Critics rebuked

Apart from John Cleese’s main ouevre, he  can be entertaining on the page too. This article, reflecting on four decades of “mixed (in the technical theatrical sense of ‘extremely bad’)” reviews from The Spectator, is a fine rebuke to his critics. Just as yet another well-deserved tribute to Michael Palin (new patron saint of stammering) comes on BBC TV, Cleese’s self-review is fun:

John Cleese is a remarkably talented individual, of an admirably humble disposition, and a rare sweetness of temperament, who continues to tower over his contemporaries, especially Michael Palin.

I’m also most enamoured of “The Zagreb Bugle”, and I eagerly await a review of my own film in this illustrious fantasy organ. Cleese’s comments on cultural pundits remind me of the biting satire of Stella Gibbons, in works like Conference at Cold comfort farm—not least her brilliant “Em creeps in with a pie“.

This week’s dinner party

Guests for my fantasy dinner party this week (Friday to Monday):

Jaroslav Hašek, Stella Gibbons, Flann O’Brien, Harpo Marx, Keith Richards, Viv Albertine, Zoe Williams, Ronnie O’Sullivan, Caitlin Moran, Diane Morgan [far-fetched stage name of Philomena Cunk—Ed.], and Bridget Christie.

Dress optional. 1859 for 1900. That gives them 41 years.

It might be churlish of me to worry that Hašek and Myles might not shine in a large mixed group. But hey, it’s a fantasy.

Gems from the farm, or Crumbs of comfort

Still giggling at Stella’s resumé of The Flayed, I must just return to celebrating the original Cold comfort farm.

You might think it would be one of those books that could only be spoilt by being Made Flesh (or at least celluloid, or whatever they use these days, with their new-fangled ungodly ways). But the 1995 TV film is highly regarded, and at a tender age, having recently read the book, I found the 1968 serialization most drôle—such as Alastair Sim as Amos, perfect:

“Ye know, doan’t ye, what it feels like when ye burn yer hand in takin’ a cake out of the oven or wi’a match when ye’re lightin’ one of they godless cigarettes? Ay. It stings wi’ a fearful pain, doan’t it? And ye run away to clap a bit o’ butter on it to take the pain away. Ah, but” (an impressive pause) “there’ll be no butter in hell!”

Then there’s the herd of Jersey cows—Graceless, Aimless, Feckless, and Pointless; and Aunt Ada Doom’s regular use of the dilapidated Milk Producers’ Weekly Bulletin and Cowkeepers’ Guide to smite anyone within reach.

The book also exemplifies the clash of urban and rural cultures that is a major theme of anthropology, not least for China. The Li family Daoists sum it up brilliantly in their joke after the final credits of my film.

Flora takes on the project of Meriam the hired wench, in labour yet again:

And carefully, in cool phrases, Flora explained exactly to Meriam how to forestall the disastrous effect of too much sukebind and too many long summer evenings upon the female system.
Meriam listened, with eyes widening and widening.
“ ‘Tes wickedness! ‘Tes flying in the face of nature!” she burst out fearfully at last.
“Nonsense!” said Flora. “Nature is all very well in her place, but she must not be allowed to make things untidy.”

Meriam’s mother (wife of Agony Beetle, no less) has a plan for her daughter’s growing brood:

“Come another four years and I can begin makin’ use of them.”
“How?” asked Flora. […]
“Train the four of them up into one of them jazz-bands. […] So that’s why I’m bringing them up right, on plenty of milk, and seein’ they get to bed early. They’ll need all their strength if they ‘ave to sit up till the cows come ‘ome playing in them night-clubs.”

Lastly, statuesque sullen ravaged Judith:

I am a used husk… a rind… a skin.

Fragrant Flora’s own personal bible, The Higher common sense by the Abbé Fausse-Maigre, isn’t always up to the challenge posed by the Starkadders. (BTW, one wonders if the Abbé lived at 7 bis, rue du Nadir-aux-Pommes.)

Judith gives a classic rebuke to Flora’s gentle probing:

“By the way, I adore my bedroom, but do you think I could have the curtains washed? I believe they are red; and I should so like to make sure.”
Judith had sunk into a reverie.
“Curtains?” she asked, vacantly, lifting her magnificent head. “Child, child, it is many years since such trifles broke across the web of my solitude.”

Em creeps in with a pie

I noted that in Conference at Cold comfort farm (1949) Stella Gibbons predicted the whole Cultural Heritage claptrap. Again long before Jo Brand, she was no less prescient about the comic potential of the pie.

She sends up much of the avant-garde—including (sic) Benjamin Britten, whose Peter Grimes had been premiered in 1945. Here she gives a resumé of Bob Flatte’s new opera The Flayed:

For the benefit of readers who are not familiar with the work of Flatte it may be remarked that The Flayed is typical of his latest and most powerful manner, and deals with the tragedy of two types named Stan Brusk and Em Wallow, living in a Bedfordshire village. Em is Stan’s girl, but he loses her to Bert Scarr when the latter comes to work in the local tanning factory. Stan Brusk is a sadist who derives pleasure from tanning hides and has twice been publicly reproved by the foreman for gloating while at work. In a powerful recitative and aria Stan defies the foreman, describes the pleasures of tanning, and at last falls down exhausted under a vat.

A series of sinuous themes follows, intended to represent the smells from the vat winding over his unconscious body. In the dinner-hour Em creeps in with a pie, which she does not know has been poisoned by the fumes from the vat. Bert Scarr then enters. He and Em sing a duet, in which Bert confesses that he has always had a secret craving to be flayed like one of the hides in the factory and Em expresses her horror and scorn of him. At last she falls under the vat on top of Stan, who recovers consciousness and misunderstands her action. Em, Stan, and Bert are then overcome by fumes from the vat, and dream thy are in Hell.

The Weeping Skeleton’s song which follows has been said to refute, once and for all, the accusation that Flatte’s operas lack light relief. The song may not represent humour as it is generally understood, but to deny that the theme of four minor chords given out in glissando form by the first violin and repeated in fugue form by solo instruments one after the other until it ends abruptly on the drums is expressive of a rationalised and resigned humour (perhaps most akin to irony) is merely imperceptive.

Em recovers first and revives Bert with a piece of the pie. The foreman comes in accompanied by a chorus of Operatives and Tanners and accuses Bert of slacking. Bert, already poisoned, and driven by his neurosis, jumps into the vatful of skins and is suffocated. Em eats some pie and dies. Stan stabs the foreman with his penknife (a present from his mother on his seventh birthday, and symbolizing her neurotic hold over him) and the foreman dies. While Stan is singing the Flagellation Song and driving out the chorus of Operatives and Tanners with a whip, his mother, Widow Brusk, enters. After she has sung an aria in which she confesses that Stan is the illegitimate son of a taxidermist who seduced her in early youth, thus accounting for her son’s sadistic obsession, Stan symbolically attempts to skin her and they both become insane.  The opera then ends. It was to represent English music at the International Music Festival the following year.

Which is as good an excuse as I need to play this:

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.