Thursday, 24 April 2014

PBOTD 24th April: Monica Dickens - Spring Comes to World's End

Today's PBOTD is the last in the World's End series - but it is the most appropriate for the time of year. If you're wondering, the series order is:

The House at World's End
Summer at World's End
World's End in Winter
Spring at World's End
Heinemann, 1973, 1st edition
Spring at World's End (1973) sees the Fielding parents absent yet again. They're crewing yachts to try and earn enough money to buy World’s End.  Mr Fielding is just as feckless and self-absorbed as he is in the other books. He leaves the cash he and Mrs Fielding have earned in a jacket pocket; forgets to tell his wife that's what he's done, and she gives the jacket away to a beggar. When Uncle Rudolph makes over World’s End to the Fieldings in gratitude for their rescue of his wife from kidnappers, he makes it over to the children, not their father:

“I’ve given it away.” Uncle Rudolf paused for an eternity.
‘To you. Not to that feckless father of yours. He’d gamble it away, or set fire to it, or let it get dry rot.’

And knowing what we do of him, this seems only too true. It's the children who are really the heroes in this series. In this last book, however, it's adult benevolence that ensures the family can stay at World’s End, but one that only comes about because of a thoroughly unrealistic kidnapping. Why the children's aunt, Valentina, should be kidnapped is never made clear. The incident does reveal an unexpected softness of feeling in Uncle Rudolph, and of course serves its main purpose by allowing the Fieldings to keep World’s End.

Pan, paperback, 1975
Spring at World's End was the last of the series, but I like to think that the family carried on living there, and that Tom became a vet, Carrie a writer and Lester a maker of wildlife documentaries. And I think they carried on, to the end of his life, supporting their father.

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For more on Monica Dickens, see her page on my website.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

PBOTD 23rd April: Helen Griffiths - Wild at Heart

Helen Griffiths was one of those authors I encountered as an adult. I honestly don't know what I'd have made of her books if I'd read them when I was small. They are a whole world away from nice families, ponies and gymkhanas. From her earliest book Horse in the Clouds (1957), written when she was 16, she steered away from the conventional. Horse in the Clouds was set in the Argentine, and most of her succeeding stories were set in the Spanish-speaking world. Her books are often about the casual cruelty with which man treats the horse; and if you read pony books as escapism, these are emphatically not the books for you.

Hutchinson, 1963, 1st edn, illus Victor Ambrus
The Wild Heart is my favourite of her stories. It is the story of La Bruja, a wild South American horse, who is blessed (or cursed) with great speed from her Thoroughbred grandsire. She is hunted for her speed; and in the end a seeming cruelty is her only hope of survival in freedom. 

Peacock, 1965, paperback
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For more on the author, she has a page on my website here.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

PBOTD 22nd April: Monica Dickens - The House at World's End

Monica Dickens was expelled from St Paul’s School for Girls for throwing her school uniform over Hammersmith Bridge. Her children's books saw a similar dislike for convention. Not for her the comfort of carefree holiday adventure: her children meet real, and awful problems. Her Follyfoot series left its readers in little doubt about the cruelties man could, and did, visit upon horses. Her World's End books don't have quite the strident confrontation with reality as Follyfoot, but these are children who have real problems. 
World’s End, had its initial premise in that hoary chestnut of children’s book plots: the absent adults. In most books using this device, any adult who might control what will happen disappears for some convenient reason in the first few pages of the book, leaving the child heroes with the length of the summer holidays for adventure. In most cases, we know that adults are hovering on the edge, just in case: Uncle Quentin is not too far away from Enid Blyton’s Famous FiveThe pony book does not tend to enter this world. There are any amount of unaccompanied treks (Ann Stafford’s Five Proud Riders, innumerable Jackie stories by J M Berrisford), and the occasional  journey to escape from an unpleasant situation to a better one: Sheila Chapman’s Ride to Freedom has her heroine leaving her foster family, and riding to find her family with her pony, but survival on one’s own for any length of time with animals is such an implausible task it is almost never attempted in fiction. One of the very few exceptions is the World’s End series. The first, The House at World’s End (1970), opens with the Fielding family, Tom, Em, Carrie and Michael and their animals, living with their Uncle Rudolph and Aunt Valentina. Their father is trying to sail round the world; their mother is in hospital after being severely burned.

Heinemann, 1st edition, 1970
The Fieldings are initially agog with excitement when their Uncle Rudolph, only too glad to get rid of the children, allows them to live in an old pub he has bought,  and be supported by the teenage brother Tom, as long as he can find a job. Carrie, whose love of horses means she has a dream world peopled by horses that talk, is delighted by the move. At last she will be able to have a horse, she thinks. And the animals do appear, rescued from cruelty by the children, but life for the family is a constant, and at times desperate, struggle. Social workers pursue them, and the family being taken into care is only averted by the last-minute appearance of Mrs Fielding, spirited too early out of hospital by Tom.  In only one book of the succeeding three are the Fielding parents present, though in World’s End in Winter (1972) Mr Fielding is shut away in his study, writing a book about the unsuccessful attempts to sail round the world that took them away in Summer at World’s End (1971). They are off sailing again in the last book of the series, Spring Comes to World’s End (1973), crewing yachts to try and earn enough money to buy World’s End.

This series is peopled by a cast of characters often larger than life; Mr Mismo and his fat, much- boasted- of cob, Princess Margaret Rose, Carrie’s friend Lester, completely unbound by rules. Uncle Rudolph and Aunt Valentina are at times almost cartoonishly awful; virtually every appearance offers a new opportunity to smile at their towny pretensions. There is a sly humour that makes the exaggeration bearable: Aunt Valentina has some finer feelings, though she does an excellent job of suppressing them, in the interests of maintaining her own lifestyle:

“That boy sounds wheezy,” Valentina said. “Are you sure you’re all right here on your own?” Her painted face was twisted with the struggle between feeling she ought to say, ‘You must come back with us,’ and dreading they might say, ‘Yes.’”

The series is not depressing. The children’s passion for animals, and their ability to carry on despite dreadful setbacks is cheering, and underlying it all is Monica Dickens’ sly observational humour. Carrie and Michael make money for the horses’ keep over winter by selling manure. They smell all the time, and their sister Em will not sit in the same room with them.  A London friend of Aunt Valentina, tottering in her London heels, has a close encounter with a sheep:

“Rose Arbuckle side-stepped the weed with a faint scream. She was almost at the car when Henry, who loved new people, tore himself loose from Michael and bounded at her over the grass with his wool wobbling like a fat lady.

She made a dash for the car, tore open the car door and got in. But Henry was right behind her, shoving, and before she could shut the door, he had pushed in with her. Tom and Carrie and Em and Michael doubled up with laughter as the door on the opposite side flew open, and Rose Arbuckle fell out, with all her scarves flying, and Henry after her.” The House at World’s End

Most children are aware that the holiday adventures they love will never happen to them. The attraction of the World’s End series is that were your own circumstances to be a little different, you might perhaps be like the Fieldings; with animals everywhere; struggling but ultimately surviving. The series has considerable charm, appealing as it does to what critic Nicholas Tucker calls “a host of pre-adolescent fantasies and prejudices.” He goes on to say that this is “at a uniformly undemanding and facile level;” most children I think knew perfectly well it was a fantasy: the charm of the books is that they bring that fantasy almost within reach. Alison Flood, writing in The Guardian on the books’ reissue, said: “in this case it felt like the loving, but scatty and selfish, Fielding parents' departure on a sailing trip could actually have happened.”

Pan, paperback, 1972
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The above is an extract from the earliest version of my book, Heroines on Horseback

Monday, 21 April 2014

PBOTD 21st April: Nancy Caffrey - Pony Duet

PBOTD for 21st April is an American book by an author who's a favourite there, but has been very little published in the UK. The book I'm featuring today, Pony Duet, is the one title of Nancy Caffrey's that was published in the UK as well.

Dutton, New York, 1957, 1st edn, illus Ronnie Mutch
Pony Duet is the story of Cathy, whose riding confidence has been rocked. Just when she thinks she's going to give up riding altogether, her aunt Myla Lee sends her a skewbald pony called Duet. Duet is the absolutely ideal pony for anyone who's suffering from riding fear. Every stable should have one.

Dent, London, 1959, illus Ronnie Mutch
Calm, kind, and utterly sensible, Duet works her magic on Cathy, and they do really well together, but Duet has to go back. Cathy wants to keep her, but she faces her own selfish desires so that Duet can go on and work her magic with another fearful rider.

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For much more on the author, see her page on my website.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

PBOTD 20th April: Patricia Leitch - The Magic Pony

I'm plagiarising myself here: this is the text of a review I wrote a couple of years ago when Catnip reissued The Magic Pony. I don't think I can usefully say anything more than I said then. This is a fantastic book.

Patricia Leitch’s books are immensely satisfying; multi-layered: they succeed on so many levels. If you want to read The Magic Pony as a pony adventure in which a girl rescues a woman from dying somewhere she didn't want to; rescues a mistreated pony from appalling conditions, and sees her own horse recover from a mystery foot injury, it works perfectly on that level. As a pony story, it is extraordinarily good, but it has much to say on ageing, and on death, and on how we perceive those around us.

Armada 1st edition, 1982
The Magic Pony is the seventh in the Jinny series. Jinny is struggling with school (the intractability of algebra), and the utter frustration of a half term that has seen even she, normally uncaring about the weather, restricted to home in the face of the deluge that lasted until the last day of half term. And now the last day has come; it has dawned fine, but Jinny has to go to the dentist, and finish her algebra. When at last she is free, she rides Shantih into the dusk, but in a fit of fury at the things that restrict her; family, school, she hurtles with Shantih towards a high stone wall. Shantih crashes on the other side, and is lamed. Nothing Jinny or the vet try, over the coming weeks, seems to work.

Armada, 1985
In a search for a horsey expert who will be able to divine the cause of Shantih’s lameness, Jinny tries a nearby riding school. It is a hell-hole, with half-starved horses, overworked and uncared for. Amongst them is Easter, an ancient grey pony in whom Jinny can still see the remnants of beauty. Jinny is determined to rescue Easter. Over-reaching all of this is Kezia, the Tinker woman, who has been taken into hospital to die. She wants to die as she lived, in the hills, within reach of the outside, but she needs Jinny’s help to do it. Jinny is uniquely placed amongst those Kezia knows: a child outside the traveller society, she will be able to marshal the right sort of help.

Severn House, hb, 1986
Death is not the normal preserve of a pony book; not the death of another human being, at any rate. Neither is age. It struck me when reading the book that sadly, little has changed since the book was written in 1982. When she learns that Kezia is dying, and wants to see her, Jinny’s first reaction is horror: in her life “people were either alive or else you heard they’d died. You didn't visit them, knowing they were dying.” The dying are tidied away, neatly, in hospital. That is where all right-thinking people believe they should be, and Jinny at first unthinkingly parrots this line. She comes, though, to recognise that the right-thinking way is not necessarily the way for everybody, and she, and those adults she knows will be sympathetic, help Kezia to sign herself out of the hospital.

The unexpected help too. This is one place where Patricia Leitch is so clever: we typecast people, and expect them to react in certain ways. Mr Mackenzie, owner of the farm next door to Finmory, is never slow to point Jinny’s stupidity out to her. He is the bastion of good sense, and has little time for her flights of fancy. But Kezia has asked to die in Mr Mackenzie’s bothy, and Jinny asks him, and he says yes. Kezia was a “bold one” in her youth, says Mr Mackenzie, a beauty. “It’s the sleepless nights I've spent tossing on my bed thinking of that one. Aye, So it is.” Jinny hurries away, not wanting to know. It is difficult to see the old; the middle aged even, and to think that they were once as you are now.

Armada, 1992
The old women in Kezia’s ward “the parchment skins, gaping mouths and white wisps of hair,” remind Jinny of the awfulness of the riding school, where she felt “the same hopelessness, the same empty endurance.” The pony Easter “is like a ghost – so old she seemed hardly there, unable to stand against the assault of the light.” And yet Jinny is able to see, every now and then, what lies within both Kezia and Easter. The outer shell does not matter: there is still fire within.
“She looked up out of the window again. Keziah was tall and stately, the robes she wore about her shoulders trailed to the ground. She rode a white mare, proud-stepping with eye imperial and cascading mane and tail. A handmaiden walked by her side, and a page boy walked at the head of her palfrey. All the fairytales Jinny had ever read, all the illustrations she had ever seen of queens upon white horses, or wise women, or elfin lands, took hands and danced in Jinny’s sight. She watched spellbound.
For a minute they dropped out of sight as the track looped downhill and when they reappeared the spell was broken.”
It is not just the skins of the aged Jinny, and we, need to learn to see beneath. There is Miss Tuke, the generally dismissive owner of the local trekking centre, who sets about the owner of the pathetic riding school. Brenda, who runs the riding school, once had dreams herself, but has been utterly ground down by life.
“For a moment before Brenda turned away she smiled at Jinny, her mask drawn back, and, for a second, Jinny saw quite clearly the girl who had once shared her dreams.”
When Kezia’s death comes, Patricia Leitch meets it head on. There is no “passing away”, or even the dreadful modern “passing” (passing away-light? Is one only half dead?).
“Easter came slowly towards them. She reached out her head and breathed over Jinny’s tear-stained face, exchanged curious questioning breath with Shantih, then stood waiting.
‘Keziah’s dead,” said Jinny bleakly. She’s gone. No more. Dead.’
This is a brilliant book; in which every time I read it, I see different things. There is Jinny herself, meeting life head on; flawed and intolerant but fighting her way towards understanding the world and how it works; “the right thing to do.” There is the glorious mixture of myth and faith: the Red Horse, personification of the horse goddess Epona, and the unspoken communication between human and horse.

It’s the sort of book that pierces you with the beauty of its language. Jinny’s “great camel groan” when she has to get back to her algebra and not ride Shantih, is the sort of thing that resonates over the page to anyone who has had to turn away from what they really want to do and get on with the dull, the oppressive, and the everyday. And the horse, the wonderful Shantih. There are few, if any, pony writers better than Patricia Leitch at capturing the blazing brilliance of the Arab. Shantih, cured by Kezia’s herbs is restored and vital again.
“Jinny felt her drop behind the bit, her weight sink back on her hindlegs as she reared, struck out with her forefeet, then with an enormous bound was galloping up the track to the moor.
Shantih was all captured things flying free, was spirit loosened from flesh, was bird again in her own element.”
Catnip, 2012, pb

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The Magic Pony was published as an Armada original in 1982. Armada reissued it twice after that, with new cover styles, in 1985 and 1992. Severn House released a hardback version in 1986, and that was the last single volume appearance until Catnip reissued the book in 2012. The Magic Pony has also appeared in compilation form in Three Great Jinny Stories in 1995, bundled together with Horse in a Million and Ride Like the Wind. 

For much, much more on Patricia Leitch, see her page on my website.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

PBOTD 19th April: H M Peel - Easter the Show Jumper

Today's PBOTD is another which is appropriate for the time of year: it's H M Peel's Easter the Show Jumper. Easter is the third in the Leysham Stud series. Ann and Jim Henderson have a stud, whose stallion is her piebald stallion, Pilot. In the first two books, Ann's managed to get over Pilot's dreadful temper, and he's turned into a talented hunter (Pilot the Hunter, 1962) and chaser (Pilot the Chaser, 1964). 

Harrap, 1965, 1st edn, illus Michael Lyne
The equine heroine of the third book is Easter, Pilot's sister. She has inherited his temperament (as indeed do several horses in the succeeding novels, which though it makes for good dramatic reads, does make you glad they're not breeding for temperament, because it's failing).

Fidra Books, pb, 2009

Easter has ability in spades, but for Ann to make her into a serious show jumper is going to take Herculean efforts. Easter is unpredictable; often jumping, but just as often refusing or bolting. She's not the only equine problem: there's Magic the Shetland, the mount of Ann and Jim's nephew. He's a demon for opening gates and he lets out the prize colt, Night Storm.

I loved the series when I first found them in the local library. They were filed with the horsey non fiction: I assume because they are relatively realistic portrayals of different equine disciplines. H M Peel uses the Leysham Stud series to cover racing, polo, trotting and eventing as well as show jumping: a wealth of ability most studs would give their eye teeth to possess. H M Peel had a background herself in numerous disciplines. In my interview with her, I asked how difficult it had been to reasearch the series:
“Piece of cake because I had already worked in a variety of stables ranging from hunters, livery, point-to-point and show jumpers:  too heavy for racing stables.  I kept moving around to acquire knowledge even if it was the hard way and I was treated pretty badly in quite a few of my digs.” 
The central characters, Ann and Jim Henderson are portrayed as pretty well ideal employers, a world away from the treatment HM Peel hinted at in the first comment. I asked her to tell me more about what it had been like working in the horse world after the war:
“My first  horsey job at 15 years was at some livery stables near Grimsby where I had the most incredible tutor who was stone deaf. This lady and her livery stables became ever afterwards my bench mark. I was badly treated in my digs; kept so short of food (everything was still rationed) I was driven to trying to eat the horses’ food. Ever been that hungry and when growing and doing hard, physical labour? I vowed I would never be hungry again when adult and no one, NO ONE, would ever shove me around. They haven’t either.” 
When I interviewed her, I asked H M Peel if the Hendersons were based on real people:
 “My human characters are all invented.  Safer that way re litigation!” 
Sadly, although Easter is reasonably easy to find as Fidra reprinted it, the rest of the series is monstrously difficult to find.
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For more on H M Peel, including an interview, see her page on my website.

Friday, 18 April 2014

PBOTD 18th April: Elizabeth Waud - Easter Meeting

Today's pony book has a thoroughly appropriate title: Easter Meeting. Author Elizabeth Waud wrote just one pony book, as far as I'm aware. Easter Meeting is the story of Geoffrey, Felicia, Simon and Loraine Knox. They spend their holidays with an aunt, who has a stud farm. Simon wants to look after his animals; Loraine to paint, but Felicia wants only to ride, and it looks as if this will be scuppered as a party of boys are also coming to stay. After initial disasters when they meet the boys, things calm down, and they all go to a point to point and co-operate in rescuing a horse stuck on the quicksands.

Harrap, 1959, 1st edn, illus Sheila Rose
The book is full of well-observed characters. Flicker (Felicia) is one of those personalities whose feelings and impulses tend to govern everybody else’s. Miss Knox, the aunt with whom the children are staying is brisk in the extreme. The children’s parents are away, which they mostly seem to be, and there is a rather poignant moment when Geoffrey, the eldest at 17, is asked if his mother is dead, as they spend all holidays with their aunt. He replies:
‘ “You thought she was dead? It almost seems like it sometimes,” said Geoffrey, so quietly that John could hardly hear."
But the children, as children do, get on with life. They haven't been dealt a particularly easy hand: their parents are absent, and the aunt is emotionally remote, and makes no concessions at all to the children. She does not like Simon’s animal-keeping habit, and that is that. There is some light on the horizon, which comes from the horses, who are characters just as much as the children, from the stallions Golden Boy and Bayard to the riding school horses Heather and Storm.

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Easter Meeting only had one publication, its first edition in 1959. The author has a page on my website, but if I'm honest, if you've read this blog post you've pretty much read the page.