Typically enough, having a week off for half term in February was a good time for my system to decide it would collapse, and I spent most of the break wrestling with the worst head-cold I’d had for a while! So the only kind of reading I could manage was going to be something comfy, and I decided it was time for a little more of the wonderful Beverley Nichols and his gardening books! (This was well before the reading crisis set in, btw).
My lovely friend J had presented me with a signed first edition of “A Thatched Roof” for my birthday last year; however, as that’s the second of the “Allways” trilogy, I felt quite justified in sending off for a copy of the first (not a first edition and not signed, but nevertheless very much a matching copy). Both books turned out to be an absolute delight, which was just what I needed! 🙂
“Down the Garden Path” was Beverley’s first gardening book, published in 1932. Having purchased a Tudor thatched cottage and grounds in a small village in the middle of the English countryside. He has happy memories of visiting it before, with its beautiful gardens – but on arrival at the cottage he’s in for a shock, as the previous tenants have spoiled the inside and the gardens have gone to rack and ruin. The book is the story of the remaking of the gardens; Beverley’s falling out and putting up with the local neighbours and busybodies; Beverley learning to be a gardener and grow things; Beverley planting a wood; and so on!
Needless to say, the book is a delight (but then I would think that about everything Beverley writes!) Yes, he’s a snob; yes, there are some dated attitudes; but what a funny writer he is, and his enthusiasm for his cottage and garden is infectious. Of course, one of the joys of reading Nichols is his occasional bursts of misanthropy, and here they’re rather wonderful – for example, his description of one of the local ladies in the village is just priceless:
I will call my next garden acquaintance Undine Wilkins, because it is the sort of bastard name she ought to have had… a sickly aestheticism grafted on to a plebeian stock. Because she is very thick-skinned, she will not recognize herself, and I should not greatly care if she did, for she is rich, thoroughly self-satisfied, and now lives in the colonies.
Undine wends her way in and out of the story, as does Mrs. M, another local lady with an immaculate garden who Beverley, despite his protestations, actually does manage to get along with! So he gradually develops the garden (beautifully illustrated on the end papers by Rex Whistler) and different parts develop in an almost organic way – like, for example, when the digging of a pond creates a mound that just has to be made into a rock garden:
I have not a ‘rock garden mind’. Until quite recently I associated rock gardens with the horrors of the English Riviera… visualized them as gaunt, damp rubbish heaps on Southern promenades, over which there brooded a few diseased palms, while in front of them, passed an endless procession of nursemaids, wheeling perambulators in which revolting infants glowered and spat.
There there is the wood. Another burst of spleen explains why the wood came into being, and there are some wonderfully funny scenes of trees arriving and being planted.
It was a question of seeking shelter. I wanted somewhere to hide in. Things looked so dreadful everywhere. Whenever I opened the paper I saw that my pitiful little holdings in various industrial shares had slid still further down the slope. Everything seemed to be cracking up. England was unutterably weary, America was in the throes of a nervous breakdown, Germany had consumption, Italy was suffering from delusions of grandeur, Spain was about to be sick, Russia had delirium tremens, and France had an acute attack of hysteria following indigestion. The world seemed vulgar, irrational and dangerous. And so I said to myself, selfishly, ‘I will make my wood, and hide while there is yet time.’
And his description of how to visit a nursery is a scream:
If you have one or two excellent dry martinis, well iced, your visit will be far more satisfactory, not only to yourself but to the proprietor of the nursery. For you will leap from your car, see a divine splash of pink in a far corner, hail the attendant with the cleanest face, and cry: ‘I must have a dozen of those!’ And then you will dance off down the nearest path, always followed by the clean attendant, and you will swerve, instinctively,. towards the lovely coloured gracious things and you will order them without stint. The after effects are terrible, of course, but it pays.
Intriguingly enough, Beverley’s parents make regular appearances, with his father often being consulted on gardening matters. By the end of the book the garden is pretty much in shape, with Beverley threatening to write at least 6 more gardening books (!) which leads on to the second book, “A Thatched Roof”.
This volume is about the cottage itself, its renovation, the servant problem, the digging of wells, thatching of roofs, the keeping of bees and the introduction of the wonderfully-named Whoops the dog! There are more clashes with Mrs. M., tales of the experiments of the Professor (who unnerves everyone by constantly making notes about them, and divines water scientifically), discoveries about the cottage and more gardening.
These books are *such* a delight – I love Nichols’ snarky tone, his misanthropy and wish to hide away from people. But he also has a poetic side; he’s quite in love with his cottage and his garden and his dog and isn’t afraid to wax lyrical about them. He’s also very human, and not afraid to reveal his faults, getting very tetchy when he’s incapable of writing a poem about the bees.
You might have figured out by now that I loved these books! Beverley Nichols’ writing is definitely my cup of tea, and he was ideal reading for when I was feeling under the weather. And what’s even better is that there are so many of his books I *haven’t* read yet! :)))))