I have never been on horseback. The best I can offer is a snap of myself, captioned ‘September 1937, Littlehampton’. Aged 31 2, hair in bunches, apprehension in eyes, I am installed on the back of a donkey with the sea as a backdrop.
The photograph in question fell out of a recently rediscovered book, The Far-Distant Oxus, in which horses – or rather ponies – play the leading role. The date of publication is 1937, the very year of the snap, though I am fairly sure that the book itself did not reach my hands until ten years later. Did I buy it myself with a Christmas or birthday book-token after foraging through the shelves of Bredon’s bookshop in Brighton? Or did a clever aunt send it to me? I don’t remember and it doesn’t matter. What I can still recall is how I fell in love with it – with the dust jacket, the line drawings and the subject: ponies, Exmoor and children. I was totally ignorant of the first two but reckoned I did know something about the third.
The Far-Distant Oxus is a story of adventures: six children with six ponies, tales of camping, rafting, building their own hut, enjoying a freedom from parental watchfulness that amazed me even then. And, perhaps best of all, it was written by two girls, clever boarding-school girls, Katharine Hull and Pamela Whitlock. Together they wrote the twenty-three chapters, adding bold pen-and-ink illustrations and maps, all drawn by Pamela. The final draft was bravely sent off to Arthur Ransome, whose own books were clearly an inspiration (boats in his case, not ponies), and he in turn sent it to his publisher Jonathan Cape, who read it, loved it and immediately published it. I dreamed of writing like that, and then forgot about it.
Until 1974. By this time I was part-owner of an Arab dhow in Abu Dhabi, still had not attempted horse-riding, but was at least writing a weekly column for the local English-language newspaper. This explains why I found myself lurking on the
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