I think: oh, I haven’t written my lockdown diary for a couple of days. I look. It is eight days. I have absolutely no sense of time any more. Everyone I speak to says, ‘Do you know what day of the week it is?’ None of us knows. I spent most of this morning wondering whether it was Wednesday or Thursday. I got quite a shock when it turned out to be Friday.
The other thing I find odd is that there is a pressing sense of hyper-reality combined with a humming feeling of non-reality. Everything feels simultaneously as real as anything I have ever known, and completely unreal. At the very same time. I find this disconcerting.
Some things have lost their meaning. I am fascinated by social media, and I use it in a very distinct fashion. For instance, I think Twitter is a rather lovely place. I’ve only recently realised this is because I follow only exceptionally nice people. So I tend to see pictures of new-born lambs and gangling foals and grand herds of racing thoroughbreds on their summer holidays. It was only when I rang an old friend who works in reality television that I fully realised the horror show social media can be. He told me he has to employ an entire pastoral care department to look after the contestants on his programme, because they get death threats and rape threats every day. And it’s not like they are cutting down the rainforests or engineering oil spills with their bare hands. They are just being a bit flaky on the telly.
Anyway, the point of this story is that I really use Twitter for racing. Curiously, it is where all the horse people go. All the trainers are there, and the breeders, and the jockeys, and the owners, and the fans. There are people who remember seeing Arkle, or who were on Town Moor when Nijinsky cantered to glory in the Triple Crown. (This is especially meaningful for me, since my red mare is his granddaughter.) So, even though I love the lambs and the comical dogs, they are the jam. The cake is my racing posse. Over the years, I’ve weeded out the ones who don’t love the horses but are only in it for the betting, or the ones who are rude about pilot error (you try making split second decisions at forty miles an hour on a half ton flight animal), or the ones who are always grousing. I’ve ended up with a true circle of love.
My crew not only share my adoration of the incredible athlete that is the thoroughbred, they are also amazingly patient. On a big racing day, I tweet in yelps and exclamations and superlatives. Often, if a horse I particularly love is running, I’ll deal with my nerves by typing like a maniac. My levels of absurdity are stratospheric. But the people don’t mind. They are kind and funny and sometimes share my emotion. They are all complete strangers to me, humans I shall almost certainly never meet in life, and yet we are true friends. We are Saturday friends, and Royal Meeting mates, and Cheltenham Festival compadres.
And now all that has gone. There are little bursts of communication, but I realise it was the horses that drew us together and made us want to sing and dance. Those horses are all at home now, dozing in their boxes, doing their little bits of exercise on the downs and on the Heath, away from public eyes.
Usually, at this time of year, we would have had the Guineas, and be wondering who will end up favourite for the Derby, and be dreaming about whether it is time for Enable’s first prep run of the season. We would be cheering at Frankie’s flying dismounts and playing Aiden O’Brien bingo – two points if he says ‘the lads’, three points if he says ‘listen, listen’, full house if you get a ‘I’m very fortunate, Rishi’. (He never takes credit for his brilliance, but always gives the credit to the team and his great good luck.) There would be happy reminiscences of springs past – Frankel dashing away with the Guineas, the gentle brilliance of Mill Reef, the preening flash of Dancing Brave.
It’s such an odd thing to miss. I thought that, because I live alone and I am utterly dependent on the internet for human contact, that social media would play a huge part in getting me through this forced isolation. But dear old Twitter feels like a friend who has lost its spirit. I go there for duty now, for the sake of past, happier times. I do love the comical dogs and the photographs of wildlife, but it’s not the same.
I’ve been doing a lot more of real life instead, even thought that life carries its odd air of unreality. I’ve been teaching like a maniac all week, doing online tutoring sessions in everything from writing a novel to studying the Cold War. This feels profoundly satisfying and meaningful. At least my mad, menopausal brain is getting a workout. And I feel as if I am putting something into the world. I even did a little bit of gardening, which is most unlike me. And there are the horses and the dogs. There is Scotland, coming at last into her spring pomp. In the last week, everything has suddenly gone green. The trees have burst into life and the grass is growing and the mares are growing sleek as they gorge on their verdant feast.
It’s hard work. I have to reset myself about five times a day. I have to remind myself of what I have, rather than what I am missing. Will the world ever return? I have to believe so, but just at the moment it feels far away. It is, as Auden once wrote, as if someone called out ‘Stop the clocks’. I dream of the day when they start ticking again.