I knew very little about journalist Richard Benson or his books before we invited him to converse in the dovegreyreader tent, and it was the same for several of my guests, yet by the time they arrive and sit down I feel as if I could do Mastermind on them, in fact I probably know more about them than they know about themselves, and it is true that reading both of Richard Benson's books took up about 750 pages of reading time prior to the festival, but what intensely pleasurable and well-spent time it was.
I had somehow missed The Farm when it was published and won the Guardian First Book Award in 2005. It is Richard Benson's account of the loss of his family's farm near Doncaster where he had been born in 1966. Richard by now a journalist living in London travels home to help his parents Gordon and Pauline and brother Guy with the sale of the farm. By his own admission Richard had been 'the village idiot with O Levels,' and it is this self-effacing approach that makes every page of his two books such worthwhile and pleasurable reading. Whilst his brother Guy, now a man of few words and many grunts, proved to be 'a sort of child prodigy' where farming was concerned, Richard was the torch-shiner, the gate-opener, the maggot-scraper, leaving everyone else to get on with the real jobs, but family love and loyalty compel him to return and support through such tough times.
We talked about The Farm, and the family, and how you can possibly make your own family of such sustained interest to others, because this is exactly what Richard achieves in The Valley, an in depth look over the last century at the lives and times of his mother Pauline's family. Now I'll admit that sounds a bit...well dry and dusty, but think again because I was transfixed by The Valley.
Part biography, part novel, part social history, somehow Richard Benson creates something revealing and intimate yet set against the vast backdrop of some the twentieth century's defining moments...the wars, National Service, the Suez Crisis, the Coronation, the miner's strikes, giving, via a century of history, a resounding and highly entertaining voice to the ordinary people. There will be none of Rachel Cooke's brilliant careers for the women of the family as they fight their way, against the odds, towards freedom and feminism... some are the doormats, the betrayed, the victims of domestic abuse and their children, trapped and disempowered by the ne'er-do-well men. And whilst the world out there is changing, and education and choices and options are ever-increasing, back in the Dearne valley change is slow and perfunctory if it happens at all.
Richard Benson bravely doesn't flinch from telling it like it was, admitting that he had had some incredibly moving interviews with members of his family who were speaking about some of the toughest moments of their lives, and perhaps for the first time. If you have ever wondered about domestic violence back in the day , and why women stayed in seemingly intolerable situations it becomes crystal clear in Richard Benson's account...no options, no sympathy, no money, no home and almost an accepted part of life. And then from the child's perspective, I defy anyone not to be moved by Gary's life and his story, and the importance of his extended family (especially his grandparents) who gave him that indentity with which to explain himself, making a lonely person feel wanted, and by listening to him and taking him seriously giving him a base line to work from into adulthood. The individual stories shine out around The Valley; a galaxy of them like a constellation waiting to be joined up, and it is this mapping and linking that Richard Benson creates so superbly in this memorable book.
Like most families' lives it is not all doom and gloom, far from it, there is hilarity and high jinks here too and Richard had us in hysterics about his aunt Juggler Jane pushing a pram through the village and receiving congratulations on the new birth when in fact the pram housed a dead sheep destined for many ovens and Sunday roasts.
One of the joys of the book was that I came to know the family. If I am ever invited to a party I would have plenty to talk about that's for sure, and how sorry we were when our time was up.
The Knitsuke was easy really (well easy for me to suggest, less easy to make unless you are the Knit Angel of course). Still upset about one of the biggest losses in the lives of Richard and his immediate family I sent the message across...can you please knit a farm.
Lynne lent me a copy of The Farm to read, before I went on to read The Valley, and she suggested that I doodle and scrumble a picture of ‘the farm’. This was another delightful challenge, and again no pattern to follow. I tried to add in the little bits and pieces mentioned in the book such as the tractor, the flowers, the farmhouse, the dry stone walls and hedgerows. I then also knitted a pig!
With thanks to Richard for a great book and a wonderful event.