Conference at Cold Comfort Farm
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About the Book
About the Author
Also by Stella Gibbons
About the Book
In this brilliant sequel, Robert Poste’s child is back at Cold Comfort Farm. But all is not well. Flora finds the farm transformed into a twee haven filled with Toby jugs and peasant pottery. It is, Flora winces, ‘exactly like being locked in the Victoria and Albert Museum after closing time’. Worse, the farm is hosting a conference of the pretentious International Thinkers Group. And worst of all, there are no Starkadders at Cold Comfort Farm. All the he-cousins have gone abroad to make their fortunes and the female cousins are having a pretty thin time of it. Once again the sensible Flora decides to take the situation in hand.
About the Author
Stella Gibbons was born in London in 1902. She went to the North London Collegiate School and studied journalism at University College, London. She worked for various newspapers including the Evening Standard. Stella Gibbons is the author of twenty-five novels, three volumes of short stories, and four volumes of poetry. Her first publication was a book of poems, The Mountain Beast (1930), and her first novel, Cold Comfort Farm (1932), won the Femina Vie Heureuse Prize for 1933. Amongst her works are Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm (1940), Westwood (1946), Conference at Cold Comfort Farm (1949) and Starlight (1967). She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1950. In 1933 she married the actor and singer Allan Webb. They had one daughter. Stella Gibbons died in 1989.
ALSO BY STELLA GIBBONS
Cold Comfort Farm
Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm
The Rich House
Here Be Dragons
White Sand and Grey Sand
Constance and Anthony Rye
WITH AN INTRODUCTION BY
This contains elements of the plot
When I talked with Stella Gibbons in her old age – a dryly amusing, friendly presence in her Highgate eyrie – she ruefully admitted that she missed the imaginative world of Cold Comfort Farm, and had never quite matched its spirit in her later writings. That timeless spoof of heaving emotionality grew partly from high-spirited mockery of Thomas Hardy, Hugh Walpole and Mary Webb, and partly from a heartfelt reaction against her own temperamental father and turbulent family life. So the first novel sprang up as first novels should: natural as tangleweed, sharp as sukebind, a larky testament from a young woman making her way in 1930’s London. Working for the Evening Standard, longing for love and progress and another kind of life, she would read out its jokes to amuse her work-mates and cheer herself up in the Lyons’ Corner House after hours.
Seventeen years later, on the far side of wartime austerity and with sixteen books published, Gibbons could not resist allowing her imagination to revisit the farm and contemplate its changes related to the current state of the world. In Conference at Cold Comfort Farm we are in the age of compulsory tidying, planned societies, Utopian dreams and bossy officialdom: a time when untidy, run-down historic buildings were being taken over by the National Trust and filled with ‘rustick’ dressers and arty pottery and weekend visitors. In Cold Comfort Farm Mrs Smiling devoted herself to collecting brassieres and the search for the perfect one but here she engages with the era of managerial revolution, of arrogant science and political functionaries like Mrs Ernestine Thump in her ‘piteously unsuccessful hat’, a piggy-eyed bossy-boots, ‘from whose photograph Flora had often averted her eyes in the daily journals.’
And of course, this change presents a conundrum for the author and her avatar Flora: for in Cold Comfort Farm Flora was the sole representative of organization, planning, rationality and calm. So Flora must find new adversaries. And she does: the intellectual Mybug, an incidental running joke in the first book, becomes central in Conference at Cold Comfort Farm. His world of cutting-edge art and New Thought, what Flora thinks of as ‘the second Dark Ages’, is the enemy now. He has moved on, no longer embracing Lawrentian ideas of ‘deep, dark, bitter belly-tension’ between man and woman, but inclining towards the doctrines of psychoanalysis and progressive education. In a nice swipe at A.S.Neill’s educational theory, Mybug’s children go to ‘Badlands’ and have only fifteen minutes of child-chosen total recall from a chosen teacher everyday, then ‘just fool around’. Mybug has surrounded himself with European artists of the new vogue, modernists who far from suppressing nasty memories of the woodshed, have brought every nasty thing out into the open to celebrate it. Mybug reveres their doctrines and works with all the blind stubborn determination which was once deployed by the rustics in their belief that there must ‘always be Starkadders at Cold Comfort Farm.’
This time, Flora and Reuben are on the same side from the start: positively nostalgic for the old disorderly Starkadder ways, muck and magic, sukebind and water-voles and taking the bull to the cow. Who would not be, when the alternative is having old buildings suffering under labels like ‘Ye Olde Pantrie’ and ‘The Lytel Store Roome’ and being hired out for conferences rather than being lived, and ranted, in by their traditional occupants?
The poor old farm, ‘all cockered up like a lost woman on Worthing front’, has lost its last Starkadder to the agricultural efficiency revolution and Mr Parker-Poke from the Ministry (the author never lost her gift for perfect names). It must be saved. Given back, even, to the old Starkadder ways. And in the quest for enemies to save it from, Gibbons happily lighted on new targets. Fascinatingly, these adversaries are more familiar to us in the twenty-first century than her dark-blooded emotional rustics were to her mid-twentieth century readers.
The Conference attracts a slew of post-war intellectuals and artists, ripe for guying. Here – loosely disguised – are Picasso, Moore, Britten, Kafka, Anouilh and Sartre: here are fashionable swamis and sullen poets, a seductive female existentialist called Mdlle Avaler and Greetë Grümbl from Sweden lecturing on ‘Angst, its causes and cultivation.’ The cruel plot-summary of Bob Flatte’s new opera The Flayed is perhaps harsher than Peter Grimes deserves – if indeed that was the opus on her mind, which seems suspiciously likely. Britten’s dark opera was first played four years earlier. And The Dromedary is certainly unfairly unkind to Kafka, with the same reservation.
On first reading the book in my teens I was a little indignant at her breezy philistinism, but now I think differently. We may hugely admire some of those she sends up: but all the same, there is a bracing quality in her contempt, just as there was in her ridiculing of trauma and heaving emotion in Cold Comfort Farm. Emotion is real and important, so is artistic innovation: but both are susceptible to wallowing, exaggeration, posing and exploitation by the vain and selfish. That is the quality which Gibbons sends up so mercilessly, and it is good for any age to tilt at the slavish admiration of the Mybugs. When he admires a verbal spat at the picnic, crooning that the conversation was ‘coruscatingly malicious . . . slow, heavy, brutally impenetrable’, it is not hard to find modern parallels in certain salons of mutual admiration which are still among us. One finds oneself thinking of Martin Amis and his circle. Or BBC Two’s Newnight Review. While some of Gibbons’s targets have dated – the scientists are oddly unrecognisable, though some of them were no doubt the Huxleys – others have not. Overrated artists are still walking alongside their better peers; Hacke, Messe, and Claude Hubris survive in the age of the Young British Artists, the Saatchi Gallery, Tate Modern and performance art. And we are free to raise an eyebrow and play the Philistine if we feel like it: at times, in grimmer exhibitions, the Starkadder women say it for all of us when they weep their eyes out over the artworks in the ‘Greate Barne’, flinging skirts over their heads and crying ‘Tes th’ poor souls as made ’em as we be weepin’ for . . . fancy wantin’ to make such things, Miss Poste! Poor souls, poor souls.’ There will always be art fit to ‘turn t’milk mooky’ and we must always be free to say so.
Time winnows out much, and polishes understanding of the rest: some of the works Gibbons mocks have become iconic, understood and revered for the best of reasons. Yet mockery has its uses as much as earnest criticism. Every artistic movement needs is philistines, though it may not be grateful to them at the time.
The pleasure of Conference at Cold Comfort Farm is a different tenor to the charms of its predecessor. And curiously, for those who loved the murderous murk of Cold Comfort Farm before Flora reformed it, there is consolation in the final happy scenes of this book. The Starkadders, crazy primitives, are throwing out the self-tortured preening culturati. Our Micah is a-cursing, Our Mark and Our Luke are fist-fighting, and Our Caraway is throwing National Trust furniture out of the window after chasing some random brother across the ‘Greate Yarde’ with a chopper. ‘I likes fine to see ’em all a-bashing and a-cursin’ cries Charley, and secretly, so do we. The catch-up is worth having. It is reassuring to know that Elfine’s poetry is no better, that Seth the movie star is going bald, and that old Adam Lambsbreath is finally reunited with his beloved dish-mop.
Libby Purves, 2011
I think it necessary to make a stand against
the encroachments of black bile.
Thomas Love Peacock.
On a sunny morning in the midst of the Second Dark Ages, Flora and Charles Fairford were seated at breakfast with their family in the vicarage overlooking the Regent’s Park in London where they had lived since Charles’s ordination some thirteen years ago. Flora, it may be remembered, had been Flora Poste noted for the straightness of her nose and the efficacy of her restorative work at Cold Comfort Farm in Sussex. The nose retained its classic elegance; the work she seldom thought of nowadays, for Flora had five children. The post had just arrived, and the family party was occupied in reading its letters.
Flora’s were typical of those usually received by the wife of a vicar in a large poor parish, but among the appeals and reports was an envelope, lined with scarlet and addressed in a tortured yet dashing hand, which caused her, when she had glanced at the letter’s signature, to exclaim in surprise. No one took any notice. Her husband was busy with his own correspondence, and the children were busy eating.
‘I say, listen to this,’ commanded Flora, and began to read aloud:
‘My Dear Flora Fairford,
Of course you won’t remember me. You’ve probably forgotten my name. I hesitated about contacting you. But last night I saw your married name in the book while looking up Messe the Transitorist craftsman, and . . . the Idea came. I’ll be frank with you. The I.T.G. is holding a conference at Cold Comfort Farm (remember, Flora?) from June 17th to the 24th, and I’m acting as Organizing Secy. Can you come down and help? You could organize . . . once.’
‘What’s the I.T.G.?’ interrupted Flora’s eldest daughter.
‘International Thinkers’ Group,’ said the eldest son, without glancing up from a book propped on his knees below the table.
‘Does that put you on your mettle?’ the letter went on. (‘I haven’t got a mettle,’ muttered Flora. ‘Alex, put that Latin grammar away and finish your breakfast.’) And then she added impressively:
‘Who do you think it’s from? Mr Mybug!’
Her family looked blank, with the exception of Charles, who frowned.
‘Oh no, of course. None of you were born,’ Flora went on. ‘You remember, don’t you, my love?’ to Charles.
‘Vaguely. But you can’t go, Flora; it’s the American Tea and Bazaar on the 17th.’
‘So it is. I forgot. No, I can’t; it’s out of the question,’ and Flora put the letter away in her skirt pocket and said no more.
But after breakfast, when the elder children had gone to school, and Emilia the baby was watching the spiv (allotted to Flora to help her with household duties because she was the mother of five) holystoning the kitchen floor, Flora went to the telephone and dialled a number.
After a pause, excessive even for the Second Dark Ages, a voice said faintly:
‘Hullo? Yes, I should say?’
‘Is that you, Sneller? Is Mrs Smiling at home?’
‘If you will hold the line, madam, I will ascertain. What name shall I say, madam?’
‘It’s me, Mrs Fairford, Sneller.’
‘Very good, madam.’
There was the sound of footsteps creeping away, and after another excessive pause another voice, low and with a bewitching American lilt, said:
‘Mary? It’s me. I say, can I come to tea this afternoon?’
‘Lovely, but I must just ask Sneller.’
‘Mary, do you still have to get permission from your butler every time you want to ask anyone to the house? I do think that after all these years –’
‘It isn’t that; it upsets him if he has to see about cakes and everything. Hold on.’
There was one more excessive pause, and then Mrs Smiling came back and said that it was all right and she would love to see Flora about four o’clock.
So just after four o’clock that afternoon Flora rang the bell of 1, Mouse Place. It had not suffered in Recent Events, but it had been shut up with Sneller as caretaker while Mrs Smiling was in the United States, and Flora had not seen it for many years. However, Mrs Smiling had friends in high and low places, and she had contrived to get the house painted. It looked fresh and elegant in the summer sunlight, and there were Sweet Williams in the metal baskets hanging from its balcony.
Sneller, Mrs Smiling’s butler, opened the door. He was now so old as to cause no emotion in the beholder beyond incredulity at his being yet with us, and he was still exactly like a tortoise.
‘Good afternoon, Sneller. How nice to see you again after this long time.’
‘And to see you, madam. I hope you are keeping well, madam, and Mr Fairford, and all the young ladies and gentlemen.’
Flora replied that they were well, and, reflecting that Sneller’s all made her family sound even larger than it was, followed him across the hall, her grey skirts whispering along the mosaic floor of flowers and shells.
Mrs Smiling came out of the drawing-room to greet her. Time had been gentle with Mrs Smiling’s grey eyes and beautiful mouth, and she wore a dove-coloured dress almost to her ankles and a crystal necklace. But, to Flora’s dismay, she saw a Bulk seated upon the drawing-room sofa beyond her friend’s shoulder: a female Bulk with a lot of hair and little glistening eyes under a piteously unsuccessful hat.
‘Who’s that?’ she breathed, stooping to kiss her friend lightly.
‘Mrs Ernestine Thump. S’sh, Flora! I can’t help it,’ breathed back Mrs Smiling, and led the way into the drawing-room.
Mrs Ernestine Thump was sitting very squarely on the sofa, surrounded by red, white and blue papers. The hat had too plainly been clapped on to her pate at an expensive shop in a dutiful attempt to look smart, and Flora now recognized her as a female holding on to a public position, from whose photograph she had often averted her eyes in the daily journals.
‘Ernestine, this is Flawra. Flawra, you don’t know Ernestine,’ said Mrs Smiling, and her American accent became more noticeable, as it always did when she was slightly agitated. ‘I met Ernestine on the Queen the last time I came over; she was coming back from going over to see about what they think about nutritional equivalents over there,’ she ended vaguely.
Flora saw that Ernestine Thump was opening her mouth to ask her what she Did? So she quickly smiled and bowed to her and dashed without pause into an account of Mr Mybug’s letter and the Conference of the International Thinkers’ Group.
‘You are supposed to be opening the Bazaar for us on the 17th, Mary, but I am anxious to accept Mr Mybug’s invitation, and I was going to suggest –’
‘Of course! Don’t miss it for anything! Glorious opportunity! How I wish I could be with you! Internationally famous names! Feast of culture!’ shouted Mrs Ernestine Thump. ‘Of course We believe in artists, and thinkers! They’re no use practically, but it looks well to have them! Provided they will co-operate in raising the general level of culture and if their tone is democratically sound We have nothing against them! Who’s going to be there? Ah, thank you,’ as Flora silently handed her a leaflet about the Conference enclosed by Mr Mybug in his letter. At the same moment Sneller crept in with the tea.
In a moment Mrs Ernestine Thump began reading names aloud from the leaflet.
‘Claudie Hubris, eh? Great friend of mine! He’s done well, very well! He’s Executive Technical Adviser for Nutritional Necessities Inc.; it has branches all over the Globe! They’ve bought out most of the other Trusts! Treat their people decently, too! Oh, you’ll like Claudie! He’s a worker and a grand person into the bargain!’