Monthly Archives: August 2012

The British Museum

After the Paralympic Dressage at Greenwich Park I went to The Horse exhibition at the British Museum (which was my intended destination the other Friday when the car overheated).
It was small, and perfectly formed, which was good because I don’t think it much floated the kids’ boats. I particularly liked the oil paintings of the racehorse Eclipse, another stunning one of Gimcrack on Newmarket Heath by George Stubbs and a rather unusual painting and script mixture circa 1750 about the Godolphin Arabian, lent by Her Majesty the Queen. The Godolphin Arabian was, along with two other stallions, the foundation sire of the modern thoroughbred. That, however, is another post altogether.

I also had a look at the Paralympic medal designs on show, but, for the third time this week, a reflective surface (glass) got the better of me.

I took this stunning ceiling in the Queen Elizabeth II Great Court instead. Next time I go, I would like to visit the Reading Room, on the right of the picture.

Paralympics: True Diversity

Foreground: National Maritime Museum
Background: The Cutty Sark, The Shard & the City

I went to the morning session at Greenwich Park today to see the Equestrian competitors. The competitors were Grade II, the second most severely disabled riders and although they all rode the same dressage test, there any similarities ended.

Each rider was announced into the ring not just by name and horse, but by age and career, with a brief precis of how they had come into Paralympic sports. The ages ranged from something like 17 to 56, the previous and current professions varying from anaesthetist to film stunt rider to surgeon. Most riders had a sporting philosophy which were also shared with us, my favourites being:

Don’t start tomorrow what you can do today

Look at the doughnut, not the hole

The routes into Paralympic sport were many and varied; one of the athletes had previously been an Paralympic swimmer. Some had been born with disability, some athletes had met with accidents, the majority of which were on horses… One woman had contracted a disability after being poisoned by a pesticide.

And then there were the horses and the weather. We had rain, we had sun, we had wind and we had clouds, we had brief spells of warmth and some teeth-chattering cold; not once or even twice but enough to remind us that the only thing we can be certain of in life is that change is always happening somewhere. The horses were a delight. Lining up against the more traditional stamp of warm-blooded dressage-type horse with floating paces and extravagant gaits were smaller pony types described variously as pedigree unknown, not listed or this piebald one below, with the most marvellous feather, announced as a ‘native cob’.

Barbara Minneci, Belgium with Barilla

This competitor rode side-saddle, but we had paraplegic riders using two schooling whips as aids, riders who had to have their legs strapped down, and one competitor Angelika Trabert from Germany who was born without legs and with only three fingers on her right hand. She rode a beautiful test on Arriva-Avant to finish 9th. Her life philosophy is, ‘It’s ability, not disability, that counts!’

The diversity of horses and riders is fascinating. Clearly, the horses are selected based not just on ability, but the ability of their rider to form a successful partnership with them. The flashy power of a Grand Prix dressage horse is not for every Paralympian rider to contain and yet without that I still found the quiet spectacle of these riders and horses both mesmerising and deeply affecting. Somebody said on the television the other day that Paralympians did not want people to feel sorry for them. I was shocked; I can honestly say that the thought had never crossed my mind. Why would a sports person performing at the top of their game evoke sympathy in me, or you? Still, there is something extra to watching Paralympian sport. I think, for me, it is something to do with the showcasing of the essential human spirit, the ability to get on with taking the steps needed to achieve goals and realise dreams.

The differences between the horses and the competitors extend to how the crowd is to show their appreciation. Some horses and riders can be applauded in the usual way, some only when the horse has left the immediate test arena and the coach has a hand firmly on the bridle. Some horses prefer to ‘ponied’ into the arena by the ‘friendly horse’ and there were two horses that we could not applaud at all. One of these partnerships was Lauren Barwick with her horse Off to Paris, representing Canada. They entered in silence apart from the music that is played continuously throughout the tests. As the test started a new song began, I don’t even know what it was, but it fitted the mood. The test this pair went on to produce together was thing of beauty. There are no words I can use to describe it adequately, you had to be there. It was not marked the highest by the judges (they came 3rd), but the energy and connection between the rider and her horse was palpable. When it ended, the crowd had to remain silent. I was overwhelmed and could only release the high emotion generated by the horse and rider through shedding a few quick tears, and by hand-waving, as we had been told by the commentator was the alternative way to show support and appreciation. Thousands of us waving in silence.

I have seen competition dressage before, I have ridden the odd test of my own 20 years ago. This is not a paean to dressage per se. What it is, is a witness statement to riders who find new ways to work with their horses to achieve something that looks so simple, but is fiendishly tricky, even with the use of all your limbs. The morning’s highest score belonged to the GB Para Dressage rider Natasha Baker, who has developed a system of voice commands to ride the tests on her horse Cabral. Curiously, although I enjoyed her test immensely and clapped hard and the kids waved the Union Jacks, the partisan nature of supporting Great Britain was muted. With the Paralympics, it is not so much sitting there to support one’s own small dot of a country, it feels much more like you are sitting there to support and will on the human race.

So many times I have felt that the title of my blog ‘On wishes and horses’ might seem vacuous and misleading, appearing to lack any real intent or motivation. The truth is I took it from the rhyme, ‘If wishes were horses then beggars would ride…’ which of course means that wishes are useless. I am keeping the blog title, at it continues to remind me that the type of intent on show today is everything.

To clarify, courtesy of (whose website is down as I write)

Intent is not a thought, or an object, or a wish. Intent is what can make a man succeed when his thoughts tell him that he is defeated…

In this case I would amend the saying slightly, ‘Intent is what can make any human being or horse succeed when their thoughts might tell them they are defeated’. That is the essence of what I think I saw today, and it was simply one of the most amazing and renewing days of my life.

Updated 3 September: This post has proved popular. For more on the Paralympics, my take on Oscar Pistorius and Bladegate is here

Frog Photogs

This frog was sunbathing in the back garden yesterday. I haven’t see one this big before; its size seemed to make it bold. We got a real close look at it – lots of alliterative words come to mind to describe it because however hard I tried to get a good frog photog it once again defied my camera or my ability! Frogablob, flobalob sort of covers it anyway…

I think the trouble was partly to do with it being in full sun, and covered in a slightly *slimy film which bounced the light around a bit. I really wanted to get the full effect of its two-tone golden eyes. I failed, but I had some fun trying.

10 yo daughter’s hand for purposes of scale

When the frog jumped, so did I!

*10 year old daughter just informed me that the wet stuff is mucus… Nice.

Beach Hut, Boulogne-sur-Mer

I didn’t take many photos that I was happy with in France – not sure why.

I took the camera shopping with me last week (an activity I don’t much like), hoping to look at familiar surroundings that have become contemptuous with fresh eyes, as the saying goes.
I was not expecting to be drawn to photograph people, not really my thing, but, to my surprise that was all I was drawn to. I was too shy to ask people’s permission though, and too polite to just take them anyway. I am glad really, that I don’t just invade people’s space with the camera, but it bugs me to miss an interesting face or subject. Yesterday, I saw a fantastic dog walker, in a barren urban setting; the man and the dog were so juxtaposed with each other and then with the setting that it just killed me not to stop and ask if I could take a shot. As it was, I didn’t have the camera with me, and I couldn’t just stop the vehicle I was in. That missed opportunity is going to take some getting over. I could try to describe it in words, but it’s not worth the bother – a picture tells etc.

So to cheer myself up I downloaded some free Photoshop type software at the suggestion of the excellent Leanne Cole’s blog here. Her photography is superb: evocative, moody and engaging. She is based in Australia, so for someone on the other side of the world all the images are fresh, even when they are of buildings in decay, which is one of my own fascinations in life. Leanne is also generous enough with her time to share her technical tips and methods for working with images. I don’t know what I am doing, but I am playing around and, for fun, fiddling with some of the more disappointing shots from the summer. Yesterday I straightened up a wonky sea horizon, today I’ve fiddled with a beach hut.

Thank you for sharing Leanne.

An experiment

ГОРОДЕЦ: A dark horse

I picked this up at a craft fair today. I was torn between an old spoon, a cocktail shaker and an old tin for tooth powder when I noticed it hiding underneath a green onyx frog. It was the horse which was the USP, obviously and its unusual script that I couldn’t read. Turns out, after a blind alley up the Greek alphabet, it is the Cyrillic alphabet and the writing is the name of a town in Russia, on the banks of the River Volga, called Gorodets.

Apparently the town Gorodets, or ГОРОДЕЦ as it is depicted on the souvenir, is known for its colourful folk art depicting, amongst other things, roosters and this Gorodets style black horse.

That’s something I didn’t know this morning. If I was in the market for a tattoo, this horse would be rather up my street. It proved awfully difficult to photograph too. Over-exposed or blurry seemed to be the choice. In the end I have just propped it up on the laptop and snapped it there. I think it is something to do with the surface being enamelled and slightly reflective. My digital camera is either too limited in its settings to cope, or I am too limited in mine…

It has reminded me of a story my grandmother used to tell me about her father. They all lived in Istanbul in the early 1900s and he was a collector of Russian icons. When Attaturk came to power there was some law made about foreign nationals not being allowed to be in business in the country (my great-grandfather was Scottish). He had to dissolve the business and trust his Turkish business partner to ship the icons to Scotland, but they never arrived. I have a number of questions about the story, which of course I wished I had asked her when she was alive. The thing is, I didn’t think they (my great-grandparents) ever left Istanbul permanently and what had a private collection of iconography got to do with business law anyway. Maybe I have mixed up the time period. I know the whole family were evacuated to Malta during the First World War, so maybe it was then. I think I might have to do some investigations. Either way, the art was gone, and a considerable family nest egg at today’s prices. The subtext is that the Turkish partner diddled my grandfather. This is not meant to represent Turkish people as a whole, of course. My grandmother’s greatest friend was Turkish, my grandmother an grandfather grew up in, and loved Turkey. Her parents and brother lived there until they died. I grew up knowing that the greatese cuisine in the world is not French, it is Turkish and only this weekend we found out that many European languages, including English originated in the Anatolian mountains of Turkey

I have digressed. Perhaps I will follow in the family’s footsteps and start collecting Russian folk art. At a £1 a pop it’s not going to break the bank quite yet…

Perhaps tomorrow I will photo an artefact I have from their evacuation in Malta during the First World War. It, like the Gorodets horse is going to be tricky to snap (reflective glass…)

Writing on the wall (or the blog)

Yesterday’s post did not feel like my finest hour; I am not keen on admitting to having emotional reactions to washing lines. It made me think, does writing reveal the self, or does it just reveal whatever flotsam and jetsam happens to be floating through the mind, the psyche, at any given moment?

I can obviously only speak for myself. And I think that some ideas, reactions, moods are ephemera; given time they pass on by. You can buy ‘ephemera’ on eBay you know. I put my own on Amazon. If I write about these temporal phenomena, they are released on their way downstream and the process of making them into words allow me to stand on the bank, watching as they disappear. Other things are less easily worked through, becoming trapped in the whirlpools and eddies of my head. Round and round they go as my head becomes the body of water itself. Writing is, I suppose, a way of constructing something to hang onto as I am dragged by the current. A way of being in the whirlpool, without going under.

If there is a true self, then it is a slippery customer. It can be a narrative, a construct: linear, rhizomatic, tragic or comic – depending on your taste. It can be the sum total of your thoughts, or it can sit outside those: you are not your thoughts as various esoteric teachings have it.

That last statement has proved troublesome for me. When I first engaged with that possibility I found it terrifying… I was not my thoughts? But I liked my thoughts. I liked them rather a lot. I put the book down. Life flowed on towards the sea and the notion drifted onto my shores once again.

I am not my thoughts? Well surely that’s a thought in itself? That gives me a semantic problem. Is it what Wittgenstein meant when he said that ‘the limits of my language are the limits of my world.’? On the other hand, it would be nice to separate out some version of self, from the person who tapped out a small-minded post about the neighbour’s washing line. I am not my thoughts, indeed.

How can we know self then if we are to go beyond language, as it seems we must if we are to buy into this logic? What good is turning the thoughts in my head into words through the keyboard, when the words are the limiting things themselves? I can only say this: I think I have had brief glimpses of understanding beyond words and if that is where a version of the self is to be found it may be the real and elusive self that we obfuscate under layers of history, culture and ego. I think that to get to it, it is not thinking that is required, but listening. And not listening with ears either, it is listening with hearts.

I accept this may read crazy to some, those who like logic and reason. I like logic and reason! But my experience is: they can only take you so far. Wittgenstein twigged this in the end, after a life of logic and reason, butting up against the limits of language, saying, ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.’ So, we may as well return to the silence of the heart? Here’s some empirical evidence for those who aren’t convinced you can listen with it e.g. your heart has its own network of neurotransmitters and around 40,000 neurons…allowing it to sense, feel learn and remember. Perhaps, after all, there is some logic to a form of knowing that does not just involve theory of mind.

As for my excuse for continually tapping away on this contraption, perhaps in order to truly know I am not my thoughts I must firstly think them all, and categorise them in writing, before letting them flow out into an ocean of collective consciousness where they will become indistinguishable from all the rest.

Here’s someone else’s thought. I found it on the wall under a railway bridge last week. It reminded me of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus’s quote

“Everything changes and nothing remains still … and … you cannot step twice into the same stream”

Actually, that sea of thought I mentioned before, well, you’ll find it in ancient Greece. Read Greek philosophy and one might never suffer from the thought delusion again. Not only are you not your thoughts, your thoughts are not yours in the first place…

P.S. If you’ve got to the end of this particular log jam of thoughts and words, well done, it can’t have been easy.

The smug washing line

It’s not mine. And shame on me for writing it, but, it’s the neighbours. Every morning, no matter what time I get up, and I admit I am not the earliest of risers, when I get down to the kitchen there it is, full of washing, taunting me and my lazy ways.

It rained heavily overnight, it kept me awake for a while. The forecast is not good. How come then, next door have managed to find a brief window of general weather loveliness for their clothes to dance on the line. And all the while I have been dozing, or reading in bed, thinking that laundry was off the menu today.

It never used to be this way. I had my one single clothesline strung between the house and green garden shed: one end too high for me to access, the other overgrown by the butterfly bush. They had a triangular rotary line, round the corner and hidden from my view. Their laundry habits, were and remain, none of my business. However, this year they put up a single wire, like mine, running in full view of my kitchen window. It’s not my business, but it’s under my nose.

I am the kind of person who hangs out washing for it to get more wet in the rain. I am the kind of person that returns from a week’s holiday to find that I have left the washing on the line. I am the kind of person who has piles of laundry in the dining room. I don’t do envy, but still.

Here’s the biggest mystery though. The neighbour’s line is full every day, with at least one load, on a sunny day: two or more. And I swear I never see them wear half the clothes on the line. The black and white number rubbing my nose in it this morning – the lady of the house is always well turned out, but not in that outfit. Who is wearing all these clothes?

And here’s my final thing – I never hang underwear on the line. It dries discreetly elsewhere. There are no such sensibilities next door: the line is regularly used as an exhibition space for bras and underpants. I wonder if my own aversion comes from a country upbringing, where a young miscreant was once cautioned for shooting knickers off washing lines in the village for the sake of entertainment and target practice. Whatever.

Here’s my dining room in a recent incarnation. Nothing smug here, I hope. Taken to send to a friend who was asking my advice about criteria for tidiness – this was to illustrate I was definitely the wrong person to ask…

The washing line visible through the door is the other next door neighbour’s and there’s nothing smug about their line. They didn’t used to use pegs. I use pegs: three per two items of washing, no gaps. The smug line has two pegs per item and a space between. I suppose some would say I have low standards. They might be right.

P.S. It’s started chucking it down and the washing next door has been taken in. I, on the other hand, have some to hang out.

Friday night is dance night?

I don’t often feel like dancing anymore. The children are at the age where they prefer it if I don’t as well… Still, I like this song and I like it even more because it is definitely a tune to sit in a chair to (optional: nursing a drink and one’s war of life wounds). It also has a Maxwell’ish’ vibe to it, which is all to the good.

Friday night might have to be renamed.

La vie en rose

I don’t suffer from this as a rule, preferring to see things as they really are. A counsellor once told me that people who are able to reach for the rose-tinted spectacles, people who are unrealistically optimistic, have basically got a protective shield around them that helps them to cope with the vagaries (and worse) of the world.

Life is interesting; ‘may you live in interesting times’ being more of a curse than a blessing. Today has been interesting too. I am conscious that even the most committed rose-tinted spectacle wearer might have struggled with getting up this morning to multiple stomach upsets (via the dog) on the rug in the front room and on the staircase carpets. Or the early call to cover a class when I had children to drop off (via the car) and a meeting to take at the same time.

Or the necessity of still travelling, via the car, with the heaters on 32 degree heat, full blast because the question whether to save or scrap the car is too vexatious. Or the meeting summary that morphed into a 1500 word report that I wasn’t expecting to have to do today. Or the threat of bailiffs next week and the mix up about the university library fines I swear I paid. Or the two car parking tickets that are probably in the post.

I didn’t reach for my sun-tinted spectacles though. Instead I took the rug out into the garden and employed some washing up liquid and my watering can. And later on I did some cleaning up the stairs. The rest can wait. I found myself saying to someone earlier this week, ‘Well, it’s not the things that happen to you that are the problem, it’s how you respond that matters’. If someone punched me on the nose for saying such a thing, well I’d understand. It might be fair enough. It would be how I responded that mattered more than the punch. Wouldn’t it?

Sometimes, when I think things like this I wonder if I am becoming somewhat certifiable. Don’t mention this to my mother.

Hmmm…. The jury is out.

Nb The dog is fed three times a day, but he still has the figure of the waif and stray that he was. Eat your heart out!

Frankel did Sir Henry proud on the Knavesmire this afternoon. I remembered I had written a paean of praise to the man previously and as he greeted Frankel today I thought that although Sir Henry is clearly not as well as we would like, nothing in his manner around his horses has changed.

To see him with Frankel, looking him over, giving him a scratch – it was the best thing.

On wishes and horses

Henry Cecil’s talent has straddled racing for decades, yet a more unassuming and diffident gentleman you could not hope to meet (although one would hope to meet him).

I have seen him, with his horses, up close a few times and I am always taken with how he looks at his horses. I have probably mentioned it before. His head is usually slightly to one side as if he is listening to what they cannot say, and his eyes literally drink them in. It is the look of love, but it is more than that. It is also the look that confirms the adage the eye of the Master maketh the horse.

Sir Henry’s eye has made many a horse, and we can look forward to seeing his latest, and perhaps eventually greatest, superstar Frankel on Tuesday in the St James’ Palace Stakes at Ascot.

After Frankel’s scintillating 2000 Guineas…

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