I wrote this interview in 2008. Hazel died in 2013.
Hazel M Peel is one of the few pony book authors I can think of who did not have a relatively comfortable childhood in which ponies were normal. What she did have were boundless determination and the ability to work, work and work until she got where she wanted to go. She has had a writing career that has spanned over 50 years, and still has more books in her.
Hazel was born in Stratford in London, but the family moved to Leicester for the whole of the war. She won a grammar school placed but ‘hated every moment of it and left at 14 years. All I was really interested in was riding horses and writing. Words fascinated me. Than as even today I considered telling a story or writing a feature nothing but artistry with words instead of watercolours or oils.’
You would never have predicted, from her taste in children’s books, that Hazel would become best known for writing stories about horses. ‘My favourite children’s books were Jack London’s White Fang and Call of the Wild plus all the Romany books. [Romany , G Bramwell Evans, died very suddenly in the war and children all over the country had to be sent home with grief.] I’ve never forgotten his wonderful books. Later I read pony books, considered them rubbishy—all the same—and dropped them. This influenced me with my Leysham stud series. I vowed they would be different and written for young adults enabling me to ring the changes via the whole equestrian spectrum.’
Finding horses as a child was difficult. ‘All I could think of were horses but we were a poor family AND it was the war with the Blitz, and bombs. Like millions of others, we had enough on trying to survive—on rations don’t forget. I had to do Saturday jobs and my mother would give me five shillings (25p). I would cycle five to six miles to some riding stables for a precious hour’s ride. Looking back they were very grotty but there was nowhere else to go because in wartime horses and riding were very much at the bottom of the queue. Getting extra food for our bellies always came first.’
‘My first horsey job at 15 years was at some livery stables near Grimsby where I had the most incredible tutor who was stone deaf. This lady and her livery stables became ever afterwards my bench mark. I was badly treated in my digs; kept so short of food (everything was still rationed) I was driven to trying to eat the horses’ food. Ever been that hungry and when growing and doing hard, physical labour? I vowed I would never be hungry again when adult and no one, NO ONE, would ever shove me around. They haven’t either.’
A favourite horse was Little Jeff. ‘Little Jeff was the most comfortable horse I have ever ridden. Brilliant jumper except when he landed he always threw an enormous buck. Little Jeff was none of the horses [in the Leysham Stud series] because I’ve never met another one like him. He was nothing really but a gorgeous pet!’ Hazel still rode into her seventies. The picture to the left shows one of Hazel’s last rides, at the age of 72. She now has full blown osteoporosis from neck to the end of the spine. ‘Had three major ops last year, one of which lasted 18 hours. Still can’t use hands properly—on voice recognition—only about 70%. Frustrating!’
I asked if any of her equine characters were based on horses she knew.
‘Yes. Old Captain was a brilliant jumper with a mouth of cast iron who always bolted. I learned to jump on him with numerous heart attacks! He was one of the most vicious horses I have ever known in the stable. He would bite, kick and try and crush the groom against the wall. Under today’s Health and Safety Act he would have been destroyed when the groom, me, was very much a minor in law. Most wicked horse I ever met. I would not hesitate now to put a bullet in his brain. Human life comes first. Old Captain became Rogue [in Dido and Rogue] but even then I did not fully explain how evil this animal was because it might have appeared too far fetched for believability.’ I did wonder if Jago, who is such a vivid portrait of a thoroughbred, and savage to boot, was real. No. ‘Jago just entered my head!’
And there is no real-life Ann or Jim Henderson. ‘My human characters are all invented. Safer that way re litigation!’
The Leysham Stud series covers a different aspect of equine sport in each story: ranging from racing to polo, eventing, show jumping and harness racing. This, to some extent, reflected her own experience with horses. I asked how she had researched the series. ‘Piece of cake because I had already worked in a variety of stables ranging from hunters, livery, point-to-point and show jumpers: too heavy for racing stables. I kept moving around to acquire knowledge even if it was the hard way and I was treated pretty badly in quite a few of my digs.’ It is noticeable that Ann and Jim Henderson are very good and considerate employers!
And why, I asked had she decided to start her writing career by writing for children; and about horses? ‘I was young when I began writing but I knew then [to] only write about that which you know. I did not have the confidence, the knowledge of life, let alone the ability, to write for adults even though I was such a very well read person and still am. Writing is nothing but another craft which a person has to learn, which cannot be acquired from a book. It is another form of art and must be treated as such with many lessons and colossal experience. I started with the children’s books because they were shorter and they did not need to be so deep. I thought I would cut my teeth on these then when I had written X number move on to adult books. This is exactly what happened.’
Hazel had her first piece (a short story called Pit of Fear) published in Australia. The attraction of working with horses had worn off. ‘I became fed up with the long hours and slave wages, so went back to London, living in a hostel at King’s Cross … travelled Europe, and when I was 21 I decided I wanted to see more of the world so applied to go to Australia as a migrant on their two-year scheme. I went by myself of course, with no money to my name to speak of, and was flabbergasted when on sailing down the Suez Canal on Valentine’s Day I met a man and knew he was the one and only. We married in Australia.’ But didn’t work with horses there. ‘… I am talking about over half a century ago. At this time the economy of that country depended solely on the wool clip. For the three and a half years we were there the wool clip failed and there was a tremendous amount of unemployment. It was a case of getting any job to pay a wage.’
Three of Hazel’s books are set in Australia: her first, Fury, and Jago and Untamed. She could probably already have written the books without going to Australia: a voracious reader, she said ‘I did not have to get background for my Australian books. I already had it! I could just about quote We of the Never Never by Mrs Aeneas Gunn; Robbery Under Arms by Rolf Boldrewood and Banjo Patterson’s poetry, especially Waltzing Matilda, The Man fromSnowy River, and Clancy of the Overflow.
I asked why she’d decided to bring the English and Australian books together in Untamed. ‘Untamed? I wanted to be different!! I have always been the lone wolf. I have never run with the pack and I never will!’ There were no more Leysham Stud books after Untamed. Was this, I wondered, a deliberate decision? ‘Yes! Untamed was a deliberate end to this series as I wished to go into adult historical thrillers.’
After Hazel’s husband returned from working in the Middle East for six years, they went travelling, and visited Communist Russia, Iceland, the Amazon, Brazil, Namibia and South Africa, America, Canada and the Channel Islands. It was the trips to the Channel Islands that inspired Hazel’s book Sea Gem. This is her favourite of her adult novels: of the horse books it is Jago. ‘I put my heart and soul into that book,’ she said.
Hazel’s husband died four years ago. ‘To say I was devastated is the understatement. Life had to go on though, so it was back to my writing with a vengeance. Publishers and agents did not want to know me so I thought they could “get stuffed” and I would self publish with Amolibros. This is how I spend my widowhood. I have brought out four books. One, Sea Gem, is out in audio with Isis, and another, Bold Spirit, has come out in large print with the BBC Chivers division.
I am now in my 78th year and pretty disabled physically, but there is nothing wrong with my brain (thank gawd!) and I intend to bring at least three more books out before I drop off the twig. It has been very hard work but also therapeutic against grief because my beloved died just three months before our golden wedding—and we never had family.
I am a nobody but I like to think perhaps my 77 years of endeavour and one-track-mind effort might encourage other people to go and do their own thing and to blazes with what people say or think!’
One of Hazel’s rarer books, Gay Darius, has now been republished by Jane Badger Books.