Isn’t it odd how the strangest and most unexpected things can influence your reading? For example, I was happily involved in the 10th Anthony Powell “Dance” story, “Books Do Furnish A Room” when the Doctor Who 50th anniversary hit at the weekend (I guess few people on the planet could have missed this). I’m a long-term old-school Doctor Who fan and tend to dismiss the modern stuff a bit. However, the celebrations really got to me, so much so that I’ve spent several days channelling my inner geek and actually found that I couldn’t read the Powell properly – so instead I whizzed through another Beverley, the very amazing “Green Grows the City”! I *have* since finished the Powell (which I absolutely loved and will review soon) – but in the meantime, some thoughts about city gardens!
The book begins with Beverley bemoaning the fact that he is stuck in the city (a flat in Westminster) and is missing a garden and can’t find anywhere nice to live. Fortunately, the indefatigable Gaskin is to hand, and instantly tracks down a nice little modern house in the quiet area of Heathstead (wherever that might be!). The garden, unfortunately, is a nightmare – a triangular pile of mud and mess with an ugly angular apex, which Beverley decides to leave as a cat run. Most of the neighbours are lovely, apart from the ghastly Mrs. Heckmondwyke at No. 1, but the household settle in, and it isn’t long before our author is seduced into doing something with the horrible garden.
This is only the second Nichols gardening book I’ve read, and I sense there will probably be a running structure to these – Beverley moves in; garden is a mess; one awful neighbour; many obstacles occur; Beverley triumphs in the end and creates lovely place! However, this is not meant as a criticism as any excuse to reading his writing has got to be good – I sense I may be turning into a Beverley Bore! – and in fact this book is about a lot more than gardening.
Of course, there is always the lovely writing – Nichols’ style is chatty and anecdotal, a delight to read and he is always in a dialogue with the reader, so you feel you are talking with an old friend. He’s also always witty:
“You see, it was the first really modern house that I had ever owned, and I wanted to take advantage of this modernity. So the first thing I did was to buy a Frigidaire, which is still regarded by a large proportion of the British public as rather daring, even shocking. Like bloomers. This machine fills me with fascination, not unmingled with fear, to this day. Those cubes! Mysteriously forming in the depths of the night! That frost… out of the nowhere into here! I once wrote a story about a ghost in a Frigidaire, but it was so terrifying that it had to be set aside.”
I’d rather like to read that story if it ever existed; and I’d also like to have come across Nichols in the following situation!
“The next day, I was down at the nurseries. (Did you know there were nurseries in London? Stretching for acres and acres, unsuspected, behind the most unpromising facades? No? Well, there are. But I won’t tell you where they are, because I like to prowl about them alone. Muttering.)”
Gardening is obviously something that Nichols found essential for his well-being and peace of mind – we all have things like this in our life – and he is happy to rhapsodise about his particular plot of land:
“The whole essence of a garden is that it becomes an old friend, or rather, a host of old friends. Will the irises be as good this year as they were last? How will the delphiniums have stood being divided? Will the phloxes have ‘established themselves’ in the coming summer? These are the things that matter, that really move the heart.”
Of his first attempt at squeezing in a rockery, in front of a brick wall whose stone clashes terribly with the rocks, Nichols says:
“The rocks were so stark, so suggestive of wind-swept moors, and the brick was so smooth, so obviously civilized, that it was as though I had asked Emily Bronte to meet Evelyn Waugh at tea. And if you can think of any worse predicament than that, you are welcome.”
However, reading “Green Grows the City”, we cannot ever forget the context in which it was written. My edition was published by the Garden Book Club in 1940*, and references to the Second World War and Hitler are scattered about. This is the early part of the War, and Nichols is trying to carry on as normal – or as normally as possible – and perhaps even doing his bit for the war effort by distracting his readers and reinforcing British values. As I’ve said before, I find it frustrating that he’s seen as a light-hearted gardening author because he obviously feels so strongly about the rights and wrongs of life and morals, valuing the smaller things in life that are actually so important – the success of growing a difficult plant; the kindness and tolerance of most neighbours; the joy of cat owing (and also, actually, the sadness of losing a cat which is very poignantly portrayed). As the book (and the garden!) progress, there are reminders of what is happening in the real world, and maybe in some small way Beverley’s battles with Mrs. H parallel what is happening in Europe, with her greed and self-centred attitude representing the worst in human beings – or maybe I am just reading a little too much into this.
And Nichols is not afraid to state his views. A visit to the cinema to watch some newsreel footage of current events brings forth this cri de coeur:
“So I pay my shilling, and sit back and watch the achievements of mankind flickering before me. Those achievements, to be frank, seem a little monotonous. Line after line of youths, in brown shirts, black shirts, red shirts, any sort of shirt… marching, always marching. Backwards and forwards, to the North, to the South, to the East and West. Marching with bigger and better guns, to louder and fiercer music. Marching with clenched fists or with outstretched arms, animated with the insane conviction that the fist that is clenched was made for the sole purpose of striking the arm that is outstretched. Marching, always marching, blind to the beauty that is around and about, deaf to all music save the sound of the drum, marching to a destination that no man knows but all men dread.”
Nichols was a pacifist, and although it might be unusual to regard gardening as one of the last bastions of civilisation, we cannot help but agree with his conclusion:
“… we both know, you and I, that if all men were gardeners, the world at last would be at peace.”
This book was another joy from start to finish: for the quality of Nichols’ writing, for the delight of watching his achievements with the garden, for the wit, and for the portrait of an ordinary human being continuing with his normal life as much as possible while the world started to go mad. I’m actually not ashamed at all that I’m becoming a Beverley Bore, because I think the world would be a better place if more people read books like this and loved their gardens!
* Lovely as old book club editions are, I did find this one a little frustrating as for some reason all the photographs were in the wrong place – which necessitated a lot of rooting around to find out what Nichols was talking about at times! However, there *are* lovely drawings. Perhaps I might be persuaded to buy myself a proper copy with the photos correct? :)