Saturday, 20 December 2008


Daughter and I are going to Olympia today with friends, hurrah, but this does of course mean that I will miss, oh sob, the Strictly Final. Just hope our video recorder, which is prone to fits of temperament, does the job. I am such a sad soul I actually spent time considering whether to get one of those DVD recorder machines. Once I'd seen how much they were, in view of the vast plumber's bill that just thudded through the door after what I hope is the last of our adventures with our anarchic water system, I rapidly gave up that idea.

Lisa to win - I love the way that girl has fought her way through.

Friday, 19 December 2008

A Christmas Carol

I love singing carols, but after a bit I start to long for something that isn't the same old round of O Little Town, The First Nowell and Silent Night, much though I love them. I think this is beautifully sung.

Thursday, 18 December 2008


My daughter has alas now stopped watching Strictly Come Dancing with me, as all her friends watch X Factor. So, after SCD had finished (I have my priorities right) I watched the X Factor final with her - not something I think I'll repeat. Is it obligatory for everyone to cry? And did no-one think it might have been kinder to point out to Eoghan that he had a few tuning issues? The whole experience felt quite unreal - I felt as though I was sitting in a swirling sea of souped up emotion. I did wonder quite why everything felt so hyper. Is it because the contestants are living the only dream that most of the audience have, in which case I can see why things were so fervid; though it's a dreadful comment on British society if the only thing most of our young have to look forward to is the dim possibility of appearing on X Factor - one which will rapidly recede as soon as they're past their mid twenties, and what then?

I do hope whoever made the decision to parade a freak show of the worst auditionees has been taken into a corner and quietly sacked. Tours of Bedlam obviously aren't as far away as they should be from our national psyche, alas.

I just hope that the final wasn't the best day of her life for the girl who won - one would hope life retains a few more good things for her, though as far as having a successful life as a singer goes, the omens aren't good. Most of the winners appear to have sunk without trace.

So, I feel bad about mentioning the campaign to get Jeff Buckley's version of Hallelujah as the Christmas number one, rather than Alexandra's. Poor child; I don't like to blight her dream, and it's hardly her fault that the show's producers have made her sing it, but the Jeff Buckley version is so far beyond hers. Here it is:

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Food miles?

This is one of our eggs (actually to be entirely accurate it is one of Matilda's. She is our hybrid hen, and an excellent layer, unlike the bantams, who spend the winter glaring malevolently at weather they don't like - most of it - and not laying a thing.)

I shut the hens up just before the light goes; the time obviously moves, but for the past few weeks it's been at about a quarter to four. I go out and shut the hens up and then go and collect my infants from the station. I usually collect the daily egg at the same time. I have tried stowing it in various places before I go (top of the compost heap; inside the pig sty; nestling in the ivy on the gate post), but then always forget it. So, I shove it in my bag and off it goes to the station, and duly does the seven mile round trip. So far I've managed not to crush the egg in my bag, or let an incautious child sit on it.

I don't think it's quite what's meant by food miles. I prefer to think of it as a lightly travelled egg.

Friday, 12 December 2008

Christmas Recommendations

I'm sure that unlike me, you have already sorted out all your Christmas presents. I never have by this point of the year. I think though that I perform a useful social service, as everyone who asks me (and there are a lot of them) "Are you ready for Christmas yet?" can feel smug/superior/relieved/worried on my behalf/thankful they are not me. I'm sort of like the slovens in How Clean is Your House? However bad you are, you're not as bad as me.

Anyway, here is a quick round up of horse and pony books that I'd recommend for Christmas: all in print. There are other pony books I've enjoyed over the year, but these are the best of the best. The American author Jessie Haas had some wonderful books; not only are they beautifully written, they also come as hardbacks, with dustjackets, so make a rather more permanent gift than paperbacks. It's almost impossible now to find a British pony book which appears in hardback, so grab this:

The Jigsaw Pony
Aimed at newly confident readers. The Jigsaw Pony is the story of twins completely unable to agree on anything; and they carry right on disagreeing when they get a pony. It's a story with great charm, and beautifully observed.

With covers that will appeal to the younger reader at whom they're aimed, though not certainly to this parent, are Diana Kimpton's Pony Mad Princess series. This has the advantage of being a long series, so if your young like it there's plenty there to go for, but the thing that sold it to me is the humour. Princess Ellie is a determinedly unsparkly princess and the books are good stories; well told; without a hint of fantasy, and were I still at the bedtime reading stage, I'd head for these.

For the youngest readers, Jessie Haas has Sugaring, Appaloosa Zebra and Scamper and the Horse Show. All of these are again, hardbacks with dustjackets. Sugaring is a lovely one for winter: it has marvellous pictures of the horses in the snow collecting the maple syrup, and is a lovely gentle read to enjoy together. Appaloosa Zebra and Scamper both have plenty of pony content and are wonderfully observed. There's not a lot of competition out there for books for the young equine reader, but there doesn't really need to be with books as good as these.

For older readers (including teenagers though not alas my own horse-averse pair) there's Michael Morpurgo's War Horse and K M Peyton's Blind Beauty. War Horse is a marvellous evocation of the tragedy of war as seen through a horse's eyes. It is one of the best equine portraits I've read, and although it does not shy away from the tragedy of war, it is ultimately an uplifting read. Blind Beauty's heroine, Tessa, is not an easy character, but she is one of K M Peyton's best. K M Peyton succeeds in making you root entirely for Tessa, even when she produces acts of quite staggering rebellion. Tessa, at the start of the book, is vile, but there is just a little something there; a spark of fire, that makes you want her to succeed. Tessa's all-encompassing love for Buffoon, her horse: the one thing she has left to remind her of her feckless father, and her struggles against the storms that assail her, are entirely believable.

For younger teenage readers, and older primary, there is the wonderful, though alas hard to find here, Alyssa Brugman. Her books are obtainable only from Australia, and postage from the Aussie book sites to here is not cheap, but they are the best pony books for that age I've read in a long while. Shelby's ups and downs with her pony Blue explore what it is like to be a girl struggling with not enough money and the problems of teenagerdom.

Obtainable here, and a good traditional pony book read, is Victoria Eveleigh's Katy's Exmoor. No sparkles, fantasy or celebrity here: but a solid story with a thoroughly believable family, set on Exmoor, and featuring, of course, Exmoors.

There are, of course, books I wouldn't recommend that you put in your beloved's Christmas stocking. For lazy writing, avoid Jenny Oldfield's Magical Pony series; for being just not that good; Katie Price's, and for a not very successful attempt to mix shopping, school and ponies, Chestnut Hill.

Victoria Eveleigh:
Katy's Exmoor: £4.50
Jessie Haas:
Sugaring: £9.89
Jigsaw Pony: £8.15
Appaloosa Zebra: £9.89
Scamper and the Horse Show: £8.17
Diana Kimpton:
Princess Ellie to the Rescue: £3.59
Michael Morpurgo:
The War Horse £3.84
K M Peyton:
Blind Beauty: £4.49

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Nature? What's that?

Thanks to Juliet for her post on the stripping out of words from the Oxford Junior Dictionary - a horror which had passed me by. The humble primrose, along with allotment, catkin, blackberry, and even Gawd help us, dandelion and conker - two things you'd think would be familiar to even the most urban, have gone, along with many others.

I can't say I'm hugely surprised. I live in a rural-ish village, surrounded by fields, and with large woods a short walk away, and the ignorance our children have about the natural world astounds me. This summer I took our church youth group round the churchyard to see what flowers were growing, and once they'd got past buttercups and daisies they had not the remotest idea what anything was. They were very interested to learn, and amazed that I knew so many names (a childhood devoted to Enid Blyton's Nature Books saw to that, as well as the good old nature table at school).

Schools have to shoulder a fair amount of blame for opting out of teaching children about the natural world. It's tempting to blame parents, but they are, I think, fighting an uphill battle. My own daughter reaches hideous heights of scorn when I say "Oh look, there's a harebell," or whatever. "MUM - NO ONE'S interested in that anymore. The world's different NOW."

And alas, it appears she's right.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Oliver Postgate

RIP. Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin's creations were a huge part of my childhood. My sister and I can still talk Clanger (though my husband alas never has really appreciated the one I bought him a few Christmases ago, which when pressed in the tummy says "Ooh, uh uh, uh uh uh uh uh uh," which I heard on a programme about OP actually translated as "Oh, **** it, the bloody thing's broken again." Figures.) I still like it though, as does my daughter, and every now and then we release him from his cupboard and let him speak. The Clanger I mean, not my husband.

One of the very first things OH and I bought together was a Noggin the Nog video, which we still have, though it must be, gasp, at least 20 years old now. Gosh. The children loved it too. I can really appreciate now, watching it again, how masterful it was: the atmospheric music, and the effective and utterly unflashy animation, but most of all the story.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008


A cold and spiky world. Dog and I like not coming back covered with mud (particularly as the hole in my wellie is getting larger, not smaller.) Made the latest of a whole series of mental notes to go and get a new pair on the way back from the station.

Monday, 8 December 2008

Let's Not Fight This Christmas

Glow of quiet local pride here, as the choir is Masquerade, which is a wonderful children's choir local to us. Several of the my two's friends are in it, but the choir alas is so fleeting in the video we haven't managed to track them down yet....

I like this song (but then I always did like Squeeze).

Monday, 1 December 2008

Website news

My site has been a tad unreliable of late. It's a victim of its own success, as there are now far more people wanting to use it than my provider can cope with without charging me a fortune. So, I'm now changing webhosts to one which will give me unlimited bandwidth, in the hope that it will be able to cope with the ever-increasing traffic to the site. I've started the process (already spent a good long while on the phone with customer support...) but I'm told it can take up to 72 hours for the world's isps to recognise the change, so there might still be a bit of disruption here and there.

BUT - I hope the change will mean everyone can access the site, whenever they want. Fingers and everything else are crossed, as whenever I make any sort of IT change, something unexpected always, always happens. Maybe, this time, it will be good something.

Saturday, 29 November 2008

The joy of an old house

I have mixed feelings about our house. I love its history, its quirkiness and the sense of being one in a long line of people who've lived there. I do like looking at things, like the carved panelling that has mysteriously ended up lining the boiler cupboard, and wondering "Why?"

One thing I have had to learn, after living most of my life in houses no one else wanted to, is the ability to stick my hands over my eyes and go "LA LA LA LA LA I'm not looking," as the sheer enormity of what needs doing threatens to overwhelm us. Taking on a "project" when you have scadloads of money is one thing, but doing it when you don't, and your income is, as mine is, unpredictable, is daft. However much your surveyor might like to say that x, x, and x are urgent and y and y could certainly do with being done within the year, we know full well the limitations of what our income is, and so nod wisely and mentally stretch the period of works to years, not months. It's all very well other people saying why don't you sell it and let someone else with enough money do it. When you try, as we did a few years ago, and those someones think there's just too much to do, and press the avoid button, you really are stuck with it and have to battle on.

Which leads me to the mixed feeling bit I suppose: sometimes, after you've been doing it for years, you start to feel like the house is eating you. Every spare bit of money, it swallows. It demands things you haven't got: money; expertise; time. Sometimes it feels like a giant stone millstone round my neck. And I get tired, tired, tired.

But - it's just the rescue thing I suppose - I love to see houses that are properly restored, not b******d about; left as they are and not ripped about because someone who'll only be there for a few years has decided the house doesn't suit their "modern" lifestyle - in which case, don't buy a period house. Build one yourself so you get what you want, or go and carve up something modern. When we tried to sell, I hated it so much in the end I used to go and hide at the top end of the field whenever prospective buyers were show around, inventing some task I desperately needed to do up there. Anything to avoid having to listen to yet another person saying "Well, that wall could go; we could put a window in there; that's not convenient. That staircase would have to go. And LOOK at that uneven plaster. It wouldn't matter if we took up that Victorian tile floor, would it?"

YES IT WOULD. The house is 700 years old, for goodness' sake. Generations of people have lived here. The house has been in this format for at least the last 300 years, and you know what? None of them died because they thought that wall was in the wrong place. How people can breeze in saying how they love the house's period feel, and then want to rip out everything that gives it that period feel, leaves me alternating between bafflement and wanting to spit bile. So, I suppose I should be grateful that the credit crunch meant we didn't even get as far as putting the house on the market this year, as at least it's saved hapless would-be buyers being savaged by me snarling my SPAB hardline view (just leave it alone) at them.

Anyway, back to restoration. As long as it's water-tight, everything else can (usually) wait. So, I have learned to edit out what I know I can do nothing about, and concentrate on what I can. This does have the handy advantage that I can ruthlessly screen out things like this;

which was our lovely landing window. It hasn't been opened for years, not since we realised it wasn't attached to anything along the bottom, and that if you pushed it the whole thing would swing out in an alarming (though in an odd way, charming) fashion, from the top.

We finally managed to get this done;

which led to this;

The carpenters hung the sash on the wrong side, which is why the catch is upside down, but we decided to leave it and add our own bit of oddness to the house. Maybe in a couple of generations' time, someone else will be asking, "Why did they do that?"

Friday, 28 November 2008

Who benefits from the credit crunch?

Our dog. We don't have the heating on much here anyway, but even less so now. I am permanently buttoned into my ancient Barbour bodywarmer. And the dog, who is a warm sort of creature, is now allowed on the sofas so she can keep us warm. Not quite, "It's a little chilly, so I've put another dog on your bed," but I'm sure it won't be long.

Have had a stinking cold all week, and I'm now off to join dog on the sofa, drink hot chocolate and nurse my woes. Have a lovely weekend.

Friday, 14 November 2008


another posting from the far shores of equine weirdness, though I have to say despite the obvious continuity issues, I rather like this. I'd rather look at him than our Katie any day.

And I want those boots.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Six things about me

I was tagged last week by Frances over at France and the Unknown, so here, a bit late, are the results! I don't usually tag people but if anyone wants to pick this up on their own blog, and reveal six things about themselves, feel free.

1. I was a runner up in the Daily Mail (actually it could have been Daily Mirror but I can't find my copy of the book in which the results where published to check) children's poetry competition when I was 11. I wrote a poem about my grandmother, who was torn between being miffed at my not very flattering portrait of her, and pride at my brief national celebrity.

2. I last fell off a horse into a ploughed field. The horse was standing still at the time. Dear Tess, alas now PTS, and I careered across a ploughed field, and I had one of those moments when I lose all physical co-ordination, and just sat there thinking "OOH I am NOT in control here." Anyway, Tess stopped of her own accord, and I sat there for a few seconds and then slowly toppled off into the plough, while Tess turned to look at me and sighed deeply.

3. The first ever animals I remember were our boxer dog Coco, and our big ginger and white cat Claude. Coco once frazzled her nose, as she used to sleep with her nose on the boiler. Alas, the boiler blew up and poor Coco ended up with a skinned nose. It recovered very quickly, I'm glad to say.

4. There was a riding school at the bottom of my garden. At least, there was in our first house, which was in Ickwell, Bedfordshire, and where we lived until I was 4. I used to spend a lot of my time hanging on the fence talking to the horses. I kept this up even after one evil piebald bit me several times on the arm. There was obviously no hope for me even then.

5. I can't dance. I love, love, love Strictly Come Dancing, and when daughter's dance school started a jazz class for ballet mamas, I joined, all excited. Alas I can't keep more than 10 steps of a routine in my head at the same time. No sooner did I cram more in, than the first few would shuffle out.

6. I used to wear a razor blade round my neck in the 1970s. Yes I did. It was punk, after all, and I was Kettering High School's sole representative, albeit a tad undercover. I subscribed to the NME, which was then in its young, hip, gunslinging days, and I loved the Stranglers, and Ian Dury, and lots of obscure American stuff like Television and Jonathan Richman and Mink de Ville .... Still do, as a matter of fact. And that reminds me of this:

which I also love. I first heard it when I was out pony book hunting in Leicestershire, having resorted to Radio 1 as I couldn't get Radio 4. I was completely blown away by it, and had to put off book hunting until I'd heard the end. It took me a while to work out the end, but I think I've got there now. And that's sort of 7 things, but never mind.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

A round of applause for my mother

Who I don't imagine will be reading this unless she's suddenly developed an addiction to internet caf├ęs!

I get a lot of messages from people who are looking to re-build their collections after they either "grew up" and chucked out their collections themselves, or as seems to happen rather more often, had their collections ruthlessly downsized by their mothers. As an aside, I do notice that fathers do not appear to do this. Presumably they either a. don't care b. don't notice the house is disappearing under books or c. prefer to leave such tricky decisions to mothers.

I must now say my own mother did not chuck out my pony book collection of immensely tatty paperbacks, and it still survives. Mum nobly held on to it for a good 10 years after I'd left home, asking occasionally through gritted teeth, "Are you sure you can't fit those books in yet?", at which point I would say "NO, I can't possibly - you've got far more space," in that supremely irritating manner I am now beginning to recognise in my own children.

So thanks, Mum. I know I don't say it anywhere near often enough, but I am so grateful you didn't chuck those books out. Just look at what you've created by not doing so - a pony book obsessive who now earns much of her living through them. Perhaps not quite what parental dreams are made of, but still....

And so I did wonder just how many of you out there are now re-building your collections after maternal purges, or indeed, your own. There's a poll up there on the right.

A bit of Ruby Ferguson news

There is now a Facebook Ruby Ferguson group for discussion of all things Jill. It's been started by John Rees, and it's here. (And thanks for the link, to Vanessa from Fidra. I whipped it off her blog having been totally incapable of working out how to find it after John rang me to ask if I minded if he linked to the website).

Eek - I might actually have to join Facebook now. I have held off until now because I've heard how addictive it is and I know what I'm like, but can I resist the appeal of Jill? I don't think I can.

And the winner is...

Anne Bullen's A Pony to School.

I think Anne Bullen was supreme at catching the wish fulfilment element of pony books. Her ponies are not 100% as ponies are, but they certainly are as they canter through your dreams; breedy, kindly and oh so noble. Her Cascade in Wish for a Pony was my childhood dream of bliss, as was Daybreak in I Wanted a Pony.
I wonder if that's why she's won out over artists who are arguably technically more accomplished? I know that when I voted in the rounds coming up to the final that the emotional pull of several of the dustjackets won out over the technical expertise of others.

Lionel Edwards is one who I think lost out because of this. In the initial round of over 60 books, there were 13 of his titles, with Anne Bullen having 8 and Sam Savitt, Sheila Rose and Peter Biegel (a Lionel Edwards pupil with a very similar style) following on behind with 3 each. There's absolutely no element of fantasy whatsoever in Lionel Edwards' style: he gives us horses and ponies straight - although one might argue that his portrayal of the Exmoor Moorland Mousie, who turns into a rather Thoroughbred-influenced being shows an element of wish fulfilment. Nice breedy types please: none of your hairy ponies.

I still love his illustrations; and if I had to choose between Lionel Edwards and Anne Bullen for something to put up on my wall, I'd go for Lionel, out of sheer appreciation for something wonderful to look at, but for that emotional pull to the dreams of childhood, it's Anne every time.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Fitting back into life

I'm always amazed by the sheer effort of extracting myself from my life for even a week, but we're now back, having had an excellent week, and I have now downloaded my emails. This has reminded me that I now of course have to lever myself back into my life..... Even after I'd deleted the 250+ spam, I still have 262 emails to deal with.

So, if you've emailed me over the past week, please be patient. It is going to take me a time to get through the backlog.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Is it just me?

Or is Peggy Woolley THE most irritating character in The Archers? It must have been such fun though, for the scriptwriters, when it came to writing the scene where Lillian tells the hospital-bound Peggy that her Alzheimer's sufferer husband Jack has gone to a respite home.

I would have been rubbing my hands with glee at the thought of writing that scene. In all the years I've been listening to The Archers I've always found Peggy utterly infuriating though she has had a few moments of humanity every now and then with her grandchildren, and of course with Jack. However, half the fun of writing for a soap must be in hitting listeners round the face with the big wet slap that is a devastating return to teeth grindingly irritating form, after you've spent some time building up the character's more positive side. (And of course show the pantomime villain Matt in a rather better light at the same time.) Boy, did they do a good job.

In between wanting to throw something at the radio as I tuned into the story enough to sympathise with poor Lillian, and tuning out again and wondering what new depths Peggy could reach I was wondering if the scriptwriters would be moving towards a climactic moment with Peggy throwing Lillian out of the room, and yes, they were.

Having said that, it might have made the situation easier if the family had found some way to at least hint to Mama that all was not going well, and that it was hard for them, and for Jack. A desperate situation all round, of course in real life. I hope that if I am ever in the same situation I will have learned by then that I cannot do everything myself and allow other people to help.

Shall be glued to the radio tonight, however.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

The magic of scrambled egg

Today, had a day off - not a book in sight. Well, that's not true, because at lunch I spotted a large bookcase full of books, which of course I had to inspect, and did see some Andrew Lang Fairy books as well as several paperback Pullein-Thompsons. But I digress.

I went to a cookery demonstration by Sophie Grigson today, thanks to a kind friend who couldn't go so gave me her ticket. SG is excellent value, and sitting watching someone else cook and then test the results is certainly my idea of a good time, so I thoroughly enjoyed the day.

One of the dishes SG cooked was lemon scrambled egg. During the demo, she described how she made this first for a boyfriend when she was about 19. "Now," she said. "If you are going to make scrambled eggs properly, though slowly, you will do it in a double boiler." This she said, she never actually did herself, save for on the first morning at said new boyfriend's flat, when she lovingly made him scrambled eggs on a double boiler. "He said they were the best he'd ever tasted," she said.

Came a voice from the floor: "They all say that."

Friday, 17 October 2008

That jab...

I don't tend to get The Times until rather late at night when OH returns home, and as it never occurs to me to look at the online version, as I like the good old fashioned feel of paper, I tend to be a bit late in commenting on the day's events. Actually I very rarely comment on them in this blog, not because I have nothing to say but because I think it is probably kinder not to expose you to the wide range of my opinions (my family would agree here.)

However, I am breaking ranks about the Cervical Cancer jab. My children go to a church school, and my daughter has just had the jab. She brought home screeds of paper, and I had to sign the usual paper giving permission. "Not everyone's parents, are," she told me. "Why not?" I asked (rather meanly, actually, as I had a pretty good idea.) "Not sure," she said. "Some people's parents don't approve but I'm not sure why." "Because they think you'll charge off and have sex straightaway if you do, I think," I said, "though that's probably a bit too blunt a way of expressing it." "Um," said daughter. "Don't think I will." "Good," I said, "Better to wait," and then got in my usual condom mantra - readily available from a school nurse near you.

Not that I think, even for a moment, that having the jab is going to make my daughter, or any other girl think "Right! That's it then!" After all, it's not as if cervical cancer is the only thing that can afflict one; there's the whole panoply of venereal diseases as well. And even if you do wait for the one and only there is alas no guarantee that he's waited only for you; and none that he isn't carrying the virus from even the briefest encounter.

I hope my daughter will wait until she's ready, and I really, really hope that is a good few years away yet, but I can't see that letting her have this vaccination will suddenly make her leap into bed with anyone. Frankly, I'd rather save her from the horror of cervical biopsies, about which I know far more than I'd like, and the misery of sitting in that waiting room, full of women all petrified they are about to find out they have cancer. No, I didn't, but I'd do anything to save my daughter from that, if I can.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Peter Clover: The Sheltie Books

Sheltie Leads the Way
(not in print but easily available on Amazon)
Sheltie Finds a Friend
(not in print but easily available on Amazon)

Peter Clover's website
There is very little out there for the very young pony fan starting to read for themselves. The Sheltie books are then a very rare animal: not only are they aimed at the younger reader; there’s more than one. Quite a lot more than one in fact: the series now numbers 24 (though not all by any means are still in print).

The series fulfils one of the key requirements for a young reader: it is set in a constant and easily understandable framework. Emma owns Sheltie, a Shetland pony. She lives with her younger brother Joshua, and her Mum and Dad. And they have adventures. And that is pretty much it: but Peter Clover has created a good and believable world. Unlike the Lauren Brooke ponies in Chestnut Hill, Sheltie is created with the right amount of credible detail. In the opening of Sheltie Finds a Friend , he and Emma are described as playing frisbee. Bearing in mind this was the first Sheltie I’d read, my initial reaction was “WAAA! Where did reality go?” However, Sheltie is not tossing the frisbee backwards and forwards: “Sheltie bent his head and picked up the frisbee between his teeth. Then, with a sudden flick, he tossed the plastic saucer in the air.” Which I can entirely see a pony doing.

I do have a quibble with Sheltie’s portrayal: he is always described as fat, which instantly made me think “LAMINITIS!” but this is never mentioned. [For my non equine readers: Laminitis is a particularly nasty equine affliction affecting the feet. As hooves are solid, there is nowhere for the swelling to go. The pain is excruciating, and avoiding the condition is an important part of equine management. The overweight are far more likely to suffer.] In an ideal world, although being described as fat presumably makes Sheltie appealing (and most Shetlands do tend to be rotund), his size wouldn’t be mentioned. I don’t think the youngest reader necessarily needs to have the horrors of a laminitic pony paraded in front of them, but parents whose ponies tend to be laminitic might feel the need to do a little explaining.

Emma, Sheltie’s owner, is a brave and resourceful child who has proper adventures. In Sheltie Leads the Way, Emma and Sheltie and her friends manage to get a pony part way out of a bog. In both the books I read, adult help is needed at the end to resolve the plot, but this isn’t intrusive, or hard to believe. A child can quite easily believe he could do the things that Emma does, but there is always the comfort of an adult presence, not too far away.

These are cosy, comfortable books (not, as the publisher says, the first such series aimed at the younger reader: the American C W Anderson’s Billy and Blaze predates it by quite a long way.) They have the predictability the young reader needs, but have enough to them not to make you run screaming if you have to do one as a bedtime story. Unless, of course, it is the 90th time you have read it, in which case pretty much anything would be enough.

Saturday, 11 October 2008

Urghhh. Arghhh. Again.

Little blogging this week as I have been head down trying to wrest order from chaos and catalogue all the pony books I've bought recently, as well as do all the other things I'm supposed to. (Though at least, unlike my friend Charlotte, I am not wrestling with accounts). I've done the catalogue anyway, at last, and it'll be on line on Wednesday 15th October. I hope. Some computing blip or other always rears its head whenever I need to do a catalogue so I wait with interest to see what the current one will be.

Further to my post about the Booker, I have bought The Northern Clemency (described this week on R4 as a page turner) - well, I haven't turned the pages so fast I've finished it, but I'm chugging on. What I hadn't realised was that it was set in Sheffield; not quite the time I was there, but a little before, though I will get to where I was as I go on through the book, if you see what I mean. It's very odd to read about Broomhill and remember the shops that were there.

At the moment, it is the physical surroundings described in the book that mean more to me than the characters. My lifestyle was completely different to those described so far; I was a tad more disorganised, with my head permanently stuck in a book, in between being a disputatious member of the Christian Union and making every relationship mistake in the book (well, not quite every, but a good selection, anyway) so I've not yet found a lot of points of contact. Possibly if I wasn't reading it with such an instant connection to my own past, I would.

Well, we'll see.

I'm also reading Kierkegaard. Yes! I am, really. I'm halfway through. I only wish I had an actual understanding of what dialectical means. My dictionary is of no help (and I am reading this book with the dictionary jammed by my feet because I need it). The one thing that strikes me at the moment is the lack of suggestion that there might be alternative points of view. He is so certain in his own faith that he never seems to suggest there might be an alternative (though of course he might get there, or might have said it in a form I haven't understood. Only too possible, I'm afraid. Boy, is this finding out my lack of intellectual application, or appreciation or indeed ability).

I had a brief dabble with philosophy in my teens and after that left it strictly alone; but I have always had the feeling that it was about the discussion of different points of view. Well, I have plenty to think about at any rate. Shall look forward to another bout of Kierkegaard after Strictly Come Dancing. I love, love, love this (and I LOVE Don Warrington), The world seems to divide into two camps here: those who absolutely see the point, and those who think it is a strange, twinkly aberration.

And I also, on another point altogether, loved Lost in Austen. I was so sorry when it finished. The way it took so very many sacred cows and rounded them up into a completely unexpected rodeo was brilliant. I loved that too.

On with the weekend now - the weekend's taxi driving beckons.

Friday, 3 October 2008

Good grief.

You know those cutesome baby clothes with ears? This is what happens when they grow up.

Thanks Susanna for that (maybe having the same difficulty working on Friday pm as me?)

The Chestnut Hill Wordle

You can tell I'm having a bit of difficulty getting down to work this afternoon can't you? Thanks to Juxtabook for the heads up on this. I did a wordle on part of my Chestnut Hill review, and here it is:

If you fancy a worldle, this is the link.

The Sorted Books Challenge

Many thanks to Juliet over at Musings for letting me know about this one. What you need to do is pluck various books from your shelves and connect them. Here's the official thing, which I hope is written tongue in cheek as my interpretation of it is considerably less august:

'The Sorted Books project began in 1993 years ago and is ongoing. The project has taken place in many different places over the years, ranging form private homes to specialized public book collections. The process is the same in every case: culling through a collection of books, pulling particular titles, and eventually grouping the books into clusters so that the titles can be read in sequence, from top to bottom. The final results are shown either as photographs of the book clusters or as the actual stacks themselves, shown on the shelves of the library they were drawn from. Taken as a whole, the clusters from each sorting aim to examine that particular library's focus, idiosyncrasies, and inconsistencies — a cross-section of that library's holdings. At present, the Sorted Books project comprises more than 130 book clusters.'

Here's a few examples (I loved these) culled from the project, to give you an idea:

and here's mine. 100% pure pony book. See Juliet, it can be done! Particularly when your mind, like mine, spends some of its time in the gutter.

The second book down is my copy of The Chestnut Filly - hadn't realised until I came to look for it just how tatty it was. A candidate for upgrading, I think.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Lauren Brooke: Chestnut Hill

Chestnut Hill: Playing for Keeps
Scholastic, £4.99

A series of (so far) 8 books
Scholastic's Chestnut Hill website

Having tackled the emotional swirl that is Heartland, I thought I might as well do Chestnut Hill next. Chestnut Hill is a different series by "Lauren Brooke" based at a girls' boarding school in America. Its heroines are a quartet of girls: Lani, Malory, Dylan and Honey, and the series follows them through the school. In this story, Lani is under threat of having to leave the school as her poor report has made her parents think she's riding at the expense of her school work.

This new(ish) series is aimed at a younger readership than Heartland. The protagonists are in Year 8, which I imagine is the same as the English one, so are aged 12-13. Those few years make a huge difference, as the emotional tempests we get in Heartland seem pretty much absent.

Heartland meets teenage fantasies of struggling against the world; Chestnut Hill addresses fantasies of a different sort. This series is really Sex and the City for young girls and horses: friends, shopping, relationships and ponies. (Ponies are not much of a feature, of course, in Sex and the City. I would rather like to know, though, what Carrie et al would make of horses - my money's on Charlotte for having a latent horsey gene.)

What matters in this book is the girl's relationships with each other; their riding, oh, and labels. I am not exactly au fait with every hip label so it took a while before it dawned on me that Heatherette was a brand and not a colour. Some of the labelling serves to reinforce the character stereotypes: the snobby (there had to be one, didn't there) villain has, of course, all the right labels, but the other characters do their bit to uphold American commerce too. There is so much mention of labels that I did begin to wonder if there was a bit of product placement going on. Here's a particularly blatant example:

"Who has a phone?" Lani demanded. Several options were immediately pulled out of pockets and offered. She picked Tanisha's brand-new Palm Treo....."

I think anyone who's read this blog will be able to predict that I am now going to weigh in with my responsible adult bit: I don't like this label stuff. It shouldn't matter if someone's favourite sweater is Abercrombie, or that they wear 501s. Yes, these girls are almost all wealthy and so that's the sort of stuff they're going to have. Maybe it's there to reinforce the fantasy: these girls are of course wish fulfilment of the highest order. They go to an incredibly cool school where you ride, get to meet cool boys (not ones that live in the town, of course - these ones go to the male Chestnut Hill equivalent) and money isn't a problem. However, there's not a lot of point making the obligatory nod to school story conventions by having a scholarship girl (Malory), if on every other page you're reinforcing the importance of having the right label.

It's also interesting to see how conventions are changing in school stories. In Enid Blyton et al, the girl turning up in the tussore silk shirt with specially tailored uniform is A Bad Thing, whose heart is not in the right place, and who needs the tempering influence of The School. In Chestnut Hill they'd ask her who her tailor was and plan a shopping expedition.

This boarding school is quite something: I imagine, in my cynical way, that it came about because of the popularity of Harry Potter, set of course, in a boarding school (though Chestnut Hill is blessedly short of fantasy). There have been a few attempts at combining school and ponies, of which the best known is probably Mary Gervaise's G for Georgia series, to which girls can take their own ponies.

The big difference between Mary Gervaise and the Lauren Brooke series is the amount of pony content. Mary Gervaise, as Sue Sims says in The Encyclopaedia of Girls' School Stories, was much happier writing school stories, and so the pony content of her books, though there, lacks the fine detail and the emphasis that the fan of the pony story would expect. No such problem with Chestnut Hill. Although it is stressed throughout the story that Lani must concentrate on her work, the actual time described in the classroom is absolutely minimal. The only teacher who says anything meaningful is the riding instructor. Even the Head, with whom Lani's parents hold a pivotal meeting to decide her future at the school, doesn't appear. Her comments are reported by Lani's father. Not quite Miss Annersley of the Chalet School, ever-present.

The other thing that puzzled me is that lack of intelligent writing about the ponies: I don't mean that what's said is wrong; but that the ponies do not emerge as characters. The stated aim of the series is:

"... this time we'll get to know the same ponies over the entire series. Although there were regular equine characters at Heartland, like Sundance and later Spindleberry, most of Amy's time was spent meeting new ponies, dealing with their issues, and returning them happily to their owners. In Chestnut Hill, we'll be able to watch the central characters forge relationships with ponies that become very special to them, even if they don't own them. If you ride at a riding stables, you'll know it's hard not to have a favorite pony. It will be great to see the main characters getting to know which ponies are their favorites, and developing their riding skills through the semesters."

It is very easy in pony stories to make the ponies vehicles, and for them not to emerge successfully as real, live ponies. Even after reading about Colorado, the pony Lani rides, I don't know much about him. I know he's a buckskin; good at Western disciplines and can be difficult, but I don't have any sense of him emerging as a real live pony. There's none of the little bits of detail that make say Don Stanford's horses in The Horsemasters emerge as characters, and that's a shame.

Chestnut Hill doesn't push the boundaries of either the school story or the pony story: it is probably the most horsey school yet created, but challenging boundaries is not what this series is about. It's about selling books by ticking yet more boxes. The books are reasonable reads; the plots are adequate and the characters not completely cardboard. I never thought I'd say this, but I prefer Heartland. At least with that series there was something to raise a bit of passion, even if what I felt wasn't quite what the authors intended. Chestnut Hill, though, left me rather bored. It's a comfortable and conventional gallop through the juvenile reaches of American commerce.

Friday, 19 September 2008

Lauren Brooke: Heartland

Lauren Brooke: Heartland 1 - Coming Home
Scholastic - £4.49

Lauren Brooke's website

Heartland series - 25 books, including specials

Oh dear. Is this worse than telling a toddler Father Christmas doesn't exist? Daughter and I were talking about Lauren Brooke, whose Chestnut Hill series is on special offer in the book leaflet she had from school. "Ah," I said, in passing. "Lauren Brooke doesn't exist, of course. She's three different writers." "WHAT??" said daughter. "But how can she have a website? Is she real and then there are other people who write the books?" "Well no," I said. "There's nothing unusual about it - publishers have an idea and then go and get someone, or several someones, to write it. Like Lucy Daniels. Masses of people have written the Animal Ark books."

Intake of breath from daughter. "You mean... you mean... there's no Lucy Daniels?" Me, looking anxious now: "No. I'm sorry." Daughter, quiet and subdued. "Oh. But I thought there was." I suppose it's a bit like being told Enid Blyton didn't exist. Poor daughter, who has now been enlightened about the ways of publishers - though it is some years since she passed her huge collection of Animal Arks on, obviously they meant something to her.

Although I know perfectly well that publishers do this - Ameliaranne after all, was written by several different people, and characters are often picked up by other authors after the death of the original author - there is something about the deliberate creation of a fictional author which does stick in my craw. There is a Lauren Brooke website. What a tricky tightrope for the publishers to walk: they want to provide the personal information the girls want, but they can't actually lie. I suppose the biographical details are a composite of the three contributors (Linda Chapman and Gill Harvey are two: I don't know who the third is). Nevertheless, it's plain on looking at the site that the girls who are its target audience believe there is a real, live Lauren Brooke who writes the books.

The product, though, is enormously popular. The Heartland series has been going for a while, and there are now 25 titles. I have no idea if this is how the series came into being, but I have a picture of a meeting at the Publishers:

Publisher 1: It's about time we had a new horse series. Girls love horses; they sell - look at the Saddle Club. That's finished now so there's a big fat hole in the market.

Publisher 2: We don't want to do another Saddle Club though. What do girls like?

P1: Horses.

P2: Yes, we've got that far already.

P1: Romance?

P2: Yup. We can include that.

P1: Unhappy background? Broken family?

P2: No, I've got a better idea than that. Let's make the heroine a tragic figure - let's kill her mother off in the first book.

P1: Brilliant! We can make those tears fall. And let's make her misunderstood by her family - cue storms of teenage emotion. And I know what's really current now - let's have some of that horse whispering and healing stuff in too. We can get a lot of dramatic tension in there by having some "traditional" horse people who don't understand...

P2: And she can do all this while still being at school. How about doing it in diary form?

P1: Nope. That might slip into humour, and we want those teenage dramas; the huge swathes of emotion... heart, that's what we want. Tug those heartstrings with all the abused and misunderstood horses, that only our heroine can understand and sort out..... people have been writing books like that for years, and it's the big pony girl fantasy.

P2: Great! Now we just need to find some people to write it.

Because that's what Heartland does: it ticks teenage boxes. It features a tragic heroine, Amy, from a broken family, who lives with her mother. Mama runs a horse sanctuary and re-schooling facility called Heartland using horse healer methods, until, that is, she dies (she doesn't last past the first half of the first book) and Amy descends into dreadful grief, misunderstood by her family.

Not only is Amy misunderstood by her family, the books also have the constant of their equine rehabilitation practices being disapproved of (by a couple of deeply cardboard characters: Ashley Grant and her mother Val. Ashley fulfills the vital role in a teenage novel of bitchy girl who loathes the heroine). I'd need to read rather more of the books than I have to comment fully on whether they give the more traditional approach any credence at all: I hope they do. In the first book, it's dismissed as the realm of the pot hunter.

Most of the book is taken up with poor, misunderstood Amy storming off into her room; her tragic misery so awful that all about her must tiptoe about, making special concessions.

It might be because I have teenagers of my own, and have been on the end of a lot of teenage storming, but I did not react at all well to Amy's massive self-indulgence. Yes, she's a teenager and it's what they do (oh, how I know it is what they do), and she has just lost her mother, but it's the way the author seems to tiptoe around the character as well, pointing out others' insensitivity to poor Amy. The others; her grandfather, and her sister Lou, and stablehand Ty, are running Heartland, while Amy locks herself in her room because NO ONE UNDERSTANDS HER AND HER TERRIBLE GRIEF. Of course they don't. You're a teenager. You're sitting there while everyone else is trying to keep the ship afloat and you are castigating them for being so utterly heartless as to keep the horses you are supposed to love going.

"Amy felt a sob rising in her throat. Feed deliveries! Phone calls from horse owners! How could they both carry on as if nothing had happened? She got up from her chair and hurried upstairs to her bedroom... What was the matter with them? Mom was dead. Was she the only one who cared?"

The frightful Amy does, at long last, see that she is being unreasonable (and all credit to her creators, I suppose, for making a character that certainly stirred me to depths of emotion I haven't felt for a character in a while). She comes to a rapprochement with her sister Lou, in a neat twist which I liked: Amy has tried and tried to rescue the grief-stricken Shetland, but it is Lou who understands how the pony feels and finds the key to making him want to live again. Oh, how I felt for poor Lou. She leaves her Manhattan life to come and look after her sister and try and organise the administrative chaos of Heartland, and does she get any credit for it? She does not. The worst scene happens when Lou finally cracks, and says what I have been muttering under my breath for pages:

"The only person you think about is poor Amy Fleming. And all you want to do is mope around feeling sorry for yourself. Well, moping around isn't going to bring Mom back, and I'll tell you one thing: If Mom was here now and you were dead, she'd be out there looking after those horses! You say I don't care. Well, take a look at yourself, Amy! Just take a look at yourself!"

Of course Lou instantly regrets what she has said, but it is a while before a rapprochement is reached. But, I suppose that's the difference between me and the average teenage reader: I read it from an adult's point of view, and not a teenager's. It is to the author's credit that she does manage to show both.

So, I have very mixed feelings about Heartland. I don't like the idea that they're written to a formula, but they are; and they are generally well done. I'd love to know if the average teenage reader sees the monstrousness of Amy's behaviour in the first book, but she is at least shown learning. Although the books are formulaic, the authors take the conventions and twist them: a less well thought out book would have had Amy being the Shetland's saviour, not big bad grown up Lou.

I like the emphasis on reading what horses are saying to you; and the advice is generally sensible, with the vet being constantly on call rather than an afterthought after the full ranks of the alternative medicine chest have been tried.

The one thing though, that I would absolutely love to know, is Amy's secret of time management. She manages, in the succeeding books, to go to school, re-hab horses and help run a business, have a relationship and see her friends. Now if the authors could get the secret of that one down in print they really would have a best seller.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Have I read a Booker Prize nomination?

I'm not sure that I ever have - I've certainly read books by Booker nominees, but not, I think, a title which has been shortlisted. I certainly, beyond a shadow of a doubt, have read none of this year's nominees.

So, in an attempt to broaden my limited intellectual horizons, there's a poll on the Ibooknet blog so you can suggest which Booker nomination I should read. I have a source of supply, I have a flicker of interest: I just need your advice now on what to choose.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

The Deportment Girdle

I mentioned this in my blog post on the Ibooknet blog; but I think a full explanation of its glories is probably better off here.

I never did win a Deportment Girdle in my entire school career - and yes, it really was called a Deportment Girdle. It was a crimson sash, worn tied around the waist. To a scruffy, scrawny, eleven year old, drowned in an enormous gym tunic, it seemed that all the more glamorous members of the school wore them, sashaying around the corridors, distant goddesses. 

Deportment girdles were just one of a range of school prizes. Northamptonshire, where I went to school in the 1970s, was late to embrace the comprehensive movement, and so having passed the eleven plus, I went to Kettering High School, a grammar school with a prize giving structure probably unchanged for decades. We did have other prizes besides the deportment girdle: there were form prizes, and subject prizes for the upper school, as well as colours for sporting achievement. That is, until we went comprehensive. Every year, I had just missed out on the form prize. The year I actually came top, we went comprehensive; a no discipline experiment was imposed (you can imagine the results of that one, once we were combined with the Secondary Modern down the road) and form prizes were abolished. They were elitist.

I wouldn't have minded the lack of academic prizes were it not for the fact that sporting colours were still awarded: which seemed to me spectacularly illogical. It's just as discriminatory to reward sporting achievement as it is academic. If you argue that it encourages girls who aren't academic, surely you are saying that sporting achievement is not as valid as academic: if you view the two as equal, then you cannot possibly justify awarding prizes for one and not for the other.

I may say here that the chances of my getting a sporting colour were unbelievably remote. I did though, always hanker after a deportment girdle - I was never going to win sports colours for anything unless it was the deep science of PE avoidance, but I did think I stood a remote chance with the deportment girdle. I walked then pretty much as I walk now, I suppose. I like to think of it as a leonine lope, but I think it's probably more accurate to think of it as slightly knock-kneed shambling, but anyway, in my fifth year, I made a determined effort to walk beautifully: if there had been piles of Latin text books on my head, they would not have shifted an inch. I did not run in the corridors. I kept to the prescribed side on the stairs. I did not practise skidding round corners. End of term assembly approached, and I was quietly confident. It went, and still, I had no deportment girdle.

"Well, darn me," I thought. "I have really tried for this - what has gone wrong?" I got on well with the Head of PE so trotted up and asked her. She looked me up and down. "Well, Jane," she said. "Deportment girdles are not just about how you walk. It's about how you behave," - oooh -, "and how you look. How tidy and presentable you are."

I knew then there was no hope.

Saturday, 6 September 2008

Lady of Leisure

Today I had a full plan for the day. I was going to clean the kitchen, hoover the stairs, ebay some more of the vast amount of junk we need to shift; try and get near enough to the garden to plant some spinach; get down the wood pile....

But none of it is done. I sat down on the sofa, put my feet up, and watched Burghley, texting dear son to come home and walk dog (he did).

Cor. BRILLIANT round from William Fox-Pitt (though why did the BBC cut the round off two jumps early?) on Tamarillo - just amazing to see, and of the young riders I was really impressed by Sara Squires and Angus Smales. Loved the commentary by Ian Stark too, and his female counterpart - who was she? Missed the very beginning but I thought she did a grand job. Far, far preferred them to Mike Tucker, who always sounds as if he should be commentating on racing.

Friday, 5 September 2008

K M Peyton: Minna's Quest

K M Peyton: Minna's Quest
Usborne, 2007, £5.99

Despite what you might be thinking, I have not forgotten my quest to scan the heights (or indeed the depths) of modern ponybookdom, and this is my latest. Alas my fellow reviewer has fallen by the wayside, though I am not too sad about this, as she has been distracted by Antonia Forest, one of my absolute favourite children's authors. Oh joy! Oh rapture! I rescued Autumn Term from a school library sell off and gave it to her, not expecting she would read it, as my track record for persuading her to read things I like is frankly, dismal. However, she trotted downstairs earlier in the week to ask if I had any more by AF? My joy was unrestrained (and for those who are interested, yes I do!)

Still, on to what this blog post is supposed to be about: K M Peyton's Minna's Quest. I came to this book with very high hopes: K M Peyton is one of my favourite authors. She has written probably one of the best pony books ever in Fly-by-Night, and a major contender for best recent pony book with Blind Beauty.

This book is set on the Essex coast opposite Mersea Island, when the Roman Empire was disintegrating after the death of Constantine. Minna, the book's heroine, lives in the fort of Othona with her parents and her brother Cerdic. The fort's centurion has recently died, and his son, Theo, has taken his place: he is inexperienced, but with an air of command. There is constant threat from pirates, and the fort's position on the sea makes it vulnerable to attack.

Many of K M Peyton's characters are outsiders, and Minna is no different. Her parents want her to settle down and marry someone good and sensible. She has other ideas entirely: the book opens with her rescuing a foal abandoned by the soldiery on the saltings. Like all Peyton heroines, she is a passionate soul: she fights for the foal's survival, and against all odds, and opposition, it survives. She develops a strong relationship with it, and this relationship in the end proves vital to the fort's survival.

Passionate Minna may be (she also has a passion for Theo) but she is not as convincing an outsider, or character, as many of K M Peyton's earlier creations. K M Peyton is wonderful at creating complex female characters; Ruth in Fly, and Tessa in Blind Beauty are both fine examples, wrestling with worlds that are to some extent alien to them. I don't think that Minna is quite in their league.

Her brother Cerdic, is initially the more unsympathetic of the siblings: he is selfish and thoughtless, and his only redeeming grace is his utter devotion to his dogs. Cerdic, though, changes throughout the story: the scene where he casts off his devotion to Fortis, his dog, in order to save the fort, is completely wrenching.

Minna doesn't undergo much of a journey as a character: she starts the book as a heroine, feisty, independent and brave, and ends up that way too. In a way, she's a typical romantic heroine (and she does have a passion for Theo, the centurion); she's unusual for a Peyton heroine in being described as physically attractive, with her flashing eyes. She would have been a more interesting character had her independence taken her into wilfully defying everyone and getting it wrong, but it doesn't.

Theo too, is rather too much the hero: good looking and brave; without the wilful self-destructiveness of Patrick Pennington, or Jonathan's introspection; he's a little like the Mr Darcy of Othona. The romance between the two doesn't convince me as much as say Jonathan's in The Last Ditch.

This, I think, is the main weakness of the book: it's oddly formulaic, a straight romantic read, which Peyton very rarely is. Despite that, the historical background is well done, and the Essex scenery as ever is wonderfully described. The story whirs you along: but the real dramatic tension and emotion are reserved for the sub-plot of Cerdic and his dog.

However, it's a good read, if not up to her normal standards, and I look foward to reading the sequel. I shall be interested to see exactly what K M Peyton does with Minna next - I'd rather like her simply to get something wrong.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Katie Price: the human face of the horse

Or something like that. KP has been much in the equestrian news lately, whether it's because China White wouldn't let her in to the polo (their tent, at least), or because she's going to be appearing at the Horse of the Year Show as the subject of a dressage lesson, or because of the (oh oh oh I am LONGING to say something smartarse here but I won't because really, I don't need to) new equestrian wear range she's designed.

However, she is now going to be the face of "Hoof", which wants to challenge the idea that eventing doesn't really fit into London (a point of view which I have some sympathy with) and which also, much more laudably, wants to encourage London children to ride. Here's Hoof's website.

I think this is an excellent idea, though I'm not sure how realistic it is. I can see that having an accessible person like KP to promote riding will do more to reach people who wouldn't normally think of riding than say, Zara Phillips. But - riding costs a lot. Riding schools aren't exactly ten a penny in London either.

I had a look on the website for my old London borough, Greenwich, and the only equestrian thing you can do there is help the Riding for the Disabled in Charlton (I wonder if my son remembers being taken to see these ponies when he was wee? Don't suppose so. When it came to a competition between a London bus and a pony well, there wasn't any competition.)

I hope this idea works, though I feel it will need more sustained financial support to make a real difference to whether children without much money ride or not.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Helen Griffiths

Every now and then I happen across an author who completely blows me away, and oh, the joy when I find out that the book I've read is by no means all - all those lovely things still to be read. Antonia Forest was one such, a few years ago, when I read her Autumn Term, and Helen Griffiths is now another.

One advantage of being unable to do much of any practical use over the past couple of weeks while my knee has been out of action is that I've been able to catch up on my to be read pile. To be accurate, the TBR pile is not a pile; it fills several boxes and is a fluid thing, often governed by whether or not I've sold a particular book.

But, prompted by the fact someone from whom I bought a large collection of books said this one always made her cry, I picked up The Wild Heart.

and was completely and utterly hooked. Helen Griffiths does not write conventional pony books: all her horse stories are set in the Spanish speaking world, and are very far from girl-gets-pony: they tend, in fact, to be boy-gets-horse, but to describe them as simply that is doing them a terrible dis-service. Her books are often about the casual cruelty with which man treats the horse; and if you read pony books as escapism, these are emphatically not the books for you.

They are starkly realistic: horses die, sometimes by the hundred when they are hunted down by the Gauchos for their skins, and people die too. The Last Summer is about Eduardo, a wealthy boy whose life is changed forever when the Spanish Civil War starts in 1936. His father is killed; he sees the family servants killed, and his only friend is an aged horse, whom he has to learn to love and care for, as he plods around Spain, trying to reach Galicia and his mother, whom he hopes has survived.

Sometimes Helen Griffith’s heroes share in the cruelty; though it is generally through ignorance rather than inclination, and they all learn there is a better way. The learning process is not necessarily straightforward, and often comes from an unexpected source.

The best of her novels, I think, is The Wild Heart. It is the story of La Bruja, a wild South American horse, who is blessed (or cursed) with great speed from her Thoroughbred grandsire. She becomes hunted; and in the end a seeming cruelty is her only hope of survival in freedom.

All the novels I have read are about loss: the loss of freedom; loved ones and innocence. Generally the loss is coped with, and a degree of understanding reached, but the process doesn’t always make comfortable reading. It does, however, make for stories which explore themes often missed by the average horse or pony story.

It is a very long time since I have added to my list of favourite pony books, but The Wild Heart is now there. Helen Griffith’s writing is a world away from the comfortable familiarity of Pony Clubs, but it is very well worth getting to know.

Monday, 1 September 2008

The revenge of the barn

I was finally starting to feel ok after my op, and had been out for my first run. We then ordered a skip so we could clear the rubble of ages out of the barn (and we had a lot of rubble - we are terrors for hanging on to odd bits of wood just in case. This is all very well, and we have occasionally used bits, and the chicken wire store came in very handy when the chickens arrived, but even we realise that you can go too far.)

So, we ruthlessly hurled all sorts of odd bits and pieces on to the skip - well, when I say hurled, with the price of skips these days we arranged carefully making the best use of the horribly expensive space - until we came to a particularly hideous, battered but solid 1930s mahogany sideboard. I have had this horror in my sights for years, and had meant to arm son and friends with crowbars and let them get on with it, but of course had not got round to it. Husband, although not fond of the foul sideboard, felt it had a future.

We discussed this, as you do, and he eventually saw the force of my argument. He chopped, and I happily trotted backwards and forwards with the bits. All was going well, and the sideboard was virtually dead, when I spotted a bit of wood on the far wall I'd meant to put in the skip but forgotten.

On my way back up the barn, I trod on something which whirred and went flying. I landed on my left knee, which was not too clever to start with after a horse I was looking after trod on it a few years ago, and there I was. Or rather, wasn't. So that's why I've been silent, and the books have been offline. The books live on two different floors, and the office is on another, and stairs are not my best thing at the moment. Neither is sitting, which rather put the kybosh on computing, but I can now sit long enough to do some things, so am back. Sort of.

The good thing is that I have been able to catch up with my reading, so hope I'll have a bit more to say about that in future posts.

I could swear though, as I hobbled out of the barn, that the sideboard, in its ruins, was grinning a smug and satisfied grin.

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Well done USA!

Blogging has been a bit sporadic: school holidays have eaten up my time. They always do, and it always takes me by surprise, every single time.

Still, I have found enough time to watch the showjumping. Excellent course building, and brilliant performances by the USA, and in particular Canada, with only 3 team members and therefore no discard score.

Of course the UK were also down to three after John Whittaker's Peppermill had a stiff back, but you would have thought from listening to the British commentating on the event on BBC that this was the sole reason we didn't do that well.

Well, Canada only had three and they still managed to finish in silver medal position.

And huge congratulations too to Mara Yamauchi, who came 6th in the Women's Marathon. Whilst on the subject of Olympic gripes, the huha over Paula Radcliffe in the Marathon makes me cross; not so much the huha itself; it's more the way Mara Yamauchi is relegated to a brief mention, or a distant boxed off paragraph after long discussions of poor Paula's emotional bravery. Of course it's dreadful when someone's dreams come to naught, but both girls have had this as their focus for 4 years and worked, I'm sure, equally hard and it's a pity this isn't properly recognised.

Still, I'm looking forward to the individual showjumping now, and I hope Ben Maher continues to do well. I do like his quiet style of riding (so unlike some "old fashioned" riders who seem to be all hands), and I am also hoping Rodrigo Pessoa does well. I do love watching him ride.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Not a lot in common

My daughter and I, as I said in my previous post, don't really share my passion for horses. Daughter and I don't share a few other things, either. We just spent a while in front of the You Tube, trying to find some musical ground we had in common, for surely there must be some?

Daugher likes Rihanna. Don't terribly mind Rihanna myself, but want to say to her and to most R&B singers, and actually quite a few others now I think of it: "For goodness' sake put some clothes on woman!"

Which is not a problem for this next lot, unless baggy yellow shorts really do it for you. Daughter and I watched this, and we are far, far apart on this one. I love it: I think it's fun, and sounds sunny, which as I am typing this in yet another bout of pouring rain, does it for me. Daughter thinks it's one of the worst things she's ever heard.

Oh wow, Kristina

What an amazing Olympics she had. She so deserved her medal: fantastic riding on all three sections. I'm glad Hinrich and Marius won - I do love that horse. And what a gripping final.

My daughter, who is getting progressively more anti-horse with each passing week (can't imagine why, when she has my example to follow), was curled up elsewhere in the room when I turned the showjumping on. "You're mad," she informed me, witheringly, as I groaned my way through Mary King's round, crouched there with my head in my hands, barely able to look as she went down that final line. However, the excitement got to even her, and she joined me, hanging in front of the telly, actually keen to see what happened.

I did love Ian "Voodoo" Stark's commentating. Everytime he said something about another team's rider, crash went a fence, and although he was a tad partisan, he made me laugh. And of course I was not sitting there myself, guiltily wavering between willing those in front of Kristina to have a fence down and wanting them to do their best for their horses. Phew....

Monday, 11 August 2008

Urghhh. Arghhh.

Am not at my bright mental best today, husband and self having set the alarm for 1.00 am to watch the cross country. All of it, in its entirety. Despite now feeling like the little ghoul at the end of Buffy who staggers across the screen going "urgghh, arghhh," it was worth it.

Mary King nearly finished me off entirely when she had an interesting take off at the Pagoda fences, but goodness, did she do well. So impressive, as were the Germans (lovely Marius) and am only sorry that Lucinda Fredericks on Headley Britannia didn't do better. It's on BBC here.

Intend to sever all human contact when the showjumping is on (which is, I can guarantee, when my family will think to themselves. "Ooh. Horses on tv. That reminds me. Haven't spoken to Jane in ages. Must ring! Now!", and also when my children will develop crises of mind-boggling intensity which must be dealt with NOW - where are their trainers, most like.) Shall retreat behind my own Chinese wall of answerphone and uncharacteristic, unmaternal snarling.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Amazon - an update

I posted a few months ago about Amazon's attempt to take over the POD (print on demand) market. Booklocker filed an anti-trust suit against Amazon. Things have now become rather heated: Amazon filed a motion to dismiss, and Booklocker then filed a counter motion. You can read a summary of the arguments here. The motion will be ruled on after Labor Day, which is 1 September 2008.

The POD market is not the only one Amazon has its eyes on. It has now (subject to closing conditions) bought ABE. The Advanced Book Exchange is an internet site bringing together antiquarian and other booksellers to sell books. ABE is a very long way indeed from being perfect, but it was at least independent of Amazon. I've blogged at length about this new development, and its possible impact on booksellers on the Ibooknet blog.

There are small, independent organisations of booksellers out there: Ibooknet is one. As well as providing a site for selling books, we also promote each member's individual websites. Buying from Ibooknet, or our individual members, is a little bit less for Tescos (oops, Freudian slip - meant Amazon) and more for the small independents who care about service and quality.

War Horse now booking

here. I am so excited. I have booked tickets, though have no idea if any of my nearest and dearest will want to come with me. I do not care. I am going no matter what.

Europe's Kill Buyers

I am a keen devotee of America's Fugly Horses blog, which aims to expose duff horse ownership and breeding practices. Through that blog, I have learned quite a lot about American slaughter practices. It is no longer legal to slaughter horses for human consumption in America; but there is still a market, and slaughter for human consumption is still legal in Canada and Mexico, so horses are bought in bulk by the kill buyers and have to endure long trips across the border to slaughter.

Unfortunately we here in Europe are really no better. Around 100,000 horses across Europe are sold for meat. As around 84% are slaughtered in Italy, they can face journeys of up to 5 days before death. There have been, since January 2007, extensive regulations governing how horses should be transported. They are supposed to have 24 hours' rest for every 24 hours of travel. They are supposed to be watered every 8 hours, and if necessary fed. They should have enough room, and should be fit to travel: there are several staging posts in Europe, at which drivers are supposed to stop and tend to the horses. However, the abolition of border controls in the EU means it is only too easy for huge transporters full of horses to drive, drive, drive, and ignore the staging posts and the needs of the horses.

Horse and Hound's Abi Butcher travelled with Jo White from World Horse Welfare (which used to be the ILPH) from Poland to Italy, to track what happens to horses sent for slaughter. You can see some of her video diary here:

and read her diary here, and here, and here, with day 4 here, and day 5 here.

World Horse Welfare has a petition: the aim is not to stop the slaughter of horses, but to stop the suffering caused by the widespread flouting of the rules. They want to:

  • see rigorous enforcement of the existing rules
  • introduce finite journey time for horses travelling to slaughter
  • end the long distance transportation of horses to slaughter in Europe

Please sign the petition. I think it is terrible that much loved horses end up on horse transporters, and some of that is the fault of horse owners. If a horse is elderly, or unlikely to find a decent home it is no use hoping against hope someone will offer it a "good home": make the difficult decision and have the horse put down yourself in its own surroundings where it is comfortable. I don't have a particular problem either with horses being sold for meat, as long as they are slaughtered at source. After all, you can drive as long as you like with meat. It no longer has feelings. Transporting living, breathing animals, and making them suffer, must be stopped.