Apparently some people wonder what it’s like in my head… Well, a bit like this truth be told.
Worth a few minutes of your time even if you don’t want to know or indeed care what goes on behind my eyes, which will be the majority.
Are you alive?
I remember I said in the last post that I would blog up another of my travelling sister’s pictures. In the last post, I erroneously suggested that the cabs weren’t yellow in Brooklyn, but as you can see here, my mistake. Still, the whole set-up looks pretty groovy and hip to me.
Which brings me to a slow-dawning realisation I’ve been having – the opposite of hip and probably excruciatingly embarrassing if you are related to me: I want to be a cowboy. For an awfully long time I thought I wanted to have a gypsy lifestyle, but the truth is I’m just not hardy enough for all year round. I am however determined to spend a day travelling in a vardo and a night camped out this year. Determined, I tell you! I’ve come to the conclusion I’ve been getting my itinerant lifestyles all mixed up because I really don’t dress like a Romany, but lately I’ve been even going to work in my gold cowboy boots… with tweed trews. I know it’s wrong, but I really don’t care. Plus there’s the oversized cowboysbag. All I need now is the belt, the horse and the hat. It’s all fitting together in my head now, and when I go to Devon next – I’m gonna wear a stetson and probably be disowned.
After I’ve been wanderlusting in Cumbria this year, I might take me a trip to a ranch in Montana – for the big skies and the horses and the cattle. If I see a rattlesnake though I will just die. It sounds a bit like the start of a poor country song (in my head anyway) but I haven’t got any music for you today, just these cabs.
Joni Mitchell anyone?
I am going a bit mutton, and it can sometimes lead to amusing results. The thing is, when you start to lose your hearing, you compensate a bit and you don’t really notice the creeping and cumulative effects. So when the screen is out on a till at the supermarket and you can’t read the numbers to tell you what you owe, you have to rely on what the cashier says. The cashier usually mumbles the required amount into their tabard and then you start to panic. You realise how reliant you have become on visual clues for what’s being said: the digital readout and *yikes* lip-reading. Yes, folks, you start to lip-read and you don’t even know it. That’s how clever the brain is…
The other thing you do without realising is you interpret what’s being said, and pass it through a sense and meaning filter. Then you rearrange what you heard, into something approximating a coherent sentence. You do this because quite often what you actually heard was nonsense… Again, like lip-reading, you don’t decide to do this, the brain starts helping you out of its own accord. And it does everything fairly quickly too. Granted, when I first became aware of the sense and meaning filter I would speak as if I were on some kind of time delay, but now, I’m pretty much in real time, mostly.
Which is all a fairly long preamble to the main point, which is this. Today I had a genial conversation with a colleague in silent cafe with no background noise. Therefore, there was less reason for me not to hear – background noise is my nemesis, so much so that I hardly bother to socialise any more because it’s far too much of a cognitive load. Anyway, my mind was a little off centre. This out-of-whackness was amplified because I was hungry – where I work manages to produce the most unappetising sandwiches in East Anglia (but that’s another story).
That’s my excuse for what happened next. My brain was limp, my ears giving their customary poor performance. The combination could be deadly. I was explaining how, as a child, all I longed for (prior to John Travolta in Grease) was a wall full of rosettes won by me and my imaginary horse. Then I explained how I was allergic to horses. I then clarified (and at this point I now realise my colleague’s ears may have started bleeding) that I did have my own horse once. I also felt it necessary to emphasise (goodness knows why) that the horse was a misfit. What I said next need not be shared, but it was about this point in my monologue that my colleague managed to squeeze a few words in edgeways.
“Horses aren’t sheep.”
“No I said, but sheep are very loud, haven’t you heard them?” I would then have, doubtless segued into an unashamed rant about a night I spent in Wales, quite pregnant and wide-awake on account of the sheep’s endless baa ing. Did you know sheep are nocturnal, I would have said.
Except, my colleague, brave and intrepid man that he is, pressed on.
“I said, horses aren’t cheap.”
Now, if my brain filter had been on, I would have realised straight off that my learned friend would have known that horses aren’t sheep, and furthermore that he wouldn’t feel the need to point it out…
Still, we’ve both worked one thing out today: an equine ain’t no ovine and I’ve had the added delight of figuring out that I really shouldn’t talk to people with only my ears flapping in the breeze and the handbrake off my brain.
We then moved on to discuss the children of the Rolling Stones, or was it the Avebury Standing Stones… but that wasn’t to do with being hard of hearing, that was a mere confusion of 1970s schemata.
Look, it’s Sunday morning, and I am not about to attempt a definition of consciousness of my own because that would be like… hard work. So, lazy like Sunday morning, let’s just use this one below as the working one, for the purposes of this morning’s post at least. I’ve lifted it directly from Wikipedia, obviously.
Consciousness is the quality or state of being aware of an external object or something within oneself. It has been defined as: subjectivity, awareness, sentience, the ability to experience or to feel, wakefulness, having a sense of selfhood, and the executive control system of the mind. Despite the difficulty in definition, many philosophers believe that there is a broadly shared underlying intuition about what consciousness is. As Max Velmans and Susan Schneider wrote in The Blackwell Companion to Consciousness: “Anything that we are aware of at a given moment forms part of our consciousness, making conscious experience at once the most familiar and most mysterious aspect of our lives.”
I was lying in bed thinking that, in the current fuss about horse meat in the food chain, do we in the West have a problem with eating animals that we commonly keep as pets – I include horses in this because as anyone has kept a horse can tell you there is plenty of time spent in that mode with them. Then I thought about the animals we have invited into our homes, or at least our lives, and I suppose the driver for the most common of these species was that they served some useful function for man. Cats catch vermin (in theory, some can be most indolent as we know), dogs can protect us, horses used to act as transport and still do in certain cultural rituals (weddings, funerals) and for recreational purposes. So then I was thinking, do we shy away from eating cats, dogs and horses not just because they are pets, but because as we have lived in close proximity with these animals that we have observed aspects of these animals’ consciousness? How much harder it is to eat an animal that you strongly suspect thinks about things. An animal that might, at some cognitive level, have an opinion if you were to entertain the notion of setting about it with a knife and fork…
So, having thought all that, I had to attempt to test the concept of animal consciousness. I can only do that through the observation of my own pets, which to me is preferable to a bunch of animals in a lab and perhaps equally empirically useful on a micro scale. All scientists have to start somewhere – Jean Piaget’s studies of his own children informed his hugely influential theory of child development, Darwin kept chickens or pigeons or something whilst writing the Origin of the Species and there will be many, many more. The first pet that sprang to mind this morning was not the dog, with whom I have the closer relationship, it was in fact the cat. The cat and I are not particularly close; mutual respect might be as far as it goes – after all I mainly buy her food. It is however the children’s father who feeds her the most important meal of the day: breakfast and based on that function I have had a chance to observe her behaviour which is as follows.
The cat likes to break her fast somewhere between 5 and 5.30 a.m. She’s greedy, what can I say? The alarm goes off about 5.30 but often he is up and about before then. The cat has developed a number of behaviours based on what I can only imagine are based on some internal concepts – probably hunger more than being able to tell the time. A hungry cat might miaow, or wait by the bowl, that would be instinct not consciousness. This cat, comes upstairs, walks into the room, walks round the bed ignoring the nearest human which is me, sits round the other side of the bed and miaows. When this does not get an immediate response she starts clawing at the sheet that covers the side of the bed. This more assertive claw-based approach normally gets her breakfast order sorted, pronto.
There are a few aspects of this behaviour that make me think she is actually not merely conditioned as per a Pavlovian dog.
1. She doesn’t always do it (fair enough maybe she’s not always hungry)
2. If the alarm does go off before she’s been in the room, she then acts as an extra get-out-of-bed alarm, miaowing away
3. That she doesn’t go straight to clawing the sheet – she tries the miaow first
None of this is conclusive though, that this particular cat has consciousness, that she is thinking about how to get the same person out of bed to feed her. It could be reasonably argued that she is simply hungry and her behaviour is driven by instinct. However, what utterly confounds this theory is what she does at weekends, when there is no alarm and no-one gets out of bed at 5.30 a.m.
On weekends she does not come in the bedroom at all. Her breakfast is served at the human’s convenience. Sometimes as late as 7.30 a.m.
For me, this knocks the behaviour based on a hunger instinct out of the water.
Whilst writing this I have been thinking too. Do we only notice a form of consciousness in animals that we closely share our lives with? If I was to share my house with a few cows would I notice some form of consciousness in them? I suspect, yes. Certainly cows that are ready to return from the field to the farm to be milked might congregate by the gate. Instinct and classical conditioning – certainly, but if we lived in closer proximity to all manner of beasts I am sure we would notice a deeper consciousness of some kind. The outstanding question for me is whether the cat’s consciousness is developed by living in close contact with humans, or whether it just gives us a better opportunity to notice it?
It was one that the youngest child had origamied up and gilded. I went to photograph it earlier, but too late; it had been snatched off the Narnia tree and shoved in the loft.
The Green Man had gone the same way, and my special owl.
So I bought something to cheer the tree up and it is now resplendent with this horse dangling from its branches.
I sometimes wonder myself, but, yes this blog is still called On Wishes and Horses and despite my frequent and various meanderings, we shall have both on here from time to time.
Perhaps, tomorrow, a wish. Now, the last time I looked, those couldn’t be taken up to the loft…
My heart has been broken on a racecourse, more than once in fact, and after a while I just couldn’t take it any longer, so I took a break from the turf. I’ve only kept an eye on proceedings because of the wonder horse Frankel who I saw hack up at the Dewhurst nearly two years ago now. Frankel moves the heart and soul like very few other horses do, but I confess there have been a few . I won’t name them now. Those who know me might remember some of them. Probably they won’t. It doesn’t matter – no need to make the heart hurt more than it needs to on a sunny October morning.
All that’s a rather long way of saying, today, I logged into one of my long idle gambling acounts. One has been run down to a balance of zero thanks to ‘inactive adminstrative fees’. Because it costs you money to be my bank Mr Ladbroke? Another remains intact with a sum in the magnificence of eleven pence. Still, Paddy Power has at least left the paltry amount in my name, rather than helping himself to it in disgust at my giving up the gambling life.
It turns out I am not ready to place a bet. I think I will close the accounts. I have others elsewhere, but I can’t remember who with, or indeed the log-ins. I have a vague idea that there is some money in one of them, somewhere. I was thinking I might have a bet on Meandre today, but the ground has gone in Longchamp and it will not be coming back in time for this afternoon’s race. Even worse, I find I do not care who wins the Arc. What is wrong with me? It only seems like yesterday I ran the Southend 10K on Arc Day morning and then watched when Sea the Stars confirmed his place in the glittering firmament later that afternoon. It seems like yesterday, but in truth it is three whole years ago. The further truth is that I don’t run any more and I don’t go racing.
Where has the time gone?
Where are all the horses that used to live in my head?
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’.
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 delightmakers.com (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
I know Freud will be described as the leading exponent of realist portraiture as the media pay tribute to his work in the light of his death, but if you look at his output, and some don’t really like to because much of his work requires bravery and honesty in the viewer, you may see what I do.
I see folds and shadows, valleys and mountains of flesh. I see rivers of veins in moonlight, bands of coloured estuarine sands in the sun giving way to dark deltas. And I have glimpses of the subjects’ inner landscapes as the eye is challenged to look, yes look, at demanding mounds of unruly skin eons away from the bland aesthetic of current consumer culture and I am forced to feel something, and to think.
Lucian Freud, the grandson of Sigmund Freud, and brother of Clement, shared with his grandfather the ability to offer a representation of people’s minds, and with his brother he shared a love of The Lowlife: dogs, horses and gamblings. His life was unconventional, hardly surprisingly.
To paint people in all their uncompromising truth and beauty, as he did, it is unlikely you would live as a satisfactorily domesticated subject with another for any great length of time.