LAST month ITV announced a planned remake of H E Bates’s The Darling Buds Of May, the series to be called The Larkins.. As it happens, I am reading the fifth Larkin book, A Little Of What You Fancy (1970) and what Bates says there, a generation after the war and shortly before our entry into the Common Market, is relevant historically and to our times also, especially now that we are, to some extent and after years of struggle, Out.
The latest Penguin edition quotes the Spectator on the front cover: ‘A wistful daydream about innocence and happiness.’ Bates is nothing like so twee. He is a poet of Eros, a great writer and, through his work, a great teacher.
Pop Larkin is an illiterate wheeler-dealer with a deep love of his large family and his ‘perfick Paradise’ in Kent, reflecting the joy in Nature that Bates’s grandfather taught him in Northamptonshire. Ma is a fertility goddess, shaped like the Willendorf Venus (vital statistics 55-55-55) and, as big women can be, very sensual. The book opens with the two having drink-fuelled morning sex, as an unfortunate result of which Pop has a heart attack.
What helps him recover is the need to defend the country he loves. The most immediate threat is from developers who are planning a road right through his property as part of the preparations of the Channel Tunnel, a project agreed between the UK and France in 1964 but still in the studies-and-negotiation stage at the time Bates was writing.
The wider menace is the Common Market. The two elderly Misses Barnwell have views that caused one Amazon reviewer to steam with internationalist indignation but which resonate with Pa, his down-at-heel neighbour the retired Brigadier, Pa’s posh and gorgeous admirer Angela Snow (Ma keeps Pop on a loose leash for the sake of ‘variety’) and others:
‘Do you wish to be swallowed by the Continent? We have been an island for all time, haven’t we? Hasn’t it served us well? Isn’t it our strength, our salvation? Wasn’t it that that saved us during the war? The sea is our defence, isn’t it? Do you want to see it destroyed? . . . Do you want us to lose sovereignty?’
We might not have wanted it, but thanks to the dictatorial oddball Ted Heath we got it in 1973, and we stayed in thanks to the pushmi-pullyu Harold Wilson, who led opposition to membership while in Opposition but persuaded us to confirm it by referendum when he was in power two years later, threatening us with shortages of ‘FOOD and MONEY and JOBS’.
Like Bates, who witnessed the aerial express trains of Goering’s bombers heading for London from his Kentish barn conversion, the tiny but tough Barnwells looked defiantly across the Channel during the war: ‘There was often an artillery bombardment going on and often a battle in the air and sometimes it was terrific fun.’
Bates earned the right to his feelings, as a Flying Officer directed to live with and write about the fighter and bomber squadrons, with their terrible losses and the premature ageing of the young men. He also, in a still-unpublished but superb HMSO pamphlet, told the story of the second and even more desperate night-time Battle of Britain, one that might have finished us had Hitler not turned East. Then there were the doodlebugs – he heard the crash as one destroyed his local church at Little Chart – and the V2 rockets (he wrote about them, too).
Even after victory, there were losses. Britain was bust, and Pop’s older genteel neighbours are all ‘kippers and curtains’, depending on Supplementary Benefit to eke out their microscopic pensions. It’s worth remembering that when Field Marshal Montgomery came home he turned down the millions that Parliament was offering him because the country needed the money more – despite Monty himself having no home but a couple of caravans. Pop’s Australian nurse likes the old, shabbily-dressed Brigadier: ‘He was a bit of the real old, vanishing England, a relic of the old imperial.’
On the other hand, there was new money coming in. In an earlier Larkins book, a City financier buys a country mansion close to Pop, who tells him there is no shortage of potential household staff (but doesn’t say they will be hop- and fruit-picking all summer); now others are jaunting into the countryside to shoot pheasant, so Pop has started to breed birds for their target practice. Another newcomer is an unfriendly Communist professor of physics who has bought a holiday cottage next door to hard-up Edith Pilchester; while the latter is baking for Church bazaars and sewing cushions for unmarried mothers, the former’s love of humanity is abstract and he opines that ‘there are few innocents left. And no poor.’ No need for charity.
The Welfare State is spoiling the next generation: at the village shop (the sight of a man buying ice creams for his truckload of children in the 1950s was what inspired Bates’s Larkin series), Edith is counting her pennies for her purchases while a slatternly young woman is loading her basket with food from all countries – in 1946 she’d have found bread on ration, thanks to President Truman’s abruptly turning off our national credit – and complaining bitterly about the lack of Roquefort and escargots, when not smacking her little boy and buying him off with crisps.
This isn’t simple snobbery from the author. Bates began with nothing and was destined for a hard and ill-paid life in Northampton’s boot and shoe industry, but escaped thanks to an inspirational, war-wounded teacher and his own iron will to become a professional writer, at whatever cost.
The first Larkin book was a shout for joy in life, against the misery and privations of war, and a libertarian attitude to fleshly matters which was not cold-hearted and louche but an acceptance of human nature and impulses, refusing to make a fuss about things such as teenage pregnancy when so much more important, tragic things had happened. Bates defied the mean-spirited and hypocritical; he was an English romantic without rose-tinted lenses, and with an intuitive passion for the land and its people, showing how their hearts could be. Innocent, but not ignorant.
Now we are Out, mostly, with the hope that in time we will be altogether free. What shall we do with our country?