This is a curious novel. It follows two impoverished sisters, Gladys and Annie, living in a run down part of North London. Their landlord sells their home to a “rackman” – a phrase many people will be unfamiliar with, but used here to describe an unscrupulous landlord likely to drive up rents, harass tenants, and ignore the fabric of their properties. If you are interested in the original Rachman this makes an interesting read – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Rachman.
It is probably as a period piece that this novel holds the most interest, a portrait of a time when one generation of English people were still looking back to the war, and the later generation warming up to the 1960s. We aren’t told when the action of the novel occurs, and Gibbons uses this imprecision to show the different perspectives of her characters. One of the older characters refers in a slip of the tongue to drawing the curtains as “doing the blackout”; the older characters shop as if they were still subsisting on rations (in a way they are), and live in world where houses are still uninhabitable from damage from the Blitz. The younger ones go to a dance featuring the long-haired “Spacemen”, locating the novel’s events right up to the time of publication (1967), more than 20 years after the end of the war. Erika brings this gap being a refugee from a continent seemingly only just recovering from the war. The narrator, and the author, firmly sides with the older generation, having little sympathy for longer than collar length hair, drawing links between this debauchery and mindless street fighting and murder.
What makes the novel genuinely weird is the plot line about possession. Yes, demonic, head turning, green eyed possession, eventually cast out by crucifix wielding, holy water splashing clergymen. I’ve exaggerated for comic effect slightly here, but only a little. It is a decidedly odd element to introduce, and despite its centrality to the climax of the novel actually adds little to the overall impact of the story.
I bow to no-one in my admiration of the genius of Stella Gibbons, which peeps through here in many elements of this novel, but overall I can’t deny that this is really for the completists amongst us. Many thanks nonetheless to Vintage for republishing these long lost novels.
Difficult though it is to admit, I often read novels and then forget what they are about. Not just minor details – whole novels slide past my eyes, to be quickly forgotten. Novels from the same author merge in the memory, and even relatively recently read books which I have written about here resist more detailed recollection. I am not sure this is just about quality, although that obviously is a factor – there are plenty of books I wish I never had to forget, quietly pressing the delete button in my brain minutes after the last page has been turned.
Why is this, and does it matter? I am not going to try an amateur dissertation on human memory here – that would be both arrogant and futile. I think we all understand at a basic level that the more carefully we read and consider a book, the more likely we are to remember it. Blogging about books I read is in part an attempt to anchor them in my memory and prevent them fading away, a bit like repeating one’s lines in a play. But I also think that the way we read is more important. To illustrate this, an anecdote:
Stuck on a train recently I fired up my Kindle, and turned as I so often do the comforting arms of Stella Gibbons. I have written before and at length about the glories of Cold Comfort Farm, and it is probably the novel I would most like to read as I leave this earth, in the unlikely event I get that choice. Flora, as I am sure you know, goes to live with her bizarre relatives in darkest Sussex, and arrives to find the place largely deserted. She is shown to her bedroom, and describes it thus:
“She dressed in pleasant leisure, studying her room. She decided that she liked it.
It was square, and unusually high, and papered with a bold though faded design of darker red upon crimson. The fireplace was elegant, the grate was basket-shaped, and the mantelpiece was of marble, floridly carved, and yellowed by age and exposure. Upon the mantelpiece itself rested two large shells, whose gentle curves shaded from white to the richest salmon-pink; these were reflected in the large old silvery mirror which hung directly above it. The other mirror was a long one; it stood in the darkest corner of the room, and was hidden by a cupboard door when the latter was opened…..One wall was almost filled by a large mahogany wardrobe. A round table to match stood in the middle of the worn red and yellow carpet, which was covered with a design of big flowers. The bed was high, and made of mahogany; the quilt was a honeycoomb, and white.”
So far as I can recall, for what that is worth, we don’t revisit this rather sweet welcoming room again. Flora has an adjoining sitting room she uses to while away her time, but not this bedroom.
When I read this paragraph the other day what struck me was that I had never read it before. More precisely I had no memory, not the faintest echo, of having read this description before, despite the fact that I have read Cold Comfort at least once a year for more than thirty years – obsessive I know. How could that be? Had it been craftily inserted by some unscupulous Kindle editor for reasons unknown? Unlikely. Was this a case of the Eyre Affair coming to life? Even less likely. Or was this the first sign of early onset memory loss? My best guess is that I had read this paragraph before, but never really paid it any attention.
Why did it not stand out? The description is detailed and well written, and is noteworthy because it is not in the mock heroic form used for many other descriptive passages, nor the humourous style used for much of the rest of the narrative. It is not clear whether the narrator here is Flora or the author – the gentle appreciation of the room could come from either. There is nothing arch or judgemental about the description, which there usually is from Flora’s descriptions of the farm. It occurs to me it might even be text from an abandoned alternative novel that Gibbons is recycling here. I have however edited out for reasons of brevity some comments about mirrors found in commercial hotel bedrooms that might give a different perspective.
I can only conclude I didn’t remember this section because I have never read it properly. It doesn’t matter that Flora has a nice bedroom at the farm, so I have mentally skipped this page to move on to the wonderful “porridge breakfast confrontation with Adam and his clettering twigs.
What other gems might there be lurking unappreciated in CCF – I will have to re-read it to check……
This entry isn’t about reading or books at all really, except that in a way it fits in with much of my non-fiction reading over the last twelve months,which has kept coming back to the World Wars of the twentieth century.
Humans are famously unable to comprehend large numbers. We deal much better with dozens, maybe even hundreds, but thousands? What does a crowd of thousand people look like? Or ten thousand? We understand the concept, but it stays at that level – we have nothing meaningful to equate it with in our day-to-day lives. This inability to envisage large numbers lies, I think, at the heart of people’s problems with probability, whereby they mistake everyday coincidences with the supernatural.
For anyone living in a town or city, the important thing to realise is how tiny some of these villages are. Ten men lost from a hamlet of (say) sixty people would have devastated many communities. The names of the Thankful Villages are part of the special impact of the idea – the English have a particular brilliance in naming their villages, and some of the Thankful few epitomise that flair – Herodsfoot, Ousby, Langton Herring, and Colwinston to name a few.
For me the concept of the Thankful Villages brings home with greater impact than simple numbers the scale of the cost of the Great War. Very few people escaped without losing a family member or friend. The war could not be escaped wherever you lived, whatever you did, no matter how remote or obscure. And of course the cost of the war, in lives lost, books not written, weddings not celebrated and children not born, cannot be quantified, which is why a symbolic representation of this loss has such an impact and is so valuable.
You can read a lot more about the enduring fascination of the Thankful Villages here: http://www.hellfirecorner.co.uk/thankful.htm