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.

Cheltenham Week

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Tuesday, 19 March 2013
I have been away in the south, ostensibly having a holiday. The peril of being self-employed is that holidays don’t really exist. I do not say this in a pathetic, whiny way; it is entirely due to my own obsessive nature. The computer or the notebook are always there; the brain will not switch itself off. I can’t even remember the last time I took a whole weekend away from my desk.

So this time I was determined to have a proper break. I was to go and stay with my most beloved cousin, in her delightful and comfortable house, and then have a week at Cheltenham. It was to be a thing of light and luxe.

Holiday, schmoliday. In the week running up to the festival, I woke at dawn, sitting bolt upright at 6am, immediately thinking whether Bobs Worth or Silviniaco Conti would win the Gold Cup. I kept making mad dashes into Cirencester to order the special Cheltenham Guide from the very understanding people at Waterstone’s, and to buy a spanking new pair of binoculars from the lovely camera shop, which is manned by experts who understand every nuance of the lens.

Then obviously I had to try and re-try all my Cheltenham outfits, and keep a running eye on the weather forecast. As the cold fronts came roaring in, special new thermals were ordered in from John Lewis, to be despatched by overnight express. (That really was a sort of miracle. I was sitting in Gloucestershire, tapping my credit card number into my keyboard, at seven at night, and the vital articles arrived the next day at 7.30am. No wonder John Lewis is practically the only retailer in Blighty that retains its national treasure status through thin and thick.)

By the time the great Tuesday of the Festival dawned, I was a nervous wreck. I was convinced all my ante-post bets were nonsense, that my absurd scarlet hat with the pheasant feather would not work, and that my lovely suede boots would give me blisters. I was necking iron tonic like it was going out of fashion. (Actually, iron tonic has not been in fashion since about 1937, although I can hardly walk a yard without it.)

In the end, it was all worth it. I had driven 550 miles specifically to see the mighty Sprinter Sacre in the flesh, the first time I had the chance to do so. He did not let me down. He was a Stubbs picture of equine grace and brilliance, and, in the first glancing sunshine of the week, he romped home to an imperious nineteen-length victory over the finest horses of his generation. My two Irish darlings, Hurricane Fly and Quevega, stormed up the hill, inspiring such waves of emotion that I burst into tears and flung my arms around a perfect stranger. The brave and bonny little Bobs Worth, a small horse with the heart of a titan, roared home in the Gold Cup, with my money on his bold back. I saw an array of the most beautiful thoroughbred horseflesh in the isles of Britain and Ireland, and shouted until my throat was raw. The hat went literally and metaphorically into the air.

Now all I need is a little holiday to get over my holiday.

In which HorseBack UK has an important visitor

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 20 February 2013
Yesterday, I met the Secretary of State for Scotland. I must admit, I was really thrilled.

It’s a most gauche and unfashionable reaction, but I’ve always held the idea that most politicians are pretty decent, at heart. Of course there are some knaves and fools; of course there are some who cause one to throw heavy objects every time you hear the maddening voice on the Today programme, not answering the question, or talking in robotic soundbites. But there are knaves and fools in every profession; it’s just that one usually does not see them on the Ten O’Clock news.

I genuinely think that most people who go into politics do it because they have a desire to do something of use. Everyone bleats about too much Oxbridge, but a lot of the parliamentarians could have taken those fancy degrees and parleyed them into seven figure salaries in banking or big Pharma or the kind of accountancy that salts away company cash in the Cayman Islands. I rather admire the fact that they chose public service instead.

I’m also riveted by the kind of people who get to high office. I’m not just a politics geek, but a bit of psychology nerd too. It takes a very particular mind-set to climb that greasy pole, and I am fascinated to see it close to.

Michael Moore, it turned out, was rather impressive, highly intelligent, and keenly focused. When I say I met the Secretary of State, it was only the briefest of handshakes and a couple of words. He was visiting HorseBack UK, the charity for whom I volunteer, and I was there in my capacity as their recorder-in-chief. I stumped around in my muddy boots, as the grave man in the suit was shown the facilities and all the marvellous work they do there. (I had attempted to get the worst of the horse off my outdoor coat, but it was rather a losing battle.)

He did not showboat about, or attempt to ingratiate with spurious charm. He was there for a serious purpose, and he got the job done with politeness and efficiency. One of the things that interests me about HorseBack is that whilst they have a very practical programme for the rehabilitation of wounded servicemen and women, carefully planned and thought out, there is a nebulous, extra factor in their work, which cannot be recorded in clinical terms. It is partly to do with the fact that the injured work with horses there, and there is something about a horse that touches the places that no amount of pills or therapy can. It is also to do with the fact that HorseBack lies in one of the most ravishing natural landscapes in Britain. It can be slightly astonishing to hear a tough warrior talk, almost lyrically, of the part these rolling hills play in the long road to recovery.

For all that the Secretary was purposeful and businesslike, he absolutely got the thing about the beauty. He mentioned it more than once. It did help that after weeks of skies the colour of old socks, Scotland pulled her sunniest, most dazzling day out of the bag for him. The great lighting director in the sky was on golden time. But still, I was quite surprised. I liked him very much for that.

The visit was a huge success and it will make a big difference to a small but brilliant operation. Politician does decent thing for Good Cause will not make any headlines. All the same, it was a headline for me.

In which weather takes on vanity, and weather wins

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Thursday, 14 February 2013
The snow comes barrelling in again, this time, rather oddly, on gales blowing up from the south. There is no warmth in them, whatever their origin, and wind-chill now becomes a subject of intense importance. I try not to moan about the weather, and fail. An amber warning is out for the region, and many conversations now revolve around the correct application of layers. Layering is the only way to keep warm, at this stage, and must be taken very seriously.

Working with horses in these elements means that all vanity is fled. It really is what the business types call a Zero Sum Game. Either I can keep my equines warm and fed and comfortable, or I can look respectable. There is absolutely no way to do both. Clothes, boots and often face are spattered with mud; every woollen article I own has little bits of hay clinging to it. Due to the crucial application of a hat to fend off the blizzards, my hair has become unspeakable.

My current sartorial look, seen when giving the mares their morning haynets. The hat, of which I am rather fond, came from the tremendous N. Armison and Sons of Penrith, established in 1742. I'm not sure the hat was designed for feeding horses in the snow, but it does the job very well.My current sartorial look, seen when giving the mares their morning haynets. The hat, of which I am rather fond, came from the tremendous N. Armison and Sons of Penrith, established in 1742. I'm not sure the hat was designed for feeding horses in the snow, but it does the job very well.

In the equine brochures which now thump through my letter-box, people who have clearly never been through a Scottish winter show off all kind of horse-wear, in varying states of pristine immaculateness. I gaze at them with a hollow laugh. My default mode now involves low-level dirt at all times.

Funnily enough, I think this is rather a good thing. It’s nice to brush up well, every so often; to put on one’s lipstick and get out a velvet coat or a shiny pair of shoes. Occasionally, I do manage to graduate from mildly damp socks. But so much of the media seems devoted to telling women that they should aspire to impossible levels of loveliness. We must be willowy and elegant and perfectly dressed, like this film star, or that model. It’s rather lovely when that simply is not an option. I do not have to feel like a failure in the glamour stakes, because there is no question of even making an entry.

I do dream of spring, when I no longer shall have to tog myself up like the Michelin man. It shall be rather charming to cast off the exclusive scent of wet horse. (Not exactly Chanel No 5.) But in the meantime, I quite like that fact that there is no room for vanity. I am a creature of the earth, just at the moment, stomping through the mud, head bowed against the wind, getting the important things done.

The law of unintended consequences

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 06 February 2013
About five months ago, I started volunteering for a local charity. I did not just wake up one morning and think: I must now do Good Works. It all happened quite organically.

Three miles up the road from me is a remarkable organisation called HorseBack UK. I have mentioned it here before, but it bears repeating. It does the rather amazing thing of using horses to rehabilitate wounded servicemen and women. It works with people who have everything from double amputation to acute post-traumatic stress. I run out of adjectives when I think of what it is they do there. I want to shout and hang out flags. They are absolutely bloody brilliant.

A veteran working with one of the American Quarter HorsesA veteran working with one of the American Quarter Horses

I met the people who set up the charity, quite by chance. I liked them; I was interested in what they did. I went along to visit. I started thinking that just sending a donation was not enough. I wanted to do something. I know a bit about horses, but they did not really need that sort of help. In the end, I offered them the one thing I can do, which is words.

It turned out, by happy chance, that they really did need words. They have to do grant proposals, produce promotional and informative literature, develop a website, and a myriad of other things that require sentences to go with them. Oh yes, I said, not a problem; of course I can do that.

The law of unintended consequences is something in which I have an enduring interest. This blithe offer had two, for me. One is that it turned into easily the most challenging writing I’ve ever done. It’s one thing writing a book or doing a blog or producing an article, in your own name. That is just about personal success; I’m afraid to say it is almost all ego. It’s quite another to produce words for an organisation which touches the actual lives of actual people.

If I get the words right, they may translate into cash, for a new project or a further programme, which may have a material effect on a person who has been blown up by an improvised explosive device. This is a very serious thing indeed, and I frown and struggle and squint over each sentence; each phrase really matters.

The second consequence is that I have become obsessed. I am in danger of becoming a charity bore. I understand now why there are those people who devote their whole lives to guide dogs or the RSPB or Amnesty International. I am like those old ladies in Agatha Christie, who are always going round the village asking for subscriptions for the church roof fund. I think about HorseBack all the time; everything else seems a tiny bit insubstantial by comparison.

It may also be my time of life. As I motor into middle age, I am falling into the platitude of wondering what it’s all about. Time is rushing past me, and I must decide what mark I wish to leave on the world. I’m not a Nobel Laureate or a stateswoman, so it will only be a tiny scratch. But I’d like it to be a good scratch.

Last year’s plan was to plant a lot of trees. I thought that would do. Someone, years after I had gone, would sit under the shade of a rowan or a beech I had planted, and take their ease. I loved the idea of that. Now I think, there is this other thing, that will mean something.

Charity is an interesting paradox. Giving to one or helping one is seen as an act of generosity or altruism. In my case, I cannot claim goodness or selflessness at all. Quite the opposite. It is they who are giving something to me. I get to feel as if I am doing something that counts a bit, even if it is only in my very small way. I get the glorious gift of feeling that my days are not wasted. And that, it turns out, is worth more than diamonds.

New boots

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 30 January 2013
My life is not exactly stuffed with event. I used to live quite a rackety urban life. I ran around Soho and sometimes drank in places where one might observe the odd household name. I still remember the night I watched in awe and wonder as Charlotte Rampling stalked down a long bar. Many famous people are a crashing disappointment in the flesh; not she. She was quite mesmerising.  It was as if she carried her own private lighting director with her.

Now I am rooted in the far north-east of Scotland, almost two hundred miles beyond Edinburgh. It’s not quite all the way up. I do not watch the ferry for Shetland from my window. But it’s quite far from the twinkling lights of old London town.

Now, I worry not about my membership of The Groucho, but about getting my horse shelter finished. I lie awake at night, listening to the gales which have blown in after the big snows, hoping the equines will be all right. They did indeed have the wind in their tails this morning, and put on a fine bronco display of galloping and bucking. I think about fencing, and the tree-planting programme I have planned for the spring, and whether I will ever get the outside tap done for the feed shed. It is not exactly an existence filled with front-page glamour.

Easily my biggest decision this week was the purchasing of a new pair of gumboots. After ten years of dogged service, my battered old Le Chameau boots finally gave up the ghost. An actual hole developed, and the rubber down one side was perishing.

Le Chameau is the absolute Queen of the Boot. It is what all the keepers wear. When I bought my first pair I thought the dull green a little sickly, but for design and comfort, nothing comes close. But they are now almost three hundred pounds, and I suddenly could not bring myself to spend that kind of money, even though I live in my gumboots. I get more bang for my buck from them than from any other article in my life.
tania jan30

Still, we are in the New Austerity now, and my thrifty side revolted against such extravagance. After a lot of Googling, I finally found an acceptable alternative. They are called Aigle, and they too have the crucial neoprene lining, which makes you feel as if you are walking on air.

It was a moment of jubilee when they arrived. Brand spanking new boots; this now counts as an above the fold headline in my house.

They are very nice, and half the price, but of course they are not the same. I mourn my old keeper’s boots. I suddenly feared the replacements were a little bit mimsy, even slightly girly. I cannot be walking about in girly boots.

Tentatively, I consulted my stepfather.
   ‘What do you think?’ I said.
   He thought for a moment.
   ‘Well,’ he said. ‘They are very butch.’

I almost fainted with delight.
   ‘I don’t mean that in a rude way,’ he said.
   ‘No, no,’ I cried in delight. ‘That’s the best thing you could have said. I was worried they were a bit mere and girly.’
   ‘Oh, no,’ he said. ‘That’s a man’s boot.’

I practically skipped home, I was so happy. This is what it has come to, with me. I am forty-six today, and my life has gone from Charlotte Rampling to the farmer in the dell. No more Groucho and high heels, but weather and earth and horses and manly boots.

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