Did your mother, like mine, throw them out in the end? They stayed on the bookshelves in my old bedroom long after I’d left home, waiting for the next generation of girls to join our family, but my sister and I produced boy after boy. When, after my mother died, I cleared out her house, I looked for my Jill books, but they were all gone.
Ruby Ferguson wrote nine ‘Jill’ books, of which Jill’s Gymkhana is the first. Originally published in 1949 by Hodder & Stoughton, it was beautifully illustrated by ‘Caney’, and priced at 7s 6d. A review by Frances Vivien in the Observer of 9 May that year declared it ‘a perfect pony story for girls’.
Why did I need the books? Well, I was putting together a talk for a girls’ school on how I became a sportswriter. This meant retracing a route back through teenage crushes on footballers, to watching the horse-racing on Saturday afternoons with my father, to my prepubescent pony mania when Jill was my first role model.
It began on the summer morning in 1955 when our family moved house. While the pantechnicon was being unloaded, a diminutive girl with freckles and a corolla of tawny curls strolled along from the house next door. I recognized her; we were at the same school and her name was Jo, but we had never spoken because she was in the form above me. Nor did we speak now. She bypassed me and went directly to my mother: ‘Would Julia like to play?’
My mother explained that I had chickenpox and in consequence was confined with my spots and germs in the back of the family saloon. ‘Oh, that’s all right,’ said the world’s most self-assured 8-year-old. ‘I’ve had it. You can’t get it twice, you know.’ She tapped on the car window to get my attention: ‘Do you ride?’
‘Oh gosh, yes,’ I said excitedly, while mentally crossing my fingers since my sole experience had been a humiliating episode in which a pony called Snowball had bolted with me when I was 4. I
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