Horse Tales: the Cambridge Conference Part 2

If you missed part one, which covered the morning of the Cambridge Horse Tales conference, you can find that here.

One thing I did forget to mention in the first post was the book shop, with every modern pony book you can imagine, and several I couldn't, having fallen back more than somewhat in keeping up with what is going on in the pony book world. Purely in the interests of research, I bought books. It would have been rude not to. The bookshop was run by the lovely Marilyn Brocklehurst, of the Norwich Children's Book Centre.

The first afternoon session was by Melanie Keene. I loved this session. I've never been quite sure how I ended up in the fields of literature, because I am never happier than when fossicking about in ephemera and documents. This talk featured an enthralling selection of  horsy toys, lesson plans, books, and even wallpaper, illustrating the central part the horse played in Victorian life, and in that of children in particular. The horse even made its way into everyday education, which Charles Dickens' Hard Times illustrated, with its caricature of the object lesson that was a part of every Victorian pupil's experience.

Wallpaper sample, V&A Collection
Then as now, materials were provided to help  the teacher who had to deliver the lesson. Its aim was to produce a child who could say (according to the definition set out on the card) what a particular thing was. So,  a horse was a quadruped, with hooves, with a mane and a tail... etc etc.

As Victorians did not have our squeamish attitude to death, lesson plans often included a box of bits and pieces to illustrate the lesson, including horse hair, and horse skin. The video below wasn't part of the talk, but it's something I found for illustration.

The artefacts on which this paper was based emphasised just how much society was based on the horse. It provided transport, amusement, food, and even the glue used to stick pictures into those beautiful Victorian scrapbooks.

If you haven't read any of Sheena Wilkinson's books, you should. Her books are about the sharp end of the horse world, and she spoke about what it's like trying to break into it when your world is miles away from the  the pony book world and its unspoken acceptance of its protagonists as middle class and female. While the fact that the pony book gives agency to girls is a good thing, we need to be careful that boys are not excluded.

The hero of Sheena's three horse books is Declan, who we follow from adolescence to fatherhood. His progress towards the traditional pony book goal of having your own horse is not easy. Declan joyrides, has an alcoholic mother, a difficult relationship with authority, and has to deal with violence, the drug culture and early and unplanned fatherhood.  And deal with responsibility: similarly to K M Peyton's Jonathan, he has to deal with fatherhood he hasn't expected, a responsibility both of them find immensely difficult to accept. Far easier for Declan to accept the responsibility for rehabilitating an abused horse, He has to learn to let go; to let go of the traditional fantasy outcome for the horse he rescues, and accept that life is not the way traditional dreams of horses would have it.

Sheena's writing reflects her own childhood, spent on a Belfast council estate. She felt her background was a long way away from that of the pony book child, and initially she wasn't happy that her books were considered as pony stories — she saw them as YA stories which happened to include horses, but she now appreciates the horse element, and in each of her books since, there is an element of horse, even if it's a tiny one.

David Whitley spoke on Dreamworks' 2002 film, Spirit, Stallion of the Cimarron.

The film is unusual in animated films involving animals because the horses do not, apart from at the very beginning, speak. To some extent, the story is conveyed through the horse's movements and sounds. The relative reality with which the horses are portrayed contrasts with the film's approach to the real events it portrays. Although the heroic efforts that went into the building of the railroads is shown, the tragic consequences of its construction are not.

One fascinating fact that emerged was that the film's makers gave the horses eyebrows because otherwise it was too difficult to make the horses express emotion that humans could read. (It's interesting to reflect on the fact that to get people to understand horses now, they have to be humanised. In the Victorian world Melanie covered, you'd have known what a horse's expressions meant, if for no other reason than to avoid getting a hefty bite from the horse with its ears back delivering your milk). In an interesting corroboration of this, someone who was at the talk said that she had grown up loving the film, and had watched it, and watched it and watched it. She didn't have any real contact with a horse until some years later, and said that she found it enormously difficult to work out what the horses were thinking, precisely because she expected them to have eyebrows.

And look. Eyebrows. Absolutely true.

Apologies to David for having concentrated so much on one random fact in a fascinating talk.

I'll do a separate post on the last part of the day, when Meg Rosoff interviewed K M Peyton, so watch out for that.

I also forgot to mention that Radio 4, the Radio Station of the Horse, are making a programme on pony books, and interviewed several of us at the conference.

The talks I didn't get to were:

Morning session
Maria Nikolajeva: Equine Daemons: horses as empathic substitutes in the works of Astrid Lindgren
Anna Nygren: Realism in Swedish Horse Books
Maggie Meimaridi: A Carriage Drawn by Thestrals: the mystical figure of the horse and contemplation of the soul in children's literature

Afternoon session
Trish Brooking: Equus down under 'Not a word he says is true' from memoirs of a Noble Packhorse, by H.Wakatipu, Esq: Representations of the horse in New Zealand children's fiction
Phoebe Chen: Animal freedom and free will in The Scorpio Races
Daisy Johnson: Geo-locating the pony story: a distant reading. Daisy has featured this on her blog, which you can find here.

Here are links to my pieces on the rest of the conference:

What I said
Horse Tales: morning session
Horse Tales: Meg Rosoff and K M Peyton


Amanda Wills said…
Thanks Jane, a brilliant reminder of a fantastic day. I didn't realise Radio 4 were there. Any idea when the programme is going out?
Jane Badger said…
I don't know, I'm afraid. When I find out, I'll let you know.
historypak said…
this is really nice to read..informative post is very good to read..thanks a lot! Castlebrook Barns

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