Pony book authors don’t tend to do humour: perhaps it’s the undercurrent of morality that underpins most of the genre (you must take proper care of your pony ), but the pony book that makes you laugh out loud is rare. Jill is amusing, but Caroline Akrill is funny. ‘It is,’ she wrote ‘perfectly possible to make a career out of misadventure and ineptitude.’ She is right. You cannot, unless you are a very rare being indeed, have anything to do with horses and not experience the ridiculous side of it all just occasionally. Caroline Akrill’s genius lies in being able to combine a compelling picture of equine life with humour. Her Eventer’s trilogy, one of the best selling pony book series of recent times, selling over 70,000 copies, makes me laugh out loud.
Caroline has had a lifetime’s experience to draw on. She was a horsey child, with ponies and a liking for pony books – the Jill books and Silver Snaffles, as well as books which are just about as far from Jill as you can get: the Swallows and Amazon series by Arthur Ransome. After her pony filled childhood, Caroline’s has been a varied career: ‘…I have tried (and it has to be said, failed) most things: not only was I once the proprietor of the worst riding school in the world, but ran for a while what was quite possibly the most unsuccessful show pony stable ever. I have attempted to master the Art of Riding to Hounds, and I have also been a horse dealer of sorts, both of the latter whilst helping to run a country pub which suffered dreadfully from my divided interest.’
I asked why she started writing. ‘Michael Williams, ex editor of Pony Magazine was entirely responsible for this (although Elwyn Hartley Edwards when editor of Riding published my first article). I wrote regularly for Michael Williams mainly about shows and my own ponies and he was incredibly supportive (always rapping my knuckles about punctuation, spelling and being rude about people) – I was actually banned from attending Ponies of Britain shows for two years by Glenda Spooner, who finally relented and asked me to tea. I was also banned, rather unfairly, I thought, from the donkey show.’
Besides her articles for a variety of horsey publications, Caroline also wrote for Pony Magazine: short stories and then a serial – “it was very well received. [It was Caroline Canters Home – the Hollings brothers, now running a Show Pony Yard, used to read it aloud to a bus load of children on the way to school.] Michael Williams suggested I try to get it published. I sent it to Hodder & Stoughton who sent a man in a black raincoat with gloves tucked into his epaulettes – I thought he had come to arrest me but he turned out to be their Children’s Book Editor. He was also marvellously encouraging and thought my work was fresh and different (actually I think he thought I was potty).”
I’d Rather Not Gallop was the first in a trilogy about showing, the other titles being If I Could Ride and Caroline Canters Home. These were all based firmly on her own showing career: something experienced as a child, a reporter, a professional and, worst of all, a parent. I wondered if she preferred writing about showing or actually doing it. “I loved showing when I was doing it – or I thought I did. Later, when I wrote about it, I wondered why I bothered.” I asked, having read Caroline’s chronicle of her attempt to live life as a normal show goer, whether the retirement of Mrs Akrill had actually happened, or whether there were still furtive expeditions to shows. Had she finally broken the show pony habit? “Oh yes, she said. “I never go to shows now. It would be work!”
After writing the Showing trilogy, Caroline was then poached by Christine Lunness, the editor at Arlington Books. “I stayed with them for years. Christine is still one of my dearest friends and Desmond was something else. When the books were doing well he would fly Concorde and when they were doing badly he would go round the office turning off all the radiators. If he wanted you to do a book for him, he would take you out for an extravagant lunch and encourage you to have the most expensive item on the menu. Then he would order a heap of lettuce and line up a vast array of vitamin pills alongside. There would be a little lecture about the benefits of each interspersed with verses from Hillaire Belloc recited in a stunningly good Kenneth Williams impersonation. It was all very unsettling.” Unsettling it might have been but Desmond Elliot was a man with an eye for an author: he started the careers of Jilly Cooper, Penny Vincenzi and Anthony Horovitz, as well as introducing Tim Rice to Andrew Lloyd-Webber.
Caroline’s next series of books was the immensely popular Eventing Trilogy. Christine Lunness, a rider herself; spotted just how popular eventing was becoming, and commissioned her to write the series. The Eventer’s Trilogy is Caroline’s favourite amongst her books – “it has been so good to me.” Its heroine is Elaine, whose ambition to become an eventer is hugely complicated by her decision to work for the Fanes, the classic aristocratic family who are asset rich and cash poor. As one cannot pay the blacksmith with a bit of ancestral brickwork their livery business is in a parlous state by the time Elaine arrives, and it is the tension between the wayward Fanes and Elaine’s ambition that gives the books their spark.
And they are extremely funny. The Fanes are such vivid creations I wondered if there were real-life Fanes out there somewhere. “Yes, but as individuals, not one family. Lady Jennifer is truly out there and she has never recognised herself!”
Caroline continued to write articles and short stories, and a collection of them – Not Quite a Horsewoman – is still in print now. Desmond Elliot “was a book short for his list one year and because my husband worked at the palace he thought it would be jolly good if I wrote a book about the Royals. As my husband never told me anything that went on because I’m such a gossip and I had to get all my royal tittle-tattle from the Daily Mail (how odd that I should later become the publisher of the Duke of Edinburgh and the very soul of discretion) this was a non-starter, so after the extravagant meal, the pills and the Hillaire Belloc, he asked if I had any material tucked away, anything, he said, anywhere, the situation was desperate. I couldn’t think of anything other than piles of yellowing magazine articles insulating the attic. ‘Well, get them down’ he cried, ‘go home and get them down!’ The result was Not Quite a Horsewoman, still selling well twenty years later!”
Other than her non fiction The Art of Showing a Pony, Caroline has (at the moment) written only one novel which does not have an undercurrent of humour. Flying Changes is a particularly unusual pony book; originally intended as as an adult read. It’s very dark, with a main character, Oliver, whose perfectionism and ruthlessness drive him to destruction. The book had a painful birth: “It was far, far darker when it was delivered to Arlington Books. They were simply horrified by it because it was not at all what they were expecting. They had sent me away saying ‘write what you like’ but they wanted another teen book because we already had the market and a paperback publisher waiting. They took out all the darker bits which infuriated me at the time, and it didn’t work anyway because the paperback people said they still couldn’t take it because it ‘clearly was not a children’s book’. They were right, it wasn’t intended to be and it ended up sitting rather uneasily on the shelf.”
Flying Changes isn’t a book you curl up with by the fire as a nice, escapist read. It ends in tragedy, and people are wounded and rejected along the way. But the book did hit a nerve for many – maybe some of its teenage readers saw in Oliver the anti-hero they could rescue. “I received more mail about Flying Changes than any other book. Oliver made quite an impact on the girls. I remember one reader writing in despair ‘I look for him everywhere, everywhere I go, every show, every dressage event, I look for him. I just know he’s there somewhere.’”
After the Silver Bridle trilogy, about a stable which trains horses for filming, there have been no further books. Although Caroline didn’t write anything over those years, she was responsible for the excellent J A Allen Equestrian Fiction series, about which you can read more here was a long gap simply because I became a publisher [J A Allen] and spent over 20 years helping other people to write their books about horses. It was incredibly rewarding but mentally exhausting. I’ll get back to writing soon but it won’t be pony novels. I have a novel almost finished but don’t hold your breath!”
And do you, I asked, still ride? “No. I am ridden out. Now I just look and admire with absolutely no desire to clamber back into the saddle – except for the very, very occasional weak moment.”
I have done another interview with Caroline: Caroline Akrill on The Silver Bridle series
Finding the books: the good news is that most of Caroline Akrill’s books are quite easy to find, and she has re-issued the Eventers series as e-books. The difficult ones to find are: I’d Rather Not Gallop (very hard indeed to find in hardback, but less so in paperback) and If I Could Ride. Caroline Canters Home, the third of the Showing trilogy, is very difficult indeed. Flying Changes is easy to find in paperback and hardback; all the Eventer’s titles are reasonably easy to find in paperback: the hardback first editions are now hard to find. The Silver Bridle trilogy is reasonably easy: the paperback and hardback editions less so but not impossible. The non fiction titles are easy to find. Not Quite a Horsewoman is still in print.
Links and sources
Correspondence with Caroline Akrill
Not Quite A Horsewoman (Allen 1995, 3rd edn)
Many thanks to Bettina, Hannah, and Dawn for all the scans