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 I get my hands dirty

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 18 July 2012

One of the things I crave most in life is authenticity. I loathe phoniness almost as much as I hate cruelty. There must be some fascinating psychological reason for this, but I cannot quite work out what. It does seem slightly extreme. After all, most humans are a little bit fake sometimes. Most of us put on a good front, lie politely when asked how we are (default British answer is always I’m fine, even if your life is falling apart), pretend to be more confident or capable or informed than we are. The little white lie is one of the cornerstones of civilised life.

For whatever reason, the authentic is my lodestar. It comes with all sorts of peculiar associations. For instance, one of the things I love most about going back to horses after thirty years away is that I come back from the field with my hands dirty. There is so much horse on my hands each morning that it takes two washes and a scrub with strong soap to get it off. (My nails are now a write-off.) This is the most bizarre source of pride to me.

I am so proud of the dirty hands that often I take them out in public. I was brought up by my mother to be clean and polite at all times, so this goes against muscle memory. Today, I rushed back from riding, and had to run into the shop for vital supplies before I could get to a sink. I handed over my card for olive oil and Bonios with hands black from the mare. I should have felt slightly embarrassed. It’s not what nice girls would do, after all. Instead, a strange dialogue took place in my head. See, said some inexplicable voice, the shop lady now knows that you are a real person, who does manual labour, who gets dirty, instead of just sitting at a clinical computer screen poncing about with words all day long. In fact, the shop lady was almost certainly thinking: could do with a wash.

Perhaps it is not just the association of dirty hands with real, honest work, with physical effort, with something true and pure which takes place in the open air. Perhaps too, it is the source of the dirt. The reason that I get my hands quite so black is that as well as grooming my sweet mare, I spend at least fifteen minutes each day scratching and rubbing at all her favourite places. It has taken me three months to find out where they all are, and I’m still not at the end of that great quest. Horses will scratch and rub each other in the wild, and I try to replicate this. They are not delicate creatures, they do it with firm intent. For all that my mare is a fine thoroughbred with sensitive skin, what she really likes is a serious, no holds barred scratching session. I do it so hard that my arm begins to ache. The reward is that she stretches her neck down, closes her eyes in bliss, and wobbles her lower lip. Once I see the lip go, I know she is really in heaven.

I suppose the dirt is not just a totem of the authentic, but a flag of love. I get filthy by giving pleasure to a creature who fills my heart with bounding joy. There is a simplicity and rightness to this which feels oddly profound to me. I am keenly aware that all this is a little bit nuts. My whole horse thing is a little bit nuts. It’s faintly strange to be quite so happy about getting my hands dirty. But I like finding very small things in life which give me delight, and this turns out to be one of those that I least expected.

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