Christine Harland is a director of Camden Writers, producers of family and family business histories. www.camdenwriters.com
The Farm: The Story of One Family and the English Countryside by Richard Benson, Penguin Books Ltd
Richard Benson, a journalist living in London, received a call one morning from his dad: "Me and thy mam's got a bit of bad news for thee."
That "bit of bad news", the forced auction of the family farm in Yorkshire, begins an extremely poignant and thought-provoking process that looks at a changing economy, personal struggle and political choices.
We begin at the end. Benson and his father, gathering the keys from the estate agent, let themselves into a converted barn, complete with exposed chalk-and-brick walls and stenciled flowers. Two slits high up in the wall, now covered in stained glass, once provided the light and ventilation for this working barn.
We come to know that barn intimately as, with a month to go to auction, the Bensons clear out every dusty corner of Rose Farm, bits of rusty old machinery, iron gates and livestock. Benson's brother, Guy, rooted in farm life, remarks with irony that some of the biggest buyers at the auction will be antique dealers, looking for old tools and odd bits of machinery to decorate front yards and pub walls. People arrive and paw over the remnants of a working life spread across one of the fields while Mr Benson watches, wondering whether they will bring enough to allow his family to at least remain in their home after the fields are sold to pay the debts.
In that sense, the news is good. The fields and the barn went, but the Bensons stayed in their house, they kept their car and they still had each other. But as his father became increasingly depressed and withdrew from life, Richard Benson came to understand that life isn't measured by 'things'.
"Seen from a distance there had been no great tragedy – but what had been taken from my father was his idea of his connection to the rest of the world," explains Richard. "Even the most enduring man or woman," he continues, "can be undone if they come to believe that nothing they do has value to anyone else."
This is different than losing a job. Losing a family business – a business that defines the family in many respects – is a lonely process and requires a major redefinition of self, relative to the rest of the world. Richard Benson goes to the heart of the experience and we are shown again both the rewards and dangers of feeling passionate about what we do.
Through Benson's father, we are also reminded that when you are totally invested in an endeavour, you tend to blame yourself for its failure, no matter how inevitable that failure may be. Subsidies, specialisation and imports do not leave room for the small British mixed farm. When the man at Tesco's tells Pauline Benson that what people want is a consistent product at a cheap price, she tells him that she is a person and that's not what she wants and he laughs at her naiveté.
As he spends more time at the farm, helping them prepare for the sale, Richard Benson forges a new friendship with his father and develops a new appreciation of his brother, Guy, a rough-hewn man of few words and obviously unplumbed depths. As different as the two brothers are, they develop a new level of communication and, as a counterpoint to the tragedy unfolding in Yorkshire, Richard Benson begins to recognise the lack of substance he finds in his own life in London.
Benson's Mum is worried: farming is, after all, all they know. What, she asks, will they do; how will they get by?
"Who wants such as your me or your dad for work?" she asks her son. "I don't even know how to turn a computer on."
By the end of the book, Pauline and Gordon Benson are attending a course on computers and visiting internet sites on history and local lore, gardening and birds. They have sold their house and are living in a trailer while their own new cottage is being built in the spinney. Mr Benson has begun a lively trade in making up small bales of hay. Without the forced sale of their farm, Richard Benson, his parents and his brother would have missed many of the changes that came to them as a result, and he communicates this sense of evolution with great dexterity and sensitivity.
One of the great strengths of The Farm is that Benson weighs up all sides of what happens to his family, summed up in a comment made by one of his boyhood friends: "Change can be a good thing. It can make people's lives richer – it isn't about taking away all the time". Benson also draws a strikingly profound yet simple overview of the characters, as insights emerge from the changing ways in which he views those he thought he knew best.
Benson is careful to warn us against nostalgia for its own sake. Long days of hard work, brutal accidents, sick animals and economic uncertainty don't hold general appeal. The Farm is not an argument for returning to old ways, it is a compelling and moving reminder that there should be room for everyone and we are all better off for the choice.
"Move back and rest above England," he writes. "If you listen carefully, you can hear a few, a very few, people, suggesting that the rush to gain cheaper food is leading to the loss of something which might be officially out of date but somehow seems a good thing it seems wrong to lose."
The failure of Rose Farm, Benson continues, "encapsulates the jarring, perplexing fact of the modern world: that the logic and geography of business is not syncopated with the logic of human feelings."