, such blazing glory, such impossible odds that I hardly have words to describe them. I am, however, all about words, so in my instinctive way, I wrote them down. I’m so glad I did. They are stories I never want to forget. Best of all, in a lovely act of synchronicity, they are stories of two great fillies and two great women.
(For my non-racing readers, Sir Henry Cecil, one of the greatest and most beloved of all trainers, had died not long before the meeting. His widow had taken over his licence and she and the team at Warren Place were keeping the string going even as they dealt with their grief. It was a time of keen loss for the whole racing world.)
On the 21st of June 2013, this is what I wrote:

All meeting, there were two things I quietly, almost secretly, dreamed might happen. They were in the hardly-dare-hope category. Then, after all the drama of the week so far, they suddenly both happened, as if they had been inevitable all along.
Yesterday morning, with my forensic betting hat on, I had picked Lady Cecil’s nice filly Riposte for the Ribblesdale, because she was the only one of the principles who had winning form over the distance. Ascot is a deceptively testing course. From a distance, on the television cameras, it looks gorgeously smooth and flat, but in fact it has nuanced undulations and a stiff uphill climb. 
Trainers are not idiots. They do not want to be disgraced on this biggest of stages. They will not send horses here if they think they will not stay. But still, that little D by the side of Riposte flashed at me like a beacon.
I took eights first thing, for a paltry amount. I was still flinty and scientific, admitting doubts; the filly was stepping up in class, she had something to prove. I was damn well not going to let my heart rule everything.
I’ve been watching the Cecil horses all week, hoping and hoping, longing for the memory of Sir Henry to set the crowd alight. There was a close call with Tiger Cliff, but, as the days went on, I started to resist the siren song. Dick Francis once wrote that there are no fairy tales in racing. I sternly bashed down the fired expectations.
But as the off grew closer, even as Winsili wavered and then hardened as the favourite, I decided that my lovely Riposte would give the best riposte of all. I threw last-minute cash at her, in the way I often do, as if the horse herself would detect my lack of loyalty if I ratted.
I did not say any of this out loud. I was watching with my mother and I did not want to raise the old lady’s hopes. I said, diffidently: ‘I quite like the look of this Riposte.’ And that was all.
As the stalls smacked open and Simon Holt began his call, Riposte imitated her close relation Frankel in his last start on this very course.
She fell out of the stalls, completely missing the break. Oh, well, I thought, privately, that’s that. It’s very difficult to remedy that lost start. Tom Queally had to roust her along without setting her alight. For a moment, as he pushed her into the race, it looked as if she might boil over. But then the good girl came back to herself and settled into her running. She wasl on the outside, towards the back, but she had found her rhythm.
At half way, she had settled and was running well within herself. But there were still only two horses behind her. Then Queally, cleverly, patiently, started to creep into the race, his sympathetic hands nursing his girl along.
And then, at about two out, he did something radical, even rash. He gave Riposte a great push, asking for a huge burst of speed. She put on her sprinting shoes, passed five horses in a matter of seconds, and hit the front. In a flash, she was out on her own; nothing in front of her but a wide, searching sward of green.
Would she last up that testing incline? Would that intense effort have taken too much out of her? Would she get lonely out in front, all on her own?
All these questions muddled through my mind. But the lovely filly had every answer. She never deviated, running straight and true to the line under only hands and heels, spread-eagling her field.
Without at all meaning to, I burst into tears. I do this in big races in which I am absurdly emotionally invested. I did it for Desert Orchid, all those years ago, when he defied a mud-splattered afternoon and fought his way up the murderous Cheltenham hill, running on fumes and guts and glory. I did it for Kauto Star’s great comeback at Haydock on that dour autumn day, when everyone said he was finished. I did it for Frankel at York, when people were not quite sure if the wonder colt would see out the mile and two.
It is what my old Irish godmother describes, vividly, as ‘tears coming out at right angles’. I don’t think I’d realised until that moment how much emotion I had invested in that good filly, how the memories of Sir Henry rode on her honest back, how the thought of that grieving team at Warren Place had infected my racing spirit.
Normally, when a jockey passes the post in front at the Royal Meeting, there is the instant flashing smile of victory. It is the dream of every rider on the flat to win here. But Tom Queally did not smile.
He did that thing with his mouth that you do when you are fighting tears. The muscles tightened and the corners turned down and the face set. He is not a man of public emotion. One sensed that if he had been alone he would have cried like a baby. As it was, he was fighting to hold it together on this most public of stages.
He put his hand out and ran it over Riposte’s ear, with the exact gentle touch that Sir Henry had for his fillies. As the camera angle shifted, the jockey’s back was slumped and head bowed, as if in defeat.
The microphone was stuck in his face, and he said, on a long breath: ‘It’s been a tough, tough week, and I know a lot of people are struggling. But it’s great she did as well as she did and I’m sure Henry’s looking down and helping us.’
Queally had that raw, disbelieving look on his face that I remember so well from when my father died. The lovely victory must have brought it all back for him. Sir Henry’s death was not a surprise; he had been ill for years. But with men like that, impossible thinking sets in. You believe they will defy the docs and live forever. I had a message from someone who lives in Newmarket only today, saying she still could not believe that she would walk down the street and not see him. Men like that are institutions, stitched into the life of the place they embody. Death seems stupid and impossible.
The camera pulled back to show the stalwart travelling head lad, his face bleak as granite. The young lass, leading in her conquering heroine, dissolved into streaming tears.
Then came the most poignant moment of all. Lady Cecil, who has taken over the licence from her late husband, rushed forward in the winner’s enclosure, going straight for Queally. The two hugged, and in that hard embrace you could see all the tension that comes with great loss. There must have been so many moments on the Heath when it was the three of them, so many breakfasts, so many post-mortems, of triumph or disappointment. There is a thing, when you lose someone, of wanting the person who understands the most. In that winner’s circle, at Ascot, with the colours of Prince Khalid Abdullah shining like a beacon just as they had in Frankel’s last, mighty victory, I think that for Lady Cecil Tom Queally understood the most.
At this stage, Lady Cecil’s face had the raw, undefended look of someone who has suffered tearing loss. But she was in front of the world. She had to step up to the microphone. Clare Balding, with every inch of her sensitivity and professionalism, conducted what must have been one of the hardest interviews of her career. She knew all these people; she had grown up with them; there was no disinterested distance for her. But she was on national television; she had to ask the questions.
Looking back on it now, I am amazed that Lady Cecil did not just walk away. Connections who have nothing like her excuse have turned from the microphone; I’ve watched famous owners ruthlessly snub post-race interviewers. And yet, in one of the most graceful acts I have seen on a racecourse, she generously offered herself, in all her loss, squaring her shoulders and lifting her face up in its naked emotion.
She looked up to the sky, gathered a faltering smile, and said: ‘First of all, that was for Henry.’
There was a terrible pause.
‘For the Prince, and for all the staff at Warren Place.’
Then she rallied. ‘I don’t really have the words to say what I am feeling.’
Bugger everything, I thought; there are no words. And yet this tremendous woman kept on. ‘He was just adored, by so many people. I mean, people who’ve never met him, just loved him. And...’ She shook her head, running out of words. ‘What can I say?’
Another sympathetic question from Balding; another brave answer.
‘We hardly dared dream that we would have a winner. I just thought, God he would have been relishing this. Everyone knows how he loves Ascot.’
And there it was, the present tense. The most revealing, moving moment of all; the marker that the master of Warren Place is not yet gone in the minds and hearts of those who loved him.
She tailed off, and Clare Balding moved in to rescue her. ‘You need say nothing more, you’ve been so brave, so strong. Well done.’
But Lady Cecil was not finished. Like her lovely, fighting filly, she took another run at it. ‘Keeping busy is what’s keeping us all going. If we had nothing to do, I think we’d all fall to bits.’
Clare Balding, the seasoned pro, faltered herself, in the midst of that boiling cauldron of emotion. Suddenly hardly able to get her own words out, she said, almost in a whisper: ‘It’s the best result of all.’
And the sweetest thing was that the cameras then cut to Riposte, being led away, her intelligent ears pricked, her kind eye gleaming and bright, her head held high. The good ones, the competitive ones, seem to know when they have won. Tom Queally said once of Frankel that as the colt seasoned and grew in stature, he began to understand that the noise and acclamation which should really alarm a flight animal was in fact a homage. ‘He soaked it all up; he knew it was for him,’ Queally said after York.
Riposte is not in that legendary category. She is a nice filly, with a lovely talent and a willing attitude; she may rise to some heights, but perhaps she will not go down in history like her imperious relation. But all the same, in that moment, she had a little look of eagles in her fine eye.
There were many things for which Sir Henry Cecil was famous. One of them was being good with fillies. Wining the Oaks eight times was not a fluke. Bizarrely, there is sexism in the horse world just as there is in the human. People talk of fillies and mares being difficult, unpredictable, hormonal. Mare-ish is a horrid, lazy insult, casually hurled. But I think what Henry Cecil knew is what anyone who has loved and worked with a female equine carries in their heart. If you are gentle and kind and patient with a filly, she will give you everything, every last inch of loyalty and trust and fighting spirit. So it was intensely appropriate that in this dramatic week, in this Royal Meeting which started with a minute of silence for its native son, it was one of his girls who came good for the old fellow.
As the emotion subsided, there was the rushing realisation that this was not yet the end of the drama of this extraordinary day. The very next race was the Gold Cup, the showpiece of the week. It is two and a half miles, a colossal distance. Most flat horses are simply not bred to run this far. There was a huge field, although because of the fast ground runners were dropping like flies. The promising High Jinx was out; Dermot Weld decided he could not risk the delicate legs of Rite of Passage. At the top of the market, driven there by a combination of sentiment and hope, was the ravishing bay filly, Estimate.
Estimate belongs to the Queen. Last June, I was there to watch her win the Queen’s Vase, to extravagant emotion, in the jubilee year. I fell in love with her then and I have followed her ever since. She is a lightly-built filly; she does not look like a mighty stayer. But she has a dreamy temperament and the will to win, and she is improving all the time.
On paper, she had something to find. The trip was four whole furlongs into the unknown; on strict official ratings, she was well down the field of fourteen. She would have to produce a rampant career best.
As I had with Riposte, I resisted my stupid soft heart, and tried to find the rivals who would bring her low. Simenon was the danger, I decided, with proven form at course and distance, and the wizard that is Willie Mullins in charge.
But again, as the start neared, I gave in to the heart, and bashed all my money on the little mare. Yes, she was up against the boys; yes, it was a fairy tale too far; yes, she had something to find on the book. But blast it, I wanted her to win more than anything, and if anything could find that little bit extra for the big occasion, she could.
She is such a kind and genuine horse. Channel Four showed a clip of her in her stable, and she was as dopey and dreamy and affectionate as a dear old donkey, nuzzling up to her lass, making silly faces, soaking up the love of her faithful human. It made me fall more in love with her than ever. Bugger the book I thought; this is my girl.
And I switch into the present tense, because it feels in my head as if the drama is happening all over again.
As Estimate goes round the paddock, with her owner watching intently, she shows all of  her big race temperament. On a warm day, there is not a hint of sweat on her bay flanks. Then, suddenly, without in any way becoming flighty or over-wrought, she gives two little bucks. They are balanced perfectly on the fulcrum of exuberance and determination. They sketch an arching parabola of intent. My mother and I look at each other, hope rising in our eyes.
‘She’s ready,’ we say to each other, in trembling voices. ‘Oh yes. She is ready.’
The late cash comes pouring in, perhaps from the seasoned paddock watchers, perhaps from the sentimental royalists. Estimate shortens in to 7-2, veering violently from sixes this morning. I add my cash to the party. I’ve loved this horse for a long time; I damned if I am going to let my old loyalties lapse. I can see all the doubts for what they are. But my money must be where my mouth is.
Estimate comes out onto the course, on her own. She canters down to the start with her head high and her ears pricked, collected and balanced, looking around her as if taking in every inch of the fine spectacle. She has a little white snip on her dear nose, and, in my fevered mind, it starts to blaze like a flashing sign.
And, they are off.
The sultry summer’s day turns misty, and through a sudden murk, Estimate’s white flash shows brightly. She takes up a good position, one off the rail, four lengths off the pace. Ryan Moore lets her down and gets her beautifully settled, so her natural rhythm can assert itself. Her long, narrow ears go back and forth in time with her hoofbeats.
Past the packed stands they go. The faint sounds of whistles and applause can be heard, before they are off again into the country, where the race will begin to unfold.
The massive white-faced German raider is running strongly in front, tracked by the two staying stars, Colour Vision and Saddler’s Rock. Estimate is tidily tucked in behind. Into Swinley Bottom, she is perhaps the most well-balanced of the entire field, happy in her dancing rhythm.
Four out, the field bunches up. ‘There is Estimate,’ says Simon Holt, his voice rising, ‘with every chance.’
Jockeys are starting to crouch lower now, not yet kicking on, but indicating an increased momentum. Ryan Moore is rocking Estimate gently into a quicker pace. Colour Vision, who won this last year but has been disastrously out of form ever since, is suddenly full of running. The brilliant Johnny Murtagh is releasing Saddler’s Rock. Simenon is unleashing a withering run down the outside. In the midst of this, in a small pocket of her own, Estimate is quietly running her race.
And then Moore asks the question, after over two miles of searching turf, and Estimate answers. The answer is: Yes.
She surges forwards, chasing the mighty grey in the Godolphin colours. She gets past him, inch by inch, but the race is not done. Two big fellas come charging at her, down the outside; the Irish Simenon, the French Top Trip.
All three horses are now in full cry. They are so close together you could not put a cigarette paper between them. For a horrible moment, I think that the slip of a girl will be swallowed up by the roaring boys.
At home, in our house, with the indigo Scottish hills visible though the window and the bluebirds questing at the window, everything erupts. I am on my feet, bawling at the top of my voice. My old mum, who has seen Nijinsky and Mill Reef and the Brigadier, is shouting: ‘Come on, Ryan’. Stanley the Dog, who clearly believes we have suffered some kind of catastrophic event, is howling and jumping and barking his head off. Only the sensible Stepfather sits silent, riveted to the action, a small oasis of calm in the storm.
I look away, unable to watch, convinced the brave filly is beat. It’s too much to ask; it’s too much to hope. She’s never been anywhere near this distance before; only the very best fillies are capable of beating the colts. She’ll fade, fold up, be done on the line.
But I turn back, and there she is, with her little head stuck out, her glorious stride lengthening not shortening, every atom in her body speaking of her will to win. I gather one last stupid howl of hope.
GO ON GO ON GO ON, I shout, ignoring the family, ignoring the leaping dog, ignoring everything except the fierce battle of those last, terrifying strides.
Simenon’s determined head comes up to Estimate’s shoulder, the great momentum of his powerful quarters pushing him forward. Will the bloody finishing post never come?
Somehow, somehow, the good filly keeps going. It is as if she is saying to the others: no, boys, not today. Today is my day.
And there, at last, is the line, and she has a precious neck in hand, and Ryan Moore is crouched up almost at her ears, carrying her over the finish.
‘I CAN’T BELIEVE IT,’ I shout.
As if my entire family is deaf, I yell again: ‘I CAN’T BELIEVE IT.’
We hug, we jump in the air, we weep idiot tears of joy.
It’s just a horse. It’s just an old lady in a lilac dress. It’s just a race.
On any rational level, it is hard to know which is more absurd: the racing of horses or the hereditary monarchy. But humans are not rational animals. Even in the most empirical of us, the magical thinking sometimes overwhelms. I can’t help it: I love the Queen. I love her for her dignity and restraint and good old British stoicism. I love Estimate, for her sweetness and strength and bloody-minded determination not to give up. I swear she had a Fuck You Boys look in her eye as she flashed past the post. And I love racing, where these beautiful herd animals may show all their mighty, fighting qualities.
And so I shouted and cried and leapt in the air, even though I am forty-six years old and I should know better.
The filly came back to the paddock, the Queen walked down to greet her, the crowd went insane. People did not know what to do with themselves. The little golden cup was presented, and the Queen, who really has been around the block more than most, who has been coming to Ascot since the fifties, who knows all about the dreams of horses not quite coming true, stared at it as if she had never seen it before. She looked as delighted and disbelieving as a child.
And that, my darlings, was Ladies’ Day at Ascot, when four tremendous females, two equine and two human, wrote a story that will stay stitched into the memory of everyone lucky enough to have witnessed it.


 PS. I can't show you pictures of Estimate and Riposte, for copyright reasons. Today's photograph is of my own little dancing thoroughbreds, not as talented on the racecourse as those mighty girls, but as much of a champion in my own heart.




Friday, 9 June 2017

Nobody knows what is happening.



Last night, I put on my special Hat of Democracy and went out in the pouring rain to vote. I did not go with a dance in my step. I went grumpily, out of duty to the Pankhursts.

But the funny thing is that it was like a party, at our tiny village hall. There were dogs and helpful people with umbrellas and the old and the young. Well, I thought, rather startled, the democratic process is still in rude health. This cheered me immensely. I’m not tribal. I gave up tribalism years ago, because it was so tiring and often led to shouting. I want a government that works and gives people a chance. It’s not very sexy, but that’s what happens when you get to fifty and won’t leave the house without a hat on. That people were there, voting, minding, leaving their mark, seemed to me a great good.

In the small hours of the morning, the democratic process, in its rude health, came out and did the fandango. It got stroppy. It punched a few people on the nose, because it could. It confused all the pundits and the pollsters and the psephologists, and it made David Dimbleby say ‘bloody hell’ on an open mic. (For my foreign readers, this is a bit like The Queen saying bugger.)

Twitter overheated and had to go in for repairs, its broken engine letting out great gasps of steam. All over the country, people who had planned to go to bed did not go to bed. Nobody knew what was happening. Jeremy Corbyn went in and out of his house like a jack-in-a-box, at least one MP appeared to be drunk on national television, and Ken Clarke stood square in his Hush Puppies and called everyone an idiot. (I love those elder statesmen, in the twilight of their careers. They have nothing to lose and no reason to stay on message, so they come out and say exactly what they think, and it’s like a tall glass of water.)

In the morning, the rumours started: on the telephone, on social media, in the street, on the email. ‘Did you hear?’ said the gossips, in shock and delight. ‘Did you hear?’ Did you hear that one Tory described Theresa May’s bus as the Bus of Fucking Failure? Did you hear that Conservative ministers are saying they did not know what was in the manifesto until they saw it on the BBC? Did you hear that Boris is already on manoeuvres? Did you hear that May would not consult anyone except for Nick Thing and Fiona Thing?
The fierce rain of criticism rained down on the Prime Minister for a campaign that left people utterly baffled. The strange psychological power of expectations meant that Labour were being hailed as dazzling giant-slayers, even though they actually lost. Never was a defeat celebrated so much as if it were a victory. Everyone on the Left was dancing in the streets, because the young people came out, because even some of the Scots came home, because the hard Brexit landslide turned out to be a chimera.
There were wild conspiracy theories that the Conservatives had thrown the election on purpose because they knew, in their secret hearts, that they could not climb Mount Brexit.
Here in Scotland, the SNP juggernaut was picked up as if it were a Tonka toy and thrown off the road. There, said the voters, fed up with independence obsession and dire education results and the bonkerness of the Named Person plan, take that. The glittering, gleaming irony was that it was Scotland that stopped a complete Tory meltdown, even though the joke was for many years that Scottish Conservatives were as rare as giant pandas.
The DUP, a small group of Northern Irish politicians, came blinking into the spotlight, like people who had spent many years living in a cupboard. Everybody had to scramble to remember who they were and what they stood for. Now, they were the kingmakers, the only people who could keep the government alive.
‘What do you think,’ said a friend, pensively, ‘that the Queen is going to say to Theresa May?’
Nobody knows, I think. Nobody knows anything. I have absolutely no idea what the electorate was trying to say or what this election means or where dear old Blighty will go from here. The democratic process, having had its little joke, has caught a bus to the seaside and is eating Brighton rock, leaving the country to wonder and ponder and gossip and speculate and bitch and celebrate and mourn.

I dream, idly, of a government of all the talents, a little like the one we had in the war. There were a lot of very poor performers in this election, but, in tiny offices and unsung constituencies and dark Whitehall corridors, there are good men and women of thought and talent. There are interesting people who did interesting jobs before they stood for parliament – doctors and soldiers and experts in foreign affairs – and when the government totters, as I suspect it will, I dream that they might all be called up, from across the party divides, to steer the ship through the stormy seas. 
That would never happen, of course, but wouldn’t it be lovely? These are serious times, which call for serious people. Nobody out in the front of these campaigns seemed to me very serious, or not serious enough. I yearn for a Dream Team, who would make all the nonsense make sense.

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