An Interview with John Holman

John Holman is the author of two memoirs, Pom’s Odyssey and A Horse in My Suitcase (see the In Brief review that follows the interview), which chronicle his boyhood on a farm in a village in West Sussex, England, and his emigration to Australia at the age of nineteen. Both books are filled with humorous anecdotes and sketches of family members, friends, and others who played a role in Holman’s life and travels. CRB co-founder Brian Tanguay recently sat down with John Holman for a wide-ranging discussion about memoir writing. The interview that follows has been edited for length and clarity. 

BT: I was impressed with the vividness of your childhood recollections and wondered if you consulted artifacts like diaries or photographs?

JH: From around the age of fourteen or so I kept a diary, but to be honest it was such a vivid period in my life that I remembered things clearly or was reminded of certain family stories by my mother. I actually didn’t refer to the diaries while writing the book. I suppose I’ll leave them for my kids. 

BT: Does your family still own Bowshots Farm? Has the configuration of the property changed?

JH: My mother’s 103 and still lives in the same bungalow where my brothers and I grew up. She lives pretty much as she always has, rarely visits the doctor, and doesn’t take any medications. She grows her own vegetables, and up until a year ago still walked a mile every day. Along with my two brothers and their families, people in the village keep an eye out for her. Whenever any machinery broke down when I was a kid, it was my mother who would fix it. Today the farm is divided into several parcels, and many of the old buildings are gone. Unfortunately, the local pub that was the center of village life for decades has closed. But my mom’s house is largely unchanged from the way it was in 1959. It’s a bit of a time warp to step into.  

BT: One half of your family was deeply involved in the horse business.

JH: Yes, on one side it was horses and the other construction. My grandfather started the horse business in the 1920’s and kept at it until he died in the 1960’s. He operated the business through the war years, importing horses from Ireland and selling them. He had a reputation as an excellent judge of horseflesh. 

BT: When was the last time you rode a horse?

JH: It’s been a few years. It might be painful at my age! 

BT: Your grandfather was quite a character.

JH: Well, he certainly couldn’t be accused of being politically correct. If he was around today he’d likely be canceled!

BT: How was writing A Horse in My Suitcase different from writing Pom’s Odyssey?

JH: With the second book I think I had a better idea of how to write a story, how to think about scenes and dialogue and pacing. The memoir was conceived as one large book, but I decided to break it into two shorter parts. I finished writing A Horse in My Suitcase during the Covid lockdown and then sent it to three friends who happen to be competent editors. I struggled with making cuts, as all writers do, of deciding what fit and what ultimately didn’t fit. I made dozens of revisions. 

John Holman may not have hauled an actual horse in his suitcase when he emigrated from Bowshots Farm in England to Australia in 1969, but he did carry the memory of horses, his extended family, and a very particular landscape that was on the brink of change as he departed. Through his delightful memoir, A Horse in my Suitcase, Holman recollects in vivid detail his childhood and early adolescence in southern England, an indelible place he deeply loved and can never entirely leave behind. This memoir is full of hilarious anecdotes and family lore, plus some remarkable photographs of a bygone era. – BT