Tuesday, 31 July 2007

Ballet Girls

In one of the Jills, though I can't remember which one, she says that if she has any children, she's sure they'll like sordid things like Alsatians or ballet. Or at least I think she does. The moment I read that as a child, it was as if a bell pinged and I saw my future, and sure enough, my daughter is a ballet girl.

She's read the Sheltie books, but she's a grown up girl of 11 now, and has left Sheltie well behind. Alas she hasn't replaced them with any of my lovely pony books; not one. I've made subtle, and not so subtle, efforts to interest her in Jill but it hasn't worked.

Sigh.

Thursday, 26 July 2007

Phew

Not really terribly pony related this post; though I am having a brief break from proof reading Six Ponies. I've had a few manic days recently as I've been organising a drama course, of which the first day has finally happened. So far it's going well, though I am absolutely shattered. Why though do I have such broken nights beforehand, suddenly waking up and adding something to my vast list of things to do? I wish there was a way of training my brain to think of these things at a sensible hour, but it seems to prefer to do it at unsocial hours when I'd really much rather be asleep.

The children are doing really well, and we've nearly got to the end: just frantic rehearsals tomorrow before the performance for parents. Hopefully by then I'll have recovered some voice - having been singing what seems like every part apart from the main one to teach them to children who aren't used to learning parts at speed my voice is in need of rest. As indeed is the rest of me so I shall return to slowly reading every word of the last chapter of Six Ponies!

Monday, 23 July 2007

Caroline Akrill

At last, after weeks of getting submerged by a myriad of other things, I have finished my Caroline Akrill article: it's here.

Friday, 20 July 2007

Which pony books make you cry?

I can cry at pretty much anything (I was never good, but became far, far worse once I had the children.) My family are now very used to my welling up at emotional moments in films, and they all turn round expectantly at particularly mushy moments, whilst I gulp and try (and usually fail) to give them the satisfaction of seeing me cry. Again. When I read Nancy Mitford's Love in a Cold Climate, I so sympathised with Linda, who is endlessly made to cry by being taunted about the match by her tougher siblings:
- 'A little, houseless match, it has no roof, no thatch,
It lies alone, it makes no moan, that little, houseless match.'
My absolute prime weepy moment isn't actually a pony book at all: it's E Nesbitt's The Railway Children. Even typing it is enough. It's the "Daddy, my Daddy," bit at the end.

But pony books do their bit too to add to the dampness. I have great difficulty reading Black Beauty when he meets Ginger again, and then the cart with Ginger's body in it goes past: "The head hung out of the cart tail..." - I shall spare you the rest of the quotation.

John Steinbeck's The Red Pony I am completely incapable of reading in a single sitting.

Pamela MacGregor Morris's Lucky Purchase has me in floods, as does Veronica Westlake's Ten Pound Pony: "They stood and stared at each other for a long time. We stared too, and I think our mouths must have been open. It seemed as if something had broken somewhere and time was standing still..."

Thursday, 19 July 2007

Wealth in pony books - again

I've had a very interesting email on pony books, heroines and wealth, and I'm going to quote from it directly - it was in response to my earlier post about a poor but nasty pony book heroine:
... an impoverished pony-owner being resentful and bitter and never reforming is the obnoxious Charlie Dewhurst in Three Ponies and Shannan. This seems to me to be the exact opposite of the classic pony book. Charlie Dewhurst should be the heroine; she has a lot in common with other pony book heroines. Like Misty in Jackie won a Pony, Jingle used to pull a cart before taking up a career as a riding pony. Charlie is the daughter of a country parson, and they are always poor, although the families are generally happy (as in A Stable for Jill and any number of Lorna Hill novels). In a traditional pony book, the fifteen pound Jingle would triumph over the three hundred pound Serenade. Although Christina does not win the jumping she does prove herself to be as good as any poor groomless child as she wins The Best Turned Out Pony Class. Charlie never reforms, but perhaps Christina is allowed to be the heroine because she is humble and resents her father's wealth? In a pony book, it seems a character is allowed to be wealthy, provided they do not enjoy it and instead treat it as something shameful.
I had thought when making the original post about Christina, but had not thought as far as Charlie, who is the complete opposite of the same author's Augusta, heroine of I Wanted a Pony, the book written immediately before Three Ponies and Shannan. Augusta is poor, has vile, rich cousins, who, with their expensive ponies, she defeats on her cheap Daybreak. It's interesting that DPT turned the convention on its head with her next book.

I wondered as I was writing that last sentence just how much of a convention had emerged by the point DPT was writing. Of course, her mother, Joanna Cannan, had Jean, newly poor with wealthy, though not wholly unsympathetic, cousins, and her heroes in We Met Our Cousins soon realise the error of their fussy ways born of the rigidly correct upbringing of a wealthy London child. MM Oliver's Sea Ponies is concerned with rescuing the ramshackle farm from a dastardly landlord, and of course Black Beauty has its own examples of the misery caused by the exercise of fashionable money without sympathy, so I suppose it's true to say that the idea of wealth untempered by understanding was alive and well by the 1940s.

I'm not sure, though, about wealth being only acceptable if it's treated as something shameful. Christina is indeed embarrassed about her wealth and how easy it makes things for her. The Esmonds in Plenty of Ponies aren't ashamed of their money, but do see that although money has made their lives easier, it hasn't had much of an effect on their characters. The Holbrooks (although adults Major and Mrs appear in the Noel and Henry series) I think are noblesse oblige personified: they are obviously extremely well off, but not concerned with status; they want to help people, but not in an obtrusive or smothering way. Captain Cholly-Sawcutt in Jill is out of the same mould.

Wednesday, 18 July 2007

The Garden Visit

I was let out from my office yesterday and went on a garden visit to Docwras Manor: a lovely garden: not immaculate enough to be depressing, but with enough interesting plants to make it a garden where you didn't quite know where to look first. I went with a local flower arranging club - I cannot arrange flowers to save my life, bunging a few things in a vase and hoping being more my style, but I have friends who are brilliant at this arcane art, and they invited me along.

So, the Flower Club outing, you would have thought, would have been a staid thing, filled with the middle aged. Filled with the middle aged it was. We went in a coach (having always been sniffy about coaches, I have now come to love them - so lovely not being the parental taxi service and able to see what passes) and were told firmly by our leader to be back at 9.15. Well, 9.15 came and went, and several of our number were not there. They carried on not being there.

They must be still in the garden, we thought, too entranced by the plants to leave. They weren't. So, the coach driver started up and drove a couple of hundred yards down the road and stopped outside the pub. She hooted the horn, and out came our lost sheep. I did wonder whether they'd set foot inside the garden at all...

Sunday, 15 July 2007

More pony book thoughts

I do agree with the comments on my last post: if the characters, dialogue and plot are good enough, then period trappings shouldn't matter.

I wonder if the problem is rather more one of perception: Susanna Forrest says "If publishers are prepared to take a gamble and let pony books escape from the "posh gel" stereotype...", and I wonder if this is it. Ponies are seen as something beyond the reach of most people and if you stock a pony book you are in some way promoting that difference. That might be why it's the Heartland and the baby pony fantasies which are the ones stocked. Heartland is set in the USA, and therefore has the exoticism of abroad (albeit an abroad we're very familiar with) and you can excuse a lot of PC sins by combining them with fantasy - like Harry Potter and the boarding school.

Maybe that's why the Jordan books are so pink and sparkly - it's the publishers' way of saying "This isn't real life: it's just like Barbie - make believe."

I think this is another view that does children a disservice. Children don't generally think "Oh how ground down and miserable I feel because they go to boarding school and I don't." I was state-school educated and when I read the St Clare's stories I loved them and didn't think for a moment how dreadful it was that they had a completely different lifestyle to mine. (When my parents suggested I do a scholarship exam for a local public school I resisted so strenuously they gave in.) Children tend to read things for other reasons than to compare lifestyles, because generally other things are important to them, like good triumphing, the baddie being confounded or redeemed and so on.

I don't think the modern pony book has to include all sorts of today's issues: it needs to be recognisable , yes, but not necessarily be chock full of issues. Gillian Baxter's Bargain Horses was I think an excellent example of the right way to go, and yes, K M Peyton's Blind Beauty is a corker. When I read it, it was one of those books that I was so absorbed by that meals went uncooked... But it's good not because of its background, but because the author makes you care what happens.

Saturday, 14 July 2007

The Daily Telegraph Does Ponies

Susanna Forrest has written an article for today's Daily Telegraph on pony books: it's here. Aside from the fact I am quoted (along with Caroline Akrill and Vanessa from Fidra), it's a good article, with whose conclusions I do of course agree! As I am a complete anorak, I was particularly interested to read about the 18th century book by Arabella Argus: Memoirs of Dick, the little poney. Of course, had I only given it a second's thought, it was highly likely that there would have been horsey stories pre-Black Beauty. I'm now all excited by the thought of a whole set of early books I knew nothing about, but will have to try very hard not to do anything about it until I have got a bit further down the to-do pile - including the Caroline Akrill article, which I have very nearly finished, I promise.

Friday, 13 July 2007

Illustration

Here is the illustration. In some ways I quite like it - it's lively and has rather more character to it than the books, but the ponies look rather more like elks (and if I'm right, the one standing at the open door is supposed to be an Arabian), and it's the inaccuracy of it that gets me.

I'm not usually a stickler for health and safety - my daughter often rode bareback, and you don't find that happening in riding schools these days - but in a situation like this where you have a lot of children, and loose ponies, and buckets and brooms..... I can see it being published in the Pony Club Annual entitled "What is wrong with this picture?" And if I was Vicki, owner of the riding school where this is set, I'd be scared witless of being sued when the inevitable happened.

There are whole reams I could write, but I can feel myself coming over all moralistic, so I think I'll go on a nice harmless visit to the Bank to pay in the week's takings!

Thursday, 12 July 2007

The latest thing in Pony Books


I've just been sent a set of Katie Price's (aka Jordan) journey into children's books: they're called Katie Price's Perfect Ponies, and well, they're pink. They are aimed completely shamelessly at girls: the covers are bright Barbie pink with silvery trimmings and a sub-Bratz character on the front.

Katie Price I know does have horses of her own, and she knows her stuff. Random House, the publishers, have a Perfect Ponies website, and the pony care tips are accurate and sensible. The stories themselves are written competently enough (as always with these celebrity books, I do wonder who did the actual writing) but without any sort of heart - nothing to really engage the emotions, or attract you to the characters. Interestingly, the most popular character at the moment on the website is Cara - who is a nervy biscuit who doesn't like going fast or jumping, and the only one who is memorable for anything other than the way she looks. Even so, Cara's big blue eyes crop up quite often, and what with Jess twirling her thick brown hair, and Darcy's plait being so long she can sit on it....

The only thing that emerges from the sludge is the insistence that one can be glam and still horsey. And isn't there enough stress on girls to look good already? Neat and workmanlike was how I was supposed to look when I was a horsey girl; at least when I was with the ponies I was well away from my parents' insistence that I "make the best of myself", and school's hawkeye inspection of you to see if you were up to getting a Deportment Girdle (No). In these books, Vicki, the owner of the riding stables "smiled, revealing her perfect white teeth. With her slim figure, thick dark hair, tanned skin and stunning silver-grey eyes, their teacher was living proof that you could be glam and still be a brilliant horsewoman." [Little Treasures] And of course you can, but not when you're 8.

The illustrations don't help. Dynamo Design, who were responsible, have gone all out for cuteness. They have sub Bratz heroines, ponies from the dumpy Plasticene school of modelling and a complete disregard for accuracy. The riders' toes are all pointing firmly downwards, the saddles are utterly unlike any saddle I've ever seen; there are ponies being groomed loose, and standing there cheerfully in their stables with wide open doors. As of course they do.

There are four titles in the series at the moment: presumably more are planned. Books for young readers don't have to be like this: there are some fantastic American titles - Jessie Haas' Runaway Radish - funny and instantly recognisable, and K M Peyton's Scruffy Pony - with the angst of wondering if the heroine will actually get her act together and rescue the pony who is so in need of it.

Monday, 9 July 2007

Plenty of Ponies

I've just been reading Josephine Pullein-Thompson's Plenty of Ponies, which is one of her earliest works. It's the story of the Esmonds, whose parents have, contrary to usual pony book form, hit good times, meaning that they now have a pony each, a large house and plenty of staff. Lewis says: "It's much easier to be nice if you're poor." Charlotte, his sister, says "I should think it's extremely difficult to be nice if you're really poor and don't have enough to eat and live in a slum, but I agree that it's good for one to be poverty-stricken like we were."

I wonder if it's the idea of noblesse oblige that JPT likes: it's alright to have money, but you must do the right things with it: treat your fellows, staff and horses well and live a life that doesn't focus simply on what you can buy. The main adult figures in the Noel and Henry books, Major and Mrs Holbrooke embody all these things. June Cresswell, on the other hand, has plenty of money, but also a mother who is wilfully blind to her daughter's faults and determined to believe only the best of her in spite of all evidence to the contrary. The heroine of I Had Two Ponies is a classic spoiled little rich girl: so used to having her own way, and doing nothing for herself, that she is not particularly bothered when her two ponies are sent to a sale. She is, however, shown the error of her ways, realises that she has been behaving extremely badly and hunts out the two sold ponies. Two Ponies is, I think, the most moral of JPT's works (do tell me if you think differently) and has the character who goes on the greatest moral journey.

I've been trying to think of a pony book in which the heroine is poor and nasty; ground down by her poverty, but I can't. The most realistically portrayed poor girl is Ruth in K M Peyton's Fly-by-Night. Dinah, in Joanna Cannan's, Gaze at the Moon lives in a Council house. They are both poor but have loving families and masses of determination and a good deal of self-belief. Jill, of course, has a mother whose income fluctuates, certainly in the early stories, but matters never become dire. Perhaps that is anyway, one of the functions of the children's story: to act as a fantasy, where the worst never quite happens, or if it does, it's overcome.

Thursday, 5 July 2007

The worst pony book title ever

I would think it has to be Myrtle Green's "A Pony - Doctor's Orders" which succeeds in sounding like a breathless Mills and Boon. I can see it now. The tweed suited vet, his dark face twisted in a handsome sneer, tells the beautiful but bedraggled groom, hanging on desperately to the head of the plunging thoroughbred, completely failing to hold him steady as the vet does something Extremely Important: "A pony - that's all you're fit for. You'll never be woman enough for a horse. Or for me."

Wednesday, 4 July 2007

The Lily Saga

A few years ago I bought some lily bulbs: I've always loved lilies, but struggled to grow them when we lived in London because of the lily beetles. Despite frequent night raids on them they had the better of me. So, I thought, after a few years had passed and dulled the pain, I'd try again. I bought some Madonna Lily bulbs, read the instructions, carefully dug holes, made little sand beds for the bulbs and sat back and hoped. In the spring, the lilies poked little green heads above the soil. Every day I went out and inspected them, and soon they were about 5 inches tall.

One day I was looking idly out of the landing window, which overlooks the garden, and saw a squirrel (the grey kind of course). I don't like squirrels at the best of times: ours ate enormous amounts of bird food - and by the way if anyone tells you the way to deal with squirrels is to feed them, don't listen. If you feed them they just bring their mates to join in the bounty - dug endless holes in the lawn and swore virulently at me everytime I dared to go into the garden. But I digress. I looked out of the window, and the fiend, the monster, was digging up my precious lily bulbs. I hammered on the window, screaming with rage and then shot outside. Of course I was far too late; and the squirrel sat in the apple tree, clutching its booty. And the worst, the absolute worst thing, was that it didn't even like them. It hurled the chawed stalks down at my feet. I was a broken woman.

Two lilies did survive the onslaught, and this year, 3 years after I planted them, I have flowers.

Tuesday, 3 July 2007

Phew

Daughter did the first of her secondary school induction days yesterday. She is the only one in her class going to this particular school; it's where her brother goes, and it's a good long stretch away from where we live.

Yesterday I dropped them both off at the station: with an excellent start as her brother shot from the car like a bullet, leaving her trying to get her bags together and catch up. Fortunately as soon as he was out of my sight he upped his act, and daughter spent all free time at school being beseiged by what must have been most of year 10. They told her she looked nothing like her brother (just as well as he is 6' 5", hairy and unshaven), and yes, they patted her on the head. I thought they might.

She has made 1 1/2 friends; the half being one she met on the train coming home, and loved school. Oh phew. Oh the relief. Shall now put my guilt at whisking daughter away from all her friends, and thereby behaving in a thoroughly predicatable middle class manner, temporarily back on the shelf.