Jane Dotchin is off on her travels again. For those of you who have not yet had the pleasure, Dotchin is an 80-year-old woman who sets off on horseback from her home near Hexham, Northumberland at around this time every year and treks the 600 or so miles to Inverness, as she has done since 1972. I’m going to pause here to allow all of you who, like me, have just conceived of an entirely new set of life goals to go and get a paper and pen so that you may take all the necessary notes from hereon.
The journey usually takes about seven weeks. The horse – as I understand it – is mostly fuelled by grass and Jane packs enough porridge, oatcakes and cheese to see her through. Plus, in between camping out, she pops in on the various friends she has literally made along the way over the last 49 years. On the days when she doesn’t have milk rations for her porridge she uses water from the nearest stream. I’m guessing any parasites that might incapacitate newcomers fare badly when faced with the iron Dotchinian constitution. She digs a hole, by the way, whenever she needs the loo.
This is the dream, surely. Not too much the loo part – that’s more of a necessary adjunct – but to be hale, hearty and altogether ballsy enough still to be doing exactly what you want to be doing every year, up to and including trekking 600 miles cross-country, solo, with nothing but the wind in your hair and the oatcakes on your back. We are all with you in spirit, Jane.
I went out-out for the first time in 400 years tonight, to see some friends do a Weimar cabaret show in the West End (they seemed to think there might be something timely in songs from a period of massive political upheaval and a swelling, apparently unstoppable menace creeping across nations) and it just about undid me.
Even in ordinary times, watching them perform boggles my mind. Having not an ounce of musical ability myself, it seems to me magic of the highest order that they – people I know! People I talk with, who treat me as if I were an equal, and who seem perfectly normal in the day-to-day run of things! You would never guess what they were hiding! – can get up on stage and sing and play and produce actual, proper music right in front of you. You can see them doing it. It’s real, even though it sounds like a CD! It’s absolute sorcery and I’m always so filled with glee and reverence when they do it that I could burst.
Add 18 months of near-unbroken confinement as a prelude and suddenly finding myself part of an audience, elevated and united by what was unfurling before us and – well, let’s just say I was a mess. In a good way, you understand. So, thank you for the music, you clever, talented buggers.
We are, at last, having our roof fixed. My family is treading on eggshells around me but I keep trying to explain that there is no need. I understand why they are doing it, of course – it is because with most domestic disasters, I fall to pieces. The washing machine breaks down, the dishwasher starts making terrible noises, a light starts to flicker or – God forbid – a leak springs somewhere, and I can be found lying in a foetal, pale, shivering heap on the floor. Something has gone wrong in my domain, you see, and I must be to blame (my neglect, my inability to anticipate, my … my lack of something, somewhere is being punished). But the roof? No – that’s outside, you see. That’s literally outside my remit, which – it turns out – extends to everything under the ceiling, plus the ceiling, but not one inch further. The roof is the weather’s fault. I am morally uncompromised and loving it.
I am just starting to recover from the hangover gained from going out-out two days ago. There is no greater proof of the adage that youth is wasted on the young than when it comes to the body’s ability to process alcohol.
What do you need to be able to throw off the effects of drinking for when you’re young? You have no responsibilities. The chances are you can stay in bed til the worst has passed, or sit quietly at a desk mainlining coffee and just looking busy until the nausea fades and the toxins are sluiced from your system. You don’t have to get up and get a child ready for school (“I need a handstitched replica of the Bayeux tapestry for history today, Mum”) or go into the office to face a pile of work that you and only you can do. It’s 40-somethings that need to be able to function. Instead, we’re out of action for 48 hours off the back of two gins and some mad crying. ‘S not FAIR.
Tomorrow it will be exactly 20 years since the twin towers fell. I was working at a law firm when I noticed a steady stream of people rushing past my office window to gather in the conference room. I was scared I’d missed a memo about a meeting so I joined them, just in time to see the second tower collapse. The next day I sat on the train into work surrounded by a forest of newspapers, all with the same shot filling the front pages, of one of the planes smashing into the building against that clear blue sky, and tried to grapple with the new knowledge that the world had changed utterly, all in a moment.
20 years on, I suspect we’re all still grappling with it in some measure. And with the shocks that have come since – Brexit for us, the pandemic for everyone being only the most recent – that have reminded us each time of our essential powerlessness, of how we are all really at the mercy of forces so much bigger than ourselves that it is hard, sometimes, to keep a sense of ourselves as meaningful pieces of the world. We can, though, even if the last few years have made it harder than ever, and we must.