Conference at Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons

Vintage are reprinting several novels by Stella Gibbons, author of one of my favourite books, Cold Comfort Farm. My copy of the sequel, Conference at Cold Comfort Farm, arrived on Friday & I settled down last Saturday afternoon to read it. Sixteen years have passed since Flora Poste, Robert Poste’s Child, arrived at Cold Comfort Farm to sort out the lives of the Starkadder family. Flora is now married to vicar Charles Fairford, living in London & the mother of five children. The opening of the book is just so evocative of all the qualities I love in middlebrow mid 20th century fiction,

On a sunny morning in the midst of the Second Dark Ages, Flora and Charles Fairford were seated at breakfast on the vicarage overlooking the Regent’s Park where they had lived since Charles’s ordination 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 were occupied in reading its letters.

One of Flora’s letters is from Mr Mybug, the pseudo-intellectual poseur she encountered all those years ago whose favourite theory was that Branwell Brontё had written Wuthering Heights. He asks Flora to help him run a conference of the International Thinkers Group to be held at Cold Comfort Farm, no longer a farm but a conference centre run by a Trust that buys rundown houses & renovates them in true olde worlde style. At tea with Mary Smiling,  the brassiere-collecting friend of her early days & an awful woman called Ernestine Thump, Flora decides to take up Mr Mybug’s offer & return to Cold Comfort Farm.

On arrival she is met by her cousin, Reuben Starkadder, & he tells her the dreadful news that there are now no Starkadders at Cold Comfort. All the boys have gone off to farm in South Africa, the girls are working at the Centre as cleaners & cooks, Judith is living with a cult, Seth is a balding movie star in Hollywood & Amos is in America preaching at his very own Church of the Quivering Brethren. Reuben couldn’t keep farming to meet the standards of the interfering Ministry & was forced to sell. All he has left is Ticklepenny’s Field.

He were a Mr Parker-Poke. He sets up his bed down at Th’ Condemned Man (Mrs Murther, honest soul, nigh kills him wi’ her cookin’ for th’ farm’s sake, but o’course she dare not finish un off quite), an’ ivery day un comes up to th’ farm an’ de-dottles me wi’ advice. There were no peace, an’ things did go from bad t’ worse. He – he did say as I were niver agricultoorally eddicated.

Flora is dismayed by the prettification of Cold Comfort. Her favourite sitting room is now called The Quiete Retreate & other rooms have been renamed The Lytel Rush-dippe Roome, the Greate Bedderoome & the Greate Scullerie. She decides to get the Starkadders back to Cold Comfort Farm.

Stella Gibbons is poking fun at the pretensions & absurdities of post war Britain. The guests at the conference include the modern artist, Peccavi, the monumental sculptor, Hacke, Messe, the Transitorist craftsman & a mysterious sage known as the Master.  There are Swedish Existentialists & a modern composer who plays themes from his latest opera at great length during a Reading Picnic on the downs. The satire of these pretentious types is funny but for me, the delight is in revisiting the Starkadders & their friends. Elfine Hawk-Monitor is still beautiful, the mother of a large family & still writing not very good poetry. Urk is still irksome. Best of all, Adam Lambsbreath returns to hunt for his liddle mop which has gone missing. Adam now works for the Hawk-Monitors & the cows are called Mishap, Mislay, Misdemeanour & Mistrust instead of Feckless, Graceless, Aimless & Pointless but he’s just as daft as ever.

‘How did you come to lose it? Surely you took it with you when you went to Haute-Couture Hall?’
‘So I did. So I did, Robert Poste’s child. But there was them still livin’ at Cold Comfort as bore me malice in their black heartses, and ’twas them as did steal un from me.’
‘I say, what a shame!What did they do with it?’
‘Nay, how should I know, Robert Poste’s child? One says a-one thing, one du say a-nother, to be-dottle me, like. Some says as Mus’ Ezra, afore he went off to South Afriky, did fling un down th’ well up in Ticklepenny’s.’

It’s a short book, only 150pp, but just long enough. In the Introduction, Lynne Truss says that Gibbons longed to return to the Starkadders, to recapture the spirit of her first big success. I was very happy to revisit the Starkadders with her. Conference at Cold Comfort Farm can’t compare to the glorious original but it’s a funny, affectionate book that made me laugh several times & smile very often.

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