I've been put off opening this, even though I read it before years ago, by my experience with Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm, but really I needn't have worried. This is a short novel-length return to Cold Comfort Farm, converted, in post-WW2 austerity, into a conference centre managed by a trust. All the Starkadders except Reuben have disappeared, mostly to South Africa, and Reuben himself has been moved out of the farmhouse and into a rude hut on Ticklepenny's Field, the last bit of land remaining to him. Flora, summoned by Mr Mybug to help run a conference at Cold Comfort, including modernists, advanced thinkers and high-ranking examples of the new managerial aristocracy, immediately sets about putting things right.
Like the original novel, the narrative is slightly speculative, with some sort of managerialist government in power and everyone conscripted into useful work. Flora is now the mother of five, so has a government-assigned spiv to act as au pair; Reuben has been soundly ripped off by a combination of the Ministry of Agriculture and a body analagous to the National Trust. Gibbons has lots of fun with the modernist artists and their output, the managers and their machinations, a set of dipsomaniac scientists, and the enduringly ridiculous Mr Mybug, still married to Rennett and with three sons, who have "fixations" on their parents which take the form of "liking to be with us, wanting to be kissed goodnight, and that sort of thing. We've tried everything - it only gets worse". Adam Lambsbreath reappears, apparently immortal and still longing for his little mop, and there is a moving reunion between Urk and the water-voles.
Flora has lost none of her capability or her charm but is perhaps slightly more assertive. One of my favourite moments in Cold Comfort Farm is when Mr Mybug eats the little cake that Flora had wanted for herself, and it chokes him. This time, he is firmly prevented from stealing her hot milk. I cannot help thinking that Stella Gibbons' own experience informs Flora's thoughts on receiving confidences: "years and years of listening to people had taught her that if she just kept quiet and sipped or sewed and never looked shocked, there was literally no limit - no limit at all - to what people would tell her". I suspect many of us can endorse that.
Conference at Cold Comfort Farm is short, sharp and funny, and highly recommended to cheer up a damp cold Bank Holiday or other dreary circumstances. Also recommended is I Prefer Reading's review.