Saturday, 31 July 2010

The glory that is the comic story

I admit I was never much of a one for comics as a child. My sister took Bunty, and I used to flick through it. We had a couple of ancient Bunty annuals bought for us from a jumble sale. I flicked through those too if I'd read everything else within reach. I like pictures as much as the next person, but what I really like are words; tons of them - great long streams, packing out a story, and I like something I can settle into, not something that's over and done with in a few minutes.

Earlier this week I had an unexpected package. I have never grown out of the thrill of a parcel arriving in the post, which is quite convenient when your job involves you buying books (for research purposes, natch), which means parcels arriving in the post. Usually I have a pretty good idea of what's due, but I had no idea what was in the parcel that I picked up on Tuesday was, though I was intrigued, as I recognised the writing: Vanessa from Fidra's.

I opened it up, and there were five little comic books - fruit of Vanessa's recent jaunt round a boot sale. Gosh, I thought, how cute! I'd never come across any of these in the flesh, as it were, before.

I must have edited these out and simply not noticed them when I was in shops, searching for the great god Book; surely they must have been obvious. There were hundreds of them. Both the Bunty and Judy stories I have were numbered in the 200s. Having done a bit of research in between writing the last sentence and this, I think I know why I didn't spot them. They're dated 1979-1981. I was doing A levels and at University at that point. That makes sense.

These stories are classics in their own way: packed with incident isn't in it. The Long Ride to Sunnysides, within the first few pages, has Janey Perkins winning a pony in a raffle, taking it home, getting dobbed in by a nasty neighbour for keeping the pony in her council house garden; having the family threatened with eviction and then setting off to her aunt and uncle, with whom the family only exchange Christmas cards, in the hope they will give the pony a home. The ride isn't without its achievements: Janey and Cobber, in the scant 100 miles' ride, is relieved of her £10 survival money in compensation for some eaten roses; wins a Fancy Dress contest in a gymkhana (guess what the prize is); is instrumental in getting a village hall built; enables a father to stop his daughter driving a too-powerful car and then saves a film for disaster. Phew. And through it all Janey sails, calm as a cucumber, a sort of Lady Bountiful on a pony. It's really terribly impressive: what a role model. Nothing, but nothing phases her. Maybe I should have been given this before I went off to university.

In the general rush to show female competence, No Jumping for Joy reads rather oddly. The heroine, Joy stars in a terrifyingly moral work about emotional blackmail: Joy is desperate to ride, but doesn't as her mother, having broken her back in a riding accident, is convinced Joy will injure herself. Joy meets Mrs Grant, desperate for someone to ride her pony after her daughter and husband were killed before the daughter could ride in a competition. What does Joy do? Caught in this emotional maelstrom, this girl wants to please. In what becomes a very uneasy balancing act, she rides Mrs Grant's pony in secret. Nasty Dora attempts to blackmail Joy into riding badly. Joy seems to spend most of the story crying tears of misunderstood misery: she only wants to Do Good. Joy is a pretty poor role model: deception is ok as long as you're helping someone seems to be the message. Unlike Janey, she doesn't take responsibility and sort the problem out: she's curiously passive; just weeps and tries to keep everyone happy. Yuck.

I still harboured a few generally well buried thoughts about working with horses when I went to university, so it's just as well I didn't read Heartbreak Stables, in which two girls overcome the snobby rich rival riding school owners to make a success of their more lowly establishment. All the problems are easily solved with a bit of hard work and determination. I suppose it isn't the function of this sort of story to put the hard facts of getting through life in front of their readers. I hope they inspired their readers to get out there, dig their heels in and graft.

Perhaps not graft as this advert suggests: I was quite intrigued by the idea of Bunty promoting escort work (for anybody - anywhere!) How language changes. Thirty years ago Universal Escorts could appear in a girls' story without anyone (like me) putting any dodgy connotations on it.

Thursday, 29 July 2010


Norman Thelwell was probably best known for his ponies. He was the illustrator of many pony-mad children’s childhoods: not the lovely dream of a matchless grey swishing round the show ring, festooned with rosettes, but the foul tempered pony determined not to be caught and entirely deaf to any suggestion that it be schooled. Much though I would have loved the matchless grey, what I got was a succession of riding school ponies, each more inured to the charms of a child than the last. Like Thelwell’s girls though, hope sprang eternal. Penelope et al were always convinced that their day as Pony Club champion would come. So was I. Despite years of solid evidence to the contrary, so was I.

I was not so lost to sense that I did not know that there was a large gap between what happened to me every weekend, and my dreams. The first time I came across Thelwell, it was as though a light went on. Thelwell drew my experience, and made it funny. It was genius. He had a gift of getting into the soul of a pony and showing its cunning and often unobliging nature, contrasted with the blithe determination of a succession of ponymad girls to tame these monsters. By no means was I alone in thinking this: as Thelwell said himself, he struck a “sensitive nerve”.

One day I did a pony drawing and it was like striking a sensitive nerve. The response was instantaneous. People telephoned the editor and asked for more. Suddenly I had a fan mail. So the editor told me to do a two-page spread on ponies. I was appalled. I thought I'd already squeezed the subject dry. I looked at the white drawing block and wondered what on earth to do. In the end I dreamed up some more horsy ideas and people went into raptures.'

He had only ridden, he said, once in his life; in India, when the horse bolted and Thelwell was carted along, clinging to its neck. This experience presumably made a deep impression: horses he described as “"great windy things that'll grab your coat off your back as soon as look at you," and the horse that took advantage was the horse that Thelwell drew. The inspiration for what became known as the “Thelwell pony”, an overweight, hairy and recalcitrant individual, came from two ponies who lived in a field next door to his house.

"They were owned by two little girls about three feet high who could have done with losing a few pounds themselves," he recalled. "They would arrive to collect their mounts in yellow pullovers, tiny jodhpurs and velvet safety helmets. I could hear the air whisper as they tested their whips - so could Thunder and Lightning, who pointedly ignored them and went on grazing.

"As the children got near, the ponies would swing round and present their ample hindquarters and give a few lightning kicks which the children would sidestep calmly, and they had the head-collars on those animals before they knew what was happening. I was astonished at how meekly they were led away; but they were planning vengeance - you could tell by their eyes."

Thelwell’s ponies often do plot vengeance. Even if their eyes are shrouded with those huge forelocks and manes their essential malevolence shines through. The traffic is not all one way, however: a pony may be, surprised but passive, subject to a massage or any one of a range of treatments his owner thinks must be done, in line with current thinking on equine welfare.

I've written more about Thelwell here: many thanks to Momentum Licensing for giving me permission to use Thelwell's images.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

New books - Alison Hart: Whirlwind

Regular readers will know how struck I was by Alison Hart's Shadow Horse, and how much I wished there was a sequel. Well, now there is. It's out now, and Alison is kindly sending me a copy. Watch out for the review.

Jane de Bargue Hubert - an interview

One huge benefit to writing about pony book authors on my site is that they get in touch. I’m delighted that Jane Hubert, who wrote Water Wagtail under the name Jane de Bargue Hubert, contacted me, and agreed to be interviewed for this blog.

JB: You wrote Water Wagtail when you were very young. What inspired you to start writing it?
JH: I had rheumatic fever when I was 8, and had to lie flat for weeks and weeks. My mother gave me a notebook and pencil and told me to write. I wrote a book then called ‘Happy-star, the wild pony of the moors’. That started me writing. ‘Happy-star’ got lost years ago. I wrote ‘Water Wagtail’ later - I think I started at about 10 or 11, but I can’t really remember. I don't remember what gave me the idea for Water Wagtail. I desperately wanted a pony, and to be part of that sort of life, I suppose!

JB: Did your family know you were writing the book?
JH: Yes, but I don’t think any of us thought of it as an actual book!

JB: How did it get published?
JH: When I was 14 my mother got it typed up and sent it to my grandfather, who had some connection with Eyre and Spottiswoode. Incidentally, I did my own illustrations, but they were rejected! I think I still have a draft of the next book, 'Tarantella', but I don't think I ever finished it. I'll dig it out and see.

JB: What books did you enjoy reading yourself at that time, and did they have any influence on what you wrote?
JH: I read every pony book I could find, and that was all I wanted for Christmas and birthday presents. I was mad about horses from the age of 3. Yes, they did influence what I wrote – I think Water Wagtail is very derivative, especially of the Pullein-Thompson books. I also loved Monica Edwards, Eleanor Helme and Nance Paul and Kathleen Herald. I still have some of them, and also ‘Older Mousie’ by Golden Gorse (illustrated by Lionel Edwards), Enid Bagnold, Anna Sewell. ‘Sabre, the horse from the sea’ is probably my lasting favourite; it is not a ‘pony book’ as such, but simply an incredible book about a girl and a horse. I wrote a third book in my teens, which was heavily influenced by ‘Sabre’.

JB: What was it like being at school and also being a published author? Did you tell your friends?
JH: It got into the papers, I think it was the Evening Star or something. The local bookshop in Horsham did a display in the window, and Horsham High School had a half holiday in honour of Water Wagtail.

JB: Can you give me a brief summary of the book?
JH: Jill has recently witnessed her mother being killed in a riding accident, and her father has gone abroad. She is sent to live with her aunt and cousins, and finds herself in a family that revolves around ponies, riding, and winning rosettes at gymkhanas. Jill is too frightened to learn to ride, and spends much of the time on her own as her cousins despair of her, and carry on with their pony-centred lives. After many months she gradually decides to try to conquer her fears, and is encouraged by her cousins, who happily include her in the life she had scorned for so long. She particularly loves one of the ponies, a piebald called Water Wagtail, but he has a wild and unpredictable streak, and her aunt decrees that he is too dangerous to ride. Jill, however, refuses to abandon him, and is determined to jump him at the next show. Her father comes back in time to see her win the jumping, her cousins give her Water Wagtail as her own, and she happily looks forward to a life with her pony and her dreams.
JB: Thank you! That’s as close as many of us will get to reading the book, as it really is phenomenally difficult to find!

Did you have a pony of your own, or was the book complete wish fulfilment?
JH: It was all complete and utter wish fulfilment! I had a donkey, but it was very difficult to get her to do anything at all - though I did teach her to jump a bit. I desperately wanted a pony, but didn’t get one until much later. A school friend and I used to bicycle round the country lanes looking for ponies, and then in the middle of the night we would creep out of the house and go and ride them in the fields or in the forest.

Your career has taken quite a different route to horses. Did you have any yen for a horsy career, or did life just take a different turn?
I spent years as a teenager earning rides by mucking out stables, but the passion faded to some extent in my later teens, and I wanted to go to university. I still have a yen to be among horses, and to ride, and still do sometimes. I still intend to start riding more often…

A lot of authors are dedicated readers. What did you enjoy reading when you were a child? Did you read many pony books?
As a young child I read pony books pretty exclusively. As teenagers my sisters and I read much more widely - books that were on the shelves at home or in my grandfather’s house, including Russian writers, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov and Maxim Gorky, D. H. Lawrence, Maupassant, Victorian children’s books, anything that we could find. I am sure we read other kinds of books as well, but I can’t remember them!

Are there any books (pony or not!) which inspire you?
I have talked about the pony books that influenced me as a child. Not sure where to begin since then!

What do you read now?
I am a social anthropologist, and in recent years I have done research and written about highly vulnerable people who have severe and profound learning disabilities and mental health problems, especially those who have been shut away in institutions since they were small children. I read a lot around these subjects, and about social exclusion in general. I still read other books, and poetry, but not a great number of contemporary novels. I recently reread ‘I Wanted a Pony’! It was good to read the bits that I particularly remembered, but I did find myself skipping chunks of it. It also made me realise how unoriginal 'Water Wagtail' is!

JB: Perhaps a bit harsh, bearing in mind your youth when you wrote it! Thank you very much for taking the time to answer my questions. Who knows what might happen if you find Tarentella and start it again?

Monday, 26 July 2010

No pony? A bunny could be just as good.

Thanks Susannah for sending me this.

Bunny puissance, bunny long jump - what's not to like?

Monday, 19 July 2010

I go out.

I don’t go out terribly often: with a husband who works very long hours, and something of the same tendency myself, by the time we’ve both finished for the day there’s not exactly time. Going out usually takes weeks of close planning to achieve; the careful application of the sort of hours that I used to devote to my appearance when I was a teenager.
I used to take hours to get ready: two was often not enough. There was the careful clothes shopping; the buying of the right coloured tights (this was the 1970s, and Dior did every conceivable colour, and I think I spent my Woolworths wages on every conceivable pair); finicky application of eye shadow, peering in the mirror to check the eyes matched. This was trickier than it might have been as I was, and am, extremely short sighted and couldn’t get on with either form of contact lens then about. The thought of having to get ready in less than two hours would bring on the screaming hab dabs. And my daughter is the same.
This Saturday, we went out; somewhere I did need to make an effort. I spent most of Saturday hunched over the keyboard writing. I am very, very bad at writing the first part of anything, and I had finally hit of a vein of something which while it wasn’t inspired, was certainly considerably better than what it replaced. In the end I left myself with ten minutes to get ready, which wouldn’t normally be a problem.
I no longer devote hours deciding what to wear; it’s more a question of grabbing what’s clean and fits out of the wardrobe, and checking I will not actually frighten the horses. However, it is summer, and I had planned to wear a skirt. This would have been fine if I had a. managed to go and get my legs waxed as I’d been meaning to do all week and b. slapped on some fake tan. I don’t do sun bathing, but I don’t do frog white legs either. Except that was what I had. Tights, I thought. It’s difficult to believe, looking at my teenage obsession with tights, but I now loathe them and rarely wear them. I found a thick black pair – the sort you wear when it is minus 10 outside. By the time I’d finished slinging stuff out of the drawer, I had about two minutes in which to slap on make up and get dressed, but no tights. Trousers, I thought. Pulled ancient pair of velvet jeans out of wardrobe. Suspected they wouldn’t do up. They didn’t. Found what I thought was my last respectable pair of trousers. Had trashed hem. Remembered as soon as I saw them that I had done this and meant to see to it. Ha.

I remembered buying daughter a bumper pack of American Tan tights for her last dance show. Even awful American tan better than my unadorned legs. I will whip a pair of those, I thought. She will never know. Charged upstairs to daughter’s bedroom. Completely unable to open chest of drawers because of the amount stuffed in them. After frantic heaving, an inch of open space emerged. Tights not even remotely visible. Briefly considered wrenching drawer out and upending it but dismissed that idea fast as the ensuing ructions would be vile to behold. Gave up.

Charged back down to bedroom, and upended own drawer. Found a pair of knee highs. (WHY? WHEN? Never wear these, ever. What were they doing there?) Found packet of knee highs out of which found pair had obviously come. Prospect of long white gap between end of skirt and start of knee highs too challenging even for me.

Eureka – found my one and only pair of tights, bought before we moved out of London. Had forgotten I still had them. Blessed my habit of never throwing anything away. With swift alteration to planned pair of shoes to hide the holes, ready to go. Wondered briefly if anyone else has a pair of tights 12 years old, at least, and possibly more. Evening out excellent. Have just realised, as I write this, that I have made no plans to rectify the tights situation.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

The previous inhabitants

This post I originally put on Mumsnet, in reply to an original post thanking the people who had owned the poster's previous house before her. Thank you, she said, for leaving it in the state they did. The thread struck a chord, as plenty of other people had posted their tales of what they moved into. Here is mine.

As our speciality was buying houses no one else wanted, I have a lot of stories about what can be left, but first, I'd like to award a special prize to the mother who came to look round our first house with her daughter when we were selling it. "ALL these cats," she said, glaring at me, "and NO CHILDREN!" I was very, very pregnant with my son at the time. I was vast. Couldn't be missed. We only had two cats. We've always wondered what on earth she was on.


thank you to those who sold us houses for:

House 1
Cutting off all the light fittings and leaving dangling flexes. Thought this was an urban myth until it happened to me.

"Spilling the cats' water" when we came to visit and when our surveyor came round, to hide the fact there was a burst pipe under the concrete kitchen floor you couldn't be bothered to mend.

Genuinely, for running your therapy business out of the front bedroom. "People need to scream," you told me. The neighbours fell on our necks with relief when we moved in. We could do no wrong after you, so thanks for that.

House 2
Cutting off all the gas fires (which had been in every room as the house had been bedsits) by just lopping off the pipes underneath the floorboards and not bothering to cap them. My, we had fun when we tried to connect the cooker. Thank goodness we had the gas board round to do it. We almost enjoyed his panicky face.

I did enjoy the visits from the debt collectors anxious to trace you.

We had a lot of fun sorting out the electrics after you bypassed all the electric coin meters by a partial re-wire which involved dumping the meters under the floorboards. Took us a while to find that one.

Not telling us that you'd failed to do whatever it was you did to bypass the meters to the one in the kitchen, which was fun when it ran out, as of course it did quite soon after we moved in. We did get very used to putting the coins through to keep the fridge going, and I'm sure it was a first for the house sitter when we went away.

Starting to dismantle a wall, realising it was structural, and boarding over the disaster you'd left.

House 3
Not dangerous, just bloody filthy. We sent the children elsewhere for 5 days before we allowed them in, and we have strong stomachs:

Thanks for never, ever opening the windows. They were black. Inside. For some reason you did pay a window cleaner to do the outside. Completely pointlessly, as you couldn't actually see out.

For dumping your chewing gum on the carpet next to the bath and never bothering to remove it. You liked chewing gum, didn't you? There were quite a lot of other places you'd left it.

For having a rare talent for spilling stuff and never, ever, mopping it up.

For never cleaning the Aga. It took me 8 weeks to clean it.

For leaving us some lovely discoveries: the stair bannister was white, not black. The black was grease. There was a Victorian tiled floor under the grime in the hall. It took my sister two solid days of work to uncover it.

For never cleaning the loos.... beyond vile.. WHY? Never seen loos like it before or since.

For leaving all that hair about. You all had hair when we saw you, so presumably it had simply gathered over the years, rather than in a quick moult.

I didn't mind your dodgy decorating decisions: it doesn't take a lot of effort to slap paint around. Navy ceilings aren't my thing; nor are navy walls, or orange blotchy ones, or bright red gloss woodwork but they've all gone now.

Frankly, if you hadn't been such filthpackets, we'd never have been able to buy the house, so we do owe you a debt of gratitude. Am still puzzled that apparently in your 9 years of attempting to sell the place that no one mentioned that the grime might be putting people off, to say nothing of the smell.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Why I'm not a Cybermummy

I have Radio 4's Woman's Hour on at the moment, and am listening to a piece about the phenomenon of mothers who blog. I am a mother who blogs, but I don't blog about my children; my family or, generally, what's actually going on in my soul. This is partly because what's going on in my soul is generally spectacularly dull: if you want a small window into the thought processes of J Badger, at the moment I am hoping that it will rain in a meaningful way so that OH and I do not have to lug buckets up to the field to water the potatoes; thinking of a friend I know is having a rough time; hoping son will find a job; hoping my income improves; feeling quite pleased that the church youth group I co-run now has 14 members and we had an excellent time yesterday bowling and that is pretty much it.

I just think, that, if it were me, I would absolutely loathe to read, either now or in a few years' time, my mother's descriptions of how ghastly I was to wean; my spats with my sister; or whatever else I happened to write about. Yes, I will, at the drop of a hat, discuss, say, my children's eating habits face to face (and have done so this morning, with running friend) but when these things are out there in a blog they are out there for good. It's like your mother insisting on discussing with your friends how appalling you were to potty train, whilst heaving out those photographs of you, naked at the age of 3 months on a sheepskin that were terribly fashionable in the 1960s - I have to say that fortunately my equivalent was fully clothed - and it is mortifying, but at least when it's within the confines of the family, the mortification is within bounds. Out there on the net it's anything but, and it's prospectively there for ever.

When your children are tiny, I don't expect they care what, or even if, you write, but as they get older, they do. Both mine have asked me suspiciously Do I write about THEM? And I have gone back through the blog and shown them the innocuous few mentions they get, at which they have both sniffed in a well-I-suppose-that's-alright-then way and trotted off. On the other hand, I tell them I reserve the right to say what I like in my emails to friends, as I am perfectly well aware they do in theirs, which they seem to accept.

My children and husband never asked me to blog, and although they are an enormous part of my life, they are not mine, I do not own them, and I do not think I have the right to make their lives some of what I do, in part, to earn money.

Your relationship with your children can be so fragile when they are teenagers: I do wonder how all those blogged about babies will regard the online exposure of their little ways when they are 13, hyper-sensitive, and don't like you very much anyway. Jane Shilling (not averse herself to writing about her child: her son featured regularly in her Times column) wrote in her review of Julie Myerson's The Lost Child, "If writing about the experience of motherhood is monstrous selfishness, what else is off limits?" Which I think rather misses the point: there is a line which can be crossed. The pain and wonder of love is one thing, but hanging your children's failings out to dry is quite another.

Looking at the Cybermummy conference this year I think I'm quite possibly in a minority. Maybe I'm wrong, and the Facebook generation who document everything, photograph it and post the results for the world to see will not mind at all their mothers' perspective on things being out there too. Maybe it's more a reflection on my own intense desire to remain private: perhaps my own preference for keeping the more personal areas of my life firmly under wraps makes me misinterpret how much my children would hate appearing in the blog, warts and all, but I'd rather give that part of me the benefit of the doubt.

Pony books and morning walks it is then. As you were.

Friday, 9 July 2010

She's back!

Catnip Publishing have re-published the first two Jinnies, and here (with many thanks to Catnip for sending me the photos) they are:

The chestnut Arab is rather gorgeous. It's been a bumper year so far this far for the reissued pony book, with Jill's Gymkhana, Follyfoot and now Jinny. Ironically, despite being far more like Jinny (a bit of a loner, always drawing, and with a head often elsewhere) it was Jill I preferred as a child. Jill always seemed so very sorted out, and nothing phased her. It did me. It did Jinny too. I've come round to Jinny far more as I've grown older; perhaps because I now appreciate Jinny for what she is.

All power to Catnip, who are the wild child's latest publishers. The Summer Riders will be out in October this year.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

The Adventures of Black Beauty

How could I celebrate the website's fifth birthday and not even mention Black Beauty? Well, I have mentioned Black Beauty, but only in passing. Richard Carpenter is one of the authors I've just added to the website. He wrote 17 of the 52 scripts for The Adventures of Black Beauty. He started off his working life as an actor, but when parts became thinner on the ground, he changed tack and started writing scripts.

Black Beauty wasn't his only success, by a long way. He was also responsible for Catweazle, Robin Hood and The Ghosts of Motley Hall. Catweazle and Robin Hood passed me by but I loved The Ghosts of Motley Hall. This was classic Sunday tea time viewing for us. I remember loving it, possibly just as much as I loved The Adventures of Black Beauty. This of course was another TV favourite of mine: not a great deal to do with Anna Sewell's book (well, virtually nothing at all if I am honest) but it had a horse - and how I loved that horse. Even at the time, Black Beauty's capabilities struck me a bit unlikely, but I didn't care. The first notes of the theme tune have only to sound, and I am back at the age of 10, and obsessed.

Here it is. Goodness that nearly made me cry.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

5 today!

I've done various things to keep the wolf from the door in my time, and one of them was training people how to use computers. In the dim and distant past, having the Internet in the office was a New Thing; so much so that I would spend months in some London offices introducing people to the mysteries of Alta Vista and email. In the times when boredom almost became too much for me (and when you have shown the 100th person how to do a search for Chelsea Football Club it is difficult to resist the urge to scream) I would explore the Internet. Everything, I was told, was on there.

Except that it wasn't: not if you liked pony books. I'd resurrected my pony book collection and read it again. Where were the internet sites on Ruby Ferguson? The Pullein-Thompsons? Nowhere.

Someone will start something at some point, I thought, and went back to building my collection. This was in the heady days before Monica Edwards' titles had gone well beyond the normal purse. We used to holiday in Rye, as my infant son was appalling in the car (we had a very noisy Morris Minor, and to be fair to Fred, it was a bit much for all of us after a bit. Quiet it was not.) - anyway, there was only so much of the screaming we could stand. Rye was within screaming distance. It had plenty of bookshops. One of them specialised in Monica Edwards. Taking some very deep breaths, I coughed up as much as £10 for some titles, rejecting the horribly pricey £20 efforts. If only I had known.

I gradually added more pony titles, paying as much as a fiver for some of them. One day, I was in Oundle, in Geraldine Waddington's late lamented shop, and I saw four beautiful H M Peels:Jago, Untamed, Dido and Rogue and Gay Darius: all lovely, near fine, first editions. I bought them, and I sold the lot - on ebay. Such was my ignorance then I assumed I'd find them all again before too long. Ebay fired my enthusiasm for book selling, and I started selling other books: for years I'd squirrelled stuff away, thinking one day I'd have my own shop. I expanded operations to ABE.

By this time I'd met Vanessa Robertson of Fidra Books, after she'd asked my advice on how to set up as an Internet bookseller. She then ran Robertson Books, and, like me, sold children's and pony books online. Vanessa and her husband, Malcolm, started up a website to promote Robertson Books. It's about time you did the same, she told me. Promote yourself. Write about pony books. Now one of the wolf-from-the-door things I'd done involved teaching teenagers to use HTML. I can do this, I thought. Then I thought actually I couldn't, and in 2004 asked someone else to write the site for me. It very soon became obvious that it would cost me a small fortune to have someone else carry out my ideas for me, particularly if I wanted extensive daily updates.

Having a vigorous objection to spending money on anything that wasn't either a book or a plant, I searched around for build-it-yourself software that was free (I have since graduated to the paid-for variety). Vanessa recommended a webhost. I wrote a page on Jill. I agonised about it. I rang Vanessa about it (this girl is a saint, I hope you realise). Eventually I launched one little page about Jill. I wrote about the publishing history, and put up examples of the books I'd managed to acquire.

By this point, John Allsupp's excellent Monica Edwards site was up and running, and an American site, Ponydom, provided reviews of horse and pony books. No one had yet written a site providing what I wanted: every conceivable cover for every conceivable pony book, with information about the author and a review of what they'd written. It was a wide open field, and there was no one else in it. The whole cannon of pony book literature was there before me. By this time, I'd built up a database of customers, and they responded magnificently to my appeals for information. I wrote pages on Primrose Cumming; Joanna Cannan followed.

"How many visitors was I getting?" asked Vanessa. I had no idea. She recommended a visitor tracking programme (Statcounter). Wow. I installed it. Every day I logged in. It was utterly fascinating. People were visiting me, and once I'd learned how not to count myself, it was obvious that they were real people, actually reading my site. Some of them were on there for whole minutes - as many as 10! They lived in America; Australia; even Russia. I had 496 hits for the entire month of November 2005.

I added pages on what breed was in what book; what books to read if you wanted to read a story about a particular discipline. I wrote about my own favourite books. I submitted a piece to Folly Magazine on how to write a pony book (which they published). I added more authors. Country Living Magazine got in touch and featured me in an article they wrote on women rediscovering ponies. Pony book fans found me and contributed ideas, pictures and information.

Competition appeared, in the shape of ponymadbooklovers. There's nothing like a bit of competition for making one get one's nose to the grindstone and I moved smartly on from my leisurely contemplation of those pony book filled fields to doing some serious work producing pages. Vanessa added a blog to her site. You add one too, she said. You make me laugh. Aware that what I made Vanessa laugh with could never see the light of day, I demurred. Who was going to want to read my thoughts, I asked? Try it, she said. I did. I found I quite liked blogging. Lots of my customers commented on my posts. Wouldn't it be good, I thought, if they could start discussions instead of waiting for me to? I found Google forums, and added the forum.

I outgrew my first webhost, and had to switch to one who didn't restrict my bandwidth. That provided an interesting week or two whilst everything was transferred and re-written, as the files didn't appear to like their new home. I have now been resident on Fasthosts for a couple of years, and that's been a success. There are over 400 authors on the site: I have expanded operations to include all English language horse and pony fiction; there are sections on illustrators; Black Beauty; Pony Club Magazine Annual and the Pony Club Annual; series and sequels; pony book libraries and a character finder. My daughter joined me to consider the modern pony book. Authors agreed to be interviewed. I achieved a childhood dream and met Josephine and Diana Pullein-Thompson.

The website now averages 12,600 hits a month, with a high of 15,660 in March this year.

Reading this back, it does read as something of a puff piece. Are there downsides to doing the website? I remember reading in Bookdealer advice an Italian bookdealer gave his son, who was often tempted to research authors rather than actively sell them: time spent doing that sort of research didn't tend to result in sales, he said. It's certainly true that it's tempting to spend more time than I ought on the website, and I do fall into temptation. I could quite possibly do a great deal better if I did less on the site: it's difficult to be precise about the effect it has on my income. One of the aims was to attract people to my sales site, and I think it's done that.

I can live without the (fortunately very few) pony book fans who point out my shortcomings in research rather aggressively. Had we still been a nation that duelled, I suspect one fan would have called me out.

The downsides, though, are few: it's been a brilliant five years, and I hope that everyone who comes across the site enjoys at least some of what they find there. There are birthday celebrations: a competition (win a book token! win books!) Here's to the next five.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Website's 5th birthday

On Wednesday 7th July, it will be my pony book website's 5th birthday, so to celebrate, there will be a quiz on the site (with prizes!) as well as special events on the forum. I'm also planning a couple of interviews and special blog posts.

The quiz is all ready to go now, though I think I had better calm down from the thrill of actually getting it done before I give it another proof read. I do earn some of my living proofreading for other people (and I'm actually not at all bad at it) but I found on about my 8th look through that I'd left the answers in one bit. Sometimes I worry about myself.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

The Garden

The garden is getting even less attention than normal, but fortunately the roses are taking care of themselves.

Gardens are supposed to reflect their owners, in which case I am untidy, a bit overblown, and not given to deadheading.

Chapeau de Napoleon - after a run in with an incorrectly labelled specimen from a garden centre, here is the real thing.

Comte de Chambord, with a few astrantia lurking in the background. Whatever colour my astrantia are supposed to be, they all come up looking rather bleached. Not sure why.

Alba Maxima (white rose of York)

Felice et Perpetue, which is supposed to spread 10 feet. Mine has plans for world domination; well founded. It's already spread 18 feet, and shows no signs of slowing down. Told the chap at the Peter Beales stand at Cottesbrooke that I never fed this rose, and he was horrified. Goodness knows what it would get up to if I did.

Comte de Richelieu, which were I to get my act together, would be ideal for making rose syrup.

I'm not usually a fan of yellow or orange flowers, so goodness knows why I like these, but I do.

One day I will fill in the unplanted bit of the lavender hedge, bottom right.

Reine des Violettes, having its best year ever.

My new rose: Madame Alfred Carriere, which is going to climb over the north wall in the yard. We had to have the bit of yard at the foot of the wall dug up to put in our new water supply, and rather than pay the four figure sum the builder wanted to resurface it all, I am using this as an opportunity to cram in another rose. Bit of a no brainer, as they say: £1,500 and more tarmac versus £12.95 and a bit of effort excavating a decent planting hole amongst the stones. MAC is doing well so far. It was not my first choice, which was Souvenir du Docteur Jalmain. This was on the stand at Cottesbrooke, but I was not quick enough to get it. The woman who got it resisted all the thoughts I beamed at her while she was making up her mind. "No," I beamed - , "You don't actually want it. What about a nice HT?"

I love violas: not quite so much as I love roses, but I do. These were the other new plants I got at Cottesbrooke.

In and doing quite nicely. For once, I managed to be disciplined at Cottesbrooke: I had a mental list of the gaps in the garden (the harsh winter having carried off one of my rare thymes and my Oreganum Kent Beauty) and apart from giving in to the violas, I stuck to my list. Just as well, as last year it took me six months to find spaces for all the plants I bought.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

News: Monica Dickens - Follyfoot

The first book in the Follyfoot series is now out. More details here. I think Jinny should be out this month, and am checking. More news as soon as I know.

Friday, 2 July 2010


"Mom, why is there a pony cart in the back seat?" Why indeed?

Morning walk

Blogging has been in short supply recently, after my OH was carted into hospital rather dramatically with a kidney stone. He is now out (of hospital; the stone is still where it was alas), but he is not exactly firing on all cylinders. Anyway, he has now managed to get up, so I am trying to re-connect with the world. Illness is an odd thing for the non-ill: as well as the constant nagging worry (not like this at all when one is ill oneself) and the sheer bloodiness of watching your nearest and dearest being terribly unwell, is the odd sort of half-world it casts you into. Everything is carrying on around you remarkably normally but you, as you sit in Tescos waiting for the promised but not yet faxed through prescription to appear, petrified in case things are getting worse at home, are not.

The natural world continues, as does my ineptitude at harvesting anything. I attempted to make elderflower syrup, but think I now have to accept that the browned mess on the side has gone too far for me to do anything about it. Elderflowers look better on the tree, anyway.

Dog hunts by scent, so very rarely sees bunnies. There were several out as we walked down this ride. I saw them all. She saw none (having her head buried in the wheat Sniffing Something). She's now got to the point where the bunnies were and is terribly excited about it. Uselessly so. Bunnies now firmly in burrow.

I love the way bryony winds around.

Deadly Nightshade is something I cannot look at without instantly thinking "Poison!" My mother drummed into us which plants to avoid, and this was top of the list, along with laburnum.