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.

Memory lapse; or, in which I utterly fail to multi-task.

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 24 October 2012
A tentative email arrives from the editor. I forgot to do the blog. I FORGOT THE BLOG.

This is not good. This week was supposed to be my organised week. I have about eighteen things to do and no hours to do them in. It was going to be multi-tasking a go-go.

Who started this stupid rumour that women are really, really good at multi-tasking? Who came up with the hideous word in the first place? All it actually means is doing lots of things at once. It carries a subtext too, although this may be an inference too far on my part.  The subtext is that the females are not only really good at doing lots of things at once, but they do not complain about the lots of things. This is our great talent, we must be true to our calling. No moan shall escape our lips; no, no, because we are ladies, and we work like little pit ponies, clip-clopping up and down the livelong day.

A woman from ASDA was on the Today programme this morning. I’m sure she is a perfectly nice person and very good at her job, but she said something that really rubbed me up the wrong way. She said that the supermarket’s greatest concern was for ‘our busy mums’. Perfectly harmless, you might think. It’s not as if ASDA is raping the land or depriving grandmothers of their pensions. But something about it made me crazy. It’s that chummy ‘mums’; it’s the slightly patronising nod to them all being so very busy. I thought, furiously: what about the fathers? And the good-for-nothing singles, which is my cohort? Are we to be ignored by the retail giants?

I tweeted crossly on the subject, and one of my fellow twitterers wrote back: ‘Having it all = doing it all.’ Back I circled to the evil rumour of the ladies and their brilliance in multi-tasking. I can’t believe I am completely unrepresentative of my gender, but I have no ability at all to do more than one thing at once. In a week like this week, when I have four different deadlines, a book to write, at least one new secret project (there is always a secret project), and slightly odd things like the building of a new feed shed to oversee, everything goes to pot. Piles of paper mount on my desk, faint panic gallops by my side like a grumpy bronco, vital telephone calls go unmade, my hair looks like I have been dragged through a briar patch, and my email inbox resembles feeding time at the zoo. I also, as you can see, fall into hyperbole, mixed metaphors and insane similes.

I suppose it’s too dull never to generalise. I do it myself. Women do this, I have written in the past; men think that. A little generalisation can add to the gaiety of nations, and conversation would be very stilted and pedantic without it. But some sweeping statements are pernicious, hardening prejudice and bolstering bigotry. Old, ugly ones have gone into the file of things that decent people no longer say. The idea of the ladies with their excellence at a multitude of tasks is one of those that sounds like acompliment, but in fact is more of a curse. If we females are so fine at doing everything at once, the implication is that the big old fellas must do one thing at a time, and that thing will be the serious, important article, like running the country or heading the United Nations or discovering the Higgs Boson Particle.

I may be over-egging this. Trying to cram in too much makes me fractious and prone to over-reaction. It may just be displaced angst because I FORGOT THE BLOG. But, for what it’s worth, that is my small, cross theory of the day.

Preparing for winter; or, the search for the perfect glove.

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 17 October 2012
The weather has suddenly grown deathly serious. This morning, the temperature was minus three degrees. That is proper, no messing cold. The thing that interests me about weather is how much difference height makes. I know this is an obvious point, and if I had any meteorological knowledge it would not surprise me so, but it does. My horse lives three miles from my house, up a hill. As I drive to see her each morning, I watch the degrees drop, their little red numbers falling on my car dashboard. It is usually two or three points colder up there, just because of a short climb. The mountain shows the difference height makes, too. It is already wearing its demure cap of white, where the first snow has come.

Because this is the first Scottish winter with my mare, I am thinking about the weather in a completely different way. Normally, when the mercury falls, it is just a question of battening down the hatches and making sure I have enough heating oil, and dreaming of stews and soups. Now, it is a whole different ball game.

It’s all the general equine stuff: rugs, extra food, sourcing a good supply of hay. The hay has been a nightmare this year because of the wet harvest. I have not thought seriously about hay since I was fourteen years old. Now, it haunts my dreams. And then there is the human stuff. As I get older and creakier, I find that my hands do not work well in the cold. I have to make some serious glove decisions. Usual woolly ones won’t do because they will get wet and dirty; leather ones are too clumsy and stiff for doing up rug buckles. I used to obsess over writing the perfect sentence; now my mind is filled with the perfect glove.

There is also the glamorous question of thermals. There shall be the purchasing of industrial quantities of socks. Luckily, I have found the ideal coat, a lovely puffy thing with a fur hood, so that I look like Nanook of the North. I bought it over the weekend and, when I first went up in it, I must have looked so much like a terrifying Eskimo that the small Welsh pony actually ran away in fright. It took me about ten minutes to convince her that I was still the same person who gives her her tea and scratches her sweet spots.

Winter this year shall be an outdoors operation. There will be dark mornings when I may rue the day I rashly bought a horse, when the sleet is falling and I am hock deep in mud. But mostly I think it is a rather lovely, healthy thing. I like the fact that I shall not be stuffing indoors, but shall stride out in the elements, however extreme they might be. As if to encourage me, the mare was at her sweetest and best this morning. We rode through the hoar frost in easy harmony, with the white-capped mountain gazing down on us in benediction. Her head was down and her neck was relaxed and she carried herself with quiet grace. That’s what makes it all worth it. I grew up in a stable; one of my most vivid childhood memories is of my father getting up at five-thirty every morning to do the horses. I used to follow him out in the pitch dark, to help. Now, forty years later, I am back to that stern regime. It’s just a bit of weather, I think; I can take it.

And then autumn arrived

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Tuesday, 09 October 2012
Autumn has suddenly come roaring over the hill. For the first time the mercury has tumbled below zero, and yesterday a glittering white frost fell on us. I stamp my feet and shake my hands to get the circulation going; I contemplate the purchase of a serious winter hat. Working with the horses gets a little tougher, as I fumble with buckles and drop brushes from frozen fingers.

The cold ushers in outrageous beauty. The giddy Scottish sun shines down out of sapphire skies, and the leaves are just starting to turn, and the mountains take on the deep blue aspect that they assume at this time of year. The geese are beginning to migrate, appearing suddenly over the hills in their mighty v-shapes, calling out in wild unison as they go.

Every year, I mean to look up exactly where it is they have come from and where they are going to. I am mildly ashamed that I do not know. For some reason, I have it in my head that they are going to Russia. They are certainly bound for the east, but for all I know it might be Stonehaven, not Vladivostok.

I love to think I am in touch with nature. As I get older and more absurd, all I want is to be rooted in the earth. I am still shatteringly impressed if I meet someone who once worked at Chatham House, as one brilliant woman in our village did, or who does something with military intelligence, as does the man who sat on my left last night at dinner. But oddly, what really thrills me the most is when I wave to the farmer, driving by in his muddy Landrover.

There, I think, grinning like a loon, is a fellow who really knows valuable things, about weather patterns and the psychology of livestock and the breeding of rams. There is a man whose head is full of honest, true things, whose hands are mapped with the ancient black of the Scottish soil.

You can see I have a fatal tendency to romanticise. I have no idea why the idea of the earth appeals to me so much just now. It might be because now I have horses I am working outside for long hours, getting filthy and muddy instead of staring at a computer screen. It might be because the world seems rather alarming and unknowable. No one has any idea what to do about the economy, about the crashing Euro, about the labyrinthine situation in Syria, about Iran’s nuclear programme. People come on the wireless with all the bad news and no good answers. Today, the Taliban shot a 14-year-old girl, apparently because she was ‘promoting Western culture’, whatever that means.

I don’t understand a word of it.

But I understand that the soil will still be there tomorrow and the mountains will not move and perhaps that is restful to a battered mind.

There was a terrible fuss the other day when the Prime Minister forgot what Magna Carta meant. I know it’s important to know a bit of Latin; I know that a grounding in Classics broadens the mind. I know also that knowledge is not relative; one form of it is not better than another. But just now, in the mood I’m in, I would be much more impressed if Mr Cameron could tell me where those crazy geese were going.

Sometimes a bag is just a bag

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Tuesday, 02 October 2012
There are two orange sheep in the field.

This is not necessarily a sentence I ever anticipated writing. Nonetheless, two new sheep have arrived, and they appear to be the colour of mango flesh.

When they were first sighted, on Friday, I could only see the flash of orange backs over the dry stone wall. There have been young cows in that field for the last few weeks. Some of them are a kind of amber colour, and my addled brain wondered if some new dwarf strain of cattle had been introduced. It was only when I got right up close that I could see they were two bonny sheep, quite the smartest pair I had ever seen, as if someone had been combing them every day. I had no idea what they were doing there, and wondered if they had escaped from some kind of cloning project and galloped to freedom over the mountain.
Orange sheep

My mare is still quite astonished by them herself, casting them a suspicious look every so often, as if they are, literally, wolves in sheep’s clothing. Their presence on the other side of the wall was actually quite helpful this morning, since we were doing desensitising training. This is a faintly paradoxical method where you scare your horse in order to show it that there is nothing to be afraid of. The mare is prone to theatrical spookiness out in the stubble fields, and I decided it was time to do something about it.

I found an absolutely terrifying plastic bag. It is of thick, crackling material and makes a loud noise when scrunched. It is also coloured and shiny. Oh, the horror. The theory is that you crinkle it and wave it about, and then the moment the animal stops backing away, you hide it. It’s a pressure release method, and it’s astonishingly effective. Patience, patience; small steps; and then, by the end, she is sniffing the alarming object and will allow me to run it all over her body.

There are two parts to this technique. One is to show that you yourself are not alarmed, so that really there is no possibility of the thing being a predator. The second is to demonstrate that the item will not eat her. One great horseman I know has got his horse to the stage where he can ride it in fast circles whilst lugging a huge, flapping tarpaulin behind him on a rope.

As always, I extrapolate from horses to life. There should be desensitising training for humans too. People do not have the same ancient predator response that horses hold, but there is a tendency to catastrophise. So often, the worst thing assumed does not, in fact, happen, and one is left feeling relieved and slightly foolish. Or, the bad thing does happen, but it’s not the end of the world. One finds an inner resource; one bashes on through. The mountain lion might have shown its claws, but it did not eat one for breakfast.

So many imagined terrors exist only in the mind, and never materialise. Just as, at first, my mare truly believes a small plastic bag will be the end of her, until I prove to her that it is no threat, so humans will conjure imaginary demons or disasters or hurts or slights or failures that never come to pass. Sometimes, the bag just is a bag.

The orange sheep, despite my wild conjectures of radioactivity or cloning, are, in fact, merely dyed. Apparently, it’s a thing that people do with some ovines before they go to market. I had no idea. It’s not a freakish scientific experiment gone wrong; it’s just a sales technique. For some reason, this feels symbolic of something, but I’m not sure what. Perhaps, like the bag, orange sheep are just orange sheep, and I may now learn to slot them into my category of things that I take for granted.

The swallows depart

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Tuesday, 18 September 2012

The swallows have gone. It has amazed me how long they have stayed this year. I always think they fly south at the end of August, but this may be fantasy on my part. Perhaps they always wait until September.

They have been mustering like crazy for the last two weeks. All the different families come from their various nest in the steadings and sheds and outbuildings, and have an evening rally over the field where my mare lives. Sometimes I just stand and stare at them, gaping like a loon. They are so fast and athletic and certain. They seem to have a rigorous regime, getting racing fit for the thousands of buffeting miles to Africa. Every year, I find myself in awe and wonder at the great journey the tiny, delicate creatures make.

I saw them last night, when I went up at about six for evening stables. ‘Ah,’ I said out loud, as they filled the feed room with their swirl and chatter, ‘you are still here.’ And then, today, suddenly something was different. It took me a moment to work out what it was. It was: silence. The birds had flown.

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