Dear Readers, I believe that the books that we read when we’re growing up can change the way that we look at the world, and so today I wanted to mention one of my favourites, Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty. I was an urban child who grew up in the East End of London, and I swear that I had never seen a real live horse , but this didn’t stop me being completely and utterly obsessed by them.The man in the corner shop, Mr Battel, had a plastic model of a horse that advertised White Horse whisky. It took pride of place in the big window, illuminated by a single spotlight, and I would gaze at it with such love that one day Mr Battel took pity and gave it to me.
This was the start of a collection of plastic model horses. I had just learned to knit, so I made them not only full sets of medieval chainmail(for jousting) but trouser suits for as well (and if you’ve never seen a plastic horse in a cerise flared trouser suit then I have to say that you’ve never lived). The horses used to share the bed with me , in spite of their being cold and rather unyielding. Thinking about it now, I suspect that I just wanted to keep everything safe and snug. I have always hated it when someone or something is omitted from the proceedings: I was familiar even at this early age with being the ‘odd one out’, so it felt important that everyone was included, even if they were a bit difficult to cuddle.
And yet, it wasn’t until I read Black Beauty that the idea of the horse as a creature that might have complex emotions, just like me, began to coalesce. What a difficult read this book is for a sensitive child! I know people sometimes complain about the issues raised in Young Adult books these days, but the animal cruelty and the realism about the short, hard lives of working horses was devastating to me. And, indeed, Sewell didn’t write the book for children; she wanted adults to know about the mistreatment of the horses that she saw on the streets eveery day. Sewell wrote ‘Black Beauty’ in the last months of her life when she was confined to her house as an invalid; as a child she had broken both her ankles in an accident and the medical care she received afterwards was inadequate, leaving her with a permanent disability that became worse towards the end of her life. It’s difficult not to see Sewell’s injuries as parallel to those that occur when Black Beauty has a fall, which damages his knees and brings him into a cycle of harder and harder work. This book has been called the ‘most influential anti-cruelty novel’ of all time.
Anthropomorphism has a bad name these days, but anyone who has ever owned a pet, or worked with animals, knows that although they aren’t the same as human beings, they can feel many of the same things. I have seen my cat afraid, befuddled, curious, anxious, relaxed, , happy and mischievous, often in the space of half an hour. I find it difficult to comprehend how, knowing this, people can torment animals or ignore their similarity to us, although I suppose it the cruelty isn’t that surprising, considering how easy it seems to be to put aside the desperate need of members of our own species. I wept when Black Beauty sees his friend Ginger’s body passing on its way to the knacker’s yard, and it filled me with such rage that, aged eight, I wrote and illustrated a little book on ‘riding and stable management’, full of advice on how to tie a halter and full of information about what proportion of oats were appropriate at what times of year.
No, I still hadn’t seen a horse.
But then, when I was about ten, we went on holiday and Dad noticed that there was something that might interest me nearby. So, we all crammed into the Ford Popular and headed off. It wasn’t until I saw the sign for Shire Horse farm that I realised that my Dad (who never did anything by halves) had found somewhere that had the largest horses in the world. I will never forget the way that the ground thundered as the horses galloped around the paddock, the feeling of fear as one approached, looming larger and large, and the joy as he delicately took an apple from the palm of my hand and crunched the whole thing in a single bite. I remember how delicate the skin on his neck was as it twitched to get rid of the flies, and the size of his feet, bigger than dinner plates.
And somehow I still loved horses, but the idea of riding them no longer appealed. It seemed to me that these creatures were somehow too magnificent to be used to carry lumpen humans around. They seemed too good for us, somehow. How blessed we are to live on this planet and to be surrounded by such extraordinary creatures, and how easy it is to take it for granted. I sometimes think that if we saw the true wonder and complexity of the world that we live on, it would cleave us in two like lightning.
Photo One from https://www.hemswell-antiques.com/antiques/advertising-collectables/kelsboro-ware-white-horse-scotch-whisky-figurine-70146.html?gclid=EAIaIQobChMIwtyx5v7e6wIVR5nVCh2IsAFKEAQYBSABEgJIR_D_BwE
Photo Two from https://www.globetrotting.com.au/horse-breed-shire-horse/