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.