John Holman and ‘A Horse in My Suitcase’

By Jeff Wing   |   September 12, 2023
John Holman’s memoir, A Horse in My Suitcase, tells of his early life in West Grinstead with comical detail

John Holman – U.K. expat, adventurer, programmer, grandson, and nephew of a storied horse-trader and Royal jockey, respectively – has written an affecting and often hilarious memoir of his youth in a tiny, post-war West Sussex village. His bittersweet memoir of village life in rural England is called A Horse in My Suitcase, and will appeal to anyone whose thoughts, in quiet moments, harken back to a personal time and place they can scarcely believe they once inhabited.

Q. You’ve come such a long, long way and experienced so much since your childhood daydreaming at Bowshots Farm in Sussex. What effect did writing A Horse in My Suitcase have on you? 

A.A few years ago I found some old diaries in my mother’s attic that I wrote as a teenager. Apart from being really badly written and acutely embarrassing, they brought back many memories of characters long dead and forgotten but also reaffirmed how much I had written in the book was factual. 

What memory of your time in West Sussex can truly be said to pierce your heart in the remembrance, if any…?

Probably the death of my grandfather, ‘Grampy’ as my brothers and I called him, who bestrode our world like a colossus. Love him or hate him, you couldn’t ignore him. I still divide my life into two uneven halves – the half with Grampy and the half without.

What is it like to visit your mom in West Grinstead and step into your childhood home? It must feel a bit like time travel. 

Going home is somewhat bittersweet. My mother, who is 103 years young, still lives in the family home – “Forestation” – named for a racehorse her youngest brother John rode before the Second World War; a war he never returned from. Stepping through her front door is indeed like time travel – it remains exactly the same as when I left home in 1969, which is somewhat comforting. But it’s also sad because I know it won’t stay that way much longer. And Bowshots Farm is no more. Its demise began when it was divided in half by a North Sea gas line. Bits were sold off to various people who bought houses on the perimeter. The farm looks the same from a distance, but it isn’t.

Is West Grinstead largely unchanged? 

While the village looks much the same, the demographics have changed. When I was growing up it was largely an agricultural community. There were two pubs, two village stores, a busy railway station, and two churches. Today, only the churches remain, but struggle to find bodies on pews. Today, West Grinstead is more of a place for commuters who live in gentrified farm cottages and converted barns, and much like Santa Barbara they sell for a small fortune.Now there is a car every second as compared to one every 20 minutes or so when I was a kid… 

I did read somewhere that a longtime local pub closed there, which seems terribly ‘end of an era.’ 

The Tabby Cat pub – where Grampy used to clinch deals in a smoky back room – ceased to exist as a pub about 30 years ago. My father ran it until his death in 1979. My brother Nick took over the lease when he retired from his career as a steeplechase jockey and ran it in the early 1980s. A restaurant chain took it over and turned the old pub into an English version of Denny’s, then it became a restaurant, but COVID finished that enterprise. Now it’s a pre-school!

What lessons in personal character did you take from West Grinstead that may have helped you in later life? 

My grandparents and parents have always been resilient, stoic, and self-reliant – having survived two world wars and a depression. Most of my family today still make their living in occupations the family has been involved in for centuries – horses, pubs, or building – all requiring a certain resilience to survive in. As for personal character, I think my greatest influence was and still is my mother, who was the quiet force who held our family together. She is such a strong woman, and the few good points I have in my character came from her. When I was a young lad struggling to survive in outback Australia, in the back of my mind I would always think: “Would Mum approve of what I’m doing? What would she do in this situation?” Of course, I didn’t always follow this rule, but it sure helped me through some difficult times. 

Where do you feel most at home?

Although I’ve lived 40 years in Santa Barbara and 11 in Australia, I still feel completely at home in West Grinstead, even with all the changes. But I doubt I could move back; the cold, damp climate wouldn’t suit me. I’ve become spoiled living in Santa Barbara. My grandfather would say, “You’ve
gone soft!”

John Holman’s memoir A Horse in My Suitcase (published by Amazon at $20) is available at Tecolote Book Shop in Montecito’s Upper Village, and Chaucer’s Books in Santa Barbara, as well.


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