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.

In which one majestic mare soothes my jangled nerves

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 30 October 2013
I am up against a hard deadline. The world shrinks to the size of my desk. Out of the corner of my eye, I can see the vivid autumn colours, gearing up for a serious pigmental show-down at the OK Corral. I vaguely notice the Jane Austen sheep, and the very elegant cows, in their different shades of dun. But really all I stare at is the screen, and the new words which I scratch on it. The tension builds in my body until my shoulders are up around my ears.

The one thing I make myself do is ride in the mornings. The mare has been off for a couple of weeks with a sore shoulder, but now she is sound again, and the weather has turned kind, and it’s stupid to have a thoroughbred lounging away in the field in this glorious October sun.

On the other hand, I am tight with deadline nerves, and I have no time to waste, which is not the best frame of mind to be in when leaping on a highly-bred flight animal who used to race for a living. Horses are crazily telepathic; they pick up on these things from two fields away. I actually apologise to her out loud for not being in the good Zen state which is normally required.

Herself, having a good old donkey doze after our morning adventures.Herself, having a good old donkey doze after our morning adventures.

I take a chance. I do all the things I should not do. I tack her up, and recklessly neglect any of the normal groundwork, just quickly check her mood, which is sanguine, and jump on. Usually, after a break, we do a lot of very slow and steady walking, to get back into the swing of things. Today, I think: dammit, let’s get the twinkles out of our toes. So we lope into a spanking trot, rolling round the regal beech trees, twisting up into the mossy woodland. She wants to go, so I let her, and suddenly, there I am, cantering along on a loose rein, past the limes and the silver birches and the observing cattle. ‘Steady,’ I say, and she falls back to her gracious duchessy walk, pricking her ears with elegant calm.

And all at once, none of the other things matter: the deadline, the word count, what the agent will think. Because it’s just me and this astonishing horse and the open air and the blue hills and the emerald turf under our feet.

I do the riding because I think it’s important to perform some proper physical act before I am confined to a sitting position for the rest of the day. I think it is the least I can do for the poor body. In fact, I realise that it is more profound than that. It gives me a store of joy off which I can live for the hours until dark, like a camel living off its hump. The visceral sense memory of the pride and the delight will lift me up, even as I am tempted to slump into gloomy defeat. The red mare is my therapy horse, holding my sanity in her delicate hooves. She is better than the best shrink ever invented.

In which I ponder the nature of the ladies and the gentlemen, and all the spaces in between.

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 23 October 2013
As I walk my mare past the blue hill, watching the leaves turn and marvelling at the stinging orange of the horse chestnuts, I ponder the nature of gender. I think about it quite a lot because I am a woman, and I don’t behave in the way that wider society appears to expect. I have no interest in shoes. (I spend most of my life in muddy gumboots.) I despise the colour pink. I have never wished for a husband. My current obsessions are American politics, equine psychology, and the minutiae of grammar. I am much more likely to get upset over a dangling modifier than the correct way to apply rouge. I have not bought a fashion magazine since 2003.

Today, my attention is riveted on the subject of the sexes because Jilly Cooper has caused a little storm. She has given an interview saying that women should stop putting men down and allow them to retrieve their lost masculinity. She mourns the passing of the rugged, sporting gentleman, like Oliver Reed, whom she says was ‘smouldering’. (A hundred years ago, I met Oliver Reed at a small party. He was a drunken boor, with absolutely nothing interesting to say. But each to each.) The great line, which has been pulled from the interview and quoted and requoted, is this one: ‘I think of my mother – who was very beautiful and very small – and she used to look up to men and say, “You are amazing, you are clever”.’

From this subjective view of the world, the media does its usual job of instant extrapolation. Columns are written along the lines of: ‘have women gone too far?’ Even as I type this, a radio station is asking ‘when was the last time you said something nice to the man in your life?’

My lovely thoroughbred mare, who conforms to no known female stereotype.  On the right is her little American Paint friend, who, despite being a young filly, shows distinctly tomboy-ish tendencies.My lovely thoroughbred mare, who conforms to no known female stereotype. On the right is her little American Paint friend, who, despite being a young filly, shows distinctly tomboy-ish tendencies.

I adored Jilly Cooper when I was a teenager and read all her early romantic novels with unfettered joy. It was she who made me want to be a writer in the first place, because I heard her say that she had saved her husband from bankruptcy with those early books, and I thought I could revive my own family fortunes in the same way. I was fifteen at the time, and that first novel, scribbled in longhand in a notebook, still exists in my bottom drawer.

What interests me is not her opinion on this subject, which is that of one human with a proudly traditional idea of the world, but the instant chatter it provokes. At once, the field must be demarcated: ladies over here; gents on this side of the line. A further division is enforced, between the good old days and the rotten present. A Manichean outlook is quickly prescribed. To hell with nuance or subtlety; everyone must either wear a white hat or a black hat.

I think all this is much more complicated than people like to think. The very brilliant Cambridge professor, Simon Baron-Cohen, wrote a fascinating book on the difference between men and women. One of his conclusions is that there is such a thing as a male brain and a female brain, but that it is on a spectrum. Furthermore, you may find men who are quite far along the female spectrum, and vice versa. This makes generalisations about humans who do or do not have ovaries quite difficult. Whenever I write about men and women, I scatter qualifications like confetti. The words may, some, most, or more likely figure strongly. For instance, some women may be better at expressing emotion and reading human moods than men, but I know several females who have absolutely no talent for intimacy.

I admit I think about this too in the context of horses. People are always talking about mares, and how unpredictable and moody and hormonal they are. I look at my glorious red lady, who is as steady and settled and kind as the day is long, showing no slavish capture to any hormonal surges, and wonder.

I wonder too whether it is really true that in the good old days all the small, beautiful women looked up at the big, burly fellas and told them how amazing they were. Did that really happen? My grandmother’s generation might have been told that officially men were superior, but I’m not at all convinced that they entirely believed it. I wonder if perhaps they played a subtle game, with the cards that they were dealt. It is possible that they may have done a little more eyelash-fluttering than today’s generation of ladies, but I refuse to believe that they were all tiny, doll-like things, in thrall to the mighty male. It may easily be that they were just more practised in the dark arts of camouflage, cleverly hiding their steeliness under the diverting cover of powder and paint and a nice cloche hat.

Country Life

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 16 October 2013
For a while now, the thought has been scratching away in the back of my head that so few people live in the country. I keep thinking I should draw a conclusion from this, but I can’t quite scrabble around to find out what it is. Simon Jenkins, who has just published a rather wonderful book about the great views of England, has been lately mourning the lack of feeling that politicians have for the countryside. ‘I doubt whether Ed Miliband would recognise a blade of grass,’ he wrote, crossly.

I am conscious, as I contemplate all this, that I am in a very small numerical minority. I live not only in countryside, but in a wild Scottish landscape. I’m not one of the really hardy sorts, who are two miles off a metalled road, and for whom a journey to collect a morning newspaper is a trek of epic proportions. I have a delightful village half a mile away, where I may buy flowers, get a hair cut, stock up on basil and broccoli, or find a really proper double espresso, with dark rich beans from Columbia.

But still, if I get in my car and travel fifteen minutes to the north, I find myself in a landscape so untouched by time and technology that I can go for thirteen miles without seeing a human or a habitation. There is just mountain, and some incurious sheep.

Stanley the Dog, a country canine to his paw-tips, taking his ease on the autumn leaves.Stanley the Dog, a country canine to his paw-tips, taking his ease on the autumn leaves.

As I think of all this, the scratching thought returns. It transforms itself into a suspicion that country people are traduced or misunderstood, simply because they are such a small number. In 1950, the number of Britons living in cities was 79%; it is estimated that by 2030, that will rise to 92%. I shall be the eight percent. I am shrinking.

I think too of the easy assumptions about country folk. We rural rubes are either heathery, tweedy sorts, with the kind of certain, patrician voices that can carry over three fields, who like killing things and going nowhere without at least two black Labradors, or straw-chewing yokels, who scratch their heads and say things like, ‘The Forest of Dean; you don’t want to go there,’ in comedy West Coutnry accents. There are no good rural archetypes that I can think of. As wind farms march across the untouched land, those who object to ruined views, or suggest that this technology might be less about energy efficiency and more about massive subsidies (money, in other words, not love) are depicted as ghastly, backward nimbies, who do not know what the clever people in cities know.

There is a faint, sentimental affection for the countryside itself, at a distance. It is a dim, washy feeling, not related to real life. Not long ago, Toby Young wrote a furious article about how silly north Norfolk is, and how livid he was that he could not get wi-fi, and how relieved and delighted he was to return to Acton.

It seems to me that the country, and the people who live in it, are most often reduced to paper-thin stereotypes. This morning, I marched through the mud in my gumboots to do the horses. We are back in the muddy season now. I shall not know a clean day until April. My clothes, my boots, even sometimes my hair, will bear traces of the good Scottish earth. I had a long conversation with my barefoot trimmer, as she tended to the hooves of my glorious mare, who took the opportunity to have a little doze. (She adores having her manicure done.) We discussed horse psychology, and herd behaviour, and the musculature of the equine. It was very interesting and quite technical.

Then I went up, past the long blue mountains that rise to the south of the River Dee, to HorseBack UK, the charity for which I volunteer. Here, I ran into a Royal Marine who works there. We stood, looking out over the hills, and talked of anthropology, war, the invasion of Iraq, the differences between Sunni and Shia, the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland, and, of course, horses. It was a long and serious conversation, and at the end we had to make a quickfire series of jokes, leavening the whole thing with irony, because we are British, and are required by law not to be earnest for any length of time.

As the Royal Marine and I had our long and intricate conversation, this is what we were looking at: the HorseBack herd up on the northern slope.  What always interests me is the contrast in the hills: the ones to the south are indigo, whilst these northern ones are a motley of green and umber.As the Royal Marine and I had our long and intricate conversation, this is what we were looking at: the HorseBack herd up on the northern slope. What always interests me is the contrast in the hills: the ones to the south are indigo, whilst these northern ones are a motley of green and umber.

I thought about these two conversations. I thought they did not fit the stereotypes terribly well. I don’t really mind that country people are stuffed into small, idiot boxes, are considered to be lacking in sophistication and nuance, because I know that is not the truth. As the farmer roars up in his ancient Landrover to check his sheep, I don’t expect he frets too much about what the urban flâneurs think of him. As the magnificent fencer bashes in the posts for the new paddock with the skill of ages, I don’t imagine he gives a second thought to the limited boilerplate peddled by certain newspapers. But it is lazy thinking, for all that. I think, my most great-auntish self raising her head like a PG Wodehouse gorgon: people really should know better.

Dreams of Wyoming.

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 09 October 2013
I stand, in the wind and the sun, looking out over the blue hills of Deeside, and talk to a woman from Colorado. Bitter gales have suddenly blown in from the north and after the mildness of early October, it feels like a shock. It is now two-coats weather, if you are working outside, as we are this morning. There is the faint suspicion of snow in the air, although the high mountains are still clear.

I am very excited about the woman from Colorado. She works with horses there, and it feels tremendously exotic to have her in our little valley. She comes from San Francisco, went to university in Utah, and now rides about the great spaces of Leadville, issuing grazing permits.

When I get home, I go and look at Leadville on the satellite map. It is serious hill country. It has singing, evocative names for its places – Turquoise Lake, Mount Buckskin, Savage Peak, Wildcat Mountain, Holy Cross Ridge. My two favourites are the heartfelt and descriptive Hardscrabble Mountain and Fool’s Peak.

Morven.Morven.

As the woman from Colorado and I talk, she tells me she worked for two years in Wyoming. ‘My Friend Flicka!’ I shout, wildly. She looks slightly surprised. I attempt to explain that the great horse trilogy was one of the most vivid and totemic parts of my childhood years. I do not tell her that those books once saved me, when I went on a French exchange, to stay with a family who did not speak a word of English. My schoolgirl French was still rudimentary, and I found myself shy and lonely, caught in the comprehension gap. I remember sitting alone in a dusty music room, watching the sunlight muddle through smeared old windows, reading about the Goose Bar Ranch and feeling a passionate sense of comfort.

‘The Green Grass of Wyoming,’ I exclaim. ‘Is the grass really green in Wyoming?’ ‘Oh, yes,’ says the woman, back on surer ground. She has not read the books that entranced me so, and has no idea what I am talking about. ‘It is green. There’s a lot of it. There is nobody there.’

The River Dee, looking east.The River Dee, looking east.

She pauses and looks up at our own hills, our own green grass. ‘It’s not as green as here, though,’ she says.

As I drive away, I feel obscurely proud. Our grass is greener than that of Wyoming. Who knew? This is huge. Dear old Scotland has scored big on the green grass front. I am so puffed up by this unexpected endorsement that I decide to drive the long way home, and take the looping circuit up towards Morven, my favourite mountain. She stands quite alone, not part of a range, towering over the lesser hills which may be seen round about her. She (and I feel very strongly that she is a she) is like an ancient monument or a druid’s shrine, or so I think in my more magical moments.

On the map, this area does not quite have the spell-binding names of Colorado. There is no Hardscrabble Mountain. There is Glenfenzie Burn, and Loch Davan, and Old Military Road, and Balronald Wood.

The view to the south-west.The view to the south-west.

But in life, the views stretch description. At this time of year, the colours grow strong and singing with clarity. The autumn light is thick and yellow, as if some lighting director in the sky has thrown aside caution and pulled out all the stops. It brings out the purple and sapphire blue of the mountains, the shaved gold of the cut cornfields, the sudden flash of vermilion where the trees are turning. The grass, which I take for granted until I am brought to compare it to that of Wyoming, is indeed the green of emeralds, even so late in the season.

I come back by the south Deeside road, which winds secretly through thick silver birch plantations and pine woods, and runs, for a brief, flashing moment, by the indigo of the mighty river. Then I turn over the bridge, back to civilisation, where there are houses and cars and gentlemen in high-visibility coats mending the telegraph poles.

I have dreamt all my life of Wyoming. Since I was a book-mad child, squinting through dying light to make out the print on the page, being warned that I would ruin my eyes, which I duly did, I have had a picture of that great place living in my head. But as I drive through our own hills and valleys and green grass, I realise that there is an actual daily dream, right here, in my small corner of Scotland.

A time of contrasts; or, the turning of the leaves.

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 02 October 2013
Out in the world, this time of year is filled with news from the party conferences, the creak and limber as the political world starts rolling again after the long summer break. In America, there is high drama as recalcitrant Republican members of Congress decide to bring the entire government to a halt. (It’s very hard to know exactly why, since none of the ostensible reasons are the actual reasons; sometimes I think it is just because they can.) Here, the various three-act operas revolve mostly around the arts of darkness admitted by Damian McBride in his oddly revelatory book, and the furious row over the Daily Mail and Ed Miliband’s father.

As my broadband signal winks in and out (possibly due to the gales which are coming roaring in from the west), I follow all this at a genteel distance. From time to time, I get worked up and yell at the radio. Then I fall to contemplating the much more important matter of the exact turning of the leaves.

The turning of the leaves, with a rather black Scottish sky behindThe turning of the leaves, with a rather black Scottish sky behind

Every year I try to work this out and every year I fail. Is it a hot summer which means the more vivid colours, or is it a wet one? Shall this long spell of dry mean that there will be no wild display, but autumn shall give way to winter with a sense of weariness and anti-climax? Is the changing of the season late this year?

I examine the trees with scientific interest and aesthetic hope. The beeches are still, in some places, as green as if it were July. There are one or two trees, too distant to identify, which have already gone a singing scarlet, and some, the chestnuts mostly, which are in an indeterminate state of yellowy nothing. The rosehips are the colour of rubies and the elders have their full complement of indigo berries. The sheep, who have no interest in leaf action, lie down crossly in the west meadow, as if they are staging a sit-in. The horses, ahead of the game as usual, are developing their teddy bear winter coats.

The elderberries.The elderberries.

I have an odd push-me pull-you life at this time of year. My desk work is demanding; I spend a lot of time at the computer, wrangling with words. I have a deadline coming and I squint furiously at the screen, willing myself to think faster.

Then, in complete contrast, I pull on my muddy boots and take Stanley the Dog out for his walk, where he hysterically chases pigeons and digs up perfectly enormous sticks. I stomp down to the field to see to the small equine herd, and everything is very earthy and about as far away from technology as you may imagine. It is then that I become acutely aware of where the weather is coming from, of the exact state of the leaves, of the direction of the wind, of all things elemental. It is then that the political bickering and the state of world events seem as distant as if I were living in 1913, not 2013. There are even moments when I gaze at the elderberries and think I should make them into cordial. (I think this every year, and I am never enough of a domestic goddess actually to do it.)

The beech avenue.The beech avenue.

And then I go back inside, where all the 21st century machines hum and blink at me, and the miracle of the internet turns me from parochialist to citizen of the world, and the external reality comes back with a rush, and I remember that there is a whole other parallel universe going on, where nobody much gives a damn what colour the beeches are. I quite like that I maintain a faint obsession about the leaves. It’s a bit hello clouds, hello sky, but it feels like a rooted sense of reality in amidst all those shouting voices on the radio. The voices come and go, but the trees endure.


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