Famous for Driving over Lemons (1999) we thought, by the third book – 2006’s The Almond Blossom Appreciation Society – things had petered out a bit. This is a return to form and, arguably, as good as the first book. It’s beautifully written, self-deprecating and often funny – how can a four-hour walk to consult a faith healer about his inflamed willy not be?
Last Days of the Bus Club centres around life at El Valero where he and wife Ana live as empty-nesters now that daughter Chloé (who caught the school bus of the title) has been dispatched into the world of work and university. In Granada he encounters the stress of tracking down a 4B pencil to complete her university application form.
There are flashbacks to his teenage self including as a manual labourer, giving insight into his future as a farmer. He’s still one but these days, enjoying the fame his books have brought him, he gets to judge things like a tuna-cooking competition in Conil, a coastal town near Cádiz. With his late friend, Michael Jacobs, they try their best not to be mistaken for gay ice-cream salesmen.
Chef Rick Stein visits El Valero as part of a TV series with a hilarious description of the multiple takes needed for greeting each other for the ‘first time’. On being handed some garlic he mutters to Ana that it’s ‘a bit of a crap present’ as they grow plenty of their own. (Here’s our post about it.)
Public speaking (in Spanish) now features regularly in his life. His attempt to convey the merits of a co-educational system at Orgiva’s school falls a little flat and is interpreted as extolling the joys of discovering your ‘inner bi-sexual’ (Chloé continues to help with his speeches to this day).
A favourite section, midway through the book, details the weather; the effect of both drought and rain on the land and precious hours of work that can be washed away in an instant. Chloé returns for Christmas, the floods come and – as readers with tears in our eyes – the author details how the dogs cope with the onslaught. He paints a picture of this area like no other can.
A troupe of school children from London spend a day enjoying an experience as far from their city life as possible – with tractor-trailer rides that would have the health-and-safety brigade quivering in their boots. They pick oranges from the trees which he cuts in half with his knife: ‘Look, ‘e’s got a knife. ‘e’s well ‘ard.’ In fact, home-grown produce features heavily: nettle soup; boar stew, a fabulous lamb dish with pomegranate syrup and chillies; and what to do with a surfeit of citrus fruit. As in previous books, he bemoans the activity of wild boar and his efforts to thwart their destructive ways.
In a wonderful closing chapter he delivers a speech to open Orgiva’s feria. Despite going slightly off-key – equating the opening ceremony with foreplay to suggest that the actual feria might not be as good as the anticipation – he makes a good recovery as he extols the virtues of living in Órgiva. Saying it has the ‘richest mixes of nationalities on the Iberian peninsular’ he thanks the town for looking after his daughter and making his family’s life so pleasurable (we’ve queued next to him in the supermarket, so have done our bit).
Once again, he perfectly captures the quirky experiences of an ex-pat who has made a life for himself in rural Spain. It’s as if the reader has been invited back to El Valero as a friend. John Walsh’s excellent article in the Independent includes this quote from Stewart: ‘I don’t think there’s anything better you can do in the middle of your life than to pick it up and shake it around a bit.’
Now that’s something to think about, isn’t it?
[Here’s a piece Stewart wrote for the Daily Mail about the tuna dish-judging event mentioned above.]
© con jamón spain