The Sweet and Twenties by Beverley Nichols

Well, after all the excitement of recording the ‘Tea or Books?’ podcast, and reading and talking about “The Sweet and Twenties” by Beverley Nichols, I really ought to share some of my thoughts about it here. Simon and I were both very taken with this particular volume of Beverley’s reminiscences, and I was especially interested to see how his views about his life and past had evolved since his first ‘autobiography’, “Twenty-Five”, published in 1926. “Sweet” was published in 1958, during a very different decade and in a very different world to the earlier one and the 1920s in general.

There is, I suppose, a certain image of that decade – the clichéd view of flappers, bobbed hairdos, Oxford bags, Scott Fitzgerald and general having a good time in the post-war period, and damn the future. However, as Simon very astutely pointed out, a period of 10 years is not homogenous and the view we have of the 1920s is not necessarily accurate to that whole period.

So “Sweet” has Beverley looking back 30 years or so to his youth and reflecting on how the world was and how it’s changed. And his viewpoint is fascinating, because reading one of his books you don’t necessarily expect to find yourself unexpectedly under the shadow of the Bomb or the Death Wish, as he eloquently terms it. But I initially detected a certain weariness in the author with the way the world had gone; he took a fairly clear-eyed look at what was a kind of optimism in the twenties and a wish for change, for ensuring that there would never be another war and the anger and determination of young people that the world would be better. However, having seen out two World Wars, Beverley could understandably be expected to reflect a loss of hope and also be angry and disillusioned with the thought of total annihilation.

“Sweet” was actually fascinating on many levels. As I’ve indicated above, it contains an intriguing amalgam of his thoughts on the world now and then; and although I don’t always agree with him (he’s very opinionated!), he’s always entertaining. However, it also takes a wonderfully wide-ranging look at the 1920s in all their complexity; from the General Strike to the Irish Problem to the furore caused by women cutting their hair to the fashions to the colours of the decades (another element which struck Simon strongly) through the hostesses and personalities of the decade… well, you get the picture. And actually, a vivid and memorable picture is what you get through Beverley’s wonderful prose – he’s just so witty that I did find myself giggling away while I was reading the book in advance of recording (much to the chagrin of OH….)

Female hair, throughout the ages, has always excited the fiercest of passions. Even St Paul lost all sense of proportion about it. If one goes back to the epistles with an open mind one is bewildered and indeed somewhat shocked to find so great a spiritual leader working himself up into such a frenzy of indignation about women who do not wear a hat to church… for that is really all it amounted to. This must surely be one of the strangest passages in the Bible, or indeed in any of the great spiritual treasuries of mankind.

Although Nichols takes a strong view on the negatives of the period (he has surprisingly liberal views on race and class) he does have something of a split nature and he’s obviously seduced by the charm and glamour of high society, writing wittily and extensively on the great hostesses of the era, as well as notable figures such as Beaton, Novello and Coward. He’s happy to give his views on who he thinks will survive into posterity and whose successes will fall by the wayside; and although he’s not always right it’s fascinating to read what he thinks. His writing about the Sitwells is lovely (and reminds me I must read more Sitwells – I have plenty lurking…), and when discussing the ‘Mapp and Lucia’ books his description of Rye is just a scream:

Rye is an almost hysterically picturesque town in Sussex. When you walk down its narrow streets you feel that at any moment a horde of Morris dancers may burst through the doors of one of the oldy-worldy cafes. Sometimes, to your alarm, they do.

I have to confess to an almost pathological dislike of Morris dancers, so this rather resonated with me… 😉

But the feeling I came away with was of having read the words of someone who was basically a very humane person, despite his foibles and sarcasm and snarkiness (which I confess I find appealing…). For example, he discusses the furore around Radclyffe Hall’s “The Well of Loneliness” with some sympathy, commenting “The ‘Well of Loneliness’ scandal was one of those deplorable examples of mob hysteria which periodically make the British people so ridiculous in the eyes of the rest of the world.” He goes on to consider censorship and hypocrisy in the theatre and how works which were published and performed abroad were still banned in our rather prudish country.

One of the most striking chapters in “Twenty Five” was Beverley’s recollection of the notorious Thompson-Bywaters case (the basis for F. Tennyson Jesse’s magisterial “A Pin to see the Peepshow”, amongst other works of fiction). Nichols is strongly against capital punishment, and he revisits the case here. At the time of the trial and subsequent execution of Edith Thompson, Nichols was working as a reporter and he ended up gaining access to the family to tell their story in his newspaper. Frankly, he seems to have been haunted by the episode all his life and his feelings haven’t change by the time of “The Sweet and Twenties”.

But through it all, Beverley compares and contrasts the present and the past, wondering how the doomed youth of the 1950s (as he sees them) will survive the trials of the current world, and how indeed civilisation will progress. All this is delivered in a relatively light tone (it isn’t all doom and gloom) and although Nichols laments the changes that have taken place in the world, he can’t quench that well of optimism that springs up in him and ends up with hopes for a better future. You and I might be able to judge better than him whether those hopes were borne out.

As you might be able to tell, I really did love this book (but then I tend to like anything Beverley wrote, so I’m not going to be an objective reviewer here). It’s entertaining, opinionated, sometimes thought-provoking, sometimes laugh out loud funny and never, ever dull. Fortunately, Beverley was nothing if not prolific and I by no means own or have read all of his books. So at least I have more treasures by Beverley Nichols still to read, and since I can’t ever sit down and have tea and a gossip with him, that will have to be the next best thing…

(If you want to listen to our podcast on Beverley, pop over to Simon’s site here where you can find it!)