Book Review: The Darling Buds of May by H.E. Bates

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My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read Bates’Love For Lydia last year and was not especially entranced by either the writing or the whole raison d’etre of the story. Rich people being boringly melodramatic doesn’t fill me with a great deal of sympathy for the characters, to be honest.

‘The Darling Buds of May’ scores considerably higher from this point of view. It also helps that Bates is on much firmer ground with comedy than he is with drama. The book looks at the family of Pop and Ma Larkin and the various shenanigans they get up to in idyllic rural Kent. They are a simple family with simple life values, ostensibly ‘poor’ but, more accurately, just not playing by the taxman’s rules. Living ‘off the grid’, as it were.

Eccentric and good-humoured throughout, the story is really homage to the best of what it means to be English in the early 1950s, as the effects of the Second World War faded but before the advance of technology really began. It is fun, irreverent and ‘means no harm’ in any of the gentle fun-poking of various characters who would be easily recognised to anyone living between 1940 and 1980. Indeed, I first learned of this book – which has long fallen from favour as a ‘classic’ – from the early 90s TV series of the same name, starring the rather wonderful David Jason as Pa Larkin. Although I didn’t watch the series myself, I knew of it and my parents regular watched the show, so I often saw scenes as I came and went. Looking back, thirty years later, and I think of those times fondly and maybe a little bit sadly; so I am predisposed to think well of this book.

And I do indeed, think well of it, but that doesn’t mean I think it is very good, per se. As I complained of ‘Love for Lydia’ the Larkin stories hark back to a time that didn’t really exist. These people are caricatures, stereotypes of the time. We laugh at Pa because he’s a bumbling, confused alcoholic who’s a bit too free with his hands and the ladies, and leads a borderline parasitical amoral life. Take the Larkins out of the beautiful countryside and put them into inner city London of the 1970s and you’d have a very different and much darker feel to the story. Pa Larkin finds everything ‘perfick’ because he’s lucky enough to live in such an environment. He’s not done an awful lot to create that himself. Bates simply can’t do depth, frankly.

So, ‘The Darling Buds of May’ is not a great classic then, despite its huge popularity for decades after publication in 1958. That said, my oft-spoken test of a good book – do I care about the characters after the last page is turned? – finds that the book is better than I would ideally care to admit. Yes, I really do care about the characters. Yes, I do want to know what happens to them next (and yes, I almost certainly will read the next in the series). For all the two-dimensional quality of the characters, I liked them; I really liked them. There’s no getting to grips with what life was really like here and, yes, the nostalgia is for a something which didn’t actually really exist but – all the same – what’s wrong in the occasional bit of pure yearning for fantasy? After all, it’s why we read fiction isn’t it?

I certainly feel that Bates’ writing is something of an older person’s taste and, to be blunt, something of a white middle class Englishman’s taste. Nevertheless, there’s no real harm in this book, certainly no malintent. The Larkins are fun to have around, to watch, to giggle at and, at the end of the day, to sigh with relief that they don’t really exist and they are not your neighbours. The thought does actually make me shudder.

Social Entrepreneur, educationalist, bestselling author and journalist, D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page. Listen to his life story in interview with the BBC here.

His latest book is ‘Try not to Laugh’ and is a guide to memorising, revising and passing exams for students.

Both ‘The Old Man on the Beach’ and ‘Sonali’ are available on Amazon for kindle and paperback. Published by Shopno Sriti Media. The novel,’The Pukur’, will be published by Histria Books in 2022.

D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at Alternatively, he is available for one-to-one mentoring and runs a course on the psychology of writing.

Ken writes for a number of publications around the world. Past reviewer for Paste magazine, The Doughnut, E2D and United Airways,  and currently reviews for Lancashire Life magazine and Northern Arts Review.

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