Find­ing so­lace in horse sense

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Pe­ter Pierce Pe­ter Pierce’s books in­clude From Go to Whoa: A Com­pen­dium of the Turf.

Elvis and Me By Gil­lian Wills Finch Pub­lish­ing, 245pp, $27.99

Af­ter nine years as dean of mu­sic at the Vic­to­rian Col­lege of the Arts, and a di­vorce, Gil­lian Wills moved to Queens­land in 2001. There she taught at ter­tiary level for a while be­fore free­lanc­ing as a mu­sic re­viewer and broad­caster. Rec­on­ciled to th­ese changes, and liv­ing with Rhys — an artist and pro­fes­sor of paint­ing — she re­mained a rest­less 56-year-old.

On a whim, this ‘‘eter­nal cham­pion of the dis­ad­van­taged’’ (as she rue­fully judges her­self) de­cided to buy a re­tired race­horse off a run­down prop­erty in NSW. She found Elvis ‘‘rangy, in­sect-mauled and trip­ping on stony ground with over­shod shoes’’. He was as un­pre­pos­sess­ing as a horse could be. Yet he be­came half of the in­trigu­ing story that Wills tells in Elvis and Me, the story of ‘‘how a world-weary mu­si­cian and a bro­ken race­horse res­cued each other’’.

Wills’s book has affini­ties with He­len Macdon­ald’s ac­claimed H is for Hawk, in which a woman griev­ing for her fa­ther de­cides to train a goshawk. Elvis — vet­eran of 48 starts and some vic­to­ries — will never re­turn to a race­track. In­deed, al­most as soon as he is pur­chased, Wills has to en­list vet­eri­nar­ian and other ex­pert help to keep him alive in the face of ul­cers, wind­suck­ing and a near fa­tal at­tack of colic.

Ex­penses rise. So does her frus­tra­tion. She dis­cov­ers that ‘‘there are fe­ro­ciously guarded bor­ders in eques­trian arts just as there are in the mu­sic world’’. When she ex­plains to one new ac­quain­tance that her friends can­not un­der­stand the de­ci­sion to buy and take care of Elvis, Wills is brusquely ad­vised to change her friends. She learns to de­pend on far­ri­ers, peo­ple who in their cho­sen oc­cu­pa­tion strike her as quirky as pi­ano tuners. As, grad­u­ally, she gains con­fi­dence — though never to the ex­tent of want­ing to ride Elvis reg­u­larly or stren­u­ously — Wills is told that horses can sense ‘‘a stronger you’’.

In pro­fes­sional life she was tem­pered by hard tri­als. Wills takes us back to the dare that gained her ad­mis­sion, in 1969, to the Royal Academy of Mu­sic, a place ‘‘smelling of clean­ing fluid, musty books and fear’’. She chose the tough­est of schools in which to teach be­fore mov­ing to Aus­tralia in 1986 with her then hus­band. Here she en­coun­tered an­other kind of fear, en­gen­dered by the ‘‘re­struc­tur­ing’’ of aca­demic in­sti­tu­tions and its ill-con­sid­ered hu­man costs.

Long be­fore then, she had sur­vived the un- happy life of her fam­ily: ‘‘tur­moil and may­hem reigned supreme in our semi-de­tached and a dark space grew within’’. Wills’s nar­ra­tive is prin­ci­pally con­cerned with the tra­vails of her com­mit­ment to Elvis, but within it is a slow, in­ter­mit­tent and telling re­lease of her much longer life story — not least the es­cape from England, in par­tic­u­lar from the ‘‘es­tranged, em­bit­tered, ea­gle eye’’ of her mother.

When Aileen is in­tro­duced, early in the book, she is an old, de­mented, seem­ingly harm­less woman who ‘‘lifted her arms and rat­tled a braceleted quarry of sil­ver charms’’. In Wills’s child­hood, her mother was a re­lent­less dis­par­ager of her younger daugh­ter. Per­haps this was a com­pen­sa­tion for the ‘‘al­co­hol-crazed rants’’ of an abu­sive hus­band. Fred­die is the most tanta- lis­ing char­ac­ter in Elvis and Me. Wills lets us see her fa­ther only in glimpses: ‘‘[recit­ing] Rus­sian po­etry in his sleep’’, RAF squadron leader awarded a gong, test pi­lot af­ter the war, then for­eign cor­re­spon­dent for Bri­tain’s Daily Mir­ror. Wills lets us in­fer that from the dam­age in­flicted by her fa­ther she ac­quired re­silience and dis­ci­pline. ‘‘I was fa­tally drawn to tam­ing in­tel­li­gent, trou­bled, out of the or­di­nary, awk­ward yet love­able male scal­ly­wags,’’ she writes.

Elvis and Me en­com­passes both the ‘‘com­plex di­as­pora of some ten thou­sand equine pro­fes­sion­als’’ in Aus­tralia and the comic events of sec­ond mar­riage for both Rhys and Wills. The ‘‘sor­ri­est horse I’ve ever seen’’ gives Wills the so­lace that tac­itly she had been seek­ing.

Elvis, who raced as Mem­phis Ten­nessee, was spared what Wills calls ‘‘the dog­gers’’ (pet food was not his end) in his post-rac­ing days.

This un­usual and ac­com­plished tale shows us the deep affin­ity pos­si­ble be­tween hu­mans and an­i­mals while recog­nis­ing the un­bridge­able chasm be­tween their ways of ex­is­tence. De­mand­ing as this recog­ni­tion is, Wills is no longer ‘‘world weary’’ by the time we leave Elvis and his com­pan­ions at The Last Chance Ranch.

Author Gil­lian Wills with her horse, Elvis, at her prop­erty in Ran­some, Queens­land

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