Saturday, 10 November 2018

Book review: The Cow Book, John Connell (2018)

When I was a small boy my brother and I used to go to South Australia to visit our uncle and aunt and their children on their dairy farm. Uncle John and aunty Sally and their five children lived in an old house near the Murray River and their herd fed in paddocks strung along the local road that curved up a hill where the town centre lay. One of my cousins, Michael, one day took me for a ride on the back of his motorbike. The machine was a BSA and we flew up and down the hillocks bordering the road that went down to the river, where turtles lived in the shallows. Visiting the farm gave us boys an opportunity to experience life that is lived with a different rhythm, according to different rules.

Connell describes these rhythms and rules as he tells his tells his stories about his life on a family farm and he does it with a kind of laconic grace that stems from the ways people use language when talking in his part of Ireland. The demotic speech of farmers in the area is absolutely fascinating and has a clipped efficiency that reminds you of poetry. Nothing is wasted on mere vocalisation, everything has its certain meaning.

There is plenty of poetry in these pages, even if it is mixed sometimes with the traces of an eclectic set of beliefs that have been cobbled together from different stages of the writer’s life; he lived in Australia for a time and also in Canada. The author also tries to give some approximate version of the history of cattle from the earliest times, but while he asserts a spiritual connection for the Irish to their land he does not allow the same to exist for people who farm in settler societies such as America. And while he is all for the European Union’s subsidising of traditional farming (such as his father’s farm) he says nothing at all about the move in the developed world toward vegan diets by sectors of its metropolitan communities.

Connell is a bit of a magpie and he picks his preferences without much concern for logic or reason, rather merely choosing the bits that suit him (such as Aboriginal land rights) while rejecting those that do not fit his own core beliefs (such as diets that rely less heavily on red meat). Sometimes it feels like an uncomfortable jumble of creeds to house in a single mind. To be frank, this author is a bit of a mess philosophically, but the inconsistencies that riddle his thinking do not necessarily get in the way of his storytelling, although they might try the patience of the odd reader.

The author makes much of the battle that was fought for independence from the British but he won’t allow farmers in other places to have the same kind of deep and abiding connection to the land that he arrogates for his own family. And his support for first peoples also has to sit (I thought, somewhat uncomfortably) alongside his Catholicism. He confusingly also refers to parts of the Australian bush he visited as “jungle”.

The best parts of the book are where Connell is describing the tasks he has to perform in order to look after the cattle and sheep on his father’s farm. Moments of drama such as births are rendered with a lapidary clarity of vision that is deeply engaging, and so you are drawn into the stories that revolve around the management of cattle and sheep at the end of a long, wet winter. Other elements of drama derive from the depression the author combats by running in the laneways around the farm, and his aspiration to be a published writer.

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