Andrew is living the perfect lie: he’s married to Diane and they have two children and a large family home. The innocence of this lie snowballs rapidly after a successful interview with the local council for a job in Death Administration. Bereaved at a young age, Andrew has had more than his fair share of loss. But in truth, family life on any level doesn’t exist for Andrew – he’s something of a nerdy loner, preferring his own company to socialising, and he’d much prefer to forget about his past. His job for the council is both fascinating and sad, and arranging funerals for those who’ve died alone touches a nerve in Andrew and he becomes steadily more concerned about his own fate. When Peggy joins the office her forthright personality draws out something of the man Andrew used to be, and a friendship blossoms. But a team-building exercise based on Come Dine With Me, is poised to blow everything apart and Andrew’s entire life looks set to be exposed – the rundown flat he shares with his model railway, the difficult relationship with his sister and her husband… and what happened to the real Diane.
Dark humour with a strong and original message about family ties. I found this read a slow burn to start but my enjoyment rapidly increased as the novel developed, and I loved the final third. Although there are dark themes – death, loneliness, depression, funerals – the satirical humour bubbles beneath the surface and the narrative remains witty and engaging. The secondary characters are relatable, colourful and interesting, and these subplots compliment the main story and add complex layers. There are numerous sad circumstances throughout, but it is also about the potential of love, truth, and hope, and the light these powers can bring to the darkest of places.
Upstanding and thoroughly uptight tax inspector Cedric Charlton pays a visit to the Larkin’s sprawling farm and junk yard – intent on discovering why a certain buff-yellow tax return hasn’t been returned to his office for inspection. Before too long he’s bewitched by the Larkin’s beautiful – albeit secretly pregnant – daughter, Mariette, and within a matter of days tax evasion becomes a distant memory. Pa and Ma Larkin quickly see the advantages of having Charlton on side and he’s soon seduced into a world of feasting and drinking amid the lush 1950’s countryside in the grip of a heatwave, when everything – even the strawberry picking – feels overwhelmingly sensual.
Food pays a big part in the Larkin’s generous household, where the TV is never turned off and there’s always a couple of geese in the oven and a slab of butter on the table. There’s no finesse or good taste attached to this gorging it’s more about the quantity, the tomato ketchup, the cocktails, the beer for breakfast, and the size of the joint. And there’s always a deal to be done, whether its taking an extravagant car in lieu of a debt, or something more personal… The slightly shifty, happy-go-lucky, belching Larkins’ are well contrasted against their neighbours; the shrewish church mice Edith Pilchester and Miss Barnwells, tiny Aunt Fans, and the impoverished Brigadier, constantly worried about his vast, crumbling estate. Never one to miss an opportunity, Pa Larkin offers him scrap value for it. The result is a kaleidoscope of colourful, original, larger-than-life characters coming together for the final scene in the Larkin’s meadow. Perfick.
Browsing through an online list of vintage books I came across an ancient, yellowing copy of this book, first published in 1965. I decided I must have it, purely for the sake of nostalgia and, I told myself, pertinent to the writing of my equine diaries. And so I reacquainted myself with the story of Dundreary Riding School and its imminent closure. Narrated partly by eight rebellious inmates it soon becomes clear that the future is not entirely in the hands of their owner, Daisy Dedleigh-Sirkett. Being especially bright, Daisy’s ponies are fully aware that the most desirable outcome lies in acquiring a loving, knowledgable little girl of their own. Of course, all ponies know that little girls are something designed by nature to look after them. Naturally, they dread being sold to an ill-trained, wilful child. In the event of impending disaster along these lines, Old Smoky’s advice is to fully utilise the four equine aids at their disposal: the head, the hooves, the whinny, and the teeth. It’s important to seem more confident than you are, he says. And don’t forget… you are in charge.
Smoky goes on to explain that head-shaking is usually enough to dispel small disagreements such as being asked to trot instead of staying in walk, turning left instead of right, and so on. Fix those too-tight reins by stopping to graze; thus allowing the errant child to suddenly shoot forwards and hit the grass. If the child clutches at your mane and begins to kick and scream instead, fling up your head and hit the child smartly on the nose. With exceptionally ill-mannered children it might be necessary to force a temporary separation through swerving, rearing, or bucking. At any chosen moment – preferably in full gallop – simply change course with no warning and the offending child will sail smartly over your withers. Some ponies scamper away after such an event, others choose to consider the matter closed and graze quietly. On the yard, it’s important to draw attention to any instances of neglect by whinnying; instances such as being late with your bucket feed, not noticing an empty hay-net, failing to refresh your water, and so on. If all else fails, a firm nip is always a good reminder of who is in charge. Meanwhile, at The South Dorset Pony Club, there’s a dismounted rally taking place and Miss Nutshell offers some sage advice to the beginners and nervous children. It’s important to seem more confident than you are, she says. And don’t forget… you are in charge.
I begin to wonder just how much ‘training’ I’ve been given over the years without realising! Is ‘being in charge,’ quite so relevant these days? ‘Show him who’s the boss,’ was something I heard throughout the sixties and seventies. The principle is perhaps much the same, although we talk more about Leadership than Mastership in these politically correct times. And as the ponies of Dundreary discover, that point when novice riders became tolerable and gain sufficient equine intelligence (what a wonderful term this is; it suggests that good horsemanship is a satisfactory dovetailing of a concessionary partnership, something I believe in wholeheartedly) they vanish, and buy ponies of their own. And the tiresome learner-rider business begins all over again. How true these sentiments are. And I love that Smoky tempers his advice with the idea that once discrepancies have been settled, the relationship between rider and pony must continue with kindness and consideration. Every pony deserves an owner blessed with a modicum of equine intelligence. I do hope there’s a special place in heaven for all riding-school ponies, fictional and otherwise. They sure deserve it.