The Cuckoos of Batch Magna – Peter Maughan
If you have been kind enough to plod through my book reviews over the past few years, you will have realised that I have a rather eclectic taste in book. After a period of reading Victorian novels, I like to escape to something altogether lighter and I am on the hunt for the perfect comic novel. The helpful Kindle recommends tool on my e-reader, if uncontrolled an open invitation to spend oodles of money, brought this opener of a series of five and published in 2004 to my attention. Whilst I wouldn’t say it was exactly comedy gold, it was a pleasant enough read and there was enough in it to encourage me to explore Maughan’s work further.
The story is set in Batch Magna, a sleepy backwater deep in the heart of rural Shropshire, on the banks of the river Cluny – if I had to place this fictional village it would be in the Clun and Bishop’s Castle area – which time has forgotten and life just chugs along, untroubled by the outside world.
Or it did until the lord of the manor, Sir Humphrey Miles Pinkerton Strange no less, a caricature straight out of central casting of an eccentric aristo, popped his clogs. With a nod to many a 19th century novelist, the estate is entailed and so instead of passing to the Sir Humphrey’s granddaughter, it ends up in the hands of a distant relative, Humphrey (call me Humph) Strange, an American and an unsuccessful Wall Street banker, to boot.
Saddled with death duties and a hall that needs work done on it and a barely functioning estate, Humph decides to do what any self-respecting American would do with a British pile, turn it into a theme park. This would entail evicting the tenants, including a motley crew of people living on some paddle boats which are the remnants of the fleet the general’s father brought to the place to liven it up. Naturally, the locals do not want their lives disrupted in this way and much of the plot and the humour comes from their attempts to thwart the American’s plans and Humph’s attempts to gain acceptance amongst the locals – in my experience of Shropshire, that takes about twenty years.
The characters verge just on the right side of stereotypes, a retired naval captain who spends his retirement drinking and searching for Atlantis and has a glass eye to suit all occasions, a randy crime novel writer, Phineas Cook, the Owens who are the salt of the earth and know the ways of the river intimately, Jasmine and her large brood and so on. Maughan has just enough eccentricity in his characters to create interest and at times the urgency of the plot line seems to go by the wayside, rather like time in a dreamy Shropshire village.
The battle between Mammon and the bucolic idyll that was life in Batch Magna is resolved by an astonishing and convenient deus ex machina in the form of an antique gun, lying almost forgotten in the backroom of a Shrewsbury gun repairer. I won’t spoil your fun and if you are looking for an easy read which will put a smile on your face, then this may be for you. P G Wodehouse it is not but, then, what is?