Archive for the ‘Beverley Nichols’ Category

When I picked up Merry Hall by Beverley Nichols, I was incredibly excited.  Whenever I’ve asked about for recommendations of good gardening books, Nichols is invariably mentioned, either for the Merry Hall trilogy or the earlier Down the Garden Path, both semi-fictional chronicles of his gardening efforts at his homes.  And I was indeed delighted and amused by Nichols from the first page to the last, though I came away with no great fondness for the man himself.

After the (second) war, Nichols had a modest but rather specific goal in mind:  I wanted a house.  And I wanted a Georgian house.  And I wanted a garden of at least five acres.  A garden which, for preference, should be wrecked and lost and despairing.  Nichols completely won me over when he began praising Georgian architecture and deriding Tudor cottages in no uncertain terms.  Generally, he is a narrator who deals in absolutes – if your opinion is not the same as his, it is incorrect and you are to be pitied – but here, still early on in the book, he couches his opinion of all dissenters in rather gentler (for him) terms by at least first explaining the obvious disadvantages of the Tudor style:

…though it may seem sad, one grows out of Tudor cottages.  Little by little, the charm of being stunned and set reeling to the wall, six times a day, by the low beams on the ceiling, is apt to pall; one no longer darts gaily up to the bathroom for the sticking plaster, chortling with amusement at the nice Tudore bumpe on one’s forehand…It would be pleasant, one feels, to be able to stand up straight, from time to time…

As it is with comfort, so it is with taste; to linger in the Tudors is merely a sign of aesthetic adolescence; one must more on the eighteenth century, and if one has any sense, stay there.

Nichols’ interest in Merry Hall is solely in the place itself.  He wants nothing to do with the neighbourhood and his neighbours, persistent though they might be at trying to befriend him and get their hands on the excess produce from his excellent vegetable garden.  Those rare moments when he either admits the interlopers into his home or finds they’ve breeched the gates themselves, he is of course subjected to a passive aggressive lecture criticizing all the changes he has made.  Because the neighbours who best like to visit are always the ones who new the old residents best and remain loyal even to their misguided and offensive garden designs (though Nichols is offended by an endless list of things).

While Nichols would probably make for an odious neighbour, with all his catty comments and ungenerous sentiments, these same features make him wickedly entertaining.  If you’re sensitive, this is not the book for you, as Nichols cheerfully insults all manner of people (women in particular).  Humourously, it is true, but quite seriously at the same time:

If you are in a position to plant a wood, and if you refrain from doing so, you must be, ipso facto, of a bleak and sullen disposition.  You are to be shunned.  It is arguable that your very existence should be made an offense in law.  To own a plot of land – to have enough money to plant that land with lilacs and maples and pines and pears, and not to do so, but to spend that money on something horrible like a mink coat…it is indecent.  Who wants to see you in a mink coat?  Nobody.

He is also horribly misguided in his love affair with that most vile plant, the lily (his infatuation with the lilies already growing at the house are part of what leads him to purchase it), but as he is right-thinking in most other gardening matters (except for his passion for displays of tiny cut flowers), he may be forgiven.  He is an opinionated narrator but then I am an equally opinionated reader.  I did shudder whenever he described his cats, ‘One’ (a Siamese – I find them only slightly less repulsive than lilies) and ‘Four’, but his gardening descriptions are excellent and his critical humour irresistible.

Nichols at Merry Hall

There were a number of surprisingly practical passages in the book, which I hadn’t at all anticipated.  I’m used to humourous garden literature being more about the journey and the gardener himself rather than what the garden is composed of, so such guidance was surprising but welcome.  Nichols’ has a passion for winter plants and very instructive suggestions for which ones to try.  He also offers detailed guidance on the different types of berberis.  And as I plan out my spring garden and begin to plant the bulbs in the next couple of months, I will certainly have to consider Nichols’ edict on the correct way of planting daffodils:

As we all know, the only way to plant daffodils is to pile them on to a tray, and then to run out into the orchard and hurl the tray into the air, planting them exactly where they fall.  There may be other, less orthodox methods; if so they should be spurned.  The tray, the ecstatic gesture…that is the only sure road to success.

I would certainly never qualify this as a gentle read – it’s too malicious for that – nor a particularly charming one – too theatrically camp for that – but it is still a highly entertaining story of a man and his garden.  I’ll certainly be wanting to read the remaining two books in the trilogy sometime this winter because, though his affection for his fellow man is rarely evident, Nichols’ love for his garden can never be in doubt:

Some fall in love with women; some fall in love with art; some fall in love with death.

I fall in love with gardens, which is much the same as falling in love with all three at once.

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