Saddle soaps

5th January 1996 at 00:00
HOLLYWELL STABLES SERIES. By Samantha Alexander. Macmillan Pounds 2.99.

OTHER PEOPLE'S PONIES. POLLY ON LOCATION. By Wendy Douthwaite. Macmillan Pounds 2.99

JILL HAS TWO PONIES. JILL AND THE RUNAWAY. By Ruby Ferguson. Hodder Pounds 3.99.

JACKIE WON A PONY. JACKIE AND THE PONY TREKKERS. By Judith M Berrisford. Hodder Pounds 3.99

A TOUCH OF CLASS. By Clive King. The Bodley Head Pounds 8.99.

The steady thud of hooves, a rattle of poles, the crackle of a public address system and a ripple of polite applause.

A clear round today sounds much the same as it did back in the Pullein-Thompson sisters' heyday, when the sun never set on the gymkhana tents. This was a rural idyll rarely troubled by anything as vulgar as a cash crisis, hunt saboteurs or one-parent families. And readers were secure in the knowledge that the stuck-up girl always got her come-uppance in the end, allowing Susie and Sonata to canter off with the first prize of 10 shillings and a red rosette.

The Hollywell Stables series by Samantha Alexander is in the vanguard of the new breed of pony books. Set in a sanctuary for abused horses and ponies, it has a traditional rural setting (cottage, farm buildings and so on) but also a quaintly dysfunctional family father dead, mother run off with boyfriend, stepmother poor and over-worked but unfailingly supportive. The first of the series, Flying Start, features the pre-requisite stuck-up girl. In this case, not a thumping great Sloane but a worldly 15-year-old, who dyes her hair, throws wild parties and fancies our heroine's brother Ross something rotten.

In this series boys, at long last, are allowed in on the action. We have Ross the brother, James the vet, and most amusingly in the second of the series, The Gamble, Rocky the pop star who, it was rumoured, "was a close friend of the Princess of Wales". How modern can you get?

These are cracking stories, breathlessly narrated by 12-year-old Mel, with the added benefit of a far more altruistic goal than just whacking the opposition at the local show. Although, of course, they do that too.

Wendy Douthwaite has chosen a quieter, slightly reserved heroine in Other People's Ponies. But Jess is someone with whom many young readers will readily identify. As in the Hollywell books, her family is struggling to make ends meet, and her days and nights are spent daydreaming of the perfect Arab mare. She eventually acquires her, the Polly of subsequent books, but at a terrible price. You wouldn't normally expect to reach for the Kleenex with this particular genre, but Other People's Ponies was a three-box job.

Polly on Location, the third in the series, deals with the private anguish of certain characters, including a lonely alcoholic actor, in a sensitive and mature way. These stories are all light years from the high-jinks-at-pony-club-camp of yesteryear.

For those who want to see this in action, Hodder has re-released two vintage stalwarts. They are both two-books-in-one editions. The first is Ruby Ferguson's Jill has Two Ponies and Jill and the Runaway in which Jill, by her own admission, has amassed Pounds 1,200 by "devious means" with which to buy a second pony. They seem terribly dated in places. Jill and her friends pooh-pooh careers in domestic science and nursing for "something decent like air hostesses or breeding cocker spaniels". But the stories clip along at a jolly pace.

Judith M Berrisford's Jackie is slightly less sparky than Jill, but still manages to get herself into, and out of, her fair share of scrapes. She is extraordinarily well-connected for every potential disaster that befalls her, she has an army of relations and friends who come up with spare fields, stables, horse boxes, the works, whenever she feels the need to go adventuring.

Clive King neatly clears the hurdle between pre-pubescent pony fantasy and teenage romance, which is all a far cry from Stig of the Dump, his previous creation. A Touch of Class is designed to appeal to older readers but should give the younger ones plenty to laugh about.

Clive King has a fine eye for the absurdities of hor-sey arcana. His hero, Jeff, is a charmingly disingenuous chap who wouldn't know a running martingale from a jar of Marmite (wherein lies most of the book's humour).

In between wooing and winning the haughty equestrienne of his dreams (who is more concerned with winning the under-15-hands challenge trophy) Jeff tries to disentangle himself from a life of petty crime to make himself worthy of her affections, although it's his ability to drive a horse box that really clinches it.

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