Stella is stellar

In my somewhat implausible online egg-and-spoon race, Miss Stella Gibbons remains neck-and-neck with Li Manshan and Myles.

I’ve finally got round to reading her little-trumpeted* sequel to Cold comfort farm, Conference at Cold comfort farm (1949).

(*Little Trumpeted could be one of her local rural names, like Howling and Mockuncle Hill. Bill Bryson is a clear heir to this niche fetish, with his predilection for [real] names like Seething, Wrangle, Nether Wallop, Thornton-le-Beans, Shellow Bowells, and so on.)

In Conference, written at a time when Britain was going through a revolution in the aftermath of devastating war, with social justice briefly in the air, and in certain circles also cultural innovation,  Flora revisits the farm some sixteen years after her earth-shattering initial stay, once again putting things to rights.

The book satirizes both the avant-garde and (some five decades in advance) all the Intangible Cultural Heritage flapdoodle—at a time, remember, when it was neither profitable nor popular (indeed, Stella’s mockery of pretence was akin to that of Myles). A few gems:

Hacke, with his sculptures Woman with Child and Woman with Wind.

And Messe: “Of course, I don’t put him within miles of Peccavi. I should put him somewhere between Pushe and Dashitoffski.”

There’s even a dodgy Oriental Sage.

Meanwhile, Reuben reports to the ever-sane Flora on the visit of a Mr Parker-Poke from Th’ Ministry :

“He—he did say as I were niver agricultoorally eddicated.”
“I am very sorry, Reuben.” Flora laid her hand upon her cousin’s for a moment. “No, you are not agriculturally educated; you only know how to make things grow.”

Shades of the Great Leap Forward?


Who ever supposed Stella was a one-trick pony (and I didn’t say “filly”)? Never seduced by the blathering blandishments of Bloomsbury, Not For Nothing has she been Dubbed [sorry—there’s another one for the Catechism of Cliché, or Molvania] the Jane Austen of the 20th century.

And now there are all her other novels, long neglected, for us to read too.

Watching the English

If it’s pop armchair ethnography you want (and why not, sometimes?), then Kate Fox’s Watching the English: the hidden rules of English behaviour is brilliant.

To be impeccably English, […] one must appear self-conscious, ill-at-ease, stiff, awkward, and above all, embarrassed. Hesitation, dithering and ineptness are, surprising as it may seem, correct behaviour.

And her insights into the “Typical!” rule (pp.199–200, 303–305) and funerals (pp.374–8)… Her final list of English traits (pp.400–414) includes Social dis-ease and Reflexes such as Humour, Moderation, Hypocrisy, Eeyorishness, Fair play, and Modesty.

And say what you like about Bill Bryson, but he too has some precious insights into the British (Notes from a small island, p.68–9):

It has long seemed to me unfortunate—and I’m taking the global view here—that such an important experiment in social organization was left to the Russians when the British would have done it so much better. All those things that are necessary to the successful implementation of a rigorous socialist system are, after all, second nature to the British. For a start, they like going without. They are great at pulling together, particularly in the face of adversity, for a perceived common good. They will queue patiently for indefinite periods and accept with rare fortitude the impositioning of rationing, bland diets and sudden inconvenient shortages of staple goods, as anyone who has ever looked for bread at a supermarket on a Saturday afternoon will know. They are comfortable with faceless bureaucracies and, as Mrs Thatcher proved, tolerant of dictatorships. They will wait uncomplainingly for years for an operation or the delivery of a household appliance. They have a natural gift for making excellent jokes about authority without seriously challenging it, and they derive universal satisfaction from the sight of the rich and powerful brought low. Most of those over the age of twenty-five already dress like East Germans. The conditions, in a word, are right.

On a related tack (pp.98–9):

And the British are so easy to please. It is the most extraordinary thing. They actually like their pleasures small. […] They are the only people in the world who think of jam and currants as thrilling constituents of a pudding or cake. Offer them something genuinely tempting—a slice of gâteau or a choice of chocolates from a box—and they will nearly always hesitate and begin to worry that it’s unwarranted and excessive, as if any pleasure beyond a very modest threshold is vaguely unseemly.
“Oh, I shouldn’t really,” they say.
“Oh, go on,” you prod encouragingly.
“Well, just a small one then,” they say and dartingly take a small one, and then get a look as if they have just done something terribly devilish. All this is completely alien to the American mind. To an American the whole purpose of living, the one constant conformation of continued existence, is to cram as much sensual pleasure into one’s mouth more or less continuously. Gratification, instant and lavish, is a birthright.

Such observation should be part of fieldwork in more far-flung societies too.