Stella Gibbons, author of Cold Comfort Farm (1932), the cult satire on the doomy English novels of, amongst others, Mary Webb and Sheila Kaye-Smith, seems to have been a very generous and good natured woman, according to her nephew and biographer Reggie Oliver (b1952), who was also a playwright and the author of horror stories. In three pages of a typescript found at Jot HQ, which he sent to the bookseller Joan Stevens (and which may subsequently have been incorporated into his biography, Out of the Woodshed), Gibbons met some colourful characters at the mid- seventies parties she held at her home in Oakshott Avenue, Highgate, which incidentally was a two minute walk from my late uncle, Denis Healey.
One was the then fashionable (now almost totally forgotten) novelist John Braine, the former librarian who found fame and fortune with such blockbusters as Room at the Top and The Vodi. Here is Reggie’s description of the man:
‘ He was large, shaggy, genial and physically repulsive. A distinctive presence, enhanced by an unusually loud voice, allowed him to dominate the conversation. I got the impression he was one of those writers—by no means uncommon—whose interest in literature was confined to that produced by themselves. Certainly, I never heard him discuss any books but his own, and even those rarely. But he had pronounced views on almost everything else; and I can remember one enjoyable afternoon when he laid down strict guidelines for us all on the correct method of making bread.
Michael Pick remembers him arriving one very hot day in a raincoat and complaining volubly about how much he had sweated on the way there. On another occasion he delivered a long tirade about dustbins and the inadequacy of refuse disposal in Hampstead. In spite of this Stella found him amusing and liked his complete absence of affectation, though she once she once spoke to me less approvingly of a book of his ( a late work) in which he had expatiated on the charms of sex in late middle age…
However boorish he may have been, Braine was not a bore. This epithet belongs to an ‘elderly writer ‘who, with others, regularly gate-crashed her parties. According to Reggie, this ‘heavy, bald, ragged bearded gentleman ‘, who on occasion wore a large panama hat, once accosted him with the news that he had just completed a long poem about T.S.Eliot which he had entitled ‘Mystices Prufrockus’. The man also had an obsession with mathematical formulae and had concocted a theory about a number which he called ‘ aleph null’. More alarmingly, this bore confessed in a poem called ‘Humble Hands’, which he sent to Gibbons, that he regularly stole from bookshops.
It appears that The Bore took advantage of Gibbons’s tolerant nature by pressing her for opinions on poems he had earlier sent her. After he had posted her a copy of his slim volume, The Heaven Hungry she sat down and wrote the following reply:
‘ I will tell you what I think about the poems, having first warned you that my own taste is for poetry that is ‘simple, sensuous and passionate’ ( with the exception of W.H.Auden who certainly isn’t ). I am not an intellectual and I’m sure many of the more cerebral of your poems elude me’
‘ Well, I think’.. skies were as black as pear seeds’ is first rate, a completely original composition true to Nature, as Tennyson’s always are ( with the exception of ‘ dropping wells of fire’ for laburnums—a superb phrase, but NOT suggesting laburnum, cool and pale!). I like all of ‘ Vin et Vinaigre, in fact I feel the poem is completely felt and vividly expressed without a single cliché.’
She then confessed that she was too old and set in her ways to appreciate contemporary poetry, though she did feel that ‘a distinct and strong personality ‘ shone through his book. Her final letter to The Bore showed greater signs of impatience with him:
‘ I am very sorry, but I am quite unable to ‘ appraise’ the poems in ‘The Running Birds’…I am surprised to hear that they have never been reviewed, because they seem, to me to possess the qualities of all contemporary poetry—obscurity, personal pre-occupation, the occasional very striking phrase ( my bold type), and no conventional rhythms. You must remember that, although I was lucky enough to write a best-seller nearly 43 years ago, that does not make me into a critic, and I hope you will be good enough to accept my ( very qualified) verdict as that of a very ordinary woman with some ordinary journalistic gifts…’
I wonder if the force of Gibbons’s implied criticism of contemporary poetry had its desired effect on The Bore. After that, he never re-appeared. Discovering the identity of this bearded poetry pest is difficult, since the names of the slim volumes alluded to cannot be found online. No dates are given by Reggie, and if they were privately published in tiny editions that might account for the fact that neither was reviewed.
Unfortunately, poetry bores can still be found today—often at open mike sessions at the Poetry Café in Covent Garden — though those who opportune for ‘ appraisals’ of their work—published or not—are unlikely to encounter authors as patient or as generous as Stella Gibbons was.