I spent the weekend in tears. It was not because of Christmas being cancelled and poor old Blighty being cut off from mainland Europe and all the lorries in Kent. That had not started when the weeping began. It was because of a horse, some dancing humans, a very old captain and a very young man.
It started on Saturday with Paisley Park. Paisley Park is an extremely handsome, very talented hurdler. He’s a big, strong horse, and he’s a very gentle gentleman. And, for a while, nobody could touch him at three miles over timber.
Some of the great horses get a kind of inevitability about them. They come out and strut their stuff and they seem to have a sense of their own power. They lift their heads and survey the crowds and they almost appear to take the adulation as if they know it is for them. They carry the aura of greatness. My mother used to call this the look of eagles.
Paisley was one of those horses. You could set your watch by him. No matter how hard the other jockeys or horses tried, he would cruise past them, with his great engine purring like a Bentley, and find another gear, and make something that was very hard indeed look ridiculously easy. People fell in love with him because he was so good, because he was so charming, because he was so gloriously reliable. He also had a rather amusing way of racing. He’d lay back in the field and lob along, half asleep, and sometimes it would look as if he would never wake up or that he’d left it too late, and then he’d perk up, shake himself, and put on that mighty turbo roar. So even when he was miles better than everything else, it was always exciting to watch him.
And then it turned out he wasn’t inevitable after all. The engine stuttered. The grand power turned out to have a vulnerability in it. He developed an irregular heartbeat, and it was uncertain whether he would race again.
Quite a lot of horses have this condition, and many of them return to glory. They get the best treatment and they are given time, but the whole thing is such a mystery that sometimes it seems as if the heart simply resets itself. Nobody quite knows, and when Paisley Park returned this seasons, everybody who loved him held their collective breath.
He ran well and finished second and he looked happy and healthy. He was back, but the next question was whether he would rediscover that swinging, swaggering brilliance which had once made him the best. There were a lot of new stars coming up through the ranks of his division; they were younger than he was and perhaps hungrier. He might not have it in him any longer to boss them as he had once bossed every other competitor who had dared to put it up to him. And he is so adored by his owner and his trainer and his jockey that it was clear he would not be pushed to do anything he did not want to do. So when he came out on Saturday, it really was a case of: anything might happen.
He looked ridiculously suave and dapper as he walked easily round the paddock. He went down to the start like a dream. He set off on his race and did his usual dozy, dreamy thing. The other horses were racing hard and fighting for their heads; Paisley just lolloped along for fun.
And then he lost his pitch. He lobbed for just a few yards too many; a sharp little mare nipped up his inside and took the rail, and the grand gelding had to swing wide, losing ground, finding himself out on his own on the empty green turf as the rest of the pack surged towards the finish.
‘He can’t win from there,’ I thought. ‘He’ll have to settle for an honourable third. He’ll finish in the money and he’ll come back safe and sound and that’s enough.’
Paisley Park doesn’t settle. He might lope around in the early stages like a decorous schoolmaster, but he’s a champion because he’s got a streak of steeliness in him. He wandered about a little, and then he lifted his head, saw the leaders hurling themselves down the straight ahead of him, decided it was time to get serious, and fired up those famous rocket boosters.
All the same, I thought it was too late. I was yelling my head off, but more in hope than expectation. He couldn’t possibly make up that much ground. The camera closed in on the first two horses, and he wasn’t even in the shot.
And then, like a joke or a magic trick or a Christmas present, Paisley Park’s dogged, handsome head appeared at the leader’s girths. Thyme Hill is a supremely good horse in his own right, and he had Richard Johnson on his back, who is famously tough in a tight finish. Both of them were throwing the kitchen sink at the problem. But Paisley, unruffled, pulled past them and stuck his nose out and hit the line in front and I still have no idea how he did that. I’ve watched the race five times since then, and I still don’t know how he did it.
The king was back, and I burst into tears as if I was six years old.
It wasn’t just because he is a great horse, and I hate to see the great ones brought low. It wasn’t just because his owner is blind, and has the race called to him partly by the commentator and partly by a loyal band of friends who go with him to every big meeting. It wasn’t just because everyone loves him. It was because we’ve had so much bad news this year, and there was something that was supreme and true and pure: a ravishing equine athlete, doing what he was bred to do, with honesty and courage. Paisley Park asks for nothing, except a good feed and possibly the odd carrot, and he gives everything. I find something impossibly moving in that generosity of spirit.
So there I was, all emotional, when Strictly Come Dancing came on the telly. I’ve never watched Strictly, but this year everyone on Twitter was getting very excited about it, I think because they really needed something to cheer them up, and I started to tune in because I fell in love with Bill Bailey and his partner, Oti. I know sod all about dance, but I could see that Bailey, who is fifty-five and a comedian, arrived without knowing how to put one foot in front of another. And I could see that, under the brilliant tutelage of his Oti, he was starting to shine.
I didn’t know who half the other contestants were, and I didn’t know the judges and I didn’t know the professional dancers. But over the weeks I got to know them. And the touching thing was that the competitors were so wonderfully nice. They loved their mums and they loved their grandads and they loved their partners and they loved Strictly. They learned new strengths they did not suspect they had. They all worked so hard and they all kept going and they all got very emotional when they hit the highs and the lows.
The final was so moving that I started crying about fifteen minutes in and didn’t really stop until the end. First Paisley, I thought, and now this. It was a different kind of purity, because humans are more complicated than horses, and in some ways more difficult to love. But it had some of the same elements: there was an authenticity there which cut through all the crossness and worry and uncertainty of the last dark months. I found myself thinking entirely irrational things. I started to believe that dear old Blighty was perhaps not finished after all.
And then, on Sunday, just as all the bad news started to break, and Christmas was officially off, and the fears of the new mutation of the virus circulated around like unwelcome guests at a party, there was the Sports Personality of the Year Show. This is another thing I never watch. Here was another bunch of people I didn’t know. (Except for Stuart Broad, whom I love, because I’ve got a faintly odd obsession with test cricket.) I was only tuning in because there was a jockey in the running, and she is someone I keenly admire. The racing world had rallied round behind Hollie Doyle, because she’s rising through the ranks like a straight arrow, because she works incredibly hard, because she’s modest and always smiling, because she makes nothing of being a woman in what is still quite a man’s world. (Only eleven percent of race riders are female, and even though the women jockeys don’t like to dwell on that, and prefer to be seen as just plain jockeys, and do compete on equal footing with their male counterparts, I still think it is a thing. The old feminist in me lifts her head and sniffs the air and hears the sound of the trumpets. I can’t help it. Ancient habits die hard.)
Anyway, there was Hollie, looking self-deprecating and slightly shy, and finishing an honourable third, which made me very happy, but the thing that brought on the crying again was a special award for Sir Captain Tom Moore, who inspired the nation when he walked and walked to raise millions for the NHS. As if it were not enough to see the fighter with his undimmed smile, he was joined by a nine-year-old boy called Tobias Weller. Tobias has autism and cerebral palsy, but he was even more sparkling and beaming than his hero. He too had been walking, although his body made that tough for him, and he too had raised incredible funds for charity.
As the very old man and the very young boy smiled and smiled and laughed and laughed, I thought: I shall never complain about anything ever again. And I had another little cry.
When I went back into the real world, I was stumped for a moment. The news has been uniformly bad for so many months, but now it seemed to be pulling out all the stops to leave 2020 with a bang, not a whimper. (I did quite want to whimper, for a moment.) Everything was going to hell all over again, and the ports were closed, and we were back to panic-buying. There was not a lettuce to be had and pictures of empty supermarket shelves took us back in time to the beginning of this drama. The Twitterati made mordant jokes about ‘doom-scrolling’. Whoever came up with that expression ought to get a prize.
I stepped away from the machine. I thought about the great horse and all the love he inspires. I thought about the brilliant dancers and Bill and Oti running off with the prize. I thought about Captain Tom and young Tobias.
It is all bloody awful, but there are shafts of light. I keep looking for the light. I really wasn’t feeling very Christmassy, but I’ve brought literal lights into the house, stringing fairy lights everywhere as if I were a teenager again. They blink and shimmer and they give me an odd kind of hope.
The red mare did a Place of Peace for the ages this afternoon, under the gentle gaze of a high half-moon. I stood in the field and felt grateful and thought of hope. That’s what I was clinging on to when all this started, and it’s what I’ll go on holding to. The great horses and the great humans have one beautiful thing in common and that is huge, fighting hearts. (Literally, in Paisley Park’s case, and metaphorically as well.) I choose to believe in those hearts. I have to, or I should be lost.