Monday, 31 October 2016

In which I am in dire need of imaginary cows.

It is a gloomy Monday with surly rain falling from a sky the colour of disappointed pigeons. A cross voice in my head says: don’t write the buggery blog. You won’t have anything lovely to say, says the cross voice, so don’t say anything.

Oh, says a sterner voice, write five sentences and even if they are absolute crap you have still recorded your day.

‘Why do I need to record my day?’ I ask the stern voice.

The stern voice considers.

‘Because even on a rainy Monday there will be one good thing,’ it says.

The farrier came. That is a good thing, because she is young and wryly funny and good at her job. I love people who are good at their jobs. The horses now have neatly trimmed hooves. Their frogs have been inspected and pronounced tremendous. I have horses with tremendous frogs. This, I think, still quite grumpy, is not nothing.

I do 80 pages of editing. I loathe editing. But I suppose at least there are words to edit. There is a whole novel to edit. One day, if I work hard enough and the wind is coming from the right direction, that story might even end up in a bookshop. ‘Oh,’ someone will say to someone, taking it down from the shelf, ‘that looks like it might be interesting.’

I make green soup. Any day that has green soup in it is not lost. As I make the green soup, quite crossly, I remember that I did find a baby bison on Facebook this morning. In fact it turned out to be a baby musk ox, but it was very sweet. A small, adorable, woolly mammal can lift a rainy heart, even for ten minutes.

Then I made some chocolate fridge cake in case the Halloween children come. I loathe Halloween, but even I can’t stare at the small people with basilisk eyes and tell them to go home and eat broccoli. I don’t like sweets and don’t have any in the house, so I make the chocolate fridge cake. (Dark chocolate, butter, honey, almonds, goji berries. It’s the kind of thing that grown-ups wish children would like and the children have to look tragically polite whilst wishing that there was a lifetime supply of those disgusting chewy things in neon green. But it’s the best I can do.)

I think of yesterday, which was lovely. The sun shone and my friend Isla came to ride the red mare and they did beautiful cantering together whilst I shouted ‘Green grass of Wyoming,’ at the top of my voice. This is my idea of teaching riding. As they go into the canter, I bellow: ‘Open everything up. Open your shoulders, open your mind. Green grass of Wyoming, wild plains of Montana, imaginary cows. Go and round up those imaginary cows. Open, open, open.’ Then I think of the proper riding teachers. I double up with laughter. ‘I don’t expect that is what Mrs B tells you,’ I bawl, hysterical with mirth. But the funny thing is that the incredible rider does open her mind and think of the imaginary cows and the red mare senses it and extends her body and lengthens her pace so that she is rocking and rolling. Buck Brannaman always says, when a horse does something delightful, 'there's the change.' There was the change, even if it did not come about from the orthodox.

‘That girl,’ says my friend with the Paint, as we stand in the doleful field in the doleful rain in the doleful afternoon, ‘has an incredible seat.’
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘She most certainly does.’
I feel very pleased about the incredible seat. 

Open your mind, I tell myself. Imaginary cows. So what if the rain is falling?

Friday, 28 October 2016

All the hats.

Today was a day of about twenty-seven halves. I had slightly bad news about one of my mares but decided I would remain stout of heart and hold on to hope. Something maddening happened over which I had no control and I don’t think I behaved entirely beautifully about it. (I hate getting cross with people and often resort to slightly phony, passive-aggressive responses instead. And that sound I hear is not the sound of my better angels flapping their wings.)

I was so cross that I rang up a dear friend and swore down the telephone. She laughed quite a lot. Then she said many wise and funny and touching things and was so interesting I forgot to be cross and started doubling over with laughter instead.

I spoke to two old friends this week, both men I have known since we were all eighteen. We are now all fifty. That’s a lot of water under a lot of bridges. It’s an awful lot of love. They are both exceptionally busy and I never call them because I always think that they are going to be doing work. In the end, I missed the first one so much that I simply called and said: ‘Are you in a meeting with forty people?’
‘No,’ he said. ‘I’m doing nothing.’
‘But you are so busy and important,’ I said, in some astonishment.
‘That’s what you think,’ he said, laughing his dear, familiar laugh.

We probably haven’t spoken for six months and we picked up as if it had been six minutes. He made me laugh and he made me think and he told me something so shocking that my mouth fell open in a cartoonish O. We talked about politics and betrayal and age and love and secrets. He is so riveting he makes my ears want to fall off.

Ring the old friends, I thought, walking through the trees. Ring them up and if they are in a meeting with forty people they can always say they will ring back. We’re all at the age now when we know there are more important things than meetings.

The more important things are: love, and history, and really getting it, and being in someone’s corner, and sticking through the thin and the thick, and thinking each other entirely splendid in every way. Since my mum died, I realise that I really, really need people who think I am splendid in every way. And the thing about the old friends is that they have seen me at my absolute worst, and they still think that. That’s the gift that is worth more than diamonds.

With new people, or with people you don’t know very well, you have to put on many hats. You have to put on your grown-up hat, or your reasonable hat, or your articulate hat, or your I know exactly what I’m doing hat. The old friends have seen all the hats, and don’t care. They love you with the hat and without the hat.

Ring them up, I think, because they make everything, every single solitary thing, better. 

Thursday, 27 October 2016

One girl, one horse, one heart.

The red mare’s new friend came to the field today. Isla is eleven years old, and she has the natural instincts of a born horsewoman. She is open and calm and brave. The mare loves her and they are building a partnership together.

I had a plan. We were going to work on steering today. ‘Think of it like opening a door,’ I said. ‘You are opening your rein and inviting her to walk into that space.’

We started with my favourite exercise. This is called Where Do You Want To Go? The mare decides on the direction, the rider decides on the gait. I love this for twenty different reasons, but I love it most because it is a true exercise in partnership. You really are in it together.

Until now, I’ve walked along with Isla and the mare when they do this. For all that I’ve worked that grand duchess until she is as docile as an old Labrador, she is still a thoroughbred. She is still half a ton of flight animal. This youthful jockey is still getting to know her. I would not take any risks.

Today, they looked so happy together that I let them go off on their own.

At first, the mare wanted to hang out with me and Isla’s mother, so I taught my pupil about getting rid of destination addiction.

This sounds very grand. In fact, the way that we got rid of the sticky spot was slightly eccentric and probably not what you read about in the serious horse books. 

‘Make her work when she is near us,’ I said to Isla. ‘Annoy her with your legs. It’s the only time when you are not meticulously polite to your horse. It’s the only time you nag. Then, when she moves away, you leave her alone.’ 
'I see,' said Isla. 'You make her see that the place she thought was fun is not in fact that fun.'
'You've got it,' I said, in delight.

That was the part that is recommended by the serious books. It's a solid technique and it works amazingly well.

Isla, who is amazingly quick and receptive, got the hang of this very quickly, but the dear dozy old mare still quite wanted to come and be with the grown ups and practise for the Standing Still Olymics. So I decided to give the jockey a little help.

‘No rest here,’ I said to the red mare. I whooped and waved my arms in the air.  ‘It’s a Donald Trump rally over here,’ I said, yelling like a banshee. ‘Mad Trump people, build the wall. You really won’t like that.’ That was the part you don’t read about in the serious horse books.

The red mare gave me a Lady Bracknell look and Isla’s shoulders started to shake with laughter. I felt incredibly happy that she liked the Donald Trump joke.

So that was how we fixed the destination addiction.  Sometimes, you can allow yourself a little improvisation. Also, I've been shouted at by mad Trump people on Twitter this week, and one of them called me a horse's ass, so I was getting my horsey revenge.

And then the most glorious thing happened. Isla was still not guiding the mare, but the duchess put herself into a perfect sweeping circle and they picked up the most poised, delicate sitting trot and they went round as if they were in a dressage championship.

They’ve never trotted out in the open spaces before; we had only done that in a small paddock with the safety of the confining fences. Now they were out in nine wild acres, and I was not walking by their side, and they were doing it on their own.

‘Oh,’ I cried, ‘can you feel that? You are in harmony now. You are working together. That is quite, quite beautiful.’

I had not planned this. This was not the steering work. But it developed so naturally that I went with it, and I let them go. Isla was beaming and the red mare had her neck stretched out and her head low and was soft all through her body and they were working in perfect time. It was their sixth ride, and they looked as if they had been together always.
‘Can we canter?’ said Isla.

I had a moment of hesitation. This was an ex-racehorse, after all. She is quite fit, her powerful body filled with muscle and strength. There was a lot of open space.

I looked at the horse. She was happy and relaxed, at one with herself and her world. ‘She is very good-natured,’ said Isla’s mother. Yes, she is, I thought.

‘Go on then,’ I said. Let it be all right, I thought. Let it not all fall apart now.

It did not fall apart.

The gentle, brave eleven-year-old girl gave the signal, sitting deep in the saddle and kissing, and the mare rolled into a collected canter and round they went, in their fine circle.

‘You are cantering,’ I shouted, delirious with delight. I was stating the obvious. Yet it was not obvious. That mare was on a loose rein, in a rope halter, with a new rider who is only just learning a different way of being on a horse. I am not a very good teacher, and am learning as I go along, struggling to articulate things which I do automatically. No, it was not obvious. But there it was, as true as the earth and as real as the trees and as open and hopeful as the sky.

Isla had no doubt, so the mare had no doubt. They went along together, believing in each other. And then the slight young girl asked the great strong horse to stop, and she stopped. She dropped her head and blinked and breathed through her nose and looked amazingly pleased with herself. I hugged her. I hugged the rider.

‘Did you see what you did?’ I exclaimed, unable to find words good enough for this good moment. ‘I can’t believe what you did. Do you know what you did? I am so, so proud of you.’

Isla was laughing and the mare was smiling and the mother was beaming and I was so happy that I felt as if I might float away into the cool autumn air and never come back to earth again.

The last year has not been happy. It has been fraught and complicated and filled with loss. I had to say goodbye to many things. At one point, I felt I was saying goodbye to hope. I was paddling and paddling and paddling, with my failing, flailing arms, desperately trying to keep my head above water. Sometimes I thought I would go under.

And here was this shining moment of joy. It was so simple, so pure, so authentic. It had nothing to do with the strains and frets of the real world. There was a fine human and a fine horse, with their hearts beating in time. And for that moment, nothing else mattered.

On paper, I am giving something to that sweet girl, because I’m taking a bit of time to teach her to ride my horse. But that is nonsense. That is not the truth. She is the one giving me a great gift. The red mare gives me many great gifts, every day. When the two of them are together, the gifts run sure and true, like swallows flying south for winter. They lift my spirits and make me laugh and whoop and holler into the Scottish day. They restore hope.

I think of that glorious canter. I see it in my head. I run it like a film clip, smiling a goofy smile every time I watch it. If I can do that, if that girl and that horse can do that, then anything is possible. Anything. And that is a feeling that is more precious than rubies.

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

A song of the trees.

I walk in the trees. I look at the trees. I wonder at the trees.

Someone planted these. Two, three, four hundred years ago, someone put these in the ground. Someone chose the seeds and saplings. Someone made a plan.

I suddenly felt it like a kind of impossibility. There were so many reason why these trees might not have been here. Someone could have gone off on the Grand Tour and never come home, or been killed in the Napoleonic Wars, or lost all his money in the South Sea Bubble. He could have hated trees and turned all the land over to grazing. He could have gone to London and taken up with the wrong set and become fond of strong liquor and lived a life like a Hogarth cartoon. And when the planting season came round, the factor would have sent increasingly desperate letters and got no reply.

As I thought all this, walking through the trees, I suddenly wondered: why do I think it was a man? In those far off days, women were expected to see to the house, not the land. But what if there was one extraordinary female who was a great botanist, a passionate naturalist? What if, while her husband was off on border raids, it was she who planted the beeches and the oaks and the limes and the silver birches and the horse chestnuts? Did she sit inside, as the Scottish rain fell, and make sketches of the grand plantations that she would never live to see in their pomp? Did she dream of the mature trees that would grow from her slender little seedlings? Could she see a picture in her head of how the robust, spreading beeches would contrast so beautifully with the shy, elegant birches? When her women came to her to talk about the linen, did she have to stifle her impatience, because all she wanted to think about was the long hedge that would run down to the burn?

All those trees are grown now. Her plan is complete, and glorious, and everything she might have dreamed. Each generation has added to it, so against the august old sages, the history trees who remember Mary Queen of Scots and the Scottish Enlightenment and the Act of Union, there are young shavers who can hardly remember the Cold War. The last planting took place three years ago. Some of them were planted in memory of my father. I go and look at them and make sure they are still alive. Some gave up the ghost, to weather, to deer, to bad luck. Most are thriving, reaching their new branches to the sky. In two hundred years time, will someone walk under their shade and think of the human who put them in the earth?

I think of Karen Blixen. If I know a song of Africa, does Africa know a song of me?

If I know a song of the trees, do the trees know a song of me?

And then I laugh, because my song would be a very curious song. It would have banjos and ukuleles in it, and someone would probably play a tea chest like my old dad used to, and the middle eight would be frankly implausible. My song would not be a Bach cantata, it would be Flanders and Swann. It would be Tom Lehrer and The Clancy Brothers. It would be The Saw Doctors singing about Michael D rockin’ the Dáil and how they wished they were on the N17, where there are stone walls and the grass is green.

Yes, I think, the trees can sing that song.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Memories of greatness.

The day starts in low cloud and incipient rain. Then the sun shoulders its way through and gets cracking. The autumn landscape is lit up and the colours dance and gleam.

My friend Isla, who is eleven, comes to ride the red mare. They do cantering with no reins and trotting with no irons. This is obviously very, very clever. ‘Do you feel proud of yourself?’ I say to Isla, lauging.
‘Yes, I do,’ she says, without hesitation. She smiles her radiant smile.
‘So you should,’ I say. ‘I am very, very proud of you.’

But for all the wonder of the natural seat and the ease in the saddle and the instinctive stillness she has, which the mare adores, what is most touching is that they are becoming friends. I was a little late to the field and found them together when I arrived, having a chat, the mare’s great thoroughbred head resting gently against the child’s slight body.

It is a year since my mother died and I had been dreading this day. Watching Isla and the mare together made everything all right. It was all life and goodness and happiness. It was the human heart. It was hope.

I was going to reproduce what I wrote about my mother on this day last year. I wanted to mark the moment. Then I thought it was too sad. So I went back through the blog and found a sweet conversation we had together. I wish I had written down more of those. Mum had such great memories and was often surprisingly funny. She had such a dry wit, which was all a matter of timing, that it sometimes did take one by surprise. My father was famously the funny one, so it was easy to forget that Mum could make one shout a great belly laugh.

I’m glad I wrote this one down. As I read it, I can remember lying on her bed, Stanley by our side, talking of the great racing men and the great racing horses that she had known and loved. She had too much sorrow in her life, but she did see a lot of greatness, and I’m passionately pleased about that.

This is from two years ago:

My mother is home from the hospital. I lie on her bed and talk of Michael Scudamore, who has died.  ‘I can see him now,’ says my mother. ’Sitting on the lawn, in a director’s chair, drinking Pimm’s.’

I think how racy my mother must have been, to have director’s chairs on the lawn in the late fifties.  ‘He was a very good jockey,’ she says. ‘But the real thing about him is that he was so nice. He was the nicest of them all.’

Nice is considered a poor word. I’ve always liked it. It is a small, humble, unassuming word. It does not show-boat, or take up all the oxygen in a room. And it does, whatever the sneery received wisdom says, mean something. He was a nice man, Mr Scudamore, and that is a proper epithet for a gentleman of the turf.

‘Fred Winter was my hero,’ says my mother. ‘Because of how he rode a horse. He was the most beautiful jockey I ever saw over a fence.’
She pauses, remembering. ‘Then Francome came along. And he was beautiful too.’
I remember watching John Francome ride. There was a poetry in it.

‘The one I love watching at the moment,’ I say, ‘is Ryan Moore. I watched him educate a two-year-old colt in a race the other day. He took him through the whole thing, very gently, step by step, letting him find his stride, sitting perfectly still, and then picking him up a furlong out and letting him rock into a flying rhythm and showing him his business. He won, and he never picked up his whip.’
‘So the horse would not know he had a race,’ says my mother, smiling. ‘Scobie Breasley used to do that. He was a genius with two-year-olds.’

We talk of the Hannon two-year-olds, and how beautiful they are. Many trainers have a stamp of a horse. You can often guess, just seeing the beautiful creatures in the paddock, which yard they come from. The Hannons love big, strong, close-coupled horses, very deep through the girth, with short, powerful necks and finely-carved heads.

 ‘And Mark Johnston,’ says my mother, ‘likes those nice, long horses, rather old-fashioned types.’
‘Who look as if they might go hurdling,’ I say, laughing.

Almost under her breath, almost wistful, my mother says: ‘The most beautiful of them all was Frankel.’

We remember Frankel, as if we are paying homage, which in a way we are.
‘They have a presence,’ I say. ‘Those great ones.’
‘Nijinsky had it,’ says my mother. ‘You could feel it the moment you stepped onto the course. Although he wasn’t much fun to see in the pre-parade ring.’
‘Because he got so lathered up?’ I ask.
‘Oh,’ says my mother, indulgently, as if describing a naughty schoolboy, ‘he got himself in such a state. But it never seemed to make any difference. He just went and won anyway.’

‘Michael Scudamore,’ says my mother, reverting to our point of origin, ‘made a dynasty. Imagine that. His grandson is riding now.’
‘Tom Scu,’ I say. ‘He’s a lovely jockey. And a gentleman too.’

We contemplate the Scudamores, the nicest of them all, a family which knows horses like sailors know the sea. I think of the brothers, who only this week carried the coffins of their grandfather and grandmother into a Norman church. The old lady died, and her husband followed her three days later.

What loss they must be feeling; two blows coming so close together, two mighty oaks felled. I look out at the sunshine. It was sunny like this when my father died, that impossible, improbable sun which is not supposed to shine on dear old Blighty, these islands of mist and rain. The Scudamores must have that same feeling of unreality that I remember so well. They must be looking out into the blinding light and waiting for the world to make sense again.

Saturday, 22 October 2016

This is your life.

In two days, I think, it will be the anniversary of my mother’s death. Anniversaries are stupid things, I think; you don’t need a special day to miss someone. I look up, into the furry belly of my brown mare, who is already growing her winter coat and is as soft as a teddy bear. I am on one knee in the mud, wrangling with a recalcitrant rug strap. The mare stands sweetly, like a benign rock of ages, dreaming her morning away. Both horses are very still. They are like that, some days. They beam peace into the air. I have no idea how they do this but it is as palpable as an embrace. I stand with them for a while, moving gently from one to the other, a scratch here, a rub there. They blink their liquid eyes and breathe gently through their nostrils. I stop missing my mother and feel part of the living world.

A faint gleam of light breaks through the flat sky and I walk down to the village to get my Racing Post. I ring up the dear Stepfather. He has been out and about, seeing all his old friends. I hated saying goodbye to him when he went back to the south; it was one of the greatest wrenches of my life. But I hoped this was exactly what would happen: he would have the balm of all those long friendships. And so he has. He told me of a dinner he went to with four widows. How lovely, I thought, people who really know about death. I imagined them swapping bereavement stories, feeling passionately relieved that they did not have to explain themselves. Loss is an awful sort of club; only when you get your membership card will the doorman lift the velvet rope.

 ‘Did you talk about death?’ I say, half laughing.
 ‘No,’ he says. ‘We didn’t mention it.             
I laugh properly. ‘So sorry,’ I say. ‘I forgot you were all British.’ (He is in fact half Canadian, but has lived in Britain for so many years that he has become the very epitome of the English gentleman. He still puts on a tie every day.) My generation do speak of sex and death and politics at the dinner table. For that generation, the eighty-somethings, those three subjects are utterly forbidden.

We talk about other things and then I say, quietly: ‘I miss Mum very much.’
He says: ‘So do I.’

I stop and look at the burn. It runs, brown with peat and glittering with light, against a line of old stones at that point, and makes a singing, rushing sound as it hits them. This is your life, right this minute, I think: the hills and the trees and the water and a dear voice on the telephone and a heart that still aches and a laugh that can still laugh.

I’ll take that, I think. It’s not so dusty.

And then I go home to watch Cheltenham. 

Friday, 21 October 2016

My work is done.

I finished my big polish and have no more words and no more brain left. The sun shone. The autumn leaves are suddenly growing vivid and gaudy. The red mare’s young friend came for a ride. The dogs danced up and down the burn as if they were inventing choreography in their doggy heads. 

A dear friend sent me a lovely message to say he has read The Happy Horse and had loved it. This was incredibly touching for two reasons. He is a writer and a reviewer and he has a vast amount to read for his work. And although he was once a very fine amateur jockey, he has not sat on a horse for years. So that was a true act of friendship.

Across the way, a wedding is taking place, and happy people in kilts are smiling at the good weather and the joy and the love. 

I squint, with the last that is left of my cognitive function, at the first meeting of the season at Cheltenham, where the equine athletes stretch and gallop and soar
under the benign gaze of Cleeve Hill. A faint shadow of melancholy falls on me as I think how much my mother loved this meeting. One is reunited with old friends, back from their summer holidays, and one gets a dazzling glimpse of the new stars, the young ones brought over from France or the novices who are just graduating to hurdles. ‘Very bonny,’ I write about one fella in my notebook, under Horses to Follow. ‘A little sprinkle of stardust perhaps.’

It’s been a long week and I feel a bit like Joey Ramone when he sang: I guess I’ll have to tell them that I got no cerebellum. Which is one of my favourite lyrics of all time. But I got my work done.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Words and smiles and conkers.

Today, I have been going through a manuscript removing the words ‘however’, ‘only’ and ‘just’. As in: however, just concentrating on the small things does not only bring you joy. (That is a terrible example, but my brain is fried from concentration and I can’t construct an orderly sentence.) I’ve also taken out about twenty uses of the word ‘horrid’. For some reason, I seem very fond of that word. I have replaced it with beastly and ghastly and awful and desperate and foul and detestable and heinous and hideous. My thesaurus is so tired that it is considering taking up mountain climbing, as this would be less exhausting.

Why does it matter that sometimes I just use the word just? This is a world of smallness where smallness needs a new definition.

It matters. Too much repetition, too many redundant words, too many qualifications, and the brilliant subliminal mind of the Dear Reader starts to lift its head like a questing vole. The reader gives the writer trust; if you abuse that gift, it will be lost. If the sentences are not clean, the reader begins to get a falling sense of disappointment, even if she does not quite know why. It’s so subtle that it is almost visceral.

Also, the rhythm of the sentence may be lost, that alluring syncopated beat which makes prose dance off the page. I listen to sentences like I listen to music. A syllable too many, and I sadly put my tap shoes away.

I write here in first draft. I give it a quick look to make sure there is nothing too awful and send it out into the world on a wing and prayer. I have faith that people who read blogs know they are of a different order than books. Books must be polished like gleaming gems. They are precious, and require precision and care. They demand the jeweller’s loupe.

In the real world, the sun shone on the field and I walked down this morning to find two enchanting and unexpected visitors. The red mare has a new friend who lives in the next valley along. The new friend is eleven years old, and it turns out that what she most loves to do is ride a thoroughbred. (She has very good taste.) So we brushed off the mud and saddled up and the happy pair went out into the meadows and woods and hills. The mother and I walked ahead, talking about all our favourite people and how remarkable they are. ‘She has a core of steel,’ we said of one person, ‘and she is so kind at the same time. Everything about her is kindness. It’s an unbeatable combination.’ This kind of conversation, I suddenly realised, is my favourite. I enjoy it even more than trying to unravel the mysteries of Donald Trump’s strange psyche or how the electoral college really works.

Each time I looked back, there would be the beaming face of the young rider and the sweet white blaze of the red mare. She had her neck stretched out and her head low and she was wandering along like a Quarter Horse. ‘There,’ I would say. ‘You two are a partnership now.’

When we finished, the young friend ran about collecting conkers. ‘This is a really outstanding conker tree,’ she said, with her flashing smile. I thought how glorious the days were when happiness depended on finding the good conkers.
            ‘Can we come back tomorrow?’ they said.

            I felt my heart lift. ‘Come back every day,’ I said.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Two small things for the price of one.

 Two small, illuminating things happened today.

I overslept. I’ve had a massive attack of sciatica and have been on the hard-core drugs and my mind and body are rather bashed and exhausted. The oversleeping made me cross. I had not started the day and I was already running late. Small, potent pleasures like walking the dogs and feeding the horses suddenly became beastly chores.

As I was stumping furiously out into the low Scottish gloom, my brother rang up. He wanted to talk about a horse we both love who ran on Saturday. What made the moment particularly thrilling was that The Beloved Cousin is in a syndicate, and she owns a hoof of this bold, bonny fella, and she had taken the whole family to see him run. He was in one of the hottest races of the season. All the stars had come to Ascot to glitter and gleam. The Tin Man was 7-1 for a reason. I adore him, with his kind, determined, handsome face and his determination and his tenacity. I slapped a tenner on him out of loyalty, but I thought he would do well to finish in the first four.

He floated out of the stalls and got into a lovely rhythm and when Tom Queally asked him the question he said yes. He surged past some of the best horses in Europe with the smooth acceleration of a Maserati and kept his dear head in front to the line.
            ‘The Tin Man,’ said my brother, down the telephone. ‘What about that?’
            ‘Oh,’ I said. ‘He was mighty.’

And then we were off to the races. We talked about Willie Mullins and we talked about human health and we talked about age and we talked about gratitude. We talked about the family. We were serious and we made jokes.

I snapped the telephone shut and realised that I was no longer cross. The day was saved. All it took was a fond voice and some happy memories. Such a little, ordinary thing, I thought; such a miraculous effect.

Someone sent me flowers yesterday, because I had been under the weather. That was a small thing too, but I found it amazingly touching. They sit on my desk as I write and I think: somebody took the time and thought to do that. It makes me smile.

The second small thing was to do with trying your best. I’m a huge believer in trying, although I don’t always live up to my best.

I’ve got another secret project on the go. The first secret project is no longer secret. It exists in the world. It is a book called The Happy Horse and I published it myself on Amazon because I could not face the doleful meetings with the traditional publishers. (‘You’re writing about a happy what????’) It is now galloping about under its own steam and real people are reading it and enjoying it and leaving kind reviews about it.

Self-publishing is terrifying and liberating at the same time. I have two manuscripts going through the conventional route, and that route is so slow and littered with potholes that I start the secret projects to keep me from running mad. The second secret project is going to go out on Amazon just like its sister. I’ve written a book about horses; now I’m doing one about humans.

The temptation was to press the button as quickly as possible. Apparently, once you exist in the world of the e-book, you have to get as much ‘product’ out there as you can. So I was dashing and rushing and ready to go. I had done my five drafts; I had done my platitude edit. And then I stopped, and took a deep breath, and decided to give it another polish. Do your best, I thought. Just because you have no editor, just because this is not an official, papery book, it does not mean you can fall into the slipshod.

And suddenly my stern eye saw all manner of the slightly second-rate. There were repeated phrases, the worn ones I get so fond of I use them over and over again. There were redundant adjectives. There was, I’m afraid to say, self-indulgence. There was a rather shaming amount of throat-clearing. (If in doubt, cut it out, shouted the joyful critics in my head.) Some of the paragraphing was frankly peculiar.

All the changes I am making are small changes: a word here, a sentence there. Probably, nobody would have noticed hugely if I had let the things stand. But perhaps, like a tiny mouse-scratch in the back of the mind, there would have been the falling sense that this was not quite as good as it could have been.

I don’t want the Dear Readers to have mice in their poor brains.

So I’m going through, a page at a time, looking not for the all right, not for the that will do, not for the just about cuts it. I’m looking for the best.  

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

The Small Things.

I am back. The blog has a new name. The thing itself is not new and improved, because I’m not twenty-two and can’t be reinventing myself all the time, but all the same, it feels a little like a new start.

I went away for ten different reasons. I was writing two books at once and I had taken on a new challenge with my mare, to train for a one-day-event for charity, so I had to think about getting fit and teaching her to jump. I was dealing with a certain amount of convoluted emotional stuff. Something had to give, and it was this.

It was oddly hard to come back. What is the point? I wondered. Does the world really need a blog by me in it? No, is the glorious answer, but writing is never to do with the world. It is to do with the mazy spaces of the frontal cortex. And the human heart, of course.

Sitting and thinking about things, one of my favourite hobbies, can be fatal. I thought of the sick in the bucket person. I thought: it really is not my aim in life to make people want to vomit. One of the things I try to teach myself is everyone must say what they say and think what they think and it has nothing to do with me. When someone comes in, all guns blazing, the trick is to let them. Ah yes, you tell yourself, there they are, and there they go, and now I’m off to look at a tree. Not getting bashed up by the opinions of critics is one of the marks of being a grown up. The not minding is easy if you are having a butch day. If you are having a vulnerable day, it’s not so easy.

Did I really want to open myself up to all that again? Why not simply shut up shop and let the armchair jockeys go and pick apart another race?

In the end, I came back because of a waitress. I was listening to the Today programme this morning and there was a story about a very old lady who used to go into her local café every day. Suddenly, she stopped.  The waitress got worried and called the police. The coppers went to the old lady’s house and found that she was stuck in the bath. She had been stuck for four days. Apparently, and this is where all my hats come off, she told herself to stay calm and be patient and not to panic. She kept the hot tap going to keep warm and drank from the cold tap to stay hydrated. I can’t remember exactly how old she was, but I think they said eighty-seven. She is one of the ones who would remember the Blitz, and rationing, and the nuclear panic, and the Cold War, and the three-day-week. That generation never fails to fill me with wonder and awe. If I could be a quarter as stoical as they are, I should think I had achieved something in life.

The waitress was interviewed about how she had saved this incredible lady’s life. She told her story without any showboat or swagger. ‘I was very pleased to see her again,’ she said. ‘I’m happy,’ she said, ‘that she is alive.’ Sarah Montague was practically in tears. She’d been doing stories about Mosul and ISIS all morning, and now she had the wonderful waitress and the doughty, courageous lady and it was almost too much for her. It was almost too much for me.

That, I thought, is the point of it all. That’s why the voices in my head say: write it down, write it down. In six weeks, or six months, or a year, when I have quite forgotten that shooting star of a story, that dazzling gleam of humanity, I shall be able to look back and remember. When the rain is falling, I shall have sunshine, in words.

The small things are what I cherish now. I used to run, full bore, into the big things. I thought that was what all my education was for. I must disentangle the Four Last  Things, and the Four Noble Truths, and the meaning of life if it kills me. Now I think: I have absolutely no clue about the big things. They are my Gordian knot, and my sword is not sharp enough. But oh, oh, the small things. I know the small things and love the small things and take comfort from the small things. I am the small things.

This blog is, to my sudden, flinging delight, going to get smaller and smaller. Eventually it will be so tiny that only bats can hear it. If you want the big things, there is always The Economist or the works of Aristotle. If you want the small things, this is your place.


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