A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I decided that I loved Beverley Nichols before I read a word by him. I think I first came across the name in a small shop in Pershore, Worcestershire (no, I don’t imagine you’ve heard of it) where I bought A Thatched Roof because it was a lovely old hardback and I loved thatched cottages. I was 18 and probably thought he was a woman.
Since that time, I have been amassing books by him – everything from his classic garden/humour collections to a book he wrote in response to W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. I have a book he wrote about pacifism, a collection of interviews he did with the bright and the good of the 1930s… all sorts. And somehow I never got around to reading any of it. (I did read, at some juncture, a collection of essays he wrote with Monica Dickens – and instantly it left my mind. I suspect it wasn’t real Nichols so much as something he was phoning in.
Well, the most recent converts are always the most enthusiastic, they say. In 2017 I’ve read his 1950s Merry Hall trilogy (about Nichols buying and doing up a Georgian house with several acres of garden and woodland) – Merry Hall, Laughter on the Stairs, and Sunlight on the Lawn – and I’m torn between being cross with myself that I didn’t read him sooner and being thrilled with myself that I’d prepared for this event by stockpiling 13 of his books. This trilogy is non-fiction, presumably heavily tinged with fiction, and it is – well, I am going to use the word ‘delight’ a lot in this review, I can sense
It begins with house hunting. When I am not having to do it myself, I adore house hunting, and will read any length of it – though, in Merry Hall, it doesn’t last very long. Money is clearly no object, and Nichols buys this substantial property in more or less a trice.
Most of the book examines the plants and planting arrangements that Nichols decides upon, with Oldfield his gardener, and I thoroughly enjoyed it while often not really understanding it. My knowledge of flowers and plants is nil, and I got less from this than somebody more practically-minded might have done. As such, I’ll mostly write about the rest – because there is just as much to love about Merry Hall for those who don’t have green fingers.
It was previously owned by Mr and Mrs Stebbings, and (before that) the Doves – known as the Doovz to the broad-accented, old, and extremely talented Oldfield. Nichols takes an immediate and long-lasting position of loathing to Mr Stebbings, who apparently did every single wrong with house and garden, from planting elm trees – how Nichols would have welcomed Dutch elms disease! – to his choice of wallpaper. (In Merry Hall, he focuses almost entirely on the garden – Laughter on the Stairs looks at the house, and Sunlight on the Lawn is perhaps more about the community in general than either of the above.) This is a keynote of Nichols’ writing – he is very, very sure of his own taste, and very, very dismissive of anybody else’s. Luckily, he does it in a very, very amusing fashion, and mellows slightly as the trilogy continues.
Mr Stebbings has passed on to a better place, but he has an acolyte remaining in the area: Miss Emily. One hopes – for his sake and for hers – that there was no prototype for Miss Emily – or, if there was, that she is sufficiently altered in these pages so as not to recognise herself. In fact, the edition I’m reading was published for The Companion Book Club in 1953 and, rather delightfully, still has the little pamphlet with which it was initially distributed – and, in that, Nichols writes ‘where the female characters are concerned, I have naturally been obliged to invent a few elementary disguises, which are familiar to all authors who wish to avoid libel actions’.
Miss Emily is ‘one big flinch’ – she pops up regularly at Merry Hall, disparaging everything Nichols has introduced and lamenting every element of Stebbings that has been removed. Nichols can’t stand the sight of her, but she is always there – along with her friend Rose, apparently a note flower arranger, who tortures flowers out of their original shape – much to Nichols’ discuss. Terrible person that I am, my favourite moments in the book were when Nichols talks about how appalling he finds this pair – and is similarly wittily irate about a succession of labourers who do not labour. Of course, he wouldn’t dream of doing any of the hard work himself. (Curiously, he is much nicer about Emily and Rose in the sequel, and then nice about Emily and vicious about Rose in the third – I wonder if locals recognised themselves and threatened action?? But then what of Rose?)
Nichols is everything one expects of a rich, creative, aesthetically-minded gent – albeit maybe more usual in one of the 1920s than the 1950s. Here’s a representative sample of his thoughts:
It is the same when you are furnishing a house. If you have only just enough money to buy a bed, a chair, a table and a soup-plate, you should buy none of these squalid objects; you should immediately pay the first instalment on a Steinway grand. Why? Because the aforesaid squalidities are essentials, and essentials have a peculiar was, somehow or other, of providing for themselves. ‘Look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves’… that is the meanest, drabbest little axiom that ever poisoned the mind of youth. People who look after pennies deserve all they get. All they get is more pennies.
While I don’t agree with Nichols’ politics or his cheerful snobbery – though neither of these things stop me loving every moment of the book – there is one area in which I am in wholehearted agreement with him. I don’t think anybody has ever written as wonderfully about cats.
Nichols has two cats – One and Four. These whimsical names supposedly come from the idea that he would have 100 cats over the rest of his life. One is Siamese and Four is a black cat, and he writes beautifully about their character and mannerisms, with every bit of the devotion that cats deserve. They weave in and out of the narrative, and won my heart completely. Later in the series along comes Five, and… well, there is a scene which I found harder to read than almost any human death I’ve read about.
There is so much I would like to say about this book, but I have already written quite a bit – and I suspect I’ll be writing more about Nichols often over the years. Basically, this is a very funny, very charming book that reminded me a lot of A.A. Milne’s Edwardian stories. I’ve read 3.5 of his books this year, and fully intend to launch into more after that. I will say to anybody who has yet to read Beverley Nichols: don’t be like me and put it off for a decade; read something by him immediately.