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PARDON MY BOOTS


PARDON MY BOOTS

THE Boots for which Margaret Britt asks our pardon are, of course, her riding-boots.

As a girl in England, she was often in trouble with her mother for clumping through the house in them (sometimes leaving a trail of oats and chaff on the carpet), and when she came to Australia. her boots became even more a normal part of her everyday attire.

Unlike most new arrivals, she did not stay long in the coastal cities, but made for the Queensland outback. There, despite the dual handicap of being both a "Pommie" and a woman, and after much persistent striving, she eventually won acceptance in the tough, male-dominated world of droving trails, mustering camps and cattle stations, of which she tells in this book.

Margaret Britt has a keen eye for character - the bush, as she found, is populated mainly by "characters" and a remarkable capacity for recreating authentic outback scenes, people and conversations for her readers.

Her experiences, first as an apprentice cattle hand, and later as a wife and mother - often the only white woman for scores of miles around must often have been daunting. But her sense of humour never fails her, and she never takes herself too seriously.

She has produced a lively and entertaining account of a segment of Australian life that is little known to most Australians.

In Store Price: $21.00 
Online Price:   $20.00

ISBN:1-9210-0526-2
Format: A5 Paperback
Number of pages: 170
Genre: Non fiction
Includes illustrations by Margaret Britt

Also by Margaret Britt:

Waiting for the Storm Bird

 

 

Author: Margaret Britt 
Imprint: Poseidon
Publisher: Poseidon Books - First published in 1963 by Landsdowne Press
Date Published:  2004
Language: English

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About the Author  

Margaret Britt came from England to Australia in 1951. Wanting work with horses she was first a governess on a Longreach sheep station, where there was plenty of riding to be had, and then went to a Camooweal cattle property where she met her future husband  who was head-stockman. After they married they went contract mustering until, in 1958 Jack Britt was appointed manager of Forestvale, an 1100 square mile cattle property in the Gulf country. Here they spent twelve years until in 1970, the company transferred Jack to Lyndhurst, where they stayed fourteen years. 

Margaret has had short stories published in various magazines. She now lives in Atherton.

Prologue  

STANDING ON A TEETERING Pile of boxes, Miss Norland peered over the nine-foot stone wall.

"All clear," she said in something supposed to be a conspiratorial whisper, which could have been heard yards away. "Hand them up."

She reached down for the miscellaneous collection of stuff I handed to her - sacks, boxes and poles. Each item she dropped over the wall and we listened with bated breath to the thud, expecting the outraged roar of a keeper any time. But the hush of dawn remained unbroken.

The reason for this curious behaviour was not hard to find. "Norly's" riding was one side of the wall, an extensive and famous park the other, and Norly saw no reason that the twain should not meet.

We had nowhere to practise for a forthcoming gymkhana, the park had hundreds of acres, the huge area near the stables virtually wild. Riding in the well-known and beautiful park was restricted to certain areas: the bridle-paths between glorious chestnut trees planted in the time of Henry VIII, certain parts of open country, and tracks among the massed rhododendron bushes.

It was also restricted in speed, anything beyond a collected canter making one liable to a lecture from the keepers.

I remember after one hilarious gallop down an avenue, a keeper approaching with hand upheld.

"Don't you know," he demanded, approaching June's Pony from the near side, "that galloping in the park is against the law?"

June fought to control the curvetting Sprite and bent upon the upholder of the law her most melting look.

"I'm sorry," she said contritely, "I can't stop her this morning, she just took off."

Sprite, normally well mannered, fumed and danced on the spot, ably bearing out June's words. No wonder. I was on the off side and could see June's right heel, invisible to the keeper, prodding and digging at the pony's well‑covered ribs.

The keeper was impressed at the display and let us off with a reproving word or two.

Well, there it was. We would put the necessary gear for our gymkhana practice over the wall, take the ponies through the nearest set of deer-gates (strictly forbidden and rather difficult) fifty yards along the wall, practise and be gone before the earliest keeper struggled into his uniform. The nearest main gates of the park, through which we decorously rode to our legitimate riding, were a mile or more away, and also we should have been bound to meet someone that way.

It was tricky getting through the deer-gates, designed to keep in the roe deer living in the park. Pulling a pony behind, we pushed the gate half open, inched the pony into the semi-circular cage through which the gate swung, then pushed the gate back, nearly scraping his side, and led him through.

Not the sort of thing to attempt with anything but a quiet horse, or more important still, with a purple-faced keeper in the offing.

So we practised in peace in this remote corner for sack races and obstacle races, and at sun-up, if we didn't exactly fold our tents, we folded our sacks and stole quietly away.

Norly was a born law-breaker. Had she not had independent means, Fm sure she would have done admirably for herself in the line of cat-burglar or a sort of female "Saint" - anything in fact which smacked of adventure.

If only for her appearance she was extraordinary. Aged about fifty, she had, in a fit of joyous abandon, peroxided her hair with more gusto than skill, so that the mixed, untidy waves of grey and harsh blonde gave her a peculiar piebald appearance. Furthermore, she was inclined to top it with a rakish red turban, usually lopsided and only half covering her curious tresses. This set off her devil-may-care, tanned and even-featured face. She was usually clad in a jumper of violent hue, a checked hacking-jacket, appalling baggy jodhpurs and old walking-shoes. I don't think she possessed a pair of riding-boots.

As rich as Croesus, a member of a world-famous firm which bore her name, she must yet eke out a living, as she put it, by doing women's hair for them in their own homes, plugging around on a rusty old bicycle, the hairdressing kit in a basket on the front.

"Ye gods," she would cry, flinging herself from her bike in the stable yard. "I've been shampoo-and-setting Mrs. Bing-Huggins. What's more, it was rock cakes for morning tea again. That's the third time in succession. Still, I managed to save some for Lily."

And she would feel cautiously in the capacious pockets of her jacket, bringing forth the remains of Mrs. Bing-Huggins' cakes, which she handed to the appreciative Lily (so-called, incidentally, because she was a jet black mare).

Norly was a very indifferent hair-dresser. Sometimes, we would be cycling off on one of our errands together, to look at horses for sale, or on some other expedition, when she would hiss at me: "Quick, down the next turning. I see Mrs. Deepe-Poole and I made a frightful mush of perming her the other day. She's sure to be out for blood."

So saying, she would swoop around the corner, and I would wobble with surprise for a few moments before following her.

But if appalling hair-dressing was her living, her life was horses. Like me, she loved them all. Draught horses, race-horses, ponies, or hairy old nondescripts, sick or well, lame or sound.

When I met her first, she had three horses, all of which she had rescued from unfortunate circumstances - one a chestnut mare of vicious temperament, the said black Lily and one other pony.

Norly's thirst for saving almost derelict horses caused us both concern, as after the war feed was very scarce and very expensive. Usually, one obtained it by undercover means and paid more for it.

I kept a chestnut mare of mine at her stables, and sometimes we took out riders. Norly would say to me, "Margot, if you don't mind looking after the horses today, and take out Miss Brown at 10 o'clock, and Miss Potter and young Smith at three, I think I'll dash over to Northwood and see what's there."

Northwood was a horse-market held each week about ten miles away, where every shady horse-dealer, with every shady trick of making an unsound horse sound for a day and a lame one go like a two‑year‑old, would ply his trade.

"Well, mind you don't buy anything today," I would say, as I said each time she went. Norly would straighten the old turban and wheel out her bicycle, giving me a disarming grin.

"No, definitely not today. I'm just going to have a look. I'll be back in time to help you to bed down." With a wave she would be gone and silence would descend on the place.

But, when the time came to feed and bed down, there would be no sign of her. I would finish the work and wait as dush fell. Then I would hear it faintly, the long-awaited sound. Clang, clang, squeak - that was the loose, rusty chain on Norly's bike. Then clip, clop - another orphan of the storm.

Soon, she would appear, pedalling along with the horse trotting obediently beside her, and slither to a halt by the loose-boxes. She never had any brakes.

"I couldn't resist him," she would say, proudly patting the latest acquisition. "He looked so sad, and so glad to see me."

My mother always visualised me in a nice steady nine till five secretarial post. But alas! My office jobs were a dismal failure. I was incapable of transcribing my own shorthand, and I had to disentangle the letters from the sketches of horses which decorated my notebook.

But my father, an architect was a staunch ally. He encouraged me in all my doings with the noblest of animals, and always with my drawing. He was responsible for the most exciting times in Scotland when I rode with the mounted regiment stationed in the town, by introducing me to the Captain, an acquaintance of his, who put a horse at my disposal whenever I wanted it.

On some occasions I went out with the whole troop for early morning exercise, riding with the officer in charge at the head of the long column going out and at the rear coming back. What a clatter we made in the hushed streets of the little town as we made our way to the open country beyond. Early risers would stop and stare at us, at the lovely horses groomed to perfection, their saddlery gleaming, bits jingling, and at the khakiclad figures of the men, so many of them soon to die, for the corps was afterwards sent abroad.

We would ride along the paths I so often rode alone, sandy tracks which wound between the glorious masses of golden broom and gorse, the pine trees standing black and still on the hillsides, the mingled scents intoxicating my heart, bound up as they were with the smell of the sea, which appeared before us. There it lay, grey and cold, shot with a million points of light from the fitful morning sun, which shone through the drifting misty clouds.

Once or twice I rode my beloved, dancing Sammy miles along the lonely lanes to the ancient shell of Rait Castle haunted and desolate. Little remained but the great tower with walls three feet thick and the outline of the huge courtyard, the flagstones hidden beneath coarse grass. It was upon these flagstones that a young girl, hundreds of years ago, flung herself from the tower when shut away from her lover by her father.

 Here I would sit, with my back against the crumbling stones, and bring the castle back to life, rebuild the massive walls, listen to the sound of talking and laughter, the clatter of a horse on the stones, the ring of steel on steel.

But soon the watery sun would go in and a chill mist descend, and I would ride Sammy away, leaving Rait Castle dead once more, the lonely cry of the curlews the only sound.

All things come to an end, and the corps moved on. Others came, and I rode with them too, but it was never the same. Gone was my Sammy, his neck damp with my tears, gone the stiff and correct corporal who gradually thawed out and became a great friend, gone the fearsome sergeant who gave me a leather-bound riding stick made by the troop saddler, before they left. All gone, and for a while I thought the end of the world had come.

But they all, Sammy and the corporal, the sergeant, an elderly friend of my mother's Lady Payton, and my father started me off on my interesting if not illustrious career.

Among the stables in which I worked was the largest racing stable in England, where I bit the good earth a few times. Fearfully, yet with a kind of fatal fascination, I went each morning to look at the board in the tackroom, where, the name of every horse in training was hung on tiny hooks with the name of the person to ride it opposite.

Each strapper did not necessarily ride the horses that he or she. looked after. I did have one, the favourite for a famous race, which I both rode and groomed, but another, a glorious dark bay mare of docile temperament in the stable, was a snorting frenzy out of it, and it was a while before I was promoted to riding her. She demoted me smartly by bolting with me twice up a long slope on the downs where pace was restricted to a canter - until an old ex-jockey took me in hand, and taught me how to crouch up her neck and take hold of her properly.

There was also the doubtful pleasure of working for a very famous head-lad, who was about sixty and had an unbounded knowledge of horses. No private ever feared the sergeant‑major as those lads did old Dick. His scathing comments caused many scarlet faces, and much work to be done over again. There were only two girls there beside myself, but we were not spared.

 We rode our horses out for exercise in a sheet of stable colours. The sheet had to be adjusted meticulously to a certain number of inches beyond the point of the hip. One day I was still battling with the sheet when Dick came along. He stood in the doorway, glared, then ‑roared like a scrub bull.

"What the bloody hell do you think you're doing? That's a sheet, not a bloody dressing‑gown!"

We took the horses out in two strings, one in the early morning and one later on. It was always a frantic rush to get done in time, each of us with two or three horses to "muck out", feed, groom and bed down again, with the edges of the straw meticulously rolled under so that not one straggled out of place.

Early morning exercise was a mixture of joy and trepidation to me, for I never was a fearless rider. Some of the finest horses in the world were undoubtedly very, very lively in the freezing cold of a winter morn when our breath and that of the horses hung in the air, and our fingers froze around the reins.

Sometimes the downs were shrouded in mist and the leading horses were lost to those at the rear. The head-lad would ride from lead to tail and back again, to make sure that all his valuable charges still had riders, and that some of the younger lads were not taking advantage of his absence to canter instead of trotting, and trot when they should have been walking.

Every evening when we had bedded down for the night the trainer would do the rounds, visiting each horse. This called for split-second timing on our part, for on no account had the horses to have their rugs off too long, yet they must be stripped of immediately he appeared at the door of the box. We would peer out to see if he was yet emerging from the box next door, and when he did, quickly undo buckles and surcingles, to peel the rugs off just as he entered the door.

The trainer, tall and distinguished, immaculately dressed, and carrying a silver‑headed stick, would enter, make a few pleasant inquiries about the horse and oneself, run an expert hand down the horse's back and legs, and have a few words about him with the head-lad, who hovered in his wake.

After I had stuck out half the winter in rather bad "digs", my mother insisted that I should give up and go home.

In the years that followed I worked with hacks, children's show ponies and hunters.

The beauty of these winter mornings, with the trees etched against a steel-grey sky, the excitement of the meet, the milling hounds and restless hunters, the music of the horn, the stirrup cup, will stay with me all my life, though I may never hunt again.

I did work for a short while for a vet, but this was most unsuccessful, as I have never been able to stand the sight of blood. Consequently, at operations I usually had to be assisted from the room before the job was half done. This made me rather more of a liability than an asset.

Animals destroyed at the vet's were taken to the vegetable garden and interred, unless the owners wanted the bodies. The vet had a rather macabre sense of humour. When we were sitting at lunch he would pass a remark on the splendour of the beans, or cabbage, then add, "That must be that white dog of Simpson's. Or, no, I think I put him in the turnip bed. It must be either the ginger cat, or that old dachsund."

I would see him wink at his wife, Helen, and look across at me to see my reaction, which always delighted him.  

 

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