Wednesday, 11 September 2013
Worthless Men - Andrew Cowan
How would you feel if you returned home one day to find that none of your family or friends could see, hear or touch you? In Worthless Men by Andrew Cowan, Walter Barley finds out exactly how it feels as he drifts into his home town one hot summer day. It is market day, so the town is bustling with people and traffic, as farmers try to get their beasts to market, housewives go out to shop at the market stalls and the town's pubs and tea rooms are full to bursting.
Although it might look, sound and smell like the market days Walter remembers from his childhood, the big changes that have taken place in the outside world have found their way even to this very ordinary market town in England. Changes that will leave a devastating and lasting scar across the lives of everyone who lives in the town and the surrounding countryside. His first visit is to his family home, where the women of his family are now employed in the barbed wire factory owned by the Beckwith family, because most of the town's men are now away fighting in the trenches on the Western Front or have already been killed. Walter's mother alone has been deprived of a husband and adult sons and has to work even harder to keep her younger children fed and clothed.
But Walter has really returned to find the girl he fell in love with, the pretty and innocent Gertie Dobson, daughter of the local pharmacist. But as he roams the hot streets, unseen and unnoticed by anyone except the others who are like him, he realises that the girl he loves is being drawn into the web of the Beckwith's son and heir who has returned from the Western Front broken in mind and body.
What secrets do Walter Barley and Montague Beckwith share? What does Walter know that would make him want to keep his beloved away from the injured officer? Montague Beckwith also has history with Gertie's pharmacist father, as they shared an interest before the war in stock breeding and eugenics, trading opinions on how to best improve the human race and standards in society. But Mr Dobson also has secrets that he wouldn't like to get out, secrets that closely concern Gertie and could affect her future.
So as the blisteringly hot day builds towards a mighty thunderstorm, will Walter be able to find his lost love and avert further tragedy? Or have events been set in motion that are now unstoppable? A series of events, coincidences and decisions that will culminate in the scenes that play out over a few short minutes in the wind and pouring rain, changing things forever.
Worthless Men is a very descriptive book that really brings alive the sounds, noises and smells of a busy market town during the Great War. It depicts a time of change, where women are going to work out of the home in greater numbers, because they need to earn a wage to support their families and because of the shortage of male labour. It also describes very vividly the grinding poverty that many of the town's families still lived in with few of the amenities that we now take for granted, such as running water, inside toilets and enough bedrooms for the family.
The relationship between Mr Dobson the pharmacist and Montague Beckwith is also interesting, as we tend to forget these days just how accepted the idea of eugenics and controlling who could have children was. The idea of somehow improving the human race, just as farmers sought to develop their livestock breeding programmes, was openly discussed in meetings, pamphlets and journals across the whole of Europe.
But Worthless Men is a slow book to get into. If you prefer action and excitement to lengthy description, then this is probably not the book for you. The slaughter of livestock in the local abattoir is especially well described, providing a metaphor for the carnage that was being wreaked on the men who were enduring life in the trenches, so perhaps also a book to avoid if blood and gore is not your thing.
I award this book three sandwiches, mainly for evoking so well the spirit and essence of a busy English market town on a hot summer day. One to read with a roast beef sandwich and horseradish sauce and a pint of beer or pie and mash. Any dish that is typically English and transports you back to an earlier time.