Sunday, 18 December 2011

Obama textual analysis of Black Beauty

I'm meant to be reviewing Black Beauty, not rabitting on about the things that matter to me, and that I have taught Simon to respect. So you have to go back to the text. And it is good English Exam practice , according to Simon, for whom exams are back in the dim and murky past, to quote from the text. But maybe he knows what he is talking about. He still remembers that whips hurt, and he learned that at school.

What matters to Black Beauty? Bearing reins, you all remember that, Ginger's descriptions of the horrors inflicted in the name of fashion from forcing a horse to hold its head in an unnatural position. Bearing reins are a recurring theme throughout Beauty's book. Beauty and Ginger's “good” master sold them to a man, sorry an Earl, and therefore a man wortthy of respect, whose wife insisted on cranking up their heads with the bearing rein. 

This was the start of the slippery slope for both of them. Bearing reins crop up four or five times and never with a good word said about them. But nobody insists today that horses carry their heads in a particular unnatural position while performing arduous tasks. That would be cruel. Dressage horses CHOOSE to hold their noses against their breastbones while poncing around to music. 

What else does Beauty mention? Bits are described in detail, and anyone who thinks Beauty liked having a lump of metal jammed in his mouth can try reading his book. Cruppers are difficult to explain to those poor creatures without a tail, but just imagine your backbone continued a bit, and that you had stiff noose put round it and pulled up towards your head whenever you were trying to slow down. If you haven't got a tail, it's just too difficult to describe, but Beauty's position was clear. he didn't like them. 

Shoes, heavy, restricting and nasty. Blinkers are another recurring theme, pointless dangerous fashion accessories, and Anna Sewell suggested that training as other countries do, without them, would be a good idea. Now that takes courage. In England, in the middle of the Victorian era, at the top of the Empire building phase, when the English went everywhere to show the natives how to do it, for a respectable, middle class woman to suggest that foreigners can do something better, that is braver than charging with Captain to the guns at Balaclava. 

Hunting gets a brief mention, and since it kills Beauty's brother in front of him and Duchess, their Mum, and kills the Squire's son and probably also the hare, one of their hares, from the plantation, all in the space of two pages, we can assume that hunting wasn't Beauty's or Duchess's idea of a fun pastime. 

Docking tails gets a well deserved savaging. It was a savage practice, but had stopped by the time Sir Oliver explains his pathetic stump of a tail to Beauty. 

So does Anna Sewell mention whips when translating Beauty's thoughts. 

The Penguin Popular Classics edition published 1994 has a biography of Anna Sewell on the inside front page. It states that “Characteristically she never used a whip o her own horses.” So maybe Beauty will have something to say on whips. He does. Out of 210 pages, 35 mention whips. 

Three of the mentions of whips are neutral. The squire “never uses a whip if a horse acts right.” John Manly, the Squire's groom, when first riding Beauty “gave me a light touch with his whip and we had a splendid gallop.” When Beauty is a job horse, he describes one good driver who removes his curb, shifted the reins on the bit to the gentle setting “and then with a light feel of the rein, and drawing the whip gently across my back, we were off.” 

You can find the rest yourself. I have quoted the nice ones, the ones I feel like writing down. Read Beauty's comments, he doesn't use the sort of language I would like to use to decribe what is done, not only the pain and suffering, but the sheer pointlessness of it. If there is one theme that runs through Beauty's story in a way that nothing else does, it is the pointlessness of cruelty, and the whip is the favourite example of this. 

The first 20 pages don't mention whips in a bad way. But they then feature in 10 of the next thirty pages. From page 50 to 96 you only get one mention, but in the next 107 pages, 23 mention whips, only one in a neutral way. From the time Beauty is lying almost dead in the street, having been flogged uphill with an excessive load, till the end of the book, no more whips. Neither Farmer Thoroughgood, nor Little Joe at the Blomefields, saw any point in whips. 

It would take an impressive mathematician to say that either Black Beauty, or Anna Sewell saw any virtue in whips, and the more obvious conclusion is that whips are vicious, pointless and stupid. And you accuse Simon of being obsessed about the subject. The author and translator of the biggest selling horse book ever, are just as rabid on the subject, though their language is rather more moderate. I keep coming back to whips because in a review of a book where over 15% of the pages mention the subject, avoiding whips would look very odd indeed.

No other negative topic comes close, alcohol gets its mentions, bearing reins, and savage bits, ie any bit in a horses' mouth, but none of them come close to the subject of whips. Kindness, loyalty, honesty, gentleness, love, they all come well up in the ranking and together probably outnumber whips, but it is close. 

Can I make one very gentle suggestion, read the bloody book and read the bits about whips. Then argue. If you still feel like it. Beauty was frighteningly honest, and Anna Sewell did a remarkable job getting his thoughts on paper. But don't let your kids read it and then clamber on your horse, booted and spurred, whip in your hand, and expect them to respect you. Whips and spurs produce fear, they don't produce respect. That's something you have to do for yourself. Anna Sewell earned respect. Drop the whip and you can do the same.

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