My Granny was brought up on a farm in deep, deep Sussex. As a child I would listen, enthralled by both the tales of her father and their animals, and by her knowledge of the countryside. I spent the best part of my childhood walking with her around the lanes and fields surrounding her village learning what each plant, tree and bird were called. Every season would bring fresh excitement and every spring we would go and stand on the fence of the big house, to look over at the sprawling mass of daffodils and primroses that they had in their grounds.
The past few weeks have been full with all sorts of different things so I found myself in a reading rut. I would get part way through a book and listlessly place it back on the shelf as I was just unable to settle with anything. After the fifth attempt at getting through a novel I rang my mother to seek advice. And, of course, she suggested the book that really I should have turned to first. The very book which is perfect for this time of year but also for getting out of a reading rut.
As I opened Cold Comfort Farm for what must be the millionth time (I may exaggerate slightly) I was immediately gripped as Flora Poste rolled up her sleeves and got to work. Stella Gibbons wrote Cold Comfort Farm in 1932. The British countryside changed dramatically in the first half of the twentieth century and Cold Comfort Farm documents the altering state of the countryside through a wry and very English humour.
The peculiarity and sheer backwardness of the Starkadder’s who have ‘always been at Cold Comfort’ is perfectly offset by Flora Poste’s very modern, progressive and urban ways. Flora, recently orphaned, goes to stay at Cold Comfort Farm as she has been left with little money so wants to try her hand as a novelist. She realises that she can stay for free with relatives whilst acquiring ‘material’ for her great work of fiction.
This quickly goes awry as she realises that she is simply better at being interfering and sorting out the lives of the tumultuous Starkadder’s than she is at writing. The Starkadder’s (who have always been at Cold Comfort) are a family that is easy to mock. Whether it is Amos and his calling to lead the ‘Quivering Brethren’ or Elfine with her ‘poetry’ and longing for local gentry-pin-up Dick Hawk-Monitor, the Starkadders are splayed open for ridicule. Adam Lambsbreath with his ‘liddle mop’ and Seth seething with sexual urges in the corner, Reuben clinging on to his birth right which no one else wants anyway and Judith with her forboding and near incestuous love for Seth. They are all stark mad.
But none more so than Aunt Ada Doom – who as a young child ‘saw something narsty in the woodshed’ – she holds the entire family in her psychological stranglehold due to the ‘narsty woodshed’ incident. No Starkadder is to leave Cold Comfort as there have ‘always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort’. Her fear of change and modernisation present the perfect challenge for Flora who, through Gibbons’ ironic wit, realises that Aunt Ada Doom ‘was the Dominant Grandmother Theme, which was found in all typical novels of agricultural life (and sometimes in novels of urban life, too). It was, of course, right and proper that Aunt Ada should be in possession at Cold Comfort; Flora should have suspected her existence from the beginning.’
Flora is an advocate of a ‘tidy life’. Her mission is to ‘tidy’ the Starkadder’s which she accomplishes – whilst inadvertantly tidying her own life too, of course.
Some of the first ‘tidying’ that Flora accomplishes is teaching Meriam about family planning -having had four unplanned pregnancies out of wedlock Meriam, Flora decides, is in need of some tidy advice. But as Meriam says ‘who’s to know what will happen to me when the sukebind is out in the hedges again and I feel so strange on the long summer evenings?’ Flora realises the size of the task ahead of her. Particularly when, during the third week in March, ‘Fecund dreams stirred the yearlings. The sukebind was in bud […] this meant that Micah, Urk, Amos, Caraway, Harkaway, Mizpah, Luke, Mark and four farm-hands who were not related to the family had a good deal of time on their hands in one way and another. Seth, of course, was always busiest in the spring.’
This book is in my top five of all time favourites. It is eye-wateringly hilarious as Gibbons captures English eccentricity and foibles with masterly precision and she also executes the humour through that subtle, dry and nuanced English wit. All the characters are stereotypes – taken from literature, history and I daresay real people. Stella Gibbons pokes fun at our long tradition of rural family sagas in literature and presents us with a perfectly formed romp through an ironic anti-melodrama.
Spring is upon us and if you look carefully in the hedgerows you may just see the sukebind in bud – the long, careless summer evenings will be upon us before we know it. Once the sukebind is in flower, of course.
Beware the sukebind