Friday, 22 March 2013

Raising money for Redwings

You might already know about the latest large cruelty case to hit the headlines in the UK. Redwings Horse Sanctuary (amongst others) have been taking in horses rescued from Caerphilly, in Wales. THe horses were described by the case officer as "queueing up and waiting to die". Redwings has, to date, taken in over 40 of these horses. One was so poor her condition score was 1.

I'd like to raise some money to help these horses, so am putting up for sale new copies of Olga E Lockley's Nannie Lambert Power O'Donoghue. She was a famous steeplechaser and horsewoman who wrote wildly readable works on riding: alas difficult to find nowadays, but you can get a pretty good idea of what she was like from her biography, itself a fine read.

I'm donating £5 from the sale of each book to Redwings. All prices include p&p, and are £10 (UK), £12.50 (Europe) £16 (USA/Canada) and £16.50 (Australia and New Zealand). You can order copies here.

Friday, 15 March 2013

Bonar Dunlop and the Piebald Question

If you are pushing on a bit, as I am, you will find that there is a large tranche of the pony book reading public who see things entirely differently to you. Say Jill and Black Boy to them, and the pony that gallops through their mind is piebald. They read Ruby Ferguson's Jill books in the post-1980s printings, and in them Black Boy was a (rather porky) piebald on the front cover, and he was also (mostly) described as piebald in the text. These readers are incredulous when told that actually, Black Boy was created black.

I first read the Jill books in the 1970s, and as my paperbacks were a mix of 1960s and 1970s editions, I was confused. In some he was black, and in some piebald. It seemed odd to me at the time, but I put it down as as a strange thing the publishers had done, but not one I needed to worry about. In my mental picture of the pony, he could be whatever colour I wanted.

It wasn't until some decades later that I wondered why Black Boy was black when Ruby Ferguson created him, but morphed into a piebald. Once I knew a bit more about the author herself, and found out she died in 1966, I realised that she couldn't have had anything to do with the changes, which first appeared after she died, in Knight Books' 1968 edition of Jill's Gymkhana. This was Knight's first paperback edition of the books, and they'd commissioned artist Bonar Dunlop to provide new covers and internal illustrations for some of the books. Dunlop did covers and internal illustrations for three titles (Jill's Gymkhana, A Stable for Jill (1968) and Jill Has Two Ponies (1968).

This is probably a mystery destined never to be solved: whether the publishers wanted a piebald pony and not a black, or whether Black Boy was, inadvertently, drawn piebald and the books altered to suit, I do not know.

Whatever the explanation of Black Boy's chameleon act is, I like the Bonar Dunlop illustrations, particularly those for A Stable for Jill. In Dunlop's portrayal of her, Jill is a much more sophisticated character than in her Caney incarnation.  She certainly looks a true child of the sixties. She's lost the neat schoolgirl plaits, and has a scruffy pony tail. The Dunlop illustrations capture the vigour of the stories, if not always the quirkiness, and the Dunlop ponies are generally good examples of equine portraiture. His covers are full of action: a Dunlop pony is one on the move.

Bonar Dunlop was an artist about whom I'd not been able to find out much, but recently his daughter got in touch with me, and I was able to find out more about this artist whose pictures of Jill still live in many people's minds.

Bonar Dunlop was a New Zealander, who moved backwards and forwards between the Antipodes and Europe until finally settling in England with his family in 1959. He was born John Bonar Dunlop in 1916, in Dunedin, New Zealand, and it was on the family farm in Dunedin that he started riding. He kept up riding, and drawing horses, even after his father died when Dunlop was still a teenager, and the family moved to Europe. They arrived in Europe at a time of considerable cultural activity; settled in Vienna, and it was there that he studied art. He continued studying in Paris and London, and in Stockholm, where he spent 1940, having volunteered to help the Finns fight the Russians.

Bonar Dunlop always enjoyed drawing and sculpting horses, and his daughter still has several of his equine sketches and sculptures. There was considerably more to him than just equestrian art: his daughter described him as having "an incredible gift for drawing which hardly needed training," and when he returned to Australia after his war service with the RAF in North Africa, he soon became sought after as an illustrator.

Although a success in Australia, there were far greater opportunities in Europe. Dunlop had married an Englishwoman, and so the young family moved to London. It must have been daunting to start all over again, but Dunlop soon built up another successful career, working for top flight clients like Harrods.

He illustrated a few children's books in the 1960s: Calixte (1964) by Daniel Roberts, and True Tales of Mystery (1967) by Kathleen Fidler, amongst them. Still a great horse lover, he was commissioned in the late 1960s by Knight to provide illustrations for their paperback versions of the Jill books in the 1960s.

He had a successful career in illustration, but sculpture was always his passion, and he sculpted in his spare time during his career as an illustrator. In the early 1970s, he took up sculpture full time, creating several sporting pieces. He started doing sculptures of rugby players after watching Saracens play in 1975, and created a statue of Gareth Edwards, which was unveiled in 1982 in Cardiff.

Bonar Dunlop died in Sussex in 1992.

Thank you to Fiona Dunlop, Bonar Dunlop's daughter, for her help with this piece.

My book, Heroines on Horseback, is out in April 2013.
Pre-order from me - if you'd like the book signed, please add this in the Special Instructions section
Pre-order a copy from Waterstones

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Moving on

I had the Country Life dream. When hanging round at a station, waiting for my train, my favourite reading was Country Life. To be more accurate, my favourite reading was the property pages of Country Life. They are lush, sunlit visions of countryside perfection. An Elizabethan manor here; a perfect Queen Anne box there, the room shots full of the very best sort of brown furniture, beeswaxed to within an inch of its life. The gravel paths were weedfree; the grass immaculate. Even the wrecks were romantic in their decay: a brilliant opportunity for someone.

The country house was my dream. I peopled it with my happy children, playing in the fields, with a benign horse or two looking on, manes gently lifted by the soft summer breeze. I never thought I'd actually live in my dream. Reality for me was Charlton, SE7, one of those areas of London that even most Londoners are a bit hazy about. "The Millennium Dome," I would say. "There." Charlton was scruffy, and gently eccentric. Our first house we bought from a couple who did pyschotherapy. "What are the neighbours like?" I asked. "Oh fine," came the answer. "We're the ones who are noisy. We do our therapy in the front bedroom, and people do need to scream."  Any worries I had about us being welcomed by the neighbours vanished on the spot.

Our next Charlton house we bought from a chap who was, it turned out, in dire financial trouble. He'd bought a big Victorian house when it was bedsits, set about converting it and then run out of money. After we moved in, I spent weeks sending debt collectors and other, rather more shady, individuals, in the direction of his solicitor. The house was unfit for human habitation. It was damp, the roof leaked, there  was no central heating or hot water (though there was, oddly, a new bathroom) and no working kitchen. Having been brought up in a house where outings were often interrupted when it rained, to fly back to the house and arrange buckets, I was sublimely unbothered by the house's general dereliction. Our eighteen month old adored the stairs. We loved the original features. We duly flew back to the house when it rained to arrange buckets, and a handy old door which caught some of the more minor leaks. We scraped together enough money to mend the roof, and six years, a lot of money and a lot of hard work later, had a lovely house, at which point we sold it to a friend, without any very clear idea of what we were going to do next.

My mother sent us a copy of the property section of the local paper, and there was an advert for the Manor House. "Saddle up in your own back yard," it said. We rang the agents and made an appointment. My parents, who lived not too far away, did a preliminary recce, and said that they thought no one was living in the house. All the curtains were drawn, and there were no signs of life.

Wrong, as it turned out. The house was inhabited. We found out that the family who lived there had very soon thought better of it, and had been trying to sell for nine years. The house was spectacularly, gloriously, filthy. The family appeared to have given up any attempt to tidy up, clean, or to finish any decorating job. They'd started stripping the wallpaper off the kitchen walls, got half way and stopped. There was a floorboard missing where the hall met the kitchen. Everywhere there was stuff; piles and mounds of stuff, covered in fluff and the dust of years. The loos were indescribable. The family huddled on a corner sofa in the sitting room while the father showed us round.

We fell in love with it, hook, line and sinker. Despite the filth, and the general atmosphere of decay, the house had enormous charm. The problems though, were obvious. There was a large hole in the porch roof, the guttering was dodgy, the boiler was vast and ancient, and outside was a disaster. The garden hadn't been touched for years and was a temple to The Nettle. The barns and stables were so bad even the estate agent described them as being in need of work. But there was a field, a whole actual field. Acres of grass. And stables: tatty and decaying, but stables. Space, and underneath the grime, charm. We could rescue this house, we thought. The family, before they gave up hope, had done the biggest thing, the roof.

And so we bought it. We had a lovely, carefully filled out spreadsheet, with the details of how we were going to renovate it. When we moved in, the children went to stay with my sister for a few days while we cleaned. We couldn't see out because the windows were black. None of the windows had been opened for years. It took us a day to take off all the secondary double glazing so we could get at the windows to clean them, and another day to clean. We found that all the trapped condensation had caused spectacular amounts of rot. The landing window, when we opened it, turned out to be attached only at the top of the frame. We swiftly closed it.

The second day we were there, it poured with rain. There was a loud rumble, and a large area of the garden wall at the back fell down. That wasn't in the spreadsheet. Still, we got on with re-leading the porch, replacing a lot of the wood, and replacing the guttering at the back of the house so that the whole of the rear of the house wasn't sheeted with water whenever it rained. I set about the nettles and found paths and flower beds. We cleaned endlessly, and found that underneath the grime, much of the house wasn't as bad as we'd thought. Outside though, was a different matter. In the heady excitement of acquiring so much space, after a tiny London garden and the smallest of garden sheds, it had not dawned on us quite how much we had to renovate.

another wall fell down
At this point, were I talking Grand Designs, or any of the many articles in the property supplements, we would have buckled down and learned how to point with lime; re-slate, and a myriad of other accomplishments, taken ourselves to the limit financially, and have ended up with a beautifully restored house we proudly showed off to the world and any property journalist short of a story. But the thing is, we did learn to re-slate, and point with lime, and I turned out to be a dab hand with putty and Jonathan with carpentry, and we did take ourselves to the limit financially. Time after time after time. The house ate money. It ate everything we threw at it. It ate all our time. It ate all our money, because although we learned to do stuff, an awful lot had to be done by professionals. It ate our energy. It was our hobby. It was our holidays. There were no horses of our own because we never had enough money. We never did anything at the weekends because we were always doing things with the house, the gardens, the grounds or the barns. It never stopped. 

When people learned we were moving, I lost count of the people who said "How can you bear to? It's so beautiful." It is beautiful. It is a gorgeous, gorgeous house. I loved it, I love it still, but it is an odd sort of love when you are in thrall to something that is eating you alive. Because in the end, we were not enough for the house. For us it was a a siren, singing its song. Odysseus escaped before he got to the rocks; us it took a bit longer.

I cried when I shoved the spare keys through the front door when we moved on the 18th February because that was it. I would never open that front door again, never notice the way the locksmith had set the new lock a little too much to the left after I'd lost the keys running across the field and had to have all the locks replaced.  Never look at the woodwork we'd had restored on the porch and notice where it needed rubbing down and painting (again), or the muddy marks on the door frame where the dog shook herself, or my son's walking boots, abandoned for months under the bench in the porch, or my daughter's wellies, loathed and worn only under protest, crumpled up next to them. Because I work from home, my entire existence took place in that house. Day in, day out, there I was. I breathed the house and it breathed me. I can't believe it's gone. Couldn't bear, until now, to look at photographs. To think about it.

But that is it. It's time to stop now. However much you love something, sometimes you are not the best thing for it or indeed it for you. Now I have time to wonder at the miracle of having a bank account with something in it; the amazing feeling of living in a house where, when something goes wrong, it is not my responsibility. No more looking back.

It's someone else's now. The day we moved was glorious; not the biting cold or grey drear of most of the winter, but warm and sunny spring. The people who bought the house were going to pick up the main keys from the estate agent after work, and I imagined them wandering round the empty, sunlit rooms, drinking in the charm, the beauty and the stillness and knowing it was theirs. I hope it is the house of their dreams.