I remember, early on in the pandemic, as the fatal numbers climbed, thinking of all the deaths. There were times when my own daily life was pretty much all right: I could get out in the open air, I could see my mares, I could do my work. But I could never become one of those people who absolutely loved the lockdown, because of all those deaths. You could feel them in the air; there was a weight of grief. There were too many bereaved, and they were always with me.
I had two losses myself: one a human, one a horse, neither anything to do with the coronavirus. They were deaths that would have happened anyway, and I joined the ranks of the ordinary grieving. Perhaps though, these deaths made me more acutely aware of the tens of thousands. These were no longer big numbers: these were my people. We were united in loss.
When a person you love dies, it’s a little bit like all your other dead come back to find you. You don’t just grieve one person, you grieve them all. You live, for a while, among the ghosts. And I think perhaps there is something of that when a public figure dies.
I felt oddly upset and shocked when the death of Prince Philip was announced. I love the Queen and I’d been thinking of her as a wife, not the head that wears the crown – someone having to watch her companion of seventy-three years fade away. Everyone knew this moment was coming and yet, when it did, there was still an odd feeling of surprise, as if someone who had got to ninety-nine might have cracked the secret of living forever. Princess Anne said that no matter how prepared you think you are, you are never ready. That was so understated and wise and right. It was exactly how I felt when my father died. You think you are braced, and then your world falls apart.
And perhaps that is the point of all this. It is the universal that comes from the particular. Someone who can’t be having the notion of a hereditary monarch said to me, quite truthfully, ‘I don’t understand why everyone is making a fuss about one old man.’ I can’t argue with that point; it is entirely rational. But human beings are not always rational. We homo sapiens believe in signs and portents, we adore symbols and emblems, we crave stories. Most of all, we yearn for meaning. (And you can tell this is important to me, because I very, very rarely use the Universal We.)
So an old gentleman and his grieving wife somehow come to represent everything that many of us Britons feel about love and loss and companionship and endings. Prince Philip had something extra too: he was the living century. He knew the things that, quite soon, will only be written. There will be no eyewitnesses left.
He knew exile. That orange crate in which he escaped his childhood home is a symbol, if you like: for not belonging, for losing everything, for not knowing what the hell is going to happen next. He knew the War, because he fought in it. And then he stood by the Queen’s side through another, colder war, when the Russians were going to wipe everybody out. (That really was a fear, in my youth. Someone might get drunk in the Kremlin and press the red button, and that would be that.) Together, they saw Suez and the IRA bombings and inner city riots and the Big Bang and any number of financial crashes. Everyone needs a witness and, in a funny way, they were our official witnesses.
I often think that the Queen is the ultimate paradox. She is entirely singular, and yet she is Everywoman. I don’t know what it’s like to live in an ancient castle and have guards of honour and be on a stamp. But I know what it’s like to try to be stoical and to love horses and to lose someone I love. I know what it’s like to have a complicated family. I feel connected to her in a way that makes no sense and makes perfect sense. It’s the heart versus the head, perhaps.
So, I felt immensely sad as I watched that elegant, restrained, sombre funeral and saw the small, lonely figure in black sitting alone in her absurdly grand, vaulted chapel. I cried when the Fell ponies arrived without their master, pulling his carriage with the gloves and cap and box of sugar lumps neatly arranged on the seat.
I wrote down fleeting impressions, because I did not want to forget. I scribbled in my notebook –
The solitary soldier with his head bowed as the duke’s Land Rover drives through the arch.
All the servicemen and women with their lowered heads as the band plays I Vow to Thee My Country and Abide with Me and Jerusalem.
The two handlers gently stroking the ponies, over and over.
The bright, careless sun beating down and the black shadows cast by the old castle.
The naval cap and sword on the coffin, and a bouquet of white roses and sweet peas.
The heavy beat of the military drum as the body is taken on its final journey. The Lord High Admiral is coming on board.
Four choristers sing For Those in Peril on the Sea in the deserted nave – a pale, high, stone space.
Oh, the Queen. All alone.
As the coffin is lowered into the vault, a lone piper plays the lament.
Those were my notes, so I could remember. It was a little piece of history after all, and I love history.
And yes, it is one old gentleman, and tens of thousands of Britons are dead and nobody gave them a funeral with bands and drums and ponies and the King’s Troop firing off guns. But I think that, in a lovely way, that was a funeral for everyone, for all the Dear Departed. It did touch a lot of people, and that can’t be bad.
Everyone I rang up said the same thing. ‘The poor Queen,’ they said. ‘How will she manage without him?’ My women, the close band of friends who make me laugh and give me their wisdom and hold my sanity in their kind, experienced hands, all speak of the Queen now as if she is some distant but beloved great-aunt. We say things to each other like, ‘Her horses and her dogs will keep her going.’ One says, down a slightly blurred Zoom call from Maine, ‘She’s very brave. She’ll be all right.’ We pause, for a moment, to contemplate the bravery of that generation.
Through the long week, all the jockeys on every British racecourse rode with black armbands of respect. Racing people adore the Queen because she knows the Stud Book backwards and she loves and understands the thoroughbred. When her great filly, Estimate, won The Gold Cup at Ascot, the whole of the racing world shared her joy. I was there the year before, when Estimate won the Queen’s Vase, and I rushed to the winner’s enclosure afterwards to see the monarch greet her conquering heroine. Estimate was the conquering queen that day, even more regal than her owner. (She was a tiny slip of a thing, very lightly built, always looking so fragile when she was up against the powerful staying colts that she was trying to beat. But she had a presence about her that belied her delicate stature, and she did have the air of a ruler. ‘No,’ she would say to the big boys, ‘you shall not pass.’)
I found myself in the midst of a gaggle of beaming women. We all looked at each other, suddenly not strangers but companions, united in delight. One of them said, ‘Who is going to make the presentation? She can’t give herself her own cup. Oh, Queen, here is your trophy; thank you, Queen.’ It’s not a funny line written down like that, but it was hilarious at the time. We all laughed and laughed as the authorities had a bit of a discussion and Estimate swished about in triumph below us. And then the tall, naval figure of Prince Philip stepped forward with the tiny golden goblet in his hand. He gave it to his wife and they laughed too, in the private way that old couples do, and the Queen gazed up at him with all the joy and disbelief of a girl being given her first pony. The women and I all had tears in our eyes. It was a moment. It was truly something. I will never forget it.
The racing people were probably remembering that too, as they wore their funereal armbands and flew their flags at half mast and held their minute’s silence. On the Wednesday, the Queen had a winner, and that seemed poignant and fitting and I hoped she was watching, so she had one small thing to smile about in her loss.
Then a new week began and the armbands came off and everyone went back to normal and started discussing the juveniles and what would be favourite for the Guineas. The death could be put away and life could return. But it was a false dawn. Yesterday, the impossibly sad news broke that Lorna Brooke, an amateur rider, a true horsewoman and a generally beloved figure about the racecourse, had died from injuries sustained in a fall. She was thirty-seven.
I cried for her, even though I’d never met her. I cried for her mother, who trained the thoroughbreds she rode, and for everyone who loved her. I thought of the horses she left behind, who will wonder where that benign, smiling presence has gone. (Horses do grieve. I’ve watched my mare do it, twice. They are tougher than us humans. There’s a very discrete moment when they pick themselves up and move on, with a kind of earthy ruthlessness, as if they know in their bones that life is more important than death. But they do feel loss, no question about it.)
The black armbands returned to the jockeys’ colours and another minute of silence was held. All those deaths, I thought; they never stop. Sorrows come not in single spies, but in battalions.
And today, as the sun shines and the first cries of the oystercatchers cut through the still air and life really does go on, I pause and think of my dad, who died on this day ten years ago.
I don’t need anniversaries for him, because I carry him with me every day. He’s always with me. Sometimes I miss him so much I can’t breathe, but the soothing consolation of time has given me the gift of happy memories. I can picture him now with more smiles than tears. I feel a huge gratitude to him, because he gave me so many precious gifts, ones I use every day. He taught me, by example rather than word, to take every person exactly as they are and that’s a beautiful thing. He didn’t divide the world into boxes, or put labels on people. He didn’t fret over inessentials, like what you looked like or where you went to school or what car you drove. If you made him laugh and would stand your round in the pub, he’d love you forever. Maybe that’s why he was so good with horses.
Someone wrote to me today, remembering Dad. ‘He made time for everyone,’ she wrote. A dear gentleman sent me a message from Germany: ‘I have such great memories,’ he said. My father is not gone, I think, because he lives so vividly in the minds of those he touched with his laughter and his eccentricity and his enthusiasm.
Dad gave me one of my great passions in life, which was for the thoroughbred. Everyone needs an enduring love affair, and that is mine. If it were not for him, there would be no red mare standing in my Scottish field, lifting my heart every single morning, no matter how sad and bad the headlines are. She, truly, is life; she is the living, breathing antidote to all the deaths.
I do think of all the deaths. I don’t think one can ignore them. All of us are, in some way, living through a season of sorrow. But I believe that you don’t just have to do one thing. I’m learning that, as I get older. You can grieve, and you can rejoice. You can regret, and you can be grateful. You can walk with despair, but you can know hope.
I do believe that. I so hope that it is true.