Sunday, 4 April 2010

There have always been Starkadders...

A Sussex farm

Sussex in the springtime is utterly delightful. Primroses skirt the hedgerows and Daffodils nod their regal heads in the blustery spring air that drives the tail of winter into hiding. The South Downs become peppered with colour as delicate flowers unfurl their jewelled heads and the trees start to bud. This year's leaves are all in waiting whilst the weather calms and softens. Once the clocks change the new found evening light promises months of frivolity and summery abandon.

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


  1. So funny and very true. I love this book! Perfect English cosiness. I must reread it. My dad always used to say 'there's something narsty in the woodshed' every time we watched Poirot when I was younger and I was so shocked when I first read Cold Comfort Farm and found that line - I thought my dad had read the book. Then I realised he'd just watched the miniseries back in the 70s or whenever it was on. My dad, reading?! Never!

  2. I love this book! I have a fairly tidy mind myself, so I completely sympathize with Flora, and I loooove watching her get everyone in the family sorted out.

  3. That's a post worthy of Flora herself! Nothing like a comic novel to get you out of a reading rut. I'd forgotten about the sukebind and whatever was in that woodshed?

  4. This is such a beautiful post - its poetry in writing if you know what I mean.

  5. This is a wonderful and funny post - thank you indeed. I love Sussex - is growing up in Sussex the reason for the blog name?

    Thanks for sharing and have a happy Monday


  6. I saw something naaaaaaaaaaaaasty in the woodshed!

    Abs x

  7. This is also one of my go to comfort reads when life goes screwy. So I really enjoyed your thoughts here.

  8. what are the other books in your top five? I'd love to know!

  9. Spring has definitely sprung in Sussex, the countryside is looking beautiful round here. I love Cold Comfort Farm and have just finished reading Nightingale Wood which I recommend.

  10. So lovely! Do you know, I"ve never read it! Shall do so post haste. Now, you can't mention a top 5 books and not spill the literary beans....

  11. I was back in Sussex a few weeks ago - got quite emotional seeing signposts to places I knew so well from my childhood. We had coffee in Ditchling & on to a birthday lunch for my favourite Aunt in Hurstpierpoint

  12. I really must give this another go as never got into it first time around!

  13. A wonderful post - your description of the Sussex countryside is delightful! Great photos too. I have to admit to never having read Cold Comfort Farm but your humorous review has made me want to rectify that. So many books so little time - sigh!

    Jeanne x

  14. I love this book. I read it before I'd read any Hardy, so by the time I'd done that, I was practically crying with laughter. :)

  15. This post has inspired me to have another go at this book, so thank you. I read it as a young teenager and had been told that it was hilarious. Not having read any of the literature that it parodies, I read with a face of solemn grimness.

    Tears of mirth, here I come!

  16. This was one of the first books I truly enjoyed reading in English and the humor did not go unnoticed, even by the language novice...
    My English has improved since then, but I warmly remember this story and others by Gibbons! The latest edition has such wonderful cover!

    And the movie was actually great as well...


  17. Great review, Naomi! It will come as no surprise that I love this novel - only read it twice, but it's so very funny that I know I'll revisit.

    I'm ashamed that, despite living in the countryside from ages 7-18, and completely think of myself as a country boy, I know so little about it. I just enjoy it, because it makes me feel alive.

    I haven't read any other Gibbons, though I have The Match-Maker, Nightingale Wood, & Miss Linsey and Pa.

  18. Sussex Gramarian4 December 2011 at 23:00

    You munt alas put an apostrophe in Starkadders(savin to show the possessive whatnot) my lumkin. Er aven't alas bin apostrophes in Starkadders.