The bowled hills and river valleys of the border country in the west of England are my landscape, and when I wake up in the morning and look out at the fields and woods and hedges, I know I am looking at the frame of my heart. – Peter Benson, Two Cows and a Vanful of Smoke
Peter Benson has published seven novels, including The Levels (winner of the Guardian Fiction Prize), A Lesser Dependency (winner of the Encore Prize) and The Other Occupant (winner of the Somerset Maugham Award). The Evening Standard described him as “one of the most distinctive voices in modern British fiction”, while The Times said his writing was “funny and painful and beautifully done so that we recognize life with a gasp” whilst the reviewer of Two Cows and a Vanful of Smoke in The Independent said:
A new novel by Peter Benson is cause for celebration. Possibly the most underrated English novelist of the past quarter of a century, Benson is in part responsible for my love of books. – Christian House, ‘Two Cows and a Vanful of Smoke, By Peter Benson’, The Independent, 19 June 2011
I mention this up front more for my benefit than yours because I found I wasn’t terribly impressed by Two Cows and a Vanful of Smoke, although I’m having difficulty saying why exactly. I suspect it’s just me. There are some books that I have never been able to connect with from authors who have fans waiting with bated breath for their next fix. The thing is there’s nothing actually wrong with this. It is clearly written (and written clearly) by a man who obviously knows how to tell a good story and I feel terribly guilty for not being more excited about this book, particularly because it compares well to a couple of novels that I’ve read recently that I did enjoy. The two I’m thinking of are Fresh and especially Ghosts and Lightning both debut novels. All three books focus on people in . . . what shall we call it? . . . the lower strata of society, not, I grant you, a favourite topic with me but in the hands of the right person (e.g. Irvine Welsh) it can be an interesting setting to examine the human condition.
Benson’s book focuses on two young lads living in the West Country in 1976. Elliot, the narrator and main protagonist, is twenty-one, although, as he points out:
…that’s got little to do with it. I could have been twenty-four. It wouldn’t have made any difference to what happened. Or nineteen. Nothing would have changed.
Now 1976 I remember well for lots of reasons – the heat alone was memorable and the action in this novel takes place during that long, hot summer – and when I saw that I perked up a bit because I’m always fond of a bit of nostalgia. The West Country, however, is a foreign land to me. Basically you’re talking about the counties of Cornwall, Devon, Dorset and Somerset and I probably have as shallow a view of the natives there as most of them have of us Scots. Put it this way the first thing that came to mind was the Two Ronnies doing their farm yokels; that and The Wurzels. So, there you have it – shallow, shallow, shallow. To be fair Benson doesn’t go to any great lengths to suggest a West Country accent so apart from the place names – Appley, Kittisford, Stawley, Taunton, Ashbrittle and the fact that cider is their tipple of preference – this could be set in any rural community.
The blurb on the back says that it’s…
A tale of adventure with as many twists and turns as the enchanting Somerset landscape that forms its backdrop, Two Cows and a Vanful of Smoke is, above all a celebration of the English countryside – full of magic, history and superstition – where smoke is in the air, and where not all is what it seems.
My main gripe, I think, is the “twists and turns” because I wasn’t surprised by any of them. They weren’t always telegraphed but when they happened they were exactly the kind of ‘surprise’ I would have expected. The cover artist spoiled the only one I probably wouldn’t have seen coming because when I read ‘smoke’ I imagined a van filled with a collection of airborne solid and liquid particulates and gases. I did not, in my innocence, realise that ‘smoke’ is a euphemism for cannabis. Still even with that interpretation when Elliot and his mate Spike discover a polytunnel tucked away in the woods I was not taken aback to find it jam-packed with weed and after spending only a few pages in the company of Elliot’s best friend Spike it was glaringly obvious what he was going to do with said weed and as the street value of the aforesaid Class C (now Class B) drug was not insubstantial it was also no surprise that the owners thereof would come looking for their property after dealing appropriately (if somewhat harshly) with the gentleman they had left in charge of it and, perhaps after having just watched The Shadow Line the day before I started reading this, who the bad guy turns out to be also came as no great shock. Okay, that’s the bare bones of the story. Other things happen that you might not necessarily expect to find but nothing so unexpected I was left with my jaw hanging as I was with the aforementioned Shadow Line. That said, would Two Cows and a Vanful of Smoke translate onto the small screen? Yes, without a doubt, and it would work very well; I would probably watch it.
So what was it about the book that I didn’t enjoy if I’m happy to say I’d watch a TV adaptation? I think the answer is: time. This would fit neatly into an hour and a half drama, I have no doubt, whereas the book took me several hours to read and I didn’t find myself feeling that the time had been well spent. I had been entertained – I never said it wasn’t entertaining – but I was hoping for something deeper, more meaningful. It certainly wasn’t a hard read but from the beginning I didn’t bond with the protagonist and that’s a bad way to start any book. I’m going to be shallow here again. Elliot used to work as a tree surgeon. I used to know an ex-tree surgeon and I didn’t like him so, like I said, I probably started this book in the wrong frame of mind. He’s not a tree surgeon when we meet him though. Now he’s working on Mr Evans’ farm and living in a caravan; not that his family feels like he’s left home because he’s always popping around getting a bite to eat and a bit of advice. The advice comes mainly from his mother:
Three hundred years ago she would have been dragged from the house, accused of cursing a crop of cabbages, tried by a mob, found guilty of everything bad that had ever happened anywhere in the parish and burnt alive on the village green. Even now there are people in the village who cross the road when they see her or the cat. She was taught stuff by her mother, who was taught stuff by her mother, who was taught stuff by her mother, and so on until we don’t know who taught who what. When I say “stuff” I mean the old signs nature gives, the ones that everyone used to know but most people have forgotten. And beyond the old signs, sometimes she gets hunches – superstitious feelings, some people would say. Hunches about things that are about to happen, intuitions and insights.
Apparently she’s seen the same potential in her son which is why when Spike tells him he wants to show him something he should have just known it meant trouble if only because he heard “a distant croak, the call of a single raven” just after Spike has told him to meet him that night:
“Beware,” I whispered. “Be careful.”
“You fucking weirdo,” said Spike, and then, “you coming or you going to be a chicken for the rest of your life?”
“OK,” I said, “but let’s be careful.”
“Aren’t I always?”
I said nothing.
The whole “magic” undercurrent is interesting – I kept expecting Elliot to come to some sort of spiritual awakening and I suppose you might say that he does have one when, in a moment of crisis, he resorts to one of his mother’s charms but on the whole it’s underplayed and kept in its place. This is very much a novel set in the real world. As Elliot comments:
I watched a magpie, a single chattering bird that hopped from branch to branch and back again like an evil shadow of its own image. Mum always told me to salute the magpie, but I wondered; are the old superstitions simply reflections of our fears, and do we make the superstitions real by acknowledging our fears? Sometimes I surprised myself with the things I thought.
At first I thought this was going to be a buddy-movie-kind-of-a-novel, two lads get in a bit of bother and rely on their wits, charm and luck to get themselves out of it but it didn’t pan out that way. When the going gets tough Spike bolts for cover and Elliot is left holding the baby, er, weed.
Enter the love interest. I have nothing against a bit of romance in a novel, even a bit of rumpy-pumpy if needs be, but quite often the appearance of a woman feels contrived and formulaic, a little (and don’t shoot me down for this) something for the ladies. Does Tarzan really need Jane? (Try googling “unnecessary love interest” – it’s interesting reading.) In Elliot’s case it’s Sam, one of the (so-called) hippy-girls that have made their home in the village. Once again there is absolutely nothing wrong with the introduction of a girl here. It happens naturally enough if a little too easily (although I’m probably basing that on my experiences with women) and it is, of course, convenient; it provides a bit of a subplot when we really need one if this book isn’t going to end up being a novella.
The main theme of this book, as far as I could see it, is human bondage; the ties that bind. Elliot, despite the fact that he’s no longer living at home, is still clearly bound to his family but especially his mother and her beliefs; he is bound to his best friend and the book would not be the book it is without his (misplaced?) loyalty to Spike; he is bound to his employer, Mr Evans; he is bound to Sam; bound to the truth; and his fate bound up with a vanload of cannabis. Everyone is pulling at him, the bad guys, the good guys and the guys who just happen to get in his road from time to time. As Elliot notes, "until you meet these people you are only part of a person. You need others to make you." But what exactly do they make of Elliot?
The other is, I suppose, meaning. It gets confused with magic but the whole point to the charms his mother gets him involved is that actions have consequences and everywhere we’re surrounded by the consequences of other people’s – or creatures’ – actions:
Another pigeon flew past and a crow. A pigeon followed by a crow meant something, and it meant something important, but I couldn’t remember what.
A “hoop house” hidden in the woods means something too, nothing remotely magical but the meaning was clear as soon as the two lads ducked inside the thing. I didn’t, however, find this book meant anything to me. I can relate to Elliot’s sense of duty but I find it hard to see why he was ever friends with an idiot like Spike, but then again maybe Spike only grew into his idiocy once their friendship was already established. Benson is ages with me – a couple of years older – but his 1976, the heat wave excepted, feels very different to mine. You wouldn’t think that 350 miles would make that much of a difference. But it does.
The other thing the blurb talks about is “a celebration of the English countryside” and to be fair Benson does a good job in painting a believable and colourful picture of life in and around a small English village and I suppose if I’d had more experience of them I might have been moved more by the descriptions. The nearest I could conjure up other than what I’ve seen on TV was a car trip Carrie and I took through the Lake District; that was picturesque. This is what he has to say about landscape:
Landscapes print themselves on people’s minds. They start slowly and push themselves in gently, and they never stop. They become part of someone, like an arm or hair or an eye or a finger. Remove some people from a landscape, and they hurt as much as if you’d cut off their nose.
Although I understand what he’s going on about I’ve never had that kind of relationship with the land.
I feel bad about not being about to be as excited as Christian House in The Independent and I would certainly give Benson another go but I really was the wrong reviewer for this particular one. The book he’s working on at the moment, about a 98-year-old English aristocrat who's waiting in his crumbling house for the police to arrive and arrest him for sticking a Toledo stiletto in the eye of a radio producer who said the wrong thing to his daughter, sounds much more interesting.
His work has been described as ‘a far-reaching exploration into unlikely relationships’ and is characterised by the precision of its language, characterisations and approach.
and that gives me hope.