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Susan’s Bookshelves: The Darling Buds of May by HE Bates

Forget David Jason and Bradley Walsh. Go back to HE Bates’s 1958 short novel. No dramatisation will ever capture the glorious, hilarious, sensuous plenteousness of the writing.

Pop Larkin has a “perfick” life. He has a wife (sort of) who is “almost two yards wide”, laughs like a jelly and cooks likes an angel. She has borne him six pleasure loving, contented children. He has a comfortable  home surrounded by nature, his land, farm animals, wheeling/dealing activities and vehicles. Taxes? What are they?

It’s the most colourful book I’ve ever read – you almost need sunglasses. There are, for example, eleven colour references on page one alone.  Everything gleams, beams, beckons and glitters.  The book works on every one of the reader’s five senses. You can taste the apple sauce, feel the feathery goose foraging under the table, hear the sounds of the horn on the old Rolls Royce which Pop acquires (don’t ask how), see Ma’s capacious folds and smell the blossom and fruit in the Kent countryside in a warm May.

Now, I remember 1958 clearly. It was the year I left primary school. We weren’t well off at all but did all right  by the standards of the day, as did most of my friends. But I never saw a fresh pineapple. Ma Larkin goes out and buys three – which they eat with Jersey double cream, a product I’d never seen or tasted at that date. For most of us it was a dribble of Libby’s evaporated milk on tinned fruit  which was supposed to be a treat. The last of WW2 rationing had only been gone four years after all. My family had a small fridge by then but I had lots of friends whose mums still had to rely on cool larder. The Larkins have a huge fridge and a deep-freeze – I knew no one who had the latter in a private house at that date. Most of us had TV in the sitting room by then but the Larkins have two sets.  Few ordinary people kept booze in the house other than at Christmas but the Larkins knock back blow-your-head-off cocktails all the time.

So the Larkins are not ordinary. And that’s where the humour lies. They are neither educated nor privileged. Pop cannot sign his name, although he manages to read a book of cocktail recipes. These people are what my Grandmother (decades before political correctness or wokery were invented) would have called “common as dirt”.  While people in circles like mine were worrying about the eleven plus, paying the rent and maybe having a roast chicken (luxury!) for Christmas,  The Larkins are cheerfully and happily  living life to the full – very full. In places the description of Ma’s meals – which are served continually – is almost food pornography. Yet, they’re wonderfully generous to other people and the chuckling reader can’t help liking them. l

The main plot line in The Darling Buds of May (the first of five Larkin books) is the arrival of querulous, thin, anxious Mr Charlton from The Inland Revenue. Pop plies him with drink and friendly overtures and flaunts the delectable Mariette (the eldest daughter who could do with a husband fairly urgently – although that eventually turns out to be a false alarm). Gradually Mr Charlton goes native – and the transition is laugh-aloud funny  because we can see that Pop isn’t quite as disingenuous as he pretends. He has no intention of paying any taxes and this young man, knocked out by rich food, strong drink and arousal, could be a useful way of dealing with Mariette’s situation.

Finally, and as an extra bonus, the book is worth reading for the rich originality of HE Bates’s writing. “The field trembled like a zither with chattering women’s voices” and “… a pair of crumpled corduroys the colour of a moulting stoat” are examples of the sort of writing which makes this reader alternate between jumping for joy and sighing in admiration.

No TV adaptation comes close. I rest my case.

Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: End of Story by Louise Swanson

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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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