Friday, 25 January 2008

The Dark Side

Last week, we went to see I am Legend, the new Will Smith film. I was really looking forward to it: I like Will Smith (Men in Black) and I knew there were vampiry things in it, but I wasn't worried. For years, I have been a Buffy devotee, and vampires held no terrors for me, particularly not when they were Spike.

Oh how wrong I was. I am horribly susceptible to suggestion and atmosphere, and this film had it in loud and horrific spadefuls. Most of the film I spent with my fingers firmly in my ears, and my eyes tight shut. By the time the film ended I was a quivering wreck (my husband was, shall we say, also affected by the experience.) Horror films are something I gave up watching years ago, as I know I then dream, can't sleep, see horrors under every bush.... oh, if only I had known. Read a review at least. That would have helped.

But, unlike the Home Secretary, I do have to walk about in the dark. The poor dog has had some rather truncated walks, but by Tuesday I had started to sleep properly again, and so took her for a walk as the sun was setting. The dog and I held each other's paws, and we made it, all serene, though I did have a nasty moment when the dog pooh bin loomed up at me out of the gloom.

Thursday, 24 January 2008

How not to cook

The Government have just announced that all children between the ages of 11-14 are going to be taught to cook. Obviously for some schools this will be difficult. They have no functional kitchens, and pupils whose families will struggle to provide the ingredients.

But I think this is something that is long overdue. My own Domestic Science lessons, in the early 1970s were a bit hit and miss as far as equipping me for life went. All we ever cooked were sweet things, though I shouldn't grumble: I can still do a mean cake. And thinking about it, in needlework I was taught how to hem, sew on a button and basic mending, which for me have been all the sewing skills I have needed. I really learned to cook as my mother was a staunch believer in good, plain nursery food, so I taught myself out of sheer self-defence, from a black and white Good Housekeeping recipe book from the 1950s.

My own children's cookery experience at school has been radically different, and their needlework (or Textiles, as it now seems to be called) laughable. Did they learn how to thread a needle? How to tie a knot at the end of a thread? Pushing a needle in and out of material even? No. Appliqué. On a machine. Sometimes I am left utterly flabberghasted at the enormous gap between what is actually a useful skill for life, and what educationalists think children need to know.

My daughter was asked to bring in stuff to make an apple pie. We'd just picked some cooking apples and I suggested she take those, to be told no, they had to bring in pie filling in a tin. Well, she didn't. She brought in properly pureéd apple. Putting a tinned pie filling in a dish and covering it with bought pastry is not cookery. It is assembly.

My son does Food Technology GCSE, and it is enough to make you weep. You would think, wouldn't you, that they would get marks for the way things taste. Nope. For nearly 2 years, not a one. Not a single one. They get marks for how it looks. Even my son, who thinks presentation is a complete waste of time as long as it tastes alright, and has survived his course for nearly 2 years by blagging trimmings from his friends, is finally towing the line and I had to buy him coriander and peppers to trim the meal he's making tomorrow in class.And what has my little lamb spent 2 years doing, to earn his GCSE? Designing a ready meal, that's what. Cooking the same blessed thing, with tiny modifications, over and over again. And what preparation for real life is it? I despair. I worse than despair. I cannot believe that anyone, save someone locked in the most distant and inaccessible of ivory towers thinks that what my son has been learning is any preparation for life.

And now he has cooked the thing, for the last time (this is his final, finished product, don't forget) and it has actually been tasted. Just a tad late to make any changes.

The Government has asked what suggestions people have: mine is soup. It doesn't take long to do (generally), uses up things that are past their best and is an excellent way of disguising the dread vegetable. I'd also have a simple pasta dish, and pizza made from scratch which is an excellent way of teaching bread-making. And roast chicken, apple pie, shortbread and a cake: which leaves me one more, and I can't decide between scrambled egg or omelette.

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Josephine Pullein-Thompson: interview

If you'd like to read more (in fact anything, as I haven't exactly said a lot) about my meeting with Josephine Pullein-Thompson, it is now on my website here.

JPT used to tell people who wrote to her about Pony Club Camp what happened to Noel and Henry afterwards, but if you weren't one of them, all is, as they say, revealed.

Friday, 18 January 2008

The cat and dog wars

Cats obviously make New Year's resolutions. Since 2008 started, cat has decided she will Reclaim The House. Since the dog arrived, cat has tended to keep out of her way, but now she's begun to come into the kitchen again and march about in front of the dog's nose. Cat comes downstairs with me now first thing, having worked out that when I open the kitchen door, the only thing on the dog's mind is getting outside, doing the fastest pee on record and shooting back in again to get breakfast. So, I open the door and cat marches in, under the dog's nose. You can see the dog's reaction; every day - "It's the cat! I need to chase it! But I need my breakfast more! Darn!"

And when I cook in the evening, cat has taken to coming in and perching on kitchen table B. (We have 2 kitchen tables in the kitchen at the moment. We brought the other down from son's room over Christmas so we had space for everyone to eat. And there the kitchen table has stayed. Son assures us he has cleared 4 little spaces in his room for the table to go back into. OH refuses to move table back until there is more than 10 square inches of space on the floor. I have now blitzed the fug-bound teenage hell, but there is another problem. If there is a surface free in our house, something is instantly put on it. Kitchen table B now holds an empty liquidiser box; an empty telephone box; several large boxes of books I have bought but done nothing about; a large pile of business receipts; a large plastic box I need to return to a friend, and several of those strange bits of crud you acquire at Christmas. So it may well be that kitchen table B is still with us at Easter, by which time we will have ceased to notice it.)

However, I digress. Kitchen table B gives the cat an ideal vantage point to watch me cook, so I have the dog pinned to my legs at one side of the kitchen block, and cat poised on the other, and I feel strangely vulnerable. The dog won't tackle the top of the block if I'm there, but the cat will. The moment I turn my back I can feel the cat plotting her next assault. Of course the obvious answer is to move Kitchen table B back whence it came....

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

The Outsider

Before I get any further, this is nothing whatsoever to do with Monica Edwards' Outsider. I've been reading Mary Gervaise's A Pony for Belinda, which I found a gentle and undemanding read. Belinda is portrayed right from the off as an outsider and oddity: she is going through agonies at a tea party, in which the children there are dressed in jeans, while she is in a frilly dress. They go to school: she is educated by her grandmother and the Vicar. They are easy in each other's company: she sees almost nothing of other children and sees no reason why she should.

It turns out that Belinda is living with her grandmother after an horrific accident when Belinda was a baby. Her mother took her down to the beach but was caught by the tide. Belinda was rescued but her mother was not. Belinda was all her grandmother had left, so stayed with her rather than rejoin her father, brother and two sisters, and so they all stay, separated, until her family moved to the country and then had room for her.

So there Belinda is: a stiff little person, thrown into a modern family. This wasn't a new theme for Mary Gervaise: Patience in her G for Georgia series is brought up by an elderly and old-fashioned Guardian, until she finds her true family. This theme of the outsider crashing into a different world and adapting is a very common one in the school story genre (Mary Gervaise used variations of it in her school stories - Tiger's First Term for one). The Chalet School's Eustacia was another whose upbringing was challenged. And of course in children's literature generally there's The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson-Burnett where spiky Mary finds two different ways of life, both of them completely different from her Indian upbringing.

All this made me wonder about the theme of the outsider in pony books. Initially I couldn't think of any books which make use of it in the same way as Mary Gervaise, but in Jill there is Dinah Dean. She is brought up by a distant and unhelpful father, but she never becomes a conventional pony girl. Dinah in fact is headed for boarding school, and is reading school stories in preparation when we leave her. I did wonder about Mercy Dulbottle, but she's awkward and ineffective; not really an outsider from upbringing.

Now I think about it, there are other plots which use nearly the same device: spoiled rich child is helped by enobling contact with the horse (Angela Peabody in They Bought Her a Pony); backward seat proponent converted to the forward seat (June Cresswell and John Manners in the Noel and Henry series), and there must be others.

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Gillian Baxter

At last I have got what passes for my act together, and the Gillian Baxter interview is now up on the site. Gillian was great to talk to, and put up very patiently with my losing track and diverting along other paths. To whet your appetite, if you read the interview you will find out which book Gillian wrote under a different name (and I think it will be a surprise) and also what happened to Roberta. And Guy.

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

The Suspension of Disbelief

When I did O' Level English Lit, one of the very few technical expressions that stuck in my head was suspension of disbelief. It's such a grand description for the simple act of leaping headfirst into a book and living in it until you've finished.

It is a phrase that's been nudging at me for a while recently, as I've read a few pony books over the holidays that have tried my disbelief somewhat. The main one was Jackie and the Missing Showjumper by J M Berrisford. I know it seems as if I only mention this poor woman in order to put the boot in, but stay with me. The story involves Jackie and her sidekick Babs, both of them all of 13, who are going to spend the Christmas period looking after two showjumpers belonging to a"top-of-the-charts country singer." JMB herself recognised the struggle many of her readers were going to have with the essential dippiness of her plot, and she goes to some lengths to explain how the situation has arisen: the singer can't find any grown ups willing to work over the 3 week Christmas period, Jackie and Babs have lots of experience, and there will be an adult there to keep house. "Not surprisingly, Rory O'Brady hadn't been too keen at first on the idea of anyone as young as Babs and me taking over..." I didn't have to suspend disbelief so much as leave it swinging helplessly over Niagara Falls.

But to do JMB herself justice - maybe I am looking at this from a modern standpoint where health and safety legislation and child labour laws, to say nothing of insurers with incipient heart failure mean such things are incredibly unlikely. It wasn't always like this: I was left in charge of stable at a fairly early age, though for hours not days, and the Pullein-Thompsons were running their own riding school by the time they were 14.
Judith M Berrisford's Jackie series was started in 1958, when life was very different, and what might have been acceptable then was not by 1982, by the time Missing Showjumper was written. She could hardly restrict the girls' activities as the series went on and they grew older (though by inches: Jackie and Babs are the Dorian Grays of the pony world: they never change. I would very much like to know, though, just what debauched horrors their portraits in the hay loft of Aunt Di's stables reveal).

And so we are left with an author whose plot (Jackie and Babs go off to look after ponies) couldn't cope with the modern world, but who had a very successful series which presumably the publishers were reluctant to let her change: publishers like what they know will sell. Josephine Pullein-Thompson's publishers were very unhappy with the way Noel and Henry grew older as the series progressed and forbade her from doing it in any other series. So JMB was I think the victim of time, rather than inability to put over a convincing plot.

There are other worse offenders out there: I struggle with the romance betweeen the 14 year old schoolgirl heroine of Samantha Alexander's Riders series and her 19 year old Olympic rider boyfriend. I also wonder at the astounding ability of Amy in Heartland to do it all: school, a relationship, running the stables and curing all those horses..... maybe that's why the series has sold so many copies. It's not teenagers buying them at all, it's their time-strapped mothers, desperate for hints on how to get it all done.

Tuesday, 1 January 2008

Happy New Year

A happy and healthy New Year to everyone who reads this blog. The year has ended on a slightly mixed note for us: last week we had the funeral of a friend who died just before Christmas, and yesterday my great aunt died; "full of years", she was 93.

On the other hand, we've had lots of parties, some with the people we've been crying with one day and then there we all are, cheerful. We're an adaptable lot, the human race. And changeable; my daughter is now well into the age where her parents are a massive embarrassment. Yesterday evening we went to a big party, along with most of the village it seemed, in a local hall a handy 200 yards away from us. Last time daughter and I went to a party here she was about 6 and we bopped the night away and neither of us cared a jot. I still don't care a jot, but she does. Fairly early on in the proceedings was the Rednex' Cotton Eye Joe: the video gives you an idea of what my daughter was up against with her mother, only without the bikini, the rat or the spitting. After being whirled around a couple of times by me and my friend Dawn she fled to the kitchen and the safety of her friends, poor child. She did emerge eventually after it became obvious she did not have the only embarrassing mother, or indeed father....

But a brilliant party. I haven't had so much fun in ages, and they even played The Time Warp... fortunately there were so many people on the dance floor by this time daughter couldn't see me. And by the time Tiger Feet came on even my husband got up on the floor.