Horse Tales - The Cambridge Conference. A Report.

The Cambridge conference on pony books – what an event. I must say a huge thank you to Georgie Horrell and Zoe Jaques for having the idea in the first place, Sabine Edwards for triumphs of organisation, and Morag Styles for keeping the round table participants under control.

First up was Meg Rosoff, talking about throughness (not thoroughness, through-ness). And resonance. And why they're important when you write. Meg used to get sent shedloads of YA lit to comment on for the cover blurb. Dutifully, she read it all, and wondered why so much of it was dull. It was well-written. The characters were good. The plots were good — often, she said, better than her own, because she doesn't regard plotting as one of her strengths. And yet, the books were still dull. Why?

Because they lacked throughness. And what is throughness, you are no doubt asking? This was something Meg explained to us through the medium of her riding lessons. Her riding teacher was trying to get her to understand the difference between when a horse is slopping along, and when the energy is contained, and coiled and full of potential. You might also have seen Susanna Forrest's blog when she talks about pretty much this, and Meg used it as an example (as well as herself — she was fair in her allocation of non-throughness).

Resonance, Meg said, is what writing needs. Something that resonates with you; something that reaches into the things that you are afraid of, the things that you shut away. If you don't have that resonance, if you only write about the everyday top layer of what's going on in your head, you're not going to have throughness.

Next up was the round table, which was chaired by Morag Styles, retired Professor of children's literature, and which included me, Sheena Wilkinson (author of Grounded, Taking Flight etc) and Susanna Forrest (author of If Wishes Were Horses and The Age of the Horse). I was first up. In essence, I said that the pony book was still going strong, because it appeared to speak to children regardless of whether they had any opportunity to see an actual real-life horse. One aspect of the horse I felt the modern child might find particularly resonant was freedom, because children these days have very little personal freedom, and perhaps the horse represented that to them.

Susanna thought she had outgrown ponies. The pony gene may go to sleep temporarily but it rarely flees entirely. Susanna's interview with editor Rowan Pelling for a job with the Erotic Review involved a long discussion about Black Beauty.  Black Beauty of course talked, but only in the pages of a book. Our reaction to those horses who 'talk' outside the pages of a book could be a product of our desperation to complete that link or bond we feel with horses, but talking horses could reveal political or social ventriloquy, or be innocents. As we project human social behaviour onto talking horses, do we also do so with wild horse narratives? Horses also allow expressions of behaviour outside the behavioural conventions of the time. They allow women to compete on a level field with men. A woman rode sidesaddle at the first Olympics, and riding habits (at least from the waist up as far as sidesaddle goes) are androgynous.

Susanna's latest book, out in October 2016

Sheena Wilkinson talked about her childhood and what ponies meant to her. She'd grown up on a North Belfast council estate, and always felt that Jill Crewe (from Ruby Ferguson's Jill series) would not have approved of her. Sheena liked school stories (Jill didn't) and Sheena was, very occasionally, a riding school child, and Jill could be distinctly sharp on the subject of riding school children. Sheena's books were, she felt, something of a response to that, as her own pony experiences were worlds away from the cheerful middle class world so often seen in the pony book. Sheena's early equine experiences were of a donkey, and grazing it with someone who turned out to be a paedophile, so the donkey had to go. She never did tell her parents why.

This session, as were all the others, was followed by questions but I'll avoid those like a spooky horse avoiding a scary road marking, because this blog will otherwise take you until Christmas to read.

Then there was a choice of sessions, which made me regret the lack of either a Tardis or a time-turner, because I'd have liked to have gone to them all.

I should say that any lack of coherence in explaining what happened at the sessions is entirely due to me, and not to the speakers' performance.

Sarah Hardstaff began by talking about Mildred Taylor's book The Land, and its sequels. The hero of the series, Paul-Edward, is the son of a black mother and a white mother, who has been born into slavery. His position reflects that of the horses he loves, and with whom he has a gift. The horses, like Paul-Edward, are subject to someone else's will. His position is reflected in his relationship with the horses: he is allowed to care for them, but not to ride them. When Paul-Edward does become a horse owner, this causes problems which are more than those of simple envy, and which reflect the difficult relationships in the post-Civil War Deep South in which the books were set. An interesting fact which emerged is that similar reactions can be observed in Mildred Taylor's later novels, but cars have taken the place of horses. I have to say that I have never read The Land, but it's definitely on my list now.

Jenny Kendrick specialises in pony books between the wars. In some ways, these were a somewhat different animal to what came afterwards, and that is what her talk dealt with. For a start, many of the books have boys as the heroes. Books are also concerned with conservation, for example Allen W Seaby's many books on British native pony breeds. In an interesting parallel with Sarah's talk, Jenny told us how the fall off of interest in horses after the First World War in favour of cars was so marked it was even commented on by Golden Gorse in the foreword to her The Young Rider. A small set of books appeared which, often in relentlessly jolly terms, combined instruction with the story. At the end of the period appeared the instruction-free, and beautifully illustrated A Pony for Jean, one of the earliest books to feature a girl and her pony.
The last talk in the session featured the play version of Michael Morpurgo's War Horse. Georgie Horrell discussed the audience response to the puppets, and the direct nature of our response to them as horses, even though they are entirely man-made, and are operated by humans. She covered some of the processes behind their construction, and the sheer level of observation of horse behaviour that was necessary. The talk was illustrated by part of a TED talk (which had completely passed me by). Joey appears from 9:20, and as we watched it you could see the utter enchantment these puppets exude settle on all of those who were at the talk.

Regular readers will know I like the book but have a very dim view of the human elements of the play, and an even dimmer one of the film. I helpfully expressed this view in the round table earlier (War Horse wasn't popular with the rest of the panel either). One thing that struck me as I listened to this talk was that although those who see the play respond so deeply to the essential nature of the horse as conveyed by the puppets, one has only to look at the equine world and its fondness for instruments like the crank noseband to realise that there is a very large difference between the way people respond to the puppets and the way in which real horses are often treated.

Part two will follow next week, featuring the excellent double act that is K M Peyton and Meg Rosoff.

And I leave you with the splendid bag that we were all given:


Here are links to the rest of the conference:


Paulette said…
Thanks Jane, I really enjoyed that and will look forward to the rest.
Jane Badger said…
Thank you! Hopefully it won't be a week before I manage to post the next bit.

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