Jan 18, 2022
6 mins read
A voice in my head says, ‘These posts are all about you. Nobody wants to hear about you.’
I frown. The voice is right. Or, not completely wrong. I don’t think it’s a gremlin voice, trying to tear me down. I think it’s the voice of good manners. You don’t just sit down at a lunch or in the pub and speak of nothing but yourself. You don’t match other people’s stories about their dogs or their horses by immediately talking of your own. Talking about yourself is the number one way to turn into a crashing bore, and there is nothing more ill-mannered than being dull.
Well, except, says another voice. Hold on a minute, says the other voice. The other voice says this is the whole point of these posts. As I bash on through life, trying to get better at it, trying to learn everything I can learn about writing and horsing and generally being a slightly better human being, I can take you with me. I give myself to you, because that’s what I’ve got to give.
And that made much more sense when I thought the words in my mind. Now I’ve written it down, it sounds absurd.
It may actually be absurd.
It was supposed to be an act of giving, this new enterprise. A thought every day, because there are kind people out there who are buying me a cup of coffee. And I need the cups of coffee, because writing does not pay very well, and the electricity bills are going up. (And also I’m absolutely rubbish about money. I always think some mysterious ship is going to come in. One of the books will, all of a sudden, turn into a bestseller; one of my Saturday accumulators will succeed. The accumulators are the inheritance of my dad, who always believed solemnly in his accas. Mine go south just like his did, usually because a good thing from Willie Mullins gets stuffed in the bumper. So the ships don’t come in, and I feel reality bite, and I know I must invent more steady and sensible ways to make a living.
Maybe here’s the thought for the day: that authenticity is everything. Or the beginning of everything. And that perhaps the most important two questions you will ever answer are: ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What do I want?’
I don’t mean want as in wanting an ice cream or a hot date or a dry martini. I mean the cosmic wants. The soul wants. The wants behind the wants. The meaningful wants. Someone said to me, at 7.30 this morning, ‘Don’t you want to leave a mark on the world? Because I do.’
Damn straight. The mark doesn’t have to be very big. I don’t need statues in Trafalgar Square (although I would love standing opposite dear old Nelson and waving. He’s the highest hero in the land, out of reach of anyone who might suddenly want to topple him, and he is probably the most flawed. There is something magnificent in that.)
But it should be there, the desire to leave a mark. I sometimes think about it when I plant trees. I imagine distant humans, in a hundred or two hundred years, sitting under the leafy shade of my rowans and elders, and wondering about the woman who planted them. I’m not sure my books will be read in a hundred years, but there are other ways of leaving a mark.
I think about it when I’m teaching. The names of my teachers still live large in me, in the world, because I talk about them all the time.
There was Wing-Commander Gosse, who fought in the war and had eyebrows that looked as if they were about to take flight and who gave me my love of history. He dazzled an eight-year-old girl with dashing stories of John Churchill and sang, in a comical voice, Malbrook s'en va-t-en guerre, until he could sing no more. Because of him, I would cycle down to the mobile library every Wednesday in the school holidays and take out history books. I read books about Sarah Churchill and Vanbrugh and the Battle of Malplaquet for fun. I often say, to make my younger pupils laugh, that I am a geek. (It sounds odd to them that a fifty-four-year-old should be a geek, but that’s what I was when I was eight and I haven’t changed in that department. I have come to love my geekishness, after everything.)
There was Mr Woodhouse, who was also a bit of a military gent, with the best posture I have ever seen. He took up the history baton, but he went one step further. He taught me how to organise an essay. I still use what he taught me with my university students. I tell them of how terrifying he was and how I desperately wanted to please him and that when he once wrote ‘Well done, lady!’ on an essay about why Peel split the Conservative party, I smiled for days afterwards. (I do admit it was a very, very good essay. Everyone else got excited about Palmerston and Disraeli, but dull, strange, principled Peel was the boy for me.) The weird thing is that I was very bolshie in those days and quite political and just starting to read the feminist texts of the Second Wave; I could have gone all Simone De Beauvoir and seen ‘lady!’ as an insult. But context is everything and I knew it was a compliment and he didn’t give them very often and I treasured it up.
Before those two martinets there was Mrs Payne, the riding teacher who taught me about hard work and practice practice and practice and how to have an independent seat. She lives too, because I tell my posse of her. All the young horsewomen who have passed through my hands have learned about the evolutionary biology of the prey animal, how to leave a horse happier than you found her, and the vital importance of the independent seat.
‘Mrs Payne,’ I say, to all of them, ‘used to make us go over cavalettis with no reins and no irons until we would beg for mercy.’ Actually, we didn’t beg for mercy. There was no point. You were finished when Mrs Payne said you were finished.
But my independent seat, which she gave me, endures to this day. And I am passing that on to the next generation, and they might have children who are pony girls, and they’ll teach them in their turn. It’s like a wonderful recipe, going from generation to generation. And it matters, because it means there is one less horse in the world who is having someone bumping about on her back or hauling at her mouth. The independent seat might sound like some obscure political by-election, but it is, in fact, a matter of adding to the sum total of equine happiness. That’s a mark on the world that means something.
And I must stop now, because I’ve just let myself roll and I am in danger of banging on, but here is one more thought about the mark. I think if everyone tries to leave their own little mark, then the world will become a better place. We can’t all be the great ones, but we can do our own small thing, and those small things add up. We can scratch on the cave wall, not knowing that thousands of years later someone will look at those cave paintings and see the first stories humanity ever told. It’s always worth trying, I think. One small mark. Something lovely, for the ones who come after us.