Wednesday, 9 April 2014

PBOTD 9th April: Veronica Westlake - The Ten Pound Pony

I don't know if you've ever had that experience of reading, and loving, a book in your childhood, and then being completely unable to remember, in adulthood, what it is called. The library I used in childhood underwent a couple of major re-organisations, which saw books sacrificed to the god of the new, and in the second of them, The Ten Pound Pony disappeared. I'd taken the book out regularly - there wasn't a lot of competition, so I was rarely disappointed when I wanted to read it again - and I wasn't too worried when the book wasn't there. I trotted up to the librarian and asked when it was due in, to be told, after a bit of consultation, that the book had been judged as surplus to requirements and it had gone. I trudged back to the children's section, and took out one of C S Lewis' Narnia stories, which, being far more popular than my Ten Pound Pony, hadn't fallen victim to the purge.

Blackie, first edition, 1953, illus Peter Biegel
And that was that, for decades, until I asked on an internet forum (possibly my own) if anyone had heard of a book where a family moved next door to a stables, and at the end the mother met her long lost father. As I've found is often the case, I'd conflated two stories (Judith M Berrisford's The Ponies Next Door was the other) but the great American collector Fran Fignar put me out of my misery. She thought The Ten Pound Pony was probably the book I was after. I found a copy, and it was. The joy of reading it again. And the tears. I was coming to the end of it when we had the electrician in to rewire a large chunk of the house. It came as something of a surprise to him when he came in to the kitchen to ask me some vital question on socket location, to find me leaning against the Aga, sobbing, having reached the end of the book. "It's the book," I gasped. "The book." Because the ending of this book does make me weep, absolutely every time. I guess it is because my own father died when I was small, so the ending of this one, in which the lost are found, and the family reunited, chimes in all sorts of ways with me.

Although the ending reduces me to helpless tears, every time, it isn't the same for the heroine of the book, Jessica. She remarks, tartly, on the effects of her grandfather's temper:

"It appeared to worry him that Martin was too old now to 'get in anywhere decent - I suppose meaning the Public School where he himself used to go. I heard him regretting that Martin's name hadn't been put down for it when he was born, and I couldn't help thinking privately to myself that if his wonderful school had taught him to control his own temper there would have been a chance of Martin going to it."

Blackie reprint, 1967, cover Harry Green
And that's what's so wonderful about The Ten Pound Pony: despite the fairy tale ending, you never forget that these are real people, and that there's no such thing as happily ever after. If you're curious about the story itself (because endings do have to come from somewhere), it's about Jessica, Ann and Martin and their mother. When the book opens, they're suffering in hot and stuffy London. Their father died in the war, and the family struggle to survive on what their mother can earn from part-time secretarial work. Even after they move to the country, a pony doesn't seem very likely, but after months of struggle and self-denial, they manage it. I particularly love the sense of awe; of a mystical, magical being that has finally landed in their orchard when Gipsy if finally theirs. There's no saddling up for a quick gallop. This is what you get:
"Owninig inanimate objects like books and bicycles was one thing - owning something that ate and breathed and depended on on us for happiness and the continuance of life itself was quite different, and we felt almost afraid as we smoothed her rough coat and tried to finger the mud off it..."
If you haven't read this book, do. Let me know if you love it as much as me.

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The Ten Pound Pony was originally published by Blackie in 1953, with a lovely cover illustration by Peter Biegel. It is noticeable, if you look at the illustrations closely, that Peter Biegel hadn't read the book that closely. A lot of it is concerned with the fact that the children don't have a saddle, but the pony's shown, saddle and all, quite clearly, in one illustration. Blackie reprinted the book when they produced a whole slew of their titles in the 1960s with replacement covers by Harry Green. He produced a rather generic, girl-loves-pony, illustration, but had at least read the book as he does show the New Forest ponies cantering by in the distance. Sadly, there have been no reprints of The Ten Pound Pony since.

For more on the author, she has a page on my website.

3 comments:

Barbara Dryden said...

My favourite pony book!

Ann Hornigold said...

This book and it's characters has been my companion for 60 years ! I still have my original copy, and read it again often.
The stifling heat of the London Flat , the dashing writing on the mysterious letter to their Mother , the description of a girl with chipped painted nails in a Transport Cafe , and the excitement of going " over the wall " to discover the Rosettes in the long forgotten Tack room ! The Worming Powder ," as much as would go on a Sixpence "Absolute magic !
Ann Hornigold

Jane Badger said...

I agree with you - it's a magical read. I'd forgotten the description of the girl with the chipped painted nails, so I'll just have to read the book again!