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.

Tennis, and absurdity

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 10 July 2013
It’s quite peculiar to become emotionally invested in a human you will never even meet. It certainly can’t make any evolutionary sense; complete waste of energy, in Darwinian terms. And yet I burst into noisy sobs when Andy Murray won a tennis match.

I admit it was not any old tennis match, but still. Throughout the whole Wimbledon final I yipped and yowled, paced the floor, turned my head away, all but hid behind the sofa. I spent a long time in the second set trying to persuade myself I did not care. I failed. Catching the tension in the room, Stanley the Dog began to howl.

Patriotism is really quite absurd when you think about it for more than two minutes. It is a complete random twist of fate that I was born in the land of Shakespeare and Milton, and may play with their language every day. It was on an absolute whim that I moved to Scotland, so I can cheer a proud Scottish victory from the rolling Deeside hills. It’s nothing to do with anything I did. It’s just a twist on the wheel of fortune. Tennis is mildly absurd too, as are all sports. You can deconstruct half of them to someone hitting a ball, which doesn’t sound like much.

And yet, humans are not really rational. And rationality in these cases can be a cold, poor thing. Sport, at its finest, is magnificent: a combination of athleticism and strength, of mental and physical power, of cleverness and tactics. Some of the shots Murray pulled off seemed to defy physics. He is also an aesthetically pleasing player. It’s not just boom boom boom; there is grace and finesse in his lovely strokes. And I do feel bizarrely proud of dear old Blighty, and amazingly fond of my beloved Scotland. When I drive home after time away, I get a little teary when I pass the Welcome to Scotland sign. The human heart may not be reduced to mere sense.

So it was a glorious day for a whole nation, apart from the few grouches who still hold out against collective rejoicing. It was a great day for one man, too, who had struggled and fought so long to climb this dizzying pinnacle. I’ve always liked Andy Murray. I liked his work ethic, his understated refusal to showboat, his profound attachment to his family. I felt intense admiration that he had gone through a horror which few people can imagine, and he never traded on it. He could have played the Dunblane card, and he never did. I liked the things about him in the early days which made people furious: the fact that he would get livid with himself when he played a poor shot, his refusal to polish himself up or vamp for the cameras.

I liked that he did not resort to easy, spurious charm, but saved all his energy for his great goal, which was to be the best in his sport. I loved that he wore his heart on his sleeve on court, but was intensely private and guarded off it. He was never going to sell his story for a little cheap attention; there is an authentic properness in that, in these days of celebrity culture and tell-all memoir. He did not litter the pages of Hello magazine; he lived a life, not a lifestyle.

I liked that he, in true British fashion, just got on with it.

The day after, just as there was a danger of crashing anti-climax, I went up to the HorseBack herd, where a new foal was born at five o’clock on Monday morning. The enchanting, delicate, questing new life gave me another moment of glory over which to smile, and I visit the little filly every day, and shall be able to watch her grow. And now there is the Ashes to look forward to, and I can get goofy all over again about men hitting a ball.

The black helicopters are coming

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 03 July 2013
One of the things I like about living in the north of Scotland is the peace. As the day closes and the night comes in, one can hear the cry of the oyster-catchers, the flinging whistle of the swallows, the rustle of the rabbits in the undergrowth. The most alarming sounds are occasional gunshots from the deep woods, and the frankly terrifying cry of the owls as they mercilessly slaughter small mammals.

Two nights ago, the deep quiet of our little village was shattered by the roar and hum of a low helicopter, hovering hardly higher than the Wellingtonias, with searchlights beaming down like something from a science-fiction epic.

The friend whose filly shares my field sat bolt upright at three in the morning, on account of the fact that her house was shaking from stem to stern. The friend, with no idea what was going on, raced down to the field in her pyjamas, intent on checking the herd. They have dealt with fireworks and people out lamping, but low-flying choppers was a whole new story. Miracles that they are, the three girls were standing calm but alert against the slope of the wooded hill, with my red mare in protective stance at the head of her little band. The friend, not thinking that clearly at 3am, then noticed that the helicopter appeared to be following her. Paranoia struck. If the police were on the track of a deranged serial killer, as seemed by now perfectly certain, what would they make of her, in gumboots and pyjamas and bed-hair, no doubt looking like the most intense sociopath?

Eventually, the chopper veered off. Down in the village there were police with sniffer dogs and divers out by the river and around the loch. As dawn broke, a huge manhunt was revealed to be underway.

I, of course, slept through the whole thing. When morning came, and I heard the lurid drama repeated – the entire village could talk of nothing else – I decided that it must be some terrible terrorist threat on the Queen, what with Balmoral being not far away. (I am oddly protective of the Queen in my middle age. I have become like one of those Gor bless you ma’am taxi drivers.)

In fact, the real story turned out to be much less dramatic and much more sad. An old lady with Alzheimer’s had wandered out in the night and got herself lost on the hill. Thanks to the great efforts of the searchers, she was safely found, and the ending was a happy one.

But it did make me think of the conspiracy theorists in America. I follow American politics keenly, and since the gun control debate has been raging there, all the extreme paranoiacs have come out of the woodwork. There is an actual idea, deeply held in certain peculiar quarters, that the government really is out to get the good citizens of the United States. Either that, or the New World Order is coming. Whichever it is, the proponents of these beliefs insist that this is why they must, must, must hold onto their guns. Because otherwise how can they shoot down the black helicopters when they come?

Luckily, our helicopter was not black, but benign. I shall not have to start stocking up on canned goods or train Stanley the Dog to attack government agents. The drama passes; the quiet returns; and once again the only evening sound is of the wildlife in the woods.

Back to reality

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 26 June 2013
After the extreme highs and lows of The Royal Meeting - all the intense emotion, beating hopes, absurd bets, ridiculous shouts - I go back to my normal routine. The swifts are doing Spitfire imitations around the paddock, the ducks are teaching their young to swim on the burn, the baby rabbits are ruthlessly eating the garden and effortlessly evading the rather scattered hunting instincts of Stanley the Dog. After a week in front of the television, I emerge blinking into the light and notice that the peonies and the astrantias are out. The white lilac is still blooming, and the dog roses are suddenly in full flower. These things seem to happen overnight.

I return to my work, fingers bash bash bashing away on the keyboard. My week off has done nothing for my shaky time management, and I revert, as usual, to my customary half an hour behind. Everything seems very normal.

Then, at nine-thirty at night there is a heavy rap on my door and I find my neighbour standing outside saying those dread words: ‘The horses are out.’

I’m not sure we shall ever get to the bottom of it. Our famously placid herd, with whom we have worked so hard on desensitising that they will walk without a twitch over shiny tarpaulins, past flapping sheets, under waving flags, suddenly went so mysteriously loco that they completely smashed and trashed a section of sturdy post and rails. My two girls share a paddock with a little American Paint filly, and her owner rushes down with me in the bright Scottish night light to see the devastation.

The neighbour, amazingly, goes off to get serious joinery tools and manages to fix most of the fence before the light started fading at 11pm. The other neighbour roars up in his truck and hurries off to check the bounds for intruders or any possible thing that may have spooked the mares enough to produce such an uncharacteristic reaction. The Paint’s owner and I are torn between gratitude at such kindness and utter bafflement at how such a thing could have happened. The most inexplicable aspect is that the broken rails are forced and splintered from the outside in, not, as you would expect, from the inside out. The angles are all wrong.

Even more astonishing, the two big mares (the little one has not joined in the mayhem, and is found grazing peacefully inside the paddock as if nothing has happened) have only suffered a couple of surface scratches, nothing that can’t be fixed up with a good application of the miraculous Wound Cream which rightly carries the seal of Royal Appointment. The thing which finally makes us laugh is that having somehow barged out of their field, the errant pair are found by the top gate, trying to get back in, as if to say: so sorry, our mistake.

The two miscreants, safely back in the field, looking as if butter would not melt in their innocent mouthsThe two miscreants, safely back in the field, looking as if butter would not melt in their innocent mouths

All horse owners dread this kind of thing. Horse people tell each other grisly tales of this equine which ran all the way to the village trailing a bit of broken fence behind it, or that poor gelding which smashed its way through a gate in the middle of the night, or this accident-prone foal which got itself tangled up in electric fencing. Horses, so big and bonny and strong, half a ton of sinew and muscle, are also shatteringly fragile. One wrong step can bring them down.

We have been lucky so far, so our summer night drama came out of the blue, shocking us to the core. Thanks to whatever fates watch over the field, and the kindness of neighbours, the story ended happily. Although I realise that up till now I have perhaps been too sanguine and cavalier, and am contemplating laying in some strong brandy for any future emergencies. The horses can get by on love and reassurance and Wound Cream; I need hard liquor.

The Royal Meeting

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Thursday, 20 June 2013
The Royal Meeting at Ascot is one of the oddest happenings in the entire British year. It is over three hundred years old, so long established and woven into the tapestry of this island life that nobody much stops to question it. But it is packed with curiosity and paradox.

On the one hand, it is billed as a social occasion, and so it is. Every duke and earl and peer is here, as the old song says. Now they are joined by many other princes and lords, from Dubai and Qatar. Oceans of champagne are drunk; there are strawberries everywhere. Certain ladies really do start contemplating their Ascot hats in the month of March. There are illicit meetings in Car Park Number One and flirtations in the Silver Ring.

At the same time, it is a place of some of the fiercest and most professional work you will ever see under the British sun. The trainers might be dressed as if they are going to a wedding, but they are at the office, with millions of pounds in prize money and potential breeding fees riding on their immaculately timed decisions. Like the ladies with the hats, they will have been thinking of Ascot since the first crop of two-year-olds came back from their winter rest. Out in the biting Siberian winds of Newmarket Heath, where headgear is composed of hard helmets and worn flat caps, they will have been plotting and planning and hoping and dreaming.

The jockeys too are at the office. No foie gras and bubbly for them; the taller ones will have been surviving on a morsel of broccoli and chicken with the skin off. Making the weight is such a crucial thing that even a mouthful of water before a race will have to be spat out in case it should tip the scales in the wrong direction.

It is a place of shining modernity. The new stand, the facilities for the horses, even the computerised bookies’ pitches are all state of the art. Yet it is amazingly old-fashioned. The Queen is still driven up the straight mile in a carriage drawn by match greys, whilst the Welsh Guards play the National Anthem on shining trumpets, and gentlemen wave their top hats genteelly at their monarch. It is not so very long ago that the Royal Enclosure refused to admit the divorced. In a quiet corner of the pre-parade ring, the farrier surveys the scene whilst wearing the most traditional tweeds. All the old gentlemen’s clubs have their pitches – White’s, the Turf, the Garrick, the Jockey Club itself, which you cannot join but only be invited to.

Typical Ascot conversation: ‘Let’s go to the Turf Club.’ ‘Yes, let’s.’ The group arrives at the door. Everyone looks at each other. ‘Do you know a member?’ ‘No, I thought you did.’ Pause. ‘Let’s go to the Weatherby’s box instead.’

Some people do treat it as a cocktail party, and will hardly take in the fact that the world’s best horseflesh is assembled for their delectation. Women who cannot tell a hock from a pastern totter about on impossible heels; titans on a corporate jolly are far too busy networking and making billion pound deals to attend to whether John Gosden is in form or not.

But for those who love the thoroughbred, it is the festival to end all festivals. It is the Olympics and the World Cup rolled into one. The real beauty is the equine version. Those glorious brave athletes, with their bloodlines running back to Eclipse and Hyperion and St Simon, fill the eye with an excess of aesthetic pleasure. All of them are brought to their crest and peak for this short, antic week. They are a gallimaufry of shining coats, dancing hooves, intelligent heads, bright eyes. They cast even the most cunningly contrived hat into the shadiest of shades.

I watch it in a mazy haze of delight, like a child at Christmas. Along with Cheltenham, it is my favourite week of the year. From my first glimpse of the Racing Post at 8.30am to the farewell singalong around the bandstand after the last race, it is all holiday with me.

A Racing Great

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Friday, 14 June 2013
It’s a strange thing, being a racing fan. One of the things I do, in my Scottish fastness, when I am not writing a book or gazing at the sheep or riding my mare or doing my HorseBack work, is study the form and sneak off to watch the 3.30 from Haydock and have ridiculous accumulator bets. This is one of the legacies left to me by my father, who was a racing man to his boots, and who loved nothing more than trying to win thousands from a one pound stake. I really think it may be genetic.

Because racing is so unpredictable, and a thing of high emotion, and because it involves the beautiful and mysterious creature that is the thoroughbred, and the almost equally mysterious people who understand and love that breed, it touches the heart in a way that I think other sports don’t, quite.

Or, at least, it touches mine. I mourn disasters and celebrate triumphs as if they were my own. There is a real love for the characters in the game, both equine and human, who start to feel like old familiars, almost personal friends, even if one has only ever glimpsed them across the paddock at Ascot.

One of those great characters, Sir Henry Cecil, died this week. He was such an enduring figure of the turf, so brilliant, so unlike anyone else, with such an unparalleled record and such a feel for horses, that for racing fans it felt almost like a death in the family. He had been sending out winners since the seventies. He won the Oaks an absurd eight times. His last, greatest swansong was the mighty Frankel, who was officially rated the best horse in the world, never to be forgotten by anyone who ever saw that soaring colt in action.

At once, the whole of racing bowed its head. It wasn’t just that greatness had passed, it was that everyone knew they would never see his like again. There was eccentricity and an idiosyncratic panache in his brilliance, and great kindness too.

The moment the news broke, everyone, from the humblest punter to the richest owner, expressed their sorrow. My Twitter timeline was awash with tributes and memories. The racing world, slightly unexpectedly, has taken Twitter to its heart, and it was here that the internet did a rather marvellous thing. It made a place where an instant memorial could be constructed. All the metaphorical hats were doffed. The recollections of the dancing horses who had passed through the master’s hands were shared; the people lucky enough to be there when Frankel destroyed a top-class field in the Queen Anne could revive the glory of that shining day.

AP McCoy, pretty legendary himself, tweeted: ‘Sir Henry was a hero to everyone in flat and jump racing. Loved his horses, we loved him. True genius.’ Other famous trainers and jockeys expressed similar sentiments. A real gentleman, without whom Newmarket would not be the same, seemed to be the enduring theme. For most of the day, the name Henry Cecil was the top-trending Twitter subject. It’s a small thing, but it gave me a profound satisfaction. It had a rightness to it. There was something curiously consoling in the thought that a man who had given so much pleasure to so many people could be remembered so instantly, so variously and so well.

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