It’s not often that you can successfully combine a phrase and idea from a Shakespeare sonnet – number 18 as it happens. You know the one that begins:
“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:”
… with the sort of family that TV’s Del and Rodney Trotter from Only Fools and Horses would be proud to be descended from – and make a big-hearted comedic story that really works! Well, that’s what H.E.Bates did in his 1958 novel The Darling Buds of May.
The Shakespearean title refers to the Kent countryside at the start of the fruit-picking season, and there’s more Shakespearean resonance in the central family of the book who could be picked straight from the ‘rude mechanicals’ of A Midsummer Night’s Dream…
The Larkins are a big family with a lust for life, and a flair for wheeling and dealing – they could be the Trotter’s country cousins, which brings me back to the TV. For you see, Del Trotter, Peckham wide-boy, was played by David Jason for over a decade from the early 1980s. In the 1990s he went on to play Pop Larkin in a TV adaptation of The Darling Buds, (which also featured a young Catherine Zeta Jones).
I didn’t watch the TV adaptation, I only caught little snatches of it. Call me a snob, but in those days I watched little TV on the commercial channels! I probably missed a gem, for when reading this book, it was David Jason, Pam Ferris, Catherine Z-J and Philip Franks I visualised as Bates’s main characters – and I was delighted to find that they didn’t jar at all! They were actually pretty close to the versions in the Beryl Cook painting on the cover of my paperback – which actually came after the TV series. But now on to the book itself…
‘Perfick wevver! You kids alright in the back there? Ma, hitch up a bit!’
Ma, in her salmon jumper, was almost two yards wide.
‘I said you kids alright in there?’
‘How do you think they can hear,’ Ma said, ‘with you revving up all the time?’
Pop laughed again and let the engine idle. The strong May sunlight, the first hot sun of the year, made the bonnet of the truck gleam like brilliant blue enamel. All down the road, winding through the valley, miles of pink apple orchards were in late bloom, showing petals like light confetti.
Scene set, we’re introduced to the Larkins, all tucking in to huge ice-creams and bowling their way home. They have six children, five girls and a boy – all with idiosyncratic names. They live in what could only be described as almost a rural idyll – a big cottage with bluebell wood, stream, chickens scratching in the yard – and a muddy scrapyard on the side.
Their eldest child, Mariette was named for Marie Antoinette, but Pop thought that was too long, so they shortened it. Mariette thinks she’s pregnant, but her parents don’t seem too bothered about it, although it’s soon obvious they’d like to get her paired off as soon as possible. An opportunity soon presents itself with the arrival of the taxman!
Mr Charlton, a young and impressionable civil servant sent to get Pop to fill in his tax return, is instantly smitten by Mariette. Pop will do anything to avoid paying any tax, and he, Ma and Mariette turn on the charm offensive big-time, wooing Charley, and before he knows it, he’s virtually part of the family.
This central story is interwoven with many sketches from the Larkin’s lives – fruit picking, Pop doing a deal on an old Rolls Royce, Pop saving the local gymkhana by offering his field for it, more shenanigans with the neighbours, and, all through the book is Ma – loving her kitchen and producing huge mountains of food for everyone. Ma and Pop regard their brood with great pleasure, and their relationship is rock solid, earthy and loving …
A moment later she turned to reach from a cupboard a new tin of salt and Pop, watching her upstretched figure as it revealed portions of enormous calves, suddenly felt a startling twinge of excitement in his veins. He immediately grasped Ma by the bosom and started squeezing her. Ma pretended to protest, giggling at the same time, but Pop continued to fondle her with immense, experienced enthusiasm, until finally she turned, yielded the great continent of her body to him and let him kiss her full on her soft big mouth.
The Larkins are irresistible and irrepressible! It was lovely too to see Mr Charlton gradually lose his inhibitions and join the gang who were never going to take no for an answer.
In keeping with the book’s Shakespearean roots, the Larkins are all nature-lovers. They all know, however, that the chickens in the yard will end up on the table sooner or later, they’ll have had a good life though.
This short book was absolutely charming, full of good humour with some sparkling dialogue. It’s a top class gentle comedy, and the good news is that Bates wrote five Larkins novels, so I’ve got four more to look forward to, as I fell in love with this cheeky family. (10/10)