Monday, 18 March 2013

Comfort Reading - Collecting Pony Books, Mary's Story.

A long as I can remember my mother has read a lot. Books tumbled around the house I grew up in like an out of control forest of paper and words. But it wasn't till I was older that I realised a lot of the books were actually old children's books, and, more often than not, pony books. And it was then that I also realised that rather than just an avid reader Mum was a collector, and that books, like objects, could hold meaning beyond what was written on their pages. They were collectable not just in their interesting retro covers and illustrations, or being first editions, but also in how they soothed the mind. The pony books in particular were comfort reading. People often see collections as an almost clinical thing - all about gaining that missing part of the collection  - seeing the collection as a whole rather than a selection of things full of individual meaning, but I think a collection can sometimes be not about gaining missing items at all, but rather about creating an evolving mass of meaning that can be dipped into and that can really be of help in times of stress. Books are obviously particularly good at this as we can escape into their worlds, but all objects do this to an extent... Could it be seen as dream collecting? Childhood memory curating?

Anyway here's a little my mother Mary has to say on pony book collecting:

"There are, it appears to us... far more ponies in the world than there used to be", wrote Angela Thirkell in Love at all Ages, her Barsetshire novel published in 1959. And indeed the post-war pony fervour was then at its peak - a peak which has retained its height more or less ever since. To cater for all these young enthusiasts, a new genre of children's literature had sprung up in the pony story. I supposed Black Beauty was the original inspiration for these, and many of the early examples also took the form of horse autobiographies, such as Moorland Mousie and Golden Gorse published in 1929, the same year in which The Pony Club was founded. Soon however the pony story took its familiar form of an adventure story, featuring a heroine who typically overcomes various obstacles to at last be rewarded with her own pony. Joanna Cannan was the first of this type of author, closely followed by Primrose Cumming, Monica Edwards, Kathleen Mackenzie, the Pullein-Thompson sisters, Ruby Ferguson etc.

For me, living in a small, remote village, far from suburbia where most of the Pony Club activity took place, it was joining the Children's Book Club in the mid '50s that introduced me to the world of pony stories. No Entry by Monica Edwards immediately had me hooked. Then I discovered the Jill books, and although Jill was not the sort of person I would have been friends with in real life - far too bossy and sure of herself - I soaked up all the information about looking after and 'braining ponies', and it soon became my goal, like all the fictional girls I read about, to have my own pony.

Yes, this did happen eventually - Sugar the naughty Exmoor - which is another story, but I always kept my library of pony books, discovering new authors and adding new titles to my collection. I still read them for pleasure today. As Susanna Forrest writes in her book If Wishes were Horses, "you can sink into the plots and atmospheres as you might into a welcoming sofa with a plate of hot, buttered toast balanced on its arm." Pony books are truly perfect comfort reading!

Reading through what Mum has written I love this idea that you can sink into a collection and that plots and atmospheres work in the way that comforting cosy furniture (objects) do. It is like a book collection is a collection of worlds - a collection of atmospheres and internal places to escape to. It's interesting too that in this instance it's pony stories - for many young girls I think pony collections work in this way. As I mentioned previously when talking about childhood collections I collected a whole grooming kit - a hay net, headband and saddle soap too - for the pony I wanted. There is an aspirational dream thing as well as an imaginary world thing that is comforting. I'm sure for other children other things worked in this way - and in the past for young adults - collecting things for your dream house - a wedding chest, clothes for future children etc. But back to books I do think its interesting that there is a collection that can start as your present and aspirational future and then turn into a collection about your past and the comfort of childhood memories. I wonder if other objects work in this way as well as books for this - can evolve in the way that story places can...

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