Dispatches From The North

Tania Kindersley lives in the North East of Scotland with two amiable lab collie crosses and one very grumpy Gloucester Old Spot pig. She co-wrote Backwards In High Heels: The Impossible Art of Being Female, with Sarah Vine.

The mysterious call of the country.

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Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 04 December 2013
Not long ago, I was talking to my mother about a man we both know. There was something, something we could not quite put our finger on. At last, my mother said, ‘He’s not a countryman.’

That was it. They mystery was solved.

The odd thing about this is that the gentleman has lived in the country for twenty years. I don’t know where he was born, but he certainly spent some of his childhood in the countryside. He does a few country sports. And yet, my mother is right. We both knew it instantly. He is not a countryman.

The hills, all misty and frosty in the winter sun.The hills, all misty and frosty in the winter sun.

I, on the other hand, think of myself as a countrywoman. This is equally odd. I left the rolling downs of the Lambourn valley far behind me at the age of fourteen, and dived into London, where I swam happily for the next fifteen years. At one stage, I grew so urban that I refused perfectly nice invitations to leave the city. I much preferred Soho on a Saturday to Suffolk. I liked dodgy transvestite clubs where you could get a drink after hours and those members’ gaffs where they would lock you in the back with a deck of cards and a couple of famous comedians for illicit poker games.

The gentleman, on the face of it, has much better rural credentials than I. Yet the countrywoman exists deep in me, in my bones. What does it even mean? I’m not sure I could tell you. It’s something to do with the rhythms of the land, understanding the ebb and flow of the seasons, being rooted in the earth. A real country person can tell when it is going to snow by merely sniffing the air. (It’s the scent of metal.) They mark the years by harvests and lambing and the movement of the cattle. They know where the weather comes from and appreciate lichen. They are attuned to the small changes in a vast landscape.

But I think it is more than this. Any fool really can learn those things. I’m very sorry to do this to Lady readers, but I think it’s a soul thing.

Deer in Glen Muick.Deer in Glen Muick.

There are lots of people who live in the country but are not country people. They like it when the grass is green and croquet may be played and tea taken on the lawn. They love it when the bluebells are out and the lambs are frolicking. But when it gets dirty and muddy and tough, in those bleak days at the end of winter when it seems the leaves shall never return to the trees and the land shall remain forever barren, they fly away to hot places abroad, or rush off to have lunch at the Ivy. They need comfort, finding the bare views too cheerless.

I think the real countryperson is so dug in that they love the place even when it is at its most awful. There are days when I stomp through sucking mud and dirty rain to look after my cross horse (she is prone to grumpiness in the wet), or risk turning my ankle on frozen rutted ground as I break the ice on the water troughs when I sometimes think ruefully of that sophisticated urban life. When every article I own is covered in smears of earth I do ruefully remember the days when I used to brush up quite well. But the love that keeps me here is too strong for flight. You have to winkle me out with a spoon, these days. I can’t leave my hills, because I am stitched into them. If I must go away, I pray it is not at a crucial point in the seasons, so I shall not miss the last leaf fall, or the first snowdrop flower. I once almost wept on the M6 because I was not going to see my little apple trees blossom.

Beech and birch.Beech and birch.

Countryman or countrywomen is more of an insult than a compliment, these days. The sharp urban creations are the clever, polished ones, the shakers and movers, the ones who come on the radio and pronounce. Only last week I heard a young city fellow mock Matthew Parris, because he was broadcasting down the line from Derbyshire, where he could see his livestock grazing. I’m not sure Matthew Parris is in fact a countryman, but he was taken for one, and it counted gravely against him.

But it’s a little bit like handedness; you are either left-handed or right-handed, and there is nothing you can do about it. I am a countrywoman, for worse or better. I have metaphorical and sometimes literal hayseeds in my hair. I wear them with pride.

In Search of Lost Time.

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Thursday, 28 November 2013
I am shocking at losing time. This week, I mislaid an entire day. It was as if it had fallen down the back of the sofa.
I am not certain I even understand time. It is a human construct. But it is also a physical reality – the sun rises and sets, the hours and days move on. Yet it is not set in stone. I heard a scientist talking on the radio the other day about experiments with time, which prove that it is not quite the fixed mark one might think. (I found this oddly disconcerting.)
It also has a psychological aspect. When one is engaged or challenged or enjoying oneself, time can seem to disappear. There is a word for this – it is called flow, and is often presented as a sign of ultimate happiness. The idea is that one should do something which is difficult enough to require the full attention of the human brain, but at which one is skilled enough to perform well. It was first identified when contemplating artists becoming so lost in their work that they forgot to eat or sleep.

Conversely, when a person is stuck with a bore, time can stretch gloomily to the horizon, with no end in sight, as the life force drains from the body. In my own life, I find two particular aspects of time especially startling. One is how a mere six minutes can seem like a lifetime. This happens when I am watching a three mile chase in which one of my favourite horses is running. The minutes slow and stretch, the seconds go into stop motion, as I stare between trembling fingers. At Cheltenham, with its murderous hill, a finish can seem to go on forever, as I bawl and yell, willing a brave galloper to hold on, hold on, repel all boarders, find the line.


The diametrical opposite is true when I have a huge amount to do. At the moment, I am working on a second draft of a book, with a deadline looming. I am doing voluntary work for HorseBack UK, which is virtually a second job. There are also always at least two secret projects cooking on the back burner. This is before I've even thought about the ordinary logistics of domestic life, and walking the dog, and schooling the horse. In this case, time puts its sprinting shoes on. I can almost hear the whoosh and dash as it whistles past my ears. Where did it go? The light fades and dies, mocking me, as the day motors towards its end and my To Do list still has eight forlorn items on it. Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, I say to myself; tomorrow I shall sharpen up and get all the things done which must be done. It is a taunting dream.
I sometimes wish there was a practical manual for life, a handbook I could consult. There are some aspects of existence which I understand, and others which remain baffling. I should have figured it all out by now, I think, crossly, in this advanced middle age.

If there were such a manual, it should have as its first and most vital chapter: The Art of Time Management. I would love to have that encoded in my muscle memory. As it is, I muddle on, hurrying and juggling and looking over my shoulder, where those fleeting, lost hours huddle together, laughing at me. One day, I think, in a dream future, I shall have the measure of the temporal. One day.

An odd couple.

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 20 November 2013
This week, I said goodbye to a human and a pony.

The human was a dear relation, one of the tremendous gentlemen of the old school. He was of a venerable age, and it was his time. All the same, there is still a sense of shock, as if in the magical part of brain I believe the old people will go on forever.

The small Welsh pony.The small Welsh pony.

I remember this from when my father died. He was eighty, and his body was bashed and battered from years of race riding, from crashing falls, from breaks and cracks and tears. He was entirely ready to go and in the end he slid away easily, after singing a little song for the Australian nurse to whom he had taken a shine. He made it up especially for her. ‘Dahlia from Australia,’ he sang, and then he went to sleep and he did not wake.
And the big red mare, who misses her tiny friend.And the big red mare, who misses her tiny friend.
I had thought I was prepared for that moment, but I was not. It felt oddly shocking, as if there had been a tear in the space-time continuum.

As this great generation goes gentle into that good night, I feel the same sense of wrongness, of lack, of rupture. They are the ones who remember the war. Some even fought in it. My darling godfather, still bashing on against all the odds, served with the Welsh Guards, and after VE day was sent on hush-hush sabotage missions. ‘I blew up bridges and things,’ he told me once. ‘I rather enjoyed it.’ They knew rationing and deprivation. They were not a perfect generation, but they did stoicism and understatement better than anyone. I am profoundly sad that they are going.

I had not seen my relation for a long time, since I moved so far north, but he was a huge part of my formative years, and I remember his great kindness to the young, and so I mourn him, and I regret his passing.

The little pony exists at the other end of the scale. She was my daily companion. She came to us as a friend for my thoroughbred, and the aristocratic ex-racehorse and the scruffy Welsh mountain person made a most touching bond. The red mare still calls for her and looks for her. I look for her too. The field has a gap in it.

Like the gentleman, she too was old; it too was her time. She went very quickly, hardly needing any help from the vet. She was just a little pony, yet I wept bitter tears for her.

It’s always complicated when humans and animals go at the same time. There is supposed to be a hierarchy. How can a highly educated man, capable of abstract thought and complex reasoning, compare to a simple flight animal, who lives on good, basic instincts? The sorrow becomes complicated. There is a voice in my head which tells me, sternly, that it is almost unseemly to grieve both in the same way.

Funnily enough, I’ve been through this exact thing before. On the night of my father’s funeral, one of my dogs died. I found myself torn between the oceanic grief of losing a parent, which changes your world forever, and the simple, expected sorrow of losing an old canine.

Loch Muick, where I said goodbye.Loch Muick, where I said goodbye.

At the time, my sister said a very wise thing. She said: ‘Love is love.’ I write about that plain sentence quite a lot, because I think it is so important, and I need to remind myself of it. There is no hierarchy of beloveds. The ones who stitch themselves into your heart, animal or human, are as important as each other. The space they leave behind is not graded. It just is.

Yesterday I drove down to Glen Muick, a great glacial valley ten miles west, with a loch the colour of mercury and a ring of indigo mountains at its gracious end, to say my goodbyes. It is where I always go, as if I am committing the spirits of the dear departeds to the very hills. There is something about that vast unchanging landscape which allows me to come to terms with life and death.

I said goodbye to a humble pony, and a grand gentleman. I was keenly aware of the slight absurdity of this odd couple. Yet there was a rather lovely rightness to it as well. Death, like love, is a mystery. No matter how many books I read or thoughts I think, I shall never quite get to the bottom of them. But they must both be marked, and so I marked them, in the only way I know.

In which I have a small theory about the difference between men and women. Which has nothing to do with shoes.

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 13 November 2013
I am always wary of making generalisations about gender. Any sentence which begins ‘women want’ or ‘men think’ should be treated with radical suspicion.

I used to do this of course, because nobody’s perfect, and because it’s a whole lot snappier than saying something like: ‘One could conjecture that the majority of women are more likely to....’ At which point the reader loses the will to live and the argument dissipates into the ether.

Now, I see the complexities and subtleties. There does seem to be such a thing as the male brain and the female brain, but the confusing thing is that they do not always fit neatly into male or female bodies. Also, just to add a little more nuance to the mix, they are on a spectrum. Interestingly, non-academics intuit this empirical fact when they say things like ‘he’s in touch with his female side’, or ‘she’s a very girly girl’.  Despite this, the columnists and the headline writers still make absurd statements about all women loving shoes or every last female wanting to lose the magical half stone, as if those desires were wired into the very atoms of the lady self.

The Scottish hills from yesterday, when the sun was shining.The Scottish hills from yesterday, when the sun was shining.
Despite this, and with all these caveats ringing in my head, I stride out over the treacherous terrain of gender difference. This morning, two women were standing in a chill Scottish field. The sky was the colour of doleful pigeons and the last leaves were falling from the trees. Both women are in that stage of middle life when they face what Trollope called ‘the little daily lacerations upon the spirit’. It is the usual complication of ailing parents, financial worries, career frets, the general demands of family life. Nothing operatic; nothing fatal; just the constant existential bash bash bash. These are the things which are usually managed, with a certain degree of stoicism, until one straw too many falls, the camel’s back is broken, and you end up shouting at the dog.

The women discussed this. They spoke of the days when it all got too much, when they feared they were going nuts in the head, when they felt they were hanging on by their fingertips.

Neither one judged. Neither one offered a word of advice. They mostly looked at each other, and shouted with laughter, and said, ‘Oh, yes, yes, I know that one.’ They were in what I call the Me Too zone. It’s a kind of empathetic offering of the small failures, the daily frailties, the quotidian shames. They both had the voices in the head which were telling them they Should Do Better. Once they had admitted this, they could see the absurdity, and the thing became a joke instead of a burden.

Perhaps I should confess that I was one of those women. Afterwards, I thought: that is something most men would not do. It’s not just that they would not stand in a muddy field baring their souls, it’s that the male tendency is to offer a ten-point plan. I generalise wildly, but I think the man hope is to fix everything right up. If you put tab A into slot B, all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well. There you go, now the engine is firing. You’ve just got to do something.

What the female needs is the balm of shared experience. She does not necessarily want a ten-point plan. She wants someone to say, yes, I know exactly what that feels like. She wants to know she is not alone. Then she can breathe a gutsy sigh of relief, square her shoulders, and go once more unto the breach.

It is a very general point, and it’s only a theory, and it may need more work. But I think if there is a discernible gap between the female and the male it has nothing to do with car vs shoes, or counting calories vs reading maps, or any of the other asinine markers which the media cannot resist. It is empathy vs solutions. My suspicion is that as a woman navigates the choppy waters of middle age, the words she most longs to hear are not high-flown romantic sentiments about beauty or love, but the very earthy, heartfelt, simple: ‘Me too.’

In which I reveal too much information.

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 06 November 2013
One of the dangers of the new social media is the risk of the over-share. (I rather love this neologism. I imagine it has evolved from the American ‘share with the group’, which was once deadly serious, heard in therapy rooms all over California, before it wound its way to old Blighty and took on an ironical twist.) I can sometimes be shy and reticent, but when I get excited I turn into Miss Overshare.

In the last few weeks, my deadline frenzy reached such a pitch that I took to sending out despatches from the front line. Every word count, every battle with a paragraph, every unexpected new character - all were marked. The details were not told; it was the mechanics which I was recording. It was what was going on under the hood.

I didn’t think about this much, because all my mind was bent on getting the unwieldy manuscript ready for the poor agent’s waiting eyes. But now the thing has gone off, and I have time again to contemplate other things, and I realise that I have given away the game.

I may finally lift my head from my computer screen long enough to see the wild autumn colours.I may finally lift my head from my computer screen long enough to see the wild autumn colours.

You see, I’m supposed to be a pro. There is the echoing sound of hollow laughter when I say this, because I always feel a little bogus, as if I am about to be found out at any moment, as if the tap on the shoulder will come, and the literary police will tell me I am busted. My methods over the last weeks have been about as unprofessional as they come. I’ve pulled all-nighters, with pots of black coffee, just as if I were back at university in the crabbed grasp of an essay crisis. I’ve done thirteen-hour non-stop editing sessions. I’ve had days of writing five thousand words at a time, which sounds impressive, but is a poor way to build a book. I’ve given in to the occasional use of strong liquor and Bob Dylan at full blast. And worst of all, I have admitted all this, out there in the public square.

I think: this is not how Martin Amis does it. I don’t expect Antonia Byatt yips and howls and shrieks all over Facebook and Twitter about her angst and her deadlines and her word counts. I don’t see Will Self sending out intemperate updates at two in the morning as he works through the night.

This person has absolutely no interest in word counts, but is very happy to have the autumn sun on her back.This person has absolutely no interest in word counts, but is very happy to have the autumn sun on her back.

Flaubert used to say: be bourgeois in your life so that you may be wild in your writing. I was just wild. And instead of keeping it a secret, I shared with the entire group.

The responses to my reckless revelations were astonishingly kind. The internet is not always a place of anger and bad manners. Complete strangers said well done, or go on, or I’m sure it will be brilliant. (This touching faith made me feel encouraged and oddly moved, but also even more bogus than before.)

In amidst the kindness was the fascinating revelation that most people have no idea of how producing a book works. Because this is my ABC, I assumed that everyone knows it. As charming people wanted to know where they could buy the thing, as if it would be available on Amazon tomorrow, I had to explain that this was only first draft, the earliest of early days, that there was nothing even approaching a publication date. That initial piling up of words, the messy, muddling 139,000, is just the most hesitant of first steps.

It is some kind of achievement, I suppose, but it is now that the real work starts. There will be eight or ten more drafts before it can go out in public. There will be slashing and cutting and chopping, reworking and shaping and moulding. Some characters will disappear altogether. Cherished scenes will have to go. Beloved themes will be relentlessly removed. You have to kill your darlings, say the wise people, and they are right. The Dead Darlings file will be bulging before I am finished.

If anyone ever asks me what writing is, I say: rewriting. That’s the difference between the amateur and the professional. It’s rewriting and rewriting, and rewriting again. You have to be flinty, and brutal; you must take no prisoners. A book does not just drop from the sky, perfectly formed. It comes as a great amorphous mass, and must be sculpted into shape. Now I must put my serious hat on, and move on down the long road, chisel in hand.

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