Saturday, 24 August 2013

More from the cutting room floor: Ruby Ferguson part 3

It’s a romantic, if worrying, picture: the mother, desperate to give birth in her native Highlands, trundling by slow train north in the last stages of her pregnancy. She feels a few twinges as she travels further north and as the hours pass it becomes all too horribly obvious that these pains are not going to go away, and she is in labour. Eventually, as the train nears Hebden Bridge, she knows she has to get off the train or give birth on it. She is not going to have this baby in the Highlands. Hebden Bridge it is then. Hebden Bridge is still an attractive town, but it’s not the Highlands. It is, however, where Ruby Constance Annie Ashby was born, on 28th July 1899.

Was her mother on the way to the Highlands, as Ruby claimed? She obviously found the idea of a Highland ancestry tremendously attractive. Much of her “biography”, The Children at the Shop is given over to lyrical descriptions of visits to her Scottish grandfather and aunt at Aberford House in the Highlands, although the ancestral home vanishes from view at the end of the book. Her grandfather dies, and the house goes up in flames.  Ruby also mentions a Highland ancestry and a childhood spent in Inverness (Jill and the Perfect Pony, 1966). In my previous article, I wrote that Ruby’s childhood, unless she’d been living apart from her parents, was spent nowhere further north than Elswick, near Newcastle. Perhaps the Highland ancestry lurked further back.

Ruby’s mother was indeed born in Aberford, but it was Aberford in Leeds, and Ruby did spend time with her grandparents, but in Bradford, which is where she and her mother were in the 1901 census. However, just because you were born in Leeds, it does not mean that there is not Scottish ancestry further back.  I delved back as far as I could, and found solid North. Ruby’s mother was born Ann Elizabeth Spencer, in 1864, to Benjamin Spencer (b 1836, Wortley, Leeds), a school master, and Alice Spencer, born in Manchester.  Any Highland connection was more than a century distant if it existed on her mother's side: Ruby's great-grandfather, Abraham Spencer (Benjamin’s father) was a “cloth maker woollen journeyman”, born in 1806, in Bradford.   Abraham’s wife Ann was born in 1811, in Leeds, and the next censuses see the family moving around the north: Bradford (1851), Tadcaster (1861), Bradford (1871), and to a different Bradford address in 1891. There’s no trace of the family in the 1881 census, and it’s tempting to think it’s because they’d all gone up to Scotland. Tempting, but not particularly likely.

Ruby was born in Hebden Bridge not because her mother was on her way there, but because that is where the family were living.  Her parents, David Ashby and Ann Spencer, were married on 12th November 1895 at the White Abbey Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, in Manningham, Bradford. At the time, David Ashby was a Methodist minister serving in Crook, in County Durham. The next year, he moved to Hebden Bridge, where Ruby was born. In 1901, there’s no mention of David in the census (according to the Methodist church, he started ministry in Clacton on Sea, in Essex, in 1901, so perhaps he was away there.) Ruby and her mother were then at her grandfather’s house, 33, Carlisle Terrace in Bradford.

I did find a couple of photographs of this: it’s another solid Victorian terrace. With the wonders of Google streetview, you can walk up and down the street where Ruby lived.

What is perhaps more interesting than what is fact and what is fiction is why Ruby Ferguson told her publishers The Children at the Shop was her biography. Her publishers describe it on the front of the dustjacket as “her charming autobiography of childhood,” They say it has “both nostalgic attraction and the ring of truth,” thereby leading the unsuspecting reader to think that fact is precisely what they are getting (and people still do talk about it in terms of it being true. What else are they to think, if that is what the publisher says on the dustjacket?)  Hilary Clare describes it as having “an authentic ring of truth about it”.  And it does. If you read the book, it's utterly convincing. 

Maybe the truth behind all this lies in the following exchange Ruby includes in the book. She is watching the departure of a battalion to India, and gets into conversation with another child.

She asked, “Do you belong here?”
“Here at the Shop? Oh yes.”
“What’s your father in?”
“He’s a chaplain.”
“Oh. He isn’t in anything.”
I could have killed her.

Ruby spent her childhood either as an onlooker at the distinct and different world that is military life, or as a distant part, with a father who might have had some informal involvement with the Army as a chaplain. Perhaps she was made to feel her distance. Children are prone to allying themselves with their parents’ rank, and perhaps Ruby felt keenly her own comparative lack of status. In later life, the family returned to the north, where Ruby went to Bradford Girls’ Grammar School, and then on to St Hilda’s, Oxford in 1919. Did the grammar school educated daughter of a Methodist minister feel herself on the fringes of acceptable society again? So much so that she reinvented her early life not just once in order to portray something altogether more conventional and establishment?

It is Ruby’s total dropping of all references to Methodism that I find most puzzling about Children at the Shop.  She was a staunch Methodist all her life. She met her husband, Samuel Ferguson, it was thought, at a conference at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, at which she was speaking.

Maybe it was the romance of it all that attracted Ruby; the spectacle and tradition of the Anglican church rather than plainer Methodism, and the misty Highlands rather than Bradford and the less attractive Victorian reaches of Woolwich. I would love to know what her husband made of Children at the Shop.

Maybe she simply told, as Alison Haymonds suggests, a better story than reality. But in none of her books do I ever see Ruby as someone who looked back at the past with regret, or shame. Ruby’s most successful creation, Jill, starts off as an outsider, but she’s not put off by it. She makes herself a central part of the society she was living in. Perhaps Ruby did the same: by the end of her life, she’d become a central part of the Jersey society she lived in after her marriage; no longer the outsider she’d perhaps once felt herself. Whatever the Children at the Shop was: an idyll she wished she’d had, complete fiction, or an extended joke at the expense of those she knew who expected a certain kind of background in their friends, we’ll probably never know.  It is, however, what its publishers said it was: utterly charming. 

Read my earlier pieces on Ruby Ferguson:


Friday, 23 August 2013

Moving on

I sit here about to write something which fills me with fear: I’m closing the bookselling arm of my business. It’s been like a comfort blanket for so long. I love being surrounded by books; I love reading them; I love hunting for them; I love sharing them with other people. What can be better than to spend your life with books? The problem is that over the past few years it’s been a case of ever-increasing work for ever-decreasing profits. Much as I love my books, and my customers, the cold hard fact is that I need to make money. I can’t just do books as a nice little hobby. Or a lifestyle business (whatever that is) as my lifestyle demands that I eat.

The books have been very good to me. If it wasn’t for my decision all those years ago to specialise in pony books, I wouldn’t have been asked to write Heroines on Horseback, my book on the world of the pony book. Neither would I have been able to indulge my passion for research and produce my website. Perhaps they were the problem: in the now defunct Bookseller magazine I read a comment by an Italian bookseller. His father told him never to waste time in research, as time spent there was time not spent selling books. I think that’s a very valid point. It’s a tricky thing to weigh up: how much time should you spend building your public profile, so that people have heard of you and come to you to buy books, and how much time should you knuckle down, sell on the big bookselling platforms and not worry about trying to build your own platform?

Maybe I did get it wrong, but I’ll always be grateful to the bookselling trade for the opportunities it’s given me, and to my customers for the massive amount of support they’ve given me: how much better could it get than to share your passion for books with other people? But it’s time to move on now and concentrate on other things.

I was asked recently in my Horse&Rider interview whether I thought Amazon was to blame for the state of bookselling, and what I said was that booksellers have to deal with the fact Amazon is there, and isn’t going away anytime soon. Amazon has, as I’ve said before, a business model which works.  Whatever we think of that model and the way Amazon organises its financial affairs, in the internet age people want things now and Amazon fulfils that need in a way that I can’t match. I’m not beating people about the head for shopping on Amazon because I can totally understand why they do.  I am quite partial to now myself.

The thing that pushed me over the edge in the end wasn’t much, in itself: just the cancellation of a large order because the buyer had gone and found some of the books on Amazon instead. It wasn’t the first time it had happened. It wasn’t as if the customer was particularly nasty: thoughtless, yes, but not evil or malicious. So why did it make such an impact on me? I think it was because for the first time in my bookselling career, I no longer wanted to make the effort to be polite and cheerful in the face of adversity. And that, to me, means that I no longer care enough to make the effort, and so it’s really time to stop.

So, farewell bookselling. And thank you very much to everyone who has bought from me over the years. It’s been great finding you books you wanted, and getting to know you all. The pony book fan is generally a pretty splendid being, and I hope you’ll still keep up with me and the website. My main website,, will carry on as before, absolutely unaffected. I’ll still keep on adding stuff to it, and reviewing books, and doing all the other stuff I’ve always done: just won’t sell books. If you’re wondering what I’m doing to keep body and soul together, I’m editing, proofreading and copywriting. I’d always kept that going even as I sold books, but I’ve been working away getting that business going again. 

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

BT and the Art of Pony Prevarication

Because that's what I think BT (the main provider of telephone/broadband services in the UK) are doing. Because they're certainly not providing me with a landline. Here's the story behind BT's sloth:

Moving Day

Me: Dear BT, you appear not to have moved my number with me in our epic move 500 yards up the road. Surely an oversight?

BT: Dear Jane, yes, a shocking oversight caused by the fact we appear to have tried to connect you to the wrong number. We'll connect you by tomorrow, the 13th. Promise.

What is actually happening:  People are starting to worry in BT land. They've been promised ponies, lots of ponies, but they have none. They are waiting at the gate, peering anxiously, hoping for the horsebox to chug round the corner. Nada. Nothing.

One day later

Me:  Dear BT, alas I am still service-less, which wasn't quite what you promised. Any ideas?

BT:  Dear Jane - oops. We'll get it sorted. You're moving to a different exchange (me - I am? Same number, 500 yards up the road?) and we need to do Important Robotic Tests which will take time. You'll have service by the 15th. Promise.

What is actually happening:  Nothing is happening in BT land. The promised ponies have not arrived. The BT team, closet bronies, and whatever the girl equivalent is, all, must fill their time. Ta da!

Here's BT pony, in its beautiful BT land. You can see why they're too busy to connect my line, can't you? It's so pretty. No nasty complaining clients: just wall-to-wall gorgeousness. They're happy there.

And later still

Me:  Dear BT, it's me again. I'll hang on for a while while you read my file. No, I still don't have service.

BT: Dear Jane, no you don't, do you? We're dreadfully sorry. We haven't been able to connect your line because we were waiting for the previous occupant to tell us they no longer wanted it. We'll connect you by the 17th. Promise. You don't believe us? We're hurt. We promise FAITHFULLY we will ring you and let you know what's happening.

What is actually happening: There's terrifying villains, vicious dragons, conflicted beast-men, strange denizens of the deep, and colorful ponies! My, but they're busy. (Don't feel you have to watch the whole clip. It is sort of long.)

And later

Me: Dear BT, it's me again. Still getting that No Line thing. Any ideas?

BT: Gosh Jane, really? What we should have told you is that we can't get hold of the people who had your line before you and we have to do that before we can sign the line over to you. I will escalate this though and send it to the Super Special Team and they'll connect you after 24  hours, as I know that you are actually at the property and the other people obviously aren't. Promise.

48 hours later

The previous tenants, and the ones before them (wisely in my opinion) had Virgin, I know, because I've been in touch with them both. Who had BT? No one knows. I have no service, and every time I try to contact BT I am told they are having trouble putting me through. I know, BT, I know. I understand. You're busy.

Update, October 2013:
I gave up the unequal struggle with BT. BT had our house confused with unit 14, number 10 (we're number 14) and were completely unable to sort out the confusion. The valiant efforts of BTCare at Twitter weren't enough to sort out the mess. BT were unable to cope with the fact that there once was a BT line here. They had no record of the number. I am sitting here looking at the socket as I type. I lost count of the number of times I explained, over and over again, what the problem was, to an endless procession of people who had been asked to call me, but had not looked at the notes beforehand. Being left a message to ring someone back was incredibly infuriating. When I rang the number given, I was never put through to someone who had any idea what I was talking about.

In the end, I was told I needed an entire new line, as BT Openreach proved unable to deal with the fact they had the wrong address attached to our number.

At this point, when they gave me a date three weeks into the future, I went with Virgin, who sorted out a new line effortlessly in much less time than BT. I've been a BT customer for 30 years, but no longer.

Until BT sort out the difficulties of contacting BT Openreach, who cannot be contacted directly by their customers, it doesn't matter how much, and how often, their Twitter operation promises action. BT Openreach seem accountable to no one. There's little point having customer service operators running round trying to sort things out if they have no effect on how BT Openreach carries out its operations. I'm glad I don't work for BT Customer Care, as it must be a pretty thankless task.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Review: Anton DiSclafani - The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls opens with heroine Thea being shipped off to the Yonahlossee Riding Camp.  Thea’s family are rich Floridians who earn their money from citrus. The depression may have hit America, but it doesn’t appear to hit them. Something has though. It soon becomes clear that Thea is in disgrace. She doesn’t want to go away at all. She loves riding and horses, but she certainly doesn’t want to go away to a summer riding camp with the cream of Southern society. What she’s being sent away for, we don’t know. It’s one of this novel’s conceits that we don’t. The author has no intention of revealing all until we’ve done our time with the plot, but it's dragged, clanking, from page to page. You soon realise that it’s being dangled in front of you only to tantalise so she can say “Aha! Not this time.” Nor any time either for several hundred pages on, so the constant references to it have the effect of divorcing you from the story through sheer irritation.

And it isn’t as if the reasonably astute reader couldn’t work it out for themselves. There’s a girl. There’s a boy.

Thea has three main concerns in her life: horses, her twin Sam, and sex. I can’t say that this is a novel about a girl coming to terms with her sexuality, because I don’t think that she does. For her, it’s something she uses entirely selfishly, leaving a desperate wreckage in her wake. 

I wonder if the author intends the reader to end the book loathing her central character? I was hanging on in there, clinging to the shreds of compassion and decency Thea occasionally shows, trying to find a reason for sticking with her, and then she rides in a jumping competition at the end of term. This is how she does it:
“I splashed through the water jump, felt Naari change her footing , and knew, as she collected herself in preparation for the oxer ahead of us – and then as she soared over it, her ears flat against her head in concentration – that we understood each other: I wanted to win, and she wanted to be rid of me, this confusing girl on her back, goading her forward with sharp pains on her flank, then holding her back with a terrible pressure in the corner of  her mouth; she tasted blood from the pressure of the see-sawing bit, which flattened her tongue against her tongue; made it difficult to breathe.” 
“I’d ridden my horse too hard, with everyone watching. I didn’t regret that. I’d ridden too hard for this particular competition, but I’d won.”
So that’s all right then. At least the scars Thea leaves on Naari’s sides will heal. The catastrophic effect she has on the rest of her family will not. Thea I don’t think is consciously cruel, but she’s monstrously self-obsessed. As she returns home at the end of the novel, it becomes clear, as she is reunited with her family, that although she sees perfectly clearly what she’s done to them, she doesn’t much care. At the end she says, looking back at her life:
“At Yonahlossee I learned the lesson that I had started to teach myself at home: my life was mine. And I had to lay claim to it..... I was a girl, I learned, who got what she wanted, but not without sadness, not without cutting a swath of destruction so wide it consumed my family. And almost me. I almost fell into it, with them. I almost lost myself. But I was too selfish.”
Should a novel have a central character whom you like? DiSclifani is an elegant writer: the monster’s beautifully depicted, and she's certainly self-aware. That’s probably not enough. She’s merciless, is Thea, and unfortunately that leaves the reader feeling as screwed as the human wreckage she leaves behind her.

~ 0 ~

Anton DiSclafani: The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls
Tinder Press, £16.99
Kindle, £8.49

Age of main character: 15

Reading level: YA/Adult. Fairly graphic sex.

Monday, 5 August 2013

Review: Hilary Bradt - Dingle Peggy

Dingle Peggy is the sequel to Connemara Mollie, the story of Hilary Bradt’s first ride through Ireland in 1984. Connemara Mollie is a fine read:

“The writer has an unfailing honesty and self deprecating humour that make you glad that although she made the journey on her own, she is still willing to share it with you.  She tells you what she sees, and describes the people she meets with a clear view, but always with generosity. Most of all, this is the story of a brave Connemara pony, and her rider, the relationship between the two of them described with an obvious, but understated, love.  This is a true story; the ending desperately sad.” From my review of Connemara Mollie

Although the ride ended in tragedy, with Mollie’s death, Hilary Bradt was determined to go back and finish the journey. After six weeks in Englahd, she returned to look for another pony. Off she went to the local horse dealer, Pedar, who produced “a nondescript brown pony with a silly hairstyle.” Peggy kept her neck firmly horizontal when ridden: this it turned out, was because she pulled Pedar’s gig, which also explained her partially hogged mane. Besides, Peggy wasn’t Mollie, the beautiful grey Connemara everyone had turned to look at. But when Hilary took Peggy out for a trial ride, she had redeeming qualities: she had a certain enthusiasm about life, and when she wanted to look at something, she tilted her head sideways to look out under her blinkers, even when she wasn’t wearing any.

Hilary decides to hire Peggy, and they set off. This book is just as good as the first: for the sensitive I can reassure you that this one doesn’t end sadly. Peggy is just as full of life at the end.

There are moments of humour – I loved the bit where Hilary loads Peggy up in front of a youth hostel and gets on, only to fall off on the other side, and the recurring motif of her human companion, Susanne’s blue and white duffle bag. Unlike the earlier journey, Hilary has a companion for at least part of this one. Susanne didn’t quite understand what was necessary to get luggage to attach to a saddle bag, and turned up with a blue and white duffle bag which was the curse of their joint journey. 

Dingle Peggy is another great travel book from Hilary Bradt: Ireland is as lovingly described as before, but it’s the characters that make this a such a fine book. Bradt is clear sighted but never judgemental about everyone she meets  Hilary Bradt’s great gift is to put over her enormous affection for Peggy without slipping for one instant into either sentiment or cod-mysticism. It’s a gift to be able to convey the character of a pony so well. I felt I knew Peggy by the end of the journey; that if I went camping with her she’d yell a greeting to me, and fuss if she had to move off tarmac .

~ 0 ~

Hilary Bradt: Dingle Peggy
Bradt, £9.99

Adult, non fiction