Saturday, 3 February 2018

Review: Jessica Naomi Rise - After the Pony Club

I’ve had this lurking on the Kindle for a while, but had forgotten about it until I was sitting at the vet’s with the cat. It’s a continuation of Josephine Pullein-Thompson’s Noel and Henry series, and as you’d expect from the title, looks at what happens now they’re at that interesting period between a secure school-based existence, and making their own lives. And thereby, I think, hangs whether you’re going to like this book or not. If you wonder what characters would be like outside the confines of a children’s book, then give this a go. I enjoyed it. If you’re not a fan of the Chalet Girls Grow Up kind of fanfic, which takes a set of beloved characters and gives them anything but the cosy existence they have in the books, then you’ll hate it.

The action centres around the Holbrookes’ house again, over the Christmas holidays. Dick is back from Oxford, and finds his father has sold his pony, Crispin, brutally, and without letting him know, for meat. Noel is doing some rather desultory riding reaching, and Henry is on leave from the Army. John is farming, and Susan is living at home, not doing a great deal apart from being irritated by her family. It soon becomes clear that there’s quite a lot more going on than that. Susan is unsure how much she likes John; Henry knows just how much he likes Noel, but something seems to have gone wrong somewhere. And Dick, poor Dick, is devastated by the loss of Crispin, and it is the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Without giving too much away, it’s Dick’s situation that you’ll need to swallow wholeheartedly if you’re going to have any sympathy with what the author has done, for Dick is struggling, and he is the pivot around which everything else turns.

While I’m on the subject of Dick I was surprised that his riding ability seems to have taken a dive, which is odd when he’s considered one of the more capable riders in the series.

But other than that, the author does a good job of making the characters sound authentically themselves, but just a little older. I particularly enjoyed Rose’s portrayal of their shifting perceptions of how they should live their lives, and that I think is the book’s greatest strength, because I didn’t doubt for one second that the characters would behave in the way she has them do.

If you do decide to take the plunge, let me know what you think: I’d love to know. 

Other stuff

Friday, 19 January 2018

If you were a pony-mad child in the sixties and seventies

(With more than a nod to Horse and Hound, who have done similar things for the 80s and 90s.)

Elephant-ear jodphurs were still a thing

The Jacatex page in PONY Magazine was something you poured over for hours at a time, trying to work out if there was some way you could magic together the enormous amount of shillings necessary to get the ‘Pat’ riding mac. Or the ‘Pat’ hacking jacket. Or the ‘Pat’ jodphurs. Anything, really, that wasn’t the elephant ear jodphurs that were about third-hand when you got them.

Reading PONY Magazine cover-to-cover, even Pat and Pickles, which somehow you never really took to.

Knowing Jill’s Gymkhana off by heart. And Jackie Won a Pony. And I Had Two Ponies. And No Mistaking Corker. And any other pony book you could get your hands on.

Riding ponies up from the field in just a headcollar. You had a hat as a small nod to health and safety.

Your riding teacher thinking that standing on the pony’s quarters as it was going round the field was a totally acceptable thing to do (after all, he’d done it in the Army).

Seeing said instructor demonstrating full scissors after you’d at last managed to master half-scissors, and knowing that you’d never, ever, get there.

Becoming aware that there was a bit of a disconnect between some riding instructors who were all about collection and dressage, and others who, well, weren’t.

You spent hours and hours trying to come up with a suitably witty slogan to win the tie-breaker on the WH Smith Win-a-Pony competition.

You looked forward to the school holidays when White Horses and Champion the Wonder Horse would suddenly appear on television.

Becoming conveniently deaf when it was suggested by your nearest and dearest that there were other things in life besides horses and ponies. But that’s universal, whenever you grew up.

Friday, 5 May 2017

An interview with Frances Bell, artist

I'm delighted to have been able to interview Frances Bell, equestrian artist. I have seen a lot of sporting art over the years, and what I love about Frances' paintings are her fresh take on horses at work. We're all familiar with the traditional portrayal of horses galloping over fields, but Frances' works take another view.

I used to cover my jotter with drawings of horses when I was at school, and still draw rather inaccurate horses now if bored in meetings. Have horses and art always been something that for you, have gone together?
I also drew a lot as a child, and horses were among the subjects. This was mainly because I was interested in horses, so along with my other hobbies I attempted to draw them. I loved the idea of capturing the individual horses, but didn't often succeed! As I got to being a teenager I became more aware of the huge history of horses in art. I remember seeing Stubbs' Whistlejacket on a postcard and thinking that this was a masterpiece (I still do) and the sporting art of Snaffles, Lionel Edwards and Munnings was rolling around in my head too. So as a broader interest in art flourished, I kept a view of the equine subject and its most dedicated painters.

Are there any artists (equine or otherwise!) whose works you have been inspired by?
On top of the others I mention above, I think that now I look at lot to Munnings. His technique is very much of interest, as is the style of another very great portrait painter John Singer Sargent (who himself painted the odd horse) as they share an affinity of style. I love the long broad stroke that Munnings uses. It's extremely hard to do!

But the joy is that you discover painters all the time who employ the equine subject, as horses, like dogs, have accompanied us through so much of human history and they therefore pop up on all the art and sculpture too. This rich history feeds a modern painter’s ideas.

You’re a portrait and landscape painter as well as an equine artist. Are there any particular themes you like to explore through horses?
I think equine art has been fairly broad in its subject matter. You have everything from pastoral scenes to portraits of kings, and sporting art, farm and city life and cartoons, so you can go a lot of ways with it, but I think like with all my work, I must feel happy that I'm getting my artistic idea across. This is usually less thought than an atmosphere, using light, setting and composition, and into that frame I collect features to do the talking for me. I think horses, farm animals, humans and landscape do this so well, as people relate so vibrantly to all these things.

Does painting horses bring out a different response in you than painting people or landscapes? Are there things you feel you can say more easily through using the horse?
I think horses add to a painting in their own right, I'm not sure that there are messages that can be best conveyed through horses, but as I said before we share such history with them, they increase our artistic story too.

You’ve worked as a sporting artist, an area of the art world that was very much an all-male preserve. What is it like, as a woman, working in this area?
Historically, as with so many professions, a glass ceiling has existed for women, though I would maintain that the a few artistic endeavours like literature and in some cases painting are small rays of light where females did acquire some training and then great merit. But I'm struggling to think of a painter of wildlife and animals (though I'm useless on most art history) before Sue Crawford, who dominated, and was female. But one of the attractions to art for me was the very competent water colours of a great grandmother who did the typical Victorian pastime of painting. So, some interesting things came out of enforced artistic hobbies!

The world of sporting art can be very traditional, but your paintings are not the conventional horse, rider, jump picture that pops into the mind when you think of sporting art. How do you feel about working within a genre that has very definite expectations of what it expects to see in the finished article?
My recent horse paintings have been a slight departure from the stereotypical composition for an equine scene. I got the idea that I would try to paint horses, most likely hunters, who've just reached the end of a long gallop and therefore are tired and steaming. Basically, they would look nothing like the neat, pampered, well turned out animal that arrives at the meet, and more the well exercised and happy horse. Munnings did this for race horses, and they are some of my favourites of his, but it's much harder to get to the right place with an easel in the Northumbrian hills! I had to improvise! I had to paint very quickly from memory, and from a couple of photos hastily taken on my phone the second I got off my own horse. If you get going the moment you get to the studio you retain a lot more. 

You have an exhibition on just now. What are your plans for the future?
I have two paintings at the Royal Society of Portrait Painters' annual exhibition in May. 
I also have works for sale on the Mall Galleries Buy Art, Buy Now platform

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Pony Tails and Puffin Books III: Kaye Webb

Eleanor Graham retired as editor of Puffin Books in 1961. Her place was taken, briefly, by Margaret Clark (who was responsible for publishing Tolkein’s The Hobbit, a book of which Eleanor Graham had had a dim opinion). Although Margaret Clark had been promised the Puffin editorship, she was shunted sideways, as Allen Lane, Penguin founder, met Kaye Webb and saw in her an inspirational editor of children’s books.

Webb was appointed in 1961. She had previously edited Elizabethan (a magazine I never saw–the nearest I got was Nigel’s mention of it in Willan and Searle’s Down with Skool series). Her career history had covered many aspects of the creative world, from working as a 15-year-old for Mickey Mouse Weekly, replying to children’s letters, to broadcasting for Woman’s Hour, and working with her then husband, Ronald Searle, on several of his books.

Webb was not just an editor and brilliant spotter of the unusual and the best: she was an inspired promoter. There is little point in choosing inspirational literature if no one actually reads it. Frank Cottrell Boyce, in his review of Valerie Grove’s biography of Webb, said: ‘Puffin wasn’t a brand, it was a community.’

There was the Puffin Club. The Puffin magazine. Puffin events, with Webb cajoling authors into attending tea parties to meet their readers, or spiriting children off to the island of Lundy to meet real live Puffins.

But all this fantastic energy did not embrace the conventional pony book. Cottrell Boyce said:
‘Webb had a sense of mission. She went looking for stories “with pace and a strong moral sense, without being prim”. She didn’t do pony books or franchises. She didn’t care about commercial pressure.’
Whatever Webb thought of the traditional pony book, she recognised that the genre did contain plums, and she picked them. It was Kaye Webb who brought out K M Peyton’s brilliant Flambards series as a TV tie-in. The series had the twin pull of being both critically acclaimed (The Edge of the Cloud won the Carnegie in 1969), and pulling in a vast number of new readers through its serialisation on television. (Flambards, 1976, Flambards in Summer, The Edge of the Cloud, 1977)

Webb’s first pony book publication in 1964 was another Carnegie winner: Mary Treadgold’s wartime adventure, We Couldn’t Leave Dinah, won in 1941. It set the scene for a collection of horse stories that did not follow the conventional pony book trope of girl gets pony and wins every gymkhana event within spitting distance. Caroline dreams of a golden summer of ponies and the Pony Club, but that’s not what she gets. What she gets is war, and invasion, and a rapid reassessment of the world she thinks she knows, and the people in it. And Dinah, the pony, is indeed left.

Webb found stories of Australian children where horses are set against an everyday life that is harsh and sometimes brutal (Mary Elwyn Patchett’s The Brumby (1964), its 1972 sequel, Come Home, Brumby, and Joan Phipson’s The Boundary Riders (1964)).

She went to America for William Corbin’s excellent The Horse in the House (1969), a combination of coming of age story, lightly drawn romance (anathema for the conventional pony story) and a brilliant picture of grief and plain, goofy, teenagerdom. It was one of my absolute favourites as a child, and I can still remember where the book lived in our local library. It was the Puffin edition, which the library had converted into a hardback, leaving it a lumpier version of its original self, but one that stood up to the many, many times I took the book out. 

Swedish author, Gunnel Linde, wrote A Pony in the Luggage (1972), where two children who smuggle a pony up into their hotel room manage to keep this large and inconvenient visitor a secret from their disapproving aunt.

The comfortable, middle-class girls who inhabit most pony fiction were given short shrift by Kaye Webb. Her horse story heroes, were, in the main, at the opposite end of the social spectrum. They struggled against far more than the fact they did not have a pony. She published the story of Kizzy, a Romany, in Rumer Godden’s The Diddakoi (1975), and visited Catherine Cookson’s North-Eastern landscape of mines and rag and bone men in The Nipper (1973) and Joe and the Gladiator (1971). The heroine of Rumer Godden’s Mr McFadden’s Hallowe’en will never be able to afford her own pony, and Florence Hightower’s family, in Dark Horse of Woodfield (1973) might once have been wealthy, but are now experiencing a dramatically different way of life in the American Depression. Eilis Dillon’s The Island of Horses (1976) gave the reader warring communities and a life lived against a background of unforgiving nature. Irene Makin’s Ponies in the Attic, 1973, is about the tensions between a child who has lost the middle-class dream, and one who still has it.

Even where the background is rather more conventional, the story is not. Ponies Plot (1967), by C Northcote Parkinson, subverts the pony genre completely. It is the ponies who are in charge here, and it is the ponies whose dream is to find a child of their very own. The pony is also allowed a say, if not so directly, in James Aldridge’s Ride a Wild Pony (1976), a judgement of Solomon in equine form, in which the disputed pony is allowed to choose its owner.

Lucy Rees’ Pippa, in The Wild Pony (1978) comes closest of all to the pony book dream when she moves with her family to Wales. Like many other pony book heroines, the move to the country means the possibility of a pony, if only she will work for it. Pippa does, but the pony she buys is wild and difficult, and Pippa’s life spirals into misunderstanding and tragedy.

Puffin Books took off in a major way under Kaye Webb. I can still recognise from 20 paces the spine of a Webb-era Puffin paperback, and know that I am guaranteed to get an intelligent and interesting read even though I am now several decades too old for the Puffin Club. Kaye Webb avoided the predictability and the shallows of genre fiction, but was astute enough to recognise that any genre can contain its gems, and that every child, no matter what their taste for fiction, deserves the very best. And that was what she gave them.

This is the last of my pieces on Puffin books and the horse story. You can read the two earlier pieces here:

Phil Baines: Puffin by Design, 70 Years of Imagination 1940-2010 (2010)
Frank Cottrell Boyce: review of Valerie Grove’s So Much to Tell,  The Times, 8 May, 2010 (paywall)
Kaye Webb’s Puffin Adventure: The Daily Telegraph, 30 April, 2010 

Kaye Webb: Obituary, The Independent, 18 January 1996

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Of Christmas. And unicorns. And glittery bathbombs.

A highlight of my year as a child was when the November horse and pony magazines hit the shelves, together with their Christmas gift guides. Why not this charming pair of jodhs from Swaine, Adeney, Brigg for double the price of my entire riding kit? Or this extraordinarily expensive china horse at roughly the same price as a small car? Why not indeed? I could always hope.

So, in tribute to those long ago, black and white pages of glory, here is my own selection of horse-themed gifts. Like those articles, I have chosen things at which you will gasp and say What is she on? And also the odd, more reasonable contribution.

If you no longer wish to smell of the stable, then you might like to try Parfums de Marly, whose creations are mostly named after horses. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t have said the Galloway (probably ancestor of the Dales and Fell ponies) was elegant and white, but here in the world of splendidly expensive French perfumery that’s exactly what it is. The scent itself is from £160 at Harrods, but you can buy infinitely more reasonable samples from the Parfums de Marly website at 3 euros a pop.

If you don’t want to smell like a pony, you could dabble with Godolphin, Byerley or Darley, and if the foundation stallions of the Thoroughbred don’t appeal, there’s always Pegasus, or even Herod, which is vaguely appropriate to the time of year, though perhaps best saved until after Christmas.

Demeter's Library of Fragrances can provide you with bottled Fresh Hay, Riding Whip, Saddle, and Stable. (They can also fulfil your dreams should you wish to smell of cinnamon bun, dust, or indeed laundromat). Somewhat cheaper than Parfums de Marly, these are £15 each.

Unicorns were a bit of a thing in children’s literature a few years back, but thankfully have now receded into a pink-tinged distance. This is not at all the case for children’s toys, however. Liberty can supply you with a unicorn head decoration by Tamar Mogendorff for your child’s wall for £600.

I would suggest not buying the unicorn head together with the splendidly named unicorn snot, because the thought of the two of them getting acquainted is truly horrifying. 

Unicorn snot comes in some interesting colours, and is around £7.99 (it's on offer at the moment) from Flamingo Gifts, as well as Liberty. The makers say it washes off. 

I once made the huge mistake of buying, and using, a glitter bathbomb. NEVER do this. You will spend at least the next month removing glitter from places in your house and your person it was never intended to go.

Leave glitter to unicorn tree decorations. 

This one, at £19.95 from Liberty (probably my favourite shop ever) would be right at home on our tree, which is never themed. Well, it is. The theme is EVERYTHING. Everything the children have ever made. Everything of which we’ve ever thought in a moment of panicky madness ‘This! This is the thing that will make my tree beautiful!’ And then when you get it out, you wonder what on earth you were thinking. All of that. We have so much all of that, lovingly hoarded from year to year that we’ve now had to move to two trees.

Unicorns need not be restricted to children — oh no. Lush Designs do a unicorn cushion (it's £35.00), and a whole load of other unicornery for your house: aprons, lampshades and bags.

However, if you do have a small child to buy for who is still at the flinging crockery stage, you might like to try their unicorn child’s crockery set for £18.75 — made of melamine so it should in theory survive the swift journey from high chair to wall.

So there we have it. A horse-themed Christmas. Well, actually not — it was pretty much all unicorn, wasn’t it? In my travels around the wilder reaches of horse-themed merchandise I have found more. Watch this space.


Monday, 21 November 2016

Review: Carl Hester – Valegro, the Little Horse with the Big Dream

Ah, Valegro. Superstar dressage horse who made all our hearts flutter in the last two Olympics. If you’ve ever wondered how Valegro started off, and what life is like if you’re a horse on Carl Hester’s yard (and indeed if you’re a dog, a guinea fowl, or a human) then this is the book for you.

There’s not a great deal of narrative excitement in the book, as obviously we all know what’s going to happen. What we don’t know, however, is how Valegro got there, and that’s what this book covers – or at least his early life. The book is the first of a series and I admit I am looking forward to what happens when Valegro meets the woman who was to become his rider, Charlotte Dujardin. What this book tells you is what happens when Valegro is first shipped from Holland over to Carl Hester’s yard. 

We’re probably all familiar with some elements of his story, but this book introduces you to things you probably didn’t know, such as the Hester naming convention (all horses the year Valegro arrived were given stable names of fruits) and that Valegro busily passaged all by himself in Holland: actual proper passaging, and not just in the midst of general field mucking about.

The book does have considerable charm, and gives an excellent insight into the somewhat esoteric world of dressage; one that most children will have little to no idea about. That does mean that at times the pace drags a little, because of the very careful explanations to make sure that all readers, and not just the horsy, will understand what is going on. And I think on balance that that’s a good thing, as this book is intended for children, and not for me.

If you know a child who was charmed by Valegro at the Olympics, then this book should be an absolutely ideal Christmas present.


Thank you to Janet Rising for sending me a copy of this book.

Carl Hester with Janet Rising: Valegro, the Little Horse with the Big Dream
Matador: £6.99
Kindle: £3.99, Kobo: £3.47
Age range: aimed at key stage 2 (ie, for non UK readers, ages 7–11)

Themes: growing up, dressage

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Pony Tails and Puffin Books II

Puffin Picture Books to me had it just right. Their illustrations were things of simple beauty. They weren’t in any way child-like, quirky, or hitting a particular, temporary, zeitgeist. The illustrations of the only Puffin Picture Book I had as a child (Henry Wynmalen’s Riding for Children, found at a Methodist missionary society jumble sale) gave me a sunlit, rural world in which lived a perfectly behaved grey pony, and a kind and expert instructor who gave considered and elegant riding lessons where you had no need to wonder why you were being taught the hands-in-lap show ring style that had been out of fashion for decades. 

It, and its fellows, were the idea of Noel Carrington (1884-1989), who in the 1930s was working for publishers Country Life as an editor and designer. He had tried to interest them in his idea of a series of factual books for children that explained the world around them in books that were inexpensive, yet profusely illustrated in colour. Country Life already published stories for children on country subjects, and had its own Country Life Junior Library series. They were not, however, interested in Carrington's idea, and turned it down. Carrington took his plan to Penguin co-founder Allen Lane (1902-1970), and the two met in 1938 to discuss the idea. Lane was keen, but had to go away on business. By the time he returned, war had been declared. The outbreak of war did not discourage Lane — quite the reverse. He wrote to Carrington to say:

‘…evacuated children are going to need books more than ever, especially your kind on farming and natural history.’

The first books appeared in 1940, and despite what Lane wrote, focused firmly on contemporary events. Three of the first titles, War on Land, War at Sea and War in the Air, took children into the heart of the war rather than sparing them from it. But Carrington was eager to embrace his passion for nature, and books addressing current events were, in the main, shelved for a series of mostly factual books, all in the same format, twice the size of a Penguin paperback. Unlike the Puffin story books, all the titles were specially commissioned.

Out of the 120 Puffin Picture Books printed, there were six that have some horse content: three story books and three factual books. Carrington maintained his record of giving children the best by commissioning the famous sporting artists Lionel Edwards and Michael Lyne to illustrate (and write, in Edwards’ case) two of the books. Artist and naturalist Professor Allen Seaby wrote the third, Our Ponies, which appeared in 1949.  

Henry Wynmalen wrote the text for Riding for Children (1949). Wynmalen was a particularly inspired choice. He was a proponent of the continental style of riding that aimed to be in harmony with the horse, rather than produce a rider who could stick on the horse, at whatever cost, as it charged down the hunting field.  Riding for Children was his only children’s book. It takes beautiful, grey Silver (because greys always have a particular fairy tale charm their darker cousins do not necessarily have) and takes his rider through a series of riding lessons, all illustrated with rare charm by Michael Lyne, a talented sporting artist.

The other two factual books covered British breeds of horse and pony. Allen Seaby had, by this time, already written and illustrated a series of story books about British native pony breeds, such as Dinah the Dartmoor (1935) and Skewbald the New Forest Pony (1923). Our Ponies (1949) covers most British breeds of pony (the Irish Connemara is missed out).

Lionel Edwards, the author and illustrator of Our Horses (1945) was one of the foremost equine artists of his generation, whose books and paintings still command high prices now. Our Horses is a short, but thorough look at the horse in Britain, encompassing working horses and riding animals, their breeds, equipment and gaits. Sadly, for copyright reasons I am unable to show you a picture of this book, but if you ever find one, pounce upon it and make it yours. It is a gem.

The other three Puffin Picture Books to include ponies were stories. They all feature anthropomorphised animals who can talk and comment on their situation. The first, and most overtly pony-orientated of them, was Joanna Cannan’s Hamish. Published in 1944, this book is unusual in wartime equine fiction in being the autobiography of a pony, a subset of the pony genre which had died completely with the advent of war. Hamish is also unusual for its strong dose of Scottish nationalism:

‘Scottish people are famous for going to England and getting all the best jobs. [Mr MacTavish] told Hamish that if he were naughty and lazy no one would think he was a Scottish pony. They would think he was English or Welsh.’

Hamish gains courage from reminding himself that he is a Scottish pony, and he frequently encourages himself with cries of ‘Scotland for ever!’ Sadly, he only speaks Gaelic, which no one around him speaks, and it is not until he meets another Gaelic speaker that his problems are resolved.
It’s tempting, if fanciful, to posit Hamish as a representative of the many people who were displaced during the war, and who found themselves strangers in a foreign country.

Phyllis Ginger’s Alexander the Circus Pony (1943) and Diana Ross’s The Story of Louisa Who Loved Pretty Things (1944) are both stories involving circuses, and like Hamish, aimed at the younger child. Alexander the Circus Pony is rare and expensive and one has never crossed my ken. Louisa, Who Loved Pretty Things by Diana Ross, which appeared in 1944, is a simple and moral tale of companionship and loyalty. Louisa's noble, and poverty-stricken, owner releases her so she can go in search of the pretty things she loves. Louisa resolves to take no job unless they will take her old master too, and eventually manages to find one for them both in the circus.

What all these titles had in common was that they did not talk down to their readers. The Picture Puffin Books paid children the compliment of assuming that facts did not need to be simplified or edited; simply explained well with illustrations that complemented and developed what was presented in the text.

Phil Baines: Puffin by Design, 70 Years of Imagination 1940–2010 (2010)
Owen Dudley-Edwards: British Children's Fiction in the Second World War (2007)