Wishful thinking: ‘Fly-By-Night’ by K M Peyton

In my recent post about my Top 5 Horses in the books I loved as a child I gave an honourable mention to K M Peyton’s Flambards series. I only read the first two books, and to be honest I can’t recall individual horses from them. K M Peyton is getting a gong in the New Year’s Honours List for services to children’s literature and was interviewed in the Guardian newspaper last weekend. She says that although Flambards and its sequels are the books best-loved and remembered by readers, and made her money, she doesn’t regard them as her best writing. Her favourites are the Pennington series, about a teenage boy pianist.

Flambards, with its burgeoning love interest and churning emotions, was slightly racy for its time. Peyton had not envisaged it as a book for young readers, but ‘made the mistake’ of featuring a 13-year-old heroine. It came out in 1967 when there was no such category as teen or YA fiction and I guess it was hoovered up by pony-mad girl readers, whether or not they were quite ready for it. Shocked mothers wrote her letters of complaint. I loved it!

Fly-By-Night by K M Peyton children's book

K M Peyton illustrated this book herself

She also mentioned Fly-By-Night, and suddenly a door in my memory passageways creaked open – a cobweb-encrusted door, but even so. And then I found a description of the plot of the website of Fidra, a small Edinburgh-based publisher dedicated to rescuing neglected but much-loved children’s books.

Fly-by-Night was not the best choice for an eleven-year-old girl who had never ridden before; but as soon as Ruth Hollis saw the sturdy, lively pony, she knew that he was the one she wanted. All her life Ruth had longed to own a pony and now that her family had moved from London to a new housing estate in East Anglia, she had persuaded her father to let her spend her savings on a pony. But having taken possession of Fly-by-Night, Ruth found that her troubles had only just begun.

I have, of course, read Fly-By-Night. I’d just forgotten. As a child of about the heroine’s age I remember writing – I think I actually finished this one – a book about a girl who moves to the country and finally gets her dream, a horse of her own! I must have shamelessly lifted the plot from K M Peyton’s story and then shucked that inconvenient detail from memory. I also wrote at least one lengthy hunting scene. I have never been hunting in my life, so I must have stolen all the salient information from Flambards. Like K M Peyton did for some of her books, I drew my own illustrations. I don’t suppose she used a biro, so there we do differ. Finally all my childish writing efforts were consigned to a big bonfire in the garden, probably just as well since I didn’t know the word ‘plagiarism’ at the time.

Ruth Hollis’s dream was my dream. It never came true for me, and I outgrew it. But the dream of becoming a writer did come true – persistence and hard work paid off. And sitting at a laptop making stuff up isn’t as cold and smelly and back-breaking as mucking out a horse in the soggy winter dawn.

You can read the full interview with K M Peyton here.

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My Top 5 Horses in Children’s Books

Fledge flying horse The Magician's Nephew

When I blogged about my top 10 animals in children’s fiction back in September I promised to follow up with my favourite horse characters, because I felt they deserved a list of their own. Finally, here it is.

I was a sucker for a pony story as a child, and I read anything I could find in my local library with a horse on the cover or a hint of one in the title. I must have consumed a lot of rubbish about gymkhanas and curry combs and five-barred-gates which I have completely forgotten now. Looking at my choices of rather more classic books below, I realise they are all highly dramatic, and highly romantic – even, at a pinch – the Thelwell ponies, who are the objects of their girl-riders’ romantic affections.

1. Black Beauty by Anna Sewell (1877). I blogged about this book here and here. Beauty is beautiful (natch) in looks and temperament, honest, ill-used, and eloquent in this, his ‘Autobiography Of A Horse’. He is the template against which all other fictional horses – and many human heroes and heroines – are measured. And fall a little short.

2. Thelwell ponies – any of the cartoon ponies created by the (somewhat reluctant) Norman Thelwell. They are the complete antidote to all the other noble equines here. Thelwell ponies are short, fat, hairy, stubborn, lazy, and selfish, and not even very good at natural horsey skills. Unless by natural horsey skills we mean kicking, bucking, shying, braking suddenly, and foraging in hedges. Yet they are still adored by their owners and riders, and readers of the little books like A Leg At Each Corner (1961). The nearest I could get to having a bloody-minded little Merrylegs of my own.

The Silver Brumby by Elynne Mitchell

3. Thowra in The Silver Brumby by Elyne Mitchell (1958). Thowra is a wild Australian horse whose pale colour marks him out to other horses and to threatening humans, so already as a colt he has the makings of a persecuted hero. I loved Mitchell’s tale, told from the horses’ point of view without anthropomorphising them. A story firmly rooted in the natural world and using Thowra’s knowledge of it, so yet another strand that appealed to me as a child – and still does.

4. Flicka in My Friend Flicka by Mary O’Hara (1941). I watched loads of Westerns as a child. Cowboy films and TV series seemed to be the common dramatic staple then, just as cop/crime shows are now. My Friend Flicka, set on a Wyoming ranch, fulfilled my love of all things outdoorsy while I lay on the sofa with my nose in a book! It has the best ingredients: our sympathetic attraction to the underdog (the least favourite son, the filly that isn’t wanted), family rivalry and injustice, learning, love and loyalty. It also features serious injury, life-threatening illness and gruesome details, all of which seemed totally necessary to many of the books I relished, and were seen as perfectly suitable – nay, classic – material for child-readers!

My Friend Flicka by Mary O'Hara

5. Strawberry in The Magician’s Nephew by C S Lewis (1955). Which takes us almost back to Black Beauty, since Strawberry is an overworked cab-horse in Victorian London when he gets whisked by magic to the Wood Between the Worlds and into Narnia as it is created. There Strawberry makes the ultimate transformation into Fledge, not only a flying horse, but a talking one as well. As Fledge he becomes the first in line of all the flying horses of Narnia. I loved the idea of a knackered old working horse finding his youthful strength again, blossoming into a mythical beast, and, as Beauty never could, gaining the capacity to tell humans the truth.

Flambards by K M Peyton OUPI’d also like to give an honourable mention to the horses in the Flambards books by K M Peyton, although by the time I discovered these I was more interested in the budding romance between the human characters than the horse-riding stuff. The beautiful, romantic, but accurate equine illustrations by the amazing Victor Ambrus really added to the delight.

And to The Pie in Enid Bagnold’s National Velvet (1935). This is another novel of transformation, and bears almost no resemblance to the famous film with a young Elizabeth Taylor as plain little slaughter-houseman’s daughter Velvet.

Lastly, though it is definitely not a book for children, Horse Heaven by Jane Smiley (2000) is a wonder. A huge book about the American racing community, it tells parallel stories of jockeys, trainers, breeders, owners, grooms, various hangers-on – plus a dog and several horses! The amazing foal who might become a star, and the experienced old nag who is more than he seems. I have never, ever read anyone who creates the truly alien perceptions of an animal so persuasively before. The heart-wrenching powerlessness of the horses as they inevitably change hands, even on the way up in value, let alone on the way down, takes me right back to where I started, with Black Beauty.

Strawberry into Fledge, The Magician's Nephew by C S Lewis