I’d heard a lot about Ann Cleeves; I had followed her on Twitter, to a kind reciprocation; the reading groups that I joined at Wakefield One had heaped glowing praise upon her work. Yet I had never read her – it was therefore high time that I rectified matters.
I bought two of her books from Rickaro: The Crow Trap, which is set in the Pennines, and Red Bones, one of her Shetland Isles stories (I know that these have been televised, but I haven’t seen any of the programmes). I chose novels set in two different locations, because, as I’ve said before, topography is important to me. I know that Ann Cleeves has a reputation for creating fine atmospheric settings – as one of the reading group members said, Shetland ‘almost becomes a person’ in the books set there – and I wanted to see how she achieved it.
I’m not, however, going to write here about her use of setting, because, although I endorse everything that has been said about it by others, I have nothing new to add. What I’d like to focus on especially, therefore, is her skill at character portrayal, particularly of women. I find her female characters fascinating, not only because of the way she draws them, but because she captures with subtle and skilful nuances some of the ways by which women are still exploited by men – though she is by no means a militant feminist and the male characters in her novels suffer from certain injustices, too. Some of her women characters find their own ways of fighting back: Anne Preece in The Crow Trap tries to make use of both her husband and Godfrey Waugh to provide her with the lifestyle that she craves, although both in their turn exploit her as part of the chess-like game of shifting relationships that forms a fine sub-plot to this novel; and Jimmy Perez, the policeman hero of Red Bones, is continually kept guessing about the depth of feeling that his vivacious, unconventional girlfriend Fran entertains for him.
I enjoyed both of these novels immensely. Ann Cleeves writes quite unlike any other crime novelist whose work I know. If I had to choose between them, I’d say that The Crow Trap has the edge on Red Bones, mainly because, although both are set in remote areas, the Shetland novel offers less scope for variety in characterisation. Both are rural variants of the country house murder convention, each with its own subtle twists that bring new life to this sub-genre. However, Red Bones has a strong archaeological theme, which was of special interest to me because when I read it I had just completed Almost Love, which is in part about the disappearance of a famous female archaeologist and set against the activities of the members of a famous archaeological society.
I see that Ann Cleeves is a prolific writer who has written many books. I can therefore look forward to many more hours of happy reading in her company.
The farmers I knew in Lincolnshire were mostly millionaires. They lived in huge houses, set proudly in the midst of their many acres, and were rarely seen on tractors; they drove luxury limousines with personalised number-plates; they made their money from growing crops on what is perhaps the richest arable land in the country.
Farming is quite different where I live now, in the foothills of the Pennines. Most of the farmers are tenants, the land they hold carved from estates that were parcelled up generations ago. Today, the farms are small by modern standards; mostly devoted to animal husbandry, they are barely large enough to sustain the families owning them, some of whom have been working them for many years. One farmer told me that his lease entitles the family to hold the land for five generations, of which he represents the fourth. I am impressed by this family’s loyalty both to its landlord and to farming as an occupation, and fearful for its future. What will happen to it when the present incumbent’s son dies?
In reality, the family may have to quit long before then. Modern farming is a scientific business. Farmers are not, in the main, scientists; therefore, as farming methods become more sophisticated, they have to rely on the trained representatives of, say, the feed manufacturing companies to give them advice. A couple of years ago the farmer I have mentioned (who is still in his twenties) was rebuilding his dairy herd after inadvertently buying two tubercular cows from a neighbour and consequently having to slaughter his whole herd (in accordance with DEFRA regulations). Building up a new herd was expensive. He had always farmed in the traditional way, keeping the cows in byres in the winter and allowing them into the fields to graze in the late spring and summer months. The feed manufacturer advised him that this was inefficient, because cows use up energy wandering about and trample much of what they feed on. The modern way is to improve milk yields by keeping them in the byres the year round and feeding them on corn. The company’s representative paid visits to advise him on the quality of the corn he should use and how much to give each cow. The cows were kept in.
Yesterday, I was therefore surprised – but delighted – to see that the whole herd was out in the fields. Anyone who has seen a cow skip and dance when it is first released into a meadow after a long winter can be in no doubt that, although fastening them up in byres may not actually be cruel, they surely value their freedom.
When the farmer is about he usually stops for a chat. He was there yesterday and told me that he’d had to abandon the corn-feeding regime over the summer months because the cost of the corn was bankrupting him. Milk yields had dropped, too. During the winter, his milk cheque had covered barely half the amount he’d had to pay for feed. As he commented in his laconic way, “Something’s not right here.”
If he is right, this sounds to me like a case of legitimised fraud. It reminds me of how communities in Africa have been devastated after being persuaded by large companies to grow cash crops, destroying traditional self-sufficiency and yoking people to an artificial dependency. This Pennine farmer’s case is not as irrevocable, of course: he has still the option of going back to more conventional farming methods, which he’s chosen to do. Nevertheless, he is still repaying the loan to replace his herd, which is not yet back to its former size, and now has to bear the additional millstone of debt for the corn. The investment in the extra feed has been counter-productive; his business has taken a big step backwards. No-one will be brought to account for this, except, perhaps, the farmer himself, if he is unable to pay the debt quickly enough. The feed manufacturer will have all the weight of the law – and of ‘science’ – on its side.
Crime and legality are sometimes difficult to distinguish.