One of the delights of our reading clubs is the chance to pick up a book you might have been meaning to read for a while, or perhaps to revisit a favourite author. Apart from Agatha Christie, one writer I’m always happy to get back to is Beverley Nichols. Bev has featured on the Ramblings on many occasions, mostly because of his wonderful and entertaining gardening/house trilogies; although I’ve enjoyed his fiction and his autobiographies, and even made a guest appearance once on Simon’s podcast, where we had a lovely chat about Beverley and his books!

My rather bedraggled first edition copy.

Anyway, to my great delight, 1936 is a year which featured one of his works, and as I had a copy there was no excuse for not picking it up! The book in question is called “No Place Like Home” and I believe it’s the first time I’ve read Beverley writing specifically about travel…

1936 was, of course, a year when the world was in a bit of a mess. Slap bang in the middle of the difficult thirties decade, there were tensions all over the place. Nichols, however, chooses this time to make a journey over Europe, heading south and east to the Holy Land (forgive me if my geography is sometimes a little vague – it was always my weakest subject!)

It was a very grand hotel indeed. The carpets were so thick that they almost dislocated one’s knees when one waded over them.

Anyway. Beverley sets off and travels first across Europe, through Austria, Hungary, Rumania (sic), Turkey and Greece, finally fetching up in Egypt to have a gander at the pyramids. Needless to say, this being Beverley, much of the journey is full of humour, From his initial overnight stay at a place which turns out to be a TB sanitorium, through art in Vienna, the Orient Express, the horrors of guides, the further horror of organised tourism – well, you can see that travel in 1936 gave Beverley much to be drily and often gloomily funny about. He loves to go off the beaten track, eschews many of the regular tourist sights and would rather appreciate something small and unusual than the more commonplace attractions.

Those who are familiar with the work of Thomas Mann will agree that Christmas Eve is not an occasion on which one desires to live in the pages of The Magic Mountain. Yet that is what I was compelled to do. And as I pulled myself into my ski-ing trousers, and laced up my heavy boots, a number of curious details about the night-life of this hotel, which had obtruded themselves through my dreams, began to be clear to me. Perhaps the most gruesome was the sound which I had taken for a vacuum cleaner… I realized then that it was not a vacuum cleaner that I had heard. It was an oxygen machine. And it was being used in the room next to mine, which was separated by a very thin partition.

Of course, much of your enjoyment of reading Nichols will depend on how you take to his style which, if I’m honest, is quite individual and a bit mannered. Fortunately for me, I love it… An extra element of humour is provided by Nichols’ companion on the journey – well, that is, an imagined one, in the form of an ‘irate reader’ with whom Beverley often has discussions and arguments, having to break off his narration of his travels to deal with his reader’s complaints. The IR is there to “make us Get On With The Story” and Bev does put him to good use! I found this great fun (although I suspect some might not!) However, all is not humour, and I found myself touched and in agreement with Nichols when he was moved to anger by animal cruelty; in fact, it is this which finally caused him to flee one country. However, this doesn’t quite square with the fact that Nichols goes on a duck hunt at one point, despite despising shooting – truly he was a man of great inconsistency!

The Dead Sea appeals to that morbid strain in one’s nature which responds to the stories of Edgar Allen Poe, the drawings of Doré, and certain fragments of the music of Chopin.

Anyway, the further east Beverley gets, the less he seems to like it, and he’s obviously not the greatest traveller in the world; in fact, when faced with glorious gardens in hot climes, he finds himself pining for the simple English landscape and his own plants and garden! Egypt is definitely not for him – harrassed by the various guides, unimpressed by the pyramids and the Sphinx and not at all happy about all the heat and sand, it’s only his pilgrimage which keeps him going.

Definitely a 1936 release… ;D

The second part of the book gets to the nub of things and reveals why Beverley is actually travelling. As a devout Christian, he is making his way to the Holy Land, and visits Palestine, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Hebron and all manner of sites. Here, unfortunately, he’s again often left disappointed – the Wailing Wall leaves him cold, and he’s horrified by the commercialisation of many of the holy sites. Fortunately, there *are* places which move him – but it’s not been a trouble free journey, and it’s clear he’s a man very rooted to his home.

As well as the religious sites themselves, the second part of the book tackles a very complex situation, and one which I don’t feel at all qualified to discuss. The situation in Israel in 1936 was very volatile and the conflicts between the Jewish and Arab populations were bubbling up. I’m afraid I’m very unclear about the issues in the Middle East – my only wish is that people wouldn’t fight and would learn to live together peacefully – though Nichols does try to explore the situation. I expect his terminology sometimes leaves things to be desired, and it may be that events have moved on so much since then that his comments are completely dated. He does address what he considers to be the downtrodden state of women under some religions, which is perhaps a little unexpected. However, as I’ve said, the whole political situation in the Middle East is remarkably complex and so I’ll move on from that aspect.

So “No Place Like Home” ended up being a very unusual read; a mixture of travel, Nichols’ humour, his in-jokes and unpleasant travel experiences, and a long meditation on the Holy Land and what should be done with it. Certainly, Nichols’ views on Empire are definitely outdated, though I felt that underneath it all he just wanted people to live happy lives. But the book showed me aspects of Beverley I hadn’t come across before and was quite fascinating – and I’m very glad I read it for 1936! 😀