Sunday, 20 April 2014

PBOTD 20th April: Patricia Leitch - The Magic Pony

I'm plagiarising myself here: this is the text of a review I wrote a couple of years ago when Catnip reissued The Magic Pony. I don't think I can usefully say anything more than I said then. This is a fantastic book.

Patricia Leitch’s books are immensely satisfying; multi-layered: they succeed on so many levels. If you want to read The Magic Pony as a pony adventure in which a girl rescues a woman from dying somewhere she didn't want to; rescues a mistreated pony from appalling conditions, and sees her own horse recover from a mystery foot injury, it works perfectly on that level. As a pony story, it is extraordinarily good, but it has much to say on ageing, and on death, and on how we perceive those around us.

Armada 1st edition, 1982
The Magic Pony is the seventh in the Jinny series. Jinny is struggling with school (the intractability of algebra), and the utter frustration of a half term that has seen even she, normally uncaring about the weather, restricted to home in the face of the deluge that lasted until the last day of half term. And now the last day has come; it has dawned fine, but Jinny has to go to the dentist, and finish her algebra. When at last she is free, she rides Shantih into the dusk, but in a fit of fury at the things that restrict her; family, school, she hurtles with Shantih towards a high stone wall. Shantih crashes on the other side, and is lamed. Nothing Jinny or the vet try, over the coming weeks, seems to work.

Armada, 1985
In a search for a horsey expert who will be able to divine the cause of Shantih’s lameness, Jinny tries a nearby riding school. It is a hell-hole, with half-starved horses, overworked and uncared for. Amongst them is Easter, an ancient grey pony in whom Jinny can still see the remnants of beauty. Jinny is determined to rescue Easter. Over-reaching all of this is Kezia, the Tinker woman, who has been taken into hospital to die. She wants to die as she lived, in the hills, within reach of the outside, but she needs Jinny’s help to do it. Jinny is uniquely placed amongst those Kezia knows: a child outside the traveller society, she will be able to marshal the right sort of help.

Severn House, hb, 1986
Death is not the normal preserve of a pony book; not the death of another human being, at any rate. Neither is age. It struck me when reading the book that sadly, little has changed since the book was written in 1982. When she learns that Kezia is dying, and wants to see her, Jinny’s first reaction is horror: in her life “people were either alive or else you heard they’d died. You didn't visit them, knowing they were dying.” The dying are tidied away, neatly, in hospital. That is where all right-thinking people believe they should be, and Jinny at first unthinkingly parrots this line. She comes, though, to recognise that the right-thinking way is not necessarily the way for everybody, and she, and those adults she knows will be sympathetic, help Kezia to sign herself out of the hospital.

The unexpected help too. This is one place where Patricia Leitch is so clever: we typecast people, and expect them to react in certain ways. Mr Mackenzie, owner of the farm next door to Finmory, is never slow to point Jinny’s stupidity out to her. He is the bastion of good sense, and has little time for her flights of fancy. But Kezia has asked to die in Mr Mackenzie’s bothy, and Jinny asks him, and he says yes. Kezia was a “bold one” in her youth, says Mr Mackenzie, a beauty. “It’s the sleepless nights I've spent tossing on my bed thinking of that one. Aye, So it is.” Jinny hurries away, not wanting to know. It is difficult to see the old; the middle aged even, and to think that they were once as you are now.

Armada, 1992
The old women in Kezia’s ward “the parchment skins, gaping mouths and white wisps of hair,” remind Jinny of the awfulness of the riding school, where she felt “the same hopelessness, the same empty endurance.” The pony Easter “is like a ghost – so old she seemed hardly there, unable to stand against the assault of the light.” And yet Jinny is able to see, every now and then, what lies within both Kezia and Easter. The outer shell does not matter: there is still fire within.
“She looked up out of the window again. Keziah was tall and stately, the robes she wore about her shoulders trailed to the ground. She rode a white mare, proud-stepping with eye imperial and cascading mane and tail. A handmaiden walked by her side, and a page boy walked at the head of her palfrey. All the fairytales Jinny had ever read, all the illustrations she had ever seen of queens upon white horses, or wise women, or elfin lands, took hands and danced in Jinny’s sight. She watched spellbound.
For a minute they dropped out of sight as the track looped downhill and when they reappeared the spell was broken.”
It is not just the skins of the aged Jinny, and we, need to learn to see beneath. There is Miss Tuke, the generally dismissive owner of the local trekking centre, who sets about the owner of the pathetic riding school. Brenda, who runs the riding school, once had dreams herself, but has been utterly ground down by life.
“For a moment before Brenda turned away she smiled at Jinny, her mask drawn back, and, for a second, Jinny saw quite clearly the girl who had once shared her dreams.”
When Kezia’s death comes, Patricia Leitch meets it head on. There is no “passing away”, or even the dreadful modern “passing” (passing away-light? Is one only half dead?).
“Easter came slowly towards them. She reached out her head and breathed over Jinny’s tear-stained face, exchanged curious questioning breath with Shantih, then stood waiting.
‘Keziah’s dead,” said Jinny bleakly. She’s gone. No more. Dead.’
This is a brilliant book; in which every time I read it, I see different things. There is Jinny herself, meeting life head on; flawed and intolerant but fighting her way towards understanding the world and how it works; “the right thing to do.” There is the glorious mixture of myth and faith: the Red Horse, personification of the horse goddess Epona, and the unspoken communication between human and horse.

It’s the sort of book that pierces you with the beauty of its language. Jinny’s “great camel groan” when she has to get back to her algebra and not ride Shantih, is the sort of thing that resonates over the page to anyone who has had to turn away from what they really want to do and get on with the dull, the oppressive, and the everyday. And the horse, the wonderful Shantih. There are few, if any, pony writers better than Patricia Leitch at capturing the blazing brilliance of the Arab. Shantih, cured by Kezia’s herbs is restored and vital again.
“Jinny felt her drop behind the bit, her weight sink back on her hindlegs as she reared, struck out with her forefeet, then with an enormous bound was galloping up the track to the moor.
Shantih was all captured things flying free, was spirit loosened from flesh, was bird again in her own element.”
Catnip, 2012, pb

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The Magic Pony was published as an Armada original in 1982. Armada reissued it twice after that, with new cover styles, in 1985 and 1992. Severn House released a hardback version in 1986, and that was the last single volume appearance until Catnip reissued the book in 2012. The Magic Pony has also appeared in compilation form in Three Great Jinny Stories in 1995, bundled together with Horse in a Million and Ride Like the Wind. 

For much, much more on Patricia Leitch, see her page on my website.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

PBOTD 19th April: H M Peel - Easter the Show Jumper

Today's PBOTD is another which is appropriate for the time of year: it's H M Peel's Easter the Show Jumper. Easter is the third in the Leysham Stud series. Ann and Jim Henderson have a stud, whose stallion is her piebald stallion, Pilot. In the first two books, Ann's managed to get over Pilot's dreadful temper, and he's turned into a talented hunter (Pilot the Hunter, 1962) and chaser (Pilot the Chaser, 1964). 

Harrap, 1965, 1st edn, illus Michael Lyne
The equine heroine of the third book is Easter, Pilot's sister. She has inherited his temperament (as indeed do several horses in the succeeding novels, which though it makes for good dramatic reads, does make you glad they're not breeding for temperament, because it's failing).

Fidra Books, pb, 2009

Easter has ability in spades, but for Ann to make her into a serious show jumper is going to take Herculean efforts. Easter is unpredictable; often jumping, but just as often refusing or bolting. She's not the only equine problem: there's Magic the Shetland, the mount of Ann and Jim's nephew. He's a demon for opening gates and he lets out the prize colt, Night Storm.

I loved the series when I first found them in the local library. They were filed with the horsey non fiction: I assume because they are relatively realistic portrayals of different equine disciplines. H M Peel uses the Leysham Stud series to cover racing, polo, trotting and eventing as well as show jumping: a wealth of ability most studs would give their eye teeth to possess. H M Peel had a background herself in numerous disciplines. In my interview with her, I asked how difficult it had been to reasearch the series:
“Piece of cake because I had already worked in a variety of stables ranging from hunters, livery, point-to-point and show jumpers:  too heavy for racing stables.  I kept moving around to acquire knowledge even if it was the hard way and I was treated pretty badly in quite a few of my digs.” 
The central characters, Ann and Jim Henderson are portrayed as pretty well ideal employers, a world away from the treatment HM Peel hinted at in the first comment. I asked her to tell me more about what it had been like working in the horse world after the war:
“My first  horsey job at 15 years was at some livery stables near Grimsby where I had the most incredible tutor who was stone deaf. This lady and her livery stables became ever afterwards my bench mark. I was badly treated in my digs; kept so short of food (everything was still rationed) I was driven to trying to eat the horses’ food. Ever been that hungry and when growing and doing hard, physical labour? I vowed I would never be hungry again when adult and no one, NO ONE, would ever shove me around. They haven’t either.” 
When I interviewed her, I asked H M Peel if the Hendersons were based on real people:
 “My human characters are all invented.  Safer that way re litigation!” 
Sadly, although Easter is reasonably easy to find as Fidra reprinted it, the rest of the series is monstrously difficult to find.
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For more on H M Peel, including an interview, see her page on my website.

Friday, 18 April 2014

PBOTD 18th April: Elizabeth Waud - Easter Meeting

Today's pony book has a thoroughly appropriate title: Easter Meeting. Author Elizabeth Waud wrote just one pony book, as far as I'm aware. Easter Meeting is the story of Geoffrey, Felicia, Simon and Loraine Knox. They spend their holidays with an aunt, who has a stud farm. Simon wants to look after his animals; Loraine to paint, but Felicia wants only to ride, and it looks as if this will be scuppered as a party of boys are also coming to stay. After initial disasters when they meet the boys, things calm down, and they all go to a point to point and co-operate in rescuing a horse stuck on the quicksands.

Harrap, 1959, 1st edn, illus Sheila Rose
The book is full of well-observed characters. Flicker (Felicia) is one of those personalities whose feelings and impulses tend to govern everybody else’s. Miss Knox, the aunt with whom the children are staying is brisk in the extreme. The children’s parents are away, which they mostly seem to be, and there is a rather poignant moment when Geoffrey, the eldest at 17, is asked if his mother is dead, as they spend all holidays with their aunt. He replies:
‘ “You thought she was dead? It almost seems like it sometimes,” said Geoffrey, so quietly that John could hardly hear."
But the children, as children do, get on with life. They haven't been dealt a particularly easy hand: their parents are absent, and the aunt is emotionally remote, and makes no concessions at all to the children. She does not like Simon’s animal-keeping habit, and that is that. There is some light on the horizon, which comes from the horses, who are characters just as much as the children, from the stallions Golden Boy and Bayard to the riding school horses Heather and Storm.

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Easter Meeting only had one publication, its first edition in 1959. The author has a page on my website, but if I'm honest, if you've read this blog post you've pretty much read the page.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

PBOTD 17th April: Catherine Harris - Riding for Ransom

Riding for Ransom is the third in the Marsham family series (and apologies for not including them thus far - Riding for Ransom makes it in because it's set in the Easter holidays). The Marshams are one of those large chaotic families quite common in pony books, but this family pride themselves on being dashing. This does cause them problems in the first two series, but they're worked out without too much effect on the realism of the plot. Riding for Ransom is different. The youngest son, Timothy, is kidnapped. This it turns out, is because he was mistaken for Simon, the son of the wealthy American family staying with the Marshams.

Blackie, 1960, illus Joan Thompson

So far, so good, but the author's need to maintain the Marsham children's position as dashing above all things leads her into some very odd alleys. I do find with this book the more that I read it, the more blindingly odd it seems. The scene which most makes me goggle is when Mrs Marsham hands the decision on whether or not to go to the police to Simon's father. Here's her justification:

“I still think it’s wrong, horribly wrong,” said Mrs. Marsham, “but it is up to Ensign to do what he thinks fit and we must abide by his decision, because the whole affair is centred around the Baddeleys and not the Marshams. It’s only because of that stupid mistake over Timothy‘s identity that we’re involved at all.”

But he's still your son, I want to yell, and he's just as kidnapped as the other boy, and in just as much danger. Mrs Marsham isn't quite finished. When she finds out the rest of her children have disappeared to rescue Timothy and Simon, she says:

“Aren’t we lucky to have such original children? Oh Roger, wouldn’t it be marvellous if this mission they’ve set out on were a success and they rescued Timothy and Simon and we never had to see another policeman?”

I burst out of the world of the book at that point, completely unable to maintain any belief in it. Of course everything does work out, but I still maintain that in a competition for most unlikely reactions to plot developments, this book has few equals.

Blackie, 1965, cover Harry Green
Riding for Ransom was first published by Blackie in 1960, illustrated by Joan Thompson. It was reprinted in 1965, with a rather more dramatic cover by Harry Green.

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For more on Catherine Harris and her books, she has a page on my website.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

PBOTD 16th April: Elizabeth Wynne - Heronsway

You get two pony books for the price of one today:  the Heronsway books, Pony Quest and Rescue Team were both published in 1989. That was as far as the series got. The author, Elizabeth Wynne, was a pseudonym used by the author Wendy Douthwaite. Under that name she'd already written several books for different publishers. She also wrote at least one title for the Animal Ark series: Donkey Derby (1999). The Heronsway books were the only ones based around an equestrian centre.

In the first book, Pony Quest, Sandy is the classic pony mad heroine: she longs for a pony of her own, and in particular, she wants Quest. She already actually has an owner, and Sandy shares caring for the mare in return for rides. She gets to have the mare on loan for a year at the end of the book, which we learn during what must be one of the cheeriest announcements of a parental divorce ever. Everyone is frighteningly well-adjusted. Stand back Ms Paltrow, the equestrian world was there way before you with conscious uncoupling.

Armada, 1989 1st edition
If you believed the blurb on the second book, Rescue Team, you'd think we get a well-worn trope, with a troop of children having to look after the stables when the owner is ill. It's all a bit more nuanced than that: you get an interesting build up before disaster overtakes the centre, with the emphasis on the normality of the children's lives, and their everyday summer holiday activities.

Armada, 1989 1st edition
It's a pity the books didn't continue beyond these two books. They're both very easy to find, and well worth a read. Both were published, for the first and only time, as Armada originals in 1989.

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 Here's the page on Elizabeth Wynne, and here's the one on Wendy Douthwaite.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

PBOTD 15th April: Josephine Pullein-Thompson - Show Jumping Secret

Josephine Pullein-Thompson had a passion for instruction.  Her own acquaintance with the Pony Club, that usual vehicle of equine learning for the young, was brief. An early rally she and her sisters went to was held at Stonor Park, and centred on stable management.  The lecture was held in a Victorian stable, and as the door was blocked by older children, the Pullein-Thompsons saw and heard nothing. 

Collins, 1955, 1st edn, illus Sheila Rose
Armada paperback, 1969
Josephine's experience of mounted rallies was brief. In Fair Girls and Grey Horses she describes how she hired a “clipped, stabled and corn-fed pony over which I had absolutely no control.”  There were no more pony club rallies after that.  Despite this early off-putting start, as an adult Josephine went on to become District Commissioner of the Woodland Hunt Pony Club, and she maintained her belief that horses should be ridden properly, and that there was always, always, room for improvement.  Angela Bull, writing in Twentieth Century Children's Writers, says that worship of the pony was not enough for Josephine Pullein-Thompson.  “She writes for the serious purpose of turning her readers into better horsemen..... she set about using the pony story, with its well-tried themes of struggle and achievement, as a vehicle for instruction.” And she instructed boys as well as girls. 

Collins Seagull, 1963
Collins Pony Library, 1974
Armada pb, 1980s?
She breaks with tradition by having boys as the principal characters in some of her books. Show Jumping Secret has a hero, Charles, who has to battle two things: his polio, which has left him with a lame leg, and the utter conviction of his horsy cousins that their way (legs forward, hands in lap) is best, and that his modern ways are strange.  Charles eventually wins through, and he and his mare win a Foxhunter Championship – Charles progresses further than any of Josephine’s other characters, in the competition sense at least.   

What is it about cousins? Are there ever any helpful, decent ones? Jill has Cecilia; Jean's cousins in A Pony for Jean weren't welcoming to start with, and Augusta's cousins in Diana Pullein-Thompson's I Wanted a Pony were uniformly foul. It's a hard calling, being a cousin in a pony book.

Armada paperback, 1981
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Show Jumping Secret was first published by Collins in 1955, and was illustrated by Sheila Rose. It then appeared as a Seagull Library edition in 1963, with a different cover. It was an Armada paperback, appearing in 1969. The Collins Pony Library had yet another cover in 1974, and two the final editions had the classic late 20th century photo cover, and were published in the 1980s. 

For much, much more on Josephine Pullein-Thompson, see her page on my website.

Monday, 14 April 2014

PBOTD 14th April: Diana Pullein-Thompson - The Pennyfields

Today's pony book is one you quite possibly haven't read. The Pennyfields (1947) was published twice in paperback form by Armada in the 1960s, and that was its lot. It was Diana’s least successful book. The Pennyfields moves away from the first person portrayal of a solitary girl with which she was most at home, and features a large family, bursting with characters. Chaotic and ebullient, the Pennyfields are short of money (in the traditional pony book sense only; the children go away to school, have a large house and a housekeeper, but they lack money for frills). They are trying to earn enough to buy a pony and a shotgun. They already have a donkey
Collins, 1949, 1st edition
 It's rather a frustrating book to read: the family’s schemes are doomed never to work out quite as they should. Their efforts to provide a removal service are almost scuppered by their disobedient donkey, and their transport service comes within a whisker of being wrecked by the spectacularly tactless younger sister Jennet. After a very little while, there is a dreadful inevitability about much of it: an interesting event pops up, only to end in predictable disaster, caused by one or other of this family who have little in the way of redeeming (or differentiating) features.
Armada paperback 1964, cover Peter Archer
The book ends with swift and unbelievable coincidence: the requisite ponies – two in fact – are granted to the family to ride right at the end of the book, as a reward for retrieving a necklace, and a couple of pages further on, more ponies are promised as the children’s father has had a rise in salary. 

Armada paperback 1964, cover Peter Archer, variant edition
This whirlwind of equine acquisition sits rather oddly with the struggles the book has been concerned with up until then. The Pennyfields has not found favour with fans of the genre: pony book aficionado Barbara Mclintock said “It is not only that I didn't find the characters likeable (although I didn't), but for some reason which I can't quite fathom, I didn't find them realistic either. They just never came across to me as a real family.”

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For much, much more on Diana Pullein-Thompson, see her page on my website.