Tag Archives: Peter Maughan

Book Corner – July 2020 (5)

The Batch Magna Caper – Peter Maughan

I find the best antidote to difficult times is to immerse yourself in a bit of light-hearted escapism and Maughan’s Batch Magna series, there are five in all, fits the bill admirably. This is the third of the series and whilst it avoids third album syndrome, I didn’t find it as good as the earlier two. Perhaps that is down to the introduction of characters extraneous to the quirky, motley crew who inhabit the sleepy village of Batch Magna, nestling on the banks of the river Cluny, half in Wales and half in Shropshire.

On opening the book, the reader is in for a bit of a shock. Instead of finding themselves in the heart of the countryside, the reader is taken to a shady pawnbroker’s shop where a gang of criminals, incompetent, naturally, and an unlikely mix of characters, are plotting a wages snatch on an engineering firm in Shrewsbury. They anticipate getting away with £100,000, still a tidy sum in the 1970s. As there is no honour amongst thieves, though, each member of the gang has their own plans to run off with the whole of the loot.

The raid takes place, news of it makes the front page of the local papers and even percolates into the consciousness of the residents of the Batch Magna. The carefully worked out getaway plan misfires and the money ends up in Batch Magna, triggering a farcical comedy of errors as various members of the gang try to recover it, whilst at the same time trying to do down their colleagues, and when the money is found in an outhouse of the Manor, the locals, who cannot resist a gossip and making two plus two equal five, think that the American lord of the manor, the flamboyant Sir Humphrey Strange, call me Humph, is the mastermind behind the operation, obviously he must have Mafia connections, and try their best to protect his reputation.

If you have criminals, you must have the police and a pretty inept lot they are. They regularly call in at the Manor to sample Shelly’s renowned hot dogs, a source of consternation to the gang, but they are too interested in feeding their faces to spot what is going on under their noses. The case is solved at a Civil War re-enactment in the grounds of the Manor in Ealing Comedy style by the downtrodden female sergeant, the fiancée of the incompetent Inspector Worth, much to his chagrin as he has made a point of eschewing traditional police methods in favour of modern psychological techniques.

The characters we have met before are all there, the Commander with his collection of glass eyes decorated for all occasions and his wife, Priny, who are moving off the water to live on dry land, Owain and Annie Owen, Humph, his wife Clem, and his mother, Shelly, Jasmine and her brood of children and, of course, the rouê that is Phineas Cook. Phineas manages, on a drunken night, to get engaged to the female police sergeant and both spend much of the book trying to disentangle themselves from the unsuitable arrangement.

Maughan does a sterling job in pulling all these strands together and there are genuine moments of farcical comedy interspersed with sharp observations of human nature. I did find, though, that the large cast and the competing themes and sub plots meant that the gentler innocence of the earlier books and the opportunity to immerse yourself in the trivia and petty squabbles of the carefree inhabitants of Batch Magna were somewhat lost. It was a brave decision by Maughan to deviate from a tried and tested formula. It did work but made for a less enjoyable book.

Book Corner – January 2020 (5)

Sir Humphrey of Batch Magna – Peter Maughan

This is the second of a series of five books, all reissued last year by Farrago, chronicling the life and times of Sir Humphrey Strange, call me Humph, and the motley collection of eccentrics who populate the village of Batch Magna, supposedly on the border of Shropshire and Wales and nestling on the banks of the River Cluny. I found this one even more enjoyable than the first, perhaps because I had got to know the main characters.

There is not much in the way of a plot, rather it is a collection of episodic events which sort of fit into a satisfying whole. What it lacks in overall structure is made up for by Maughan’s gentle, occasionally ribald, humour and his understanding and lyrical descriptions of the countryside in this wonderful part of the world. He portrays a sleepy village, where not much generally happens but where, occasionally, the ugly realities of the modern world intrude, only to be batted back by the resourceful residents, keen to preserve their idyllic way of life.

The book opens on the day of Humph’s wedding, to the Honourable Clementine Wroxley, or Clem to her friends. They settle down to life at the Manor but their finances, and that of the estate, are on a knife-edge. The village’s spinster and amateur sleuth, Miss Wyndham, in her search for a rare flower which will make her reputation at the local nature society, discovers some badger baiters in the act of digging up a set. She summons assistance and Humph and local heavy, Sion Owen, have a set to with the miscreants. We will meet them later in the book.

Clem discovers to her horror that she has lost a jewel that has been in the Strange family for over 400 years and according to family lore if it was ever lost, that would be curtains for the family and the estate. As if on cue, the estate’s finances take a dip as the pheasants contract a disease and the river becomes so polluted that the fish begin to die. It seems that the only way out of the Strange’s predicament is to sell the estate putting an end to the rural idyll. Naturally, there is a willing buyer.

I won’t spoil the resolution of the book but, suffice it to say, it involves the badger baiters and the plucky spirit and investigative nous of Miss Wyndham. Her appetite for detective fiction gives her clues as to how to act when she finds herself in a dangerous situation.

One of the funniest parts of the book features the disastrous attempts of local ne’er do well and crime writer, Phineas Cook, to launch a punt business offering romantic, moonlit trips along the Cluny to gullible outsiders. I particularly like the Commander with his collection of glass eyes for all occasions and one who is always up for a jolly. Much alcohol is consumed during the course of the book, lots of wine and, of course, pints of the local firewater, Sheepsnout.

A glorious romp and well-paced. I would encourage you to discover the charms of the rural backwater that is Batch Magna.

Book Corner – November 2019 (2)

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?