The Darling Buds of May by H E Bates
I’m re-reading one of my all-time favourite books ever. At first glance it's nothing more than the lightest of frothy comedies, as insubstantial and melt-in-the-mouth as one of Ma Larkin's cakes, but do not be deceived! Written in the late 1950s and with more books published in the series over the next ten years, this is a novel that perfectly encapsulates the post-war 1950s and early sixties, a time of great social change. It's not the gritty realism of Nell Dunn's 'Up the Junction' or Alan Sillitoe's 'Saturday Night and Sunday Morning' but nonetheless valid in its depiction of the financial shift which saw the aristocracy fall on hard times while the working classes, in the words of the British Prime Minister, Harold MacMillan, had 'never had it so good'.
It was made into an amazingly popular tv series some years ago, and saw the launch of Catherine-Zeta Jones’ career – and yes, it is CatherinehyphenZeta and not ZetahyphenJones. As far as I am concerned, though, it's a shining example of how the better the book, the worse the tv adaptation - obviously there are exceptions. Pride and Prejudice adapted by Andrew Davies is, of course, just completely brilliantly brilliant - (other than Jennifer Ehle's awful wig).
I thought the tv adaptation of The Darling Buds of May was hideous; a heavy-handed, slow-moving, slapstick affair with no real emotion at its core. The lovely thing about the books is in the lightness of touch. H E Bates describes complex emotions in the simplest of language and with a knowing wit and, like all great comedy, the book is, at its heart, tragic – with a consistent, bitter-sweet refrain throughout about the passage of time and the rapid post-war decay of the established order. These razor-sharp observations about class and money form the backbone of the book. It’s unusual in any novel to have a protagonist who is unapologetically happy, and it can be difficult for an author to write such a character without him or her coming across as one-dimensional, but it is not the case here. The Larkins might be rough diamonds, common as muck, as the saying goes, and awash with easy-come money; but diamonds they are indeed, kindness itself to genteelly poor Miss Pilchester, the once-dashing Brigadier, and the sundry other faded-gentry characters who find themselves cast adrift in the brave new, post-war world of the Larkins.
A book of its time and with enough in it to ruffle the feathers of the politically-correct swoopers; but I won’t apologise for that.
There are five novels in the series, and I wish there were more.
A Breath of French Air
When the Green Woods Laugh
Oh! To Be in England
A Little of What You Fancy.
Oh - and the Beryl Cook covers on the vintage Penguin editions are "jus' perfick!"
The chocolate cake that Ma Larkin would have knocked up for tea after a day spent with the family earning a few bob in the strawberry-picking fields