The Darling Buds of May by HE Bates is a very surprising story. It isn’t very long and is quite light, but is very entertaining.
The book tells the story of the Larkin family, scally-wag Pop, obese Ma, the beautiful Mariette (who may or may not be pregnant – neither Mariette or Ma are exactly sure who the father might be) and the rest of the Larkin children, who live in a “perfick” English rural paradise in the early 1950s.
Pop Larkin makes a good living for his family in a very dubious manner. The family have plenty to eat and own a farm, as well as all sorts of strange and wonderful items which were acquired by Pa as payments for debt, including a pre-war Rolls Royce complete with speaking tubes for passengers to direct the car’s driver.
The story begins with Pop and the family returning home from an ice cream run on a “perfick” (Pop Larkin’s word) May evening to find a tax collector, Mr Charlton, waiting for Pop. Mr Charlton, who Mariette takes a liking to, is treated as a long lost friend, plied with food and alcohol and invited to stay for the night. (‘Invited’ is probably the wrong word, as Pop gets Mr Charlton so drunk he was unable to remember his own name, let alone leave the farm). Mr Charlton is also attracted to Mariette, but in Ma’s words, Mr Charlton needs to improve his “technique” somewhat before a romance can blossom.
Not surprisingly, Mr Charlton stays on at the farm. He quickly becomes ‘Charley’ and his initial visit to collect a tax form extends to a three week stay. Charley picks strawberries with the Larkin women for cash, finds himself to be the cause of a physical fight between Mariette and another girl who has tried her own techniques on Charley, and practices and improves his own technique with Mariette enormously.
Pop lends his meadows to the local gymkhana for a competition and hosts a cocktail party, where Charley’s and Mariette’s engagement is announced. Pop also turns out to be less faithful to Ma than the reader originally realises, although Ma is aware of Pop’s romantic philandering. Ma doesn’t mind Pa’s romantic adventures with other women so long as she doesn’t miss out on any affection herself. Pop Larkin is a character who really knows how to live.
Charley becomes a happy convert to the Larkin’s way of life and by the end of the book, it is unlikely that he will ever return to his job at the tax office. This is not all that surprising based on the lovely food and alcohol descriptions throughout the book, which include ice creams, cocktails, roast goose, pork, strawberries and more. Not many pages go by without a description of good things to eat. The food alone makes me want to live with the Larkins, let alone getting my share of Pop’s affection.
I quite enjoyed The Darling Buds of May and found Pop to be a very entertaining character. If there is a moral to the story I’m not sure what it is, except that perhaps we could all could take a leaf out of Pop’s book and not take life so seriously. I didn’t see the television show way back in the 1980s which launched Catherine Zeta Jones’ career, but based on my enjoyment of the book, will probably try and find a few episodes to watch.