Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Does anyone remember when books were infectious?

Carrying on from my last post, I started replying to the comments but went galloping off down so many side alleys I thought I'd just post and have done with it.

I won't take my Penguin classic with me, though if I did, I'm sure I could find reasons for its sudden and tragic disappearance, preventing me reviewing it. The main one, I think, is its potential as a source of infection. Oops! There it goes - drowned under a pool of antiseptic hand wash.

Every now and then I get elderly library books in stock, with a list of firm instructions in the front (none of this openness, let the toddlers drool on the books stuff here) in which you are firmly told not to turn down page corners, mark the books and that you MUST let the library staff know if the book has been in contact with anyone who has an infectious disease.

As I am looking for displacement activity in a strenuous effort to try and avoid finishing my tax return (nearly there but I am finding it so hard to make the effort to do the last 10%) I googled this fascinating subject. Read this article only if you are feeling strong. In fact, do not read the next but one sentence. I'll leave a couple of lines so you know what to avoid.

One example of infection occurred when a child with scarlet fever used his peeling skin as a bookmark.

It's OK. You can come back now. The British Government introduced provisions into the Public Health Act in 1907 to provide for the disinfection and/or destruction of books (there was a £2 fine if you failed to inform as instructed), and the provisions have not, apparently, been repealed. Presumably they are kept there, just in case.

Still, back to books I am going to take with me, and which I shall try strenuously hard not to drop in my hospital supper, daub with handwash or leave lying about. Thanks to Juliet, who reminded me about Mary Wesley, I am off to try and find some, as I know I have them about. Just not entirely sure where. I've been to WH Smith and now have Jasper Fforde's The Eyre Affair, (thanks Gillian) and also the first Scotland Street book, for which thanks to Vanessa and Juliet. Couldn't find the most recent one, but settled for the first, which seemed sensible as I haven't read any. I also have Stephen Booth in case I feel murderous.

Here they are.

Am just hoping I do not catch the cold my husband is threatening to go down with, in which case I shall be back here again tomorrow, tail between my legs. But at least I will have plenty to read.

Anyway, providing all goes well I intend to make the most of this almost unheard of bit of enforced idleness and turn tyrant. I have been watching the labrador closely and think I now have her mournful, huge eyed look off quite well. I will probably wake up with nerves at some point tonight, but I have a plan. This wakefulness will not be wasted. I intend to practise slumping back on the pillows with a little moan.

Well, I intend to. The thing is, when it comes down to it, I have a terrible suspicion that I will say, as I always do, "I'm fine!" even if my nose is falling off. After all, I am British and I Do Not Like To Make a Fuss, and I Soldier On.

We'll see.

Monday, 21 July 2008

Books to read in hospital

I'm trying frantically to get my desk (and my mind) clear before Thursday 24th, as I am then, in theory, due to go into hospital to have my nose mended. I am only in overnight (again in theory) but I have a dilemma - what do I take in to read?

I am halfway through Rosy Thornton's Hearts and Minds, for which many thanks to Juliet. I am thoroughly enjoying this portrait of the poisonous politicking of student and staff, but I fear I will have finished it before Thursday, and I know I don't have the discipline to leave the book alone now I've got my teeth into it.

On my bedside table is the very unfinished The Blair Years, which is not quite the thing when you are on your bed of pain and want your mind taken off life, rather than being so irritated you burst your stitches. I keep picking this up, reading a few pages and then putting it down again, so desperate with the longing to give all the major characters a sharp slap that I can go no further.

I don't want to take a precious book in case I lose it/drop it in my supper/bleed all over it/hurl it in fury at the next person who asks if I am in for a nose job (no - my undistinguished but basically OK nose should stay pretty much the same. I hope.)

If I hadn't read absolutely everything Dick Francis has ever written many times, I'd take one of those.

So, what I'm after is something that doesn't take dragoons of concentration. Which means Keirkegaard is out - as is anything edgy, modern and difficult. Anything tear jerking is out, so Black Beauty will stay at home, as will Rosalind Belben's Our Horses In Egypt, which won't actually stay at home as I haven't actually got one yet: haven't yet got it any further than my BookRabbit checkout.

If you have any suggestions, please tell me. It will be one less thing for me to be twitchy about!

The School Sponsored Walk

Miles walked = 12
Blisters = 7
Sensible shoes worn = 0

Well done daughter - you made it!

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Trixie and the Dream Pony of Doom

Trixie and the Dream Pony of Doom by Ros Asquith
Harper Collins, £4.99

It's such a marvellous title, isn't it? The Dream Pony of Doooooooom. I could not resist the title, and so, along with a load of other things it made its way across the Atlantic to me via Book Closeouts (though that said, it is actually a British book). I had a lot of fun before the book arrived conjuring up scenarios for The Dream Pony of Doom. Was it a Connemara fresh from Ireland, with a liking for the mystical? Or a sadly clumsy Shetland? Or maybe a literate pony convinced it was the next Cassandra?

Well no, and no, and no.
It really isn't a pony book in the classic sense: this title is part of a series about Trixie, who is badged as "your bestest friend ever", and her adventures. The book could just as easily be the Dream Kitten of Doom: the pony's a vehicle for the story. Trixie is desperate to have a pony, and hopes her grandma will win a television quiz and buy her that pony. It doesn't quite work out like that, and Trixie ends up buying a very cheap pony someone wants to shift fast. Who this pony actually is is telegraphed very obviously some pages before, so I spent the rest of the book thinking "For goodness sake, how dumb do you have to be? Haven't you realised yet who the pony is?" Very dumb, is the answer, as half an ounce of thought would have brought the book to a rapid halt a third of the way through.

There's a strand of children's literature - possibly just aimed at girls, which is written in breathless first person form, with LOADS of exclamation marks, lots of FRANTIC emphasis, quite possibly several different fonts and the assumption that life is just one great big exclamation mark. This book is one of them. I don't dislike this form hugely, though I do find the relentless pace a bit wearing. It's like the difference between Blue Peter of yore, and of the 1990s, where pieces instead of being delivered in a straightforward way had to be put over in a punchy style as if the producers were petrified of losing children's attention and felt the only way to retain it was to Emphasise How Much Fun Everyone Was Having.

This book is the same: Fun! Whackiness! Drama! On every page! Or as Trixie would say, "Very extremely fun!" It's as if the author thinks if she lets up the pace for a minute POOF! - her readers will cast the book down and go and play with something else much more exciting.

That said, Ros Asquith doesn't do a bad job with her choice of style. The book is written with great energy, and that does sweep you along. As a giddy whirl through a girl's brief flirtation with pony mania, it just about works. There is a lot of fun: I like Trixie's descriptions of herself: she's honest and funny:
"Now, I know I am not the best-behaved person in our school, and certainly not the best-behaved person in Class 5T, or to be Very Extremely honest with you, even in my own house...."
But being amusing isn't enough. There's a distinct lack of invention when it comes to the character's names. The teachers are called Mrs Hedake and Mr Wartover, and Trixie's friends are Dinah Dare-deVille and Chloe Caution.

The emphasis on whackiness means that there's a bit of a disconnect between the plot and reality: when it comes to a choice between reality and the world of giddy japery, the japery wins out, and that doesn't help the book. In the desire to have everything as appealing and fun as possible, what actually happens in the horsey world is either ignored or just got wrong. The last scene has Fungus, the pony, taking the absolutely, completely and totally not in control Trixie (who is dressed in her pyjamas) over a show jumping course in a show. At the last fence:

"Fungus accelerated towards the fence... and pulled up short, blowing hard.....
Fungus looked round at me, a bit ashamed. I felt in my pyjama pocket and found a sugar lump.
"Go for it," I whispered as he snaffled the sugar.
Fungus turned, trotted back a few steps, turned again and raced towards the fence as fast as he had when we were trying to escape the cops."

That sounds to me like a circle, and that surely is a refusal. However, this counts as a clear round in Trixie land.

A bit more accuracy (and perhaps research) wouldn't have done the book any harm and might have made for a more interesting plot. Can you imagine the horror if Trixie turned up in her pyjamas to a real Pony Club event? The fanned brows? The pale and horrified faces? The hissing, muttering and fuming? A bit more research would have turned up what a staggering faux pas this was, and given the author some decent plot lines to work with. As it is, the whole issue is skated over.

This book is a fun read, but definitely not a great one. Ironically, in trying to make the book as entertaining as possible, the author has produced a book that's rather disposable. It's the equivalent of a pink sparkly browband. You don't need it, but it's quite fun to have.

Monday, 14 July 2008

Marks and Spencer

Marks & Spencer has been in Kettering for as long as I can remember, and it's never changed much. Apart from the knicker department, I usually walk on, on, on through the clothes part. The colours are over-bright, the styles look dire on the mannequins - and they're thin, so what on earth will they look like on me? - and nothing looks as if it much wants to be put with anything else.

However, last week, I was whizzing past Marks & Sparks after an unsuccessful quest to find running shoes (I decided I didn't want to wait for the assistants to finish their conversation) and I spotted a coral scoop neck top. Aha! I thought. I like that, and it's cheap. So, in I sailed, to be faced with a display of scoop neck tops. There they were: bright blue, bright green and sundry other colours, but not a single coral. Stopped in my tracks, I had a quick glance at the other side of the shop. Nope. Racks of A-line skirts, displayed in that fetching frontways-on method Marks & Sparks loves, which makes even the size 10s look as if they're made for elephants.

I went a bit further in. Lots of one-off Per Una, all frilled and furbelowed. The Classics department - wall to wall beige. No coral top. Nearly at the knicker part now, I thought, and looked round for an assistant to ask. Surely they can't be so popular they've sold out already? If so, what's the point of having them in the window? No assistant. Might as well have a look at the knicker department. And there, just to the left of the knickers: rank upon rank of coral tops. Reader, I bought one. I am wearing it now. I am very pleased with it, but if I hadn't decided I was long overdue for a rummage amongst the mix-and-match knickers, I'd never have found it and retired, money still in my wallet.

I do wonder if perhaps this is just one reason Marks & Sparks aren't doing so well just now.

Friday, 11 July 2008

Michael Morpurgo: War Horse

It's been a shamefully long time since I did a review. My fellow reviewer will not be contributing to this. I made the fatal mistake of buying her the first two Georgia Nicholson books, and so all hope was lost as far as horsey book reviewing went. Added to that, she is now off in Germany on her school trip, wildly excited as this is the first time she has been Abroad. She was so full of whoomph she managed to get up effortlessly at 3.00 am on Wednesday so we could get to Kettering in time for the 4.15 am start. Although I am definitely a lark, and usually wake at 5.00 am at this time of year, 3.00 am was pushing it a little, particularly as I didn't sleep well, being too petrified of oversleeping and missing the off..... despite having own mobile, son's and husband's all set for a 3.00 am alarm call.

When son did this trip (though it was France in his case) one of his friends did miss the coach, and so his mother chased it down the M1 before finally catching up at a service station.

But I digress.

War Horse is near the top, if not at the top of all the books I've read for my survey of the modern pony book. That said, it's not a pony book: it is a story about a horse: perhaps more of a successor to Black Beauty than anything else. Like Black Beauty it's written in the first person. My heart sank when I started the book and realised this was how it was written. Normally I don't like first person narratives when the narrator is a horse. It takes a skilled writer to make the first person narrative work, and for it to work when you are pretending to be a horse needs more than average skill. Often a horse telling its own story tends to produce a trite and not particularly believable story. Horses don't experience human emotions, and writing as if they do lessens the horse and its story.

Joey, the book's equine hero, soon emerges as a completely credible horse. The emotions he feels: affection for those who show kindness to him; loyalty and affection for Topthorn, the large black horse who is his friend; bewilderment; and acceptance of what befalls him, are all totally believable, and totally equine. Michael Morpurgo is incredibly surefooted in his portrayal of the horse.

Joey's story opens when he is a young foal, being sold at market. He is bought by a farmer who is made vicious by worry and drink, but the farmer's son, Albert is different. He trains Joey and shows him love and kindness, but war is hovering on the horizon. Many horses were sold to the Cavalry during World War One; the Army still working to the old model of the Cavalry charge as the supreme weapon, and Joey is sold by Albert's father for the cavalry. Joey's first, and last charge, shows the utter futility of using horses in this way against machine guns. Cavalry charges soon stopped, and horses were used for transport.

Joey in fact changes sides as he crashes through to the German side during the charge and is taken to pull the German ambulances. Joey's view of the war is of course that of a horse: he does not care what side he is working for. What he cares for is how comfortable he is; and how his companions fare. Using the horse and its neutral point of view means that Michael Morpurgo can show that cruelty and kindness exist on both sides.

Like Black Beauty, this book wants to describe the plight of the horse: it does show the horror of what the millions of horses who served in World War I went through, but not only that: the horror the human characters suffer is shown just as well. Joey's first rider dies in the first few minutes of his first action in the war.

Michael Morpurgo said:

Here's what war did. It burned flesh. It killed my uncle. It made my mother weep. So I grew up with the damage of war all around me. I learned that buildings you can put up again, but lives are wrecked forever.

By using Joey to relate what he sees, and repeat what he hears, (fortunately Joey has remarkable linguistic ability) we see the human perspective of the war too. The human characters are realised as well as the horses. They suffer and die as pointlessly. One of the most sympathetic and interesting human characters is Friedrich. Topthorn and Joey are put to pulling the guns. This was a dreadful task, particularly in winter, struggling against the mud of the trenches. Friedrich, who sings and laughs to himself, is seen as mad by some of the other soldiers, but he expresses what I think is probably Michael Morpurgo's view on the war:

"We soon discovered that he was not the slightest bit mad , but simply a kind and gentle man whose whole nature cried out against fighting a war....

'I tell you, my friends,' he said one day. 'I tell you that I am the only sane man in the regiment. It's the others that are mad, but they don't know it. They fight a war and they don't know what for. Isn't that crazy? How can one man kill another and not really know the reason why he does it, except that the other man wears a different colour uniform and speaks a different language? And it's me they call mad! You two are the only rational creatures I've met in this benighted war, and like me the only reason you're here is because you were brought here.' "

Not all the characters survive the war, and this makes this book a harrowing read at times; but it reflects how things were and is a better book for not shrinking from portraying the pity of war. Around two million horses died during the War, and around 19 million soldiers and civilians. Some children might find this hard to take, but there is enough kindness, and ultimately, triumph in the book to balance this. It's possibly a little old-fashioned to find a book uplifting, but this book is. It shows the triumph of the human and the equine spirit.

The National Theatre is now booking again for its production of War Horse. You can see photographs of the production here, and I am desperate, absolutely desperate to see it.

Manners maketh the Pony Club. Or not.

I get asked to donate prizes and vouchers to various horsey organisations and I'm generally pretty happy to oblige. Recently, a certain branch of the Pony Club (who shall remain nameless, but they are not local to me) and Equine Market Watch asked me for prizes.

So, always wanting to encourage the younger entry, and having a lot of time for EMW, I wrote off to both saying yes, of course I would help. Had a lovely message from EMW. Nothing from the Pony Club.

The message from EMW was so kind, I in fact sent them two books rather than the one I'd originally promised, for which I had a lovely thank you letter, and they've been nothing but kind and helpful ever since.

I sent the book off to the Pony Club, and I have heard nothing back. Not a word. I'm prepared to believe they didn't get my email, but the book hasn't been returned to me, so I presume it's there. This may sound rather sour, but if you're supposed to be encouraging the younger entry, teaching them manners by example might not be a bad idea. I've met some mannerless hounds in my dealings with schools, and riding schools, but when the people actually running things are as bad, it makes me despair.

Thursday, 10 July 2008

The Labours of Matilda

We didn't have an egg yesterday from our super-reliable hen, Matilda. I think this is why:

She was saving herself for this epic effort on the left. In the middle is one of her normal eggs, and to the right is one of the bantam's.

Fortunately she seems none the worse for the experience, and shot out of the stable as enthusiastically as normal to tuck into the remains of son's lunch.


And the winners are....

Of course I had forgotten all about this, but thanks to the wonders of Microsoft Outlook, which popped up a reminder, I have artfully hand-torn pieces of paper, scribbled on them, shuffled them about a bit, and here are the results:


I hope you enjoy the books. Robin, I have your address so will post off to you asap. Elaine - could you please email me your address? The email address is enquiries[at]janebadgerbooks[dot]co[dot]uk

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

The lavender's beautiful, but there are no bees.

A bit flattened from all the rain, but valiantly flowering on. I think if I had my time again I'd go for a less purple and more, yes, lavender shade, but I love the hedge anyway.

One thing I have noticed this year is the dreadful decrease in the number of bees on the lavender. Usually when I walk down the path I am surrounded by them. There must be less than half the usual amount this year.

Whether it's varroa mite, colony collapse disorder, our love of the mobile phone or something else, we need our bees. I have many of the plants that bees love: comfrey by the yard, rosemary, groves of foxgloves and of course the lavender, and if I haven't got bees, then who on earth has?

The British Beekeepers' Association is running a campaign to persuade the Government to fund an £8 million research programme. So far it has refused, despite the fact that without bees, we would have none of the crops that rely on bees for pollination: no apples, pears, strawberries, peas or beans, to say nothing of the £165 million that honey bees contribute annually to the agricultural economy.

I think the bee situation has now gone beyond the stage where we can feel we're doing something by planting flowers bees love. Serious research and action are needed now. The BBA has a letter you can download to send to your MP, and you can donate to the campaign via Paypal.

Save the bees.

Monday, 7 July 2008

Equine Market Watch Open Day

The Equine Market Watch charity has three sanctuaries in Powys, Herefordshire and Shropshire. It campaigns on issues of horse welfare, against indiscriminate breeding, and takes equines in need into sanctuaries to rehabilitate them and place them in approved loan homes. As a policy they don’t buy from markets unless it is clear that there is a pony who is so distressed it cannot in all conscience be left there. Most of EMW's residents are signed over due to their owners' inability to cope, for a variety of reasons. The charity’s motto is “We will NEVER look away”. The picture shows Louis, rescued from an abusive home. You can meet him at the Open Day.

The Sanctuaries are being pushed by the credit crunch: prices are going up and donations are going down, so their Open Day is vital. The Shropshire Branch is running the Open Day on Saturday 9th August with Richard Maxwell. I know about this as they asked me if I'd like a trade stall on the day - as I won't long be out of hospital I really felt I couldn't. I am particularly sorry to be missing the Saddle Chariot demo.

But the star of the day is Richard Maxwell, well known for training youngsters and working with problem horses (and indeed riders). He is doing two demos during the day. He usually charges £20 per demo, so the entry price for the Shropshire event of £15 (£20 on the day) is incredibly good value!

There are also Shetlands: these are the PetsBehavingBadly team of four. You can have a try at clicker training with them, apparently. I do wonder if clicker training would have been able to educate the Shetlands who lived here on their attitude to electric fencing. I suspect not, as they had long ago learned that if you gallop at it fast enough it will go ping and you won't really feel it.

Equine Touch will be demonstrated by Emma Knowles. Even after reading the website I'm not entirely sure what this is (had I been going to the event I'd have had to bring a telescope so I could find out!). It looks to be a system of small, gentle massage movements.

There's also a Saddle Chariot demo at 4.00pm, and that looks a lot of fun. The Saddle Chariot is a one person thingy pulled by a horse or pony. You can use it for paddock maintenance, or "bombing around having a ball." I really, really like the sound of that. Simon Mulholland, its inventor, wanted to design a safe vehicle in which a pony could pull an adult, and has produced something "which allows small ponies to have serious fun." I'm really sorry I'll be missing this demo as Simon and his pony Henry sound as if they take no prisoners.

If you'd like to go to the event and support this excellent charity (and if you go, please let me know what you think of the Saddle Chariot), this is the link you'll need.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

BAFAB week - again

Well, BAFAB (Buy a Friend a Book) week is nearly over, and you can tell I'm playing catch-up. So, my offerings are sparkling new copies of Joanna Cannan's We Met Our Cousins, and Monica Edwards' No Entry. To win one, you will need to add a comment to this blog entry.

The Joannan Cannan is one of her earliest children's stories, and involves a prim London brother and sister clashing head on with their Highland cousins, who scorn shoes and prissiness. It's told with detachment and humour, and reflects Joanna Cannan's Highland holidays escaping from the Oxford academia that governed her own childhood.

The Monica Edwards is part of her Romney Marsh series, and in it Foot and Mouth hits the Marsh. I don't find this as easy to read as once I did, having experienced the worry of foot and mouth though thankfully not the disease itself, but as ever with Monica Edwards, it is an excellent read, and you get the usual GGB extras with it: a preface by the author's daughter, Shelley, and articles on the author.

If pony or children's books are not your thing, and I do understand that, I truly do, there are more blogs offering books. Here they are:

Musings from a Muddy Island (though move sharpish on this one - it closes tomorrow)

Add your name to the comments below and I'll do a draw on Thursday 10th. I hope. I apologise in advance if I forget on the day. Will go and put something in the diary NOW.

Life, Casts and Proms

Apologies to everyone who's been visiting the blog and wondered about my silence. Life has been even more manic than usual, so blogging, along with many other things has had to take a back seat. Instead, time has been eaten by visits to the hospital for me and daugher - who is now, hurrah! hurrah! out of her cast. The nurse asked her if she wanted to keep it. She is only too glad, I think, to get rid of it, especially now there was no more room to draw on it and it was therefore of no interest at all. The consultant told her firmly to avoid PE and all contact sport for another 3 weeks. We both nodded wisely, knowing full well that she has her Modern dance exam this Sunday, and no intention whatsoever of not doing it.

I've also been slaving away producing the long, long overdue postal catalogue on pony books. For anyone who usually reads what is on the website, don't worry, you aren't missing anything. The poor postal people are just very behind having a look at the new stock. If you want a postal catalogue, please contact me. I have a few left over.

The teenager has at last finished exams, and yesterday I took him and two friends to the school Prom. I'd been reading about Proms in The Times, which are apparently now an exercise in teenage conspicuous consumption, with the little loves turning up in stretch limos and spending hundreds on their outfit. Our house eats, quite effortlessly, what you'd spend on a bling-bling bag without even blinking, so spending money on clothes isn't something we do.

I was rather worried that teenager, who has inherited his mother's love of the charity shop and T K Maxx bargain (if only there was something similar for sash windows and Edwardian woodwork), was going to feel outclassed, even though he and I were both very impressed with his bargain shirt and tie buys for the event. Friend 1, however, turned up in what he described as a cobbled together suit (he was right, it didn't match), friend 2 had a new suit but trainers as he wanted to dance, and son's suit was another cobbled together effort: an old jacket of his father's and teenager's as yet unworn new school trousers.

I was impressed by the fact they'd made an effort, but weren't agonising over not having either djs or indeed prom dates, which teenager told me was the thing to do. Neither did they mind their unexciting method of transport - my ancient and unclean car, though I did give the back seat a quick brush to remove the worst of the labrador hair and cake crumbs. The thing, I'm told by The Times, is to go in a stretch limo. I saw three, and a rather fetching E-type Jag with a proud and glowing couple in the back, but other than that, everyone turned up in more or less elderly parental or even grandparental cars. Unbothered by public opinion though they mostly were, all of the lads I took were, I could tell, relieved that we no longer had the ride and drive Shetlands. There can't be many people, I told them, who arrive in a pony trap to a Prom. What a triumph that would be! What a shame we don't have them anymore, I said. I love those nervous smiles teenagers give you when they're not quite sure just how far you're winding them up. A small triumph, but mine own.