Thursday, 16 June 2016

Railway Horses 1 - Railway Women and Horses

Railways are not, I have to admit, something in which I have a huge interest. I have never train spotted, unless you count the anxious peering up the line of the commuter, so it's been new territory for me, investigating the horse and its interaction with the railway.

All this was sparked off when I was going through my collection of 1930s Riding magazines, and came across an article on the Willesden Horse Sanatorium, which was where horses who worked on the London, Midland and Scottish Railway went if they were ill enough to need more than a couple of days off.

The thing that struck me when I read the article was that nowhere, at any point, did the author (Col CEG Hope – later editor of Pony Magazine) mention what the horses actually did. There was simply no need to, because every reader would have known without having to be told. Horses were a part of everyday life in the 1930s, to a degree that was quite astonishing to someone researching it in the 21st century.

In 1937, the London, Midland and Scottish railway was the largest private owner of horses in the country. They owned 8,500 horses, and in London alone, they had 2,000. All these horses had to live somewhere, and there were large stables attached to the major railway stations in London, and smaller ones elsewhere. The horses were used to shunt carriages and wagons about, and to deliver goods that arrived at the railways, a role they maintained in lessening numbers until the 1960s, when the last railway horse retired.

London, Midland & Scottish Railway owned horse drawn vehicle, 1939

Much of the history of railways is the history of men, but from the outset, women worked on the railways. As with so many other jobs, it was wartime when women came into their own. At the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, 25,000 women were employed on the railways. By 1944, they numbered 114,000.

A few worked with the railway horses. Helena Wojtczak’s Railway Women (Hastings Press, 2005) describes the role women had on the railways, and you can find the text of some of her interviews on her excellent website dealing with railway women during the war. In the transcript of her interview with Grace Moran-Healy, who became a horse van driver during the Second World War, you are awed by the privation that Grace and her children endured quite cheerfully, her sheer courage, and the love she had for the horses she worked with.

Grace was, very unusually for the time, divorced. With three children to support on her own, all of them living in one room in Manchester, it was vital she found work. Grace saw an advertisement for van lads at Manchester station, went along, told the supervisor she wasn’t scared of horses (which wasn’t entirely true), and started work the next Monday.

Working as a van lad, or boy, was the first step towards becoming a van driver. The van lad started their day by collecting the horse from its stable and harnessing it, then leading it to the goods yard to be harnessed to the van. Once the round was under way, it was the van lad who was responsible for taking packages off the cart and delivering them. In time, many van lads progressed to being a driver. It was a tough job. Grace said:

‘The horses, snorting and stamping in their stalls – looked so big and formidable to my 5'2". I thought what have I done? But what the heck. The die was cast, so I had a few weeks to learn to drive and handle a horse, and learn the round which was a town round from Piccadilly and environs. So I operated as his [the head driver’s] van lad whilst I learned the job. I hauled the boxes and parcels up stairs and on to loading bays – whilst trying to remember the shops and firms and where to go to find them – and began to develop arm and calf muscles as I clambered up and down on the back board to unload the goods – or load and stack those that had to be collected.’

Grace's landlady was not sympathetic to Grace's predicament. When Grace picked up her children, and told them she'd got the job, the children gave her a very muted cheer, in case the noise offended the landlady. It made no difference. Grace and her family were evicted.  No one was willing to rent a room to a single woman with children, but Grace managed to find digs in Sheffield, got a transfer to Sheffield station, and began work there. She was the only female driver, and she was landed with a new horse that none of the male drivers wanted to tackle. The mare was rather better bred than the usual railway horse, and had suffered badly from shock when her former stables were bombed. Jill, as Grace called her, was not an easy drive, but Grace loved the mare nevertheless. Even without wartime dangers, driving could be hazardous. On a particularly icy morning, Jill slipped and fell.

‘Just opposite was a brewery and men dashed out to surround the horse, and pedestrians flocked round in a crowd also. A policeman appeared and pushed through, shouting, 'Where's the driver?' I was enveloped in the crowd, so I started jumping up and down to attract his attention, shouting, ‘Here I am – I'm here.’ He made way for me to get to the horse's head and I knelt to pacify her. As I hadn't the strength to free her from the harness, the men strained and pulled to undo the straps and eventually released her and coaxed her up. My poor Jill was distressed and trembling, but I managed to soothe her; so eventually I could adjust the harness again. They all thought I was a lad till the policeman ordered them to stand clear so I could continue on the round, when they sent up a cheer of encouragement – bless them.’
As with so many other women who worked during the war, Grace would have liked to stay on, but when the male drivers were demobbed and returned, she was made redundant.

Other women were more fortunate. Edith Weston was taken on at Snow Hill Station in Birmingham during the war by the Great Western Railway, and there she, and a few other women, stayed on after the war ended. Her story emerged when I read Bryan Holden’s The Long Haul – The Life and Times of the Railway Horse (1985). His chapter on horses and men at work includes the story of Colin Jacks, who began work as a van boy in 1948 at Snow Hill Station, Birmingham. Fascinating though his story of learning to work with horses when you’ve never had anything to do with them is, the most interesting part of it to me is the fact that Colin was put in the charge of Miss Edith Weston, a driver. She had joined the cartage department during the Second World War, and had stayed on afterwards.

She was well-enough respected to be put in charge of new staff, rightly so in Colin’s opinion:
‘She was a lady in the truest sense, so kind and helpful. I was very na├»ve in my early youth… And she steered me from coarser fellows and I never used swear words until I went into the army!’
Lilian Carpenter and Vera Perkins had also joined the railways during the war. They worked for the London, Midland and Scottish company, and were the subjects of a photo essay in 1943 by Ministry of Information Photo Division photographer Richard Stone, showing a day in the life of a van girl during the Second World War.

It was an early start. At eight o'clock, Lilian started work by harnessing up Snowball.

© IWM (D 16819)
To get the horses from one area of the station to another, there was an extensive series of horse tunnels (which are still there). Lilian had to take Snowball through the tunnel connecting the stables to the loading bay at the start of the day. Snowball apparently made the journey back on his own (which is a wonderful image – hundreds of horses trooping back through the tunnels on their way back to their stables. Presumably they weren't as keen to make the journey to work on their own).

© IWM (D 16821)
The horse would then be attached to the van, which was already loaded and waiting for the horse and driver.

© IWM (D 16820)

The first delivery of the day was in the West End. Lilian and her colleague, Vera Perkins, had little chance to forget about the war. Their route was lined with bomb damaged buildings and semi cleared bombsites.

© IWM (D 16830)

There was more than one load to be delivered, and this photograph shows Snowball drinking from a horse trough in Bloomsbury after they'd picked up their second load.

© IWM (D 16833)

It wasn't just human food that was rationed. Pre-war, much fodder was shipped in from outside the country, but when the raids on shipping meant that the Channel was too dangerous to navigate for all but absolutely essential supplies, animal food supplies were severely affected. It is why the pony book authors the Pullein-Thompson sisters started their riding school – with shortage came a steep rise in prices, and they were told the only way they could keep their ponies was if they made them pay.

Although food supplies to essential working animals were to some extent protected, by 1943, when this photograph was taken, rations for the railway horses had been cut down from two nosebags a day to one. As is plain from the photograph, for Snowball it was not enough.

© IWM (D 16841)

© IWM (D 16842)
Their post-lunch delivery was to St Paul's Churchyard. Snowball, you can see, did not need to be held while the deliveries were being made.

© IWM (D 16840)

The day ended with Snowball taking himself off to his stable, and Lilian returning home to her son, Clarence. He was named after his soldier father, who had not yet met his son.

© IWM (D 16849)
I haven't, as yet, been able to find out what happened to Lilian and Vera, or trace any women apart from Edith Weston who worked with railway horses after the Second World War. I'm sure they must have been there, even if in vanishingly small numbers.

What emerges from Grace's account is the sheer pleasure she took in her work, and in this creature she'd not had much to do with before, the horse. What I've particularly enjoyed in researching this is seeing women taking a full part in an area of the horse world not counted as their traditional preserve. There's a 1930s railway poster which shows the view of women and horses that certainly pertained at the time, if it doesn't still today – a leisured hack for someone with enough money to afford both clothes and horse, but at the same time the poster was published, something much more interesting was going on.



Friday, 10 June 2016

Horse Tales - Cambridge Conference 3: Meg Rosoff and K M Peyton

Huge, huge thanks to Victoria Eveleigh whose memory banks are in an infinitely better state than my own, because she remembered well, everything, and much of what you read here came from her. 


In the final event of the day, Meg Rosoff interviewed K M Peyton. They have known each other for some years. Meg was talking to David Fickling about how much she enjoyed KM Peyton's books, and said wasn't it a pity that she was dead. 'She's not dead,' was the reply. 'Would you like to meet her?'

They met, and have stayed in touch ever since.

Kathy had written several books before her English teacher suggested to her parents that they send one off to a publisher. That was Sabre, Horse of the Sea, published in 1948. Despite having written about horses since early childhood (Sabre was by no means the first book she wrote) Kathy hadn't ridden much. This did not stop her having a stable-full of imaginary horses and ponies she documented in notebooks, and reading every instructional book she could find.

Of course, she read pony books too. The Ponies of Bunts (MM Oliver) and Silver Snaffles (Primrose Cumming) were big favourites. (At this point there was the sort of pleased shuffling among the audience that means they agree). Kathy did meet Primrose Cumming, the author of Silver Snaffles, whom she described as charming, and the Pullein-Thompsons, who were terrifying. Charming, but terrifying.

With the proceeds from Sabre, riding lessons were an option. Kathy didn't have a horse of her own until some time later, though there were ponies for her daughters. One of them was the model for Fly, the unbroken piece of trouble Ruth buys in Fly-by-Night. The pony nearly broke them, but went on to do very well. Kathy bought her own horse many years later from a sale as a failed show jumper, and she turned out to be an amazing hunter. Kathy ended up injured because the horse stumbled through no fault of its own. Cue more murmurs of agreement from the audience - because we all know it is never the horse's fault.

After her horse died, she didn't replace her, but she did tell us that if someone were prepared to deliver a ready-tacked up horse to the door, like the Queen, she'd certainly consider riding again.

After Kathy married, she and her husband wrote books together, generally on sailing. The Flambards series were her earliest stories to feature ponies, and they made an immediate impact. The first three books of the series were nominated for the Carnegie award, with Edge of the Cloud winning it in 1969. The series had a hugely popular television adaptation. As was often the way with actors, said Kathy, most of the actors said they could ride when they couldn't just to get the part. She was impressed with how very quickly they learned to ride. Christine McKenna, who played Christina had to learn to ride side-saddle. It was the only way she could ride and so she would bring her side-saddle with her if she was ever invited to ride.

The Team (sequel to Fly-by-Night) was also nominated for the Carnegie award. Meg said how daring it was of KMP to mention Ruth having a period in this book — Ruth has the sort of nightmare period that fells you completely, and she can't compete, but stays in the horsebox, curled up in agony. Kathy said in the same matter-of-fact way she dealt with it in the book that she was sure most of the women in the room could remember an occasion when their period had ruined something important — it was just a fact of life.

It wasn't just periods which made an impact on readers: the whole series did, particularly the main male characters in the books, Jonathan and Peter. Kathy said that in her experience, people either liked Jonathan or Peter, at which point Victoria Eveleigh turned to me and said 'Jonathan', and I said 'Peter'. So that's alright then. You can form orderly queues behind us. 

Probably the uber-Peyton hero is Patrick Pennington, who is definitely dangerous to know. He is a hugely talented pianist, and it is to him that Ruth's passion for the horse transfers itself. She was not alone. Victoria said:
'I told her [KMP] I was still hopelessly in love with Patrick Pennington, and with lovely twinkly eyes she said, "I am too!"'
Patrick Pennington had no parallel in real life, but Kathy used some real life incidents and characters in her books. There were horsy mothers who'd been every bit as focussed as Jonathan Meredith's mother on the horses and the competition, rather than their child. She mentioned a Pony Club mother she knew whose child had fallen off and been sent to hospital, but who carried on jump judging after seeing the child off on the ambulance. Another real life character whose foibles were recycled was a man who'd reached the point many of us recognise when a dinner party has gone on too long. He fired off a shotgun to get his guests to go home, an incident Kathy used in Late To Smile.

Kathy was asked if she had a favourite amongst her books. Several of her stories feature racing, and one, Dear Fred, is one of her favourites. It tells the tragic story of Fred Archer, a jockey in the Victorian era who became champion jockey 13 times, and who shot himself at the age of 29 after the death of his wife. Should anyone be interested, she has a film script for it at home.

KMP has not stopped writing. Wild Lily has just been published, and she is working on her next, which will be a book for adults.

After the talk finished, there was time for questions, and to have books signed (everywhere people were clutching KMP titles they'd had for years). Victoria was one of those who got to chat to Kathy afterwards. If you haven't read Marion's Angels, look away now, because there is a massive spoiler coming. Victoria said:

'She told me that she wrote two endings to Marion's Angels. In the first she killed off Pat Pennington (he drowned) so Ruth could live happily ever after with Geoff and Marion, but then she couldn't bear to kill Pat so she wrote a different ending (thank goodness — I'd have been traumatised forever!).’

I think we all finished the day feeling immensely privileged to have heard two such excellent authors in conversation.


If you missed my earlier pieces on Horse Tales (which was held at Homerton College, which might be a piece of information I’ve not mentioned until now), the other pieces are:

Horse Tales 1: Round table and morning sessions
Horse Tales 2: Afternoon sessions
What I said

Thursday, 9 June 2016

Horse Tales: the Cambridge Conference Part 2

If you missed part one, which covered the morning of the Cambridge Horse Tales conference, you can find that here.

One thing I did forget to mention in the first post was the book shop, with every modern pony book you can imagine, and several I couldn't, having fallen back more than somewhat in keeping up with what is going on in the pony book world. Purely in the interests of research, I bought books. It would have been rude not to. The bookshop was run by the lovely Marilyn Brocklehurst, of the Norwich Children's Book Centre.

The first afternoon session was by Melanie Keene. I loved this session. I've never been quite sure how I ended up in the fields of literature, because I am never happier than when fossicking about in ephemera and documents. This talk featured an enthralling selection of  horsy toys, lesson plans, books, and even wallpaper, illustrating the central part the horse played in Victorian life, and in that of children in particular. The horse even made its way into everyday education, which Charles Dickens' Hard Times illustrated, with its caricature of the object lesson that was a part of every Victorian pupil's experience.

Wallpaper sample, V&A Collection
Then as now, materials were provided to help  the teacher who had to deliver the lesson. Its aim was to produce a child who could say (according to the definition set out on the card) what a particular thing was. So,  a horse was a quadruped, with hooves, with a mane and a tail... etc etc.

As Victorians did not have our squeamish attitude to death, lesson plans often included a box of bits and pieces to illustrate the lesson, including horse hair, and horse skin. The video below wasn't part of the talk, but it's something I found for illustration.

The artefacts on which this paper was based emphasised just how much society was based on the horse. It provided transport, amusement, food, and even the glue used to stick pictures into those beautiful Victorian scrapbooks.

If you haven't read any of Sheena Wilkinson's books, you should. Her books are about the sharp end of the horse world, and she spoke about what it's like trying to break into it when your world is miles away from the  the pony book world and its unspoken acceptance of its protagonists as middle class and female. While the fact that the pony book gives agency to girls is a good thing, we need to be careful that boys are not excluded.

The hero of Sheena's three horse books is Declan, who we follow from adolescence to fatherhood. His progress towards the traditional pony book goal of having your own horse is not easy. Declan joyrides, has an alcoholic mother, a difficult relationship with authority, and has to deal with violence, the drug culture and early and unplanned fatherhood.  And deal with responsibility: similarly to K M Peyton's Jonathan, he has to deal with fatherhood he hasn't expected, a responsibility both of them find immensely difficult to accept. Far easier for Declan to accept the responsibility for rehabilitating an abused horse, He has to learn to let go; to let go of the traditional fantasy outcome for the horse he rescues, and accept that life is not the way traditional dreams of horses would have it.

Sheena's writing reflects her own childhood, spent on a Belfast council estate. She felt her background was a long way away from that of the pony book child, and initially she wasn't happy that her books were considered as pony stories — she saw them as YA stories which happened to include horses, but she now appreciates the horse element, and in each of her books since, there is an element of horse, even if it's a tiny one.

David Whitley spoke on Dreamworks' 2002 film, Spirit, Stallion of the Cimarron.

The film is unusual in animated films involving animals because the horses do not, apart from at the very beginning, speak. To some extent, the story is conveyed through the horse's movements and sounds. The relative reality with which the horses are portrayed contrasts with the film's approach to the real events it portrays. Although the heroic efforts that went into the building of the railroads is shown, the tragic consequences of its construction are not.

One fascinating fact that emerged was that the film's makers gave the horses eyebrows because otherwise it was too difficult to make the horses express emotion that humans could read. (It's interesting to reflect on the fact that to get people to understand horses now, they have to be humanised. In the Victorian world Melanie covered, you'd have known what a horse's expressions meant, if for no other reason than to avoid getting a hefty bite from the horse with its ears back delivering your milk). In an interesting corroboration of this, someone who was at the talk said that she had grown up loving the film, and had watched it, and watched it and watched it. She didn't have any real contact with a horse until some years later, and said that she found it enormously difficult to work out what the horses were thinking, precisely because she expected them to have eyebrows.

And look. Eyebrows. Absolutely true.

Apologies to David for having concentrated so much on one random fact in a fascinating talk.

I'll do a separate post on the last part of the day, when Meg Rosoff interviewed K M Peyton, so watch out for that.

I also forgot to mention that Radio 4, the Radio Station of the Horse, are making a programme on pony books, and interviewed several of us at the conference.

The talks I didn't get to were:

Morning session
Maria Nikolajeva: Equine Daemons: horses as empathic substitutes in the works of Astrid Lindgren
Anna Nygren: Realism in Swedish Horse Books
Maggie Meimaridi: A Carriage Drawn by Thestrals: the mystical figure of the horse and contemplation of the soul in children's literature

Afternoon session
Trish Brooking: Equus down under 'Not a word he says is true' from memoirs of a Noble Packhorse, by H.Wakatipu, Esq: Representations of the horse in New Zealand children's fiction
Phoebe Chen: Animal freedom and free will in The Scorpio Races
Daisy Johnson: Geo-locating the pony story: a distant reading. Daisy has featured this on her blog, which you can find here.

Here are links to my pieces on the rest of the conference:

What I said
Horse Tales: morning session
Horse Tales: Meg Rosoff and K M Peyton

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Review: Terence Blacker - Racing Manhattan

Before I get on to the book I am supposed to be reviewing, I wanted to tell you about another Terence Blacker title, The Twyning. I took this on holiday last year. It’s (nominally) a children’s book — a fantasy about rat society in Victorian times. My son (who is 24, and 6’ 5”, before you start imagining some pathetic, waif-like 10-year-old) and I fought over this book. If it hadn’t been for the fact that it was a library book, and my library book, I would not have won, but I did. It is a fantastic read. If you are not keen on rats, do not let that put you off.

And if you are concerned about the progress of the mother-son relationship, I bought him a copy of his very own.

I am having a bit of a down on covers at the moment, so I will say that I would not have picked Racing Manhattan up had it not been for the fact that it was by Terence Blacker, as the cover, although accurate, has that sort of misty soupiness that Bertie Wooster so much distrusted in Madeleine Bassett. At any moment you feel it is about to start asking the stars to be its friends.

But the book…. Oh, the book. It is a great read. At one point I had to put it down as the emotional tension had been ratcheted up so high, I couldn’t go on.

This is a plot that’s been done before (girl from difficult background breaks into the bottom rungs of life in a racing stable, shows talent, it all goes horribly wrong etc) but it’s rarely been done so well. It’s ringingly authentic. The author was an amateur jockey until he ran off to work in a French bookshop, and his brother was a successful professional jockey, so he certainly knows his racing. This gives the book a sound factual background in which the heroine, Jay, sits. 

Jay is an orphan. She has never known her father, and her mother died when she was nine. Then she went to live with her Uncle Bill and his family. Uncle Bill makes a lot of money, and he’s not particular how he makes it. He takes Jay and her cousin Michaela to illegal pony races to race. Jay is good; very, very good.

But life is not easy in a household where you are made to feel like the cuckoo in the nest, and after a nightmare act of betrayal by Michaela, the one person she thinks is her friend, Jay bolts to Newmarket. She manages to get herself a trial position in a run-down yard, where even her ability to look after herself and her horses is not enough to protect her from the rampant sexism that stalks the yard (and we suspect, the rest of Newmarket as well). What makes life just about bearable for Jay is a horse, Manhattan. A descendant of The Tetrarch, she has inherited his tricksiness, and has been labelled the yard monster, only to be tackled from the right side of a pitchfork.

Everything’s labelled in this Newmarket – you can’t change a mare. They’re female. Once they’ve decided not to cooperate, they’re useless. Same, really, as female lads like Jay who don’t cooperate or behave the way they should. Or Saudi princes who insist on using a female jockey because that’s not when you do when you represent centuries of unquestioned male superiority. Girls – women — femaleness. All suspect. All need to be controlled, and strapped down.

This book’s about what happens when people refuse to listen to that; when trickles of change in a community, not just one character, come together to produce something phenomenal. One of my favourite scenes in the book is where the trainer’s wife, Mrs Wilkinson, talks about what it’s been like for her being a woman in a world that men are determined to keep for themselves and we see that she and Jay have tackled the same thing, but in very different ways.

The horse, that difficult mare, is a fantastic being too. Manhattan is right up there with the Darklings and the Jagos as an equine creation.

Racing Manhattan is a brilliant read. Once Terence Blacker's picked his reader up, he does not easily put them down again.

My only quibble with the book’s contents is this. This may annoy you, or it may not.


If I were a horse, you wouldn’t need the equine dentist out to me, let’s just say that.

But this is my favourite horsy read of the year so far. It’s one of those books that I want to read again, straightaway, so that I can enjoy the brilliant bits all over again.


Terence Blacker: Racing Manhattan
Andersen Press, 2016, £7.99
Kindle, £4.99
Age range: 11+

Terence Blacker’s website.

Monday, 6 June 2016

Review: Marie-Louise Jensen - Runaway

I bought this book by mistake at the Cambridge conference, when I was too busy chat, chat, chatting to keep a proper eye on what I was doing. I would never have picked this up normally, frankly being 100% put off by the cover. Do not be. There are no lipstick-wearing, long-haired pouting beauties in the book. Who designs this stuff? Do they actually read the book? When was lip gloss a staple of the 1700s?

For that is what this story is set, and it is rather good. In fact, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Charlotte and her father have travelled back to England from the Americas, after the death of her mother. Charlotte’s brother has stayed in America. The book opens with the complete destruction of Charlotte’s life when she returns to their latest squalid lodging to find her father dead, and his murderer still there, searching for her father’s papers. She escapes, with the papers, but the murderer has vowed to follow her, and worse, she finds she will get no help from the authorities: quite the reverse. Charlotte finds out very soon what imbalance of power exists in Britain between the rich and the poor, and between men and women. She can do something about the latter, and so she disguises herself as a boy, and manages to find herself a temporary job with a string of packhorses. When that job finishes, she eventually ends up as a stable boy/girl in a grand house.

Charlotte finds life is looking up. There is Lawrence, the estate manager, and the horse, Belle, and she falls for them both. This does somewhat complicate things with Lawrence, as he of course thinks she is a boy. Meanwhile, the mystery behind Charlotte’s papers gallops to a gripping and satisfying conclusion.

I particularly enjoyed the book’s exploration of the life of a pack horse and its attendants – historical novels involving the horse tend to concentrate on life in the grander stable, and I liked the way the author seized the opportunity to cover equestrian life in several different guises on its way to life in the grand stable. That said, if you want to learn about life as a stable boy/girl, there is a realistic depiction of life on the other side of the stable door, and of a time when the horse was a central, and vital, part of life.

This story isn’t just a history: it’s an involving gallop through fractured family histories and mysteries. Although Charlotte does end up on the right side of the balance of power, you are left in no doubt about what life was like for most of our ancestors, with no chance of any change.


Marie-Louise Jensen: Runaway
OUP, 2014
Suitable for 11+

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Horse Tales - The Cambridge Conference. A Report.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Susanna's latest book, out in October 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Here are links to the rest of the conference: