The Cow Book by John Connell – Review
By Barney Bardsley
Those of you with a squeamish disposition, look away now. This book – a seasonal memoir of a young man’s life on his family farm in Ireland – is not for the faint hearted.
It opens with “Beginnings”, a blow-by-blow account of the birthing of a calf; and proceeds, at intervals, with descriptions of aborted foetuses; of heads being hacked off calves – even as they are being born – for fear that their bodies will split the mother’s belly asunder; of fierce family fights among the humans, and of raw animal struggles to survive, through harsh, endless winters and dark, rain-sodden springs. Goodness, this farming life is brutal! And John Connell spares us none of it. So, as I say, do not venture into this, if the blood, spit and sawdust approach doesn’t suit you.
But, oh, what a treat you would miss, if those soft city sensibilities were to inhibit your reading. Because this is a savage work, but also one of great beauty and honesty – written with an almost biblical simplicity and power, and telling us as much about the nature of humanity, as it does about the lives, and deaths, of Connell’s beloved sheep and cows.
Although he doesn’t dwell on it much, there are hints of darkness in the author’s own history here: a journey away to the other end of the world, to pursue a high-flying career in journalism and film, that ends in depression and concomitant feelings of profound failure and loss. In the end, Connell suggests, what saves him is the return to his roots, to the land he was born to, and where he finds solace, even a kind of redemption, in the punishing schedule of the farm. Slowly his strength, his sense of purpose, and of wonder, returns. Nature heals.
The best books about animals, and about the land, are also books that are inextricably linked with human nature. They tell us about people really, and how we fit, in the extraordinary, teeming swell of life that surrounds us. The Cow Book is a perfect example of this. And although it is stuffed full of interesting anecdotes about the history and habits of his beloved cows – including an astonishing passage about Hitler’s breeding programme of a super-charged fascistic Aryan bull – in the end, it is Connell’s own struggles, frailties and triumphs, which enthral the most. It is heartbreaking, how deeply he cares about his beasts. And uplifting too.
“Man of deep and heartfelt sensibilities”
Although it is the cows who count the most for him, there is one chapter, about his sheep, that really strikes home. It is called “Luck”. And in it, he describes the death of a newborn lamb. ‘The sight of his perfect but lifeless body broke me in a way, and I questioned the very nature of life, the spark, the divinity, the soul, and its absence in this lamb. His loss brought up others in my life and my heart was suddenly sore and I was no longer sure who I was mourning for.’ Later, his father tries to comfort him. ‘”It’s only a lamb”, he said. But we know it so much more.’
As this beautiful extract reveals – John Connell is not “just” a fine farmer, he is a gifted writer, too. A man of the soil: and a man of deep and heartfelt sensibilities. And Granta have done him proud, with a hardback edition that is as handsome and elegant to hold, as it is spellbinding to read.
‘The Cow Book’ by John Connell is published by Granta, £15.99 hardback