Richard Benson is a former editor of The Face and has written for many newspapers and magazines in the UK. The Farm is his first book.
What made you write The Farm?
When I went home to help my family with their farm sale, I started writing about what was happening, just for myself, privately, in a diary. Partly because I felt a bit upset and angry about it, to be honest, and partly because I wanted to be able to remember it when I got older.
Then a few months after the sale I was talking to an agent about books, and he asked me where I was from and what my family did. I ended up telling him all about my childhood, and my family, and the sale, and he said "you should write about that." I said "are you joking?" and he said no. The debate around the hunting bill gave me impetus to get on with it, because the debate and the media coverage were dominated by what seemed to me very outdated, lazy ideas and stereotypes.
Was writing about your family an odd experience?
Yes, for two reasons. One, because by talking to them about the past I found they had thoughts and feelings of which I was entirely unaware - and this was in a very close family. My brother, for example, claims to recall me, aged about 15, saying something about a seed drill that was so dim it made him wonder if there was something medically wrong with me. And two, because there are things they say and do that, written down, can look emotionally cold but which happen to be coded ways of saying something quite warm. In fiction it's easier because you can give them a little gesture or tic that conveys that, but with non-fiction, you can't. So I kept wanting to put notes in the margin saying things like "Look, when he says that, he really means..." When I was writing about meeting my brother at York railway station, I gave in and wrote "With Guy, you have to understand what the f*** you've got in the bag, it is a way of saying 'Hello, how are you?'"
What was their reaction?
Bemusement, mainly. My mum found revisiting the sale painful. I suspect my sister thinks but is too kind to say that in the moving house scene, my attempt to show her good-in-a-crisis efficiency makes her sound a bit hard. I should have added one of those notes, saying "With Helen, when she is telling you to throw away your old plough manuals, it is a way of helping you by taking your attention away from the big, upsetting stuff at hand."
The dialogue is very natural. How difficult was it to recreate?
It was quite difficult until I worked out that you don't always need to write what people actually say, but what the person speaking to them actually hears. For example, if you put in all the wells, umms and ahhs that someone might actually say, it won't read like natural dialogue and it won't convey the feeling of what it was like to speak to that person. With the Yorkshire accent and dialect, I found it better to use small bits to suggest the rest. Otherwise it would been all "Gi'o'er wi'thy 'ands an' 'ave a ggu wi't spade" which on paper looks as the person is stammering and, with all those apostrophes, waving their arms about.
What do you think the future holds for farming?
I think it is obvious that there will continue to be polarisation between large-scale producers competing to supply mass markets at the lowest possible price, and small scale businesses producing premium products. No one can accurately predict how the new single payments scheme for EU subsidy will transform the industry, but I think for various reasons it will increase the use of farmland around cities for leisure activities. Regional diversity in general will increase as people look to more local markets.
I am interested to see how big the market for organic food becomes; I'd like to see it grow but since most consumer research shows people are interested in it only as a premium product (that is to say, its sales do NOT go up if the price is reduced) I don't see how it can grow to mass market levels. I'd love to believe, as the Government does, that everything can be solved with organic farmers markets, but I'm not convinced. It will be interesting to see what happens if a rise in oil prices means transporting food around the world becomes less feasible for the supermarkets.
What is your favourite farm animal and why?
A goose, strictly speaking a white West of England breed gander. I enjoy the combination of a slightly absurd appearance with what always seems a hugely exaggerated sense of their own importance.
My personal opinion is that with farmyard animals, if you're interested, is that you are either a pig man or cow man. You know how you get dog people and cat people, dog people liking that docile loyalty thing and catfolk admiring the independence of a feline? It's with cows and pigs, cows being the dog, if you see what I mean. If you prefer pigs you will also enjoy the company of skittish madcap beasts like goats, cats and deer, but if you incline toward cows you'll get on best with dogs, sheep and horses. I myself am at heart a cow man.
Who or what is your biggest influence?
What do you like reading?
I like newspaper sports pages, particularly those with big results and tables sections, any sort of a map, and internet job-blogs. My favourite blog was one called Call Centre Confidential which has just finished, though the Diary of a Morrison's Employee is good as well. Also on the net I enjoy reading a TV critic called Graham Kibble White who writes for a website called offthetelly.co.uk and, I think, also does tvcream.org. He is a brilliant critic of the kind who writes about the context of his subject as well as the content. The books I like reading are mostly fiction and a bit of 20th century poetry, but I also enjoy the rural non-fiction in which the author documents a very specific place or experience - exemplified by books such as Ronald Blythe's Akenfield, Gilbert White's Natural History of Selborne, TH White's The Goshawk or even something like The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady.
Which writers do you admire?
Annie Proulx, Joan Didion, Alan Garner, George Orwell, John Clare, Alan Warner, Ronald Blythe, Tom Wolfe, Harold Pinter, Emily Bronte, Douglas Coupland, Laurence Sterne, Verlyn Klinkenborg, Geoffrey Hill, and Patrick Kavanagh. Also, it seems a bit pseudy to say, but I am very partial to a Bo Diddley lyric.
What's next for Richard Benson?
Setting up the blog which continues the story of The Farm, and follows my pathetic attempts to perfect an organic wildflower meadow and adopt a goose.