Book Reviews

We Rode To The Sea by Christine Pullein-Thompson

We Rode to the SeaWe Rode to the Sea by Christine Pullein-Thompson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“This was my first book…” writes Christine Pullein-Thompson in the introduction to the 1973 Collins edition, “…It is the book which made my name. I hope you enjoy it.” And how can you not when this is Pullein-Thompson at her delicious best? We Rode To The Sea takes place just after World War Two and in the romantic backdrop of Scotland where German POWs have escaped, a pony trek is happening, and children can breakfast on lobster. Other things happen, of course, and we learn a lot about ponies and people, and everything ends up in the quite perfect space that only pony stories of a certain time can achieve.

Pullein-Thompson was remarkable as indeed all of her family were. Her mother wrote, her sisters wrote, and they all wrote stories that are imbued with this fierce sense of readablity. These aren’t books about unicorns and pegasi, these are books about fraying halters and bluing manes; the Pullein-Thompson sisters, and their remarkable mother Joanna Cannan, wrote stories of practical romance. They were perfect and all of them perfect in their very own particular way.

We Rode To The Sea is a tribute to the romance of Scotland. The landscape is lovingly described, and the children recite poetry everywhere they go. There’s cottars, and fishermen, and noble warm-hearted people who are bound to help the children because they share the same surname. And the lobster breakfast, dear me, the food in this book swings from the sublime to the sublime, and I rather love it. Much of this is a reaction from the world of rationing and restriction, and if the children aren’t eating then they’re talking about it, and everything is rather utterly fabulous.

There’s a lot here for contemporary readers of pony stories to enjoy, though they may need a note or two to explain the historical detail and political situation of the time. They might also need some clarity on the pre-internet, pre-mobile phone landscape that allows the children to so easily get lost. Lost! How long’s it been since I read a convincing ‘getting lost’ scene in children’s books?

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Everything else

Fair Girls and Grey Horses – Josephine, Diana and Christine Pullein-Thompson

Fair Girls and Grey HorsesFair Girls and Grey Horses by Josephine Pullein-Thompson

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.

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Book Reviews

The Lost Cow : Christine Pullein Thompson

The Lost Cow : Front Cover

Part of the Gazelle book series, “complete stories for the Very young”, The Lost Cow is an utter treat though not particularly on a literary level. Rather it’s a treat on a sociological and anthropological level, as it’s fascinating to see the shift in both writing and illustration for the very young from 1966 to date.

“Edward, Harriet and Jane had not had much chance to make new friends. They had been living in the country only one week. But that afternoon playing in the lane they found a strange cow. By the end of the day they had made friends both with the cow and her owner. And tomorrow they would he having tea at the farm!”

“Why don’t you hurry?” Edward shouted.
“I am hurrying,” Jane said.

Whilst you may be initially inclined to wonder just how a cow may plays in the lane, it’s fascinating to see that the ultimate resolution of the book is basically food orientated. Friendship with farmers and cows aside, these three children now have chance to have tea at the farm! Coming in a Pullein-Thompson book, that’s quite a glorious thing because it’s full of all the connotations of childhood farm life – the creamy milk, the thick plate of crumpets on the fire, and the slice of cut and come again cake (which I still don’t quite know what that is!).

The other glorious thing (and deeply loveable) is that even in this book of under 50 pages, full of stilted and very precise language, is that we have the presence of ponies. It is not a Pullein-Thompson book without a pony. The argument between Harriet and Edward pretty much sums up the Pullein-Thompson ideology.

“You can’t be clean if you live in the country,” said Edward. “Farmers are always covered with mud.”

“But we aren’t real country people,” argued Harriet. “We have only got Hettie and Hattie [the hens]. We haven’t got any cows.”

“But we are going to be,” replied Edward. “We are going to have a pony and a dog and cats.”

“Do hurry, please hurry,” he shouted back over his shoulder. He remembered that their bikes had no lights. We haven’t shut up Hettie and Hattie, he thought…

There’s something a bit brilliant about the list of priorities here. One pony to share between them, as is right and good in Pullein-Thompson world. One dog to do the work on the farm. And more than one cat – presumably to keep the rats down. But of course, the pony comes first 🙂

The other thing that marks it out as a Pullein-Thompson book is the approving comments of the farmer after the return of his cow.

“I’m very grateful to you. I heard that you were Londoners, but you’re not, are you? Anyone can see you are used to the country.” 

The townie / country divide is strong in this book!

From a stylistic point of view, it’s very textually heavy albeit interspersed with some lovely illustrations by Lynette Hemmant. She’s a name not known to me and I was fascinated to see she’s still working as an artist. Though the illustrations are very much of their time, I loved her use of colour. It’s mainly a black and white book but every illustration has a backwash of thick intense colour. I wonder if it’s something to do with the costs of reproduction at the time because there are only three ‘proper’ colours used in the book: red, orange and green. These three colours either pick out notes in the landscape, the children’s coats, or in one particularly startling spread, colour the cow in bright green.

I now have a little bit of an urge to collect some of the books from the partner series to this – the Antelope Books which are “intended for rather older children”. This series includes Christine Pullein-Thompson again but also a Noel Streatfield which I’ve never heard of – “Bertram”