Caught by the River

The Cow Book

Neil Sentance | 9th May 2018

Neil Sentance reviews John Connell’s ‘The Cow Book: A Story of Life on a Family Farm’ (Granta, hardback, 288 pages, out now).

My grandfather was a midland cattle farmer all his life. Tough, unsentimental and hard of heart and of head, he was not a man given to ‘speechifying’ or free expressions of emotion. But in tending to his herd of Friesians and Charolais it was possible to witness a depth of feeling, a near tenderness, rarely glimpsed in his interactions with people. Quiet exhortations into the branded and tagged ear of his ‘beasts’ would usually mean they’d do his bidding without much need of a raised voice or brandished stick. He named many of his stock, oftentimes after wild flowers. He cared for the sick with a Franciscan devotion (and not only to avoid vet bills). Cleanliness and neatness of the yard was greater than godliness and he’d muck out the winter byre more regularly than any of his neighbours. He was never happier than when appraising stock at Newark cattle market. And even though he had been known to drive his superannuated Ford Granada up to the Scottish borders to buy weanling calves and bring them home 250 miles down the A1 in the boot of the car, it was only because he couldn’t buckle them in the passenger seat. This is a man whose own father had been killed in an encounter with their prized bull, a man ruled by the iron convictions of his farm economy. Nevertheless, there was a tangible bond, an attentiveness, an unequivocal concern for the lumbering animals in his charge that went beyond the mere pecuniary. And above the mantlepiece at his home for many years hung a watercolour scene of summer cattle browsing at the river ford, his own cattle on his own stretch of the River Witham, a likeness painted from an image in a faded 1960s Polaroid.

Such farmer love for ‘bovine art’ is one byway (via Picasso’s bulls and Constable’s riverside herds, but not, deliberately no doubt, Hirst’s formaldehyde cows of ‘Mother and Child Divided’) in John Connell’s fine and sensitive The Cow Book: A Story of Life on a Family Farm, a portrait of a young man’s return to his Irish midland roots and his family’s small livestock farm. The benchmark of recent agrarian memoirs is Richard Benson’s The Farm (2005). Benson always felt like something of a misfit on his family’s small farm in Yorkshire, memorably describing himself as the ‘village idiot with O levels’. As soon as he reached an age, he left for the city and only returned when the farm was about to die, in Robert Frost’s phrase ‘seeking ache of memory’ there. Connell has had a similar trajectory, living other lives in cities in Canada and Australia, exiled in the most recent wave of Irish emigration after the becalming of the Celtic Tiger. But after the breakdown of a relationship and a serious illness he returns, with poignant sensibility, in pursuit of his home and place.

Connell writes beautifully of his deep immersion in his corner of County Longford and its language, topography, people and history – finding its songlines in the style of Bruce Chatwin – in a series of calendrical vignettes over a hard winter and into a forgiving spring. He doesn’t shy away from the hardships of the farming life: bone-cold early mornings in wind, rain and snow, not wearing gloves lest ‘it might be seen as weakness’; the needs of the animals in their cycles of birth, growth and death; and tough economic demands amid the rise of monstrous agribusiness. This is no rustic idyll. Neither does he avoid the wider political and environmental contexts: cattle antibiotics and hormones in the human food chain, climate change-inducing methane levels in the atmosphere and issues of animal welfare and stress. And undergirding his story are the relationships with his parents, under whose roof he now once again lives, the travails of learning on the job, the thunderous rows with his ‘Da’ and the spells of arctic communication between them brought on by decision-making on how best to face the issues in front of them. But Connell ultimately writes with great love and understanding, surmounting his episodic frustrations to achieve a kind of spiritual awareness, a connection with this land, baile agus beatha, ‘the place where we come home’. In this way, he compares Birchview Farm with Thoreau’s Walden, a retreat but also a vantage point from which to engage deeply with the problems of the world. In any case, he seems to be avoiding a life of ‘quiet desperation’ that Thoreau believed was the lot of the mass of men and women.

Interspersed with this close account of farm life and the author’s finding of a niche within it are entertaining meditations on the cultural history of 10,000 years of cattle husbandry: depictions in prehistoric caves; the demise of the mighty auroch, progenitors of modern cows; the role in national folklore in the Cattle Raid of Cooley and the ancient Gaelic myths of Cúchulainn. Or scenes from Connell’s inner life: memories of his travels; his talks with the elders of the locality; his grappling with depression; his friendship with the parish priest; his newfound love of running, cycling and sobriety; the humour in the profanities of the stackyard (for me, again bringing to mind my grandfather, who could swear with his stockman for half an hour and never say the same thing twice). Above all, there is the realisation that he can, in the mould perhaps of the great Kentuckian Wendell Berry, become writer and farmer, both the observer/recorder and the ‘holder of the past’. This is a book written with such warmth, skill and honesty we can only hope that it helps keep the author happily at his desk and at the farm gate.


The Cow Book: A Story of Life on a Family Farm is out now and available here.

Neil Sentance’s Water and Sky was co-published by Caught by the River and Little Toller Books in 2014. His new book, Ridge and Furrow, is forthcoming from Little Toller in 2019.