Friday, 12 April 2013

Childhood Reading - Horses

Near the beginning of The Merry-go-round in the Sea the main character gets to know his cousin Didi.

"Didi", he tells us, "was as good as a boy any day. Not that Didi would have wished to be a boy. Her ambition rose higher: she wanted to be a horse"

Ah yes, those were the days. From the age of five or six until around about sixteen, horses were practically all I thought about. I suppose, in contrast to Didi, I was keener to own a horse than to actually be one - and after a brief period of fiasco, during which I was the unwilling and rather grumpy owner of a donkey, (a period when I began to believe that one of my favourite books, Half Magic, which I'll write about another day, but which, in essence, tells the tale of some children who find a wishing talisman that gives them exactly half of anything they wish for, might actually not be fiction but truth), I did end up with my own four-legged equine friend.

But where did this passion for horses come from? Partly, I suppose, from spending too much time with my pony clubbing older cousin, with whom I stayed most holidays. But partly too it derived from being overwhelmed by books about horses from the moment I could read.

I still have many of them. They divide into three main categories of story.

First, there are the ones that are told from the horse's point of view and relate the ups and downs of some noble pony's life:

The origin of this model was I suspect Black Beauty by Anna Sewell, and most examples of the type share with that book an earnest desire to improve the treatment of horses. Their stories usually involve a progression from initial happiness to separation from good masters, followed by many travails and injustices, concluding either with reunion with the original kind owners or happiness in a new home with equally decent souls.

On the way to the inevitable happy ending the reader must endure scenes of great catastrophe as fine equines are forced to pull milk carts or made to put up with spoilt, rude children who rename them 'Nigger' and don't notice when they are cut and bleeding. Running throughout all these narratives is a strong assumption that reader and horse share a common understanding of fair play and how things ought to be done, plus a love of the outdoors. I wonder if similar books were ever written anywhere other than England - the place of paramount importance that is given to the kind treatment of animals in these texts is surely very particular to English culture.

Incidentally, looking through the examples of this type of horse story on my shelves, there is one that turns out to be a little out of the ordinary. Until just now, I had no idea that its author was only eleven years old when she wrote it:

Published in 1930, it strikes me as a testament to literacy standards in those days. Here, for example, is the opening paragraph:

"The wind howled across the desolate moor and the grey feathery clouds ran wild races in the tumultuous skies. Here and there a weather-beaten bush or puny sprig stood up in contrast with a bare grey rock or sheet of ice, and in less exposed spots sullen bogs were visible. The whole aspect presented a formidable appearance."

 I'm not sure many eleven year olds could command such a vocabulary now. On the other hand, they also would be unlikely to display quite such unthinking snobbery:

"Tally Ho saw his new master step forward. He was a youngish man, tall, slight, and fair, with high cheekbones and a deep low voice. Although obviously not a gentleman, he was distinctly good-looking".

The next variety of horse book I was exposed to were the books that merely masqueraded as stories about horses while trying, rather unsuccessfully, to conceal their real intent, which was to shove as much geography as they could into the heads of their young horse-mad readers:

Asido is the most blatant in this regard and therefore the one I remember least enjoying. Take these passages as examples of the kind of unentertaining stuff the author thought he could slip by us readers:

"Here and there the dead stalk of a century plant, gaunt and tall as a telegraph pole, towered above the rest. A strange plant this, earning its name by its habit of flowering only once perhaps in fifty years or more; the agave or maguey as it is more commonly called in Mexico, where it is put to many uses, the chief of which is the manufacture of pulque, a fermented drink resembling cider."

"The oil well ... was situated on Point Banda, the headland on the opposite side of Todos Santos Bay from Ensenada, and the road there ran some seven miles along the coast. One gets accustomed to seeing these ugly, great derricks cropping up in all sorts of places in California and Mexico. Sometimes large tracts of land, such as the famous Signal Hill district, are a mass of them, standing so closely together that they have the appearance of a dead pine forest, hideous in the day-time, but strangely attractive and eerie at night, when each tower, almost invisible itself in the darkness, is crowned with a lamp. Sometimes one sees a stray derrick in a back garden in a residential district, sometimes on a mountain-side, but where they look queerest of all is on the seashore. It seems so incongruous that oil should be found beneath wave-washed sand.'

I mean talk about yawn. I wanted a story about a horse, not about Mexican oil fields (although I find that passage quite evocative now) and Mexico's flora and fauna. The thing reads like a guidebook rather than an adventure a lot of the time:

"The road was wider and smoother now, and showed some evidence of work having been done on it, and it was easier to recognise the wonderful El Camino Real - the Royal Road. This great highway which stretches all the way along the Pacific seaboard from Ensenada to above the Canadian border, is the work of the old Spanish padres who built it and the hundreds of missions that it passes, as they carried Christianity further and further north. That part of it which is in the United States has been preserved as a national memorial, and is marked at frequent intervals by large bronze replicas of the mission bell. Here in Mexico it is only use and occasional care of the padres which keep its memory alive. Cultivated fields of maize and beans ..."

Khyberie is better, although it contains, I realise on looking at it again, a surprising amount of political stuff about the North West Frontier, which went straight over my head as a child, (but then I managed to read the entire Narnia series without ever picking up a hint of Christian allegory).

I now discover that Khyberie (a pony from Badakshan) and his friend Alexander, a Waler (a lovely breed with a slightly tragic history), have several quite extensive conversations about the essentially unstable nature of the region and the 'explosive forces on the North-West Indian Frontier.' If only some of our current Defence strategists had heeded the whinnies of these two wise creatures.

Phari, the Adventures of a Tibetan Pony, is rather less sophisticated than Khyberie. While the author of Khyberie has a good word or two to say for Khyberie's original owners in Badakshan, the author of Phari has apparently never contemplated the idea that any race but the British should ever be taken seriously.

The text is littered with generalisations - 'He had a round flat face like all Tibetans' - and the plot hinges on the activities of useless natives - 'Hussain Ali ... a fat, jovial Mussulman ... was a past master in the art of putting things off' -  and dishonest dealers, such as Mirza Khan, 'a picturesque ruffian ... clad in a spotless white loin-cloth, with a russet coloured blanket flung over his broad shoulders [and a] face ... the colour of deep mahogany', who rustles Phari and declares, like a pantomime villain, 'The sahib will never see him again.' 

Even amongst the Britons, the non-officer class is sent up with absurd renderings of what I assume is supposed to be Cockney English - 'I'll massage 'im, and put on hot forminashuns and the like, anything you may order, only let me 'ave a try at 'im. It can't do no 'arm ...'

 However, the ending is moving and also reveals, through the medium of a horse's mind, the confusing fondness that many of the colonial class ended up developing for their second homeland in India:

'Back in his stable the old grey pony ... would ... let his mind travel back...He would cross again the wind-swept, frozen passes, gallop round the track at Darjeeling, or hear the click of the polo stock during that first triumph of his with the Planters' Team ... He would feel the twinge of his old wound, and remember even that terrible march across India without bitterness.'
The third main category of horse book with which I learnt to read comprises adventure stories in which young riders rather than young horses are the protagonists. These books could be described as Swallows and Amazons on dry land, with hooved companions replacing boats, (although I think, sacrilegiously, that Swallows and Amazons is rather less entertaining than these tales):

Unfortunately, whereas a thoughtless tendency to discount other cultures is on display in the horse/geography books, in these horse/adventure books snobbery is the unattractive trait that I can't help noticing these days, my antennae for all such slurs having been intensively honed and polished by the authorities since the innocent days of my youth.

In Riding with Reka, for example, the author thinks nothing of describing someone as wearing their hat at 'an "oiky" angle', whilst two other characters are described as looking 'as though they had stepped out of a cheap sale catalogue'.

The assumptions made by the writer about the reader's own class and views are enormous really. Take this passage as an example:

"There was an amusing incident one week-end when a large party of Cockneys arrived for the day. A button-holed, bewhiskered gentleman was swaggering along the beach with a stout, paper-capped lady who was shedding orange peel wherever she went. Reka happened to be trotting by when a playful gust of wind blew the cap straight at him... He pranced about in the middle of the trippers making them shout frantically and scatter about in all directions."

Hilarious to think of - the common folk screaming, so droll.

A similar sense of otherness is expressed in relation to gypsies in The Ponies of Bunts, although to be fair the gypsies are not treated as figures of fun so much as strange outsiders. For example, this dialogue from the book makes some attempt to try to see things from the gypsy point of view:

"'What do gypsies live on?' [Derek] enquired. 'Do they work?'
'Well, it's rather difficult to know,' said Jenefer. 'They don't do any regular work, and their enemies say they live by poaching and robbing hen-roosts; I daresay that does help them, but the women go about selling wooden washing pegs and other trifles that the men make, and a gypsy like Isaacs makes a good deal of money buying and selling horses. He's the best judge of a pony or a horse for miles round, and if you tell him you are on the look-out for one, he is certain to bring the very animal you want in a day or two. He is very clever.'"

 However, ultimately it does turn out that it is the gypsies who have been pinching the protagonists' ponies. On the other hand, gypsies pinching ponies may well have been true to life at the time, rather than an outrageous fictitious slur. 

Sometimes of course, there is a volume that does not quite fit any particular category. Into this pile I would place Broncho:

Published in 1930, Broncho is quite an odd piece of work to offer to children, dealling, as it does, with the First World War. The book is dedicated:

'To horses of "all ranks" who served in the great war, all of whom suffered and few of whom survived. Amongst the survivors is the real Broncho, whos name has - in all humility - been given to the "hero" of this fictititious tale, since it is to him that it owes its inspiration.'

It tells the story of the relationship between a horse called Broncho and a young man called Roger, who takes him to the Western Front, (to the area around Bapaume, where my grandfather served, although I'd never picked up the link until now). Through Broncho - not Roger, who vanishes from the narrative for a while - the child reader is introduced to the Great War and then to shell shock, which the horse suffers. Of course, as with all good horse stories, eventually Broncho and Roger are reunited. Furthermore, thanks to Broncho, Roger makes the acquaintance of Danny, with whom he sets up house and they all live happily ever after, make of that what you will.

I suppose it's hardly surprising these books seem out of date now. After all they all belonged originally to my mother and she is well over 80. However, even though she read them so long ago, when I mentioned them to her the other day, her eyes filled with pleasure, as she recalled her favourites. "Have you got Moorland Mousie?'  she asked, 'I loved Moorland Mousie. There was a beautiful frontispiece showing just her head.' 
There was too, and here it is:

(And I should point out that one of the virtues of all these books is the illustrations - which most often were contributed by either Lionel Edwards or Cecil Aldin, both of them very, very good draughtsmen, who produced really lovely pictures to accompany the texts).

"And what about The Ponies of Bunt', my mother went on, 'have you kept that one? I was so thrilled with that one because it had photographs.' Her eyes were dancing by now. 'It made the story so real.'

Personally, I'd have stuck with the Cecil Aldin/Lionel Edwards illustrations

Like my mother, I too reserve a special enthusiasm for the books I discovered in my childhood. There is something magical about those early years of reading when you first realise that there are many wonderful, alternative, imagined worlds to be found inside books. Occasionally from now on I'll post some more about things I read in childhood. It may be a sign of my arrested development, but most of my absolute favourite books are things I read before the age of sixteen.


  1. " ... the author of Phari has apparently never contemplated the idea that any race but the British should ever be taken seriously."

    I came across the same phenomenon last year, I think, or the year before, when I read W.H. Hudson's Green Mansions, and the hero-narrator began to look down on the villagers as a sort of casual matter of course, after they had saved him from starving to death in the terrifying South American jungle. Gratitude, I thought. Classy.

    1. I don't know if you were ever exposed to the works of Mary Grant-Bruce, but I was brought up on them - and I still have the full collection. I'm gearing up to go through them all again. I suspect all sorts of unthinking snobbery and racism will hit me straight between the eyes now, whereas in the happy days of innocence I wouldn't have even flinched for an instant. Life was easier once.

    2. I never read them. I was an anthropomorphic animal child. The Magic Pudding and The Muddle-Headed Wombat were my books. Bill in the Pudding got to be an honourary animal due to his association with the koala and the penguin.

      Anyway, I've just pulled up an online version of The Little Bush Maid and what hit me was not racism (there's a Chinese gardener with an accent but the author makes it clear that it's wrong, not funny, to pull his hair while he's asleep) but the news that the little bush maid despises girls and her best friend is her daddy:

      "David Linton seldom made a plan that did not naturally include Norah. She was a wise little companion, too; ready enough to chatter like a magpie if her father were in the mood, but quick to note if he were not, and then quite content to be silently beside him, perhaps for hours. They understood each other perfectly. Norah never could make out the people who pitied her for having no friends of her own age. How could she possibly be bothered with children, she reflected, when she had Daddy?"

    3. I'm embarrassed to admit that I probably felt rather the same way about my father as a child - although I can't say he regarded me with the respect that Linton seems to have reserved for his daughter. However, were that not the case, I would say, 'Call Social Services immediately'.

  2. My mother found me one evening just before sleep time with Black Beauty in my hands, tears streaming down my face. I had just read the part on the miserable death of Ginger, the cab-horse, and was much distressed by it. To me Ginger could have been Rusty, Juno, or my own pony Topsy, and the thought of it all was unbearable to me.

    Fortunately, having been comforted somewhat and tucked in, and a good night's sleep, and seeing all the horses out in the paddock grazing at dawn, the memory eased, but I never forgot the painful image of Ginger painted all too well by Anna Sewell.

    1. I'll never, ever forget poor Ginger and her fate. Do you think anyone has ever read that bit without weeping? I wonder if all children would always benefit from association with horses. I think they would. I might run for parliament on a horses for all ticket.

  3. Many years ago I saw a coffee table book called All Those Girls in Love with Horses. I did not know many of them in my childhood, but have encountered one or two since.

    Isn't it a truism among linguists that there are "we" names and "they" names, and that "they" names commonly either originate as or come to mean "the enemy"? The British have had a pretty good run at condescension, but the idea was known and practiced long before English was spoken.

    1. It's probably misguided but I always assume condescension springs from insecurity. It makes me feel better anyway, when condescended to.