What price progress for the peasant farmer?

Harvest by Jim Crace

harvest crace

Harvest should mark a time to celebrate a year’s bounty, but right from the start of Crace’s atmospheric new novel, there’s a hint of underlying darkness to come. When strangers come to the village, announcing their arrival by a smoking fire, normal life is upset. When the Master’s dovecote is set on fire it becomes too easy to pin it on the newcomers rather than drunken post harvest high jinks.

Walter Thirsk narrates the events – he is an incomer to the village himself and even after twelve years still doesn’t feel entirely as if he belongs. He came as one of the Master’s men, but fell for a local girl and was permitted to become a farmer. But Cecily died, so Walter alone again. The Master has troubles of his own; he’s a widower too, and having married in, is not the rightful heir to his late wife’s Manor – his cousin-in-law is on his way to claim his inheritance. He wants to enclose the wheat fields for sheep, and that needs less people. It seems that everything must change.

Through Walter’s eyes, we witness the disintegration of the village in just one week, as friendships dissolve into suspicion once the new Master arrives with his entourage. This small village, two days ride from the nearest town, has never known such emotional turmoil, and Walter is well placed to commentate on the events in both camps, those of peasant and squire.

Crace’s rich prose is hypnotic, laden with summer sultriness. His evocation of the countryside at harvest is truly beautiful, contrasting against the oafish behaviour and poisonous gossip of its inhabitants.

It struck me as I read, that this novel is very much a fable and can be envisaged as a reflection upon our current changing ways of life in the country; thus Walter is the parallel of Harvest‘s author.  This novel, which Crace has declared will be his last,  is one of his very best, and like Walter, he’s now moving on to something else.

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I received a review copy via Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Harvest by Jim Crace, Picador Hardback, Feb 2013, 320 pages.

A “perfick” entertainment…

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)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
The Darling Buds of May by HE Bates. Penguin paperback 160 pages.
The Darling Buds of May