Thursday, 16 February 2017

Another very kind gentleman.

A very sweet thing happened today. It was a small thing but it felt like a big thing.

I don’t accost famous people on social media. I don’t do it in real life, so I don’t do it online. I think famous people have a perfectly rotten time when it comes to privacy, so I believe it is only good manners to pretend that one does not recognise them at all.

There is also another thing about famous people on social media. If you reply to one of their posts or tweets it can be seen by everyone who follows you, so it can look as if you actually know the famous person and are slightly showing off about it. I find the whole thing excruciating, so I leave it alone.

This morning, however, I broke my golden rule. I did it without thinking.

In Britain, we have a much loved cricket commentator called Jonathan Agnew. He is a bit of a national treasure himself and he is part of the majestic and mighty national treasure that is Test Match Special. Test Match Special, for my foreign readers, is a radio show that broadcasts test matches in their entirety. That is right. The dear old BBC actually gives over five days of air at a time to the labyrinthine machinations of the long game. For quite long periods of this time, absolutely nothing is happening. The players are at lunch, or having a tea break, or taking time for a drink. There are no advertisements or pauses of any kind on TMS, so the commentators and pundits simply keep on talking. They make jokes, they read out letters and now tweets and texts from loyal listeners, they take the piss out of each other, they famously eat cake. The cake is sent in by the fans of the show. ‘And thank you so much to Mrs Miggins for the delicious Victoria sponge.’ (Even as I type this, I imagine readers in non-cricketing nations shaking their heads in bafflement.)

One of the idiosyncrasies of Test Match Special is that almost everyone gets a nickname. So Agnew is Aggers. There is also Tuffers, and Blowers, and Daggers; in the storied past there was one of the greatest of them all, the legendary Johnners.

I grew up with cricket and have vaguely followed cricket all my life. I remember people getting passionately excited about the devastating West Indies sides of my youth, and have vivid memories from my teenage years of the force of nature that was Ian Botham. I veer in and out of cricket consciousness, and I’ll never really know where a silly mid-on actually stands, but during the big tests, especially The Ashes, I will take days off to listen to Test Match Special. It is stitched into my cultural life as deeply as any British thing I know.

So, this morning, when I saw someone being disobliging to Aggers on Twitter, I wrote a line before I could think better of it. The disobliging person had accused Agnew of trying to be cool and was very disparaging about it, so I wrote: ‘you will always be cool to me’. Of course the absurdity of all this is that no cricket commentator in the history of the game has ever been cool, tried to be cool, or even thought about the nature of coolness. This is cricket, not indie pop. Blowers, the current elder statesman of the Test Match Special Team, will exclaim ‘Oh, I say’ at an extravagant shot and calls everyone, from ten-year-old fans to cabinet ministers ‘My dear old thing’. But in their anti-cool, in their sublime indifference to fads and fashions, in their absolute adoration for this inexplicable game, the TMS posse are in some ways the very definition of cool. So I was half joking and half serious.

I sat there feeling slightly embarrassed. Poor Aggers. He must be accosted by strangers every day. Each morning, his letterbox must be stuffed with charity requests and offers of speaking engagements and a myriad of demands. And now some middle-aged female was sending him rather familiar tweets.

I looked at the dogs, ruing the day. They stared back, entirely unimpressed.

And then there was a little bing and a bong and there was a reply. And it wasn’t just the usual thumbs up sod off cursory reply that I would have expected. It was the full 140 characters and it had a joke in it and it wished me a lovely day.

I was amazed. That, I thought, is a proper human being. He’s just as nice in life as he sounds on my wireless. It was such a tiny thing, but it can be hard replying to complete strangers on the internet. There’s a thing about tone and it’s not very British and it’s just awkward. Sometimes, it’s easier to ignore the whole thing. There are minefields and elephant traps everywhere. But Aggers did it with grace and style and put a smile on my face.

I’m thinking a lot about kindness at the moment. That was kind, I thought. Do one kind thing every single day, I thought, and the world will be a slightly brighter place. From wherever he was, Aggers shone a ray of light this morning, and it fell on me.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Kindness, kindness and yet more kindness.

Someone I love did something so elegant, so courteous, so big-hearted today that it left me without words. I mouthed helplessly at the telephonic instrument. Adjectives ran through my head like ticker-tape, but none of them was good enough. In the end, rather faintly, I said: ‘You are the greatest gentleman I know.’

Apart from the elegance and the gentlemanliness and the goodness and the general rising above the petty and the common and the mean, there was an enormous amount of kindness in what my Great Gentleman did. It was kindness on an epic scale; kindness as a force that could move mountains or change the world or transform the weather.  It was kindness not as a sweet, bland, mimsy thing but as a muscular, transformative, difficult thing. Sometimes the easy thing is not to be kind. The easy thing is to be cross and resentful and self-regarding and entitled and filled with blame and bile. The easy thing is to stomp and rant and shout and roar and point the finger. You, you over there, you are to blame for my misfortune or my rotten luck or my shitty day.

To be kind is often to rise above all that cheap clamour. It is to expand the heart, not narrow the eyes and shrink the mind. It is the big rather than the small, the generous rather than the mean, the empathetic rather than the selfish.

I quite often think about the people who don’t make the headlines. I mean the people who really are rather heroic in their daily lives. They don’t win Oscars or Grammys; they don’t hit the front page or rake in fat salaries. But they face chronic pain with dignity or bear aching hearts under bright smiles or incrementally, quietly, resolutely make the world a slightly better place. I spoke to a friend today who demonstrates a daily bravery. He would loathe the word and find it embarrassing, but luckily he does not read this blog so I can speak of his stoicism and courage. Every day he faces one of those situations that is near unbearable, that stretches the human heart to its limit, that is lacerating and unfair. He does not make a fuss. He does not ask for special treatment. He never, ever complains, not even by the tone of his voice. He is one of the millions of people who privately, away from the clamour and the spotlight, do something remarkable in their ordinary lives.

I think of virtues like that too. I think kindness is one such. It doesn’t sound very sexy or thrilling. It’s not a song and dance virtue. It does not wear a top hat and tails and shimmer and shine like Fred Astaire. It sometimes sounds a little like a consolation prize. (‘Well, she was no beauty, but she was really very kind.') But the older I get and the more bashed about the edges and the more impatient with the superficial and the specious, the more I cherish bone-deep, authentic, no messing virtues like kindness. 

My Great Gentleman rose in greatness today, although the odds were all stacked against him, and I watched him in awe and wonder. ‘You know,’ I said, ‘if I could love you more, which obviously I couldn’t, I would.’ He laughed for quite a long time. 

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Ride straight. Or: the importance of the great teachers.

Today I did something I was afraid of. I jumped a course of jumps. 
Last year I signed up for a charity challenge to do a one-day-event. I haven’t done dressage or cross-country or show-jumping since I was fifteen and I’m now fifty. Since getting my red mare I went back to scratch and educated myself in an entire new school of horsemanship, which I’m just getting the hang of. She herself was bred for the flat, went for polo after racing, and has never competed in a show in her life.
Of course we would sign up. It’s for charity.
The jumping scares me witless. It scares me because I’m afraid of having a crash and wounding myself and not being able to look after the animals and it scares me because I’m afraid that I will make a fool of myself in front of people. You’d think I’d be used to making a fool of myself but apparently I’m not. Or there are some fools that are more equal than others. Or something.
Despite all this, today the mare and I rode three miles down the valley and jumped a course, in front of many people and with many, many opportunities for folly. And I did not fall off and we did not have a crash and I was so enchanted with the brilliance of the red mare that I did not care what anyone thought.
It was very wonderful and I did a lot of whooping and felt quite proud because I had faced my fears, but the big life lesson is that I did not do it on my own. I had a teacher. I accepted help. I am very, very bad at accepting help. I have some bizarre need to do everything on my own. I don’t want to be that demanding, needy, hopeless person who haunts my imagination like a cautionary tale.
One day, I shall get it into my thick head that everyone can’t do everything by themselves. No man is an island, and no woman either.
There are lots of interesting and clever tactics to boost one’s own confidence and many psychological aspects to ponder and many books to read. Such things should be pondered. If one can make a thing better, so one should. But nothing, nothing, builds confidence like someone who has faith in you. And I mean proper faith. Not mimsy, molly-coddling, oh you sweet thing of course you can do it kind of bollocks. That’s no good. The gentle hand on the shoulder, the sympathetic look in the eye, the consoling note in the voice that teeters on the abyss of the patronising – no, no, none of that is what you need. What is required, what makes all the difference, is someone who stands on the ground and shouts: ‘Ride straight.’ Because that person knows you can ride straight, and wants you to ride straight, and has the belief that you can ride straight, and then, suddenly, like a flapping great miracle straight from flappy old heaven, with celestial choirs singing their heads off and everyone playing their harps, you ride straight. Yes, you damn well do.
I don’t really know how it works. Some people simply are great teachers. I had one, years ago, who made me feel I could do anything. He was called Mr Woodhouse and I can see him now, with his quizzical look and that faintly fanatical gleam in his eye. All the other teachers thought I worked hard but missed the top grade. (Eager, but a little bit second-rate, intellectually.) Mr Woodhouse thought I could go all the way. And when I walked through the great arch into Canterbury Quad for the first time, it was completely because of him.
University wasn’t a thing in my family. My brothers and sister did not go. My mother did not go. My dad went for about five minutes, found it all ‘far too difficult’ and gave up academic work and ran the drag and went for sherry once a week with Hugh Trevor-Roper (‘have you heard of him, darling?’) until it was decided with great goodwill and enormous mutual relief that he should go down. I had one eccentric Irish godmother who insisted I should go to Oxford but everything thought that a tremendous joke until Mr Woodhouse, who was a very serious man indeed, coached me through the exam and got me there.
Some teachers just have that gift, that special extra something, the thing that does not quite go neatly into words. They look like everyone else and they sound like everyone else and they don’t seem to do anything extraordinary, but it’s all Dead Poets’ Society with them. It’s Captain my bloody Captain and standing on the desks and thinking perhaps one can be remarkable after all.
And that is why I did the thing I was afraid of today, not because I was brave, or I was clever, or I was bold, but because there was one of those talented ones, on the ground, shouting ‘Ride straight.’
They were tiny little fences. This charity thing is entirely obscure and will be over in the blink of an eye and people will hardly know it even happened. But it’s huge to me. It’s quite weird when both your parents die. It’s so normal and natural and expected. It’s what happens to everyone. You are fifty years old and you know how life works; you know about funerals and grief and letting go of the Dear Departeds. Inside, however, there is a voice that is wailing: I’m an orphan, I’m on my own, I don’t know what happens next. No wonder I ran headlong into a challenge. It was some kind of existential howl of mere presence: look at me, I am not nothing, I can do stuff.

I feel as if I have to reinvent my life now out of whole cloth. Everyone has gone. The dear Stepftather has gone to the south and the nieces have gone to the south and my sister and brother-in-law have gone to the south. There was a family enclave and now there is me and the lurchers and the two mares. I don’t know that I leaned on that family but it was there and it felt like something. My mother was a quarter of a mile away and I saw her every morning. I made her breakfast and I made her laugh. And now that’s all gone and all changed and there are great open spaces where people once were. 
So I have to learn to ride straight. I have to make new paths in those open spaces, carve new tracks in the trackless wastes. I need confidence for that, and hope, and a voice in my head that says you can do this, just like I had today, over those absurdly small jumps that frighten me so much.
Ride straight, my darlings; ride straight. 

Monday, 13 February 2017

Eight Days. Or: still absolutely no idea what I am talking about.

Eight days without cigarettes!!! EIGHT DAYS. Clearly this has reduced me to Trumpian capitals and exclamation marks. Which is yugely sad. 
There is no nicotine in my body. (My poor, poor body; what I have been doing to it.) The usual four thousand chemicals – can that really be true? – are no longer being pumped through my veins.

I’m going to try not to become a stop smoking bore. I think there will always be a part of me that loves it even though I know it uses its power for evil rather than for good. There will always be a part of me that loves the reckless smoker, the one who doesn’t give a fuck, that person I always thought I wanted to be. Hell, roll the dice, take the chance, shoot in the dark. I didn’t want to be sensible and think about the future and be the grown-up. I have a faintly rueful sense that I am saying goodbye to some odd fantasy of myself as a swaggery rule-breaker.

The funny thing is that this morning I went down to my red mare and obeyed all the rules. I’m training for a charity challenge to do a one-day-event this year and we’ve got to work hard and get our no messing hats on. Today, instead of being a bit cavalier about it as I can sometimes be, I went through the correct steps in the correct order. I did not throw caution to the winds, but kept caution safely in my pocket. We’ll do this, and then the next thing, and then the other thing I said; everything in its proper place. And it was tremendously proper and I bloody well was the grown-up and it didn’t feel dull at all. It was so lovely it made me laugh.

The brain is still not working well and my concentration is still buggered and I am still incredibly tired. Years and years of shit are being excavated I suppose and my poor neuronal pathways are having to be reset or something. I go to bed at seven-thirty like an old lady. The dogs think this is hysterical and sprawl all over the blankets with their paws in the air as if they are doing a special dance or practising circus skills.

I would like to sharpen up. I miss being sharp. But I’m starting to think I don’t miss the thing itself. I think I feared missing the idea of the thing, the fantasies that went along with the thing, the luring associations that clung to the thing. I think perhaps that is the hardest part to put down. 

Friday, 10 February 2017

Concentration buggered.

Concentration absolutely buggered. Is that in the literature? I can’t remember, since I’ve got no concentration. I go to the Google every five minutes and type things like: ‘stop smoking – nicotine’ and ‘stop smoking – dopamine’ and ‘STOP SMOKING HELP’. Then I read like a mad woman and then five minutes later I can’t remember what any of  it said.

I think I’m supposed to be cranky. I’m not especially cranky. This morning at HorseBack (stay outside, stay outside) I was actually quite perky. There was a very lovely group of visitors and they and the horses were all doing good work and the sun was shining off the snow and life seemed filled with point and meaning. I need point and meaning and am happy when I have them. I really am awfully simple.
But then I had to go inside to my desk to finish my HorseBack work and the concentration was so bad I had to make a list. The list said things like: ‘Do Work. Write Blog. Do HorseBack Pictures. Write Red Mare Post. Walk Dogs. Give Horses Hay.’ I’m surprised it did not say: ‘Breathe In and Out. Put One Foot In Front Of Another.’
I’m also very, very slow. It’s taken me all day to do the HorseBack stuff. I’m going to have to send a shame-faced note to my agent telling her that a deadline needs to be pushed.
Still, the hugely good news is that I think my dopamine receptors or producers or whatever they are called are still working. Apparently, too much nicotine can trash the poor little darlings almost beyond redemption. But I only have to look at a photograph of my thoroughbred with snow on her ears or Darwin the Dog with icicles on his whiskers to feel happy and glad. So that really is something. Five minutes after the happiness and gladness the shouty voices yell ‘Smoke the world!!!’ and I beadily take their measure and decide that they are more annoying than anything. I can deal with a bit of annoyance. I don’t enjoy it but it’s not the end of everything. I can go back to the sweet pictures of my dear animals and get my dopamine shot.
I just wish I did not feel that I am having to relearn the English language and the rudiments of actual life. But I expect that it just a thing. And I expect it will pass. It will be quite lovely to be able to write a coherent sentence again. I am looking forward to that day.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Just imagine that.

I blink at the screen like a confused owl, slightly amazed by so many kind comments, both here and even more on Facebook. I always find it astonishing that it is the posts about hopelessness and fecklessness and pointlessness that get the biggest and most generous response. In a world gone mad, I tell myself I must be cheerful and fine, that the tap shoes must go on and the show tunes be sung. Nobody wants to read about someone else’s problems, not when the world is so oppressed. No, no, no, make ‘em laugh make ‘em laugh make ‘em laugh; that’s the ticket.

In fact, when I write cheery posts, they are usually read by three men and a dog. When I lose the edit button and have a proper wail, a chorus of strangers rises up to cry: me too.

I do know this and I always forget this and I’m always amazed by this.

Still, I should not let this reminder allow me to tumble into self-indulgence. This is not going to become a misery memoir. I’m going to keep it snappy. Because you know, the will to live.

So, it is now Day Four. To my intense delight, my mouth no longer feels as if someone has lit a match in it. I feel this is surely a great step forward. Every single Google search informs me that my body is now free of nicotine. Each human I meet seems inordinately pleased that I shall no longer be ruthlessly poisoning myself. 

I spend a lot of time outside. I never smoked outside, it was always a thing of office and desk and work, so I pull my trapper’s hat over my eyes and stump off to HorseBack and do work there. When I get back, I take longer than usual with my own horses. I find myself riding and laughing at five in the afternoon, because the end of the day was always a real smoking point. If I’m outside, if I’m with the good equines, then I’m all right.

And then I go inside and this crazy haze of voices starts yelling at me: fuck everyone, fuck it all, smoke your head off. Go on, shout the voices, you are not one of those bourgeois sensible people who do the right thing. You are a creative, you know no rules, you should live on the edge, play a little Russian Roulette. And besides, shout the wild voices, what about Great-Aunt-Nellie with her forty Woodbines a day and her still doing the Can-Can at ninety?

I start to tell the voices to shut up. They are so loud and sweary and sneery. They think I am a bore. Giving up smoking is such a bore. Depriving oneself of anything is a bore.

Then I think: no, no, First Amendment, freedom of speech, no safe spaces in this brain. So when I am walking back from the horses in the chill and the gloaming, I say, out loud, to the shouty voices: why do you want me to smoke?

They get a bit stuttery and shuffly. They don’t really know. They’ve got a slight self-destructive kick that they don’t especially want to talk about and there’s something about dulling the senses that they can't entirely explain. The shouty voices don’t really want to admit it but sometimes they find the world a bit much. It’s all a bit too big and scary and indecipherable and if they are busy smoking they’ve got a faint haze between them and the impossible stuff.

I stare at the shouty voices. ‘Oh my goodness,’ I say to them. ‘You are more properly nuts than I am. You actually believe that if you stay in your room and smoke you won’t have to worry quite so much about what is going on in the labyrinthine head of Donald Trump.’

They really are shuffling their feet now. They sort of do think that.

Somehow, I have no idea how, smoking for me has become a retreat, a pulling up of the drawbridge, a defence. I feel startled and mildly ashamed. I thought I was the bold sort who looked fears in the whites of their eyes. It turns out I’d really like to stop the world and get off. It turns out that I’ve turned tobacco into some kind of analgesic.

So the cravings come, hard now, with all their bonkers irrationality and their shouty voices. I reckon I’ve had about eight today and I’ve seen them off with a variety of tactics.

Tomorrow, I think, faintly, my cilia might start moving again. The cilia are beautiful and vital and I was paralysing them. Imagine, I say sternly to the shouty voices, those little darlings wafting about again like Noel Coward wannabees at a cocktail party or young artists interpreting the world through the medium of dance.

Just imagine that.  

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

I put that gasper down

I have given up smoking.

I feel rather stupidly embarrassed that I should have to write that sentence, because what the buggery bollocks was I doing, smoking in the first place?

I grew up in the Lambourn valley in the seventies and everybody smoked except for my dad, who never fancied it. The trainers used to smoke at first lot, sitting on their hacks, and the owners smoked and the vets smoked and the farriers smoked and the jockeys smoked and the lads smoked. Away from real life, away from the downs with the larks on the wing, in all the old black and white films I loved, every luminous star smoked. Humphry Bogart smoked and Lauren Bacall smoked and in order to show they were really sexy leading men used to light two cigarettes and hand one to Bette Davies. (In her pre-Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? days.)

But then there were the eighties and nineties and people learnt about health and death and mortality figures. So then I had no excuse. I couldn’t simply dream of Lauren Bacall any more. It was all fag ash Lil and get your leg amputated.

I gave up a couple of times and then started again. It really was my drug. How I loved my addiction, my jailer, the brute on my back. I loved the white and gold Marlboro packets and the rustle of the silver paper in the top and the first puff on a new stick. I loved buying fags by the yard, as if stocking up on some unimaginable luxury; staring happily at the rows of shiny packs, pushing into the box marked Denial the fact that I might as well take out a stack of fivers and burn them on a bonfire. 

I ruthlessly ignored the slight rasp in my throat and the faint sense of burning in the mouth. (There is a point where your mouth feels permanently singed, but you, being an idiot, decide that’s actually quite pleasurable. That is how far in the black hole you are.) I can’t give up these beautiful things because they are my friends and they’ve been with me since I was a teenager when my family was in turmoil and I didn’t have anywhere to live and I changed houses like they were buses and my mum was in tears all the time. But I had my crafty, secret fags and my secret smoking buddies and that sort of made everything all right.

Actually, I suddenly realise this is not what I mean to write at all. The ancient history is ancient, and quite dull. I meant to say that I have been coiled in cognitive dissonance for the last couple of years: thinking I loved something that I knew was going to kill me. That’s a sodding big stone in the mental shoe. I’m sometimes a bit sniffy about people in cognitive dissonance, but now I see perhaps that was Freudian projection, because I was dissonancing all over the damn shop. There is no justification for something that will do the human body so much ill, but the magical mind, the addicted mind, the scared mind will make up such stories.

I even believed that I would be the freak who would get away with it. Everyone had a Great-Aunt Nellie who lived till ninety and was on sixty Woodbines a day and still cracking on. I would be Great-Aunt Nellie.

In the end, it had to stop. I was so embarrassed that I was fifty and still smoking that I did not want to tell anyone. I’ll just quietly stop and then everyone will forget I was so silly, I thought.

In my evil, arcane mind a voice was saying: don’t tell anyone because you’ll give in after a week and if you haven’t told a soul, nobody will know you have failed.

Now I stare that voice in its maniacal, lizard brain face and say: fuck off. I want to ride until I am eighty and I don’t want my leg cut off and I don’t want to stop and catch my breath halfway up the stairs. I don’t want to make my nieces cry because I died ten years before I needed to. I want to have those ten years so I can read all the books and write all the books. And if I tell people then I have witnesses. Not witnesses to scold or suggest or offer advice, I don’t want them, but witnesses to witness. Everybody needs a witness. If I fail, I fail, and I’ll tell you about that too.

So, I slink out of the shadows, looking about like a wary night creature, wondering if people will laugh and point. It’s been three days now and I can’t tell you what it’s like. It’s nothing like before. Those two efforts were a piece of piss. This is like being kicked all over by a furious Shetland pony or being trapped under a heavy piece of furniture. Everything hurts. I don’t really even want a cigarette because my whole body has gone into spasm and all I can think of is the physical pain. I drink pints and pints of water and make acres of green soup. I clamber out of bed, walk the dogs, see to the horses, and then collapse back under the blankets. I put the Rachel Maddow Show on like a bedtime story, so I drift in and out of feverish sleep with the latest Trump iniquity threading through my dreams.

It is exactly like having a very heavy flu. Is this, I wonder, astonished, what I have done to my body?

The first two days are all sleeping and hydrating. I so, so wish I could tell you I simply made the decision, had a nice cup of ginger tea, and got on with it. I can’t stand those people who make a five act opera of everything. But I’m afraid this was quite dramatic. I could not function on any meaningful level, and I was embarrassed about that, too.

Then I ran into a dear friend in the chemist. I had gone for Panadol, for the pain. She looked absurdly beautiful and healthy. It was a dour, dull day and she shone into it like a radiant sunbeam. ‘I’ve given up smoking,’ I blurted out. She was my first witness. She looked perfectly delighted and not judgy at all. I went home and put some more Trumpian lunacy on the computer and went back to my strange, fractured sleep.

Today, I feel more like a human. I went up to HorseBack to do some work and meet some new people and some old people. I wondered if I looked or sounded slightly peculiar, but I busked it. Luckily I had one of those mad trapper’s hats to hide under, the kind I always think that countrywomen in Canada must wear, with the fur and the flaps.

I go home and have a sudden yearning for my old friends. Just one, I think, couldn’t do any harm. Surely? I eat more green soup instead.

This is a bit of a bastard for me because all my life I’ve believed in willpower. A barrister once said to me: ‘You can’t make things happen simply through an act of will.’ I thought: that’s all you know, arguing things you don’t believe for money. (This was pure defiance, since really I have a vast respect for barristers.) The awful thing is that I always did think that will would be enough. I was not naturally terribly clever, but I swotted away with so much furious determination that I passed all the exams. I’m not naturally a brilliant rider, but I went to Mrs Payne and Anthea the Dressage Coach and gritted my teeth and kicked on and won more prizes than I probably should have. It was will that drove me on, in school and on ponies; will, and a sort of cussed refusal to be beaten. If I did not have will, then I had nothing.

But that smug old advocate was right: will alone is not enough. Nicotine is a sneaky bastard and smoking is so psychologically convoluted that just saying no doesn’t quite cut it. How I wish it did. It makes me cross that it doesn’t.

I have given up smoking. I’ve told you now. You are my witnesses. I feel like crap and I feel relieved and I feel livid and I feel liberated and I feel melancholy and I feel bright as new paint and I feel despairing and I feel fired with hope. All at the same time. It’s bloody tiring but I think it is worth it.

Friday, 3 February 2017


I'm in a huge work storm just now, so I'm going to have a little break from the blog.

For those of you who like the horse stuff, there is the red mare page on Facebook. I have to write a bulletin there every day, because I'm training for a charity challenge to do a one-day-event this autumn. I want to record our progress so I can see where we are and what we still have to do.

For those of you who like the dog stuff, there are obviously many, many Stanley and Darwin pictures on Facebook too.

I love this dear old blog. It's where I come to stash my happy memories, so that one day I may dig them up when I am old and grey. It's where, occasionally, I admit to my hurts and weaknesses, on the days when I can no longer do a tap dance. It's where I remind myself about the small things and how important they are. I love that there are Dear Readers here who have been with me from the start and put up kindly with all my idiosyncrasies.

I don't want to do it from duty, stuffing it into five minutes at the end of a fraught day. So I'm going to run into the work storm with my special all-weather hat on and let this space lie fallow for a week or two. Back soon.

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

A very, very happy day.

Despite the fact that I was pretending to be very butch about it, I was rather dreading hitting fifty. I know it’s only a number and it doesn’t really mean anything, but I felt the cruel whoosh of life galloping past my ears and wanted to say stop.

As is so often the case, the dread of the thing was nothing like the thing itself.

The thing was bloody marvellous.

Once I was in it, I realised I didn’t feel any different and that age could be a mere state of mind. (I expect I won’t think that when I’m eighty and I have to be winched onto my horses with ropes, groaning about my replacement hips, but fifty can exist in the mind for now.) I had one of the most glorious days I can remember. The bright frost glittered and gleamed and the sun shone and the dogs raced along the burn and I cantered the red mare up the hill to look at the snowy mountains.

Family and friends rang up and sent messages and I talked and talked and talked. I got sweet presents and enchanting cards. Two of the people I love most in the world staged a birthday surprise of epic proportions. My jaw actually fell open as if I were in a cartoon and I lost the power of speech, which is not something that happens to me very often. It was more surprising and more brilliant than if Sir Mark Todd and Sir AP McCoy had pitched up singing show tunes. (I think everyone needs a brace of singing equine knights in their lives.)

Fifty, schmifty, I thought. This is a blast. I want to be fifty every day and twice on Sundays.

One of the most touching things was my Facebook page. I scrolled down message after message, making little ah-ing noises and letting out rueful chuckles and sudden shouts of laughter. There were horse pictures and dog pictures and antic emoticons by the score. There were messages from close family and extended family, people I knew when I was a child, friends from my teens whom I have not seen for thirty years, the best beloveds I talk to every week and the ones I have not seen for too long because I never get to the south just now. 

There were the internet friends – people I’d met on Twitter whilst cheering some great chaser home, and people I’d run into on horsemanship forums, where we had discussed how to get a soft canter on a loose rein. There were people I’d bonded with over the intricacies of herd behaviour or people I’d become friends with because they remembered my dad in his glory days. There were people who’d found me through the red mare and her little brown cousin, or their love of my sweet Stanley’s adorable lurcher ears, or their delight in dancing Darwin the Dog. There were the blogging people, my first online buddies, and the people who shared my adoration of the thoroughbred, and the people who would not know one end of a horse from the other but who sweetly and patiently accept my equine obsession. There were my HorseBack veterans, who  put up with my bad jokes and strange hats and my habit of yelling at them to hold it right there because I've found the perfect angle with my camera even though they know perfectly well I don't have a clue what I'm doing. There were people from Australia and America and New Zealand and all parts of this dear old island nation.

There is a fashion in certain circles to sneer at the internet. Oh that social media, say the sceptical; don’t you have a real life to go to? For me, real life and virtual life trot together as happily and harmoniously as the Queen’s Windsor Greys coming down the straight mile at the Royal Meeting. But there is no doubt that there is a lot of ugliness out there in the wilder corners of the web. The opposing political gangs square up against each other and the gender wars break out as if the Pankhursts never happened and only this morning I saw some toughs cursing at each other because they could not agree on what was going to win the Gold Cup. (‘Thistlecrack? Cunt.’ At which point I felt slightly faint and had to go and have a little sit-down in a darkened room.)

But there, there on my page was this generous, embracing, expanding expression of human kindness and affection. I write a huge amount of nonsense every day and put up idiotic amounts of horse and dog pictures and sometimes get all hippy dippy on your arse because I do really want to teach the world to sing, and I often forget the edit button and sometimes let my flakiest self roar around like a Mongolian pony out on the Steppe. Even I sometimes wonder if I am going to be arrested by the Too Much Police. And yet nobody seemed to mind and they all took the time to say happy birthday and make the horse and dog jokes and I smiled so hard my cheeks ached with it.

There is a lot of crossness and a lot of intemperance and a lot of the very worst of human nature running around unchecked on the social media, but there is the very best of human nature too, and I think that wins. It won yesterday, for me. It won in a canter with its head in its chest. It will definitely stay the extra two furlongs and if it were running in the Gold Cup I'd back it ante-post right this minute, even against Thistlecrack himself.

I can’t thank all those kind people enough. Faith in human nature can be a fragile thing and sometimes when I am insisting on believing the best instead of the worst I feel as if I am rolling a boulder up a hill. Not yesterday. The dazzling Facebook posse made my day.

Friday, 27 January 2017

In which I am a little bit of a wimp.

I wrote a long and rather serious and possibly controversial blog today. Then I stared at it in doubt. Did I really want to wade into those treacherous waters? Did I want the comments section to turn into a debating club? Did I want to set angry hares running?

It’s a sweet, sunny, mild day outside, and I spent the morning taking a four-year-old friend to see the horses – ‘Can I make their breakfast? Can I brush them? That looks like a good brush.’ Then I went and did my HorseBack work and then I came back and did my own work. My horrid bug has gone, and I made some excellent carrot soup. Everything was small and quiet and rather lovely.

No, I thought, pressing the delete button, I don’t want to get into bomb-throwing. I think it’s probably rather pusillanimous of me, but I don’t feel sturdy enough to take the slings and arrows. I’ve always been rather envious of the people who love nothing more than a juicy shouting match, but I loathe confrontation. I have the slightly tragic yearning for little birds in their nests to agree. 

Someone said something to me this morning with which I radically disagreed, and I bent over backwards to see his point. It was his point, after all, and he felt very strongly about it, and who was I to take it away from him? So I scrabbled about until I could find some common ground on which we could stand, and, rather diffidently and with much use of irony, I put a little of my opposing point of view, and we tacitly agreed to disagree. He said his piece and I said my piece and it was not an argument at all.

As I was making the soup, I stood in the kitchen and thought: I’d like only to write kind things about people. There are politicians and pundits out there who drive me batshit nuts in the head. I think some of them are using their power for evil instead of good and I think some of them are not decent human beings. I could leap onto my soapbox and rant and wail; I could run for the moral high ground and plant my flag. Occasionally, I do, but I always feel rather grubby afterwards. Am I so flawless? Is my opinion so important? Does my voice really need to be heard?

Yet I think of all the people who did shout and did protest and did stand up and be counted. Without them, I would not have the life I have. The suffragettes fought a bloody good fight, and I’m not sure they did that so I could stay silent and keep my head down and not frighten the horses.

I can’t work out where the balance lies. I’m always looking for balance, and I’m never quite sure that I find it.

On the Today Programme this morning, Jim Naughtie was talking about Tam Dalyell, who has died. ‘He was a man of immense kindness,’ said Naughtie. Yes, yes, I thought; that is an obituary. That is how I would like to be remembered. Kindness, kindness and more kindness. I used to want to be remembered for charm and wit and brilliance. (I was very young and very idiotic.) Now, I’d like to be thought of as kind. It’s not very cinematic and it won’t make any headlines, but without it, there is nothing.

That’s why I slightly hate myself when I start waving my critical flag. Even if the criticism is well-founded, it still makes me feel a little shoddy and arrogant and cheap. But without the good critics, there is no progress. I don’t want to be a carper, but I don’t want to be a wimp either. Couldn’t it be like training a dog, says my slightly tragic hippy voice. Ignore the bad and reward the good? Instead of wading into every fray with all guns blazing, hunt down the good stuff, the hopeful stuff, the kind stuff, and shine a light on that instead? Could that be my mission, should I choose to accept it? 

Thursday, 26 January 2017


I’ve been feeling a bit ropey for the last few days. People in the village say there is a bug going round. But I don’t have time for bugs: I have work to do and livestock to look after. (At one point, I decided that I was feeling slightly ill because of the Trump bug. Every time I saw the footage that is going round the internet of him ignoring his wife on the steps of the White House I felt faintly sick.)

Today, the buggery bastard bug got me, so instead of soldiering on I went back to bed and slept and slept and slept. My kind friend saw to the horses and I could cancel everything. I am typing this with palsied fingers and a rather swimmy head but I’ll be better tomorrow.

In the swimmy head, some random thoughts twist and dive. They are mostly to do with the fact that I am fifty in four days. I’ve been practising for this milestone for the last six months by saying in life and writing on the page ‘I am fifty years old’.

The rational part of me knows this is just a number and does not really mean anything. The irrational part is going: holy fuck, I am FIFTY YEARS OLD. The zeitgeist, which must always have its say, tells me that fifty is a big deal for a female. It is the age, apparently, when you become invisible. I’ve never had a problem with this. I think it’s because I was never a beauty. I’m exactly as visible now as I was when I was twenty because my schtick is not a dewy complexion and ravishing cheekbones, which may be ravaged by age, but bad jokes and antic conversations about the meaning of life and eccentric hats. The hats are getting more important as I get older and nobody can ignore a woman in a hat.

What I do have a problem with is the slightly odd idea that being fifty means I should be a grown-up. I don’t really know what this means, but my Mary Poppins voice is telling that it is something to which I should aspire. I’m not quite sure how to be a grown-up. Today, in the spirit of adulthood, I decided to deal with one of my piles. Even though I was feeling very tottery from the horrid bug, I stared beadily at the pile and thought I had its measure. My life is made up of piles – papers, laundry, clothes, things I can’t always identify. I shove the piles into baskets and corners and the Cupboard of Doom and tell myself tragically that because I am a creative I simply don’t have the organising gene.

This pile was of clothes. Why I can’t fold them up and put them away like a normal person I have no idea. Anyway, I dragged them out of their muddly basket and sorted through them, and there, to my delight, was a very old friend. It was my favourite cashmere cardigan. It was the one that never bobbled and never got moth and never shrunk in the wash and never lost its shape. ‘Oh,’ I said, out loud, ‘there you are.’

It’s about fifteen years old and I could not remember where I’d got it. Was it one from the glory days, when I had some cash and used to indulge myself? Was it from Harvey Nichols or that chic little boutique in Cirencester where the Beloved Cousin and I once bought the most elegant Danish coats? (Best coat I ever had. Nothing like the Danes for coats, I discovered.) I looked at the label, and laughed and laughed. It was from Marks and Spencer. Dear, dear old Marks and Sparks, in the days when they weren’t trying to do fashion, but simply made lovely, honest basics, the kind of clothing you really needed rather than thought you should wear because some magazine said so.

I don’t know why this made me so happy, but it did. I’ve never been a fashiony girl, although very occasionally I would go mad with a famous name. I have a Dolce and Gabbana coat that I bought when I was twenty-seven and it is so beautiful that it hangs now on my bedroom door and I gaze at it as if it were an artwork. I have a Vivienne Westwood jacket which is so groovy that every time I put it on I feel as if I am a character in a novel. But I never had the knack for modishness and now I spend most of my time surrounded by mud and hay and live in a uniform of Gap jeans and sensible jumpers and sturdy gumboots. It felt right that my favourite lost garment was not from some storied designer but from a shop which is as plain and British as Marmite and talking about the weather.

I thought about the plans I had for my landmark birthday. I was going to write a best-seller and give a huge party in the cow barn opposite my house and all the old friends would come and we would dance like we used to when we were eighteen. The rather shaming part of me thought they might bring loot. There might be more cashmere cardigans and the Fairfax and Favor boots I yearn for and perhaps a jewel. Because you know, fifty requires some serious presents.

As it is, I’m on an economy drive and there will be no party and I found my favourite old garment so I don’t need any presents. The family is scattered all over the place and my mum and dad aren’t here any more and it will be just like any ordinary Monday. Two of the people I love most in the world are going to give me a cocktail and that’s all I want. The only present of which I dream, I suddenly realise, is a lifetime supply of the good hay from the kind farmer. (Although if Amigo suddenly rang up and said they were choosing the red mare as their new model and giving her a set of their unbelievably smart rugs I would die of happiness.)

I won’t be dancing and I don’t think I’ll suddenly turn into a grown-up and I won’t stare at my face and cry because it has wrinkles on it. I think perhaps I might feel a little more galvanised: time is shooting past me and I’ve got to write all those damn books that dance in my head. The anticipation of fifty is a thing, but then I’ll be it and it won’t really be a thing after all. I’ll ride my sweet mare and watch the dogs race along the burn and I’ll discuss with my friend in the feed shed when we should ring the kind farmer and get more of the good hay. I’ll feel passionately grateful that I have this Scotland and these hills and these trees. It wasn’t where I expected to end up, when I was young and wild and urban. I found my way here quite by chance. But the peace and the beauty are perhaps my best present of all.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

What old friends can do.

I am being a bit hopeless and goofy at the moment, so I’m feeling a bit hopeless and goofy. The hopelessness and goofiness did not arise as some amorphous emotion; they came because I’m doing some fairly stupid things I should not have not done, and not getting done the sensible things I should have done.

So: hopeless and goofy.

As I sit, trying to pull myself together, an adored old friend rings up. We talk about family and work and politics. We laugh a lot. There is good news about two best beloveds who are in remission from galloping cancers. The old friend is roaringly successful. He does things every day at his office that I cannot imagine. He’s worked incredibly hard all his life and he finally hit the jackpot and I was never more pleased for anyone, he deserved it so much. 

I tell him about some of the goofiness and hopelessness. He has never been hopeless or goofy in his life. He is clever and funny and practical and bloody brilliant. He does not scoff or sneer at my weaknesses. He does not seem even slightly surprised or horrified. He makes a joke and does some empathy and then gives me some sterling advice which I had asked for.

As the conversation comes to an end, he hands the telephone to another old friend, who wants to say hello. ‘We miss you,’ he says. ‘Come south soon.’

Both these men have done some really big stuff. They run things. They make a difference to things. They put in the hours and made it to the top of their fields. They, I think ruefully, would not let the horses wander off and leave hoofprints all over somebody’s lawn. (My poor landlord. I don’t know how he puts up with me.) They carry the garlands of success on their noble brows. But they are exactly the same as when we were all absurd teenagers together, thirty-two years ago. They have that slight sheen that comes with worldly success, as if an operative polishes them every day, but they have no bombast, no Trumpian swagger, no whiff of superiority. They are miles above me in the rankings, but it makes no difference. They still laugh at my jokes and render me speechless with hilarity and make me feel better with the very sound of their dear voices.

I sometimes think that failing is easy. Of course I don’t mean that entirely. Failing is horrible and makes me want to shout and swear and spit. But one has so much practice with failure. It’s deep in muscle memory. Everybody does it. Succeeding, however, can be hard. Not everyone knows what to do with success. Some people are ruined by it. I’ve known people who started chucking all their old friends once they grasped the golden ring, and would have odd dinners for famous people they had only met once. I’ve known people who really did change. Not my boys. They are as they ever were: most happy when they are poking fun at themselves. And not, for one second, afraid of the hopelessness and goofiness, which they take in their easy stride.

I put the telephone down, feeling as if the whole world is lighter and brighter and more explicable. That is what old friends can do.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

In which I make a rather sad bet.

I love reading journalists with whom I disagree. I think it’s very important, to keep that creaking old mind open. For years, I’ve read The New Statesman and The Speccie and probably shouted at them both equally. (I have to admit that The Spectator is funnier, and I think this may be because right-wing journalists are much less afraid of pissing people off, and so let rip in a way that the left-wing political commentators don’t dare.)

As I get older, I stomp more and more to the centre. I gave up tribalism years ago, mostly because it seemed to me to lead to such bad manners, and I’ve always had the fatal liberal disease of seeing both sides of every argument. The extremes on both sides tend to make me sad and cross. I like the calm, polite centrists who seem to embrace empiricism and rationalism, such as David Aaronovitch and Matthew D’Ancona and Philip Collins and Danny Finkelstein. I get very twitchy and doleful when I’m out on the edges with Melanie Phillips or Polly Toynbee or Owen Jones or Janet Daley. However, even with those four, I sometimes have the faintly startling feeling of occasionally agreeing.

There is one member of the commentariat who entertains me weekly but with whom I never agree, and that is James Delingpole. That does not mean he is right and I am wrong or the other way round; it simply means I’ve never in my life read a sentence of his and nodded my head and thought ‘you know, he’s really got a point’. This may be because he sets himself up on purpose as an antic contrarian, purposely insulting people like me whom he depicts as ghastly, elitist, bleeding heart wimps, huddling on the soggy middle ground and believing in climate change and the Scandi miracle.

This week, in The Speccie, he wrote a triumphant article claiming that Donald Trump is going to be the greatest president since Reagan.

I do not agree with this. Surprise, surprise.

I’m not going to cite chapter and verse. It’s not a fight that is worth having. I can list reams of half-truths, insults, flat-out lies and spurious promises, and those on the other side will simply say LIBERAL MEDIA, or but what about evil Killary? I can’t forgive the bullying and shaming of Ghazala Khan, whose son was killed in Iraq. The other side probably think I’m an idiot for minding. (I’m actually not sure what the defence of this egregious act was, and can’t imagine what defence there might be.)

Anyway, that’s not the point. I simply wanted to mark the moment. Delingpole thinks Trump is going to be the greatest. I think Trump will be the worst president since Nixon. In four years, one of us will be right and one will be wrong. The gambling part of me, the part that I inherited from my old dad, who was such a punter that when the racing was frozen off in winter he would go to the betting shop and put his money on the dogs even though he knew nothing of greyhounds, quite wants to put money on it.

The funny thing is that I’d adore to be wrong. I love America and I don’t want her to stagger and stumble. America is that incredibly rare thing: a country that is founded on an idea. Dear old Blighty grew up in true mongrel fashion: a bit of the Romans here, some Vikings there, oh look here come the Celts, and, zut alors, voila the Normans. There’s no founding notion, not even a written constitution. Ordinary Decent Britons believe in fair play, not blowing your own trumpet, queuing and a nice cup of tea. The Americans, on the other hand, who started from scratch with their radical notions and their frontier spirit, believe that all men are created equal (and women too, I expect) and that they have certain inalienable rights, which include life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That’s in the founding document. That is stirring stuff. That is an idea.

Of course the problem with soaring ideas is that frailed, flawed humans sometimes have trouble living up to them. But it’s something to aim for. It’s the mountain peaks, rather than the dirty valley. And I would hate to see that scuffled and shuffled underfoot.

365 Days of Shakespeare.

Comedy of Errors.

I missed my Shakespeare yesterday, as the day galloped away with me. This day was almost galloping too, but I sternly said: I can stop and have ten minutes of beauty. And the very first lines I read were these:

It is thyself, mine own self's better part,
Mine eye's clear eye, my dear heart's dearer heart,
My food, my fortune and my sweet hope's aim,
My sole earth's heaven and my heaven's claim.

There. That is beauty for you.

And, in a wicked twist of genius, Shakespeare then goes from swoony beauty to a festival of insults. Dromio and Antipholus have a very, very naughty conversation about a most unattractive woman. It is obviously very unsisterly of me to find this so funny, but I can’t help it. The whole exchange is much longer than this, and if you want to look it up, it is Act III, Scene II.  

Here is a little taster:
Then she bears some breadth?
No longer from head to foot than from hip to hip:
she is spherical, like a globe; I could find out
countries in her.
In what part of her body stands Ireland?
Marry, in her buttocks: I found it out by the bogs.
Where Scotland?
I found it by the barrenness; hard in the palm of the hand.
Where France?
In her forehead; armed and reverted, making war
against her heir.
Where England?
I looked for the chalky cliffs, but I could find no
whiteness in them; but I guess it stood in her chin,
by the salt rheum that ran between France and it.
Where Spain?
Faith, I saw it not; but I felt it hot in her breath.
Where America, the Indies?
Oh, sir, upon her nose all o'er embellished with
rubies, carbuncles, sapphires, declining their rich
aspect to the hot breath of Spain; who sent whole
armadoes of caracks to be ballast at her nose.
Where stood Belgia, the Netherlands?
Oh, sir, I did not look so low. To conclude, this
drudge, or diviner, laid claim to me, call'd me
Dromio; swore I was assured to her; told me what
privy marks I had about me, as, the mark of my
shoulder, the mole in my neck, the great wart on my
left arm, that I amazed ran from her as a witch:
And, I think, if my breast had not been made of
faith and my heart of steel,
She had transform'd me to a curtal dog and made
me turn i' the wheel.

Naughty, naughty, naughty. But irresistible.

There is another excellent insult later on – ‘thou peevish sheep’. I can just see a peevish sheep now, all ornery and pissed off.

And then, one more final line of beauty – ‘here we wander in illusions’. Yes, yes, that will do.


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