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Frances Spalding revels in life's gymkhana
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The Independent Culture
Fair Girls and Grey Horses. Memories of a Country Childhood by Josephine, Diana and Christine Pullein-Thompson, Allison & Busby, pounds 15.99

Courage, patience and talent are rewarded in the fictional world created by the Pullein-Thompson sisters. Their pony stories during the Fifties and Sixties incited children to be brave and to hope for success. Today there are people in all walks of life who were sparked by these equine adventures, for between them the sisters have written 150 pony-story books, as well as adult novels, crime fiction, biographies and much else. In this autobiography, their three voices create a composite picture of their childhood. It offers brisk approval (a housemistress is "admirably decisive") and obstructed feelings ("The dogs were a great emotional stand-by") and reveals the blend of stoicism and romanticism which bred in all three a desire to write.

Even the fourth child became a playwright. But because he was a boy and sent away to school, Denis makes only an intermittent appearance in this book. So much was going on in the Pullein-Thompson home, where the children were encouraged to be endlessly active, that attention had to be given to the here and now, especially to animals, which increased in number until the sisters had their own riding school, two stables and 42 horses.

How did it all begin? The catalyst, it seems, was Mamma, the novelist Joanna Cannan who ignored a nurse's advice ("Put away that scribbling dear, Baby's coming") and rivalled her friend, Georgette Heyer, with her prolific output. She was scatty and arrogant, careless over her daughters' education yet capable of the inspired gift. Her married life had begun in Wimbledon where she bred Sealyham terriers. Later, when they moved to Peppard in Oxfordshire, she introduced her children to horses and wrote A Pony for Jean, which is said to have begun a new genre in children's books. She admired the unorthodox, but in some ways was deeply conventional. "Are the twins normal?" asked a Wimbledon neighbour. "Good God, I hope not," she replied. Yet when they developed learning difficulties, she assumed their problems would be solved by marriage to rich men.

The twins, Diana and Christine, had their own language and, when small, were only able to talk to each other. Josephine, 18 months older, sometimes felt lonely watching them play. All three tumbled off horses, played Murder in the Dark and were fond of reciting rousing poetry, preferably Scottish. Among these vivid memories are poignant details: the twins suffer a prolonged identity crisis; "Cappy", their arthritic father, flings clothes found on the bathroom floor out of the window, rages if his boiled eggs aren't right, and petulantly shouts at Mamma, "Why don't you manage me?" In addition, disasters regularly befell animals. But everything was grist to the mill for these authors, whose first novel was a joint production, written on a discarded typewriter which had no letter 'r'.

What makes this book a sociological gem is the ethos it evokes. Owing chiefly to Nana, an old-style nanny who kept children strapped in their high chairs until the porridge was finished, the Pullein-Thompsons never whined, ate what they were given and walked miles without complaint. There seem to have been none of the messy compromises which parents and children make today for the sake of sanity. Emotional problems, writes Diana, were never discussed in the family, "and 'Don't be personal' was a reprimand we took seriously." Their Mamma called alien opinions "Claptrap!", and if someone tried to excuse delinquent behaviour on the grounds of an unhappy childhood, she would offer a mocking, "Glands!".

Mixed in with this stiff- upper-lip attitude was a degree of eccentricity."You were very peculiar", recollected a woman who had gone to school with the twins. It was a relief when formal education was abandoned, and at 14 they began to write and teach riding with Josephine. "We were brought up to be brave, stoical, merry-hearted and physically tough, but not to be especially sensitive to others' feelings," writes Diana. They also said what they thought, mindful of Mamma's frequent cry, "Don't hint". Paraphrasing W. E. Henley, Josephine remarks that their childhood equipped them to become masters of their fate and captains of their souls. That she later ran the English Centre of International PEN with the same toughness, humour and realism which she brought to the riding school only adds to the extraordinary achievements of these intrepid horsewomen.