A little context: back in the early 20th Century, there was a peculiar trend of highly-romanticised farming books that plagued English literature, referred to now as the “loam and lovechild” genre. You’d probably recognise its tropes, even if you haven’t read any of it. Think rolling hillocks under golden shafts of sunlight, think tanned lotharios toiling manfully in the fields, think torturously-serious power plays and social drama playing out in the local village hall. Very high in melodrama, yet low in self-awareness.
In 1932, novelist Stella Gibbons ended the trend at a stroke. Her book Cold Comfort Farm is such a perfect, icy satire of the loam and lovechild narrative that it pretty much killed it there and then with all the vicious efficiency of a velociraptor. In Cold Comfort Farm, our hero, Flora Poste, is a sharp-witted city girl who decides that she has no intention of earning an honest living in the wake of her parents’ deaths and moves to the country to mooch off the Starkadders, her distant relatives at Cold Comfort Farm, a little patch of miserable land on England’s South Downs.
Within moments of arriving, both you and Flora realise that the Starkadders are all completely detached from any sort of reality. Amos is a spittle-flecked preacher who couldn’t write a birthday card without damning the recipient to eternal hellfire. Seth is an eternally-horny farmboy, lascivious to the point of gross absurdity, seemingly always with another button on his shirt to twist open. Aunt Ada Doom, the elderly matriarch, is a twitchy, domineering old bag, permanently and determinedly traumatised by some unclear event in her childhood. Meanwhile, the farm itself is always on the edge of collapse, choked by sukebind weeds and with Starkadders dying so frequently that the family has to perform a yearly count just to work out who’s still around to work, and who fell into a well when nobody was looking.
In the midst of all this, Flora is the perfect point of reason, educated and focused, unflinching but not unfair, determined to drag them all back up to some level of common sense and to lessen Aunt Ada’s joyless chokehold on the family. And right away I realised what this story was, even if Cold Comfort Farm couldn’t: it’s a LucasArts point and click adventure game.
I’m honestly surprised it hasn’t happened yet. The book is laugh-out-loud funny with a focus on sharp dialogue, and each character has some problem that needs solving, even if they’re not yet aware of it. Not only that, but the farm is a perfect backdrop: contained, isolated, dripping with personality. I could easily picture this sat on a shelf next to Monkey Island, and before people say the idea is outlandish, I’ll remind you that somebody made an adventure game of I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, one of the least friendly, least-adaptable stories you will ever read.
But in truth, I suppose I love the idea so much because Cold Comfort Farm speaks to me personally. Like Flora, I was also a city kid who was moved by circumstance to the Sussex Countryside (in the shadow of the South Downs, in fact), and like her, I was less than thrilled by what I found, instantly missing hard concrete beneath my feet and all the trappings of modern society to fall back on. A sharp, satirical book like this was something I wish I’d had in my teenage years, flanked by cross-eyed sheep and sodden fields as far as the eye could see.
Dear god, am I happy to have it now.
Published at Wed, 21 Jul 2021 09:16:22 +0000