H. E. Bates on the real-life inspiration behind the Larkin family

To celebrate the 60th anniversary of H. E. Bates' first novel in the Larkin series, The Darling Buds of May, the author shares the real-life inspiration behind the Larkin family: 'There is something of myself in Pop Larkin'.

The Larkin Family © Simon Coulson, Darling Buds Farm
The Larkin Family © Simon Coulson, Darling Buds Farm

Somewhere in the mid-fifties, I began restlessly nursing a new idea. I had long been fascinated by a rural junk-yard I used to pass two or three times a week. Its crazy mess of old iron, rusting implements, pigs, horses, geese, turkeys, haystacks and useless junk of every kind sat incongruously next to the most beautiful of bluebell woods, the junk mocking the beauty, the bluebells mocking the junk. Here, it seemed to me, was something that had to be written about. The more I thought about it, however, the farther I seemed to get from any kind of accomplishment.

Here, in fact, was the perfect example of a negative needing a positive to wake it to life. I did not, however, go round consciously searching for a positive; experience teaches that these things happen by accident, unexpectedly. And so it was. One early summer evening Madge and I were driving through a Kentish village twenty-five miles east of us, in apple orchard country, when she suddenly had reason to stop and make a few purchases at the village shop. As I sat waiting for her in the car I noticed, outside the shop, a ramshackle lorry that had been recently painted a violent electric blue. Two or three minutes later there came out of the shop, in high spirits, a remarkable family: father a perky, sprightly character with dark side-burnings, Ma a youngish handsome woman of enormous girth, wearing a bright salmon jumper and shaking with laughter like a jelly, and six children, the eldest of them a beautiful dark-haired girl of twenty or so. All were sucking at colossal multi-coloured ice creams and at the same time crunching potato crisps. As they piled into the lorry there was an air of gay and uninhibited abandon about it all. Wild laughter rang through the village street and the whole scene might have come out of Merrie England.

This, I suddenly knew, was my positive; here were the inhabitants of my junk-yard. Next morning, in a fever of excitement and laughter, I set the family going in a short story called The Darling Buds of May, in which the unconventional natures of Pop, Ma and their children are unashamedly revealed. The eldest and most beautiful girl, unmarried, is revealed as being pregnant, but exactly by whom she doesn’t know. Does it matter? Not on your life – ‘perfick’, says Pop. He, the junkdealer, his pockets stuffed with fat rolls of pound notes, is revealed as never paying income tax. He regards it as sort of immoral even to think of doing so.

The entire family is gargantuan of appetite, unenslaved by conventions, blissfully happy. Pop is further revealed as a passionate lover of the countryside, as ardent a worshipper at the bluebell shrine and its nightingales as he is of Ma’s seductive, voluptuous bosoms. He yields to no man in his warm, proud love of England. All is ‘perfick’. 

H.E. Bates novels
H E Bates on the real-life inspiration for the Larkin family

The Larkins’ secret is in fact that they live as many of us would like to live if only we had the guts and nerve to flout the conventions

Presently it seemed to me a thousand pities to confine such a rich gallery of characters to a short story. In their lusty love of life they cried out for greater space, richer pastures. I accordingly began to expand them into a novel. The Larkin household was then revealed in all its uninhibited glory: two enormous television sets, a Rolls-Royce, a vast glittering cocktail cabinet from which Pop dispenses cocktails of a terrifying potency with such names as Red Bull and Rolls-Royce, a potency that affects Mr Charlton, a visiting taxman, with dire consequences. His seduction by Mariette being at last complete, he finds himself surrendering completely to the Larkins, the Larkin household and above all the Larkin philosophy, which is all carpe diem and the very antithesis of the Welfare State. The Larkins’ secret is in fact that they live as many of us would like to live if only we had the guts and nerve to flout the conventions. Pop and Ma demonstrate that they have the capacity by indulging deeply in love and champagne before breakfast, passion in the bluebell wood and encouraging their enchanting daughter to a life of wilful seduction. Ma too has a philosophy all her own. It is what she calls ‘lending Pop out’. Thoroughly aware of Pop’s attraction for the opposite sex, and vice versa, she has no compunction whatever about letting him have an occasional fling with others, whether beautiful or, like the spinster Miss Pilchester, merely hungry and unsatisfied. Result: much Chaucerian fun and infinite happiness.  

Darling Buds Farm, the set used for filming the 90’s ITV series The Darling Buds of May. © Simon Coulson, Darling Buds Farm
Darling Buds Farm, the set used for filming the 90’s ITV series The Darling Buds of May. © Simon Coulson, Darling Buds Farm

The Darling Buds of May was instantly a phenomenal success. It went into many languages. Colonials and Americans, having tended to think of the English as cold stuffed-shirts, seized upon its wanton, Chaucerian joys, its flouting of conventions and the Welfare State, with joy and relish. It also became revealed as a healer of the sick, a blower away of the blues. From all quarters came reports of laughter killing depression, of the Larkins working miracles in hospital wards. An American woman wrote to say that one day on looking out of her window she was much startled to see her next-door neighbour writhing on her bed in the throes of apparent agony. On rushing to her aid she found that it was nothing of the kind; she was merely reading The Darling Buds of May.

Thus encouraged, I proceeded to a second novel, A Breath of French Air, in which the entire Larkin family, new baby and all, set off in the Rolls-Royce for a French holiday, only to suffer certain disillusionments in the matter of French weather, French food (‘We shan’t get very fat on this’) and French sanitary arrangements. The whole thing develops into a wanton Bacchanale. From this I proceeded still further to When the Green Woods Laugh, Oh! To Be in England and finally to A Little of What you Fancy, not the least distinctive feature of which is the behaviour of Primrose, the beautiful arch seductress who is not only capable of thinking, in true Larkin fashion, through the pores of her skin but also proves she is capable of a double act by openly seducing the local curate with her voluptuous body in a mushroom field, having first softened him up with even more voluptuous quotations on the subject of uninhibited love from Blake and Donne.

The Larkins could, if necessary, be read on two planes: purely for the sheer joy of their enviable way of life, but also as a reflection on the revolution that had overtaken post-war England, a revolution that had nowhere been so marked as in the English countryside. In the early thirties not a single farm worker in my village had a car, many not even a bicycle; today many have two cars, many a cottage inhabited by a family displays four, five, even six cars; few village shops sold anything but mouse-trap cheese, fat bacon, candles, paraffin, tart oranges and boiled sweets; today everyone has its deep freeze dispensing scampi, smoked salmon, spaghetti bolognese and exotics of every kind. Not that it was either essential or necessary to interpret the books as being in any way a treatise on the revolution; the point was never laboured or forced. The surface delight was no mere coating for a pill; it could be unashamedly enjoyed, as Ma and Pop unashamedly enjoyed their love and champagne and Primrose her seduction by flesh and poetry in the fields, for its own sake.

H E Bates on the real-life inspiration for the Larkin family

There is something of myself in Pop Larkin

The comedian in me, which much earlier in my career had produced My Uncle Silas and other pieces in lighter vein, is not only capable of laughing at the foibles of others or indulging in the effervescence of comedy; it is also a source of self-criticism; it is a means of preventing myself from taking myself too seriously, of becoming pompous; it even enables me to poke fun at myself and my own shortcomings. 

It is not to be denied, moreover, that there is something of myself in Pop Larkin: a passionate Englishman, a profound love of nature, of the sounds and sights of the countryside, of colour, flowers and things sensual; a hatred of pomp, pretension and humbug; a lover of children and family life; an occasional breaker of rules, a flouter of conventions. The only things I don’t share with Pop are a business ability to sell junk at a profit of three hundred and more per cent or to avoid the payment of income tax.

Pop is in fact an expression of my own philosophy: the need to go with the stream, never to battle against it. 

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