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.

Offline blues

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 05 June 2013
This week, I lost the internet for 24 hours. I had no idea where it went. Sullen green lights on my BT hub flickered on and off, taunting me; the ether in which I usually roam gathered itself and went off to play with someone else.

Sometimes, when I am working very hard and I want to give my brain a rest, I switch off the internet. This deliberate act is restful and useful for concentration. I am keenly aware of the new neuroscience about the continuing plasticity of the brain and the anecdotal reports of shrinking attention spans.

Funny sheep
But to have it snatched away like that, without warning, was very disconcerting and rather melancholy. I suddenly realised what a cheering place the internet can be. It gets a bad reputation because of the porn and the trolls. The porn is self-explanatory and often very nasty. (Youth and bottoms are a recurring theme, if my junk mail is anything to go by.) The trolls are those cross shouty people who insult public figures and say astonishingly intemperate things about immigrants, people on welfare and anyone who does not have about eight generations of pure British blood.

But as well as all that, there is a perfect festival of unexpected jollity. One of the things people do on the internet is find really funny and clever things and kindly pass them on. Only two days ago I was literally weeping with laughter about a riff to do with Marmite and toast. It does not sound that promising, but it was so hilarious that half my online cohort was soon rocking with laughter. We were suddenly a little circle of Marmite-based jollity.

Funny sheep

There is also, of course, the overload of cute kittens doing repetitive things, and far too many toy dogs, and a rolling collection of misattributed quotations. But one may also find quiet wisdom, lines of inspiration and really excellent moments of comedy.

The people who see only bad in the internet always complain that it is a poor substitute for real life. I think they are making a category error. Online life does not replace actual life, but trots alongside it. It is a clever way to keep up with friends when there are not enough hours in the day for face to face meetings. I live five hundred miles north of many relations and best beloveds; thanks to the internet, I can see daily things I would otherwise miss. This niece is having a lovely day in the park with the dog; that niece is having a glorious time at a music festival. My old friend in California wants me to read a brilliant article she found in the New York Times; a more recent friend is buying lovely bunches of stocks in Covent Garden market. I may keep abreast of all my myriad interests, from lovely racing pictures posted by the Jockey Club to backroom stories put up by the political bloggers. And, on top of all that, there is always a diverting picture of a baby elephant or an enchanting mountain goat.

Funny sheep

Yesterday, I was most miffed because I had some top sheep photographs I really wanted to share with the group. I was going to put up the antic lambs and their august mamas, and there were certain people I knew would be as entranced as I, and we would have had an ovine joke or two, and the loveliness would be shared and appreciated. I felt genuinely cross that I was deprived of this small life pleasure.

The internet informs me and makes me laugh. And it is the perfect place to put pictures of sheep. You can’t say fairer than that.

In praise of small things

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 29 May 2013
It was a day of very, very small things. I love the small things. I am in severe danger of becoming a small thing bore. People will start avoiding me at parties, on account of my banging on and on about how it is the things which are almost invisible to the naked eye which really matter.

I’m not quite sure where all this came from. I can’t work out if it is a natural function of middle age, or whether I was always a secret hippy and it’s just that I don’t have the energy to hide it any more. My small things are all in the love and peace category, so that I feel like one of those people in tie-dyed t-shirts from 1968. They often revolve around trees, and sometimes hills. Sod the books, I think; as long as I have planted enough trees, I shall be able to go gentle into that good night.

Today, among the things that lifted my heart, were the antic cries of the oyster catchers. They have been very subdued this spring, as the weather continued frigid and unfriendly, and the snow gates slammed shut on the high roads, despite it being May. Usually they sing and cry like drunken sailors, all night long, but this year they have taken a vow of omerta. This morning, suddenly, as if someone gave them a secret cue, they broke into rowdy song.

The HorseBack swallowThe HorseBack swallow

Up at HorseBack UK, where I went for my daily visit, a pair of swallows was dancing in the corral. They swooped and flirted and soared, making their own little swallow cries, so delicate and tuneful compared to that of their heftier cousins. I watched them for a while, and then lifted my eyes to the hills, where the entire herd was grazing gently at the good spring grass, which is finally coming through. There is something about watching a herd of horses at rest which soothes the spirits like nothing else. If I did not have a manuscript to write, I would stand and watch them all day long.

Back at home, the old farmer went out to bottle-feed one of his lambs in the south meadow. He makes a special cry as he approaches them, which sound like ‘yup yup yup’. Lambs normally run like crazy things from moving humans. But they know and love this human, and the chosen one skipped happily towards him and took the bottle. Even at a distance, I could see the tenderness and care in the simple act, and I smiled like a loon.

The Amazing Jumping GirlThe Amazing Jumping Girl

I wrote my daily number of words and then went down to ride my mare. Every single thing she does makes my heart expand, from the merest wibble of her lower lip to the faintest flutter of her aristocratic eyelashes. Today, though, we actually jumped a jump, which was fairly headline-making, in my own private newspaper. She raced on the flat and then played polo; almost certainly she has never leapt over an obstacle in her life. Admittedly, the jump was about eight inches high, and cobbled together from old trees, but still. ‘Ha,’ said the remarkable trainer who comes and helps me, ‘it’s the Grand National.’

Out in the world, the news is bad and frightening and very very big. There are stories of hatreds and massacres almost too huge for the puny human brain to take in. But here, in my own minuscule world, the small things stacked up like existential dominoes and gave me solace and joy. I don’t know quite how this works or even if it should work, but that is how it is with me now. The smaller the thing, the more profound the pleasure.

Another world

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Monday, 20 May 2013
I am a day late with this post, ostensibly because I have taken on more projects that I can chew, and my time management is shockingly inadequate. I gallop around like a distracted pony, with To Do Lists tumbling in my head. But it is not just to do with lost time. It’s also that the thing I want to write about is a hard thing, and I’m not quite sure I have the good words for it. It’s a difficult subject, and I’m not even sure it is quite an appropriate one for these gentle pages. Yet it is the thing that fills my head at the moment, and I can’t really fall back on sheep and blossom and the return of the swallows.

Since I started volunteering for HorseBack UK, I have encountered people whose stories would only have ever been a distant newspaper headline to me. A new world has been revealed. In some ways it is a dark one, but it is also filled with inspiration and rays of light.

I hear conversations I never thought I would hear. Just this morning, a gentleman said, as matter of fact as if he were talking about going to the shop to get the paper: ‘Bob was blown up in Afghanistan, and Pete was blown up in Ireland, and I was blown up in Iraq.’ A few months ago, I would have had absolutely nothing to say to statement like that. My brain would have yelled: Does Not Compute. Now, I make a joke. That’s what they all do, the serving men and women, and the vets; military humour is dark as pitch. I don’t shuffle my feet and get crushed with a very British sense of embarrassment and try to change the subject. I say, with heavy irony: ‘Well, that’s nice.’
I have learnt to put away my pity face. Pity is a distancing device; it is a good and true human emotion, but it makes people other. No one here wants pity. They have no use for it. They want, I think, ordinary humanity. They want to be able to look you in the eye and tell their stories and be heard. I’m learning to do this, and it’s a damn good lesson.

This week, the HorseBack course is for veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. This is a complex condition which can strike at any time. I met a paratrooper yesterday who told me that his came out of the blue, thirteen years after his service in the Falklands and Northern Ireland. It can have many symptoms: agoraphobia, depression, insomnia, intense rage, nightmares, flashbacks. One veteran said, as he looked up at the blue Scottish sky: ‘There is blackness, inside and outside.’

In some miraculous, almost inexplicable way, the work they do with the horses seems to open and calm these troubled minds. No one can really categorise how it works, but it does. I see men arrive with tight, uncertain faces, and by the second day they are standing tall and laughing and smiling. What HorseBack does is not a cure, but it gives a sense of hope and possibility. The veterans bond amazingly with the animals, who really don’t care where it was that you were blown up, but how you are in that moment. (I sometimes think horses are like little Zen professors, like that.)

It is difficult, to see close-up what war can do to human beings. At the same time, it is an odd privilege, to hear these stories, and to see the changes which can be wrought. There is a lot of damage, physical and mental, but there is great resolve, a determination not to dwell on past scars but to look for future possibilities. ‘Be kind,’ said the Reverend John Watson, in the 19th century, ‘for everyone is fighting a hard battle.’ I think: some battles are harder than others, but there is a lovely optimism which infects everything at HorseBack, the idea that those battles can be won.

Consider the lambs

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Tuesday, 07 May 2013
I wanted to tell you, very much, about the lambs skipping in the fields. Then I thought: oh, don’t be ridiculous; everyone knows about the lambs. The creatures do not need to be described.

I suddenly realised that this is not so. I thought: most people now live in towns or cities. I like to check my working, so I looked up the figures. It seems that just over six million people make up the rural population. That’s a great many individual souls, but in terms of the demographics of dear old Blighty, it’s a tiny minority.

Since we are on statistics, my absolute number one favourite statistical question is this. Can you guess how much of this green and pleasant land is actually built on?

Tania Kindersley lambs

I’ll give you a minute, to calculate in your head. When Mark Easton of the BBC first asked this question, and went searching for the answer, I remember thinking of all the parks and forests, of the rolling wildernesses which are only ten miles from my front door. For built areas, I guessed about twenty percent. The actual figure is 2.27%.

There’s something here that is curious. I feel the implications sliding against each other like sandpaper in my mind, but I can’t quite come to any conclusion. About ninety percent of the population lives on two percent of the land. Can that be right? Does it mean anything? It seems incongruous and in some ways portentous to me, but I can’t quite work out why.

The point is, that if I write about skipping lambs, and how they really do gambol and shoot vertically into the air and do amazing bronco tricks when they are only days old, that is news, to quite a lot of people. They really don’t see lambs every morning.

Tania Kindersley lambs

Yesterday, the old farmer brought a three-day-old trio down to the south meadow. (There is the old farmer and the young farmer, father and son, whose family has worked the land round here for generations.) I watched him and his little grandson put the new arrivals into the field with the rest of the flock. The young boy, who could not have been more than nine, was dealing with one of the lambs who did not want to get out of the trailer. He picked the wiggling creature up in a sure grasp, front legs in his two certain hands, and deposited it onto the grass.

‘He’s got the touch,’ I said. The old farmer’s weathered face creased into smiles of pride.

We talked for a while about the winter and the weather and how the ground was still four degrees below what it should be. We are at last getting some sunshine and warmth now, but all those of us who rely on the green grass – him for his livestock, me for my horses – are counting the days. We calculate that we are about three weeks behind.

Tania Kindersley lambs

The country is deep in my bones. I grew up in it. I spent my childhood running wild in a farmyard and a stable. There were only two rules: don’t go near the grain dryer, in case we fell in and drowned in corn, and don’t approach the double door stable of Charlie the Bull. (Charlie needed two doors, because he was a mighty beast.) As soon as I was old enough, I rode pretty much every day on the wide downland that characterises the Lambourn valley. I was brought up with earthy smells: of dung, of hay, of horse, of cattle.

Scotland is a very different sort of country, but the smells and the sense of clean air and wide skies is the same. It runs in my blood in the same way. The city is the lovely, dancing, antic time of my twenties and thirties. Now, I come back to where I started: looking for the first blossom, listening for the call of the woodpecker in the woods, discussing the very temperature of the soil. This is my first language. When the mare whickers for her morning feed, it is the sound of home.

In which the law of unintended consequences comes into play

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 01 May 2013
Doing voluntary work is really interesting. There is a fascinating disconnection between what it sounds like, and what it really is. It’s not something I’ve ever done before, and, now I am deep in it, I raise my head and sniff the wind and discover all the unexpected elements that I would never have foreseen. Horseback UK
Volunteering does not sound thrilling or sexy. It is a low-profile occupation, with no red carpets or front-page headlines or glitzy razzmatazz. For some reason, I remember the words of Thoreau: beware of all enterprises that require new clothes. Voluntary work in my case certainly does not require new clothes, only some sturdy, muddy boots and fingers to type.

I think I may have associated it with kind old ladies who ran Oxfam shops or held jumble sales for a fine cause. It can also have a faintly pious, holier-than-thou aspect to it: look at me, with my Good Works, whilst you lesser mortals indulge your voluptuous pursuits. It may carry an older whiff of the churchy, the preachy, the stiff dictates of the chapel.

In fact, I discover, it is none of those things. For a start, I get far more out of it than I put in. I get the priceless feeling of looking in the glass each morning and knowing that I have done one small useful thing in the world. As I roar into middle age, I find that daily knowledge is beyond rubies.

It is also really good fun. I laugh a lot; I meet fascinating people; I have unexpected conversations. The charity for which I work, HorseBack UK, helps those who have been wounded in the service of their country. I knew hardly anything of military life before this. Now a curtain has been raised for me on a whole world of which I was almost entirely ignorant. (For a writer, this too is beyond price.)

The other thing is that there is no time to feel good or holy, because the overwhelming sense is of frenzied activity. I have to learn to fit my paid and unpaid jobs into the hours of one day. I have to develop new muscle memory: that of efficient use of time. This is entirely new and stretches me to the limit. There is no moment to pause in any kind of horrid self-congratulation.

Perhaps the most vivid example of the law of unintended consequences is that it serves as a most potent antidote to vanity. All writers are a little vain, and there is nothing particularly wrong in that. It is one of the fuels which keeps the engine of ambition firing. On the other hand, too much ego, excusable and even faintly charming in the very young, is rather revolting in the lady of a certain age. This work drowns ego in one cold bucket of water.

It’s partly because all the writing I do for HorseBack is not under my own name. If I do manage to turn a finely honed sentence, I will get no public credit for it. The reward is not critical praise, but the private knowledge that something useful has been achieved. In the case of grant applications, my words may translate into actual, countable cash.

There is also the acute consciousness that none of this is about me; I am subsumed into an organisation which is much, much bigger and more important than I. I find this a chastening and refreshing corrective.

It also helps marvellously with first-world guilt, an idiot condition from which I have suffered from a young age. I used to assuage it with direct debits and purchases of the Big Issue. Now I can put this slightly neurotic tendency to some pointful use.

The funny thing is that all this came about through the merest shimmer of chance. It was not part of my life plan. Through whim, circumstance and the mere fact of geography, this thing arrived, almost gift-wrapped, at my feet, and I feel profoundly lucky. Fortune spun her wheel, and came up smiling.

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