Monday, 31 March 2008

The Pony Book Today

I've been busy over the past few months buying up an example of every pony book author I can find who is in print. People often ask me what they can buy today for their pony mad child: what they can go into a bookshop and pick up and buy. Unfortunately, if you go into the average bookshop, you would very soon come to the conclusion that the pony book was a dead genre, or meant only for the under 8s.

In the dim and distant past when I was buying pony paperbacks, I would find them in toyshops and even in Boots, which then had a book department. Now, the choice in my home county is severely limited. I visited Waterstones in Kettering and in Covent Garden, London, and WH Smith in Northampton and Rushden, and an independent bookshop in Market Harborough. WH Smith was better than Waterstones, but there wasn't a lot in it. Waterstones in Covent Garden had only the Katie Price paperbacks (the lack of pony possibly reflecting its city centre location), but Waterstones in Kettering wasn't a lot better, with only Heartland. The independent bookshop stocked Heartland and K M Peyton.

WH Smith in Rushden (not, it must be said, a huge shop) had Secret Unicorn and in Northampton had a K M Peyton, Pony-Mad Princess, Secret Unicorn and the ubiquitous Katie Price.

So, as a pony mad child today, wandering along to your local bookshop and hoping to find a pony book you will be very limited for choice indeed. However, once you know what is out there, your helpful local bookshop can order it for you, or you can go online yourself. During the next month or so, I will be working my way through the books you can get today.

With my fearless assistant, my 12 year old Miranda, we have read our way through them all; from the frankly appalling to the surprisingly good.

So, watch this space. We'll be reviewing a couple of books each post.

Thursday, 27 March 2008

Buy a Friend a Book Week

I hadn't heard of this before until I was reading Juxtabook's blog here (and hurry along now and put your name down for a book).

What an excellent idea, I thought, so went and looked it up. Do this, it says, and convince everyone you're a good thing: "Look at me, you'll be saying to your site's visitors, I am the sort of person who buys gifts for my friends for no good reason. Befriend me! Love me! Read me." Well. Hmmm.

I do like being read, I have to say, and I am extremely grateful that I am, but I am rather more wary of other forms of public exposure. I like being read, but would shake with terror at the idea of being on television (all those people watching) but don't mind the idea of being on radio (and will be at some point, about which more later). Anyway, I am drivelling off the point, so will get back on to it again. I would love to give away a few books, particularly ones I am a bit evangelical about myself, so here is what is on offer, free and gratis:

  • a sparkling, brand new printing of K M Peyton's The Team
  • Henry Wynmalen's Equitation: a pivotal work, and one that inspired the Pullein-Thompsons and
  • Barbara Willard's Flight of Wild Swans, which is a children's historical novel, and part of the excellent Mantlemass series, which I can't praise enough

Add yourself to the comments below, together with what book you'd like, and I will, provided there are enough claimants, do a draw on Monday 7th April. If only three of you comment, and you all want different books, then I won't.

The Thunder of Paws

Our cat is small -much smaller than she ought to be, I think, because she had had 2 litters of kittens by the time she was one and rescued by our vet, from whom we got her. She is also, being of Oriental descent, quite fine boned: an elegant little black cat.

But boy, can she make noise. When the earthquake hit us recently I woke up, hearing loud banging, and my first thought that it was the cat thundering round the bedroom, because she is that loud. Last night, she woke us up twice, crashing into the wardrobe doors, and charging round the bedroom on the elephant feet she likes to use instead of her own for night work. The poor mouse she was chasing escaped (the dog found it this morning). Cat is a mouser and usually catches her prey to eat, but occasionally she feels like having her own brand of sadistic fun. I feel for the poor rodent, but I wish she'd have her fun more quietly.

Over many years of having cats, I have developed a few catching skills of my own. One of our cats used to bring in frogs, which she was convinced we liked, and we developed quite a skill at catching the poor things (with the exception of one which found its way upstairs and gave me a terrible fright when it leaped out at me from behind a radiator). I am also, I like to think, a pretty fair hand at mouse catching. All you need is a piece of cloth, which you drop on the mouse, gather all up underneath it, and remove mouse outside.

Thursday, 20 March 2008


My sister and I were talking to our mother about what life was like on the family farm - still just about around when we were small. I used to spend most of my school holidays there (and I am convinced that where I remember the hen's stable being is the right place and Mother has got it wrong, but that's by the bye....)

By the time my sister and I appeared in the early 1960s, the farm horses had gone. Mum was telling us about riding them to their stables after work. She was never allowed to have a pony, as my great-grandfather had a sternly practical view of animals. They were there to do a job or not at all, so her terrier was ok as he was a ratter. Cats were strictly outdoor and mousers. Horses worked, and troodling round the lanes wasn't work.

But, Mum was allowed to ride the work horses, and they were Suffolk Punches. On a quick diversion, there is an excellent organisation called The Suffolk Punch Trust, which is carrying on the excellent work done with Suffolks in rehabilitating prisoners.
There is somewhere in my house, and I wish I could find it, a picture of the work horses which I guess must have been taken in the 1950s, before the tractor swept them all away. I must have missed them by about 10 years, I suppose, which seems such a little time when I look at it now, and it's sad that that bit of family history only survives in a photograph. The Tithe Barn which used to be part of the farm here (before our time) had stables attached for the work horses, and before the place got too unsafe to go into I liked to stand in there and imagine what it used to be like. It had a quiet atmosphere to it: and the picture that would come into my mind as I stood there was of horses who would turn round, chewing, to look at you as they came in and then go back to their hay.

Just inside the door was a pile of huge and rusty horseshoes, one of which I liberated because the horses were part of the place's history and when the barn is developed none of them will remain. I don't suppose the new owners will think that where they live now, for hundreds of years, far beyond anything they'll ever achieve, horses were there.

I know things have to change. I know you can't hang on to the past, but I regret the passing of that calm, chewing quiet, I regret the history that will be trampled on, I mourn the fact that wanting something to be so is not enough. However much I might want it to be filled with horses again life is not like that, and I can't make it so.

Cleaning (or not)

I meant to blog about this at the weekend, when it appeared, but then I was too busy doing other things - and not one of them was cleaning. According to The Times, cleaning has apparently become synonymous with social status - in which case I am even more of a social pariah than I thought. Apparently the really smart have 3 or 4 cleaning teams, not just one, or a single solitary cleaner - and stand over them to make sure they do it properly. In which case, I can only think they don't have enough to do. If you employ someone to do a job, surely you ought to be able to leave them to get in with it. If you need to stand over someone checking, why not do it yourself?

Only once in my life have I been flush enough to employ a cleaner, and I was so incredibly grateful that someone else was doing all the things I loathed I happily left her to it. Once she apologised for not hoovering the underside of the rugs, which flabberghasted me as it had never ever occurred to me to hoover the other side of the rug - the bit of floor it was on, yes, but its underneath, never. So you can see my standards are low.

In the few bits of free time I get, when I sit down, I do not think - ah, now it is time to wield the hoover! Or better still, iron! No, I read. An aunt of mine said she only ever dusted when people came - after a time, the dust reached its own level and didn't get any worse. And there is a certain aesthetic attraction to really spectacular cobwebs and dust. This morning I was looking for my copy of Diary of a Provincial Lady and the top shelf of its bookcase, had reached marvellously gothic levels of cobwebby tawdriness. (It houses biographies, which tend to be things we read once and then store).

Over the summer we acquire some wonderfully long and floaty cobwebs, which is one advantage I suppose to very high ceilings. Were anyone to quibble, I should tell them that they are organic flycatchers.

And yet, and yet.... on the rare occasions I clean I like it when it is done. I like the temporary sense of orderliness, of it all being, for once, sorted out. Then I go back to my book, and read on, ignoring the dog hair floating from the moulting labrador, the mud left by the son's enormous trainers, the tilth of junk mail, daughter-produced crud and strange alien things that no one will admit to owning....

Saturday, 15 March 2008

Too much reality?

Vanessa of Fidra put this post on her blog about the shortlist for the Galaxy Book Awards 2008. The children's section is voted for by children at W H Smith shops, and the shortlist is: Michael Morpurgo's Born to Run, Jacqueline Wilson's Kiss, Francesca Simon's Horrid Henry and the Abominable Snowman and Fiona Watt's That's Not My Penguin. So, no surprises there: but there is another entry on the shortlist and that is Katie Price's Perfect Ponies - the guide to looking after ponies, rather than the stories.

To me (and to Vanessa) that seems an odd inclusion, but I was thinking about it and actually I think it isn't. It's children that have voted for it, after all, and so I've been asking myself why they've gone for this title.

The pony care books I know about (those you can get in mainstream book shops, rather than saddlers) tend to be the Dorling Kindersley style which is absolutely straight down the line realistic, illustrated with photographs from the word go. There is no fiddle faddle about which world you're getting: this is real life.

I don't think that ponies, for the vast majority of children, have very much to do with real life at all: witness Strutz, My Little Pony and their ilk. They are creatures of fantasy, to be treated like dolls. The average urban child has remarkably little contact with the countryside, and for many of them their actual contact with a real horse may be seeing them on television, or out of the car window. So, a book like Katie Price's, with its pink, cartoon presentation, games and so on, is very cleverly playing to this market. You get a touch of the reality many of these children presumably yearn for (the longing of town children for a pony was a very common theme in pony books) but in a format which is comfortable and accessible, yet still has an element of make believe to it. Of course, it also is touched by the pink fairy wand of celebrity and glamour.

It's interesting that it is not KP's pony stories which have got the vote.

Another interesting sideline: these books are carefully branded with a picture of blonde Katie, but she doesn't look like that anymore does she? Will the next book, due out in April 2008 reflect this? It'll say a lot if it doesn't.

I think this shortlist says something very interesting about children today and the way they perceive reality. We hear all the time about how sheltered children are, and how shielded from the everyday realities of getting where you want to go under your own steam, playing out; even experiencing the weather (at my daughter's school, there were horrendous complaints when the children had outdoor playtime once when it was raining - HOW could they possibly be allowed to get wet?)

The choice of Perfect Ponies says to me that all this is hamstringing children: they can't cope with reality, only a cartoon version of it: but they want to. If they wanted to avoid it altogether, they'd have gone for the stories, and they didn't.

Thursday, 13 March 2008

Will plaits ever be fashionable again?

The two bits I'm about to quote say it all, I think.

"When I was a child," said Mrs. Pyke, "I was the youngest rider to hounds in the county. I remember the MFH once lifted me on to my pony himself, and there I sat in my litle habit with my long fair curls hanging down to my waist. Children had the loveliest hair in those days."

Personally I thought (a) it was impossible to picture Mrs. Pyke as a child at all, and (b) that curls down to your waist must have looked pretty awful all waving in the breeze like floating cork-screws. I'm sure Mrs Darcy would have had something to say about it. I mean, there are always plaits."

[Jill's Gymkhana, Ruby Ferguson]


"Jess turned to see Vicki, the owner of the riding stables, standing at the open stable door. Jess secretly hero-worshipped Vicki. She was everything Jess wanted to be when she grew up. Tanned and slim, with thick dark hair and stunning silver-grey eyes, she always looked amazing. Vicki was living proof that you could work with horses and still be glam. Even in muck-stained jeans and a grubby hoodie, she always managed to look good, although she often had to work a fifteen-hour day."

[Katie Price's Perfect Ponies - Here Comes the Bride]

Sigh, sigh. Deep, deep sigh.

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

A bit more on toys

I started this replying to Vanessa's comment on my Strutz piece below, but it was getting so long I thought I'd make it a blog post instead.

Vanessa. Ahem. Girls DO have an unnatural love for 4" stilettos. There are plastic dressing up shoes you can get, and we (or at least my dear daughter) had several pairs. If they'd have made them with stilettos, she'd have wanted them. And have been told no.

I agree with you and Susan about the creeping sexualisation of toys. I suppose it's all of a piece with the Tesco's pole-dancing kit for children, but I find this attitude utterly bizarre. It's not so much the manufacturers I find difficult to understand. They do, after all, want to sell things. It's why people buy them.

Though having said that it is a slippery slope and I am not guilt free myself. My own dear daughter had Bratz dolls as I thought them preferable to the plastic cuteness of Barbie. There's just something a tad self-righteous about Barbie. Interestingly, the main games daughter played with them the Bratz didn't really involve the dolls. She and her friend would build enormous houses for them out of whatever was handy in M's bedroom. The dolls rarely featured apart from as the odd bit of set-dressing if they had time at the end of the epic build.

However, I do have some quibbles over whether I did the right thing. I justified it to myself by saying that all her friends had them. She is a child to whom no is said a lot (my son would disagree). She knows she's not allowed what I think of as tarty clothes (skirts just covering the bum are absolutely out; hyper-short shorts also and thongs for children, ear rings, princess-type magazines ...... no no no no.) So Bratz, I rationalised it, were the compromise that I was prepared to make in the constant battle for me to fend off industry's best attempts to sell her the utterly inappropriate. I'm not sure I was right.

I feel I am on morally more certain ground when it comes to the T-shirt with the suggestive slogan, and I have seen a couple of these out in the wild. The owner of one of the companies involved said "Younger hipper parents are looking for something that's not the same, that has a little more attitude." If being young and hip is important to you, then why not dress yourself in these things, if you must, but why, why is it OK to dress a child in them? At least (I hope) the child has no idea what the slogans actually mean, but how is if fair, or ok, to have people looking at your child and reacting, because react they will, whether it's with horror or to laugh? And that objectifies your child. It makes your child the object of reactions it has done absolutely nothing to deserve. And that is not fair.

Saturday, 8 March 2008

It's a world away from bantams

I was going to blog about the bantams, who as I haven't clipped their wings this moult are enjoying themselves flitting about the rafters in their stable.

However, I was distracted. If My Little Pony is emphatically not your thing, and Bratz makes you long for the safe, pink horizons of Barbie, there is a new nightmare stalking the horizon. And I use the word stalking advisedly. These pony toys wear heels. Strappy heels. For this all I know, Jimmy Choos, for this is a far cry from real ponies with their inconviently mud-packed hooves. All this is aimed at, who else, little girls.

These ponies make My Little Pony look trapped in a world of childish innocence, for they are things imagined by someone who has realised that pandering to the worst instincts of small girls makes stuff sell, sell, sell. Girls love ponies, right? And they also LOVE the slutty style of Bratz, so why don't we combine them? Ta da! Strutz. Fashion with a kick, they say.

I don't like My Little Pony - I never have, though as I was around 20 when they first came out, I was hardly their target market. When I was small, I had epic quantities of Britain's models, and a few precious Julips, as well as a stable of felt ponies I'd made myself, and I never, not once, felt the desire for my ponies to get married, or do a fashion show, or go to school, save in my dressage arena, carefully constructed from the bottom of a chocolate box and filled with sawdust filched from the hamster. It does seem to me terribly sad that what's being presented to children with Strutz is the view that appearance is all. I never thought that anything would make My Little Pony seem positively desirable, but Strutz have succeeded.

I'm only glad my own daughter has now washed up on what seems in contrast the blessedly safe shores of Superdrug's teen makeup counters.