Jean works as a features editor and when Gretchen Tilbury contacts the North Kent Echo claiming her child is the result of a virgin birth, she just has to investigate. The facts appear to be resolute and at first it is difficult to prove anything either way, but in following a trail of historical clues, Jean discovers a tantalising glimpse of life beyond a future built on caring for her mother and working on the paper writing trivial articles. I’m in two minds about this book. I liked it, but I didn’t love it. I didn’t love it because of the ending, because of the pacing, and because of the overall subject matter of the virgin birth. There’s a wonderful, authentic sense of the fifties era, and I’ve always loved the observational detail Chambers brings to her work and the characters are as always well-fleshed-out. I thought the first half felt a bit aimless and bogged-down in domestic trivia; although this aspect ultimately makes sense of the title. Everything picks up pace when Gretchen leaves her husband for another woman, and Jean sees not only her chance to escape life with Mother, but to finally be able to lay some romantic claim on Howard. The build to the denouement solves the mystery of the virgin birth, and it seems Jean is almost assured of a happy ending – until the final few pages when life deals an unexpected, tragic blow. It’s a slow, sad, subtle read.
A bleak illustration of late fifties working-class life in Northern Britain. Arthur Seaton works hard, plays hard, and fights hard. He fights against all authority, sleeps with married women, drinks till he falls down flights of stairs and defies anyone to tell him what to do or how to live. Life revolves around working at the bicycle factory, sex, fighting, and drinking. Until the inevitable happens. Contraception for women didn’t exist and neither did the morning-after pill let alone abortion clinics. A scalding bath and a bottle of gin was the only way to deal with an unwanted pregnancy. Not that this predicament stalls Arthur much in the grand scheme of things.
Off-setting the devil-may-care attitude of the main protagonist is the lyrical use of language, and it does elevate what would otherwise be a somewhat monotonous, depressing tale. But every Saturday night is followed by a Sunday morning, and Arthur is certainly more reflective in the final third. This quiet lead into the denouement is something of a lame, albeit satisfactory ending. However, brimful of character and the atmosphere of those times, and I loved the authentic dialogue.
Browsing through an online list of vintage books I came across an ancient, yellowing copy of this book, first published in 1965. I decided I must have it, purely for the sake of nostalgia and, I told myself, pertinent to the writing of my equine diaries. And so I reacquainted myself with the story of Dundreary Riding School and its imminent closure. Narrated partly by eight rebellious inmates it soon becomes clear that the future is not entirely in the hands of their owner, Daisy Dedleigh-Sirkett. Being especially bright, Daisy’s ponies are fully aware that the most desirable outcome lies in acquiring a loving, knowledgable little girl of their own. Of course, all ponies know that little girls are something designed by nature to look after them. Naturally, they dread being sold to an ill-trained, wilful child. In the event of impending disaster along these lines, Old Smoky’s advice is to fully utilise the four equine aids at their disposal: the head, the hooves, the whinny, and the teeth. It’s important to seem more confident than you are, he says. And don’t forget… you are in charge.
Smoky goes on to explain that head-shaking is usually enough to dispel small disagreements such as being asked to trot instead of staying in walk, turning left instead of right, and so on. Fix those too-tight reins by stopping to graze; thus allowing the errant child to suddenly shoot forwards and hit the grass. If the child clutches at your mane and begins to kick and scream instead, fling up your head and hit the child smartly on the nose. With exceptionally ill-mannered children it might be necessary to force a temporary separation through swerving, rearing, or bucking. At any chosen moment – preferably in full gallop – simply change course with no warning and the offending child will sail smartly over your withers. Some ponies scamper away after such an event, others choose to consider the matter closed and graze quietly. On the yard, it’s important to draw attention to any instances of neglect by whinnying; instances such as being late with your bucket feed, not noticing an empty hay-net, failing to refresh your water, and so on. If all else fails, a firm nip is always a good reminder of who is in charge. Meanwhile, at The South Dorset Pony Club, there’s a dismounted rally taking place and Miss Nutshell offers some sage advice to the beginners and nervous children. It’s important to seem more confident than you are, she says. And don’t forget… you are in charge.
I begin to wonder just how much ‘training’ I’ve been given over the years without realising! Is ‘being in charge,’ quite so relevant these days? ‘Show him who’s the boss,’ was something I heard throughout the sixties and seventies. The principle is perhaps much the same, although we talk more about Leadership than Mastership in these politically correct times. And as the ponies of Dundreary discover, that point when novice riders became tolerable and gain sufficient equine intelligence (what a wonderful term this is; it suggests that good horsemanship is a satisfactory dovetailing of a concessionary partnership, something I believe in wholeheartedly) they vanish, and buy ponies of their own. And the tiresome learner-rider business begins all over again. How true these sentiments are. And I love that Smoky tempers his advice with the idea that once discrepancies have been settled, the relationship between rider and pony must continue with kindness and consideration. Every pony deserves an owner blessed with a modicum of equine intelligence. I do hope there’s a special place in heaven for all riding-school ponies, fictional and otherwise. They sure deserve it.