Monday, 8 August 2016

The pony book in WWII - part two

This is part two of the talk I did at the Bristol children's books conference. You can find part one, which looks at pre-war pony books, and those books that generally didn't deal with war, here.

For pony book authors, there is a pretty sharp division by sex which appears to affect whether or not they wrote about the direct effects of the war. All those books that do were written by women, mostly writing about what life was like on the Home Front. They had their own war experiences: Primrose Cumming worked for a year on a farm. One day, a bomber crashed in the field of sheep she was tending. She survived, and used her experience in her book Owl’s Castle Farm (1942). She later joined the ATS and served for the remainder of the war in an anti-aircraft battery. Shirley Faulkner-Horne was married to a pilot who fought in the Battle of Britain.

Primrose Cumming’s Silver Eagle Carries On (1940) and Owl’s Castle Farm, Shirley Faulkner-Horne’s Riding with the Kindles (1941) and Parachute Silk (1944), Joanna Cannan’s More Ponies for Jean (1944), and Alice Molony’s Lion’s Crouch (1944) all dealt directly with the war and its effects. To a greater or lesser extent, they wrote books in which the horse plays several different roles. In its most concrete role, it helps people earn their living. It is necessary. But the horse also has an effect on morale: it provides a reminder of a world that was gone, and a hope for post-war world, as well as a distraction from the upheaval that affected people’s lives. These stories also documented, to some extent, what was happening on the Home Front, allowing readers to share experiences they might not have themselves, or provide validation of the ones they did.

Some books also tackled contentious issues, such as whether it was right for people to go on with riding as a leisure activity, and a distraction, at all.

Silver Eagle Carries On provides a vivid picture of the outbreak of war. It is the sequel to The Silver Eagle Riding School, in which three sisters set up a riding school after the family money is lost in the post-war years. Silver Eagle Carries On opens conventionally enough, with two of the sisters and their partner, Virginia, on a riding tour through the countryside with their clients. The remaining sister, Josephine, is in America with her show jumper, Anna, and the others buy a copy of the Illustrated paper, to see if Josephine and Anna are featured. They flip the pages over frantically to the back to find the piece on Josephine, entirely missing the headlines saying that Germany has marched into Poland until they notice the horrified faces of their fellow riders.
‘Headlines stared back at them from the paper: “Evacuees leaving London.” “Black-out in force.” “Army in readiness.”
War is declared two days later. The tour is called off, and immediately the girls are brought up against the realities of their situation. They cannot get home by train (most horses were transported around the country by rail at that time) as all trains have been commandeered to move troops. The cattle truck driver they manage to find to drive them home tells them to make the most of it, as petrol will soon be rationed. When they reach home, they already have two evacuees from London, Delphinium and Norman. Josephine and her horse Anna are on their way back from America and are in the middle of the Atlantic, so there is the constant fear of their ship being attacked.

Evacuees from Deptford at a Pembrokeshire farm
© IWM (D 997)
Very soon, prices of fodder rocket, providing the sisters with a staggering rise in their feed bill. This was a real and present problem for many horse owners. Pre-war, much grain for horse food had been imported and the dangers to shipping meant that Britain was thrown back on what it could grow for itself; and humans, farm animals and working horses came first. The picture below shows Snowball, a horse who delivered goods from the railway, in 1943. You can see how very underfed the horse looks: working horses had previously been allowed two nosebags of food while working but were now down to one.

© IWM (D 16841)

The difficulty of feeding horses is a theme throughout those books that dealt with the war. At the back of this was a real fear for the very survival of people’s horses. At the beginning of the war there had been wretched scenes of mass putting down of cats and dogs in order to preserve food stocks. This was not restricted to small animals. In its Winter, 1941 issue, the Editor of Riding published an appeal.
‘As we go to press we have received from the Minister of Agriculture an appeal which will go straight to the heart of every reader of RIDING. It asks all those who own horses and ponies “to consider seriously whether it is still necessary to keep them.” The Minister has in mind particularly those animals that are either too old for work or ‘that are ridden only occasionally for enjoyment.’ Deprived already of rationed feeding stuffs, many have been turned out to grass. Now the grass they eat in summer and the hay in winter, are both urgently needed for animals doing essential work.’
The piece goes on to make it plain that elderly animals should indeed be considered for equine heaven, and recommends that its readers make this difficult decision. Of riding animals it says:
‘…in deciding their fate it is not always easy to draw a line between necessity and desire, or even between immediate necessity and future necessity.’
The Minister had nothing against animals doing a useful job of work, but quite what was a useful job of work was open to interpretation.

Nevertheless, horses were kept going. The film below shows racehorses in Epsom during the war. There was no racing there during the war, but the horses were still trained and looked after. It's interesting that much of the work was done by youngsters.

The fodder situation lends particular poignancy to the situation in Joanna Cannan’s More Ponies for Jean, published in 1944 but based on events at the beginning of the war. As the Pullein-Thompson sisters recount in their autobiographical Fair Girls and Grey Horses, (1996), Joanna Cannan plundered an event in her daughters’ lives that either she or her husband, Captain Pullein-Thompson (the sisters' memory is unclear), had precipitated, as inspiration for her third Jean book. As the fodder shortage tightened its grip, the Pullein-Thompsons were told that either their ponies paid their way, or they would have to go. Quite where they would have to go is not made explicit, but the Pullein-Thompsons, and every other horse owner, knew the answer to that one.

They duly started a riding school, and put in a truly astonishing degree of hard physical work to keep their ponies fed. Joanna Cannan, as Josephine put it, ‘shamelessly collected copy from their experiences’ for the Jean book. Jean, like the Pullein-Thompsons, starts a riding school after she is also told one of her ponies must go now fodder is so expensive.

Not only did horse owners have to contend with the difficulty of feeding their horses, but also the belief expressed by some at the beginning of the war that horse and pony owning was a luxury The attitude that Primrose Cumming’s Josephine expresses, once she is safely back in England, was common:
“My dear, don’t you realise there is a war on? We can’t go on just the same, even if a few selfish people do try to pretend it makes no difference. Of course we’ll close the school down. What I really meant was what war work are you going to take up?”
This was an attitude the equine press was well aware of, and the appeal of the horse as refreshment and relief for those returning on leave was something they stressed. Primrose Cumming takes up the cry too: Virginia asks Josephine if she means that everything that caters for amusement and comfort; such as publishers and cinemas should be closed down so everyone is making ‘plain foods, woollen underwear and munitions?’ and Josephine's sister, Mary, suggests they keep going to keep up morale — they can do their bit by letting people home on leave ride at reduced rates. 

Even makers of riding wear stressed the restorative effects of war-time riding.
Silver Eagle does indeed find more clients: wives of men whose offices have been relocated from London, pupils from an evacuated girls’ school, and a pony to break to harness so its owner can cope with petrol rationing. Despite the privations of war, the riding school manages to survive, and the book ends on a note of hope, declaring ‘Nothing seems to be so dire that the Silver Eagle Riding School cannot survive it.’

Hopeful though the book’s end is, the closeness of death overhung it, even if it was rarely acknowledged. Experience of that real loss in pony books of the period is rare. The most overt experience of death I have found occurs in Alice Molony’s Lion’s Crouch (1944). Heroine Mary has a beloved bull terrier called Happysnapper, who loves to play fetch. 


The former harbour master, a Nazi sympathiser, plans to show the Luftwaffe the way to a Cornish airbase by lighting up an oil slick along the creek. The slick will be ignited by a timed bomb that is already floating along the river. This time, says the harbour master, who has tangled with Happysnapper before when the dog managed to catch something of his he wasn’t supposed to have, ‘Your dog will not win.’
‘Oh, but he will,’ I said, and thank God there was no time to hesitate. ‘Go on Snapper, fetch it. Good dog. Good-bye.’
The harbour master and his cronies are captured, but Happysnapper has paid the ultimate price.

And of course in Mary Treadgold’s We Couldn’t Leave Dinah (1941), probably the most nuanced portrayal of ponies and children during the war, the children lose their home, their ponies and everything they have ever known.

She took the same start point as many authors before and since: the golden beginnings of summer holidays, filled with the promise of ponies, gymkhanas and a summer with the pony club —ponies as a hobby; a glorious distraction during the holidays. Her heroine, Caroline Templeton, says:
'You couldn’t really believe in awful things like Hitler when you were out in sun and wind and sea-spray and with people as absolutely marvellous as the Pony Club.'
But Mary Treadgold was only too aware of what life on the Home Front meant: she wrote We Couldn’t Leave Dinah in a London air raid shelter.

And so Caroline’s glorious, sunlit world is shattered. She and her family have full-scale enemy occupation to contend with when their home, Clerinel, a fictional Channel Island, is invaded. Caroline tries hard to hang on to everything that the ponies symbolised: a lack of care, of having responsibility only for your pony and for enjoying yourself.

The Pony Club dream—the pony as hobby and distraction— fades utterly when Caroline and Mick are, in the confusion and panic of the evacuation, left behind. Mary Treadgold shows conventional pony owning as the luxury it is. The focus switches from ponies as the central point of a privileged existence, to them as working animals, a necessity, useful in getting done what has to be done.

In their time spent hiding on the island, the ponies are used to carry what Caroline and Mick need when they hide in a cave before being able to escape the island; and as transport―to move around the island more quickly when they are attempting to find out the Nazi’s true invasion plans. 

The ponies carry baggage - We Couldn't Leave Dinah
Both children quickly gain some perspective; despite the title, it is not the pony Dinah who is central to the story. Not only does Caroline accept the fact Dinah has to be left behind, she hands her over to the German girl, Nannerl, daughter of the German commander who has taken over the Templeton’s house. The ponies become, in fact, the way in which the Templetons and Nannerl connect. Their shared love of the horse is a common language, no matter who is the invader or the invaded. Nannerl does not see a daughter of the invaded, someone whom she must grind down, and hand over to her father: she sees a girl she would have liked to play with, and in the Pony Club, something she and Caroline could have done together. When Nannerl helps both Templetons escape, Caroline is able to take the extraordinary step of regarding Nannerl as more than just an enemy. She makes her an honorary member of the Pony Club. It’s a tiny thing, in the face of all that Nannerl is doing for them, but it moves beyond simple thanks, and beyond ideas of nationalism, to building a connection, with something that has no nation—the horse.

I would argue that the pony books published during World War II move beyond the depiction of the horse purely as a leisure animal, particularly now the ability of children to rescue horses from a hard working life and transport them to a happy, well-fed existence was severely limited. Pony books reflected the new reality of wartime, where leisure now took on meanings other than simple distraction, providing a much-need break from the everyday hardness and bleakness of war. The horse and pony were a distraction, but also a symbol of something that could unite people across classes and countries: something we all need, in whatever form it comes.


Friday, 5 August 2016

The pony book in World War II: distraction, hobby or necessity?

Last week I spoke at the Topsy-Turvy conference at Bristol. Its theme was children's book series, and hobbies. I spoke on the hobbies element, and how the advent of war changed the way horses and riding were portrayed in children's literature at the time. This is (pretty much; I've cut it a bit) the text of what I said. It's split into two parts. If you want to skip straight to part two, it's here.

Having a horse or pony is a complicated hobby. A horse is not like a stamp collection: something that you can put away in a drawer when you are bored with it. It demands a huge input of physical labour and attention (unless, of course, you have someone to do the work for you). And although now almost all horses are leisure animals, that was emphatically not the case before World War II, which itself changed the relationship of horse and man, reeling it back to a time when the horse was, for many, their only hope of transport and help with labour.

That is not a relationship that was necessarily shown in pre-war pony literature.  The pony book, which had always had those elements of distraction and escape common to much children’s literature, maintained that during the war. The very nature of leisure and what it meant was brought into much sharper perspective, even as some questioned whether leisure was appropriate at all during war. And for some, the horse was indeed a necessity in a way which it had not been before the war.

The pony on the cover is butcher's pony Jingo.
The pony is a rare saint.
In the pre-war period there were thousands of working horses, in towns and cities, and in the countryside. Horses hauled goods from railway goods yards. They ploughed fields and performed any number of other agricultural tasks. Seeing a horse would have been an everyday event even for the child who lived in the middle of the city. For the majority of children, this would have been the sum total of their equine experience, as opportunities for less wealthy children to ride were limited unless your family happened to own a horse for its business, such as Jingo, the pony who pulled the butcher’s cart in Primrose Cumming’s The Wednesday Pony (1939), or Miss Ada in Enid Bagnold’s National Velvet (1935), another butcher’s pony. But even then, you only got to ride when the pony was not needed for other things. The video below was shot for the RSPCA, and gives you a good idea of the variety of pre-war working horses and ponies.

Despite the efforts of Primrose Cumming, the everyday horse world where horses were central to the way things worked was not one that was generally reflected in the pre-war pony book. Riding as a hobby had become progressively more popular in the inter-war years: Golden Gorse, in her 1936 preface to her non-fiction The Young Rider, wrote that when the book was published in 1928:

‘At that time one frequently met people who said ‘What is the good of teaching children to ride, the days of the horse are over!’ No one would say that now. … Five children seem to be learning to ride today for one who was learning seven years ago.’

But those five children had enough money to keep horses and ponies as a hobby, and it was that world most pony books of the time portrayed, where the function of the horse was to amuse the human. If you have a mental picture of a pony book gymkhana, it probably looks a lot like the one in the next video.

If a pony did appear in a pony book pulling a cart, it was generally because it had fallen down the equine social scale and was in need of rescue and returning to its rightful place as a leisure animal.

That is not to say that the pony did not symbolise other things in the pre-war pony book. For Jean, heroine of Joanna Cannan’s A Pony for Jean, published in 1936, her pony Cavalier is to her a means of achieving self-confidence and marking her position in the world. She gains respect from her cousins, and indeed herself, for her achievements in turning Cavalier from a pony who is called The Toastrack because he is so thin to one who wins prizes at the local gymkhana.

A Pony for Jean
Cavalier is much more than just a hobby—looking after any pony involves hard physical work, and work that you generally have to keep up with, day in, and day out. The pony as a focus for meaningful work is something that Joanna Cannan is particularly keen on: doing all the work for your pony takes the pony beyond being the hobby of a leisured class into something that generates self-respect and independence.

The shift in focus that A Pony for Jean heralded, away from the pony biography to stories that focussed on the human characters was one that was maintained, and in some cases even emphasised, by the war.

When looking at books in the war period it is obvious that any analysis of the books that appeared is to some extent skewed by the fact that once war was declared, there were very rapid effects on writing and publishing. Authors and illustrators were called up, or did other war work that allowed little time for writing. Paper restrictions drastically reduced the amount available for printing. Books were physically destroyed in large numbers when the area around St Paul’s, in London, was destroyed in the Blitz.

But books were still both written and published. The pony-mad child could still access literature about ponies, some of which carried on galloping through the sunlit fields of the pony-filled idyll, and some of which met the war head on.

During 1939–1945, I am aware of 39 published pony stories. By pony stories I mean a book with substantial horse content whether the horse be a wild one who would never be ridden or a perfectly schooled gymkhana pony—pony book readers in my experience simply requiring the presence of the horse in some form rather than a specific plotline. Most of these books were, as you would expect, published in 1939. In that year, 12 books were published; in 1940, 9; in 1941, 4; in 1942 and 1943, one each; 8 in 1944 and in 1945, 4. As a comparison, from 1942–1945, Enid Blyton had over 80 titles published.

Of these horse stories, 10 were equine biographies, and 23 involved children and ponies, with the remaining titles being spread over matters as disparate as donkeys and a racing story. Of those books nine make some mention of the war: one, Kate Seredy’s The Singing Tree (1939) is about World War I, one (V E Bannisdale's Back to the Hills, 1940) mentions the war in a preface, and seven have World War II making some contribution towards the plot.

V E Bannisdale: Back to the Hills
Those statistics do not tell the whole story, particularly with regard to the equine biography, which was a notable victim of the war. Of the 10 equine biographies published, only two were published after 1940. Perhaps there was little appetite for a story that neither presented the pony as a fun-filled escape, nor one that met the war head on and described what many children were actually experiencing.  Perhaps books which relied for their plot on rescuing the pony from an ill-fed life pulling a cart were hopelessly out of touch with a wartime reality where fodder was scarce and many equines, however glamorous their pre-war lives, learned to pull carts.

A 1939 pony book with a pony in need of rescue
The equine biography only reappeared in in 1944 with Joanna Cannan’s Hamish, a Picture Puffin whose appearance is better explained in the context of the rise of that particular imprint than as a resurgence of the pony telling its own story.

There is, however, one interesting exception, Daphne Winstone’s Flame, which was published in 1945. Daphne was 12 when she wrote Flame, and was confined to bed for 18 months. To amuse herself, she wrote a story about a pony called Flame. Daphne does not ignore the war at all.

When war was declared, in 1939, Flame is in a riding school. Daphne describes the wireless being on, with every day the stablemen stand round listening to the news: ‘on everyone’s lips,’ she says, ‘is that one terrible word: WAR!’ By October, five of the horses have been sold, two grooms called up, and a stable boy has joined up. Bad feeding contributes to Flame’s sinking further into equine misery, but he is rescued in 1942, when his former owner, now a Pilot Officer, finds him when on leave.

Flame - frontis
There is of course no requirement that you mention contemporary political events, and several of the pony stories published in the period carried on as if war had not broken out. These books provided access to a world where problems were temporary and easily solved; where sheer enjoyment was allowed—a distraction, and an escape to a world where there was always hope.  Marjorie Mary Oliver’s Ponies and Caravans, published in 1941, takes its readers into a world where its characters, penned up in a smoky London suburb, long for the freedom of the countryside, which they duly get, with plenty of caravans and ponies. (There is of course an uncomfortable parallel here with the many evacuees who did get what Oliver’s characters longed for at the time, but for whom it was not a transformative experience).

MM Oliver's Ponies and Caravans
Some books perhaps were written as much for their authors’ benefit as their readers. For both John Ivester Lloyd, and Brian Fairfax-Lucy, I suspect that writing pony stories provided essential light relief. Their wartime books make no mention of the war at all. This is entirely understandable bearing in mind that both served in the war. John Ivester Lloyd served in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, and, as an acting Lieutenant-Commander, was awarded the DSC on 8th June 1945. His People of the Valley (1943) is a holiday story in which its teenage hero confounds a gang stealing farm livestock. Brian Fairfax-Lucy, who was wounded during World War I, and served as a Flight Lieutenant between 1940 and 1942, wrote Horses in the Valley (1941), a holiday story, and The Horse from India (1944), a racing adventure.