Friday, 24 March 2017

No brain left.

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

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

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

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Philip Larkin was right.

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

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

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

The small things are the big things.

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

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

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

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Clambering out of the Swamp of Overwhelm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 17 March 2017

Gold Cup day. Or: in which I hope for a happy ending.

The thing about Cheltenham is that you’ve got to want everyone to win. My dream horse, my little underdog, could not pull off the fairy tale yesterday; he ran beautifully for a long way and then found it all happening a bit too quick for him. He’ll go home to his field and have a lovely summer holiday and they’ll send him chasing next year. The disappointment bites keenly when your favourite does not come flying home, and then you have to look up and realise that someone else’s dream has come true.
There is always a reason to be thrilled for those dreams. There is the seventeen-year-old who started out riding in pony races in Ireland and stormed up the hill for his first festival win. Seventeen! When I was seventeen I was listening to Leonard Cohen records and weeping over a unrequited love. Even more fantastical, his horse was fifty to one on the morning of the race, because he had a habit of refusing to jump off. Nah, don’t fancy it, he would say, and everyone would have to go home, shaking their heads. They took him to the sands at Laytown, perhaps in an effort to freshen him up and get him interested, and he took one look at the beach and said: you must be joking, I’m not a sodding donkey. In the Supreme, he pricked his ears and gunned his mighty engine and looked down the fabled turf and said: now, that’s more like it. And he ran all over them, under his teenage rider.

As the glittering star that is Douvan, who was supposed to bring the stands to a roar with an exhibition round, got the first two fences wrong and never found his stride, that disappointment left room for the old boy Special Tiara, who has been delighting crowds with his bold, front-running style for the last five years, to pick up the baton and give a surprise win to his brilliant jockey, Noel Fehily. Fehily is a modest man, a lovely horseman and a ravishing judge of a race, who doesn’t always get the credit he deserves. As he went to pick up his trophy, he took his two tiny children with him, and I thought: those little ones will remember that moment for the rest of their lives. That’s a memory nobody can take away. It was a dream for Special Tiara’s trainer too, another fine horseman called Henry De Bromhead, who has had a bit of a torrid time when his biggest owner suddenly moved all his horses away. Owners do this and they have every right; they pay the bills, after all. But it’s always a blow for a yard, and to see Bromhead come back to take one of the championship races felt right and fair.

A bit of fairy tale stardust can scatter even on the big boys, for whom this game is more serious business than the stuff of dreams. Usually at Cheltenham, you can set your watch by the Mullins and Walsh battalions. They park their tanks on the lawn and that’s all she wrote. But this year they had a rotten first couple of days, with hot favourites getting beaten and their great star flickering and fading. Willie Mullins has also lost one of his big owners, when Michael O’Leary took sixty horses away. There was a lot of gossip and speculation, but Mullins stayed elegant and silent on the subject. All the same, it must have hurt when one of those horses, Apple’s Jade, beat Mullins’ two mares for her new yard.

‘That’s racing,’ said Ruby Walsh, with his philosophical hat on, but it seemed strange to see that even these giants are mortal. And then, yesterday, the little firecracker that is Un De Sceaux took the bit by the teeth and decided that enough was enough. Un De Sceaux was always a tearaway, screaming off in front and taking reckless chances with his fences, but he seemed to have settled down a little as he has grown older. He almost appeared a little subdued lately, as if some of that fire had burned low. In the Ryanair, he had a few questions to answer: he was going up in trip and people were not sure if he would stay up the hill, and the ground was drying out when he really likes it soft. He’s quite small and lightly built, and he looked touchingly diminutive in the paddock against the other great, muscled chasers. Racing is a superstitious business and it seemed as if a bit of a hoodoo had fallen on the Mullins camp, even though they had finally got one on the board with Yorkhill.

Un De Sceaux had no questions in his fascinating mind. The fire was back. Ruby tried sensibly to settle him into third, but the horse wasn’t having any of it. He took a unilateral decision and soared off into the lead in a flat gallop. His jockey, seeing there was no point in having an argument, let him roll. Oh, oh, I thought, watching in amazement, if he’s not going to stay, we’ll see that soon enough. ‘Desperate to get a breather into him,’ said the commentator, gasping at the astonishing leaps. Un De Sceaux had no thought for a breather; the further he went the faster he went. He was standing off a mile away and getting as far the other side. Ruby, by this stage, was riding him like he stole him. Any caution was long thrown to the winds. He can’t possibly keep this up, I thought.  

He did keep it up. He galloped and jumped, stretched and leapt, and he flew up that long hill as if it was not there. I’m not sure I ever saw a braver performance, from horse or jockey. It did have a fairy tale quality to it, as the polite Willie Mullins smile glimmered and twinkled under his elegant hat, and my racing posse on Twitter made naughty jokes about Michael O’Leary having to present Mullins, the man he deserted, with his own cup. (In the end, he got Mrs O’Leary to do it, and there were some naughty jokes about that, too.)

And then, just to put the stamp on the day, they won the Stayers’ Hurdle and they won the mares’ race with their beautiful Let’s Dance, who lived up to her name, foxtrotting from last to first with a glimmering, gleaming run, shimmying through horses, picking her way from left to right, doing a tango to the line.

Today, they could win the Gold Cup with Djakadam, who has been the bridesmaid twice and might just get the apple blossom and be the bride. But they’ve got to get past Colin Tizzard, who will have been up at dawn to milk his cows. (Actually, I’m not sure whether Colin Tizzard still milks his cows himself, but it’s a picture I like, and I hold it in mind like an amulet. He’s probably the most down to earth man in racing, a true gentleman of the soil, a countryman to his boots, and whenever I see him interviewed I smile with pleasure, as if all is well with the world.) Tizzard has got dear old Cue Card, who has been running brilliant races since he first won the bumper by ten lengths at 40-1. Cue Card is one of those who has been around for ever, and he’s been up and he’s been down, but he always seems to soar back to brilliance just when people have written him off. He is owned by a charming lady called Jean Bishop, who does not have an airline or a hedge fund, is not a plutocrat or a billionaire, but is one of those quiet stalwarts of the jumping game, the kind who keep the sport going. She used to have him with her husband Bob, but Mr Bishop died and now she goes to the races on her own. I find her small, upright figure almost unbearably moving, as she goes to see her brave horse without the husband who loved him so much.

If Cue Card could win at the age of eleven, the roof would come off the stands. He’s a tall, handsome horse, who carries his head high, and the racing public have taken him to their heart. But he’s got to get past the younger legs of his stablemate Native River, who has carried all before him this season. I adore Native River. He’s a sanguine, relaxed sort of horse, and has a sweet way of going, lobbing along as if he does not have a care in the world. When they first had him they did not think they had a Gold Cup horse. He’s a relentless galloper, accelerating away when everything else has cried enough, and some people said he’s just one of those grinders, a dour stayer without the sparkle of brilliance needed for the top level. He’s only seven, but he’s so composed that he seems as if he has an old head on young shoulders, and he’s getting better all the time, and he’s so willing and so genuine and I could see him skipping round those big fences with his ears pricked and defying the doubters who question his class. He’s classy enough for me, with his big white face and his battling heart.

Any of these three would be a story, any of the rest of the field would be a dream; it’s an open race this year and someone will write a tale. As in all the races, I think that even if my favourite or my fancy does not run their race, someone else will be having a moment of sheer delight for which they have worked and worried and planned and hoped.

In the end I think: just come home safe. Not all horses do. It’s the shadow over the sun. No matter how much I tell myself that any horse can go at any time – cast in the box, sudden grass sickness, an unsuspected infection, a wrong step in a slow canter – when I see it on the racecourse it breaks my heart. Nicky Henderson, who was a friend of my father’s and is one of the nicest men in racing, set a festival record this week which may never be matched. Yesterday, caught in the cruel highs and lows of all sport, he lost one of his heart horses, Hadrian’s Approach. ‘He was a lovely person,’ he said, in bottomless regret. Mortality is a fact for all horses: Willie Mullins lost the brilliant and beautiful Vautour in freak field accident at home. Kauto Star came safely through a long and dazzling career and retired to do dressage, which you would have thought was the safest of all disciplines, but he died from another of those pointless, heartbreaking accidents. Every morning when I go down to my mare, I feel a singing relief that she is still there, in one piece, having made it through the night. I think I’ll get her to a glorious old age, but even though she is not running out on the racecourse any more, I can’t take a minute with her for granted. She is vulnerable as all horses are, and I seize every moment I have with her with a passionate gratitude.

So today, as I turn on, wondering which story will be written, which dream will come true, which tale will be told, I hope for all of them to run their race and come home, for all of them to get their happy ending. 

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Dream the dream. Or, the inspiring story of Tobefair.

In Carmarthenshire, not far from the Welsh town of Nantycaws, there is a small National Hunt yard of eight horses. In that yard lives a fella called Tobefair. He is not trained by a household name, nor owned by one of the titans of the game, nor did he stalk round a brightly-lit sale ring as the thousands of guineas clocked up before tense eyes. He in fact cost nothing. That’s right. Nothing. Zero pounds. Few things in life are free, but this thoroughbred was. He was given to his owner in the form of barter: Michael Cole looked after a couple of foals for breeder Richard Kent, and in return, Kent gave him Tobefair. Kent told the Racing Post: ‘Tobefair was born in the middle of a recession and we couldn't give him away so I gave him to Michael Cole as a present; there wasn't a penny made out of the horse at any stage of his life. But I'm glad for Michael, he sends us mares every year and is a very nice man.’ To continue the rags to riches theme, Cole decided he could not afford the training fees on his own, so he formed a syndicate with regulars from his local pub, none of whom had ever owned a racehorse before.

In his early days, Tobefair did not know whether it was Christmas or Easter. He was sent off at 100-1 and 40-1 in a couple of his novice races and got beat by a hundred lengths and forty lengths. If you look back at his form you see six inglorious defeats. And then something strange happened. He changed yards, and he started to win. He was still being sent off at 7-1 and 8-1 and 10-1, not exactly backed into hot favouritism, but he started winning and he kept on winning.

It’s hard to know what happened. His new trainer, Debra Hamer, told the papers: ‘the penny dropped’. But you think she is being modest. Quietly, cleverly, patiently, she found the key to this horse who cost nothing, and she sent him out in seven races to seven wins. He went up 62 pounds in his winning spree, and you can imagine the handicapper sitting at home and scratching his head. I don’t think any horse ever has gone up 62 pounds in two seasons.

The other lovely thing about Tobefair is that he is not a showboat. He likes to start off his races at the back, where he promptly goes to sleep. He is not a slick hurdler, flicking through the birch. He’s a sturdy jumper, meeting his obstacles squarely and giving them plenty of air. When other horses are rolling away in front, Tobefair often needs bustling along. It is as if his jockey – almost always Trevor Whelan – needs to say: ‘Come on, fella, we actually are at the races.’ Tobefair sometimes needs to be told this a couple of times, and then he wakes up and shoots forward through the field, almost as if he is having a bit of a laugh. ‘Sorry, Trev,’ he seems to be saying, ‘I didn’t know you were serious.’

And once he and his rider have come to this happy agreement, the bravery and honesty of the horse gleams out like a sunbeam. The questions come, and Tobefair answers every one with a hilarious yes. In his ravishing seven race streak he has won pretty and won ugly. He’s won easing up and he’s won all out. He’s won on good to firm ground in the summer sunshine, and he’s won on heavy in the driving snow. Apparently, at home what he most likes is rolling in the mud. He’s bright and bonny after his races, and eats up with gusto. If he was a person, he’s the kind of chap you’d want by your side on a long road trip or in a tight fix.

And now, after that sixty-two pound leap, after that long winning run, after that funny old start when he couldn’t be given away, this fine, genuine thoroughbred is lining up at Cheltenham, the Olympics of the racing season. Debra Hamer has not only never had a runner at the festival, she’s never even been there. When asked about this she said, cheerfully, that she had young children and no time. The pub syndicate have hired two buses and are probably motoring down the M4 even as you read this, with a song in their hearts.

The festival is the great unknown. Brilliant horses have been undone by the atmosphere and the hurly burly and the murderous hill. Yesterday, Douvan, the nailed-on certainty for the mighty Willie Mullins and the dazzling Ruby Walsh, reached for the first three fences, never found a rhythm, and packed up. Tobfair could take one look and say: no thank you. He’s had a couple of hard enough races lately and they could leave their mark. He has not met competitors of the calibre he will see today. He could try his heart out and it might not be enough. In a way, simply getting there is the story of the season. And yet, I can see him shaking his sweet ears and thinking: damn it all, let’s have a go. I can see him galloping on when others have cried enough. I can see his incredible mental attitude and his ability to make a scorching mid-race move standing him in good stead. He’s a strong horse, sturdy in mind and body. I’ve seen him be bashed into and not deviate. I’ve seen him get a bit of a wobble and straighten himself up and run doggedly for the line. He battles and he stays and he does not seem fazed by anything, and those are precious qualities at Prestbury Park.

He was the ante-post favourite, but now he’s on the drift, wandering out to 10-1, as if the serious punters simply can’t believe in fairy tales. The horse that cost nothing can’t land one of the biggest prizes of the season. The people from the pub can’t beat the Rich Riccis and the Michael O’Learys, with their millions and billions, with their financial wizardry and their airlines. The tiny yard can’t compete with the Mullins and Elliot and Henderson and Nicholls battalions.

Or, perhaps they can.

Last year, I wrote a book called The Happy Horse. It sounds a bit hippy and a bit dippy, but I believe that if you can get a horse relaxed and soft and easy in its skin, that horse will give you everything. Not everyone thinks about making their horse happy. They want to win prizes and do flying changes and compete at the highest level and everything else is second best. Happiness, to many people, is a nebulous concept that sounds idiotic when applied to an equine. I think Debra Hamer and her husband, who work very much as a team, understand about making horses happy. Tobefair has all the signs of a half-ton flight animal who is at ease with himself. He does what he does not because he is a brilliant natural talent, but because he is confident, and willing, and responsive. When Trevor says go, go, go, Tobefair says: you betcha, baby.

He might find one or two too good today, as so many hopeful horses have in the past. This meeting is the blue riband, the championship lap, the mountain peak. There is no disgrace in not quite reaching the summit. But if Tobefair could run his race and put his dear nose in front, sixty thousand people will stand to him, with their heads held high and their hats in the air. They will salute him not because he’s odds-on, or streets beyond the rest, or carving his name into the history books, but because he is an honest horse with a fighting heart, who tries his best and gives his all. He’s one for the little people, for the ordinary people, for those who scrap and struggle against the odds, who don’t have the credentials, who aren’t considered the shining stars. He’s one for those who dream of slipping the surly bonds of earth, and dancing the skies, high in the sunlit silence.

(Photograph of Tobefair reproduced with the very kind permission of Michael Harris.)

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Love, and missing.

Last week, my beloved cousin came to stay. She and I have known each other since we were nineteen, and we’ve been through every emotional stretch: heartbreaks, deaths, funerals, failures, joys and delights. Her husband is the dazzling horseman who sold me both my mares, and he makes a joke about when I go to stay with them in the south: ‘you two start talking the moment you get out of the car, and you don’t stop until you are driving up the drive again.’ He’s right. We have never stopped talking for thirty years. It’s the best talk I ever knew.

I put her up on the red mare, and they fell in love with each other from the very first moment. Watching the two of them together made my heart sing. They really are my two favourite people in the world, and I wanted them so much to understand each other’s wonder, and so they did.

It’s a year and a half since my mother died, and in the last months I have congratulated myself for grieving Mum well. I went straight at it, not looking to right nor left. I knew at least this much about grief: you have to do it. You have to run at it. You can’t hide. I thought I had done that, but something odd has happened lately. I’m missing my mother so much I can’t breathe. I’m a huge believer in time, and I thought time had done its thing. The ache fades, normality returns, joy can again shine through. My mare gives me joy every morning, and I can make jokes, and I can smile. And then, just when I think it’s all over, it comes at me again.

The beloved cousin knows all about the death and the grief. I was with her through her mother, and her father, and her brother. She was with me through my dad, and it was to her house that I drove after my father’s funeral, as the bosky hedgerows bowed their heads in a brightly absurd spring afternoon.
Sitting with her in my quiet house, I thought how chipped around the edges we are, from life, from loss, and how we somehow got good at buggering on. If you have a friend like that, you can deal with anything.

All the same, I feel a fragility, which alarms me a little. I thought I could put my head down and charge on. I thought I only have sorrows to face which everyone faces. I thought I could forge on into a bright future, that I could make that future exist through will and stoicism and determination. I compare grief often to the sea. It is a thing of waves and storms and tides. The tides ebb, and flow. I had learned to sail over those big waves, and now they are bashing me a bit again.

Perhaps this is how it is for everyone who loses someone they love. The brightness falls, and rises, and falls again. All of which is a long way of saying: I miss my mother. I miss my father too. It’s Cheltenham this week and I think of them both, because this was their place. My father twice soared up that hill; his name is still carved on the silver trophies that will be presented this week. My mum watched him, and she knew the giants, talking in the stands with Fred Winter and Fulke Walwyn and Vincent O’Brien, dressed in her elegant coats and her chic hats, watching the bright stars with her focused race glasses. She was not merely a chic and soothing presence on the racecourse, she qualified the hunter chasers, going out in all weathers, a tiny human on vast, powerful, fit thoroughbreds, galloping and jumping flat out all day long. (Despite the fact that his father was the master of the Mid-Surrey Drag, my dad did not much like hunting, and was most happy when Mum would do the work.)

The legacy they gave me was a love for the thoroughbred and a fighting heart. They taught me good manners and if in doubt be kind and never, ever to give up. They taught me enthusiasm, and to laugh at myself, and always to be the person who bought the first round. They had gloriously glaring flaws, and you could write a book about their human frailties, but they left me with some tacit virtues that cannot be beaten.

As I write this, I think of the horses they loved. I think of the love they passed on to me. I think of the great blazing beauties out on the Cheltenham turf, and the sweet, gentle equine athletes in the stable where I grew up, and the kind, soft mares who now live in my Scottish field. I am a bit bent of out shape just now, for all that I put a good face on it. I am a little tired and bruised. I am more overcome with the missing than I would have thought. But my parents left me love – the example of love as much as the giving of love. And that, I think, will in the end pick me up and get me through.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Cheltenham, Day One.

The last few weeks have been rather fraught and complicated for reasons too catastrophically labyrinthine and dull to go into. But this week – ah, this week.  This week is simple. This week is pure pleasure. This week I’m not even going to pretend to do any work, because every horse I love will gather under the benign shadow of Cleeve Hill. In the grand natural amphitheatre that is Prestbury Park the finest thoroughbreds in the land will come and strut their stuff. There will be the talking horses and the stalking horses, the fresh princes and the old warriors, the tough mares and the raw, unfinished juveniles, just learning their jobs, all spirit and hope. 
There will be the handicap blots and plots, the lively outsiders and the rampant superstars. The mighty yards will send in battalions – great fleets of boxes will sail over the Irish sea with the Mullins and Elliot armies, ready to go to war. Colin Tizzard will get up and milk the cows before he brings out his favourites for the Gold Cup. The small yards have no regiments, but out of their ten or twenty horses they find one who might make the big boys sit up and take notice. Cheltenham is the great equaliser, when a horse bought for pennies can rise to greatness, while an aristocrat costing hundreds of thousands may disappoint.

The pros will be there, and the Corinthian amateurs; the drinkers and the punters, the duchesses and the plutocrats and the ordinary Joe who saves all year for this meeting. It’s a crowd united in love, for the occasion, for the craic, for the Guinness, for the wild beauties who fly over the storied turf, wearing their hearts on their sleeve. There’s something pure about those horses, about the jumping and the galloping, the blazing talent, the pure speed, the will to win. I’ve no idea who will soar up that hill into the halls of glory, except for Altior who should give a masterclass in grace and power. I’ll get to the stage in a moment when I want them all to win, when I’m so in love with all of them that I’d like every one of those equine athletes to come home in a lovely line across the course. They all deserve it. They are so brave and they try so hard and they lift my heart like nothing else.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

My good Samaritan. Or: faith in humanity restored.

Today, I went from sheer joy to sheer terror within ten minutes.
I had ridden up to HorseBack for my riding lesson. It’s about two and a half miles along the Deeside Way and it’s a pretty ride. The red mare was then very brilliant and very brave in her lesson and did many new and gloriously clever things that made me smile and whoop. An old friend appeared which was a real treat and so I started the ride off home in tearing spirits.

Perhaps that was the problem. Perhaps the spirits were too high. Perhaps the hubris demons were chattering in my ear. Across the road there is a place where I have to get off and fiddle with a gate. It’s quite tricky, with a chain and a padlock and not much room to move and it’s on a slope. Usually, I loop the reins over my arm, but what with the spirits being so high and the head full of hubris demons having a bloody cocktail party, I just put a hand on the rein. It’s the red mare, I thought; she invented the Standing Still Olympics.
And then something flew out of the bushes and made her start and that rein was out of my hand and I stared in horror and disbelief as her great thoroughbred quarters disappeared round the corner.
She’ll stop, I thought. She just got a fright. She’ll trot off and then she’ll stop.
She did not stop. She’d had a long morning and she’d worked hard and she was damn well going home.
I famously can’t run. I don’t really know how to run. I ran. I sprinted after her, breath coming in great fearful gasps. I could see death and disaster in my mind, as if I had walked into the middle of a horror film. Panting and sobbing, I called in the cavalry. ‘Don’t worry,’ said the soothing voice of my brilliant teacher. ‘I’ll get the quad bike out.’
The path ahead was ominously empty. I’ve ruined everything, I thought, running and sobbing. One moment of thoughtlessness and I’ve lost the light of my life.
A car, coming slowly down the road, flashed its lights and stopped. The most wonderful gentleman in Scotland said: ‘Have you lost a horse?’
I scrambled madly over a fence and across a ditch and into his incredibly clean car. A beautiful liver chestnut spaniel put its comforting wet nose into my hand as if in reassurance. ‘You are so kind,’ I said, my breath coming in great gulps. ‘I’m so afraid.’
He turned round and went back up the road and there were kind, clever people who had stopped their cars and were not panicking. There, galloping up the road as if she were in the Oaks, was the red mare, right as rain. Another brilliant gentleman leapt out of his car and I leapt out of my brilliant gentleman’s car and the red mare saw the gap and swerved into a heavenly safe green field. I’ve never loved a field so much in my life. I showered garbled thanks on my saviours and ran after her. She stopped, and looked at me, as if to say: where the hell have you been? She dropped her head and I picked up the rein and I had her back.
There had been no death and disaster. Everyone was all right. I had been petrified by the thought that not only would the mare be injured, but that she might cause a crash. But there, in the pale Scottish sun, was everyone in one lovely piece. I rang the cavalry to tell them they could stand down. I rode home, chastened by my own stupidity.
This morning, the news was truly awful. There was one horrifying story after another. There was cruelty and abuse in care homes and prisoners barricading themselves in their cells because they were too frightened to come out and helpless refugee children from Syria facing unspeakable dangers from predatory men. I had thought that I was going to write a blog about how on earth one could maintain one’s faith in human nature against that barrage.
I do have faith in human nature. I have a great big fat belief in the human heart. I choose to think that most people are mostly good. I think that they try hard, often against horrendous odds, and that they all want to love and be loved and that they want to leave the world a little better than they found it. This is my most profound creed. The news was battering that creed. Perhaps I had been wrong all along and I was going to have to face that wrongness.
And then my good Samaritan stopped his clean car and took me to save my mare.
One kind act in a world of sorrows does not make everything all right. It does not wipe away all that bad news. But you know, it’s something. It’s Shakespeare: ‘How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a naughty world.’ It’s an amulet, a totem, a mark of faith.
I could not even thank my kind gentleman properly. I was in such a state and although I think I did say ‘thank you, thank you’ I was mostly panting and gabbling. I have a tiny dream that someone might see this, on the internet, that someone might know a practical, generous man with a maroon car and a beautiful liver Spaniel, one that looks as if it is a proper working dog, and that person might ask that man if he was driving along the A93 at lunchtime today, and might say: you know, that lunatic woman with the horse would like to thank you from the bottom of her heart. And all the other people in cars were so good and kind and sensible, and seemed to know exactly what to do, and did not hoot their horns or look furious, but seemed concerned and ready to help.

Instead of being filled with despair at the state of the world and the battering ram of the bad news, I am now filled with a diffuse, almost disbelieving love for all those people whose names I shall never know, because they were so stalwart and good and proper. I was an idiot, and I deserve a rap on the knuckles and a stern talking to, but instead I got the benign consolation of the group. It was as if, in that moment, on that country road, with the slumbering blue hills looking down on us, there was the wisdom of crowds instead of the madness of crowds. It was as if, just for a few minutes, everyone gathered together to do what they could for that errant horse, all their focus and purpose directed like a laser on restoring the situation to safety and normality.
Perhaps that is a little romantic of me; perhaps some of them were drumming their fingers on the steering wheel and cursing. But it did not feel like that. It felt as if that disparate group cohered, and put its arms around me, for all my folly, and said: don’t worry, it will be all right. And it was all right.

I was so blinded by fears and imaginings that I would not even recognise my rescuer. But somewhere out there is one man and his dog, who did a very, very good turn to a frantic human in dire need. And that candle throws his beams an awful long way.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Following my own advice.

In Seventy-Seven Ways to Make Your Life Very Slightly Better, I wrote a chapter on sharing with the group. I wrote about writing things down, letting things out, telling your friend who will not point and laugh but will be funny and wise. All these are very good and true and really do make things an awful lot better. The problem is that I did not write a chapter on how to take your own advice.

By the time you get to fifty, you know stuff. It amazed me, when I wrote it all down, how much I did know. I was quite impressed with myself. And then, knowing all the things I know, I find myself not doing those things.

Today, I did the things. I was in that kind of portmanteau sadness that is hard to shake off. Someone had been thoughtless and quite ill-mannered, which was a little thing but had hurt rather. One of my mares has been suffering from ill-health for a while and the vet came yesterday and had his get ready for the worst face on. And then there is the big thing, the main thing, which is too dull to bore you with, but is like a hydra with ten heads and makes my heart ache and my head ache and my very bones ache.

And this morning, I talked about it and the response was absolutely pitch perfect. What I need in doleful moments, when everything is aching, is a combination of empathy, wisdom, and spit-spot. I need the Poppins voice to stop me falling into the pit of self-indulgence. I need a certain steeliness. And there it was, and I got everything off my chest and I ended up laughing instead of crying.

The thing is still the thing. But because of my kind listener, I now have a slightly different perspective on the thing, and that is what makes all the difference. I wrote all that in my book and sometimes I forget all that.

Say the thing. Let it out. Rely on the kindness of the people you love.

You don’t, I remind myself, get a damn prize for trying to fix every damn thing all by yourself. 

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. 


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