Wednesday, 31 July 2013

The Chemical Horse: a brief literary tour of colic

Flicking through pre-war Riding magazines, I came across an article about home made preparations for the stable medicine chest - Home-Made Recipes, by Mowgli, Riding Magazine, June 1939. Everything Mowgli gave you recipes for was along the lotion and potion line: nothing internal. The one horse therapy recipe that has stuck with me for years is the turpentine plus linseed one for colic beloved of the 1950s pony book. I wondered if Mowgli hadn't mentioned it because it postdated him, so started ferreting about in the more ancient reaches of equine lit.

The veterinary arsenal of today, tested, and generally guaranteed safe, is relatively recent in the history of horse ownership. For centuries, owners relied on the home-made remedy, as that was all there was. Gervase Markham's Markham's Master-piece, (1668) tackles everything the 17th century horse owner needed to know. Much of what he writes is based on observation, and his is often spot on. He describes colic (cholick) this:

"now for the Cholick. It is a grievous or tormenting pain in the Great Gut or bag."

- which is a good and concise description of the effects of colic. Gervase Markham always likes to quote several different alternative treatments he's found, before letting rip with his own.

"The Cure thereof... is only to give him a clister made either of Wild-Cucumbers, or else of Hens-Dung, Nitrum and Strong Vinegar.."

A clister, if you're wondering, is an enema.

Markham appreciated a violent approach: you're lulled by the charm of the recipe that follows (it sounds worth taking yourself if you're in for a long night with a sick horse) and then he hits you with his master stroke. Or rather, he hits the horse:

"But for my own part, I hold it best to take a Quart of Malmsey, of Cloves, Pepper, Cinnamon, of each half an ounce, of Sugar half a Quartern, and give it to the Horse luke-warm, and then Ride him at least an Hour after; but before you Ride him, anoint all his Flanks with Oil de Bay, or Oil of Spike. Now if while you Ride him he will not Dung, you shall then Rake him, and if Need be, Enforce him to Dung..."

I don't particularly want this page to be a target for the seriously strange, so won't spell out exactly what happened to get the horse to dung, but to rake a horse, you'd need a glove now. In Markham's day, covering your hands in butter did the trick. And you then needed a peeled raw onion. Poor horse.

Youatt - the stomach

Tackling the blockage from both ends carried on being the treatment of choice. In William Youatt's The Horse, its History, Breeds and Management (1843), raw onions at least seem to have been left in the past. Drenches of turpentine and laudanum were the thing, followed by bleeding the horse if it wasn't better in half an hour. Again, rubbing the horses's belly was recommended, though not "the broom-handle rubbed over the belly by two great fellows with all their strength," which the author had presumably witnessed, and thankfully, disapproved of. Youatt's treatment was possibly rather more effective than another use of turpentine I tracked down in The Frank C Brown Collection of NC Folklore (1977, but collected in 1913).

"If a horse has colic, burn some turpentine in the hollow of his hoof and he will be relieved of pain immediately."

I wonder if it worked.

So, those pony books of my 20th century youth who recommended the turpentine-based colic drench as an essential of the well-equipped stable were following a well-established tradition. In Diana Pullein-Thompson's A Pony to School, (1950), the pony Clown goes down with colic and the first line of treatment is a not wholly successful attempt to drench him with a colic drink made of turpentine, linseed oil and chloric ether. The pony is successfully treated by the vet, who injects him with eserine (Physostigmine - which has a laxative affect as one of its actions). The whole incident is used, as so often with the Pullein-Thompsons, for information. The reader learns exactly what to do if a pony has colic, and useful stuff on what causes it: in this case it could have been the grass clippings Mrs Thorneydyke dumped in the paddock, or Augusta feeding the pony and watering afterwards. 

Don Stanford's The Horsemasters (1958) has pretty much the same approach, and I was struck by how very similar to Youatt's it is:

"If outside, get horse to nearest box and encourage him to stale. Throw straw against his belly and whistle, that'll help. Keep him warm. Walking exercises may help. Give him a colic drench. Hot blankets rolled up and applied to belly will relieve pain and stimulate action of the bowels. If the pain is not relieved within one hour, send for the vet."

The colic drench here is old favourites turpentine and linseed oil, with the addition of whiskey.

Colic can still be fatal now. There is now surgery for the most dreaded complication of colic, the twisted gut, or torsion of the large colon, though probably even that would not have saved the wretched racehorse James Herriot describes, given drench after drench by the stable manager, until, with the horse groaning with misery, Herriot puts it down.   Best medical practice now is to call the vet, and avoid the drench which might well enter the lungs at the hands of the inexperienced.

Sadly modern horse owners still dread colic. The Farewell to... column in Horse and Hound still contains its well-known colic victims. Modern day drugs and surgery won't guarantee a recovery. In Victoria Eveleigh's Joe and the Lightning Pony (2013) a pony dies from it.

~ 0 ~

NOTE: I'm sure no one who reads this would even think about it, but I don't recommend making any of these mixtures
up, even if you can find the ingredients. This article is written out of curiosity, not any desire to encourage you to actually make anything I write about.

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Review: Belinda Rapley - Foxy - Rivalry at Summer Camp

Belinda Rapley’s Pony Detectives series is now onto its fifth episode with Foxy: Rivalry at Summer Camp. I’ve enjoyed earlier books in the series, but this is the best by a long way. The author’s into her stride now, and the plotting and character interaction have really developed in this book. Pony mysteries can sometimes feel a little contrived: the mystery is rather too obviously bolted on to the pony doings which are the book’s main focus, but in this story, the mystery flows naturally, and the book's a real page turner. 

Foxy sees the Pony Detectives girls venturing out of their yard for the first time, because they’re off to Pony Club Camp. This gives the author a chance to bring in more characters, and to keep them in place for the duration of the book. It's shifted the focus more onto the mystery and other characters’ development, but that's not a problem. If you've read the previous four books you know the original characters well anyway, and if you haven't, there's enough sketched in to make them live, without making the reader feel they're having to grind through a whole load of stuff they already know.

Each book has a mystery for the girls to solve, as well as the usual pony activities. In this one, Lily Simpson’s retired competition pony, Foxy, has gone missing from their stables, which are near to the Pony Club Camp.  The four Pony Detectives girls: Rosie, Mia, Charlie and Alice are all present and correct. They’re going to be in Blue Team for the duration of the camp, along with two more girls. The other girls are Holly, who’s hiring Skylark, a pony from the local riding stables for the camp, and Amber, who is Lily Simpson’s younger sister. She’s brought her pony Copper.

Lily Simpson is the darling of the pony crowd. She’s a 20 year old New Zealander who’s the youngest ever to have won Badminton. She and her family have all moved to the UK permanently now to further Lily’s career, and she’s aiming for Burghley, which is where she is when the camp starts. And oh, how starry eyed the Pony Club are when Lily's little sister appears. The book is an amusing and neatly observed look at what goes on. No need for Amber to lift a finger – wherever she looks, there’s an eager Pony Club member, doing something for her. The attention Amber gets isn’t altogether welcome. She knows people are only really interested in her because of whose sister she is, and there’s a lot of pressure on her to be as good a rider as her sister.

Amber, and the other new girl Holly, are interesting and well observed characters. Holly has her own problems: she’s the only one who’s had to hire a pony, and Amber seems to have taken against her. When everyone finds out Lily’s retired pony Foxy has gone missing, and both Amber and Holly start behaving strangely, it adds more layers to the mystery.

There’s plenty of good pony stuff too: all the minutiae of camp life, together with lot of riding, schooling and education.

This is my favourite so far of the Pony Detectives series. Belinda Rapley’s stories have really developed as she’s broadened her canvas. This book is a satisfying and engaging read: just right for anyone about to go on Pony Club camp, or who wishes they were.

~  0  ~

One of the comments on a previous review asked what age the book would be suitable for, so I’ve started to add info on what sort of age a book is aimed at. It’s not an exact science in the UK as we don’t age band books, and it’s not helped by the fact characters’ ages are often just a guess. Or of course I might just not have picked up what someone's age is.

Belinda Rapley: Foxy – Rivalry at Summer Camp
Templar Publishing £4.99
Also available as an ebook
Age range of main characters: not stated, but I’d guess around 10-12
Suitable for: primary age and up to 12. No romance.
Belinda Rapley’s page on my website

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Review: Sable Hamilton - Wildfire (Stardust Stables)

There's a reason Jenny Oldfield's written more horse and pony stories than any other British author: even Christine Pullein-Thompson*. She tells an excellent story. Stardust Stables is her latest series, written under the pseudonym of Sable Hamilton.

It's been out a few months now, and I admit I wasn't hustling Wildfire to the top of the to be read pile. My last experience of Jenny Oldfield was her Magical Ponies series, which encapsulates everything that is bad with the fantasy pony genre: portentous pony speak and unrealistic perfection in its fantasy creatures.

Stardust Stables is, thankfully, a world away from the Magical Ponies. Jenny Oldfield likes setting her series in America, and this one runs true to form, as it's set in Colorado. Stardust Stables provides teenage stunt riders and trained horses and ponies to the movie business. The Stables is run by Lizzie and Jack, and the riders appear to live there, at least during the summer. I haven't read book one, so can't say if they live there full time, and if they do, what happens about school. Wildfire doesn't clear up either point.

The riders are allotted a horse or pony which they bond with and ride. They train, look after the horses, and audition. When Wildfire opens, rider Alisa, 14, has just done an audition for a big movie starring teenage star Hannah Hart. The stables needs that booking, particularly as it emerges that Lizzie's ex husband Pete Mason is claiming half the Stardust Stables horses, stating that they're his share of the stables. Alisa gets the part, and at first all goes well. Alisa and her horse Diabolo perform brilliantly: far better than Lucy Reeves, Alisa's old rival who is now working at Pete Mason's stables, and who also has a stunt part in the movie. Pete Mason and his desire to seize half the Stardust horses isn't the only threat: Lucy's determined to get in on the act too, and that's when everything starts to go wrong for Alisa.

The story whizzes along at a fine rate. Jenny Oldfield is a fine plotter. If you want a challenging read which wrings your emotions, this book's not for you. Wildfire is a book which sets out to entertain, with attractive characters and horses, excitement, adventure, and a tiny dash of romance, and it succeeds admirably.

~ 0 ~

* Christine Pullein-Thompson's total of pony stories is 57; Jenny Oldfield, if you include her various pseudonyms, is currently at 62. She's written the Home Farm Twins and Half Moon Ranch series, and has also written under the names Tina Nolan and Sable Hamilton.

Sable Hamilton: Stardust Stables
Stripes, 2013, £4.99
Age of main character: 14
Suggested age range: up to 14 at a stretch, but I think older primary (10+) would enjoy it too.

Jenny Oldfield's page on my website

Win the copy I reviewed by adding your name to the comments. I'll do the draw on Monday 29th July.

Friday, 19 July 2013

The Mystery of Dick Francis and the Missing Heads

I've been sent some cover shots for some American printings of Dick Francis recently for my website. I don't know whether it's the publishers, or the designer, or maybe just sheer, freaking chance, but someone obviously has an issue with heads.

They're obscured:


Or just plain missing.

The one above is utterly bizarre. If it had been the cover for Bonecrack, in which models of horses with broken legs are sent to the hero, I could have just about understood it.

Thanks to Bettina Vine for these.

Review: Victoria Eveleigh - Joe and the Lightning Pony

Joe and the Lightning Pony is the second in the Joe series. In the first book, Joe and the Hidden Horseshoe, Joe and his family move from Birmingham to the country: a disaster as far as Joe’s concerned. But Joe rediscovers his love of horses, and in the midst of a sea of horse-loving femininity in the shape of his mother and little sister, proves that he has what it takes when it comes to horses. At the close of the book, he’s now riding Lightning, the pony that came free with his mother’s cob because she was lame, and life is looking good.

Life continues to be pretty good for Joe in the second book. Most of the problems that beset Joe are behind him, and he’s looking forward to new challenges.

As in the previous book, Joe and his friends are still doing the martial art Aikido. I like the way the author shows her characters having a life outside horses. So often, pony book characters don’t. Here you can see the way in which what Joe learns at Aikido (“You are responsible for everything you do. You own your life.”) translates into other areas of his life: what he does with his pony and his family. He’s still just as keen on horses as ever he was, but society’s view of horses is that they’re for girls. When his little sister Emily’s birthday comes round, everyone thinks it’s perfectly normal for her to have masses of horsey presents, and to join the Pony Club. When Joe says he wants to join the Pony Club, his mother’s first reaction is to think it’s odd, because the other things Joe likes are normal boy things: fishing and martial arts. She comes round though, and Joe learns to put what everyone else thinks behind him, because he’s responsible for what he does.

His pony Lightning is a wow at gymkhana games: she loves them, and is very, very good at them. Joe has to learn it all from scratch (including vaulting, which Joe struggles with, and practises on the back of the sofa. He falls off, which raises some interesting questions, and reminds me of when my sister managed to break her collar bone falling off the bed when practising half scissors). The Pony Club enters a team for the Prince Philip Cup, the inter Pony Club gymkhana game competition at the Horse of the Year Show, and Joe’s chosen. He has a lot to learn.

I really enjoyed the description of the Prince Philip Cup. Often descriptions of gymkhanas can descend into lists of who won what, but this is genuinely exciting. Besides the Prince Philip Cup, there’s plenty more to keep the reader guessing: what exactly is Lightning’s history? Will Emily manage to  overcome the tragedy that hits the family? And what will happen to Lightning now Joe’s outgrowing her?

This book doesn’t have the tension that the first one did, because Joe’s now overcome the major hurdles that beset him in the first book.  It’s a different read to the first book, but still a deeply satisfying one. I’m enjoying Joe’s story, and his view on what it’s like to be a boy in a world that’s almost exclusively female.

If you’d like to win a beautiful and unread copy of this book, add your name to the comments here. I’ll do a draw for the book on 24th July (well I won’t, but the Random Number Generator will), and I’ll post it anywhere.

Victoria Eveleigh: Joe and the Lightning Pony
Orion, 2013, £4.99

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Review: Maggie Dana - Chasing Dreams and Almost Perfect

I hadn’t realised until I started reading Almost Perfect that I hadn’t read Chasing Dreams. A quick trip to the ebook store later, and it was mine (and very reasonably priced it is too).  This review will be two for the price of one as I try and catch up.

Chasing Dreams sees Kate’s father, who’s been absent in the Brazilian jungle for the past four books studying butterflies, arrive home. Kate has mixed feelings about this: it’s great to see her Dad again, but he has a new position in a university in Wyoming, 2000 miles away from Vermont. Great thinks her Dad: there’s masses of space in Wyoming, and Kate will be able to have a horse. The problem is her Dad doesn’t see why they should spend a huge amount shipping Tapestry over when there are plenty of horses in Wyoming. Potentially losing Tapestry isn’t Kate’s only problem: best friend Holly’s boyfriend is trying to organise a surprise birthday party for her, and this means lots of secretive phone calls to Kate: phone calls Holly can’t help noticing, and about which she gets the wrong idea. And then there’s Kate’s sort-of boyfriend, film star Nathan. He’s away filming in New Zealand, and Kate’s never actually had a proper date with him. Brad, on the other hand, is right here in Vermont. And he’s kind. And cute.

Almost Perfect develops the situation with Kate and her father more. They’re now living in Kate’s aunt’s cottage in Vermont. Kate and Holly want to qualify for the Festival of Horses: it’s a huge chance for them, as scouts from the United States Equestrian Team use the Festival as an opportunity to scout out riders they want to work with. Of course they’re not the only ones: their friends at Timber Ridge want to ride too, and so does Angela Dean, possibly almost as much as her mother wants her too. Between them, they ensure Kate can’t ride. The Nathan/Brad situation is still there too: Brad carries on being a good thing, and Nathan, well, he's just not there. 

Both books are well up to the standard of the previous four.  Maggie Dana’s series works on a very small time frame. Although there are now six books in the series, they cover a matter of months - around seven. This allows the author to explore developments in her characters’ lives at length, and she does this in an entirely convincing way. Because of the time scale, there’s no need for her to rush through any of the characters’ thoughts and decisions. The great strength of these books is that you believe in the characters. Maggie Dana is an astute observer of the teenage mindset, and she draws their vacillations and doubts skilfully.

She’s also a fine plotter. Working with such a short time scale, there's a risk that the books could feel as if it's a stretch to fill them, but that's the last thing you feel. The mixture of horse, school, home and relationships is finely judged. What you get are believable slices of teenage life, and (essential for a series) the characters find their way into your affections so that you care about them and want to find out what happens next.

My one quibble with this book is Angela Dean. Maybe it’s because I read books five and six immediately after each other, but when I was about a third of the way through Almost Perfect and it was obvious Angela had been up to no good, my instinctive reaction was oh no, not again. A pattern has emerged: Angela does awful things to Kate, we see Angela’s mother being vile, Angela has a moment of despair which leads Kate to feel sorry for her, and then Angela goes right back to being foul again. Maybe book seven will see her take a holiday (visiting her stepfather?) and will let the author have a go at introducing tensions from a different quarter. Angela is the one character who seems stuck.

I’m looking forward to moving on with Kate and Holly. I am, I admit, desperate to know what Kate will do about the Nathan/Brad conundrum. If you’ve not tried any of the Timber Ridge Riders, I recommend you try. They’re all available as ebooks, so perfect for squirrelling away as summer holiday reading.  

Maggie Dana: Chasing Dreams
Pageworks Press, £4.99
Ebook £1.49, various formats

Maggie Dana: Almost Perfect
Ebook only so far, £1.84, various formats

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Review: Che Golden - Mulberry and the Summer Show

I really liked this book, which makes me even sadder that I have an issue with the way in which one of its teenage characters is depicted. In general, this is a well-written, sparky story. The characterisation is spot on, and it’s a joy to read. If the rest of the series is as good as this, it’s going to be a cracker.

Mulberry and the Summer Show is the story of Sam: she’s nervous. Her mum can ride, and her elder sister Amy’s amazing. She wins everything. Sam though is scared. She can cope with riding on her mum’s cob, Velvet, who wouldn’t hurt a fly, but now she’s going to be taking proper riding lessons at the yard. This is not a small, friendly yard either: there’s around 80 horses, and the owner Miss Mildew (really? isn’t this a little obvious?) is a harridan: sharp and unsympathetic. Unfortunately, as is often the way, the yard owner’s character sets the tone for the yard. Amy’s rival Cecilia is jealous of Amy’s riding prowess, and she and her cronies take it out on Sam. While the younger riders are having their first riding lesson (they can all ride, having been taught by their families – this is their first official lesson) the older girls gather round to comment. And to judge.

Poor Sam. Things do not go well for her, and she ends up falling off and ending up on her back, looking up at a deeply unimpressed Miss Mildew. Miss Mildew is not impressed with the performance of Sam’s classmates either, and tells them they must all improve before the yard show in 9 weeks’ time. After Sam takes the pony she’s ridden back to the stable, it’s then that she realises she can hear the ponies talk. The Shetlands (eventually) tell her the best way to fight against Cecilia is to be a better rider than her. The Shetlands are fantastic: Che Golden is obviously a keen observer of horses and ponies, and she gets them absolutely spot on. All the attitude and sheer oofiness of the Shetland pony is there.

The way the Shetlands suggest Sam beats Cecilia is to ride the yard’s most wicked pony: Mulberry. She has such a bad reputation she’s up for sale. Sam, in an act of supreme bravery, agrees to take Mulberry on. At first it’s a disaster. Sam hits the floor of the riding school in every conceivable way, but eventually, she and Mulberry learn from each other.

This story is a really good depiction of the way that nerves can scupper you; the way that your stomach scrunches up, your thoughts whirr, and your riding spirals into sick hopelessness. Added to that the excellent characterisation of everyone else, including the ponies, and you have a fine read. It’s just a pity about the niggles. This book needs a good copy editor, and it didn’t have one. The Oxford University Press really should know the difference between practise and practice.

The thing that really flicked me on the raw was this: one of the baddies is described in such a way it’s plain that the state of her skin reflects her character. Here it is: “... sneered Emma Crosby, a girl who fell just shy of pretty, with make-up pancaked on her face to disguise a rash of spots on her forehead and cheeks.” I actually wrote this review last week, but have left it for a few days to see if my gut reaction was still the same, and it is. If Emma has acne, real acne, not the spots that the skin companies appear to think vanish within a couple of weeks of using their product, acne that she’s suffered for years whilst doctors run the gamut of lotions and antibiotics trying to find something that works, then yes, she will pancake make up on because it is the one thing that makes her feel feel even vaguely normal in a sea of perfect-skinned, flicky haired compatriots. She does it to get through her day. She doesn’t do it because it’s a moral failing. Having spots and acne is not a moral failing.  Attempting to cover up your ravaged face in an attempt to feel normal isn’t a moral failing. Acne’s a piece of genetic ill luck and if you have it badly it makes your life hell. Using it to characterise nastiness is a cheap shot.  And while I’m at it, is it a crime to fall just short of pretty?

And you may ask, why am I getting so very het up over what is only one sentence in a book of tens of thousands of words? The answer is that I know first hand what acne does to the teenage psyche. I know how appallingly difficult it is to get through a day when you do not look like everyone else does at a time in your life when that is of central importance to you. This may be a throwaway line that the author hasn't really thought about, but believe me, if an acne sufferer reads that, they'll pick up on every single one of the negative connotations that sentence contains.

If OUP reprint this, as I expect they will as it certainly deserves to sell well, I hope they delete that sentence. It’s a real pity, because this is otherwise a very good book.

Update: I was contacted in August 2013 by the OUP editor responsible for children's books. The editor and author agree that the sentence in question shouldn't be there, and when the book's reprinted, it will be removed. Thanks OUP and Che Golden. Not having that section there will make a difference to vulnerable children.

Che Golden: Mulberry and the Summer Show
OUP, 2013, £5.99
Available as an ebook
Suggested age range: older primary

Friday, 12 July 2013

Review: Troon Harrison - Red River Stallion

I have major difficulties remembering names. When I used to teach, I had a plan of the classroom, who sat where, and their names. And I needed that plan. When addressing pupils, Short Accountant Person, or Dark Haired Woman Who Looks Petrified doesn’t really cut it. So it’s to Troon Harrison’s credit that she has a heroine in Amelia Otterchild Mackenzie whose name has stuck with me since I read it.

Amelia Otterchild Mackenzie is the heroine of this book, set in Hudson Bay during the 1930s. Amelia and her sister Charlotte Bright Eyes are on their own. They are half Swampy Cree – half white. Their Cree mother married a man who went off up river, promised to send for them and never did. After waiting years, Amelia’s mother married another white man, but he went back to his country, Scotland. And now their mother is dead and Amelia and Charlotte need to decide what to do.

When the book opens, Amelia thinks she’s going to die. Her canoe is being swept out to sea and she cannot stop it. But then she is rescued by her pawakan, her spirit guide – a creature she’s never seen before, which comes out of the fog, swimming to shore. Amelia grabs the creature by its long red hair and is towed to safety. It’s a wonderfully atmospheric piece of writing, the canoe being borne inexorably out to sea, and the strange creature appearing out of the fog.

The creature of course turns out to be a horse. Amelia, Charlotte, Foxfire the horse, Olivia its owner (and a large crew) journey upriver, so Olivia can be reunited with her husband, and Amelia and Charlotte can look for their father. It’s a grim journey, and the author does a fine job of putting over just what a desperate struggle it was to move to undertake such a journey in this country. It’s a gripping story, well told.

A good historical story has to impart a serious amount of information: the reader needs to understand the context in which the characters are operating, and what governs their behaviour. This the author does well, and to her credit, not blindly. I liked the nuanced view Troon Harrison takes of Cree beliefs: she’s obviously firmly on the side of these people who live with what the land gives them, and understand the souls of animals, but not blindly so. They are not perfect: Amelia regards a fellow traveller up the river who has epilepsy as a danger, who is turning Witiko, a creature with a heart of ice that will devour them. Amelia’s world view is often a help, but here it is a major hindrance. Had she only had the same view of epilepsy as Olivia, she would have found vital clues to the whereabouts of her father much, much sooner.

I was completely absorbed in the world of this novel. The author made me see the world through Amelia’s eyes and understand her way of looking at it. The horse is splendid: a Norfolk Trotter, who is always recognisably a horse. Amelia’s instinctive sympathy with the horse is beautifully done.

This is a story about a girl learning to cope with life; using what she’s learned from her Cree upbringing and what she learns from those she encounters on her travels – a many and varied, and always interesting lot. There’s so much of Amelia some of the other characters don’t get quite enough space:  sister Charlotte Bright Eyes is a somewhat vague presence considering the importance Amelia places on her, but Amelia Otterchild takes you through the story quite well enough. 

Troon Harrison – Red River Stallion
Bloomsbury, 2013, £5.99; available as an ebook too.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

The Ancestral Pony Book

We have an ancestral pony book: it has been in the family for decades. It’s Gypsy Tells Her Story, by Leslie A Newman. I remember it in my grandmother’s bookshelves. It sat there, unread even by me, who had ferreted Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies out of the same bookcase and read it to death, together with a good helping of my grandfather’s Hammond Innes thrillers.

Gypsy was the one book in that bookcase my grandmother actively encouraged me to read. She wanted me to read it because of its religious significance: Gypsy the horse tells her story of being ridden along the same route as founder of Methodism John Wesley on his early travels preaching, and the book is dedicated to “the boys and girls of Methodism.” I loved my grandmother dearly but this was one of the few things she and I didn’t see eye to eye on. If I hadn’t known the book’s religious connection, I’d have picked it up and read it, but I did. My grandmother never overtly told me why I was supposed to read it, but I picked up the fact there was something special about this particular book, got as far as reading the blurb, reached “the boys and girls of Methodism”, and jibbed. I was aware that I wasn’t supposed to read it just for the pure love of the thing, so I treated it with all the suspicion of a horse who has seen something nasty in the hedgerow.

I wanted to read a book for itself, and not feel there was a message lurking which I was supposed to take note of. So, for the same reason I avoided Aesop’s Fables, with their last paragraphs full of message, I avoided this. Ironically, I was a huge fan of Enid Blyton’s Land of Far Beyond, fairly and squarely based on John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. No one had ever “suggested” I read that though: I’d just taken it in in my huge thirst for all things Blyton, and kept on returning to it. Similarly with C S Lewis’ Narnia books: I can still remember the utter delight of reading the first one, going to the library and finding out there were six more entire books still to go.  So, it wasn’t that I objected to something with a strongly defined morality based on religion: it was knowing it was supposed to be good for me that put me off. I wanted uncomplicated delight I could discover for myself: an enchanted world, one in which yes, good triumphed but not one in which the delight was twitched aside to reveal the author had other intentions.