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They raised a boy and a girl at No 1 in the tiny cramped rooms overlooking the Royal Mews. The kitchen when I arrived was unchanged from that period. It consisted of a tiny cooker, sink and wooden drainer and a cupboard How did people manage in those days? Pierette was a woman of some character and the marriage was not made in heaven. She returned to France in 1963 and was later in the early 70s, killed in a motor accident. Annette, his daughter, was in her twenties when her mother died. Mr Allen had expectations of his children: Annette had her mother’s charm, looks and fire and was not about to be put in her place by anyone. Her rich smoky voice could be heard the moment she entered the building and the trail of her Gauloise was always a giveaway as to her precise location.
Mr Allen was not a passionate horseman, but he used his equestrian connections and his father’s books to learn the publishing trade and he knew a good book when he saw one. He also had a very good grasp of all aspects of equestrianism. He knew which books were well researched and which were rubbish and he influenced a whole raft of writers to produce for him valuable tomes such as The Bobinsky Tables and the Horse World of London, by Gordon.
As I entered each day I passed the oil painting of Frank Buckle, a stern tough eighteenth century jockey. The walls up the stair were hung with equestrian prints and photos of famous horses. The stairs were an assault course. It was the “Books Outward” department. Only Rita and Mr Allen really understood the system. The rest of us just minded where we put our feet. There was a wonderful photograph of the Tetrarch in Annette's room. I could not take my eyes off it. His noble head and blotched coat remained a guide to the origin of the thoroughbred, I kept focused.
Working for Mr Allen was a very Dickensian pastime, nothing was done on computer. Lavender, his evening secretary, a large but very serene lady, would come and take dictation, return home, type up the letters and bring them back the next time she came. Life was slow at JAA’s. I had an old typewriter in my room, a golf ball, I recall and I sat at that and typed away my quotes. At Christmas we were each given a bottle of wine and a small gratuity. He would never pay us for Christmas day, that is until Elspeth Mackinley turned up to work with us and she insisted that we were paid for the holiday. Mr Allen was quite put out.
He remarked one day, “You can’t get the staff these days, they are all off playing Polo.” I glanced at Rita and smiled. Mr Allen would poke me with his finger and demand to be heard. He loved the intrigues of the shop and wound people up. It was his world and he manipulated it all from his tiny study. He loved to be in the centre of everything. If you asked him about a certain book or edition he knew it all chapter and verse. Suddenly he was in his element and out would come information about typos and incorrect indexing and addenda, and reprints and why this one was so much better than that one. Editions, quirks, authors, bindings all floated around in his head: they meant something to him, they were his whys and wherefores, they drove him to search for editions and to publish good books which, although they have never made a profit for anyone, at least they were good books. The difference between a good book and a average book was, to Mr Allen in the research. He also hated bad grammar and slack wordage.
He once told me to find a small book with a pink dust wrapper in the warehouse on the third shelf to the left. I did find it. Eventually! Two hours later.
Click on pictures above to enlarge. From left to right: the exterior of "The Horseman's Bookshop," the interior, Caroline Baldock at her desk in the hallowed precincts of the shop and J. A. Allen's obituary in "The Daily Telegraph.".
JAA, Jo to his friends, was a man who loved his food and a good glass of champagne and a whisky. He loved good looking women and as far as I know had a few girlfriends tucked away and a dear companion in Mrs Whitehouse. He would often come back from the Italian restaurant next door with tell-tale stains of a good meal on his tie. He was small in stature and, like so many small men, made up for it by being eccentric. His little Hitler-like moustache bristled when he was cross and he always dressed in a three piece suit. Nothing but the best. His trilby hung by the office. He must have had hundreds of them over the years.
I loved it there, it felt as if I was in the right place. I was in heaven in my little room with its shutters, and rows of books. Each one a gem. I remember finding Louise Firouz on the shelves. I discovered Mad Madge, Duchess of Newcastle and the only women of her age to be elected to the Royal Society for her services to science. I read that she sat in an empty room and invented solutions to the questions of elements and was in fact the first person to discover, quite by accident, the truth about molecular structure. My world was flooded with light when I opened the shutters every morning. The dusty shelves and the worn carpet were hardly noticed. I would go in search of my day’s work by checking the books inward in Mr Allen’s room and then collect my mail.
Annette would come in smoking her Gauloise, the trail of scented tobacco was curiously irresistible. I would go and find out what she was up to. We made coffee, but this meant climbing another flight of stairs and then back with the cups to the antiquated kitchen. Sometimes it just was not worth the effort.
Pedro was the cleaner. Pedro was Spanish and we all loved Pedro. He was so considerate. He managed to keep the place looking cared for and I’ll never know how in all that muddle and piggle. He vacuumed and dusted and washed the chandelier. He swept and washed and tidied like a mother. We all loved Pedro.
I recall Mr Allen called me up to his office one morning and when I got there it looked like the IRA had visited. There was a significant mess. The card concertina files were not exactly in their right places and they seemed to be bulging in areas in which they did not normally bulge. I sat down to take letters and Mr Allen asked me to find that letter from the woman in South America. Well it was either Gloria Cook or Mrs Gonzalez. Mr Allen muttered something about Argentina. “Don’t cry for me,” I thought as I rummaged through what appeared to B’s in the G’s. Then I looked in the S’s and discovered the A’s. Oh God he must have knocked them over in the night. I pulled Mrs Gonzalez out of the Z’s and heaved a sigh of relief. It took me about two hours to re-file all the files!
Then there were the visitors! Oh if you are a horse enthusiast you will find yourself in heaven now. I looked out of my door one day to see a small, slightly built dapper gentleman climbing the stairs at a pace that defied his age. It was the great John Hislop, the owner and breeder of Brigadier Gerard, the horse that vied with Mill Reef to claim the title of champion of the English turf. Brigadier Gerard was only beaten once in 18 starts. John Hislop was born in Baluchistan on December 12th, 1911. John was an amateur/gentleman rider, a man as much of the past as Mr Allen. But John left one great legacy for racing, a sire in the name of Brigadier Gerard. John died on the 22nd of February 1994, I know because I made an entry in my diary.
I saw Lester Piggott climbing the stairs one day. Mr Allen told me later that he had complained that he didn’t understand why he didn’t make any money out of the books written about him. “Funny I didn’t get a penny out of them,” he muttered to Mr Allen.
A slim grey haired lady came into the shop and asked to see Mr Allen. I must have been momentarily down stairs and Mr Allen introduced us. Joyce Bellamy a woman who dedicated much of her life to the British Horse Society, its causes and its survival. She wrote a wonderful book, Hyde Park for Horsemanship, which really is a classic of its time. She told me that one of the last London riding schools was behind Harrods and had only recently been demolished and turned into a car park. Joyce Bellamy had been a member of the BHS for fifty years, she was utterly dedicated to the survival of all things equestrian. I could have talked to her for hours.
One day a young man came into the shop. He brought the outside inside, his leather saddle bags slung over his shoulder his hat jauntily set, he looked every bit of an adventurer: his eyes had the sky in them. I looked outside to see if indeed his horse was tied to the railings. Jasper Winn is another of the equestrian world eccentrics. He writes beautifully about any journey, but when he writes about horses his language gallops like a Berber horse in the hot desert. You could feel the hoofbeats and smell the sweat mingling with sand. I never forgot Jasper.
I did a bit of travelling while in Mr Allen’s employment. In 1991, a friend asked me if I would like to cross the Atlantic in a galleon. Right up my street! I thought. They needed a cook. So I discussed terms with the ship’s owner and asking Mr Allen if I could have a month off. He was, let it be said, a man who loved initiative. He had trodden many a dangerous path himself and lived on the edge and he understood my need for adventure. So off I went to Newark, New Jersey where I was taken to a very small ship built of what looked like matchsticks, called The Golden Hinde. During my time away battling against terrible storms, the worst for 40 years in the Atlantic, Mr Allen regularly went down to the Bag of Nails pub and drew attention to the plight of his PA who was on the Atlantic in terrible storms, and would she ever make it home? He got quite a few free drinks, I later learned. I was two weeks late returning to work due to the terrible storms we encountered. I only called two people on arrival in Newlyn, one was my mother the other was Mr Allen. “You take your time,” he said, “and get over your journey. I look forward to seeing you.”
The Racing journalists were always popping into the shop. Julian Wilson, dapper and polite as always, Peter O’Sullivan and Tony Morris were amongst our regulars. When Mr Allen put me into No 4 with my own antiquarian book shop I was in double heaven. There I would make coffee for the elite in the horse world and enjoy the wonderful stories that constantly leaked from the writer’s pens. I was in the old shop one day, just about to go up to see Mr Allen, when a tall sunburnt blonde came in and asked for Mr Allen. She has strong hands and a south African accent. It was the amazing show jumper Annerly Drummond-Hay, another of my childhood heroes.
It must have been in about 1995 or 6, I was called downstairs to talk to a young man who wanted to know about horse whispering. I told him about Rarey, Monty Roberts and Henry Blake. I then promised to collect as much information for him as I could. I rushed up to see JAA. He told me about Sullivan and others who had coined the term of “Whisperer.”
The young man came back and I advised him to read certain books and he asked me to find a couple for him. “Your name please?” “Nicolas Evans,” came the reply. The book The Horse Whisperer was on its way.
I recall peeking out from my door and seeing a grey haired lady climbing up the many flights to JAA’s eyrie. It was Christine Pullen-Thompson. I grew up believing her horse books were my world. I lived inside those riding stables and hunts and adventures all powered by horses. She and her sisters, Diana and Josephine were the daughters of Joanne Canaan, another talented writer who left a legacy of pony books that has never been bettered. These famous literary giants left an ethereal trail behind them as if in their wake a herd of wild horses tossed their manes and snorted and neighed!
One morning I was at No 4 when this lady came into the shop. She was slim and tall, she had an elegance to her that one simply had to register. Her grey hair was in a pony tail. I just knew she was, all horse! I asked my assistant to find out her name as I had just been summoned to see JAA. I rushed back only to learn she had gone. “Did you get her name?” I quizzed Toby. “No not all of it, at least I think she said Louise.” “That’s it,” I shouted in triumph, “Louise Firouz.” I ran up and told Mr Allen and he told me that James Underwood knew her. So I phoned up James and asked him if he could speak to her and tell her I wanted to meet her. This he did and subsequently we went out for coffee. Many years later I had the privilege of riding with her from her stud near the Caspian up to the Turkoman border. But that is another story.
Robert Vavra wandered in one day. He told me he was photographing animals in Africa and had lost interest in horses. His books were constant sellers, Unicorns I Have Known, and All These Girls In Love With Horses. He said that computerised images had changed forever the work of the photographer and so he had gone in search of harder prey. I gazed at him wondering if he knew how much his images meant to people. I pondered on how the eye of the photographer creates his own world and setting out on his journey finds what no one else has seen.
Mr Allen had a great friend in Charles Harris. Charles was a regular visitor. His cheery outlook and strong voice were a tonic on days when I thought I would never finish cataloguing endless piles of books. Charles was an FBHS [Fellow of the British Horse Society], who as a young man had completed three years at the Vienna Riding School. He told me there were many occasions when his raw legs bled through his jodhpurs. He said there was nothing tougher than their apprenticeship. Charles would help anyone. His wonderful advice was sought after in law courts and on the Pony Camp fields. I recall at one Christmas party he and Jo opposite ends of the room demonstrably bent their old bodies in salaams to each other to the amusement of the rest of the authors. Charles thought the world of JAA. He always ended his phone conversations with, “bless.” It was very catching. Charles had kept diaries of his time in Vienna and they were finally published. Sadly he and Ethel his wife have both died. It is the passing of great knowledge that can never be repeated.
Politesse could indeed change the world and the world would be a better place if it ruled the world. I never met a more polite and kind gentleman than Sir John Miller, the Queen’s equerry. He was another regular to the shop. He often popped in to see Jo and would pass on requests for special books. He and Jo must have been contemporaries. I was in No 4 one day when he pottered in supporting himself with a stick. “Sir John,” I exclaimed, thinking to follow it with a commiseration of some sort but the words just did not come. He flew to my comfort and declared that he was fine he had just fallen off out hunting. How completely wonderful, I thought to be hunting at his age.
Mr Allen became more and more forgetful. He dined longer and slept longer in his father’s chair. The business changed with the Internet and computers and Mr Allen was finally forced to retire. The flame died, the moths of equestrian literature were no longer drawn to the fires of his small but worthy publishing business. The old shop closed and there were many tears. It was the end of something so deeply special only those who really lived in it understood its true importance in the world of Equus.
Copyright UK and Worldwide 2008
Thanks to her work with Joseph Allen, the author of this article, Caroline Baldock, met many of the most influential equestrian riders and writers of the late twentieth century. Caroline remains deeply involved in the English equestrian world and has a number of literary projects under way, including a book on the history of the side-saddle.
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