The curse of a big hit by Sandra Horn

I can’t remember now how many years ago it was when I first read Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm, but I do remember the delight I felt in the cast of comical grotesques and the mad inventiveness of the wonky cows, the sukebind, the whatever-it-was in the woodshed that Aunt Ada Doom saw, that ‘something nasty’ that sealed all their fates.  My husband shared my enjoyment of the book but sailed a bit close to the wind when he christened my parent’s smallholding, which was indeed in deepest, darkest Sussex, Cold Comfort Farm. We’re still married and I am still inclined to mutter, on occasions when I’ve achieved something I alone find praiseworthy, ‘I ha’scranletted the bottom acre.’

I once sent a copy to a friend who was in need of cheering up and she phoned to say that at first she hadn’t realised it was satirical and wondered what on earth I had sent it for. I was reminded of the business of ‘not getting it’ recently by Bill Kirton’s humourless and dopey reviewer who thought his characters unbelievable – and a writing workshop when someone reproved another writer with ’You can’t call a character Chardonnay, it’s not a girl’s name, it’s a kind of wine.’ Point of the skit missed completely.

Thinking about not getting it, Cold Comfort Farm has been adapted for radio twice and made into a film. One of the radio plays got it horribly wrong. For a start, rural Sussex isn’t Somerset  (or Mummerset either) and camping up the ‘Oo-aar’ just wrecks the humour. It’s not meant to be a pantomime and it is much, much funnier if played straight, or even better played down, as if Flora Poste is telling it.

Stella Gibbons is a terrific writer, but Cold Comfort Farm must have been a mixed blessing. It made her name, and I hope, her fortune, but then she was stuck with it. There are two further stories about the Starkadders, Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm, and Conference at Cold Comfort Farm, with long intervals in between. I can almost hear her publisher nagging her for more of the same...I thought Christmas at CCF was a sequel, which is why I bought it, but it is actually a collection of short stories, only one of which is about the Starkadders and the furore caused when Carrie Beetle removed the coffin nail from the luck charms Adam Lambsbreath had put in the pudding: ‘him as gets the coffin-nail will die afore the New Year.’ The other ‘charms’ confer variously grisly fates: him as gets the sticking plaster’ll break a limb; the menthol cone means as you’ll be blind wi’ headache; the bad coins means as you’ll lose all yer money; the mirror’s seven years bad luck for someone.’  

 All the other stories are like her novels (she wrote twenty-five in all), stylish, beautifully crafted, subtle and often bitter-sweet. She’s particularly good at portraying the sadness in the lives of women, young and old, confined by the expectations and manners of the times they live in and finding little oases of happiness. I ’m reading my way through all I can find now  I only wish she was more widely known for all her other works; Starlight has its full share of odd characters, it’s true – odd but endearing; drawn from life but enlarged and given sparkle. 

Here Be Dragons deals with the shackles of enduring love for the wrong and entirely undeserving 

I’ve found two more on Kindle and I shall keep looking!


Susan Price said…
Ah, when the sukebind is in bloom... I love Cold Comfort Farm too (especially when the porridge boils over) but I'm guilty of never having read any of Stella Gibbons' other books.

Your blog makes me feel that I must put that right. But which to choose?
Sandra Horn said…
I'm enjoying Westwood, Sue, and Here be Dragons. The short stories in Christmas at CCF are good too.
Jan Needle said…
I may have said this before, but as a boy I used to visit a farm in Hampshire (at World's End, believe it or not) run by an old lady called Mrs Foster. The state of her kitchen would have given a health inspector forty fits, and if she offered a cup of tea the only sensible response was a grateful declination (if there's such a word.) One day I was offered a 'bit of cake,' which at my age I could not refuse; death would have been preferable.
The only plate to hand was unbelievably filthy, unacceptable for a guest even to Mrs F. A cat was walking past her at the time, so she casually scooped it off the floor in one hand, and rubbed it across the plate held in the other. Cold Comfort Farm? For cissies!
This story is true. As is the fate of the cake. I ate it...
janedwards said…
Cold Comfort is one of my all time favourites - I shall have to look out Here be Dragons!
Griselda Heppel said…
Poor Stella Gibbons. I'm torn between bursting with jealousy that in Cold Comfort Farm she achieved a classic of timeless, matchless wit and absurdity, and sympathy for her frustration at the public's neglect of all her other novels. My mother has never got over being invited, aged 20, to tea with her aunt to meet Stella Gibbons, only to find that her garbled admiration of Cold Comfort Farm was the last thing the writer wanted to hear. Yet Gibbons should have taken pride in creating a book that has had us all laughing ever since. I thought the BBC adaptation decades ago with Alistair Sim terrifying the Quivering Brethren (Ye're all damned!) was superb.

But thanks for the pointer to Gibbons's other books - I must give them a try.
Ann Turnbull said…
Yes, me too, I never knew she'd written any other books, though my paperback of Cold Comfort Farm has been read many times and still sits, brown and fragile, on our shelves. Back in the 1960s, I went to a musical version of Cold Comfort Farm. It was performed in a community hall somewhere in east London (I remember, afterwards, eating eel pie in a tiny cafe nearby that sold nothing else!) The musical was terrific fun - Meriam (was that her name?) the hired girl being the star attraction, and I can still remember the tune and chorus line of her song about the sukebind...
Umberto Tosi said…
So true. No sooner has success come calling than you notice the excess baggage of expectations she's brought with her for the duration. The fact that this is what we call a "high-level" problem is "cold comfort." Thanks for your sharpely angled post!

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