Having stumbled across Beverley Nichols thanks to the lovely Reading 1900-1950 blog, I must confess that I have become a total convert, completely addicted to his writing – so much so, that I am having to rein myself in and not buy every book of his I come across! However, I’ve long wanted to read “Merry Hall”, one of his house-and-garden books, and so when I stumbled across a reasonably priced copy online I snapped it up. It’s a Companion Book Club copy, alas without dustjacket – but more of the quality of the book later, first onto the content.
I make no apology for reproducing in full the first few paragraphs of the book here:
“Some fall in love with women; some fall in love with art; some fall in love with death. I fall in love with gardens, which is much the same as falling in love with all three at once.
For a garden is a mistress, and gardening is a blend of all the arts, and if it is not the death of me, sooner or later, I shall be much surprised. A pleasant sort of death, I venture to suggest, which runs in the family. One of my grandfathers died of a clump of iris stylosa; it enticed him from a sick bed on an angry evening in January, luring him through the snow-drifts with its blue and silver flames; he died of double pneumonia a few days later. It was probably worth it.
Then there was a great-uncle who expired because of his passion for pears-not the fruit, but the blossom. He could not, quite rightly, have enough pear blossom; he wanted to hug it, bees and all, as a nice old gentleman should. So he took to climbing up into the branches, and sitting among the wild white spray of the flowers, for hours on end, with none but the bees for company. And one day a branch broke, and they found him out there in the orchard, lying on his back, staring up to the April sky, with an expression on his face of the greatest serenity.
I cannot forecast, with any accuracy, the probable nature of my own horticultural demise; at the moment, in view of the fact that the water garden is claiming most of my attention, it will probably take the form of drowning. Indeed, by the time these words are published, I may already have been discovered floating under a clump of James Brydon nymphaeas, a variety of water-lily which is described in the catalogues as a deep old rose pink that somrtimes seems flushed with crimson. That sounds a good description of the prose in which many of the passages in this book will doubtless be written. When I begin to write about flowers I lose all sense of restraint, and it is far, far too late to do anything about it.
You cannot say you have not been warned.”
Basically, if that wonderful opening doesn’t hook you instantly, have you chuckling out loud and make you want to devour the book, this is no place for you!!
“Merry Hall” tells of Nichols’ escapades after the war, when he was looking for a particular type of house and garden to settle in. He’s obviously an obsessive gardener and when he stumbles across the house of the title he’s instantly smitten, despite the fact that there is an incredible amount of work which needs doing on both house and garden. Despite the misgivings of his friend Bob, he takes Merry Hall and moves in lock, stock and barrel, along with his cats known as “One” and “Four” and his miracle-working factotum Gaskin. As well as the house and garden, he also inherits the suspicious old gardener, Oldfield. Has Beverley taken on more than he can handle? He’ll have to battle against the elements, the locals (Miss Emily and Our Rose), Oldfield and the ghosts of the previous owners, the Stebbings. But he’s surprisingly stubborn….
This is a positive delight of a book on so many levels. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, there’s Nichols’ writing. I just *love* his phrasing, his wit, his way of putting things. He often wears his heart on his sleeve and isn’t afraid to wax lyrical if the occasion demands it (and it often does); but his humour is a delight too and had me laughing out loud at places. He’s an engaging narrator, someone you feel you would like to have an afternoon just gossiping with in the garden, with tea and cats and interruptions and sarcasm and delight.
“As we all know, the only way to plant daffodils is to pile them onto a tray, and then to run out into the orchard and hurl the tray into the air, planting them exactly where they fall. There may be other, less orthodox methods; if so they should be spurned. The tray, the ecstatic gesture … that is the only sure road to success.”
Nichols has strong opinions on everything from politics to gardening and isn’t afraid to state them, which I love, whether it’s about roses or other gardeners (he says of Vita Sackville-West, “I am glad to learn that there is at least one great gardener who agrees with me – the poet Vita Sackville-West, who has less nonsense in her little finger than most women in their whole bodies, if you know what I mean” – he is not tolerant of silly women…) He also seems incredibly knowledgeable about plants and trees, and quite determined to track down what he actually wants – which is a useful trait to have when dealing with Miss Emily and Our Rose, who drive him to distraction (but whom he secretly seems to enjoy sparring with). This book is a joy from start to finish, and the the fact that there are follow-ups is wonderful and terrifying – I must restrain myself….
I really feel I have to say something about the physical book itself, too. My copy in 60 years old – I can’t believe it was published as long ago as 1953 – and yet is in remarkably good condition. Although missing its jacket, this is compensated for immediately you open and see the lovely endpapers (reproduced below – excuse my rubbish scanning!).
The book paper has remained in lovely condition, the binding is still firm and the volume falls open nicely at whatever page you’re on. This was a budget book at the time, and I only wish that more modern books were made so well!
I could rave about how fantastic Nichols is for pages, but I would end up boring everyone to death. I can’t understand why he isn’t more well-known, and I see he also wrote some mystery books which I really must read. Suffice it to say, he’s one of my biggest author heroes and I *will* have to try to ration myself with his work!