Is Cold Comfort Farm a 'good read'
Sometimes it is a bad idea to go back to books you thought you once enjoyed; but on this occasion I didnt have much choice. I hadn't picked up Stella Gibbons's Cold Comfort Farm for decades, but had vaguely fond memories on "something nasty in the woodshed" (a phrase she coined, as a mysterious episode in the past history of Aunt Ada Doom). But one of my gigs at the Cheltenham Literature Festival on Sunday was to record an episode of Radio 4's A Good Read.
If you have never listened to this programme, the idea is simple: two guests plus the presenter each choose a favourite book, and then discuss each one together. I was on with the excellent Bidisha, who had opted for The Handmaid's Tale (this was good for me, as I long felt guilty for not having read it, and here was the perfect excuse). I myself chose The Odyssey (which really is a good read, in a way The Iliad isn't). The presenter, Harriet Gilbert, had chosen Cold Comfort Farm ("'Very probably the funniest book ever written' Sunday Times" -- as was blazoned, promisingly, on the front cover).
Well, it didn't do it for me.
The story is a simple one. Flora Poste, left orphaned, goes to lodge with her relatives at a Sussex farm (Cold Comfort) -- who appear to live in a wild version of the British Rural Novel, a mixture of Thomas Hardy, Emily Bronte and Mary Webb; it's full of filth, unprotected sex and parodically rural names (Seth and Reuben etc, as well as old Aunt Ada). Flora sets herself to cleaning this place up, marrying the residents off suitably, getting the truly mad into Nursing homes, before finally getting married herself (not to a resident of Cold Comfort, needless to say).
Sure, there are some funny bits. Gibbons has some great literary parodies, some wonderfully invented rural language (you dont wash the dishes here, you 'cletter' them with a bunch of twigs), and an array of marvellous names. The farm's cows are delightfully graced with the names 'Feckless', 'Graceless', 'Aimless' and 'Pointless' (rather like a squadron of aircraft carriers called "Wimpish', "Feeble' and 'Lily-livered').
But as I read on, I felt that more and more of it was 'pointlessly' puzzling, and actually not entirely nice. For a start I couldn't work out why the book was set in the future. It was written in the early 1930s, but these people talk to each other on video phones, and whizz off to Paris on airplanes that land just near the farm. What on earth did Gibbons mean by that (Bidisha thought it was another delightful aspect of the whimsy . . . )?
But, by the end of the book, when the farmers had been well and truly cleaned up, and Flora had gone off to a triumphant (Jane Austen style) marriage, I thought we had been reading a rather controlling victory of modern order, cleanliness, contraception and medicine -- over these messy, different, rural types. Harriet and Bidisha argued that the joke of the book was really on everyone, Flora included. But so far as I could see, Flora got her way on everything -- at which we, the readers, were meant to be delighted, and applaud her future nuptials.
I found myself screaming for the rights of these poor country folk NOT to fall into the hands of people like Flora, to continue with their stupid cows, their indiscriminate sexual activities, and their mad aunties in the attic. Give me back my Mary Webb, I found myself shouting. (You can listen here for a few days.)
I certainly didn't please everyone! There were a couple of good humoured, objecting tweets, and just after the programme was first broadcast, I got a very cross email from a lady in Oxford. It was headed "You" in the subject line (always ominous), and read:
"I find your puplic <sic> persona and general 'jolly' approach irrritating. I now avoid your programmes."
I wrote back to her to ask her to fill me in a bit (I mean I find quite a lot of people on the radio irritating... but I dont email them to tell them). But I got no reply. Rather self-protectingly, I guess, and with no other evidence to go on, I have decided that she must be a real Cold Comfort Farm fan -- or else someone who really hates The Odyssey (not just me!).