Colin Brazier on Manny, Mamils, and the Mid Life Crisis.
Notoriously, men founder in the doldrums of middle age. The rites of passage – from first kiss to first job – all lie on a personal timeline marked ‘pre-40’. After that, things get vicarious. Pride is derived from others, notably the achievements of our children.
Obviously, exceptions abound. First-novels written by octogenarians, sky diving at 60. But the silent majority trudge a furrow worn deep by worries about mortgage payments and pension pay-outs. Joy in achievement is confined to known pleasures; a point off the golf handicap here, a nice email from the boss there.
That this state of affairs should precipitate a mid-life crisis is so well acknowledged that the phenomenon has its own canon of tropes. The soft-top Porsche, the Fender Stratocaster, the hotel apt for illicit sexual congress. Interest in these objects of our desire is usually ephemeral and unlikely to be a source of lasting gratification.
Although fleeting and potentially destructive, these brief passions contain a germ of flamboyance. The sports car might enhance the aesthetics of our daily commute, the guitar could fill a void of creativity, the debauched one-night-stand may relieve the tedium of a loveless marriage.
We are driven to these reckless follies by passion. Oxymoronically, they possess a sort of grubby nobility.
Can the same be said for the dominant mid-life crisis caricature of our age – the ‘Middle-Aged Man In Lycra’?
It is suggested by some that the cycling bug breeds in an atmosphere of guilt. The high-minded fret about the carbon footprint left behind by their internally-combusted journey to work, the rest gaze in the mirror and renounce the sins of middle-age spread.
There is pseudo-pride. The obsessive lust for micro-achievements. A second shaved off the dash to the office, catching up with the peloton on the weekend ride. There is emotion. How else do we account for the occasionally priggish anger of a cyclist scorned? But what of finer feelings? What about something worthier than self-love?
The answer, for me, was dragged into the back of a knacker’s lorry last month. His name was Manny, my sixteen-hands-high solution to the existential questions of middle age.
He had a good pedigree. His grandfather, Nijinsky, won the Derby. But when I bought him in 2014, his glory days as a steeplechaser in France and as hunt hireling in South West England were over. He was underweight, a symptom of the ragwort-poisoning to which he would eventually succumb.
When I bought him (for £2,000 – about the price of a posh mountain-bike) a Greek chorus of scepticism urged me to avoid a thoroughbred. The breed has a not unwarranted reputation for emotional and physical fragility. Wise heads in the Pony Club urged me to find a dobbin that would permit me to hack out with my horse-mad children. “You want a cob, a plodder.”
That was sound counsel. Save for half a dozen outings in my twenties, I was a hapless novice.
“You’re a passenger,” said Lucy, Manny’s owner, having watched him nearly unseat me on the test drive I arranged after seeing him advertised for sale online. She had misgivings, as did I. But with horses, I have learned you must learn to trust your instincts. My strong inclination was that both vendor and beast were what they appeared to be. Honest and true.
Over the next year and a half there were falls. Yet, thanks to a sturdy body protector and soft ground I was a stranger to A&E. Even so; what was I thinking? My wage sustains a non-working spouse and our six school-aged children. Yet nobody, least of all my wife, pointed to the madness of sitting atop half a ton of unpredictable flesh and bone, still capable of accelerating from 0-20 in not very long at all.
Like all horses, he began by testing me. He would ‘nap’ – ignoring my instructions while shaping to throw me off. But, one by one, we passed incremental milestones. A first trot. An inaugural canter. And then the rest: hacking with daughters, hacking alone, jumping and trail-hunting.
A friend from the Daily Mail expressed an interest. It withered on the vine when the features editor stressed such ramblings were commonplace. The story of my equestrian mid-life crisis would only be published if I dressed up “as Poldark”.
I rode most days. Cyclists do that too, often to get from A to B. Riding a horse, by contrast, has little utilitarian value. Not since we discovered other forms of BHP. This was riding for pleasure, for the joy of fellowship with another beast of Creation.
There were moments of wild exhilaration but, more prosaically, a quotidian quota of satisfaction. After each ride, no matter how lousy a day at work lay behind me, nor matter what fresh disappointments parenting had dished out, there was a smile tugging at the corners of my mouth.
“Will you get another?” is the question I have been asked most of all since Manny was given a fatal injection in front of me last month. For a week the very idea struck a bum-note. However, as the fog of loss lifted, what Roger Scruton calls ‘species love’ has asserted itself; through the love of one animal comes a love for all animals of that species.