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.

Lost in the dreich.

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 29 January 2014
I have now entirely given up my tragical attempts not to complain about the weather. Last week, I heard something I thought madly wise. ‘Experience the rain,’ said a clever man; ‘don’t wish it away’. Ah yes, said my inner hippy, who only wishes to be at one with the universe. That’s the ticket.

This blissed-out, Zennish acceptance of the weather lasted about 36 hours. Then the sloppy sleet started. With gales.

The thing about weather is that it is fine if you only have to go to the shop in it. In that case, the old saw about no such thing as wrong weather, only wrong clothes holds true. The trouble comes when you have to stay out in it for extended periods. Because of my work at HorseBack UK and looking after my own horse, I am outside for about three hours a day. This is nothing compared to the doughty farmers, but it is time enough for the right clothes to become laughable. The wet and the cold insinuate themselves, no matter how carefully one does layering. And I am quite proud of my layering. The chill gets into the bones and will not leave. My coat never entirely dries out, even though I leave it on top of the radiator. (Please don’t tell me to get an Aga, or I shall lose the will to live.)

Tania KindersleyThe determined red mare, wading into the shallows and striking out towards the deep water.

The other trouble is that it is relentless. It’s not a matter of a couple of days of storm and then a new front blowing in. Every day, the sky is the colour of despair. Every morning, my beloved hills are obscured in a dour, beige murk. Because of the horses, I have to check the weather forecast about five times a day. (Weather means discrete actions, in this house, mostly to do with rugging decisions.) Usually, this checking is just a matter of form. Now, it is like reading a Russian novel. It is an old-fashioned forecast, with little suns and fluffy clouds and a short description. For the next seven days it says: light rain, light sleet, heavy rain, snow, light rain, sleet, cloud. The heavy rain symbol is the most threatening: a black cloud with three fat blue drops falling from it.

And then, this morning, I go down to the paddocks to find a loch where my lovely fields once were. The water is so deep and comprehensive that it has a life of its own. It has a current, for heaven’s sake. It is actually flowing to the west, as if it wants to get to the Atlantic ocean.

I stand for a while, nonplussed. The horses watch me patiently. They have found a small piece of high ground, and are waiting there for me to tell them what to do. The friend whose Paint filly lives with my red mare arrives. She has got the whole right clothes thing to a high art. She is wearing a sort of cross between chaps and waders, lined with sheepskin. I regard them with envy.

There is nothing for it. We set off into the water. We are foiled twice, in places where it gets too deep for humans to navigate. We finally find a channel where it only comes to the knees, and wade on. The water is over the tops of my boots and I feel the gloomy squelch as my feet are drenched. We reach a stretch of field which is not under water, by the western boundary, and set up a relay system to get hay and food there. We have let the horses out into the set-aside, and they gaze at us from across the water. Just as we are discussing how we can lead them across, my brave mare makes her own decision. She puts her head down and strikes out into the deep flood, leading her little Paint friend behind her. She’s coming to me, and some absurd water is not going to stop her.

Tania KindersleyPart of the loch that now exists where our fields should be
When she arrives, I congratulate her as if she had won the Oaks. I’m not sure I was ever so proud of a horse. ‘You have the frontier spirit,’ I tell her. ‘You are the kind of horse who would have led the wagon trains to settle the west.’ This is what the weather does to my brain.

‘Well,’ says my friend, looking out over the drowned land. ‘We are lucky. This could be our houses.’

We pause and contemplate the horror of a flooded home. People in the West Country have been going through that; they must be drawing on a stoicism beyond the call of duty. My friend is right. We are lucky. We could be in Australia, where forty-three degrees of heat is baking the country. Huge swathes of America have been entirely frozen by the terrifying polar surge. It could be so much worse.

I think of the look on my thoroughbred’s face as she stalked through water that came over her hocks. It was a dauntless look. As always, I take my example from her. We are British, after all. We shall keep bailing.

Not Safe In Taxis

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 22 January 2014
Juxtaposition is a curious thing. I went this morning into the Scottish fields. I looked at the sheep who have been brought into the long meadow and thought about how soon they would start to lamb. I thought of last year, when we were two foot deep in snow, and the farmers were starting to panic. Now we just have mud and rain to contend with, and the ewes look sanguine.

I did the horse. I stroked her dear furry face, all woolly from the good winter coat she has grown to protect herself from the Scottish elements, and she softened her eye and dropped her head and let her ears fall into their donkey position. I thought again of all the Derby winners from whom she is descended, and laughed.

And then I went and had breakfast with my mother and we talked about groping.

Tania-Jan22-landscape

So that was a bit of a hand-brake turn. It was because the front-page news was that Mrs Clegg is very cross with Mr Clegg over the business of Lord Renard. It is unclear what he did or did not do, and he denies all allegations against him. But what interests me is not the proclivities of one Liberal Democrat peer, it is the reaction to it. Some people are shocked, shocked that there is gambling going on in this club. That is the Peter Lorre school. Then there is the genuine outrage school, and then there is the oh come along school. This last has seemed to infect a curious number of commentators. The burden of their song is: move along, nothing to see here. It’s just what men do.

This argument is a much wider one. It seems to go: boys will be boys, and the ladies should not make a fuss about it. Of course a fellow will grab a feel if he has the chance, it’s in the nature of things, and it’s not the end of the world. It’s all a bit of a joke, really. It’s more Benny Hill than anything else.

In my mother’s day, they even had a comedy name to go with these kind of gentlemen. They were called Not Safe In Taxis, or NSIT for short. (I had a tremendous tutor at university, who once told me, with a twinkle in his eye: ‘The thing you must remember about Louis XV is that he was, as the debs of 1920 would have said, Not Safe in Taxis.’)

‘Did you have some of those?’ I asked my mother.
‘Oh yes,’ she said, with a sort of quizzical melancholy. ‘The worst thing was wondering what you did with the hand, when it went on your bosom.’
‘What did you do?’ I asked.
‘Well,’ she said. ‘I would take it off and then we would speak of other things.’

Tania-Jan22-valley

Pretty much every woman has had to work out a strategy for what to do in this situation. I remember being groped on the tube at the age of eighteen, being chased round a kitchen by a randy film producer in my early twenties, and once, horribly, being pressed up against a wall by an otherwise perfectly well-brought up young man. He said: ‘You want it, you know you want it, you know I can give it to you.
I said: ‘I don’t want it, I know I don’t want it, and you can’t give it to me.’
He looked absolutely astonished, as if I had told him gravity did not exist.

It is so commonplace, this kind of behaviour, that it has gone into a kind of joking folklore. Women, mostly, do not make a fuss, despite what the cross commentators say. But if you think about it for a moment, it is profoundly odd. It’s not just the sense of entitlement, it’s the invasion of personal space. It’s like someone walking up to you in a restaurant and eating your food. If that happened, there would be an uproar. But if a fellow grabs your bottom, that is just the price of doing business.

The modern career women of the 21st century have come a long way from the debs of 1920, but the taxis are still not safe, and weirdly, that is considered normal. The gropers and the rubbers and the leerers still don’t see that there is anything particularly curious about their behaviour. It’s not just that I think it is wrong, I think it is absolutely bizarre. And the strangest thing about it is that this extraordinary behaviour is taken entirely for granted. Even those who judge it don’t remark on its utter peculiarity. Which, in a sense, is almost more offensive to men than to women. And that’s my little conundrum of the day.

In which I contemplate age.

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 15 January 2014
Somewhere along the line, I lost a whole day. I spent all morning convinced it was Tuesday. Then, in a bizarre fast-forward, I thought for half an hour it was Thursday. Finally, I figured out what day of the week it was.

I cannot work out if this is age. Is it like the awful, clichéd middle-aged thing of having to squint and hold a newspaper at arm’s length in order to read the small print? Is the fact that I endlessly wander into rooms and then have to stand stock still, trying to remember what I went in there for, just something that happens as one motors towards fifity? Is my inability to recall which day I am on simply something I have to factor in, at this stage of life?

Tania-Jan15-Dog

The curious thing is that in other ways, my brain works pretty well. I exercise it a lot, as one is instructed, not by doing crosswords or playing chess but by constantly filling it with new information. When I am working my horse, my concentration is intense. Riding is not just a physical activity, but a cerebral one too. One has to think of everything from technique to the psychology of a flight animal. Writing itself is a never-ending curve of learning. There is no golden moment where one may think: I’ve got it. The scales and arpeggios must be done every day, to keep the sentences flowing. It’s the kind of job that can never be taken for granted. Striving is locked in; the mountaintop will never quite be reached, but only glimpsed.

I don’t really mind age, although these idiot forgettings do make me think of it. I shall soon be forty-eight, which is not all that old. I tell myself endlessly that age, especially when it comes to females, is a human construct. Fifty is not some magic, past-it number. There is something comforting and galvanising about having built up a bank of life experience, on which one may draw. On the other hand, I do make that terrible oofing noise now when I get up from the sofa. There are mysterious twinges in the joints. But I do not feel as if I am approaching fifty, whatever that is supposed to mean.

There is a nasty school of thought which says that women become invisible when they hit a certain number. I have no experience of this, perhaps because I talk a lot, and quite loudly, when I get excited, and also have a habit of wearing eccentric hats, which means visibility is a given. At the Golden Globes recently, Emma Thompson made headlines by taking her shoes off on stage. She did not seem invisible to me, but very vivid and actual. She is a woman in her pomp. Today’s newspapers are screaming about the terrifying fact that Kate Moss is going to be forty. It’s all over for her, seems to be the burden of their song. Look, look, here is a picture of her looking her age. The doomy sounds of the end of the line may be heard, insinuating themselves through the unkind headlines. It is clearly nonsense. The grumpy part of me wonders whether this kind of thing is solely designed to make women frightened of the years, to throw their hands up and give in. They can quietly retreat into their rooms, and keep cats and collect old newspapers and not bother anyone.

Tania-Jan15-Landscape

I have a feeling that I cannot keep track of time not because I grow old, but because my brain is crammed with interesting things. I have two jobs, both of which fascinate me. I have the great good fortune to ride out most days through rolling hills on a glorious thoroughbred mare. Because of my work for HorseBack UK, the charity I help, I meet a parade of fascinating people who have seen the extremes of life. My geekish interest in politics constantly keeps my brain working. My absurd determination to get to the bottom of the human condition gives my frontal cortex a pretty good stretch, most days. Even my idiot desire to work out what is going to win the 3.30 at Huntingdon exercises a part of my mind.

I am not sure if one can write off age as just a number. I think it might be more than that. But I’m damn well not going to believe all the rumours about it, and discreetly fade into the background. It is a time not to give up, but to stand and be counted, even if I cannot remember what day of the week it is.

Life, not style.

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 08 January 2014
A gentleman comes on the radio to give his Thought for the Day. He says that he leads something he calls a ‘vegetarian lifestyle’. Over at one of those newspapers which likes to make you very, very frightened about everything, a headline shouts: ‘How white women's lifestyles raise breast cancer risk: alcohol and decision not to breastfeed blamed’.

I’ve never had a lifestyle. I have never used the word. I loathe and abhor it. I don’t know quite why it drives me so nuts in the head but I want to throw heavy things through thin windows whenever I hear it.

This horse is not a style statement. She is a horse.This horse is not a style statement. She is a horse.

What is so fascinating is that both these nonsensical examples are stated with such authority and ease, as if they are a recognised thing. What is the vegetarian lifestyle, do you suppose? What are the discrete things which vegetarians do that meat-eaters would never consider? Do they eschew Top Gear and have cats and grow a lot of hemp? Of course they wear sandals, almost certainly favour facial hair, and worry a great deal about the polar bears. But the word style suggests something more. There must surely be a vegetarian school of decorating. In the good old days, it would be mandated macramé, and those sort of variegated pot plants which do a lot of melancholy trailing. I have no idea what the contemporary version of this is. Earth tones and African art, perhaps? I imagine there must be a strong ethnic streak. Vegetarians, unlike those horrid scoffers of bloody ros bif, were never little Englanders.

Then let us move on to the even madder idea of the ‘white women’s lifestyle.’ This is so baffling that I feel my fingers stutter and fail over the keyboard. My poor brain, which is quite battered enough after the Christmas holiday, is shouting: DOES NOT COMPUTE.

I pause for a moment and ransack the dusty corners of my consciousness, to see if I can discern any clues to what the white women’s lifestyle might be. Someone must know. It’s in a newspaper headline. It has to exist.

This Scottish hill is not a lifestyle choice. It is a hill.This Scottish hill is not a lifestyle choice. It is a hill.

I am a white woman. I live alone, by choice, with a rescue lurcher and a red thoroughbred mare whose grandsire won the Derby. I write books and work for a charity. I listen to Radio Four and watch the racing and obsess over my William Hill account. I use Facebook, but mostly, tragically, to post horse pictures. I am an intermittent tweeter. I have no school of interior design, unless you count the Put Books in Every Available Space school. I have no baking skills, but I’m good at soda bread. I like Guinness and the good claret. I get furious about generalisations, lazy assumptions, easy bigotry and bad grammar. I am geekish when it comes to American politics, and can explain to you the mysteries of the filibuster. Every morning, I go to my mother’s house and make her a nice fried egg in olive oil for breakfast. I am currently listening to Nina Simone and Bob Dylan. Despite everything, I still believe in government, but I gave up tribalism for good four years ago and have never looked back.

Well, headline writers: I am indeed a white woman, and that is my life. I have an awful suspicion that it is not only not typical of anything, but that it would certainly not count as a style. It’s a bit muddly, mostly. The piles in my office are a little tottery and the list of calls I have not returned is a little reproachful and it’s so wet and windy that there are always little bits of mud and leaf on my floor. The mud comes in on my gumboots and the leaves are blown in in great piles by the gales. No magazine is knocking down my door to photograph my stylish life, nor should they.

What could this mysterious white woman lifestyle be? Only supporting Roger Federer at tennis, painting exclusively with Farrow and Ball, listening to The Archers on a loop, reading a vast amount of John Updike? I’m trying to think of the whitest things I know - shepherd’s pie, Delia Smith, Cliff Richard, A-line skirts.

But then we run into even more difficulty. Which white do these mavens speak of? Polish white or French white or Australian white? I suspect those styles of life might be a little various. Even within dear old Blighty, Sunderland white is going to be different from Westbourne Grove white. Glasgow white will contrast with Cornish white. Don’t even get me started on Welsh white, which needs a category all its own.

The hysterical thing about this headline is that both parts of it mean nothing. Whiteness tells you not one thing about a person, beyond the base facts of pigmentation. And I continue to insist that humans have lives, not lifestyles.

And there is my small rantish plea for the start of 2014: let people call things by their proper names.

In which, quite by accident, I solve Christmas.

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 11 December 2013
I am not feeling at all Christmassy. This is not due to any Scroogish bah humbug tendencies. I love Christmas and refuse to get cross about it. I don’t even mind that it has become too commercialised, which is the general contemporary complain. The wail is that Christmas has become all about presents and shopping, when really everyone should be sternly contemplating the Baby Jesus. A lot of people get furious bees buzzing in their bonnets and talk crossly of the ‘true meaning of Christmas’, whatever that is.

Usually, by this stage, I would be decking the halls, but the halls remain resolutely undecked. This is partly because I’m running up to another deadline, and I can think only of character arcs and plot development and tightening up my paragraphs. It is partly because my red mare has taken a glorious leap forward in her education and so when I am not thinking about work, I am contemplating the beauty of a soft cue. It is also because dear old Scotland, after a vicious storm which blew in from the west, has reverted to her most benign and gentle state.

Morven, my favourite mountain, usually bright white with snow at this time of year. This morning, it remains resolutely unfestive.Morven, my favourite mountain, usually bright white with snow at this time of year. This morning, it remains resolutely unfestive.

The sun shines every day, and the turf is green and springing, and the temperature soars to an absurd thirteen degrees. We do the horses in our shirtsleeves and each morning I ride up to the top of the hill and look out over the rolling mountains, which are blue and serene in the light. It looks more like October than December. There are no glittering hoar frosts to get the Christmas spirit stirring, no holly berries traced with silver, no hint of snow.

I suspect it is also because I do not watch commercial television. This is not a famous last stand against the kind of cheap entertainment which rots the brain. It’s just that I grow old and fogeyish and prefer Radio Four. So I do not see all the advertisements which want me to rush off to the shops and buy festive items and appropriate foodstuffs. I see no comedy reindeer, hear no sleigh bells, observe no laughing Santas. The nearest I get to anything remotely Christmassy is Linda rehearsing her pantomime in The Archers.

I’m also on a bit of an economy drive. I like shopping for Christmas. It is not just the choosing of clever presents which I enjoy, it’s the getting of a ham, or armfuls of eucalyptus, or delicate silvery jangly things to hang on the mantelpiece. This year, in the new austerity, I am going old school, and making most of my presents, and relying on the old decorations which live in the Christmas cupboard, and next week I shall go out into the hedgerows and gather my own greenery.

The red mare, unbelievably muddy and furry and scruffy. It is too mild for rugs, so she takes the opportunity to indulge in a daily mud bath. I suppose I could brush her up and put some tinsel in her mane, but I almost certainly won't.The red mare, unbelievably muddy and furry and scruffy. It is too mild for rugs, so she takes the opportunity to indulge in a daily mud bath. I suppose I could brush her up and put some tinsel in her mane, but I almost certainly won't.

The funny thing is that, without meaning to at all, I have denied that commercialism which makes everyone so cross. I do admit, it is rather restful. There is not the usual stress and challenge, the annual drive to make this Christmas the most Christmassy ever. It’s all very calm and low key, and leaves my mind free to contemplate vague things like goodwill to all men, and women too. I’m not going to get so pious as to give everyone a goat for Africa instead of an actual wrapped present; I shall impose no self-denying ordinance to ignore the festival altogether. It’s just a rather quiet, bare bones thing this year.

It is amazingly soothing. I wonder if, quite by chance, I have cracked the thing. Perhaps I shall never again have to read one of those strict articles about how to survive Christmas without resorting to strong liquor or having a nervous collapse. I shall ride my dear mare and look at the old hills and feel vaguely benign towards my fellow humans. Perhaps, in a few days’ time, I shall push the boat out and go a buy a nice stollen cake. And that really will do.


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