“Bound to happen sooner or later, I suppose,” the Commander said equably, tamping his pipe down. “It’s the times, my boy, the times. O tempora o mores. The new order. It goes under different names but always calls itself progress, and we are in its way."
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The story is set in the 70's in a rural riverside village in England (except for the bit that is in Wales). The Cuckoos of Batch Magna follows the lives of a houseboat community as they take on the new American squire, Humphrey Strange and his 'corporation' as they decide to transform his dilapidated old estate into a holiday camp (que cries of 'Oompa Oompa!'), which will destroy the idyllic lifestyles of the Riverboat fraternity. Determined not to be tossed out of their homes on the river so the new squire can get his hands on more money the community, led by cheeky charmer Phineas and the old commander, work on plans to stop the eviction and the holiday camp from going ahead. But it seems that what they thought is not at all what they believed it to be.
If you were born, like me, in the 60's or before, you may remember a time when you could call on your neighbour's house, walk right in without knocking and expect a cup of tea or a piece of home made sponge cake fresh from the oven to be on offer, no fear of being turned away or rejected. That's how life was back then, at least it was so when I was a child, a teenager and a young adult. Sadly times have, like the old commander says there in the quote above, have moved into a new order. These days, people are too rushed to sit and relax; open log fires have been replaced by central heating, which might be far more efficient and less smelly, but it rids us of the centre focus of family life, the hearth. Who would ever dare to pop next door for a cup of tea and a chat without knocking first? Indeed, who would even pop next door at all?
That's what I liked most about this book, with its touch of the Wind in the Willows for adults about it. It evokes times of quintessential English village life as it was before Xboxes, laptops and mobile phones made the world a lot smaller. The characters are delightful and something right out of Toad of Toad Hall, but they are also very real and typical of the people you can imagine living in the marcher parts of England, except when it is in the bits of it that are in Wales.
The author, Peter Maughan, introduces us to the idyllic existence that the residents of the River Cluny paddleboats experience in their every day lives. The introduction starts when the old squire on whose estate the riverboat residents reside in, dies with his wonderful memories of the Old Cluny Steamboat Company:
'...the day boat trips to Walter Lacy and back and the 2 shilling dips...the paddlers crowded with villagers and farm workers in their Sunday best, with bottles of beer and pop, and sandwiches made for the trip... And the Moonlight Excursions, when courting couples found the shadows on deck and coloured lanterns lit the murmuring, soft summer darknesses.'And as he draws his last breath, the lives of the Cluny residents are about to be turned inside out.
Another one of the things I enjoyed mostly about The Cukoos of Batch Magna was the wonderfully descriptive narrative that the author employs.
'The mist had rolled up to Batch Magna's High Street, and as far as the castle above the river, the last grey wisps of it drifting among its ruined stone like cannon smoke, like the ghost of old battles.'
It is these passages that make this book such a joy to read, mainly because as the reader, you are transposed into the book itself, planted by the author amongst the winding roads that run through the lush green meadows and the sunlit walks by the softly rippling waters of the Cluny. Batch Magna is a fictional village set somewhere along the Welsh Marches, not far from Shrewsbury and as we are often reminded humourously, is half in England and half in Wales. The characters are delightfully drawn individuals with their own three dimensional personalities - though they have one thing in common: they are all quirky in their own ways. We are invited into their lives and are privy to their emotions and their wants and desires for their families and themselves. They are all one community and one gets the feeling that you hurt one of them, you hurt them all.
We have Phineas, an English middle aged playboy crime writer, who can't make up his mind whether he wants to keep on being a playboy or settle down with Sally the local nurse-midwife. Out of the blue and into his life, his vegetarian son Daniel appears to make his life just that little bit more complicated when he unwittingly steps into his father's love life. Then we have the Welsh couple Owain and Annie and their rather large brood of kids; one of them, teenager Ffion, is going through the angsts of being an adolescent on the look out for love. The Chardonnay supping commander and his wife Priny and their dog Pink Gin, along with single mother psychic reader Jasmine and her brood make up the rest of this wacky river boat crew.And I mustn't forget Bill Sikes, the pitbull who likes to get in on the antics of his master Phineas, and to whom the world is none of his business until he has had his breakfast.
But these aren't all of the characters; there are also the villagers who live on dry land and they also add flavour to the story, especially Humphrey Strange, the American great nephew of the old squire who inherits the estate complete with river and the river boats and whose plans has the residents of Batch Magna trying to devise a cunning plan with which to retaliate against the greedy big shot Yank's plan.
Although the crew spend the summer evenings plotting in the local pub The Steamer Inn, one can't help but see the humour in the way that the author conveys this to the reader. It is possible to imagine that this is a farce, a comedy that if played out would be something to laugh at rather than be horrified by. Eventually the American comes secretly amongst them only to discover their plot and then the reader is left to follow the hilarious antics that emerge in a way that one might not have imagined it.
Crime writer Phineas is no doubt one of my favourite personages in the book, and I love the scrape he gets into when his lustful playboy self overtakes the sensible middle aged man in him and he has to look for a way out of a scrape his playboy self has gotten himself into. Even Sikes has to get in on the caper, drawn into the mad world of his master. When reading Phineas' passages I was put in mind of Mr. Lucas from Are You Being Served played by the wonderful late Trevor Bannister. He was always late for work and had a creative excuse every time.
I enjoyed this book mostly because the plot, although simple, takes on a different dimension at many turns. This is not a book that follows on particular line but also feeds into the many different threads that encapsulate the lives of the people of Batch Magna with a delightfully written prose. The dialogue is witty and amusing and there are some wonderful phrases, such as:
The commander was the only Englishman he had ever met who really understood otters. but then to Owain' s mind, which had its own logic, The Commander wasn't really an Englishman, but a Welshman who just happened to be English.
I wholly recommend this delightful tome to everyone, whatever your favourite genre be. Its gentle humour and delightful prose will warm the cockles of your heart.
The cuckoo? Well you will have to see who that is when you read it.
I am an ex-actor, fringe theatre director and script writer, married and living in the Welsh Marches, the borderland between England and Wales, and the backdrop to a series I’m writing, the Batch Magna novels, set in a village cut off from whatever the rest of the world gets up to beyond the hills of its valley.
All the books in the series feature houseboats, converted paddle steamers on Batch Magna’s river the Cluny, and I lived on a houseboat in the mid-1970s (the time frame for the novels) on a converted Thames sailing barge among a small colony of houseboats on the Medway, deep in rural Kent.
An idyllic time, heedless days of freedom in that other world of the river which inspired the novels, set in a place called Batch Magna.
Follow Peter on his Twitter account and find him on Goodreads and Facebook.
Check out his website to find out more about Peter's Batch Magna novels.
***Peter has very kindly offered an ebook for a giveaway. Please comment on the blog below for a chance to win a copy or post a comment on our Facebook page ***
Paula Lofting is the author of Sons of the Wolf and the soon-to-be-published sequel The Wolf Banner. By day she is a psychiatric nurse and by night she dwells in the far off places her imagination takes her to. At the weekends she can be found running around fields with a spear with re-enactment society Regia Anglorum.
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