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.

It’s just a little bit of snow

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 23 January 2013
I think this is the first proper big snow we’ve had for two years. It is a foot and a half now, and more gathers in the western sky like a mustering army. The roads that go up into the hills are all closed, and the village is empty and silent. One intrepid gentleman slides by on skies, pulling his small son behind him on a scarlet sled. According to the chemist, the only ones out and about are the old people. ‘Nothing stops them,’ she says, smiling.

Tania Kindersley snow

Those same doughty old people will tell you of the winters of their childhood, when they were snowed under for three months at a time. The Scottish weather has changed dramatically in the last forty years. The ski stations at the Lecht and Glenshee have had to rework their business models, because they can no longer rely on a full season of good powder. So even though we are over five hundred miles north of Hyde Park Corner, we don’t get this kind of severe weather very often any more.

Tania Kindersley snow

After four solid days, it gets a little wearing. I stomp through the drifts to take the horses their hay, and spend inordinate amounts of time dealing with the frozen water trough. The equines, who take the weather on the chin, watch in polite interest as I faff about with water bottles and buckets and urns. The snow means everything takes huge amounts of time. Even going down to the Co-op for bread and cheese is like an Antarctic expedition. This morning, it was so frigid that all the doors on the car were frozen shut, covered in a thick layer of frosted snow. I trudge about in my boots and gloves and hat, mildly grumpy, hoping that the power lines will not go down.

Stanley the Dog, on the other hand, thinks it is the most fun he has had since the old queen died. He romps and leaps and gambols in the white stuff like a puppy. I think I should take a leaf out of his book, and not grouse and grumble simply because the elements are not clement.

Tania Kindersley snow

It does have a powerful beauty. All the trees look like ice sculptures, and the distant wooded hills take on a misty aspect, as if they are something from an old water-colour painting. There is a great stillness about, as if the world has stopped, and the air smells clean and sharp, like metal. At night, when I take the dog out for his last walk, the whiteness means that the landscape is almost as bright as day. The snow clouds gather all the light from the street lamps in the village and spread it over the sky, so there is a diffused effect of low amber. It is very hard to describe, but it makes me catch my breath each time I see it.

Tania Kindersley snow
It is a time when I keenly appreciate the joys of being self-employed. My office is my house, so I do not have to get in the motor with spades and chocolate and prepare to be stuck on some snowy commute. I am all stocked up like a Montana survivalist and have made enough chicken soup to last for three more days. I have logs and candles and extra blankets, in case the electricity goes.

I wonder how the Nordics do it. They still have those old Scottish winters; what is weather shock to us is daily life to them. Come on, come on, I think; if the Scandinavians can do it, so can I. What about the great British virtues of stoicism and phlegm? I must summon up my Churchillian self, and fight them on the beaches. It’s just that occasionally, in my weaker moments, I do dream of sunshine. I can’t remember what warmth feels like or what green fields look like. My feet are permanently slightly damp, and I spend half the day with no feeling in my fingers. (This makes typing difficult.) Still, I must not complain. There is no bore worse than a weather bore. It’s just a little bit of snow. The sun will come again.

The last refuge of the scoundrel. Or, dear old Blighty is good at something.

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Monday, 21 January 2013
Snow comes, stealthily, in the night. I stomp down through four white inches and dole out extra hay rations for the horses. They are amazingly warm and chic in their new rug technology. When I was young, rugs consisted of a bit of jute, or the familiar thin green of the New Zealand rug. Now they are made of the kind of stuff that people wear in space. My mare’s ears just peep out of her high neck cover, and she looks so ridiculously sweet that I do not know what to do with myself.

Out in the world, people are dressing up in frocks and winning things. It is a million miles from my muddy boots and the straw that is literally in my hair. (The other day, I went round the entire Co-op with a small nest of hay tucked into my scarf. I only realised when I got home. Everyone was far too polite to say anything.) I catch a quick précis of the Golden Globes on the BBC. Damien Lewis wins, and is charming and touching and thanks his late mother, but in a humorous, ironical British way, rather than the lachrymose manner that is sometimes obligatory at such ceremonies. Daniel Day-Lewis wins, and makes a little joke about the Queen. Adele wins and is just adorable.

I find myself oddly proud. National pride is an absurd thing on its face. It’s the most random thing in the world, where you are born. I did nothing to be British; my mum just happened to be in London at the time I arrived. If I track back through my family tree, there are French, Danish and American antecedents, along with the Irish, Welsh, Scottish and English blood. Yet, almost every morning when I sit down to write, I get a little glow of delight that I am doing it in the language of Shakespeare and Milton, even though they are old dead fellas, who really had nothing to do with me.

As I watch the Brits being clapped by a roomful of successful Americans, I flush with a bizarre patriotism. Look at our lovely girls and boys, being good at stuff. It makes no rational sense, yet there is a keen delight in seeing the excellent Britons being lauded on the international stage. As always, I attempt to make sense of this in my head. But I can’t, really. I hear the old voices, sternly rebuking me. Patriotism, after all, is the last refuge of the scoundrel. Nationalism has led to as many wars and arguments as religion. Lines drawn on a map get armies on the march.

Yet, however nutty it is, pride in one’s place of birth and one’s compatriots can be a benign article. It does not need to be a defensive thing, or a swaggery thing. It is not a zero sum game: all nations have their marvellous points. It does not have to be an imperial idea of mine is better than yours. I get a little uncomfortable when I hear otherwise perfectly sensible American commentators referring to the United States as ‘the greatest country on earth’. National pride can merely be a simple pleasure, so that when the British Olympians triumph, or Andy Murray wins at the tennis, or Damien Lewis is sweet about his mum, one may feel a warm wash of affection for dear old Blighty.

As a country, we are greatly prone to moaning and groaning; we are used to bad news. The economy is a mess, and the forecasts are gloomy. Only this week, John Humphrys was berating the Prime Minister over the mare’s nest that is our relationship with Europe. In the face of all this, it’s rather a relief to remember that there are Britons who are good at things, that it’s not all hell in a handbasket, that just occasionally, in a most diffident and polite manner, one may stand up and say three cheers for us.

Embracing life, not style

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Tuesday, 08 January 2013
Usually, at this moment in January, I say something like: well, we got through Christmas. In my family, the tradition is that someone goes into meltdown. The cliff-hanger is that each year no-one knows who it will be. (Quite often, me.) But in this dreich festive season, as the rains fell and the gales blew, the entire clan generated collective internal sunshine. Everyone was wreathed in smiles, excellent and useful presents were exchanged, the lunch went without a hitch. I even gave a little party.

I was thinking about quite why it was so delightful this year, and I came to slightly odd conclusion. From my own point of view, it was because I read no magazines.

I do not mean interesting generalist publications, like the dear old Lady. I mean what are horribly called Lifestyle Magazines. I object, on about eight different principles, to the very term lifestyle. I think one has a life, not a lifestyle. The very use of the word suggests something superficial, competitive, meretricious and commercial. It’s all about keeping up with the Armstrong-Joneses. In my darker moments, I think it as part of the great conspiracy to make the women sad.

I used to think that the lifestyle mags were very helpful, especially coming up to the yuletide season. Here would be another cunning recipe for stuffing, there would be a charming way of decorating the house. I would buy them all, and try to copy them, in my small, paltry way.
tania january9
The problem with this is that failure is built in. Life will never, ever look as seamless and shining and lovely as a picture on a glossy page. Your own ham will never be quite as gleaming and glazed (mostly because it is not covered in brown shoe polish); your own house will never be quite as inviting and box-fresh. The rational brain knows quite well that the photographs are as alluring as they are thanks to lighting and stylists and tricks of the trade. The sane brain knows none of it is real. But the irrational brain wails: why, why, why is my life not like that?

I’m not on a jeremiad against the mags. They can entertain and divert. I just think it’s really important to remember that they exist to sell things. In order to be put into a buying mood, people need to be riled into a mild state of discontent. There must be the sense of something missing. Then – le voilà! – there is the solution. This frock, that standard lamp, this pair of shoes is the ultimate solution to every existential ill that ails you.

This year, I had no time for discontent. I was worn out from work, coming up on a tight deadline, and fragile from mourning my beloved dog, who had to be put down in November. I needed a really happy Christmas. So, for once in my life, I did not give a bugger about what Nigella was going to do, or which stuffing Jamie was going to use. I had no use for the faintly smug decorating tips of the famous. I was not going to compete against the impossible standards of the magazine version of life or style.

After a frenzied moment of Christmas panic about three weeks out, I calmed myself,  went to the village flower shop, and with the happy feeling of supporting a local business, bought armfuls of eucalyptus and holly and ivy. I flung it all about and felt amazingly happy at the cheering vista of green. No one would come and photograph it, but it was real and it was mine and I loved it. I was not doing the ideal Christmas, I just did the authentic, slightly muddly human version.

And now, in the same novel tradition, I am not looking at the January features about detoxification, and cleansing diets, and losing those festive pounds. I have invented my own new year health plan, which involves stomping round a muddy field in pursuit of a very determined little Welsh pony. I am free-schooling her, and it is the best and funniest exercise either of us ever had. We are both going to be fit as a butcher’s dog by the end of it. Then I come in from the weather and eat some chicken soup. It is the Pony-and-Chicken-Soup Plan. It doesn’t really trip off the tongue, and you will not find it in any lifestyle section. I shall not be able to spin it into a best-selling book and retire on the proceeds. But it is, without a doubt, the best January regime I ever found.

Festive fever

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Tuesday, 18 December 2012
I decide that this is the day to start the Christmas gravy. I like doing this early, so the flavours may mature. Then it’s just a question of adding all the lovely juices from the bird, on the actual day. This is such a domestic goddess plan that I practically fall over.

I run to the village shop to buy Madeira and Marsala. I’m not taking any chances. Actually, I can never quite remember which of them tastes more delicious so I generally throw in half a bottle of both. This year, I may also add some tawny port, for a certain je ne sais quoi. I explain some of this to the man in the shop. He seems marginally less fascinated by the subject than I.

All the time I am running around the village, the following things are running through my head:

Must get present for great-nephew. Can a boy have too many tractors? Answer, in his case: almost certainly not.

Must write Christmas cards. Must find out last posting day. Why am I even writing Christmas cards? I never send Christmas cards. I am up against a hard deadline, for the 3rd of January. Why I agreed to that date I do not know. I shall be writing chapter eighteen first thing on Christmas morning. There shall be no getting drunk on dry sherry and lying in. What was I thinking?

Parcels for the godchildren. Have to do parcels for the godchildren.

That present I got for my sister suddenly seems all wrong. I thought it so marvellously clever and delightful at the time, but now it looks somehow not quite right. This is the problem with doing Christmas shopping in advance. I did mind in November, believing myself to be gloriously organised and what my mother calls Ahead of the Game.

In fact, it is fatal, on two levels.

First of all, it lulls one into a false sense of security. I think, because the presents are bought, that I have got everything done. Then I end up running round the village in a panic, buying Madeira and thinking about tractors. Second of all, the object that looked so shiny and alluring a month ago may, with the simple passage of time, appear gimcrack and shoddy. Bloody hell, I think, what have I got in the present cupboard? (I will do anything not to go into Aberdeen which is, according to all reports, a zoo.)

Should I get a nice holly garland for the mantelpiece? I’m not having a tree so perhaps a garland will give the feeling of decking the halls. But what if one tiny spark from the fire shoots upwards and sets the thing alight and then the house burns down? I realise that, far from being in the proper Christmas spirit, I am catastrophising wildly.

Must make a special Christmas list. The To Do list is spawning itself in my head like one of those creatures on nature programmes which may have eight hundred babies at once. At least if I write it down, it might seem more manageable, and less like a hydra. But then I have to decide which of my forty-seven notebooks the Christmas list should go in, and this creates another impossible decision of its very own.

Must, for no known reason, buy panettone. I am suddenly convinced that Christmas is not Christmas without special Italian cake.

Must: write book, do blog, tidy house, feed horses, walk dog, wrap presents, go to post office, buy red roses (again, nobody knows why), get a ham, make watercress soup for strength, go to bed at a reasonable hour, and generally go faster.

Christmas, I think, I am exhausted just contemplating it. And all this is just me and a horse and a pony and a dog. I do not have four over-excited children, or a gaggle of parents-in-law, or even a husband to worry about. I have created this insanity in the privacy of my own head. I do not even read those publications which insist that if your house and your Christmas table do not resemble something in a glossy magazine you are officially a Bad Human. I have absolutely no idea where it all comes from. Perhaps it is a lady thing; perhaps I am biologically programmed, after all. Still, I suppose that at least it keeps my mind off the weather.

In which I contemplate the weather

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Monday, 10 December 2012
I scan the horizon, looking for weather. I scan the internet too. I am old school and new school. After many days of investigation I have found the best weather forecast, with helpful two hourly reports and a seven day long-range prediction. The only problem is that it changes from moment to moment. Yesterday, the seven days were: sleet, sleet, light snow, fair, light snow, rain, fair. Then it changed to mostly fair. At one point, someone at the meteorological centre got a bit giddy and put up some yellow sun, admittedly hedged with cloud.

All this is because of the horse. In my old life, I did not worry about the weather. It was wet or cold or frosty, or it was not. It only meant that I might have to wear a hat. Now, the weather is stitched into the very sinews of my life. It dictates how much hay I need, and what rugging programme should be implemented. The detachable neck, the under-rug, the mediumweight, or the serious winter heavy?

There are people who are frightfully butch about rugs, and insist they are the work of Satan, and that horses should be allowed to revert to their natural state. The animals will grow good long coats; they will build up a clever insulating barrier of oil against the skin which acts as a waterproof. It is unnatural, even unkind, say these zealots, to cover the poor animals in heavy clothes.

I see photographs on all the absurd horse sites I follow on Facebook of glorious equines, quite rugless, frolicking in the snow. But these are usually native breeds, hardy Icelanders, sturdy mountain ponies or the Highland strain. My darling mare is descended from three Arabian sires; her ancestors started out in the high, dry desert plains. Admittedly, the thoroughbred foundation sires were sent to good Irish mares, who must have had a bit of bone and toughness about them; that is where you see the strong steeplechasing horses come from. But still. I am not sending my delicate lady out naked into the Scottish winter.

I think that I am a bit like a farmer now, reliant entirely on the whims of weather. It has been bad lately; I struggle through wind and ice and snow to get the outdoor work done. People talk doomily of Siberian fronts bringing the most bitter winter for a hundred years. How shall the mare and I get through that, I wonder?

There is a faint hysterical edge to the meteorological reports. Channel Four is even running a whole programme about whether the weather is going to hell in a handcart. It’s not just that there may be no respite till March; there may be no respite ever. It’s all going to be freezes and floods and every kind of disaster. The way people are talking, you might think that poor Britons shall never see an ordinary sunny day ever again.

Sometimes I give in to the doom. As I skitter and skid and strain every muscle not to fall over, I wonder if no-one shall ever rid me of this turbulent ice. Then I remember the old men round here, who will tell you tales of their childhood winters, when they were snowed in for three months at a time. Now, our snows last for a week at most. Last season, there was a three week snow, which was regarded as very remarkable indeed. It was nothing compared to what those old-timers lived through.

There is a seam of granite which runs through these north-eastern Scots. It is in the landscape, where that stone is indigenous, and it is metaphorically in the character. There is a doughtiness here that astonishes me still; it is nothing like the soft south where I grew up. It took a bit of getting used to, when I first moved up here. It can come out as curtness; strangers sometimes think it almost rude. But it is just a very splendid attitude of getting on with it. Historically, merely surviving in these parts required a gaunt steeliness, and that strain lives here still.

I like it. I can learn from it. Even my highly-bred duchess is toughening up, taking this hard northern weather in her stride. Even if it is the worst winter ever, we shall stock up on hay, and rug ourselves up, and put our heads down, and bash on through.

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