Friday, 25 December 2009

Happy Christmas!

I've always wanted to sing In Dulci Jubilo with the verve this version has, but other than in the confines of my own kitchen, never have!

Happy Christmas everyone.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Having learned the top part, and spent some time wondering quite what if anything was going to come out by the time the top A at the end was reached, ended up singing Alto. Hurrah.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Christmas update

Number of presents wrapped = 0
Number of cards thrown away after muddled up family members, wrote wrong name on envelope which is unique to that one card, mis-spelled friend's name after knowing them for decades = 5
Number of people who had to be contacted after I lost their address again after losing it the year before = 3
Number of people still to invite to drinks party tomorrow = 13
Mince pies cooked for party tomorrow = 0
Number of cards still to send = don't want to count
Number of choir anthems where completely lost concentration and came in too early = 1

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Jill's Gymkhana - it's out!

Jill's Gymkhana: the full, unadulterated text, and ALL the Caney pics: for the first time in ooh, decades. It's £7.99, and can be bought from Fidra Books, the publisher.

I really like the cover: Black Boy's black, for a start, and looks as if he might stand a chance in a show! A Stable for Jill and Two Ponies for Jill will be out in early 2010.

Jane Austen's first publisher

Some fascinating research here on Jane Austen's first appearance in print.

War Horse to be filmed

Dreamworks (Stephen Spielberg) have acquired the rights. Bearing in mind the difference between the book and the play, I'll be interested to see what new directions the film takes off in.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Am I the only person

who finds the self service checkouts springing up everywhere unbelievably irritating? Having decided that £40 was a bit much to spend on a Christmas tree, we retreated to B&Q who now have cheap Christmas trees (good) but now have these wretched self service things installed. The chap in the queue before us gave up, dumped his stuff, and left, and after the machine had been re-set, it was our go. It's the voice that gets me - all calmly reasonable, and so bloody bossy. Do this... do that.... Pay now... tolerant pause ... Pay now... further tolerant pause... Pay now.... by which time, the idiot human (me) at the other end is steaming, as all payment methods are at the right hand side, apart from the one I want, which is to the left, which Miss Bossy doesn't see fit to mention. Then being reminded "Don't forget your receipt" makes me want to scream "NO you bossy mare, I won't take it!"

Of course, all this irritation and fury means nothing whatsoever to the machine, which sits there, utterly and totally unmoved: which of course is the point - I like a human at the end of the transaction.

Our local libraries are all introducing self service now too. I can't think of any way though, that it might mean more books unless they cut staff too. I've watched our local libraries gradually shedding books, sometimes on the most spurious criteria. One library decided to move from 6 shelves to 5, the theory being that books were easier to reach (I could reach them all without thinking about it and I am a massive 5' 8"). Hundreds of books were junked. Recently anything without the right sort of bar code - ie anything not published within the last 10 years - was also junked as it couldn't be read by the new self service machines. The dreadful irony of this is that there is very little left in our village library now that I actually want to read, so I go less and less often.

If there is anyone out there reading this who works for the library services, and can tell me what the rationale is behind cutting the number of books you stock, I would love to hear from them: the more so if it's working and the number of borrowers is up.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Review: Susan Richards - Chosen by a Horse

Susan Richards - Chosen by a Horse
Constable: £7.99

This is yet another book that's been in the review pile for months: so long, in fact, I can't remember when I got it.

It's about a rescue horse: a Standardbred mare called Lay Me Down, and the woman who rescued her, Susan Richards. Lay Me Down was rescued when she and her companions were seized by their owner, who had neglected them so badly they were nearly at the point of starvation. At first, it wasn't even clear if Lay Me Down would survive, but she and her foal both did. The foal was reclaimed by the abusive owner, who had to sign all the foals over to his vet in lieu of fees, but Lay Me Down stayed.

She really was a quite exceptional mare, and Susan Richards shows you just what a complete sweetie this horse was. Despite the horrors she had known, she bore no one any malice, and was always accepting and kind: no mareish nasties at all, unlike one of Susan Richard's other horses, the Morgan Georgia, who was the ultimate in mareish sass. Susan Richards does wonders in portraying this mare. Thinking back over the horses I've known, I've known difficult mares by the bucketload, and I've known mares who would put up with anything a child chose to do to them, but I don't think I've ever known a horse as benign. The animal in my life most like Lay Me Down is in fact my dog, Holly, whom we took on at the age of 15 months after she'd ping ponged in and out of 5 homes. Susan Richards describes Lay Me Down thus:

Unlike me, Lay Me Down seemed to feel no rancor. In spite of everything, she was open and trusting of people, qualities I decidedly lacked. It was her capacity to engage that drew me to her, that made me aware of what was possible for me if I had her capacity to... to what? Forgive? Forget? Live in the Moment? What exactly was it that enabled an abused animal, for lack of a better word, to love again?

Alas, Lay Me Down is not done with suffering once she is rescued. She develops a tumour which pushes out her eye, and it is inoperable.

The picture of the horse drew me in, but Susan Richard's own experiences didn't, and I'm not quite sure why. I think one thing that made me disengage from her was the episode of the foal being taken away, or to be more accurate, what didn't happen afterwards. After the grim emotional haul of the foal being parted from her mother and carted away after a Judge decreed that the owner could reclaim all the foals from his herd, in order to meet his debts, I expected that we'd be told what happened to the foal after she was taken in by the vet - she was too young to be weaned, apparently, so what happened next? This complete silence was a little odd. Perhaps the foal's story didn't fit into the book, but the foal simply isn't mentioned again after she's hauled away. Susan Richards' own reaction seemed quite profound, and so I expected her to at the least, try and contact the vet and buy the foal back. Maybe she did, or maybe she didn't, but I couldn't quite remove the foal from my brain, and she haunted the rest of the book.

Perhaps tellingly, the book moves on from the foal's removal to a description of how Susan Richards became the person she was: her mother died at the age of five, and then she was shunted from one abusive relation to another. I couldn't help but draw parallels. I'm glad Susan Richards felt Lay Me Down had unlocked something in her; and she gave Lay Me Down the best and most loving of care as she became more and more sick.

That's not to say this is a bad read: it's incredibly involving, and of course the end is tragic and you will cry bucketloads. Just can't get that foal out of my mind.

Wonder where this one will end up

There have been mutterings for a while that jump racing would be banned in Victoria, Australia, and now it has been, from 2011. Read the story here.

As far as I'm aware, there's no equivalent mutterings here. There are some things I disagree with very strongly in racing: breaking and racing two year olds, for one, and not giving any thought to what happens to the horses after their racing career is finished for another.

However, I love National Hunt (as jump racing is called here). Horses do die, and it is absolutely terrible to watch one of those falls when you know the horse is not going to get up. When you make the death or injuring of horses into a welfare issue that you're determined to clear up, I do wonder where it will stop. Horses die eventing, show jumping and hunting, and of course hacking on the roads is not exactly safe. If you take as your premise that the horse hasn't asked to be doing x and that therefore if y can happen you must stop doing x will that leave us with simply poddling round an arena doing dressage? (And I am simply not going to open the can of worms that is dressage...)

I suppose what worries me is how you define what is an acceptable risk to the horse, and to you. I'm more worried about the horse than the human, the human being the one with choice. A lot of changes have been made to Aintree over the years, for example. It's much safer than it was. I don't think you can remove 100% of the risk for the horse, whatever you're doing: riding is a partnership, and either you or the horse might get something wrong. It comes down to how much death you're prepared to tolerate, and I suppose if I look at the issue rationally, I obviously am prepared to accept a small amount of death, although I hate it.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Rollkur (well sort of) in 1961

I said in a previous blog post that I'd never seen or heard of a horse doing rollkur on its own. The following example isn't really a horse doing rollkur because it feels like it: it's more because the horse wants its own way and is evading the bit, but still. Here it is:

"She had a mouth like iron, but she could not be accused of bolting, or even running away. She would just tuck in her chin until it touched her chest, drop the bit, and canter slowly, steadily and relentlessly on. The most that you could hope to do when she was in this mood was to turn her into a circle, and wait until she grew tired - unless of course you had a friend on foot who would run in and grab the bridle." (Stella Markeson - Horse Portraits, in Riding Magazine, Sept 1961)

This is of course evasion, and not at all actual rollkur, but I found it interesting to read of a horse doing something similar!

Friday, 20 November 2009

Review: Alison Hart - Racing to Freedom Trilogy

Alison Hart: Gabriel's Horses
Peach Tree Publishing, Atlanta £8.21

Alison Hart: Gabriel's Journey
Peach Tree Publishing, Atlanta £8.21
Age 10+

My New Year's Resolution was to get through the to-be-reviewed pile more quickly, but nearly at the end of the year, I can tell you I have failed miserably. Gabriel's Horses I have had for well over a year; Gabriel's Journey much less long, thanks to the author, who kindly sent me a copy, but still quite long enough for it to be embarrassing.

The second book I haven't read, but if it's up to the standard of the two I have, it's well worth finding. The Race to Freedom trilogy is set in Kentucky, during the American Civil War. Kentucky, as I learned, was not a centre of operations during the war. Only a few battles were fought, and racing and breeding carried on. So unaffected was Kentucky that some Southern owners brought their horses to Kentucky to remove them from the ravages of the war in the South. The state was not completely unaffected however: Guerilla raiders (the ones in the book are Confederate but I assume there were Union counterparts) raided farms for horses to use in the war: a horse's illustrious pedigree and racing career were no proof against being taken.

The book's hero, Gabriel Alexander, is an African American boy born into slavery. His father was free, but because his mother was a slave, the children were slaves too. Gabriel is, to some extent, lucky: Master Giles, the owner of Woodville Farm, where the family live, is mostly considerate and kindly. Gabriel loves horses, and manages to follow his dream of working with them. Racism though is never far from the surface, and Alison Hart paints a disturbing picture of some of its manifestations during the Civil War: Confederate guerillas hunt down and kill any blacks who survived the Saltville action described in the third book, and racism is casually present in the attitudes of many.

Being British, the American Civil War isn't something that swam into my history syllabuses, so I found the historical detail fascinating. I had no idea that there was a colored cavalry regiment. Gabriel goes to join his father in the Fifth U.S. Colored Cavalry, though he does not fight, but is used as a horse boy. Tellingly, the Cavalry are not issued with the most recent, and effective weapons. The Saltville attack described in the book was a Confederate victory, but Gabriel survives, having learned that war is, as his mother says, not about glory but death.

This book is a fascinating picture of the decency that can exist in human beings, as well as the unthinking prejudice and cruelty. Gabriel is an attractive character: he's brave but not unbelievably so, and the telling of the story in the present tense gives the book's events an immediacy historical novels don't always have.

This book also, gasp, is produced as a hardback, with a dustjacket: something British publishers now alas don't do for most children's books.

Going green...

The non-recycleability of some of the packaging materials I use has been nagging at me for a while now. I've now decided there's not a lot of point my carefully composting, giving scraps to the hens and filling the council recycling bin when I'm contributing to the waste because of my use of padded envelopes and non recycleable bubblewrap.

So, paperbacks will now be posted in little paper padded Jiffy envelopes. You can use them again yourself, and they should rot down nicely on the compost heap too. Hardbacks will be sent in cardboard book boxes (when they arrive - they're still somewhere between the factory and here, after they attempted to deliver at the one time I went out yesterday). Anything that needs bubblewrap will now have a new green - quite literally, as it is green in colour - bubblewrap that will break down rather than rot in landfill for ever. I'm still using the corrugated card and brown paper I always have used, and I moved a while ago to using biodegradable sellotape.

I still need to find a biodegradable parcel tape, and am using little plastic bags to wrap the books in before they go into the Jiffy envelope or box. I'm not sure whether this is worthwhile or not. I worry about the possibility of books getting wet, as I know some books are left out on the doorstep or in the bin. What do you think? Should I use plastic bags or not?

As a last thought, I never thought a picture of an envelope might be considered a good illustration for a post...

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

An update on Rollkur

The FEI have now held their meeting, at which they discussed Rollkur. This is their statement:

"The FEI condemns all training methods and practices that are contrary to horse welfare. The welfare of the horse has always been and will always be at the core
of every aspect of the Federation’s work as the international governing body for equestrian sport.

During its meeting in Copenhagen (DEN) on 15 November, the FEI Bureau had extensive discussion on the issue of hyperflexion. The FEI Bureau insists that, with immediate effect, stewards in all disciplines use the disciplinary measures available to them, such as verbal warnings and yellow warning cards *, to prevent any infringement of FEI rules.

The FEI is now engaged with World Horse Welfare, a leading international equestrian organisation, in addition to continued consultation with riders, trainers,
officials and veterinarians to thoroughly research the issues. The further education of stewards will also continue to ensure that welfare issues at FEI events are dealt with promptly and professionally.

The FEI acknowledges and welcomes public opinion and will continue to ensure that the welfare of the horse, which has been central to this debate, will remain its absolute priority. "

I had to read this a few times before I worked out whether it was saying anything or not. It isn't coming out and condemning Rollkur outright, which isn't a surprise, as it's not clear whether or not it's against FEI rules. They are going to research the issue further, which is good. As I said in a previous blog, what is needed is definitive research on the impact of rollkur on the horse's mental and physical wellbeing.
The statement reads to me as if they do consider there were welfare issues at Odensee, and that the stewards should have acted: why insist on using disciplinary measures if they're already in place and working fine?
There's a little more elaboration on the Horse and Hound website. FEI veterinary director Graeme Cooke said: "Clearly, anything inappropriately done to excess is something we have concerns about. And there needs to be more clarity about rollkur — whether it is acceptable and to what level." World Horse Welfare chief executive Roly Owers told H&H: "There are issues with rollkur (hyperflexion) and the incident in Odense last month has brought this sharply into focus. We are happy to work with the FEI on this."
I think it's a pity the FEI didn't put a moratorium on the use of Rollkur until they have reached a decision on whether or not the process is acceptable. If no one uses it, no one is at a competitive disadvantage. At least there seems to be some progress, but I'd like to know exactly what form the consultation and research will take, and how long will elapse before a decision is reached.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

The latest on Rollkur

According to Horse and Hound, the FEI are going to debate the Rollkur issue at their general assembly on 15th November in Copenhagen. A spokesman said "important developments will be announced as soon as possible."

When you look at the FEI's dressage page, and see listed along the right hand side article after article on Anky and other Dutch dressage riders (Anky, the Olympic gold medallist, is very well known for being a Rollkur practitioner, as I believe are most of the Dutch team) it is immediately obvious what a tension there is here. On the one hand, the top echelons of the sport support rollkur, and are presumably lobbying very hard for the FEI not to change their stance; on the other there's a great deal of public attention being directed at a sport which has only just emerged out of the shadows and started to become popular.

In an ideal world, I would suggest a moratorium on rollkur being practised until definitive studies have been done on the effect on the horse's mental and physical wellbeing have been carried out. Until those happen, the need to produce a top competition horse, will, unfortunately, take precedence as rollkur's practitioners argue their practices do not harm, and in fact can help the horse.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Vote on Rollkur

Horse and Hound have a poll going on on their front page at the moment. You will have to scroll down the page a bit to get there - it's on the left hand side, but if you want to tell H&H what you think, here's your chance.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Rollkur and the blue tongue

I've been meaning to write about this all week, but reading the exclusive in Horse and Hound about the controversy tipped me over the edge.

For my non-horsy readers, rollkur is a training/warming up technique used by some dressage riders. It basically involves riding the horse with its jaw pulled in virtually to its chest, in order to increase suppleness.

Patrik Kittel , a Swedish competitor in Odense was videoed riding his horse in this way. If you watch the video, you'll see the horse's tongue hanging out - blue. It takes a while before the rider notices this. When he does, he stops, puts the horse's tongue back in, and carries on.

There are two things which bother me about this. Firstly, I am fully aware large sections of the dressage world, and some of its brighest stars, consider rollkur perfectly ok, but the FEI guidelines state this practice should only be for short periods, allowing the horse to rest. Patrick Kittel apparently rode the horse for two hours in rollkur, albeit with rests: look at those round about him in the video. None of them seem remotely bothered, which suggests to me riding your horse this way is not unusual enough for anyone to notice, comment, or do anything about it.

Secondly, Patrik , in Horse and Hound, said "Scandic sometimes plays with his tongue. During the filmed period of my training, he caught his tongue over or under the bits. I stopped when I noticed, and put it back in the right place." And so he did, but he didn't get off the horse, and carried straight on with a bit more rollkur. If my horse had had a blue tongue, I would have thought that sufficient reason to STOP. To stop, get off, and let my horse recover, during which period I would be checking his tongue, and not carrying on until I was certain he was ok.

I don't like rollkur: it is not a natural process. You might see a horse piaffe, or do extended paces in the field, but you will not see it canter round and round with its chin tucked into its chest: it can't see, for one thing. I am constantly amazed at what horses let humanity do to them. If you can't achieve the higher echelons of dressage without rollkur you shouldn't, in my opinion, be attempting them at all.

Read more about it here and here. Thank goodness the British Horse Society have come down off the fence, unlike Horse and Hound.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Review: Susannah Leigh - Strangers at the Stables

Susannah Leigh – Sandy Lane Stables – Strangers at the Stables
Usborne Books, 2009 : £4.99
Age 10+ (or thereabouts)

This book was originally published in 1996, but it’s been republished a couple of times since then and is still going strong. The latest reprint came out this year.

The latest cover re-design is of the twinkle-twinkle-fairydust school. Goodness alone knows why. There’s nothing remotely fantastical about the story, so presumably this latest effort is to make the books appear fashionable and “new”. I don’t dislike the cover particularly (I love the grey Arab in fact) but I wonder if it wouldn’t confuse its public a bit: this is a straight down the line pony story and there’s not even the merest hint of a mysteriously fading sparkly hoofprint anywhere.

The Sandy Lane Stables series is one I’ve been aware of for years, but which I’ve managed to avoid reading, assuming from the various cover designs that I wasn’t going to enjoy it. Well, I was wrong. I haven’t read the whole series, but I liked this later example from it. Rosie, stalwart teenage helper at Sandy Lane Stables is the book’s heroine. The stable’s owners have to go to America for three weeks, leaving their new groom, Becky, in charge, but when she breaks her leg in an accident, guess what! The children are left in charge. However, the author thankfully took note of the fact that times have changed since fictional riding stables would be left in the hands of eleven year olds for weeks at a time and the stables only has a couple of days being run by the children until Sam and Vanessa turn up to run it. Sam and Vanessa are not what they seem, however, but the only one who can see they’re iffy is Rosie.

I liked the plot: it twists and turns, and kept me interested, though I couldn’t help but wonder how likely it was Sam and Vanessa would have been able to leave their other life not so very far away and no one would actually have spotted. The characters emerge, pretty much, as separate individuals, as do the ponies. The book is a good, fun read, and probably one of the nearest things you’re going to get to a traditional pony story for this age group at the moment.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

My little pony goes Gaga

I've mentioned these before, but Finnish artist Mari Kasurinen has transformed some more My Little Ponies......

I love these, particularly the Gaga one, and the Elvis unicorn is just brilliant. The artist presumably has a bit of a thing about Johnny Depp, as there's a pirate pony, and a dreadfully pathetic Edward Scissorhands.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Book memories meme

The following meme comes from the Ibooknet blog.

The book that’s been on your shelves the longest.
A bit difficult, this. As with most people, I guess this would have to be a childhood book. The one I've had the longest would either by my extremely battered Winnie the Pooh paperback, or my slightly less battered but still not good Wind in the Willows, both of which were read to me by my mother.
A book that reminds you of something specific in your life (a person, a place, a time).
Well, most of them do, really, even ones I've bought on to sell remind me of where I bought them. Hmmm. There is something that reminds me very specifically of a time in my life, and that is "Jane Hankey" scrawled across the title page, as that was my name when I was married first. I used to spend a lot of time either in Mowbrays (which at that time was north of Oxford St and not amalgamated with Hatchards as it is now) and was one of my lunchtime haunts, or in W H Smith in Victoria Station, waiting for my suburban train home. My then husband did not approve of my book habit, and sadly as our relationship deteriorated, less and less of what I actually read. Then as now, I didn't spend a lot of time on the far shores of edgy modern literature which might have provided a literary argument, but was far more likely to read a Dorothy Sayers or Margery Allingham. The bone of contention was that I did not read enough Christian literature, which is a tad ironic considering Mowbrays was well known for being the churchman's bookshop and supplier of all sorts of other bits and bobs to the church, and if I'd had a mind too, there was a more than ample supply of reading material.
A book you acquired in some interesting way.
I've had a few books sent to me by the authors, which is always fun, though slightly worrying when I know I have it for review, and I have to balance the fact I don't wish to upset someone who has been kind enough to give me something with my desire to make my dislike fairly plain if I don't like the book.
When we moved here, we did find a huge heap of books, mostly alas damp ridden beyond saving, in the pigsty.
The book that’s been with you to the most places.
Probably Pride & Prej I guess, as it came with me to university and I moved every year, books bunged into my splendid collection of International Stores carrier bags.
Your current read, your last read and the book you’ll read next.

My current read is actually reads, as I always have several books on the go at a time.
Currently on the go are Dickens - Dombey & Son, Mistress of Charlecote - the Memoirs of Mary Elizabeth Lucy, Dervla Murphy - Through Siberia by Accident and Phillis Garrard - Hilda's Adventures. Last read was Phillis Garrard - The Doings of Hilda, and the book I'll read after I've finished the current lot is probably going to be the first Pony Club Annual as I need to start my research on those.

Bonkers Advertising Copy - Joules

Eating my cheese muffin at lunch today I was mulling over the Joules catalogue, as you do, when I came across this:

"One of life's greatest pleasures is a loose fitting shirt pulled overhead."

I can think of a few circumstances where that might be the case, but frankly, in the general scheme of things, isn't your life a bit sad if putting on a shirt is your greatest pleasure in life?

A bulging parcel which you know contains a book being pulled out of the letterbox, on the other hand....

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Apethorpe 2

Vista, oh bless it, has just decided that blogger is a malicious add on. I know several things I would describe as malicious add ons, but blogger isn't one of them. So, fingers crossed that Vista doesn't do the dirty on me again, and here is my second attempt at a second post on Apethorpe - more specifically, on the caretaker, George Kelley, and also in passing, because I was so intrigued when I read the Inquiry into the Compulsory Purchase Order, Simon Karimzadeh.

George Kelly worked at Apethorpe from 1970 as a groundsman, when it was still St John's School. When Wanis Mohammed Burweila initially bought the house, Mr Kelley was kept on as a caretaker. Together with his colleague Peter Coxhead, he spent the next 20 years trying to stem the tide of decay. Knowing only too well just how wracking it can be to try and mend a small listed house when there are two of you and you have at least some cash, Mr Kelley's task, with no input from the owner, no money for repairs and a house the size of a small village, was monumental. For the last 10 years, he wasn't even paid, he and his wife surviving on her salary alone, but Apethorpe had cast such a strong spell on him (and indeed her) he carried on regardless. Having had a couple of houses with roof problems that meant trips out might have to be interrupted by a frantic dash if it started raining to make sure the buckets weren't overflowing, I can only goggle at the sheer awfulness of the task of trying to keep control of the buckets and polythene on a house that size. Eventually, Mr Kelley let the local Council know just how bad things had got.

There are measures councils can take if owners of listed buildings neglect them, but the owner did not respond to any notices. If this happens, local councils or English Heritage can carry out essential maintenance, and then pursue the owner for the costs, and some repair was carried out. Despite this, nothing further was done by the owner. English Heritage served a Repairs Notice for over £6m of essential maintenance, and then took the unusual step of serving a Compulsory Purchase Order to save the house, after it was sold on (just about) to two developers in succession, neither of whom produced a scheme for the house with which English Heritage was happy: such schemes often rely on what is called "enabling development" - if ever a phrase could be said to cover a multitude of sins, that one could.

I assume that from 2004, when English Heritage bought the house, Mr Kelley has been paid. He's certainly still living and working there. When we visited in August this year, it was Mr Kelley's birthday, and so there was a cricket match going on on the lawn in front of the house. This is one of his perks - he's allowed to host the village team on his birthday. This does of course make it even more the ideal house for me and OH - there's the stables for me, and enough space for a cricket pitch for him.

Mr Kelley has his own ideas about gardening: the BBC programme on English Heritage which featured Apethorpe dwelt lovingly on his topiary. I got the distinct impression English Heritage didn't entirely share his taste. Below you can see, if you peer closely, a monster yew bunny, and if you peer even closer, you can see his fishing rod. There's also a squirrel and several other things. Even as a fully paid up member of the taste police, I like them.

Mr Kelley was given a richly deserved MBE in 2008. Nick Hill, English Heritage project director for Apethorpe, described Mr Kelley as "a true defendant of our heritage." How true.
Scroll down this page to see an interview with Mr Kelley - I can't find a way of embedding it.

The dreadful irony of many stately houses is that they came about by precisely the sort of eye to the main chance that can mean their destruction. Of course, this is why National Trust and English Heritage exist: to be the white and disinterested knights.

The inquiry into the DCMS compulsory purchase order is an interesting picture of the clash between using the private purse to try and preserve, and yet maintain historical integrity. It's a mixture of ineptitude and noble intentions on the part of the DCMS and English Heritage, and motives which were plain hard to decipher on those of its prospective purchaser.

Apethorpe was sold on by its Libyan owner to ACEL, who then tried to sell the house to Simon Karimzadeh. The inquiry made it very clear that Mr Karimzadeh was only willing to complete his purchase if he was given planning permission to convert the stables and granary into 5 hourses, convert the Gardener's Cottage and build eleven new houses in a courtyard.

The thing I find difficult to understand is why, if you had the money to refurbish a house like Apethorpe (and the report talks of Mr Karimzadeh's ample funds) you would want the stables, which are very near the house, inhabited, or a small housing estate in the grounds. If Apethorpe were mine, frankly I'd want those stables inhabited by horses, and I can't see the point of giving up a fairly central part of country life, and something so intrinsic to the house and its development, even if you didn't particularly like horses yourself.

I read an article in The Times in which Mr Karimzadeh laments the refusal of the DCMS to let him refurbish the house, though he does not mention in his lyrical accounts of wedding parties, fireworks and ensuite bathrooms that he refused to buy unless he was given planning permission for those extra houses. In Mr Karimzadeh's evidence to the enquiry he said that "It would not make economic sense, however much he loves the Hall, to walk into a deficit of perhaps as much as £13 million.." i.e. the cost of refurbishing stables he wouldn't use, and demolishing the row of 1950s houses.

I suppose in a nutshell that is why Mr Karimzadeh is worth millions and quoted in the Sunday Times, and why I am not and am never likely to be: if I had the money I'd pour it into the house no matter what.

By a further dreadful irony, the inspector, as one of the grounds for allowing the compulsory purchase, said that even if Mr Karimzadeh was not to buy the house, there were other similar purchasers out there who would. "The evidence suggests, however, that there may be others who would put different values on what they want from where they live and what they would be prepared to pay for it."

Of course, if they are out there, they have not bought the house: as far as I know, it is still on the market.

Update on Apethorpe: 2012

Our visit to Apethorpe: 2009

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Sue Bentley - Magic Ponies Series

Sue Bentley - Magic Ponies 2: A Special Wish (Puffin, £4.99)
Sue Bentley - Magic Ponies 6: Riding Rescue (Puffin, £4.99)

Sue Bentley on Puffin Books
There is a particular school of cover design for children’s books which it’s almost impossible to escape at the moment. The covers of Sue Bentley’s new Magic Ponies series are of the twinkle, twinkle fairydust school which now seems to infest even quite serious non fantasy pony books, like Michelle Bates’ Sandy Lane Stables series, now re-badged with the obligatory sparkles. The animal on each and every cover has those deliberately huge appealing eyes meant to tug at their infant readers’ heartstrings. Worse even than the covers are the strap lines. The kittens series has a fairly inoffensive “... kitten needs a friend;” the puppy series moves on to “A little puppy, a sprinkling of magic, a forever friend” and ponies have “Could you be a little pony’s special friend?” slobbered on each and every cover. I hope whoever was responsible for thinking up this winsome garbage is stopped, soon. I shudder to think what new depths they will reach if the series moves on to bunnies. I could not help but think of that American pet cemetery in Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One where at The Anniversary of the Death, the grieving Mr Joyboy is sent a little card saying “Your little Aimée is wagging her tail in heaven tonight, thinking of you.” Time was when the infant Brit would have been taught to laugh at this sort of thing, but alas no more it seems.

This eight book series is about Comet and his herd, who live on Rainbow Mist Island. His twin sister, Destiny, playfully borrowed the Stone of Power, which is supposed to protect the herd from the dark horses, and then she and her brother lost it when they were playing in the clouds. Destiny then ran away, thinking she would be in trouble. Comet found the Stone and brought it back but by that time Destiny was miles away, on Earth, so Comet sets off to bring her back, helped by the ability to change into a normal pony, rather than one with wings. In both the stories I’ve read, Comet meets a girl and helps her with her problems while she helps him find Destiny (he doesn’t of course, and then has to move on to another girl and another book...)

In neither story does Destiny get any closer than some recently left hoofprints, and the villainous dark horses are similarly distant. Most fantasy blends elements of good and bad, but the wicked dark horses being restricted to just the briefest of mentions makes them seem a rather bloodless threat, and the great quest to find Destiny doesn’t appear to get anywhere either. I think Sue Bentley’s heart is in her portrayal of the families. The non-fantastic elements of the stories are well constructed: I like Sue Bentley’s believable and down to earth characters. I love the way Marcie and her mum do a little dance together down the hall when Marcie’s father gets a new job.

But oh, that fantasy grates. Comet of course is a shining beacon of wisdom: “...Friendship is important. Is it not worth fighting for?” but the fact the morals and advice of the stories are delivered in this portentous fashion by a character who never, ever, gets anything wrong makes the stories strangely disjointed – veering from the well observed to the unlikely and back again.

And there is something that puzzles me about the current breed of fantasy ponies. Why is it that whenever one appears, its creator appears to lose all ability to use contractions of speech? It happens with Jenny Oldfield in her My Magical Pony series, and it happens here too. ‘“I do not think she came this way,” Comet said.’ is just one example. Any other character in this book would have said “I don’t” but poor old Comet is lumbered with cranking his speech out, syllable by painful syllable. I was thinking about this, and wondered how other authors coped with differentiating the fantastical from the normal so sloped off to the shelves to check: Tolkien’s Gandalf doesn’t appear to suffer from contractionitis in The Hobbit, and neither does Hwin, the talking horse in C S Lewis’ The Horse and His Boy. You might argue that both these are set in entirely fantastical worlds, but neither Bilbo nor Shasta, although both live in worlds alien to us, consider those worlds at all fantastic. Their worlds to them are entirely normal, and when things happen to them they and we consider fantastic, it’s not clothed in awkward speech.

I appear to have convinced the world that I hate fantasy: I don’t. I love it, and that’s why it irks me so when it’s badly done. I found these stories immensely frustrating: Sue Bentley writes well when she’s out of the coils of fantasy but no sooner was I enjoying a nicely observed little bit of family life then in came Comet again, him with his wisdom and his shining eyes.

Move over Chestnut Hill

Stacy Gregg is writing a new series called Pony Club Rivals set in, you've guessed it, an American boarding school. Here's what's on her site:

"Gripping adventures and drama at an exclusive horsey boarding school in Lexington, Kentucky USA. The Blainford ‘All-Stars’ Academy is the most elite horse-riding school ever and it’s auditions time for next year’s new students! Tabby Parker is a talented British rider determined to ace the auditions. She’ll be competing against the best young riders in the world for a place at the Academy. It’s a different world full of danger and glamour for the young horsey girl from Herefordshire – but Tabby is determined to live the dream…"

I'll review one as soon as it's out - which I gather will be 2010.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Victoria Eveleigh: Midnight on Lundy

Victoria Eveleigh: Midnight on Lundy
Tortoise Publishing, £8.50 - published October 12, 2009

Victoria Eveleigh is one of the very small band of authors writing pony books untinged by either fantasy or horse whispering. She’s set this book in 1960s Lundy, when Lundy was a much more isolated community than it is now. The only way of getting to the mainland was via boat, and if the weather was too bad, you were stuck.

Jenny, the book’s heroine, has lived on Lundy all her life. It is a very small community, and Jenny is facing a huge change in her life with the prospect of boarding school, rather than lessons with Mrs Hamilton on the island. Jenny’s passion in life is the Lundy ponies, particularly the stallion, Midnight. He has a rather mixed reputation, but Jenny has managed to tame him, and with the aid of filched sugar lumps, manages to tame him even more. Unfortunately this has taught Midnight that humans can have goodies, and he molests visitors and makes himself very unpopular. The islanders decide Midnight must go, but Jenny manages to free him, only to find out she has inadvertently signed his death warrant. Jenny is distraught at what she has done; and tries to make amends.

Although the book is set in the 1960s, this doesn’t jar particularly: yes, there are no mobile phones or ipods but Jenny and her friends are recognisable enough types and the story strong enough to carry it through. The descriptions of Lundy are wonderful, and she catches the flavour of this close knit community. I did wonder, in passing, what it's like now. I guess that technology has changed things considerably, and it's a portrait of a community now lost.

I haven’t tried this book on my teenage daughter yet (she is a big fan of the author's Katy books), as in the middle of the welter of parties, dance classes and that rushed at beast, homework, it’s difficult to catch her with her feet on the ground for more than one second. I think she’ll enjoy the book: there is a very lightly drawn romance – well, the stirrings of one, and that should appeal.

As far as pony book conventions go, Jenny is, of course, the only one who can manage Midnight, but this is more because she’s the only one who’s bothered to take the time to try, than because of any special mystical bond, and there’s an affecting ending where Jenny realises that what she wants is not necessarily what Midnight wants.

The book catches the flavour of the community well, but is at its best when Jenny goes to school. Victoria Eveleigh has a real talent for portraying the minefield that is girlhood friendship, and Jenny’s struggles to fit in are captured wonderfully. Maybe a school story should be the next thing on Victoria Eveleigh’s agenda: she writes well and convincingly about ponies, but the school section is so acutely observed I feel there is real scope here for more: she’s more than capable of wiping the floor with Chestnut Hill. The pony Midnight also emerges well: he is entirely believable, unlike some of the poor cardboard creatures who infest some modern series like yes, Chestnut Hill.

This is a well crafted, absorbing pony story. I was left feeling that there is a lot more to come from Victoria Eveleigh: in her Katy books she’s shown she has a very acute ear for dialogue and how the children she sees behave with each other. In this book, because it’s set in the 1960s, she doesn’t have that wealth of immediate detail to draw on. That’s a very minor quibble, because I enjoyed this book and it is well done; but the school section does show you just what the author is capable of and I’d love to see more.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Tail not looking good?

Never mind. If you're a Western Pleasure horse, or any other poor unfortunate American animal being displayed in the show classes on the lunatic fringe of American equestrianism, it doesn't matter if your own tail's a bit stringy. You too can get a custom made tail. Amazingly, this is perfectly acceptable in show classes.

Not only that, some breed associations even allow you to weight the tail extension to flatten the horse's tail carriage.

If your horse still isn't looking right, you can try a forelock extension.Link

It makes the diamanté browband look rather tame.

Friday, 25 September 2009

Charlotte Hough

Charlotte Hough didn't illustrate many pony books, but she did do one cover of which I'm particularly fond: Margaret Stanley Wrench's The Rival Riding Schools. I love the impression you get of vivid life you get: I feel that I'm looking in on an intense bit of childhood secrecy, and I like the shaggy pony, standing there patiently while the humans get on with being odd.

When I began to research Charlotte Hough, I turned up more than I'd bargained for. Until I read The Times’ Obituary, I had no idea that Charlotte Hough was the mother of the author Deborah Moggach, or that she had been involved in a celebrated case when she was accused of murder.

Helen Charlotte Hough (pronounced How) was born in Hampshire on May 24, 1924, and died on December 31, 2008. Her father, a doctor, was 50 when she was born. Her mother was much younger, and she had a rather dislocated childhood, as her father refused to contribute to her upbringing. She was educated at Frensham Heights, a progressive school, and then went into the WRNS. She married Richard Hough, who was in the RAF, and had five children, one of whom was stillborn.

Neither Charlotte nor her husband had any professional qualifications, so early married life was a battle. As Charlotte could draw, she took her drawings round publishers, and was taken on to illustrate children’s books. The earliest book I have found which she illustrated was M E Atkinson’s House on the Moor, published in 1948. The first true pony book she illustrated was Christine Pullein-Thompson’s I Carried the Horn.

She illustrated two more titles for Christine Pullein-Thompson: Goodbye to Hounds and Riders from Afar., and also one of my favourite of Josephine Pullein-Thompson’s titles, Prince Among Ponies.

Her pony book illustration spanned just three years, ending with Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty in 1954: a rite of passage which many pony book illustrators undertook. (I haven’t included her own Morton’s Pony here, as I’m not certain whether or not it counts as a pony book, not yet having seen a copy.) I think her drawings are lively, and often fun, but they never seem to have engendered the same affection that other equine illustrators have.

After 1954, she illustrated a few more children’s books, but none of them were pony books: perhaps her heart was not in it, as she concentrated in this later period on her own books. These were mostly published by Faber and Faber, and as far as I know, most were aimed at younger children, though she wrote a detective story for adults in 1980, The Bassington Murder.
The murder in which she was involved has sad resonances now, when euthanasia is much in the news: what we might perhaps now regard as an act of mercy was regarded very differently by the law then.

After her marriage ended in divorce, Charlotte Hough had several voluntary jobs before she became a Samaritan in the early 1980s. She was asked to visit four elderly women regularly, and this she did, becoming very close to them. One of them, Annetta Harding, had crippling arthritis and was nearly blind. She had told Charlotte Hough that she intended to take her own life when the pain became too much. That day came, and Charlotte agreed to stay with her until the end. Annetta Harding’s house was locked at 10.00 pm, and so, to avoid Charlotte becoming implicated in her death, Annetta Harding wanted her to leave before then. When 10.00 pm came, Annetta Harding was in a coma, but not yet dead, so Charlotte used one of the plastic bags which Annetta Harding had put by in case she needded them to finish the process, to smother her.

She confided in a fellow Samaritan what she had done, and the Samaritan told the police. Charlotte Hough was arrested, tried, and sentenced to 9 months for attempted murder, of which she served 6. Her time in prison was not easy: the English class system did not serve her well, but she eventually blended into the background, and tended the prison gardens. Her time in prison gave her much sympathy for women who did not emerge, as she did, to a family and many supporters, and she was a member of PEN, (of which Josephine Pullein Thompson was President).
For more details of her bibliography, see my page here.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

It wasn't like this when I was at school

Took daughter and friend out for a quick pizza after school. Sitting there looking at them, both 13 years old, with full make up on, I asked them if there was much of a queue for the loos to re-touch the paint. Oh yes, they said. There is, apparently, an informal system, where whole years go in at a time. Year 11, queens of the school as the sixth form presumably make up elsewhere, get first dibs at 12.15. Daughter, who is year 9 (12.30 is their appointed time at the mirrors) said she was in there leaning on the wall waiting for a friend, as the year 11s were there, leaning at the mirrors, re-touching, when a year 9 came in, and wiggled her way through to the mirrors to start wielding the mascara. As one, the year 11s stopped talking, and turned and looked at the year 9, who scuttled off. Once she'd gone, conversation, and re-touching, restarted.

Good grief. I can remember passing an older girl on the stairs in my time at school, pinned in to the corner by Miss Hansford the Dragon Art Mistress, being torn off a strip for wearing eye shadow. Girls caught would be marched off to sick bay to scrub their faces. Innocent as the dawn, spots all aglow, we would face the school day. Not a trace of mascara, not a whiff of lipgloss.

Told the girls this, who announced as one that if they were not allowed to wear make up, they would leave and find another school. They NEEDED make up, they both announced firmly. Reflected on the irony of this, as there they sat, dewy skinned both (well, the occasional spot, but nothing too terrible), bright eyed and glossy, not a square inch unmade up, opposite me, no longer dewy skinned and galloping towards fifty, pretty much in the same unmade state as I was at school, though now it is my wrinkles that face the day, all unadorned.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Morning walk

It's months since I took the camera out on the dogwalk, having been tramping round, buried in my own thoughts. I'm amazed at how much I've missed - though even I can't remain oblivious to the ploughing and harrowing, now thankfully over. Do not at all like traipsing over miles of plough, trying to aim for where I think the footpath might be. The rest of the village has the same problem: for the first few yards there's a solid path, but then it disintegrates into vague, half trodden meanderings as we have no fixed point to aim at. Now, thankfully, the farmer has put back the path (amazing what a quick sweep with the tractor will do).

Another thing I managed not to miss was the sloes: I have some now lurking in the freezer, though goodness knows if my plans for them will actually happen. I have a tendency to mentally tick things off once they're in the freezer, meaning I have several boxes of very, very old fruit in there.

The hedges have been flailed, which always seems so brutal (and the best blackberry bushes were flailed, which was a blow) but the flailed elder stems still have an odd, spiky beauty.

I was amazed that I have managed to walk past all these flowers for weeks without noticing them. A few have sprung up after being mowed down in the harvest, but the scabious has obviously been going for some time. Roses always seem such a sign of summer, and here is this small last one, just flowering, while its older sisters are long since hips.

How I have managed to walk past this enormous asparagus, presumably seeded from the allotments, for month after month, I do not know. I've made careful note though of where it is for next year.

Yesterday I was in the room when Jonathan Meades was on the television, talking about the odd beauties of the Outer Hebrides, amongst which he included rust: which gallops all over the often-used building material, corrugated iron. Why on earth do they use it? said my OH. Tough and cheap, I said. I was struck by the thought of how you do get beauty in industrial decay, and here is some.