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My big read

Continuing our dip into the BBC's Big Read top 100 books, Jan Mark finds caustic cheer in Stella Gibbons's Cold Comfort Farm

For some reason, Cold Comfort Farm, published in 1932, was set "in the near future". The few establishing shots of that near future look quaint now, apart from the videophones; the rest of the book is timeless. The phrase:

"something nasty in the woodshed" has entered the language; we all know what happens to susceptible rustics when the sukebind hangs heavy on the wains.

When Flora Poste descends on her Sussex cousins in their mouldering farmhouse, she finds the Starkadders surrounded by rotting livestock, riven and bound together by ancient grievances and loathing, seething with sexuality, with religious mania and random Freudian disorders.

Flora (ruthless, exquisite, philistine) pits herself against Aunt Ada Doom, malevolent genius of Cold Comfort. Aunt Ada it is who saw something nasty in the woodshed 70 years ago and has waxed fat on the resultant trauma ever since, while the family festers under her reign of terror.

With steely serenity reinforced by the pensees of the Abbe Fausse-Maigre (and his doctoral thesis, The Higher Common Sense) Flora weeds out the derelict, the depressed and the deranged, leaving the farm in the capable hands of cousin Reuben and the rest of the Starkadders, who emerge awe-struck from their septic stew.

Particularly fine writing is helpfully marked with asterisks by the author - "the method perfected by the late Herr Baedeker".

Gibbons hit her chosen targets with precision, knocking off sundry others on the back-swing. The rural novels of Thomas Hardy and Mary Webb (especially The House in Dormer Forest) are generally held to be the progenitors of Cold Comfort Farm, though DHLawrence gets a look-in.

Jan Mark's latest novel for children is Stratford Boys (Hodder Children's Books). See www.bbc.co.ukartsbigread for the full list, resources and details of related programmes. To subscribe to the National Literacy Trust's Big Read e-newsletter, see: www.readon.org.uktbr.html

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