Wars never get easier. Since Georgia, I have had flashbacks of an elderly woman crying her eyes out after being driven from her village by Russian bombs. When I was younger I used to bring real black dogs home with me, but not so much nowadays. My three-stage prescription for recovery from war journalism is as follows. First, get extremely drunk. Get very, very drunk and you can delete or corrupt entire files of short-term memory. Second, find your woman and make love. A close correspondent friend says he has to do this with his wife the second he arrives back home from an assignment, before he’s even sat down for a cup of tea. Finally, there is what I call the Horse Cure. The best way to administer this medicine is to own a farm. If you do not possess one, build a shed or a tree house. But in general a Horse Cure’s vital ingredients include hard labour, the outdoors and the company of animals rather than people.
My father, Brian Hartley, invented the Horse Cure in 1955 for a friend of his called Laurie Hobson. They had served together in the Aden Protectorates for years. The work of a colonial officer among warring tribes was tough. Laurie was a fine Arabist, but vulnerable. The stress — perhaps a form of what the newspapers today call PTSD — got to him and he threatened to throw himself off a roof. My father coaxed him down, but soon afterwards my parents married, Dad retired and they settled on a cattle ranch in west Kilimanjaro, Tanganyika.
While still building the first huts of the farmstead a string of telegrams arrived, saying Laurie had suffered a relapse in Aden. Uninvited, his colleagues sent him to the ranch. My mother fretted, ‘What do we do with him?’ My father said, ‘He can help on the farm.’ My mother continued, ‘Where will he stay? All we have is the rondavel.’ And so they put his camp bed in the rondavel, a mud hut outhouse with a beaten-earth floor hardened by bull’s blood. A centre pole held up a grass thatch roof. It had a door but he had to pee outside in the night, while lion and hyenas roamed. Laurie was horrified.
His nervous breakdown was in full swing. He said his head was ‘going round and round’. Worst of all, he had incurable insomnia. Raised by nannies, he went for little walks. He did not like farms. But Dad assigned him to a team of labourers constructing a new livestock dip on the Ngare Nanyuki river. It was several miles walk just to get there. Laurie worked alongside the workers through the heat of the day, and then walked several miles home. He turned lobster red.
He still suffered. My aunt Beryl came to stay, fresh from living in a cave in Petra where she had been painting. She got him sketching, but he still was not right. My father liked horses and already had a stable full of them. One day, on a whim, he purchased from a neighbour a wild black stallion called Rocky. There was nowhere to put Rocky, and with lions about Dad led him down to the rondavel and tethered him to the centre pole. Laurie was doubly horrified. He feared animals. Rocky whinnied and stamped all night. Now the insomniac had a good reason not to sleep. ‘I thought Brian was cruel,’ remembers my mother.
As the days passed like this — labouring and walking in the heat of the day, Rocky stamping all night — Laurie began to improve. He still complained of insomnia, but my parents often checked on him to find him in a deep slumber. While asleep, it seems, he dreamed he was awake.
After some weeks, he became cured. He returned to Aden, but later suffered another relapse and came to stay again. By this time the farmstead was all built, so there was no need to put him in with Rocky. Instead, he was sent for electric-shock treatment at a hospital in Dodoma, which was as effective as the Horse Cure but even more alarming for Laurie. When he was finally better that time, Laurie departed and my parents never heard from him again — except that he sent the gift of an ornately carved Mogul chest, which became a treasured possession.
So this is what I do to kill my hack’s depressions: go to the farm, switch off the phone, dip cattle, dose sheep, weed vegetables, chew fat with shepherds, walk in the heat. Then sleep. Horse Cure.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated October 4, 2008