Wednesday, 3 September 2014

PBOTD 3rd September: Primrose Cumming - Owls' Castle Farm


There's not much in the way of ponies in Primrose Cumming's Owls Castle Farm (1943). This is possibly because it reflects Primrose Cumming’s own war work. She worked for a year on a farm: one day a bomber crashed in the same field as the sheep she was looking after, but she survived, and her experience on the farm led directly to Owl’s Castle Farm. It's not ponies that are being got round: it's a farm.


Brother and sister Brian and Sheelah are evacuated to their grandparents’ house, near which is the neglected Owls Castle Farm. Sheelah gets a temporary job sorting potatoes at 7d an hour. The farm’s owner, Stephen Tabrett, is put under notice to improve the farm within the next few months, or it will be taken over by the Government. Sheelah, and later Brian, set too, and after considerable hard work, start to get the farm round. The war is there as a constant presence; Brian tries and fails to get into the RAF (he is underage). Sheelah lies in bed and listens to the aeroplanes droning overhead, returning from air raids. The foreign family lodging at the farm generate xenophobic reactions from the villagers. A German plane crashes and burns in the farm’s spinney, leading to an invasion by souvenir hunters. The farmhouse is blacked out:
“It was one of the things by which she would most remember the war, Sheelah thought: this passing from a still fairly light world with blackbirds chattering up and down the hedges into night-time with curtains drawn and lamps lit as if it were quite dark beyond the windows."
The book is, at the end, hopeful. The farm is saved, and as Brian and Sheelah survey the land, another formation of aeroplanes flies overhead, on its way home.
“they knew, too, that the future was worth fighting for, ... for the right to enjoy the good things of the earth.”
Later Primrose Cumming joined the A.T.S. and served for the remainder of the war in an anti-aircraft battery. Between air-raids, she wrote The Great Horses. Published just after the war in 1946, it similarly commented on the negativity of war as opposed to the vital nature of agriculture. However noble the war horses the book describes, ultimately it is their descendant, a cart-horse, Major, who saves lives and whose work is constructive not destructive. The Great Horses traces the history of the cart horse through three different horses; the Norman war horse Calph, his descendant Valour, a war horse fighting during the reign of Edward III and Major, a modern-day cart-horse. Major is born into an alternative modern day, where the war, in reality just over, is not mentioned. Farmer’s daughter Ellen, whose father bred Major, is dismissive when she meets him again in his new guise as a hauler of tree trunks, but her friend Richard has another view:
“...the modern cart-horse is greater. For he is working quietly away at his collar for our good, while the war-horse helped to destroy life, and the thoroughbred merely loses your money on the racecourse or tries to break your neck after hounds.”
To Primrose Cumming, agriculture was vital: it was the key to survival, not war.

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