The village market hall clock dangs the half hour at 6 30 am and it’s time to get up and walk three miles to muck out the horses. The market hall clock ‘dang’ is wonderfully workaday – a blunt stab of sonic info for commoners who may need to know that it’s TIME. Oh, I’ve just heard it dang 3 45pm as I sit here. The market hall is a real working institution in the village, hosting everything from martial arts classes to horticultural shows, and indeed parties, like our pal Stacy’s (a bloke) fortieth birthday party recently. Stacy’s party was quite something – when you entered the hall, on one side there was a comprehensive buffet of chopped up pork pies, cakes, all kinds of alcohol-absorbing pastry things, including some great samosas which I couldn’t leave alone. Staring further into the gloom of the room, you could make out ranks of trestle tables inhabited by all kinds of people – backwoods men who only came out when they thought a free pork pie might be in the offing, women and children of all shapes sizes and ages, and some pretty tough looking lads, all of them sitting round tables laden with a wide variety of booze. Getting further up the room you had to make a decision as to which table you were going to share, then get everyone to budge up and let you join them. Nobody was exactly hostile when you did this, but there was a moment of unspoken negotiation after which it was accepted that you could only rightly be a ‘friend of Stacy’s’, then it was all smiles.
At the other end of room a rockabilly band with an exceptional rhythm section was battering out loads of fifties and sixties songs which you hadn’t really heard before – so refreshing from the usual Kings Of Leon ‘sex is on fi-ire’ bands which you can’t escape on Saturday nights round these parts. When the band took breaks the music on the sound system was even more of the same – stuff you just didn’t know, but which had real urgency and drive. There was no lighting in the room at all except a couple of overhead house lights at the band end of things, but also a barrage of fluorescent light from the bright kitchen which lay next to the pork pie scene. This gave a very interesting effect, making the band seem mean, sombre and tough as nails – you could spend a lot of time trying to get such an effect for a rock video and it still not have that edgy fifties village hall feel which the director insisted must be possible as the crew lost the will to live...
Stacy is a long time friend of ours now and used to live across the road. He’s got a heart as big as Hampshire, supports West Ham, and is what might be described as a dope visionary. His mission statement for his party was to get smashed but be in control enough so that he didn’t miss his own party. As the evening wore on and the rockabilly band kept things pulsating, a load of older blokes seemed to be stirred by a kind of ancestral memory and got on the floor to start jiving and generally funking around in a dance hybrid fashion. There was an aggression to their style – it was fascinating to watch and slowly but surely younger women got up and started dancing on the periphery in a kind of ‘getting the hang of it’ way. At one point Stacy decided to stand on a chair. When he did this, one of the dancing blokes, who must have known Stacy very well indeed came over and pushed him off the chair with a heavy shove. Stacy went flying and didn’t seem to hurt himself, although I could tell he was thinking ‘what the fuck?’ The pushing bloke knew he’d gone too far, but with the slightest of apologetic gestures to Stacy, decided to tough it out, as if there was a pre-existent world where they both knew it was perfectly acceptable to push the birthday boy headlong into a crowd. It was a worrying moment and a frisson ran round the room, but Stacy clearly decided he was going to ‘leave it’.
Meanwhile, back at the house, at 6 30am, it was time to go to the horses, feed, muck out and turn out Smartie (retired racehorse) and feed and turn out Blue (big French horse with a sense of humour). When I started doing this a few months back, the weather was still bitterly cold and the slippery stumble across the clogged mud footpaths, through three fields and a bit of country road sure woke you up. Now it’s different, all blossom and young rabbits zooming around. The walk has moments of interest. The first field goes past a gypsy encampment which houses about seven trotting ponies and their various carts and traps. These people come out all the time in horse and trap, usually travelling at surprising speed, sometimes tethering at local pubs early on for a bit of a session. As I pass, the gypsy patriarch tends to be there, and although I daresay we will never be on speaking terms, we’ve now got so used to seeing each other that we’re on strong nodding ‘Urr’ terms that contain a subtle warmth. I would never sully this contact by saying something stupid like ‘bit colder than yesterday, eh?’, or somesuch. Because, yes, it IS a bit colder than yesterday – but why would you mention it ya dozy geezer who lives down the road in the house I’ve told the kids to leave alone? I like this – it’s refreshing – someone who doesn’t want to spend the next eight years getting the conversation all the way up to ‘yes, it feels like it might rain later on – whaddya reckon?’...
The next field, having passed through the chock full- of-graffiti tunnel under the main London/Portsmouth railway line, has a long straight path across an open fallow field towards a set of centuries old farm buildings - very big barns and a beautiful permanent stillness. You rarely see anybody here although people do live in the cottages. There is a rickety bench to one side of the farm track, close to the big open courtyard of the farm, and on a summer’s morning this is a lovely place to sit and be quiet for a while – as long as you can manage – it’s not easy. A small path then takes you down and up through tangled birch woods, over a stream. To the right, nearly wholly hidden in creeper and silver birch saplings, is a beautiful old bright blue and yellow steam train engine, still with wheels and everything. I first saw this, and maybe wrote about it then, on a fine winter’s morning with the lightest of snow covering on it. It’s completely magical – the engine has such presence: I’d love to find someone who could tell me how it got there – it doesn’t look like it will be going anywhere else in a hurry. No matter how banal the story of how it came to be there was, there would be a moment of absolute magic in the telling, of this I am sure. Maybe I’ll start asking the old boys in some of the more obscure country pubs, like The Hampshire Bowman, The Chairmakers, or The Old Smiling Terrorist.
The next small field is also always fallow and feels quite secret for some reason – it’s not overlooked from any direction by cottage or farmhouse – it’s just you, the field, a cold wind always coming off the River Hamble down a slope to the east. You can’t see the river from the field, but you can feel its personality. At this time of year, when you enter this field, hundreds of young rabbits scamper madly to safety along and under the mayflower hedgerows. The mayflower is my favourite Spring scent – it sure ain’t posh, and can have a subtle whiff of tramp’s underpants even – maybe that’s why I love it so.
A metal turnstile takes you through to the last bit of field before the country lane from Boorley Green to Durley. To the right there is a paddock with one lone Arabian white horse (a grey) in it. The horse seems lonely and I feel sorry for it – why would you think ‘I’ll just put this horse in a field on its own for the rest of its life’? But you see it all the time and everywhere with animals: they’re sociable beasts – they don’t want to live and die alone any more than we do. I try to always have a mint humbug for the little horse – well, two actually, as, if I give it one, it trots the length of the paddock until it can go no further, then gives me the most forlorn look if I don’t have a farewell humbug for it. Same thing when I walk home this way – that’s 28 humbugs a week, or more than a whole packet. My Arabian horse relationship is costing me 99 pence a week, but I could never just walk past it saying nothing or ‘sorry pal, you’ve had your last humbug out of me’....
Leaving the paddock, the walk takes an unpleasant turn. Straight ahead is a scrap graveyard of car bonnets and doors, all neatly stacked in long long ranks. You have to presume that this is a business, as there is a portakabin acting as an office, but in the years in which I have walked this path I have never seen these piles of brightly covered ex-dream parts change in the slightest – just the same old red bonnets and blue window frames. But what is unpleasant are the two fucked up dogs tied up on the flimsiest of twines which catapult out of the portakabin and go absolutely mental when you pass. One is an old blameless cocker spaniel which you suspect would just come up to you for a tummy rub given the choice: but the other dog is a right bastard – it looks like a chocolate labrador who has swallowed a wheelie bin. It foams at the mouth and strains every sinew to get at you, and the look in its eyes is unwavering – it says ‘if I ever get off this lead I’m going to savage you to death my fine friend’. There’s an old geezer who sits in the portakabin, presumably updating his inventory of dead Mondeo bonnets who makes a sound when the dogs start raging – a sound like ‘urp, ooh addy there’ – sort of telling them off, but you can tell he’s really enjoying the commotion. Having been bitten by a dog already this year, the whole scene unnerves me a lot, and I have resolved to fight to the bitter end if the brown bastard ever breaks his lead and bears down on me. But it’s not the way you want to be thinking four times a day when you pass them. It leaves you all uptight and having to re-direct the tension in order to get back into feeling a bit normal.
The footpath then passes a couple of ugly grey-green static homes and joins a small country road. The road is dominated at this point by fields of weeping willows, overhanging the road itself, and then the road becomes Wangfield Lane, and passes over a small bridge under which the river Hamble doth flow. It’s a bit chocolate box – too pretty if that’s possible, and reminds me of a Louis MacNeice poem which starts ‘My father, who found the English landscape tame’....
Then there is an abrupt left turn up to the stableyard where Smartie is either in his box, waiting for breakfast, or is out in the paddock with his mates, waiting to be brought in for dinner .Horses are interesting, to say the least: most of the time they are placid and friendly and it’s easy to drift into their mood – dreamy, curious and at peace with the world. But at all times you have to be vigilant. When working at close quarters with them you must remember that they can move at great speed – they hear a sound which interests them and will turn their head quickly in its direction (usually with a mouthful of straw so that they look wonderfully gormless). If your head happens to be next to their head when this occurs they can easily knock you clean out accidentally – then you’re on the ground unconscious with half a ton of innocence quite likely to then stand on your head accidentally. If that should happen, you may find yourself standing outside the pearly gates next to George Clooney with a coffee making machine...
You have to remember at all times a hundred small things – like, when taking the horse anywhere on a lead rope, do NOT wrap the lead rope around your hand, just hold it unwrapped in your hands. If it’s wrapped around your hand and the horse takes off (flight animals) through fright, you can get your arm pulled clean out of its socket, or at best be pulled along stony ground with iron clad hooves clattering around your sad little face.
I have been a troubled soul most of my life although I have learned to be at peace with much of the troubles – a sort of Belfast Of The Mind in which the old conflicts remain raw in the imagination, but there is no real appetite for returning to the death ground. Carl Jung said that ‘the gods have become diseases’ – it’s a great idea, and as you get older you begin to see a stark choice – honour the gods and goddesses, wherever you may find them, or wait for them to visit you anyway in final forms. But don’t shun these entities – it’s very simple – you tell someone like Apollo that he doesn’t exist and you will certainly have got his attention, although perhaps not for the best of reasons. Apollo doesn’t want you to worship him, just respect his story.
I never think like this as I’m compiling Smartie’s food in a bowl – I’m enjoying the dense intoxicating aroma of molasses in the mix, and listening to him strike his hoof, making a harrumphing sound of anticipation. In the background I can hear young, open hearted ordinary teenage girls talking to their own horses, or to each other about the horse-issues of the day, and I can see a shimmer of heat in the far paddock where ponies stand nose to nose. A man’s got to know his limitations, as Dirty Harry told us.
‘working alone in the evening sun
a man and two horses come
pulling a plough on the far hillside
till day is done and the sun has died
the horse’s eye is full of trust
and easy humour in the dust
I love the horse and I love the earth
and the lonely plough is giving birth
and as time passes through my hands
I know one day I’ll be that man
the plough moves deep inside my veins
ah but someone else now holds the reins
and leaves are turning yellow in my hair’
(‘Working Alone’, from
Forbidden Songs Of The Dying West.