Thursday, 27 September 2012

Anne Bullen and a horsy Sunday

Anne Bullen
The Osborne Studio Gallery
2 Motcomb Street,
London, SW1X 8JU
020 7235 9667
18th September 2012 - 4th October 2012

Here I am, fresh-ish from the Anne Bullen exhibition, on what what was a thoroughly horsy Sunday. After rocking up late to the British Museum (train late) to meet my friends, we whirred round the Horse exhibition, which finishes on the 30th September: the Museum are obviously keen to divest themselves of their horsey merchandise before then. Much of it is on special offer. We then trekked off to St John's, Hyde Park, for Horseman's Sunday where those London horses and riders who can get there gather for their horses to be blessed.

Nic Fiddian-Green's Horse at Water
Marble Arch

Riders are a hardy lot, generally, and they needed to be on Sunday, because it rained, and once it had finished raining it poured. And carried on pouring. The horses behaved amazingly well. The Hyde Park Stables equines had beautifully plaited manes and tails, with riders equally smart. I wondered if there had been pony book scenes of lost needles, and fraught wailing at ponies who refused to stand, before all the quiet efficiency we saw at the service.

There were police horses, and two from the army - one dark bay turned out, as was his rider, in staggeringly glossy perfection. He rode beautifully too, that soldier. There was a fleabitten-grey called Freya, only young, and pacing along through the crowds with the sort of fidgety energy that made me glad I was not on her and that her capable rider was.

The priest took the service from horseback: whether he was a rider or not I couldn't say, but I am sure much devout prayer was exercised that morning to ward off any devilish impulses his horse might have been prey to. It stood, as good as gold, with that resignation riding school horses - those that remain riding school horses, anyway - soon learn. Horseman's Sunday was presumably just another in a long line of peculiar things humanity visited upon it.

Most of the riders were from the Hyde Park  and Ross Nye Stables (and how wonderful it is that the stables still remain and have not been turned into spectacularly priced flats), but there were two riders from the Ebony Horse Club in Brixton; riding their coloured cobs with casual efficiency.

Once the service had ended, and the horses and ponies (an awful lot of coloured cobs), and the one carriage, pulled by a Friesian, had filed past and been given their rosettes, we piled off, back through Hyde Park, heading for Knightsbridge and the gallery.  In the fifteen years I lived in London, never once did I go to Hyde Park. It was not exactly teeming on Sunday; the deluge keeping away only the keenest; joggers and personal trainers, and a small group of women, football training; faces alight and utterly unbothered by the weather. We crossed Rotten Row, a wide expanse of sand scarily near to the road. I still harbour ambitions of riding side-saddle along the Row. I want to be like Sylvia Tietjens, in the last episode of Parade's End, riding in the Park, exquisite on a black horse, saying to my companion, "If I divorce Christopher, will you marry me?" Well, probably not the last, but riding with utter elegance on a coal black horse, yes.

The Gallery is in one of those chi-chi roads which we entirely lack in Northamptonshire: Christian Louboutin was on the corner, and Annick Goutal (alas closed; I do like stonkingly expensive scent) just about opposite. I have no photograph of the gallery as an enormous 4x4 was blocking my view of it and by that time I had scented my quarry; the equine illustration and was intent only on getting in.

The gallery is in the ground floor and basement of a town house; not therefore vast, but the small scale suits Anne Bullen's drawings, which need to be seen at close quarters. The exhibition commemorates the passage of 100 years since her birth. Born in 1912, she studied at the Academie Julien and the Chelsea Art School. She married Lt Col Jack Bullen and they had six children: Anthony, Michael, Jennie, Jane and Sarah. Besides bringing up her large family, and running the Catherston Stud with her husband, Anne continued to draw and paint. The first book she illustrated was Joanna Cannan's A Pony for Jean (1936), and as the pony book drew breath and cantered off, secure now that it had hit upon the girl-gets-pony formula, Anne cantered with it. There are just a few of her pony book illustrations in the exhibition; the two from Golden Gorse's The Young Horsebreakers (1937) are delightful; even more enchanting in the flesh. One is on the cover of the catalogue.

I was particularly interested in the occasional contrasting styles Anne Bullen used. Most of the examples in the gallery are the pencil drawings we are familiar with through her book illustration, but I loved her vibrant and dashing Hackney pony; far more emphatic than her usual style, but he is the one I would like to have taken away with me.

Or if not him, the dramatic fall;

or maybe the quintessentially Bullen skewbald mare and her foal, probably the most romantic of the lot.

The exhibition is a delight. There are endless ponies; hounds, and also another side of Anne Bullen: horses being rescued from fire, and lost, wartime children.

Awaiting Evacuation

Anne Bullen carried on drawing and painting throughout her life. She died, aged just 51, from cancer in 1963. She illustrated over forty books, and her work appeared in many equestrian magazines.  It is Anne Bullen's ponies that gallop through many pony-mad girls dreams; those who grew up in the halcyon days of the pony book at any rate, when illustrations had not been banished as too expensive.

The exhibition, when we went, was nearly sold out: rashes of red stickers everywhere. If you can possibly go, do. The exhibition is an enchanting insight into one woman's vision; it's life with horses as we dream it should be.

More Bullen:
Bullen Cards: run by Jill Bullen. Cards and prints: catalogue available from Jill Bullen, 01722 780 280
Anne Bullen: her pony book illustrations

Thank you to the Osborne Studio Gallery for opening up for us on a Sunday. We were, and are, very grateful.

A note on horsy: I tend to use horsy, but see horsey bandied about too. I checked with the Oxford English Dictionary, and both variants are allowed. I shall now spray both of them about without any attempt at consistency.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Review: Victoria Eveleigh - Katy's Pony Surprise

Victoria Eveleigh: Katy's Pony Surprise
Orion, 2012, £4.99
Kobo, £2.99, Kindle, £2.99

Thank you to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book

Katy's Pony Surprise originally appeared as Katy's Exmoor Friends. This edition has been re-written and updated, and it loses none of the freshness of the original.

Katy's Exmoor Pony, Trifle, is now four. She's broken in, but still very green. She and Katy are on their way to Pony Club Camp: Katy can't take her larger and more experienced pony, Jacko, as he's lame.  Nevertheless, she's looking forward to Pony Club Camp. Her best friend Alice is going. What can go wrong? Wanting Trifle to run before she can walk, and a deeply unsympathetic instructor, for a start. As ever with Victoria Eveleigh's heroine, Katy meets her problems head on.  She is determined to show Trifle, and when Val, the instructor from hell turns out to be riding one of Katy's competitors, she's momentarily phased, but manages to settle down and get on with the job. That is not to say that Katy is a perfect girl: she still has plenty to learn, particularly the difference between what you think a pony wants and what it actually does.

Victoria Eveleigh's books are firmly grounded in their community. What I particularly enjoy about her books is the wealth of characters, and the real sense the reader gets of how the whole community reacts and lives life. It's easy for a pony book to concentrate just on the rider and the pony, to its detriment, but here the farm Katy lives on, Exmoor and its inhabitants are a vivid part of the whole.

The ponies are beautifully done too. Trifle's willingness to please and occasional bewilderment are completely recognisable. None of this would matter if Katy herself were not a thoroughly attractive character, but she is a gem. She's beautifully observed, and what the reader gets is a neat and involving slice of her life.

Victoria Eveleigh's pony stories are some of the best available at the moment. If you've been debating whether or not to get them, do.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Morning walks no longer

It's getting darker and darker, and there really isn't enough light to take a half-decent photograph in the mornings. I realised it was time to stop when I was up and at the fields before the rooks and geese flew in for their breakfast. I like standing and watching them all fly in across the valley (dogs are not too keen on this hanging about though.)

So, it will be afternoon walks from now on, until there's no light for that either.

It's pink! It sparkles! It must be a pony book!

The 1990s and early years of the 2000s saw many pony books leave behind the realistic covers of the 1950s and 1960s. A substantial proportion of those aimed at the younger reader were badged with pink and sparkles, and winsome straplines. Peter Clover's 1990s Sheltie series was a rare example of a series that succeeded through charm, not sparkles. “Could you,” asks the front covers of Sue Bentley’s Magic Ponies series, “be a little pony’s special friend?” Princess of pink, Katie Price, who first hit fame as the glamour model Jordan, has written (with a ghostwriter) the Perfect Ponies series (2007-2010). Emblazoned in pink and silver, it is about a group of four friends and their adventures at a riding school.

In a world which places so much emphasis now on how girls look, it’s sad to see the riding instructor continually praised because she "was living proof that you could be glam and still be a brilliant horsewoman." This is fair enough, but it is a pity if it is made an issue for the books’ target audience, children of around eight. The pinkification of covers obscured even decent stories: Diana Kimpton’s sparky Pony Mad Princess series (2004-2007) is very much better than its covers would have you believe.

Susanna Forrest, in her equine memoir If Wishes were Horses (2012), discusses the pinkification of the horse world. “Horses used to be an alternative to pink and princesses and playing mother; now horses are pink princesses with Lullabye Nurseries™ and sparkly handbags,” she writes. Horses, and indeed the vast majority of pony books, are now nothing to do with boys. Male membership of the Pony Club has plummeted: down to 389 out of 31,395 branch members this year (2012); a little over 1%.

The twinkly cover appears to be a British phenomenon. American Pulitzer Prize winning author Jane Smiley has written a three book Young Adult horse series. (The Georges and the Jewels/Nobody’s Horse, 2010, A Good Horse/Secret Horse, 2011 and True Blue/Mystery Horse, 2012). The original American editions have straightforward photographic covers. In the UK, Faber, a straight down-the-line publisher if ever there was one, has given them the sparkle factor.

But is the tide turning? The world of equestrian clothing, which a few years ago was awash in a sea of pink, no longer is. Katie Price's KP Equestrian clothing line website says "Put some glamour and sparkle into your riding," which 30 years ago would have been a request to add impulsion, not bling. But it is noticeable, if you study KP's clothing lines, that there is considerably less pink than there once was. I wondered if it was simply that adults prefer a little more sophistication with their bling. Surely children were still keen on pink? I searched, but the mainstream equestrian suppliers (I looked at Derby House and Robinsons) have children's ranges in sober, dirt proof colours. There is a little pink, but it's not the candy variety.

The content of pony books was generally not (with the exception of Katie Price) obsessed by pink, dressing ponies up, or the rider's appearance, and it remains so, but the covers now reflect this. A look at the children's pony book releases in the UK this year reveals a remarkable lack of sparkle. Victoria Eveleigh's Katy appears in a traditional photo cover; Lauren St John's One Dollar Horse has a stylish neutral design (though with shocking pink page edges, which I rather like). Belinda Rapley's  Pony Detectives series has colourful but bling-free cover designs.

Is the retreat of pink sparkles a reflection of the grim economic times in which we find ourselves? Horse and pony owning, like everything else today, is squeezed financially. Perhaps riders now are going for the traditional, duller shades because they reflect a more sober attitude. When money's tight, you concentrate on the basics, not frivolity. But then, you would have thought the frothy pink and glitter would have provided an escape from the drear procession of statistics and the ever-shrinking wallet. Perhaps froth is only really palatable when when viewed from a position of security.


If you'd like to read more of my posts on the history of the pony book, this is what's appeared so far:

I have a book coming out early next year on pony books - you can follow me on Facebook for more on how that's going. 

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Morning walks, 17th & 18th September 2012

Rooks flying in to the stubble field:

and geese. I could hear them flying in long before I could see them. They're way too far away for me to get them without trespassing thoroughly. Last year I had to wade through them, there were so many.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

I'm doing an offer at the moment - five pony paperbacks, including postage, for:

UK - £6.00
Europe - £11.00
USA/Canada - £12.50
Australia - £13.00

For ease, all the photos are on my Facebook Page.You can look at it without being a member, and the easiest way to order is to contact me there. If you email me separately, or via here, I will do my best to co-ordinate with what's going on on the Facebook page, but can't guarantee it.

Here's some of what's on offer:

Friday, 14 September 2012

First catch your unicorn: the pony book and fantasy

The pony book has often nodded towards what was going on in the children’s book genre as a whole; adventure in the 1950s, realism in the 1970s, and from the 1990s, fantasy. In 1997, J K Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published. It was an astounding success, and spawned a host of fantasy-themed children's literature. The pony book, an essentially practical genre, is not perhaps the most natural of allies for fantasy, but this did not stop publishers eager to jump on the bandwagon. Pony author after pony author leaped, with sometimes miserable results, into the fantastic.

Elizabeth Lindsay’s Magic Pony series (12 books, 1997-2006), the story of a miniature magical pony, was the first, but by no means the last. It was aimed at a rather younger reader than pony books of previous decades. Most of the pony book fantasies were. Linda Chapman wrote several series on Unicorns. Prolific author Jenny Oldfield wrote the My Magical Pony series (2005-2007); Sue Bentley the violet-eyed Magic Ponies books (2009). Even Babette Cole, scourge of nits and snot, wrote a four book series based on unicorns: Fetlocks Hall (2010-2011).

These fantastic horses all spoke. Stories where it is the horse who is the magical partner tend to be less successful than those where it is the human who has some sort of power (Linda Chapman is an honourable exception to this rule). Human characters, when given magical powers by their authors, are still allowed imperfections. The magical horse is generally not. The noble equine heroes pontificate from on high:  “...Friendship is important. Is it not worth fighting for?” says Comet in Sue Bentley’s Magic Ponies series. Jenny Oldfield' My Magical Pony series has, Shining Star, the magical pony, who emerges into its heroine's world "from a shimmering mist, swearing her to secrecy, bringing his wisdom and kindness into her world.” 

These magical creatures were a world away from the talking ponies who appeared earlier in pony book history. These were generally recognisably equine; their only power speech. John Thorburn's Hildebrand (1930) was a bolshy piebald condemned to eating only things which began with an H; which did unfortunately at one point include hens. Primrose Cumming's talking ponies in her classic Silver Snaffles (1937) had a distinctly tart attitude towards the human children they taught in their magical riding school. C Northcote Parkinson's ponies in Ponies Plot (1965) had a similarly astringent view of humanity. These earlier magical equines corresponded with their human counterparts as equals. Making them superior, as some of the fantasy series of the 1990s and 2000s did, led to an unsatisfactory read. The horse as a god-like figure of moral superiority is an uneasy creature; in these books it is an essentially neutered creation, devoid of any wrath and judgement which might lend passion or interest. 

It is interesting to ponder why this strand of pony books tends to unsatisfying perfection. Authors seem to take the noble qualities of the horse; imbue  him with superhuman attributes, and forget the real horse, which kicks, bites, bullies and sulks. Is it wish-fulfilment, and if so, in whom? Author or reader?

More satisfying fantastic reads give the human supernatural powers, rather than the horse. The best of these take a realistic look at what the possession of magical gifts would mean. The Canadian Angela Dorsey is a rare example of an author who manages to combine believable fantasy with decent plots and characters. Her Horse Angel, Angelica, could easily be sickly-sweet, a glossy puff of angelic perfection, but she has real difficulties reconciling her angelic state with her presence on earth.  Dorsey's most recent series, Whinnies on the Wind, features a heroine, Evy, who can communicate with horses telepathically, but this is grounded in a setting of such stern practicality - Evy and her mother live without electricity or running water in an area where -30 degrees is considered warm - that the whole gels as a thoroughly readable adventure.

British author Janet Rising looks at fantasy with a wry eye in her Pony Whisperer (six books, 2009-2011) series. Her heroine, Pia, can also hear horses, but she has no gifts. What she does have is a small statue of Epona, the Celtic horse goddess. When Pia has the statue, she can hear horses. When she doesn't, she can't. The horses she hears have reactions that are recognisably horse-like. The mixture of horses and fantasy tends to kill of any sense of humour pony book authors might once have had: it is difficult for utter perfection to be funny. Janet Rising's approach throws an affectionate, and thoroughly realistic light, on her equine characters.

The addiction to vampires seen in YA fiction seems to have passed the pony book by, but there are now titles which inhabit a more interesting and gothic territory. American Maggie Stiefvater’s brilliant Scorpio Races (2011) reworks the myth of the water horse to terrifying effect. No tame, silvery creatures these: they are creatures of appalling ferocity, and encounters with them tend to be fatal.

None of these books place the horse above humanity: human and fantastic creature exist as equals. They are far more satisfying reads because of it.


If you'd like to read more of my posts on the history of the pony book, this is what's appeared so far:

I have a book coming out early next year on pony books - you can follow me on Facebook for more on how that's going. 

Morning walk, 14th September 2012

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Review: Angela Dorsey - Whinnies on the Wind series

Angela Dorsey: Whinnies on the Wind series
Winter of the Crystal Dances
Spring of the Poacher's Moon
Summer of Wild Hearts

All published by Enchanted Pony Books at £6.99 in pb, £2.01 Kindle

Thank you to the author for sending me copies of these books.

I have to admit I'm not struck by the name of this series, but if you aren't either, don't let that put you off. These are cracking reads. They're located in the Canadian north, where Evy lives with her mother. They live a life of almost total isolation, occasionally seeing their neighbours, who live a ride away, and who have a daughter, Kestrel, who is Evy's friend: in fact her only friend, as school is something that happens remotely . And they occasionally see Evy's mother's agent (she's a painter) and that's it. They live in a cabin, and life is, by urban standards, primitive. Quite why the family live such a cut off existence is the major unanswered question of the series.

I like a story set somewhere I don't know, and where the author gives you a real sense of what it's like to live there. It's very easy for authors to assume you know all the minutiae of daily existence that happen somewhere they're familiar with, but that's not an assumption Angela Dorsey makes. Evy and her mother don't have electricity, central heating, or running water. They have to chop wood to burn in the stove for heat, and when things get really bad, melt snow for water. When they go outside in the winter, they have to put on layer after layer, and it's still cold. The horses' barn needs its own heater.

I did wonder about lavatory arrangements, which aren't mentioned. Presumably there isn't sewerage, so what happens? Maybe someone familiar with life in the far north can enlighten me.

Into this background of remoteness and isolation, comes Evy and her odd ability. She can talk to horses, telepathically. Most horses' thoughts she experiences as a cloud of emotion, but some horses can actually talk to her, telepathically. Angela Dorsey succeeds in convincing you that Evy's abilities are real. They are not a passport into a world of horsey bliss - the-horse-that-only-I-could-ride (because I could talk to it telepathically). Evy's abilities cause her problems. Her mother reacts badly to any mention of them, and Evy has learned the hard way to hide it whenever she picks up a horse's thought. Her life is a juggling act: she has the same preoccupations as any teenage girl. She wants friends, and to experience life outside the confines of her family. There is the conflict between pleasing the mother she loves, and starting to make her own way. There is also the pressure to respond to horses' thoughts, particularly when she senses all is not well with the mustangs who live nearby.

The whole series is an interesting look at a shifting pattern of conflict; and not only is it very well done, the whole makes a rattling good story. I whipped through the three books I have, thoroughly enjoying them all.

The plots are exciting, and the characters are completely believable. If you're after an involving read with an exotic (to someone sitting in the middle of England) background, you couldn't do better than these.

Morning walk, 12th September 2012

Early morning light in the churchyard, and through the church porch windows.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Morning walks, 10th and 11th September 2012

10th September

11th September

Dogs are wondering why I am faffing about sweeping the front steps instead of letting them in. I never sweep the front steps. I just swear at the gravel that jams itself under the gate and carry on. I am sweeping the steps because the house is on the market, and I have read all that stuff about first impressions.

Friday, 7 September 2012

And the next one is... Pony Books in the 1990s

Disapproval of pony books by critics of children's fiction may have had an impact on the British market, but it certainly didn't in America. British librarians tended to view pony fiction as elitist and outmoded: American librarians saw it as a way of hooking in readers. Terri A Wear wrote Horse Stories, an Annotated Bibliography in 1987 specially for American librarians wondering which horse books to recommend to their horse mad readers.

Whatever the British educational and literary establishments thought, girls still loved ponies, and they still wanted to read about them. Publishers wanted to feed this habit, and there were ready-made solutions in America. Series fiction had long had a strong hold on the American market, with organisations like the Stratemeyer Syndicate developing ideas for series and then getting them produced by teams of authors, thereby ensuring continuity, and length. The average author is probably going to be heartily sick of their characters after a few years, but the reader is not. Having different authors contribute under a pseudonym means the reader can be indulged, almost ad infinitum. And she was.

In the 1990s, Bantam Books published their Saddle Club series in the UK. It was already a huge hit in the United States. Bonnie Bryant’s creation was the story of three girls, Carol, Lisa and Stevie, who keep their horses at a livery stable, and have endless equine-themed adventures with them. Bryant based all three characters on herself:  “I can be as disorganised as Carol, I can be as logical as Lisa and I can get into as much trouble as Stevie."  After contributing the first thirty or so titles, the rest were farmed out to other authors. There were two spin offs from the main series, Pony Tails, aimed at the younger reader, and Pine Hollow, for the older, but neither was as successful, only reaching sixteen books each. The series' core audience, the pre-teen girl, didn't want teenage angst.

Another American import, Joanna Campbell’s Thoroughbreds series, (90 titles including spinoffs, 1991-2005) fed the reader's desire for equine soap opera. The series followed Ashleigh Griffen as she grew up, shifting focus to other characters once Ashleigh became an adult, including Ashleigh's own daughter, Christina.

So where were the British equivalents? It wasn't until the late 1990s that any similarly lengthy series began to appear, and when they did, they were not focussed exclusively on ponies. Perhaps publishers felt the British market was not large enough to warrant a niche market series of huge length. The Animal Ark series, although it included a fair number of stories about ponies, threw its net much wider, with its hero and heroine living at a vet's surgery with a conveniently shifting parade of different animals and heart-tugging stories. The series' nominal author, Lucy Daniels, was a pseudonym for a whole gaggle of authors, some of whom, like Jenny Oldfield, went on to write pony series of their own.

There were still new authors appearing on the British scene, but it is noticeable that almost all of them wrote series. The standalone pony book virtually disappeared in this decade. Not all the series were necessarily long: Samantha Alexander's last series, Winners, set in a racing stable, contained just four titles. Earlier in the decade, she wrote longer series, based around eventing (Winners), a riding school (Riding School), and a rescue centre (Hollywell Stables). All featured, capable, determined children and believable plots.

Usborne produced the Sandy Lane Stables series by Michelle Bates and Susannah Leigh, a solid, traditional series based at a stables, which is still in print today. Patricia Leitch followed her Jinny series with the Kestrels series, for the younger reader, reflecting another 1990s trend: the rise of the pony book aimed at the younger reader. Chief amongst these was Peter Clover's charming Sheltie series for Puffin, in which a girl and her Shetland pony explore their world.

Almost the only standalone pony books to be published in the 1990s were produced by evangelistic Christian publishers. It could be argued that these books' over-riding aim, to illustrate the Christian faith lived out, was in itself a uniting factor, though it doesn't quite make them series fiction. The best of them was Sally Fielding's Kate and the Horrible Horse (1991).

Series fiction has not loosened its grip on children's publishing since the 1990s. When combined with fantasy, it saw the next major development in the pony book world.


If you'd like to read more of my posts on the history of the pony book, this is what's appeared so far:

I have a book coming out early next year on pony books - you can follow me on Facebook for more on how that's going.