Michael Bartholomew-Biggs believes that a soft underbelly of tenderness can be detected beneath the surface of Peter Spencer’s cheekily playful short stories.

 x tractor

The X Tractor
Peter Spencer (illustrated by Rory Donald)
United Writers Publications
ISBN 9781852001674
144 pp   £8.95


Sky News correspondent Peter Spencer has recently retired and moved to Cornwall – a county (some might say a country) for which he has a deep and longstanding affection. Retirement has evidently given him time to compose this lively collection of short stories which, at one level, poke gentle fun at Cornish people and their way of life. Such mild mockery is clearly not to be taken too seriously, however, since the stories are liberally laced with imaginative fantasy – perhaps as a reaction to the author’s working life in news media where writing is supposed to be somewhat constrained by the stubborn immutability of facts.

We can get a good idea of Spencer’s humorous style from his views on Cornish rural dress-sense.  Old farmer Fallow-Kernow has seemingly every item of apparel held together with binder string. Was that really necessary? Or was he a bit of a fashion victim? In a farmery sort of way. Probably he was.  But in-comers too are subjected to sartorial criticism. Insurance salesman Keef Kafka moves his family down from the home counties but turns out to be as incongruous in Cornwall as John Major had once been on a Prime Ministerial visit to Asia. A little splash of grey in an otherwise colourful continent. Almost incontinently inappropriate. (Spencer has a considerable facility for wordplay of the sort displayed in those last two sentences.)

Fallow-Kernow and Keef Kafka appear in the story that explains a running gag which crops up throughout the book and which also provides its title. Cornish farmers – it is alleged – are in the habit of allowing redundant farm machinery accidentally to run over cliffs in order to claim the insurance money.   (To head off possible lawsuits for libel, the volume is dedicated to those decent hard-working farmers … who would no sooner deliberately push [tractors] over cliffs than eat their own grandmothers.)

Spencer’s writing is pacey and energetic and I am tempted to describe his style as staccato-cumulative (which sounds rather like a cloud formation). He makes very effective use of short – even verbless – sentences in order to build up to a punchline. Even to a plethora of punning punchlines. Thus Ebenezer Pengeyser was venerated in the village. To adults an object of awe. To kids, more just an object. As they reasoned, no one can be well over a hundred, still staggering around, still compos mentis and not on the compost heap. In another example (which particularly appeals to me) we learn that the taxi was a perfectly self-respecting Mondeo, only mildly mouldy, and, by Cornish standards, relatively unscathed. A credit to the county. And the driver, who had to put bread on the table somehow, was a published poet. From Pontefract, in point of fact. It has to be admitted, however, that such enthusiasm for piling on just one more joke or quirky observation can sometimes get in the way of narrative clarity. On some occasions (only a few) I reached the bottom of a page aware that something significant had happened – but I wasn’t entirely sure what it was!  (I have heard similar comments made about solos played by jazz trumpeter Al Fairweather.)

Among the broadly-drawn characters and vigorous story lines there is rather more refinement and subtlety than might at first appear. The text is sprinkled with quasi-Wildean epigrams (and some borrowed genuine ones, unless I am much mistaken); and the shade of Noel Coward also moves delicately through several paragraphs. In the matter of devising exotic names for his protagonists, Spencer rather reminds me of such past masters as ‘Saki’ (H H Munro) and ‘Beachcomber ‘(J B Morton). In introducing the multi-barrelled Cor-Cor-Cornelius Cor-Cor-Cornish and the nominally and physically afflicted Reverend Gargoyle Buhmboil, Spencer may not yet have quite matched the glorious memorability of Demosthenes Platterbaff, the eminent Unrest Inducer or Dr Strabismus (whom God preserve) of Utrecht; but he is, after all, only at the beginning of his fiction-writing career…

One of the most endearing features of the collection is the redemptive element that underlies the comedy in nearly all the stories. A London criminal finds a Cornish father figure who compensates for the brokenness of his childhood; an objectionably macho ex-public schoolboy learns that it is after all possible to treat women with respect; two old soldiers become friends after breaking through their long held prejudices about the divide between officers and other ranks.   Once in a while Spencer even ponders briefly on the mysterious silences and absences of God (but in a less lugubrious manner than R S Thomas). In other words he brings to bear a degree of human warmth and insight that lifts the stories above being merely slapstick.

In short, then, this book – with its lively illustrations by Rory Donald – is enjoyable as a proper pasty and a pint of scrumpy. Or perhaps even with (serving suggestion).