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.

Every day is Earth Day.

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 23 April 2014
Tuesday was Earth Day. I’m never quite sure what all these special days mean, or who invents them. For me, every day is earth day. This takes a literal form, since I spend a vast amount of time with bits of mud adhering to various parts of my body. (I still rue the day when I went round the whole village, smiling at the lady in the chemist, having a good chat with the butcher, only realising when I got home that I had a large smear of Scottish earth across my forehead.)
Tania Kindersley

Things of the earth are of particular immediacy at this time of year. There is of course the intensive tracking of the progress of the spring grass, for the horses. It is slow to come, and even this far into April, hay is still required. There is my own private springwatch. This morning, my heart lifted to see the first of the cherry blossom out. The sticky buds of the horse chestnuts have just exploded into stinging green leaves. The pied wagtails have arrived, and are flirting shamelessly, no better than they ought to be. As we groom the horses to get rid of the last of the winter coats, and great clumps of bay and chestnut hair fall to the ground, I think the birds’ nests will be very soft and colourful this year. Horse hair is one of their favourite ingredients, and by the time I go back for evening stables, it will all have been collected.
Tania Kindersley

It is the earthy things which also provide consolation. We have suffered a sad loss in the family, and hearts are sore. When mortality strikes, I find myself staring very hard at leaves and moss and lichen, as if the trees and the green grass and the old granite stone which is so much a feature of this part of the world can anchor me and keep me safe. The blue hills console too, with their ancient perspective. I look up at them and think they were here for millions of years before puny humans arrived, and they shall stand for millions more as the generations pass away. It may sound a little doomy, but I find it reassuring.

A friend had to go to stay in a city for the last couple of weeks. I was once a very urban creature, and loved the hard pavements of Soho with a burning passion. Now, I need the things of the earth. My friend said, as we were walking past the hills and along the beech avenue: ‘You know, there were no trees. I missed the trees.’ She paused, and we contemplated the arboreal magnificence. ‘We are so lucky,’ she said. ‘Some people have no trees.’ Of course there are trees in the cities. I remember always being astonished by how verdant London was, with huge old plane trees pushing up through the asphalt. But it’s not quite the same.
Tania Kindersley

I think the idea of Earth Day is to remind humans to cherish the planet, and understand its daily marvels. That surely must be a good thing. My own private resolution is never to take the growing things for granted. I am in very real danger of getting a bit Hello sky, hello clouds, and the old hippy in me is coming out and singing her song. But nature is a miracle, and I shall never be blasé about that.

A day of contrasts.

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Thursday, 10 April 2014
There is a tendency to think of life in the country as monolithic. The country living magazines tend to focus brutally on baking and gardening and crafty things, as if nothing else went on outside of the cities. There is oddly little about animal husbandry, except for the occasional chicken feature, which is curious, since so much of country life revolves around livestock. Only this morning I stared into the implacable face of a very splendid highland cow.

Life in the country is very different to life in the city, there is no doubt about it. There is much less emphasis on buying expensive coffee and much more emphasis on the weather. I check the weather forecast five times a day. For me it’s a question of which boots to wear and which rug to put on the horse and how much hay we need; for the farmer up the road, it’s a matter of his very livelihood. But it’s not quite as simple as it seems. In our small village, for instance, you can get a double espresso out of a real Gaggia machine. This never ceases to amaze me.

Tania Kindersley

I was thinking about this today, because there were some interesting contrasts. I did stump down to the red mare in my very muddy boots, and I did go to the feed store and stock up on Calm and Condition. (They really should make this for humans, as well as for equines.) I did, in true countrywoman style, yell at the dog, not because I was cross with him, but because he was hunting for the last of the pheasants, two fields away. The raised voice was necessary on account of the distance. On the other hand, within ten minutes of each other, I heard two sentences which had no rural stereotype. The first came from a small gentleman of four years old, my great-nephew by marriage. The daffodils have finally come out and he is in ecstasies over them. ‘Oh,’ he cried, as if he were in a florist in Mayfair rather than in a wide Scottish field, ‘masses and masses of lovely flowers.’ The second was from a war veteran, just up the road. I was walking past and I caught a snatch of conversation. ‘I felt as if I were back in Iraq,’ he was saying. I looked up at the blue hills and thought how strange that phrase sounded, hanging in the bright air.
Tania Kindersley

Then I drove out to look at the blue hills. I do this quite a lot at the moment, because they are so glorious in the changing season. The colours are growing vivid and the last of the snow is finally leaving the high peaks. I stared at the beauty with my usual feeling of slight surprise. It never ceases to amaze me that it is all there, on my doorstep, freely available to my eager eyes. I watched the gulls fling themselves across the landscape and the sheep gather at the base of the hills and some tremendous ducks comport themselves on a makeshift pond, left over from the wet weather.

Tania Kindersley

After that rather Wordsworthian moment, I went into the shop to pick up supplies. In the magazine rack, the face of Kim Kardashian stared out of me, from front cover after front cover. I don’t really know who Kim Kardashian is, but the mags love her. I sense that she would not be quite as excited as I am by a highland cow.

On the radio, on the way home, people were talking about Maria Miller and the machinations of Westminster. I looked at the hills, which were now a low shade of violet. I wondered what I thought of the whole political farrago and could not quite frame a good conclusion. I stopped to take some daffodil pictures instead.

Tania Kindersley

I loved the city once, with a wild, passionate love. I could not go back there now. I am bucolic to my fingertips. But rural life is not always as expected as it might seem. Not all of the clichés are true.

Perspective

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 02 April 2014
I like to think that I am, mostly, a perfectly lovely person. This of course is a delusion. I can be scratchy, unreasonable, and shockingly intolerant, especially of bores and people who invade my personal or mental space. (I try to plaster on a phoney smile, but it does not work.) I can also be ranty, go off on far too many tangents, and grow monomaniacal when it comes to racing or politics.

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I suspect that most humans try to hold on to the illusion of loveliness, unless they are called Vladimir Putin. My simulacrum slips most shockingly when I am under the weather. For the last four days I have had a nasty bug, which brings with it the kind of abdominal pain which makes me lie on the floor and shout, much to the astonishment of the dog. At times like this, life cannot stop. I still have to stagger up and get on with things and deal with people. This is where the mask slips. Anyone who asks me to do anything I consider unreasonable, which in this case is everything, gets an awful icy curtness. Politeness, my watchword, flees for the hills, where it builds itself a bivouac for the duration. I am ashamed of myself. Mostly, I want to tell everyone to bugger off and leave me alone.

In this cross, weakened state, I go up to work with a group of people who are battling with post-traumatic stress. Ha, say the voices of the perspective police, you are acting like an ogre because you have one little bug, whilst here are people who have a relentless condition which can make the most taken for granted aspects of daily life feel like climbing Everest. It is the taken for granted which I think of, at times like this. It is things like being able to sleep. So simple, and so crucial, and so lost, for those in the crocodile jaws of PTSD. One sufferer once told me that the hissing sound of a bus door can send him diving for the ground on a crowded city street. The startle reflex is constantly off the scale. Going to the shop to buy food can be an ordeal.

Tania-1-590

I think about perspective a lot. I can’t quite work it out. Obviously, everyone is allowed to be a bit grumpy sometimes. One can’t be a little ray of sunshine every moment of every day. It’s no good my saying: well, I am living in a liberal democracy with a body and mind which mostly work, so I can complain of nothing. That would be absurd and lead to ulcers. On the other hand, I do think that the counting of blessings is an important thing. When I am in danger of plummeting into the slough of despond, I am quite glad that my perspective police are stern and unforgiving. They haul me up and give me a good talking to and set me straight. I can’t say that they save me entirely from my worst self, but when I am on the verge of turning into a monster I am glad that those blue sirens start to flash.

A different kind of spring.

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 26 March 2014
My obsession with spring continues, as the season shifts and a galvanic feeling of possibility seizes me. At the moment, this has moved from the mere fact of daffodils and oystercatchers to the human world.

The charity I volunteer for, HorseBack UK, is dependent on the weather. It runs courses for veterans and servicemen and women who have suffered life-changing injury or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, using horses as part of the recovery process. In the hard Scottish winter, the course work stops, and the herd goes out for its winter break, and the time is used for planning and organising and building new partnerships. There is a lot of activity, but much of it happens inside, in the office.

Now, as spring springs, the main work of the organisation gets back into its stride. The herd has come down from its winter hillside, and the horses are reschooled for the serious months to come. This week, there is a gathering of veterans who have come to learn to assist newcomers on the courses. This is a central part of the HorseBack ethos. Once someone has come on a course, they then become part of the rolling voluntary programme, and return to help their comrades in turn. Many of our veterans may never again have regular employment, due to severe mental and physical challenges. This work restores to them a sense of mission and purpose. It is very powerful and very moving to watch.

The returning veterans.The returning veterans.

The lovely thing for me is seeing the good work go on, and also greeting many familiar faces. It’s been a revelation, over the last eighteen months, meeting people who have seen and experienced extremes that I can hardly imagine. I now make jokes about being blown up by IEDs. (Service humour is famously dark.) I no longer feel embarrassed and distanced by my own feeble civilian existence, and the gap between my soft life and their incredibly hard one. Spending time with veterans is a privilege and an education, and it has widened my horizons in a way I can hardly put into words.

Mikey, doing a join-up with a Para.Mikey, doing a join-up with a Para.

Quite apart from that, it is a simple human pleasure. They are so funny and so stoical and so interesting. They josh and tease and make those jokes which I once found shocking and now take in my stride. At the beginning, my admiration for them made me shy. They had shown courage and fortitude which I would never know. They were a class apart. But now, I am part of the gang. I may never know what hand to hand combat is like, but they graciously allow me to enter the group. I do not have to loiter on the sidelines, fearful of saying the wrong thing.

Rodney, one of the HorseBack stalwarts, with his very own Royal Marine, doing a demonstration in the round pen.Rodney, one of the HorseBack stalwarts, with his very own Royal Marine, doing a demonstration in the round pen.

It’s interesting, working for a charity. I did it out of a rather clichéd, mid-life guilt. I wanted, in the hoary old way, to put something back. If you tell people that is what you do, it does sound awfully pious and worthy. But in fact, I get far more out of it than I can ever put back. You could say it is one of the most selfish things I do. Most of all, and perhaps most unexpectedly, it is tremendous fun. I get to see people who should, by any standards, be broken, coming back to life under the blue gaze of the Scottish hills. I get to watch beautifully trained Quarter Horses at work. I get to feel part of something bigger than myself, which is a profound human need. Mostly, I get to laugh and laugh and laugh.

Spring, redux.

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 19 March 2014
Out in the world, strange and alarming events fill the news. The inexplicably missing aeroplane, the Russians continuing their imperial ambitions, the ongoing tragedy of Syria bombard the mind. Here, in the contained, small, rural world in which I live, I concentrate hard on the turning of the seasons. When everything is uncertain, the things of the earth are soothing to a baffled mind.

The elegance of the crocuses.The elegance of the crocuses.

Spring comes late in Scotland. Our snowdrops are only just starting to fade. This morning, I see, with outrageous triumph, the first two daffodils of the year. Pearl the Postwoman arrives, smiling. She looks up at the sky, which is an improbable blue. ‘I thought winter would never end,’ she says. ‘It was so wet and muddy I had trench foot.’

We laugh. I think, for the hundredth time, how splendid it is that we have a postwoman called Pearl. I think: perhaps I can really believe in spring, at last.

Even as the sun shines with serious conviction, there is still snow on the high hills.Even as the sun shines with serious conviction, there is still snow on the high hills.

The first harbingers arrived a couple of weeks ago – the oystercatchers in from the coast, the pied wagtails doing their little dance, the woodpeckers battering away at the trees. But there is always a moment when one thinks it is a great joke, and that the winter will reassert itself, and everything will return to a defensive crouch.

The simple joy of rooting out the first of the spring grass.The simple joy of rooting out the first of the spring grass.

Now, though, it seems as if the matter is in earnest. There really is some warmth in the soil, and the growing things are growing, and the horses relax and bloom, unfurling themselves to the new warmth in the air like flowers themselves. Horses deal with weather much better than humans. They shut up within themselves, hunkering down for the duration with a slow stoicism. Now that the rapier chill has gone out of the weather, they open up, as if they are forming their very own welcoming committee. It’s an enchanting thing to watch. They also get a bit of spring fever, putting on their own little rodeo in the field, bucking and leaping and kicking up their heels and showing off with a few fast canters around the place.

Everything takes on a hopeful aspect. It will still be many weeks before we see a leaf on a tree. The blossom is still a distant dream. But the cold land is waking after its winter sleep, and there really is something magical in that.


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