Monday, 30 January 2012

War Horse - the Film

Tax bill duly paid (and oh the pain of sending off that much money in one go, but at least it's done now), the Badger Exchequer felt it could handle Going Out.  I have reviewed War Horse - the book; War Horse - the play and War Horse - the Exhibition, so felt duty bound to complete the set by reviewing the film. Actually getting to the film was the usual pell-mell rush, complicated by family taxi duties, and in the kerfuffle, forgot to ensure I had stuffed my pockets full of tissues. Bad move, I thought, as this movie has been billed as the ultimate weepie, and I am notorious in my family for crying at anything. I cry at happy; I cry at sad. Babies being born reduces me to floods every time. It is amazing that my copies of Black Beauty, The Ten Pound Pony and The Railway Children  are not warped and tear stained. Fortunately OH had an unused handkerchief he was prepared to hand over.

Totally unnecessarily as it turned out. I remained stony hearted and dry-eyed throughout, only thinking of welling up at the reunion between the returning hero Albert and his mother. My husband, who is more used to having to deliver sympathetic pats to his sobbing wife, was instead more worried about restraining me as I bounced up and down in fury beside him, hissing about the arrival of yet another horse playing the part of Joey. Fair enough, one can't necessarily expect to use the same horse, particularly at the end, when Joey needs to appear a bit ragged, having been mired in wire. It's like using vintage cars: you need them in a period film, but no owner of a loved and slaved over vintage car wants it smeared in mud, and likewise no one in their right minds would starve a horse for the sake of cinematic verisimilitude. For the same reason, the horror of what horses when through in the First World War is only suggested.

So letting that one pass, the noise. The horse noise. All that whinnying. It's as if Spielberg was aware that the movie was supposed to be about a horse's point of view, and as horses can't act, nor portray subtleties of emotion, that gap had better be filled by whinnying. And harrumphing, and general horse noise, which horses actually don't generally do. They're usually pretty silent creatures (as you are when you are a prey species as the last thing you want to do is alert those hunting you to your presence). The audience obviously needed to have the horsiness rammed down their throats in case they forgot what the film was nominally about.

What the film was about, as the soupiness of the John Williams score constantly reminded you, was emotion. But the score and the film seemed strangely at odds: without the horrible relationship between Albert and his father being better delineated, and the cruelty of Mr Narracott's behaviour to Joey being as explicit as it is in the book, Albert's fascination with Joey becomes just another teenage horse obsession, rather than a combination of rebellion and desperation to find something meaningful in an otherwise grim existence.

The film itself felt episodic; with the removal of Joey as the narrator, the story lost the coherence it has in the book; and to some extent in the play. It was simply a trot round different people one might meet in a war, which therefore lost something the book stresses; the neutrality of a horse. They don't care who looks after them as long as it's done well.  Humanity was also blanded out; Albert is not a character I enjoyed particularly in any of his incarnations, but even less so here. The softening of Albert's father from the brute he is in the book, and the sidelining of characters like the German officer who ordered the horses to be shot lessened the emotional impact of the film. Had one never read anything about World War One, the over-riding impression left by the film was of a collection of rather nice people suffering a bit.  The actors did their best with what they were given to do, but for me the best performances occurred outside the war section. David Thewlis and Emily Watson were great.

Having read several reviews praising the film once it entered the War, I was expecting the film to move up several gears once war started, but was disappointed again. The war section did provide the two scenes I really did think well done:  Joey's entanglement and subsequent cutting free from wire in No Man's land, which was wittily done (the wire cutters being thrown from the German trench was a particularly good touch) and the awful tension in the trenches before the men went over the top.

The film looks tremendously lush while it's in Devon; rather more so than it ought. The artfully applied neglect didn't convince; the layer of tattiness applied to what was obviously a good thick layer of recently applied thatch on the Narracott farmhouse (again I can see that you wouldn't want that removing if it was your house but still...) and the overly tidy barns. There was plenty of clutter, but none of it had that slightly sordid air you get from decades of undisturbed junk slowly mouldering away.  It was just too clean. So unlike the homelife of my own dear outbuildings.  And I know it's yet more nitpicking; but the farm is supposed to be grindingly poor, and the area not wealthy; but the village looked polished and rather twee; acres of beautifully painted pastel windowframes and lovely pointing.

I could have forgiven the extraneous horse noise and the lush prettiness, and even the soupy score if the film had done even half the job the book does of explaining the horror of war from a horse's point of view. I must admit I cannot think of any way that the film could have been done by relying on real horses; they just can't act, and as with the excruciating scene where Joey "shows" Topthorn accepting the driving collar is ok, it is obvious the horse is simply doing a trick it has been trained to perform. In the play (of which I am not a wholehearted fan either) the use of puppets obviously manipulated by man does at least enable the portrayal of emotion.  Maybe I failed as a viewer; failed to be able to overlay the horses with emotion. Whatever, my over-riding emotions once the credits rolled were irritation and disappointment.

Friday, 27 January 2012


Cast into transports of horror at the weekend when an email arrived from Books for Keeps, for whom I've written an article.  Can they have a photograph to illustrate the article, they say - of me. The only recent one involves a green, sparkly hat. Probably not quite the thing for a sensible author photo. There are no other photos, as I am generally behind the camera rather than in front of it and I loathe having my picture taken. When confronted with a camera my face seems to grow a thousand different muscles it didn't have before, and none of them want anything to do with the others. Discuss this with son, famed for years of having an ear or an elbow photographed as he fled the camera lens. "They take your soul, you know, photographs," he says. Agree, but reflect that going on his Facebook page, quite a lot of his soul must now be absent.

Anyway, I have thought uneasily over the last few months that I would probably have to provide an author photo for my book, when it eventually emerges, but managed each time the thought popped up to suppress it firmly. Now I must face it. I mutter to my husband, after seeing the email, that perhaps he needs to pick up the camera. "Um," he says, and then wisely forgets all about it. Monday arrives. "Here," I say to daughter. "We have five minutes before we have to leave for your orthodontist's appointment. Just take as many photographs of  me as you can. Hopefully one of them will make me look at least human."

Daughter, also fully paid up member of the Facebook generation, picks up camera. There is a pause.

"Don't look so worried, Mum."

"Try raising an eyebrow and looking sideways. That's what I do."

I try this. There is a short and charged pause.

"No, Mum. Just.... no. Mum, it's not that hard. Just try and look.... normal."

"No, don't look above my head. Why are you looking above my head?"

I am very conscious at this point that we have only a couple of minutes before we absolutely must head off to the orthodontist. Attempt to relax. Attempt to look... normal. HOW DO I LOOK NORMAL? Want to whimper.

"No, try SMILING Mum."

Try. I really do. Daughter puts camera down and attempts to smooth my hair down. Do not feel that it is my hair that is the problem but my face is beyond smoothing. Daughter takes a series of rapid shots. We inspect them.

It is just vanity, isn't it, this horror of being photographed? I am still vain enough to want to present a half-way decent image to the world, but I do know what son means when he says photographs take your soul. It's a little chunk of yourself that you no longer have any control over, once your image is out there. I suppose I think the essential me is the one that writes and thinks; what I look like is incidental. So much harder for daughter's generation, when the pressure to have endless pictures of yourself, TAKEN by yourself, natch, seems impossible to resist. At least I can generally hide behind black and white 1930s equine photos.

Do think it sad that appropriate author photo is probably not the green sparkly hat.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

And the sale continues...

There's an extra 10% off the original price on my horse and pony sale stock, and now 30% off all non-pony children's books too.

Challenge at the Chalet School - down to £24.50 from £36.00

A lovely Picture Puffin - Plant Life, now £3.50, down from £5.00.

Monday, 16 January 2012

The peg horse

Inspired by Susanna's comment on the last post on card horses - she'd bought the stuff but not actually made one yet - I give you the five minute peg horse. I have a fantasy world I inhabit from time to time where I waft about making stuff, without it going disastrously wrong; a dog running off with something or me getting bored. Getting over all of those problems, here is the ultimate in re-useable creativity. I may have more. The tea towels may not escape.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

The unknown ways of the coloured horse

Why would the younger person have to be fond of children? Were they supposed to act as child-catcher for a skewbald who liked to eat them?

From Riding, July-August, 1948

Sale now on

There's 30% off over 140 titles on my sales website, including Monica Edwards, Joanna Cannan and Primrose Cumming, and a whole variety of other stuff.  You can find the sale here.

Caroline Akrill - Stars Don't Cry £3.50 £2.45

Joanna Cannan - London Pride £30.00 £21.00

Primrose Cumming - The Wednesday Pony £15.00 £10.50

Monica Edwards - Hidden in a Dream £20.00 £14.00

Monday, 9 January 2012

Hard work

I wrote myself an enormous to-do list today, and having worked down a reasonable amount of it, stumped off downstairs to let the dogs out and have some lunch. No such luxury for the farm horseman in the 1700s, as these instructions to a farm foreman make clear: (the word cattle was used at the time to describe farm animals generally, or horses in particular, rather than just cows)

He is to rise at four in the morning, feed his cattle and clean his stable.
While the cattle are feeding he will get his harness ready, for which he will take two hours.
For his breakfast you shall allow him half an hour. 
Then thou shall watch him put the harness on his cattle and start by seven at his work and keep at it till three in the afternoon.
He shall then bring his team home, clean them and give them their food, dine himself and at four go back to his cattle and give them more fodder, and getting into his barn, make ready their food for the morrow, and see the cattle again before going to his own supper at six.
After his supper he will mend his shoes by his fireside for himself and his family, or beat and knock hemp or flax, or pitch and stamp apples or crabs for cider or verjuice, or else grind malt, pick candle rushes or do some husbandry office within doors till it befall eight o'clock. Then shall he take his lantern, visit his cattle once more, and go with his household to rest."

This carter earned 10d a day (4p); had with the job a cottage with some outbuildings, and two acres of land, which his wife tilled. The timetable doesn't make clear whether the beating and knocking etc was for the carter's benefit, or for his employer's, though I suspect the specificity of it meant it was for the employer's.

I was intrigued by the fact the foreman was specifically required to oversee the harnessing, and the amount of time that was to be devoted to its care. No harness, no work.