Oh my my, what larks this book has been and what a great one for a day when the world is supposed to be playing jokes on each other and not taking itself quite so seriously, just for a minute or two.
My faintest and extremely vague yet lingering memory of Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons and published in 1932, was a rather weird TV adaptation so long ago I think it might have been in black and white and I'm not far wrong when I check it out...1968, this was Sarah Badel as Flora and yes, of course Brian Blessed as Seth, that was the one.
In searching for that I discover the DVD for the more recent production with Kate Beckinsale, Stephen Fry, Ian McKellan and Joanna Lumley, give me one good reason not to click that into my basket?
I picked up Cold Comfort Farm at the prompting of Virago who have sent me a copy of Nightingale Wood also by Stella Gibbons and to be republished by them this month.
It seemed wrong to read that without having read the tour-de-force to get the measure of our Stella, and what a complete riot Cold Comfort Farm has turned out to be, honestly, if you haven't read it dash out and lay hands on a copy now because it will have banished any lurking winter doldrums by page three.
Flora Poste had inherited little from her recently deceased parents beyond a strong will from her father and from her mother a slender ankle, and so must canvass all available relatives to see just who can take her in with her hundred pounds a year.When the only suitable reply comes from the Sussex Starkadders of Cold Comfort Farm, who declare that she is welcome but they are not quite like other folk, that is where Flora heads determined that at least she'll be able to make some changes if necessary.
Flora may not be a woman of financial means but her can-do attitude which flies in the face of all tribulation and bats it for six just had me curled up with laughter.
I expect most of you know the book already because you know how I'm always the last to arrive at the party, but for anyone who doesn't prepare to meet Judith, Seth, Reuben, Amos, Elfine and Starkadders various including of course Aunt Ada Doom who had never recovered from seeing something nasty in the woodshed.
As you can see we just have wood in ours.
Then there are the cows, Feckless, Aimless, Pointless, Graceless and Fury and who can forget the bull, Big Business and Viper the reckless horse.
Family Starkadder gathered in the kitchen, as the weedy sukebind twists and twines its insidious way around the mantle, looking for all the world like
'the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussaud's'
Wonderfully witty and unforgettable sayings from the likes of fire and brimstone preacher Amos,
'there'll be no butter in hell...'
But my favourite by a mile, yes, Mrs Agony Beetle the housekeeper with the wittiest turn of phrase which now litters my conversation
'turns you up don't it, seein' terday's dinner come in ' anging round someone's neck like that...'
This as a rabbit-festooned Urk Starkadder walks in the door, and then Mrs B's sage advice to Meriam contemplating bethrothal to the rather unsightlyand greatly unwashed Urk,
'Don't you 'ave 'im, ducky, unless you feel like it...you're full young yet and 'e won't see forty again.'
Flora sorts out a civilized corner for herself in the farmhouse and gets her curtains washed,
'By the way, I adore my bedroom, but do you think I could have the curtains washed? I believe they are red; and I should so like to make sure.'
Judith had sunk into a reverie.
'Curtains?' she asked, vacantly lifting her magnificent head. Child, child, it is many years since such trifles broke across the web of my solitude.'
'I'm sure it is; but do you think I might have them washed all the same?'
Investing in a little green teapot of her own (so now I realise I'm in good company with mine)
Flora then introduces the absent ritual of afternoon tea to the family and despite thinking it's probably an 'unpardonable impertinence' to meddle, proceeds to match, dispatch and generally sort out all their troubles without even breaking a fingernail.
Stella Gibbons was clearly having a fine old satirical time with Cold Comfort Farm. A journalist with the Evening Standard in the late 1920s she apparently had D.H.Lawrence, Mary Webb, Thomas Hardy, Sheila K.Smith and even the Brontes in her sights with her parody. Even going so far as to star-rate her own purple prose for particular attention, brilliantly funny when you come across it in the book.
There were also just a couple of brief moments of serious undertone, references to the First World War which felt like Stella Gibbons somehow justifying the book's existence, giving herself permission to have a riot. For Claud, having seen his friends 'die in anguish in the wars' life had become an amusing game which no man of taste or intelligence could permit himself to take seriously, for me this felt like a telling moment of historical context for the whole book.
This fascinating quote comes from Jill Neville's entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (you may need to log in with a library ticket number unless you've paid the £195 a year access that is ) silly to even try and paraphrase because Jill Neville makes such a neat and interesting point about Stella Gibbons,
"In the last part of her life she held an ‘at home’ once a month. She
was known to expel guests from these tea parties if they were shrill,
dramatic, or wrote tragic novels. The irony of her creative life is
that the thing she hated most, overheated emotions, had given her the
most inspiration. Ordinary life and personal goodness, which she
enjoyed writing about, yielded a more pallid harvest."
I'm still more than looking forward to Nightingale Wood and anything else I can find that Stella Gibbons has written and who knows why it's taken me so long but I'm a convert now that I've read Cold Comfort Farm. I've laughed like a drain (do your drains do that? Our rural drains laugh at us frequently, often right back to the house) and I'm beyond thankful that Stella Gibbons saw this book's moment and wrote it.
Who doesn't need a good laugh at this time of year, well here's the answer.