Avoiding the rose-tinted glasses…


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!)


Guesting on ‘Tea or Books?’ with @stuck_inabook !!


The alert amongst you who are also on Twitter might have picked up the fact that I agreed to co-host an episode of Simon at Stuck in a Book’s podcast ‘Tea or Books?’ (and I’m sure you all listen to it as well). This is a one-off while his usual co-host Rachel is unavailable, and I was a weeny bit nervous (but quite pleased to be asked, really, because it’s always lovely to natter about books!)

We chose subjects where our tastes intersect; so in the first half we talk about detective fiction vs crime fiction, getting into the knotty subject of genre. The second half is Beverley Nichols based – “The Sweet and Twenties” vs “Merry Hall” – and so you’ll have to listen to see what we make of these two Beverley books and which is our favourite! 🙂

One thing I intended to mention in the podcast, but forgot in all the excitement, was the source of my copy of “The Sweet and Twenties”. I have a beautiful signed edition which was so kindly gifted to me by the lovely Liz at Adventures in reading, writing and working from home – such generosity, and I do treasure it so it was about time I had an excuse to actually read it – here it is:

My nice signed copy from Liz with the signature inset…

So do go over and have a listen to Simon and I having a good chatter about books (and yes, I was drinking tea while we recorded….) Hopefully if nothing else we’ll convince you to give Beverley Nichols a try! 🙂


#1968 – Some previous reads


When I began to research books from 1968 for our club, I was actually surprised not only by the amount of books of interest from that year, but also by the number I had already read! I thought I would link to a few old reviews here, and also mention some I read pre-blog.

In the First Circle by Solzhenitsyn

I read this chunkster back in 2012, although admittedly this revised and uncensored version was not the same as that first published in 1968. Nevertheless, this powerful portrait of life under Soviet rule was a landmark book and I found myself unable to understand why Solzhenitsyn’s literary reputation isn’t higher in the West.

The Quest for Christa T. by Christa Wolf

A read from 2014, “The Quest for Christa T.” has a deserved reputation for being a difficult book. The writing is elliptical and elusive, but once you get into the flow and start reading it almost between the lines, it’s remarkably rewarding. Her prose is marvellous and I don’t know why I haven’t picked up any of the other books of hers lurking on my shelves.

The Puzzleheaded Girl by Christina Stead

In 2016 I read my first Christina Stead work, a shortish tale called “The Puzzleheaded Girl”. My response to it was unsure in many ways, and my next encounter with Stead was even more difficult. Frankly, I’m not sure if she’s an author I’ll ever return to (despite the fact her Virago editions look lovely on the shelf…)

By The Pricking of My Thumbs by Agatha Christie

Latter-day Christie featuring an older Tommy and Tuppence Beresford (I love Tommy and Tuppence) and it was a wonderful romp with a very clever plot. As I said in my review, if I had infinite time I would read all of Christie’s books chronologically from start to end (and wallow in their wonderfulness).

Garden Open Tomorrow by Beverley Nichols

I’m rather sad that I’ve already read this, and fairly recently, because I’d love the excuse to read another Beverley. But then, who needs an excuse to read Beverley???

The Wedding Group by Elizabeth Taylor

It’s quite a while since I read any of the wonderful novels by Elizabeth Taylor – and actually an annual readalong of the books by the lovely LibraryThing Virago group was actually one of the factors which impelled me into starting Rambling! And this was one of my favourite Taylors, a little darker than some of her other works.

The Heart-Keeper by Francoise Sagan

This was a really *weird*  one…. Kirsty at The Literary Sisters kindly passed it on to me, but I found myself unable to really get to grips with what it was about, finally concluding “Basically, I found myself totally flummoxed by this book! At just over 100 pages, it seems to struggle to get its point across and really I still don’t know what it’s trying to be after thinking about it for several days. I haven’t found a lot about it online and it may be that it either sunk like a trace after its publication or other readers are as confused as I was!” An odd one indeed, and not a title I’m likely to revisit (in fact I don’t even know why it’s on my shelves still – off to the donation box with it!!)

The Sculptor’s Daughter by Tove JanssonI’m a relatively recent convert to Tove Jansson, but I absolutely love her work, both for adults and children. “Sculptor’s Daughter” was her first book for adults, and it’s a beautifully written work which presumably blurs fact and fiction; it appears to be simply autobiographical, but I’m not so sure! Whichever it is, it’s lovely!


There are also a number of books from 1968 which I read pre-blog so of course haven’t reviewed, and some of them are strikingly good. Solzhenitsyn’s “Cancer Ward” appeared in the same year as his other magnum opus and was equally powerful. “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”, a collection of Joan Didion’s essays, was I think the second book of hers I read and I remember being mightily impressed. On the poetry front, when I discovered my local library was stocking Persephones, I borrowed “It’s Hard to be Hip Over 30” by Judith Viorst, a wonderfully witty, wry and entertaining collection which I highly recommend. And I’m pretty sure I’ve read “Maigret Hesitates”, though with the amount of books Simenon wrote, it’s hard to be sure…

So – I hope you’re all getting on well with your #1968Club reading – there really are a *lot* of wonderful books to choose from! 🙂


Some surprisingly downbeat delights


A Village in a Valley by Beverley Nichols

I had a lovely trip to London last month where I met up with J, my oldest BFF, and we spent happy hours visiting the Moomin exhibition at the Royal Festival Hall, the Russian exhibition at the British Library, plus some general gallery visits and a little bit of shopping. J came bearing gifts, in the form of two lovely Beverley Nichols books, and it was just too tempting – I was supposed to be reading another part of “War and Peace”, but I couldn’t resist picking up this Beverley book!

The edition J kindly presented me with is a first edition from 1934; no dustjacket, of course, but in pretty good condition for a book of its age (apart from one oddity – more of which later in this post). “Village” is the third in Beverley’s Allways sequence, set in the fictional place of that name (which is apparently based on his home in Glatton), and I read and loved the first two here. Nichols’ writing is so engaging and funny, yet often lapsing into the lyrical, and I was hoping for some more of that kind of thing – which I did get, but the book is often rather different in tone from the first two.

All the characters we loved and loathed from the first books – Mrs. M, the competitive neighbour; Undine Wilkins, the ditsy, artsy type; the Professor, as absent-minded as you could wish – are present and correct and the lovely location is the same. However, there is a new distraction, in the form of Miss Hazlitt; stated as Nichols’ former governess, she’s an impoverished and saintly woman who everyone feels the need to protect, and much of the plotline revolves around her. There is also Mrs. M’s visiting nephew, Leo, who provides a wealth of humorous distraction, and an entertaining side-plot about the missing church windows.

However, the tone of the book is more thoughtful than the earlier ones, and this is flagged up early on. It’s clear that we are living in the 1930s, where the Depression has had its effects and people are struggling with reducing incomes. These are not the ‘lower-classes’ (although they do feature in the book) but those living and coping in genteel poverty, and Nichols casts a sympathetic eye on their attempts to keep up standards as best they can. The financial squeeze has had its effects in other ways, as those who own the land are having to sell it off (and one particular chapter allows Nichols to pour scorn on Lady Osprey, who is obviously still rolling in it, but is happy to sell land to developers). And it is this change in the nature of Allways that is causing most concern; the arrival of a nasty modern bungalow is met with horror and there is a strong sense that the quiet village way of life is a world under threat from encroaching modernity.

    The storm broke that night, and though there was little sleep for most of us, I did not care. For there are not many better things in life than to lie in bed, in a sturdily timbered room, under a thatched roof, while one’s own garden thirstily drinks the welcome rain, and the wind whistles down the chimney, and under the crack in the door.
    It is at moments like this that one is inclined to count over one’s blessings.

And events take a darker turn towards the end of the book, with one particular character’s health becoming an issue, which leaves Beverley in philosophical mood; the end chapters are moving and poignant, where he reflects on mortality and how the world will change, but glories in his great love, which is the beauty of flowers.

The book is beautifully illustrated by Rex Whistler’s peerless line drawings.

It’s easy to criticise Nichols for his snobbishness and elitism (which I recognise); nevertheless, I think he’s very right in his love of beautiful things and his wish to embrace the everyday wonderfulness around us. There’s a touch of the Betjeman about his lamentations about the invasion of uncouth elements into the loveliness of Allways and you can’t help but wish that these small English oases of calm still existed.

‘Civilization’ is the death of the finer senses of man. If a cigarette is always between your lips, you can’t ever smell the sweetness of the bean fields, on a summer evening. If you begin to drink cocktails at twelve, you forget, for ever, the keen, silvery taste of cold water in a clear goblet. Which sounds like on of the most embarrassing moralizations of Eric or Little by Little but it happens to be true.

However, the book is not all downbeat, and there are some wonderful humorous exchanges, snarky comments and hilarious situations which had me laughing out loud. And Beverley is not averse to mocking himself; his father makes another appearance, giving out wise and sensible advice, while the son paints himself as an impractical dreamer; he also makes reference to his tendency towards purple prose!

The gentlemen of the press who parody me may now draw an elegant picture of me shrinking in horror from the thought of being alone in a room with a rampant poppy. The idea is, as they say, ‘a gift’.

With this book particularly I felt the need to do a bit of digging into the background, particularly Miss Hazlitt, to see if she had any basis in reality. She did indeed draw on Nichols’ old governess, although the events in the book are pretty much non-factual as far as I can tell. It seems that Nichols’ publishers wanted another book about Allways to follow the success of the first two, although I’m not sure how much Beverley wanted to write it, which may explain the slightly more downbeat tone and the elegiac feeling of the writing. I imagine that most of Nichols’ gardening/house books are very well embroidered, but I don’t really mind – I love his adventures and characters, however invented they are!


I read “A Village…” in a couple of settings one day, and later that same day went on to revisit a film I loved in my 20s but haven’t watched since, and it seemed to have a relevance and a connection with the Nichols book.

The film is the Ealing classic “Went the Day Well”; released in 1942, it was a propaganda film to warn the British public of the dangers of invasion. Set over a Whitsun weekend, a small English village discovers that the British troops billeted on them are not what they seem, and the film sees them fight back against the threat to the war effort. Based on a story by Graham Greene, it’s still an incredibly powerful film and the small threatened village resonated with what I’d been reading in Beverley’s book. I love Ealing films anyway, and I did wonder how this one would stand up all these years later; well, I was on edge of my seat all the way through, and both Beverley’s book and this film rather reduced me to a jelly in several places.

I really recommend “Went the Day Well” if you haven’t seen it – it captures a Britain and a way of life long gone.


And now for the strangeness in my first edition of “A Village in a Valley”. Early on in the book I came upon four pages that had missing text and odd blank areas with just a few asterisks, looking something like this:

There was definitely text missing, as some parts stopped mid sentence, and I couldn’t work out what was going on. In one place, it looked a little like a page could have been stuck in and then removed, and I wondered if there was some kind of printer’s error that was rectified and then removed. Whatever had caused this (and the rest of the book was ok) I was a little frustrated at having missing bits, so I sent off for a cheap later edition.

It arrived a little tatty but intact, and when I compared the missing sections, all the text was in the later edition:

1st edition on the left vs later edition on the right

So I’m a little flummoxed, but at least I’ve been able to read all of Beverley’s book. There seems no reason why the text should be missing from the first edition, as it simply relates some funny extracts and comments by Beverley on a local newspaper – most peculiar indeed, and I haven’t been able to find out anything about this online! =:o

So much for good intentions…


There is a reason I don’t sign up for TBR-only reads or book-buying bans – and that’s amply illustrated by the results of a post-Christmas hop up to London to meet up with my dear friend J… We weren’t able to get together in December owing to a variety of circumstances, and so a plan to hit London in January, taking in bookshops and sales, was hatched. I was vaguely worried that the weather would stymie things, but it behaved for the day and we had a lovely time!

At a pit-stop in Foyles, J presented me with my birthday and Christmas gifts which she’d been reluctant to trust to the postal service, and I can understand why…


What a beautiful selection of Beverley and Beverley-related books she gifted me! “Women…” does have a dustjacket but apparently this has been temporarily mislaid… “Cry Havoc” is very special as you can see:


As well as being a first edition, it’s also signed, so I am now the proud possessor of three signed Beverleys, thanks to the great kindness of others! A perfect accompaniment to the Foyles Cafe lovely tea. I was quite restrained in the shop itself, only purchasing a birthday present for somebody else – J was not so restrained, but I think she outdid me on the purchasing stakes all day!


J also presented me with this copy of Calvino’s “Castle of Crossed Destinies” so I can check if it’s the same as the one I have, and if it is I can pass it on to someone who might be keen to start exploring his work!

The next bookish stop was Any Amount of Books on the Charing Cross Road, one of the last of the old guard. I already had a heavy rucksack so was trying to be a little careful, but I couldn’t resist these:

any-amount-of-bksThe William Maxwell was from the £1 bins outside, and the other two from the paperback shelves. I’ve wanted the Kis title for a long time and I love the cover. The Delafield is a beautiful Virago I don’t have so couldn’t be resisted of course. And I think the nice man at the counter gave me a bit of a discount!

Henry Pordes next door have a lot less paperbacks and Viragos than they used to, though there were a number of tempting titles. However, I resisted more here, and just came out with something I need for a project:

pordes-pmp23I don’t come across the Penguin Modern Poets books that often in second-hand stores, so I do tend to grab them when I see them. I daresay I could chase them down online, but it’s nice to support the actual bookshops.

The Bloomsbury Oxfam was busier than I’d seen it for a long time when we arrived there, and here I had one of the most pleasing finds of the day:


Having been gifted a beautiful chunky biography of Thea Astley by Trish, my lovely Virago Secret Santa, I’ve been keen to track down some of her fiction. Surprisingly, none of the new bookshops had anything (and we tried Waterstones too). However, this title (one I’d heard of) was nestling on the shelves in the Oxfam just waiting for me!

Final bookish stop of the day was the lovely LRB bookshop, a place I rarely get out of without something and today was no exception:


The Debray is a title I’ve often mused about and as it was in the 50% off sale I pounced! And the Berger title is one I hadn’t come across before but it sounded fabulous and looks beautiful inside with all sorts of words and illustrations, so I finished the day as I started it – with books!

We *did* do other things apart from bookmania, including taking in the kikki.k shop and Paperchase at Covent Garden, the Cass art shop (where J got quite carried away) plus lunch at Gaby’s deli (yum!) and two visits to the Foyles cafe (the LRB teashop was full and J had developed a passion for the Foyles crushed ginger and lemon tea).

So a perfect day out, and evidence that I can’t stop buying books when the moment is right, and that there’s absolutely no point in trying…

The comforting company of Beverley Nichols


There are times when you just need a book that’s going to make you smile and get a warm reassuring glow – and certainly I needed this recently with all the madness that’s going on in the world.


“Garden Open Tomorrow” is Late Beverley Nichols (1960s) and combines his traditional witty commentary and gardening knowledge, with more modern topics – a chapter where he relates how the Rachel Carson book “The Silent Spring” had made him rethink his use of pesticides was fascinating, and perhaps unexpected.

The book, of course, is a rambling joy – although ostensibly (and very much!) a gardening book, Nichols goes from the effects of cold on gardens, to cats and their ballet dancing, gardening for the elderly, how to deal with lime infested soil and which roses belong to which composers, while ranging over umpteen subjects on the way. My edition is a lovely book club one from the Readers Union which came with a wonderfully intact dustjacket, and has lovely illustrations by William McLaren – which *really* add to the joy of the book!

I could of course simply go on about how lovely the book is, but I thought instead I would share some of Nichols’ bon mots with you in the hope they will make you smile as well. I don’t know how well they will translate out of the context of the book, but they certainly made me happy!

On animals and music:

I have always believed that between animals and music there exists a strange affinity. The cobra coils to the lilt of the flute, the circus bear dances to the cruel rhythm of the drum, and I one had a long and intimate association with a thrush who used to accompany me outside the window of the music-room while I was wrestling – shadow-boxing would be a more accurate way of describing it – with the misty and intricate harmonies of Granados’s ‘Maiden and the Nightingale’.

On the Albertine rose and its relationship to music:

Albertine. I associate this with Lehar because it is the epitome of an old-fashioned operetta. It is so pink and fluffy and feminine that when you see it clambering round the bedroom windows you almost expect a rather elderly (but still attractive) soprano to pop her head through the curtains and burst into song. Stranger things have happened.

On challenging established ideas such as the one that all babies are beautiful:

… a moment’s honest reflection must reveal the fact that… most babies, to the impartial eye, are of considerable hideousness, with bald pates and lunatic expressions. Though obviously to be treated with kindness, they should be removed from the view of all but their parents from the first few months of their lives and kept, if possible, behind screens.


On describing some daffodils and his propensity to let his pen get carried away:

If you go to the Savill Gardens in the early spring one of the most ravishing spectacles is provided by the hosts of miniature daffodils shimmering in golden pools under the leafless trees, tumbling in a medley of yellow down the banks, or preening themselves by the side of a winding stream. As my pen is obviously straying very near to the purple ink-pot, let us hasten to check it….

On why people visit stately homes:

Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, for example, would be the first to admit that for every person who pays to see his daffodils at least two pay to see his Daimlers. These ancient horrors, these hideous precursors of the machine age, have an almost morbid attraction for the ton-up generation; to watch a bunch of youths staring at them, even attempting to fondle them is to be reminded of a group of stage-struck juveniles conjuring up erotic fantasies about elderly actresses. Again, when the turnstiles tinkle at the Duke of Bedford’s Woburn Abbey, the number of people who are eager to study the Canalettos is probably less than the number of people who are eager to study the duke.

On the photographic illustrations in an engineering prospectus:

… the only engineering prospectus I ever read was written in such purple prose that it was almost embarrassing. So were the photographs, portraying enormous square-shouldered engineers, standing by their bridges and their pylons, with their wives fluttering in the background. The engineers were gazing at their gaunt, skeletal creations with such obvious ecstasy that they seemed to be longing to commit some sort of mechanical adultery.

On John Betjeman:

One of the few reasons for hoping that the entire population of Britain is not nuts is the popularity of John Betjeman’s poetry.

Incoming – and planning what to read next…


Now that things have calmed down a little after the excitement of reading for the 1947 Club, I’ve been thinking about what to read next and the answer is not obvious! I’m of course behind on the challenges I’m involved in this year – reading Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage and HeavenAli’s Woolfalong, though I may well be able to catch up a bit over half term.

There *have* been new arrivals recently in the form of a large pile of review books (which are obviously like buses, not coming for ages and then arriving all at once…). Some of these will be for Shiny New Books but I’m not sure which yet. However, I did bring home a couple of volumes at the weekend:


“Letters from Iceland” is from the library so theoretically I should try to read it soon. The Sebald was from a charity shop because I really do want to give him another try (I read him years ago but didn’t quite get him….)

I also felt the need to revamp the “interested-in-reading-soon” shelves as they were so crowded that things were getting out of hand and I really couldn’t see what was what. So now the big shelf looks like this:


There is a *lot* of poetry on those shelves, which I’m not likely to get to soon, plus a lot of Russians. We shall see…

There’s also a small shelf area with potential reads which looks like this:


More poetry in the form of Edith Sitwell (and I have a lovely big biography of her that Liz kindly sent me on the other shelf). The Beverley is calling as I haven’t read any of his books for a while. Decisions, decisions…

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