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.

Walking the Horse

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 25 September 2013
This morning, on a gloomy, dreich Scottish day, with a lowering sky and the suspicion of rain in the September air, I took my horse for a walk. She was galloping round the field in the high winds of last week and managed to pull a little muscle in her shoulder, so she’s a bit too tender to ride. Instead, it seems perfectly logical to me to take her for a walk each morning.

Out of the paddock we go, through a high stone archway, past the mighty Wellingtonias, over the burn, and down the long line of beech trees to the south. Here, there is an excellent stretch of flat drive, good for conditioning her hooves. (I keep her without shoes.) An occasional car or van drives by, but there are fine wide verges where we may get out of the way, and, despite being an ex-racing thoroughbred, and so supposed to be mad in the head and skittish and spooky, she does not blink an eye even when the most rattly of lorries rolls past.

The red mare, on a sunnier day, having a good graze out in the set-aside with her friend Stanley the Dog, before we set off on our morning amble.The red mare, on a sunnier day, having a good graze out in the set-aside with her friend Stanley the Dog, before we set off on our morning amble.

This morning, a gentleman I know screeches to a halt in his big black truck. He is rocking with laughter. I wonder if I have hay in my hair or mud on my face, both of which are fairly usual occurrences. ‘I’ve seen people take their dogs for a walk,’ he says, in high merriment. ‘But I’ve never seen anyone take their horse for a walk.’ And he drives off, still laughing. My grand mare stares after him, with a de haut en bas look, as if she is Maggie Smith playing the Dowager Duchess of Grantham in Downton Abbey. (She can do dowager duchess better than any horse I’ve ever met.)

We carry on. She walks kindly on a loose rope, with her head down and her ears in their relaxed donkey position and her lower lip wobbling into a dreamy equine smile. We go through the Scots pines and the silver birches, back over the burn again, along the beech hedge, which is just starting to turn as autumn begins to get into gear, under the biggest and most venerable of the horse chestnuts, and back to the gate, where the little grey pony whickers in greeting, glad to see us back.

Part of our route, complete with dashing caninePart of our route, complete with dashing canine

I could make a fairly sensible case for walking a horse. Teaching an equine to lead politely, without pulling or barging or pushing, is a foundational pillar of horsemanship, in my view. This kind of simple daily routine builds trust, deepens the relationship between horse and human, and is a nice, relaxing thing to do. I think it’s quite important not always to ask them to do serious work, but to mix it up a bit. Sometimes, I just go and sit in the field and read a book, so that the red mare does not only associate me with action and demands and doing things. Sometimes, I think, it’s good merely to be present.

But really, it’s not what people do. The laughing gentleman is right. Most people go out and school their horses seriously, do lunging or flatwork, teach them to do side passes or flying changes, practice dressage or jumping. They have serious goals. They enter competitions. They win rosettes and shiny silver cups. I see their pictures all over the internet and wonder at their accomplishments. But the funny thing is that I get as much profound pleasure from slowly walking my grand duchess past the old oak trees, under the benign gaze of the blue hills, as I would from any number of glittering trophies. Just watching her happy face is my prize.

The official arrival of Autumn

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Thursday, 19 September 2013
This moment in September is an odd time, a kind of limbo in the natural world. Everything here is still green, although the greenness has taken on a rather tired, dusty aspect, as if the very chlorophyll is getting creaky after a long, dazzling season. Despite a gloomy weather forecast of low skies and mean cloud, the Scottish sun is dancing about the place as if there is life in the old girl yet. My swallows have gone, but I saw a gang of swifts yesterday who have still not set off on their epic journey south.

Yet, there are some subtle signs of the shifting of the season. I wake to improbably golden sun, but when Stanley the Dog and I step outside it is properly cold for the first time. It is put on your gloves and scarf cold. It is almost wear a hat cold. In these northern parts we have not yet seen the first frost, but there are heavy, silvery dews, a gentle harbinger of the freezes to come. The beech hedge is still verdant, but the very first leaves are beginning to turn, and some, jumping the gun a little, have already begun to fall when the wind blows.

tan 01The limes just starting to turn.

It was a glorious, long, hot summer. It was a real treat, after the endless cold and rain of last year, when summer never really pitched up and all the farmers looked fraught and sad as they battled to get in the harvest and cut the hay. Even the cows looked demoralised. (Cows, it turns out, really object to the wet.) There is a faint melancholy to see it go, and it is going, for all the late sunshine. At the same time, I have that back to school impatience for the season to turn properly. I want the metaphorical sense of sharpening my pencils for the new term.

tan 02Meanwhile, up at HorseBack UK, just along the river, the Deeside hills are still as vivid as ever in the September light.

This morning, down at the paddock with my mare, I was mooching about with her when suddenly her head went up and her ears pricked and she was at once on full alert. Horses, being prey animals, are amazingly sensitive to the slightest noise or movement, often ones which are completely beyond human senses. I looked about, trying to see what she could see. I heard nothing. The field seemed quiet. The woods were drowsing in the morning light and everything was still. She gazed fixedly to the north. There was something there.

tan 03View of the set-aside this morning, with a happy pair of mares enjoying a free graze. You can see the greenness just starting to fade. The two equines, however, care nothing for that as they still find the good grass.

Finally, I heard it. It was a distant call and chatter, as if someone were having a cocktail party over the other side of the hill. It couldn't be, I thought, not so early. I scanned the sky. (We must have made an odd picture – the horse and the human, both staring up into the blue.) It was. It was the geese. The very first skein of the season, making their migratory path out of the north-west. They tracked a sure line, flying on a perfect diagonal to the south-west, calling as they went. I wondered, as always, at the twenty-seven avian mysteries. What do those calls mean? How do they organise their clever rotas, so that everyone takes a turn at the sharp end? How do they keep that wonderful formation? Where do they hone their astonishing navigational skills?

The mare, having ascertained that the noise was not that of a predator, lost interest and fell to grazing. I, still fascinated, oddly delighted, as happy as if I were greeting old friends, went on staring at the sky, watching the miraculous group until it went out of sight. There we are, I thought. That's it. Autumn is official. I can go back to school.

The departure of the swallows.

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 11 September 2013
The swallows have gone. I did not see them go. I am inexplicably regretful about that.

I am not a twitcher or an ornithological expert. I was far too busy thinking about ponies as a child to take any interest in birds, although I do remember the larks singing on the wing as we rode out on the wide Lambourn downs. Then I went to London and spent most of my time in the dodgy bit of Westbourne Grove, before it became a hedge-fund playground, and in the darker corners of Soho. No birds there, except for some grumpy pigeons outside St Anne’s church.

The bird thing is new, and happened only when I got to Scotland. The first year I noticed the swallows arriving, I felt as if someone had sent me some great cosmic gift. I was oddly overcome by a child-like sense of wonder. These tiny, delicate creatures had flown all the way from Africa, to my old shed. Every part of their lives seemed slightly miraculous. Not only did they make that great journey, over thousands of miles, but when they got here, they had the talent to make nests of the most exquisite, precise construction. Muscle, navigation, and engineering skills; it seemed too much for one bird.

The swallows' low-flying training groundThe swallows' low-flying training ground
I began to become fascinated by their daily rhythms and their dedicated programme. After the arrival of their young, they would fly about each morning gathering food. They also posted guard: if they perceived any threat, they would do excellent diversionary tactics, screaming away in the opposite direction, calling wildly, to draw whatever predator they feared.

When the fledglings were ready for action, the parents would bring them out and start the flying lessons. At first, they kept very close to the nest. Short, educational journeys were essayed. Each week, they would go a little further, until the young birds were ready for serious training. Then they would go out into the open hayfield. It is a long green stretch of open ground, in the shape of a shallow bowl, with sloping banks on each side. It was here, in this perfect environment, that the adult swallows taught their growing chicks the art of low flying. They would skim the earth, making sharp manoeuvres where the ground banked upwards. As soon as the hay was cut, the manoeuvres could become more precise, as the contours of the earth were revealed. They made me think of Spitfires, in that ironically dazzling summer of the Battle of Britain.

Then, as August came to its end, they would begin the serious fitness work. They would fly very fast and very long, for hours and hours, clearly doing distance training. Each year, when I watched this, I would marvel afresh at their sheer physicality, their dogged determination, their excellent work ethic. I would also feel the faint flutter of melancholy, because I knew that soon they would be gone.

Last summer, there was a tremendous muster the night before they left. The quarrelling gang of swifts from my sister’s house came roaring up for a last hurrah with their avian cousins before the great trek began. I knew this meant that they were off, so I could make my farewells and wish them good journey.

The view south from the shed where they nest. I presume this is the direction in which they will have flownThe view south from the shed where they nest. I presume this is the direction in which they will have flown

This year, I’ve been preoccupied. I have the new work with HorseBack UK, the new mare to school, one book to write and at least two secret projects. I hardly know what day of the week it is, so this year I did not have the time to map the swallow timetable.

This is all a little bit nuts, I do admit. But I love those birds. I am used to the glorious, joyful trilling of their daily song. It is the soundtrack to my day. And now there is – silence. And some strange part of me is properly sad that I did not get to wave them off.

The beauty

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 04 September 2013
I bang on a great deal about the trees and the hills. When I go to the south, after about a week, I find myself missing the mountains like you would miss a person. I get quite tearful when I drive back north and pass the Welcome to Scotland sign.

All the same, when you’ve lived in a place for fifteen years, you can start to take it for granted, just a little. When I first moved here, I was so amazed and entranced that I used to get in the car and head into the wild spaces. About twenty minutes north-west of my house, the country opens up like a book, and there is nothing but hills and sheep and heather. The road spirals up above the treeline, and there is a section of thirteen miles without a human or a habitation. Old granite bothies sit, gently crumbling in the weather, abandoned by the soft moderns, who need to be nearer to a shop and an internet connection, who cannot afford to be snowed in for days at a time as the older generations were. This is the road which is the first to close in the winter. You will hear it on the national traffic reports. ‘The snow gates are shut at Cockbridge,’ the presenter will say. (The name Cockbridge always used to make Terry Wogan giggle, in the old days.)

I used to drive up there just to look at the emptiness and the wide skies. I could hardly believe that so much wilderness and beauty still existed on this crowded little island. I would drive just for the sake of driving, and look just for the sake of looking.

The empty spaces, thirty minutes from my house.The empty spaces, thirty minutes from my house.

Now, I don’t take those wild journeys any more. It’s a two hour round trip, and I have books to write and my voluntary work to do and my mare to ride. There is no time. Even so, every morning, as I speed along the valley to HorseBack UK, I pass the long line of indigo hills which rise to the south of the River Dee. In the distance, I can just catch a glimpse of the proper mountains to the west, the ones which are so high that their peaks are still white as late as May. That is my daily commute. I always look at it, but often my mind is busy with other things, all the tasks that must be done that day, the enduring lack of time. (Too many things; too few hours.) I don’t, I realise, always take in the fullness of the landscape as I should. I’m too used to it.

This morning, for some reason, I was suddenly struck by the great good fortune of having beauty, at my door. It was a couple of tiny, insignificant things that did it.

Since I went back to horses, I look at a lot of equine videos on the internet. I am interested in the new school of horsemanship, and like to see other people working their animals. I watched one such clip last night. It was a woman in a dusty, dirty round pen, with a few dilapidated buildings in the background. There were no trees, no hills, no verdant pasture. It made me rather melancholy for some reason; it was all so arid and loveless. I thought how lucky I was that I get to work my own mare in an emerald field, surrounded by Scots pines and old oak trees, with a thickly wooded hill gazing down on us, and the swifts swooping, low and joyful, over the ground.

And the hill I can see from my front doorAnd the hill I can see from my front door

And then, this morning, I heard someone on the Today programme speaking in that bland managerial jargon that a certain sort of official operative is prone to use. For some reason, it conjured up an entire office environment: with those pale neon lights and thin cheerless carpet and pages of serious documents written in that same bland prose. The first half of my working day is spent outside, in the good Scottish air. Even when I am back at my desk, as I am now, tap tap tapping away at my keyboard, and staring furiously at the computer screen, I may still gaze through the window and see a long line of beeches beyond a dry stone wall built of the lovely local granite, by craftsmen whose skill has been passed down from one generation to another. I may see the wind move in the trees and, if I am lucky, the lone heron making his stately progress over the cut hayfield.

Of course, not everyone needs natural beauty. Some find loveliness in brutalist architecture; some get their aesthetics from a magnificent cityscape. Some people perhaps do not need beauty at all. But I do. And even though there are days when I don’t quite appreciate it as keenly as I should, I remember now why I must lift my eyes to the hills. It is a crazy privilege to have them here, at my front door. They go back at the top of my list of Things Not To Take For Granted, like opposable thumbs and electricity.

The Awfulness of the Collective We

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 28 August 2013
Summer is almost over. Quite soon, I shall sharpen my metaphorical HB pencils and go back to school, and the radio schedules will return to normal, and the papers will stop commissioning silly season fillers. The worst summer holiday fillers are the ones about going on holiday. They are made more hilariously awful by being written by someone who is just off to Umbria or that fashionable bit of Cornwall, as if Craig Brown has decided to parody the entire middle class, in every single print article in every paper and gazette.

I don’t really get that exercised about this. I am my own parody, after all, with my thoroughbred obsession and my insane William Hill account. (Very happy and bulging after the bank holiday weekend, mostly thanks to man in form James Fanshawe.) But what does drive me nuts in the head is the creeping use of the collective We which infects these fluff pieces. I can’t tell whether it is on the march, or whether I just notice it more. The straw that broke this grumpy camel’s back was a sentence which went something like: ‘We can’t live without our iPhones and iPads, even when we are on holiday.’

As long as this little band is happy, I care nothing for shoes or bad hair daysAs long as this little band is happy, I care nothing for shoes or bad hair days
A furious klaxon went off in my head. What manner of fandangle was this? I had just come back from my own holiday in the Hebrides, where there was in fact no telephone signal, and I had experienced no withdrawal symptoms at all. I had done that great old school thing, and read an actual papery book. (I admit that I did find a place where I could get the internet, and used my computer to put up some photographs of Stanley the Dog getting his first glimpse of the sea, but that was more a public service than anything else.) I did not recognise this We of whom the writer spoke.

It was also quite hard to identify the We. Was it all humans? I imagine that shepherds in Orkney do quite well without iPhones. I would be surprised if the nomads of Mongolia yearn for iPads. Was it then just Ordinary Decent Britons? But surely there must be nurses from Hull and farmers from Shropshire and joiners from Lincoln who go perfectly happily on holiday without any Apple technology. Was it then simply the readers of that particular periodical? Even then, how could the writer be so sure that the entire cohort was addicted to Mr Steve Jobs and all his works? Think about it for even a moment, and the whole notion collapses into nonsense.

And the grooming which concerns me is that of this elegant ladyAnd the grooming which concerns me is that of this elegant lady

The Collective We is flung about with rash abandon. It is used to refer to the political classes, or the voting public, or women, or the media, or even sometimes, on a particularly mad day, the entire human race. It contains a sort of arrogance – I know what this entire assorted group is thinking and feeling and desiring. Its use for the ladies is particularly galling, since it plays to the worst stereotypes, weirdly perpetuated by females themselves. We all want to lose six pounds; we all have our little obsession with shoes; we all yearn for Mr Right. There’s a faux-chumminess in it, a bogus we’re all in it together. The implication seems to be that somehow fretting about cellulite or envying your friends’ more perfect lives is fine, because we all do it. In fact, the writers of these We pieces really mean I. They are usually speaking of themselves; the spurious We simply opens the box of stereotype and shoves everyone else into it.

I carry no desire for Mr Right, have no interest in shoes, and do not wish to lose six pounds. I go happily on holiday without an iPhone. I spent the last week obsessing alternately about the Ebor Festival at York and The Ashes. I suspect I am neither more nor less typical than the next woman. From a most unscientific straw poll, I found that there are many ladies out there just as entranced by Blowers calling every human he meets ‘my dear old thing’ and many who do not know what I am talking about. Imagine if I had written a piece, referring to my fellow females, which began: ‘We are all glued to Test Match Special this week.’ It would be absurd.

The awful thing is that I have a suspicion I may have fallen into the trap of the Collective We in my spotty past. I think I may have thought it warm and fuzzy and embracing. I hope not, but I cannot be sure. As I get older, I grow stricter and more empirical. Show your working, I want to shout, at all these strident collectivists. We, whether ladies, Britons or humans in general, are as individual as snowflakes.

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