My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The Pullein-Thompson sisters and their mother, Joanna Cannan, are unmissable to fans of classic British horsey children’s literature. You sort of know of them by osmosis, somehow.
Writing together and separately the Pullein-Thompson produced a great joint canon of work: tales of Pony Clubs and careful lessons in horsemanship and character and soul-enriching ‘you will own that pony some day’. You can always feel part of a Pullein-Thompson novel, even though you’re maybe far far away from it, caught up on the fifteenth floor of an inner-city tower block and the nearest thing you’ve ever seen to a pony is the sweeping brush in the kitchen.
These books want you in them and with them; they’re generous, warm-hearted and almost innocent in a way. They are concerned with goodness, of doing the right thing, of looking after your pony, of falling off and getting back on, of being brave, hearty and true to yourself. Rather fascinating and gorgeous books and enduring, too, despite the tones which may have dated to modern readership.
Fair Girls and Grey Horses is a delight. It’s an indulgent delight, true, but surely everything good and selfishly read is indulgent? Written by all three sisters, each of them taking turns in writing a chapter, it tells the story of their childhood in Oxfordshire; swimming in the Thames, jogging to Henley, riding bareback with halters and falling off and getting back on again. It takes a fairly traditional autobiographical approach, and we grow up with the girls, until World War Two dawns and they enter adulthood.
The great thing about this book is how it presents part of a world we really don’t have any more. The idea of gardeners and of ponies being trained and of keeping and selling bantams and of chamber pots seems so foreign and yet, something rather beguiling. There’s so much about this life to love; the girls jogging into Henley-on-Thames and back ‘jus because they could’, the moment where Diana tries to teach a cow to shake hooves, and the moment where Mrs Pullein-Thompson is asked whether her twins (Christine and Diana) are normal. “Good God, I hope not,” she replies, and my heart grew a thousand times upon reading that the first time and still does, every time.
To be deeply serious and precise about this book, there are moments when it feels repetitive and there are moments when it frankly is, but a lot of this comes from the style of the work. Three authors reflecting individually about their own childhood experiences are bound to cover the same ground at some point. The best manner to deal with this is to simply sit and let it happen and enjoy it, really, because it feels a little bit as though you’re surrounded by three of your funnest Aunts. The Aunties who ride, hard, across country and can jump a five bar gate before hiking back for tea. The Aunties who love each other and their family, fiercely, and have briefly adopted you into the tumultuous, tempestuous and rather glorious fold. Enjoy. Revel. Be selfish in this read, because when you’re done, you’ll want it back.