Sunday, July 28, 2013

Beverly Nichols: cringe-makingly twee

"Charm is the great English blight.  It does not exist outside these damp islands.  It spots and kills anything it touches.  It kills love; it kills art; I greatly fear, my dear Charles, it has killed you..."

Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited

Charles Ryder, in what is disputably Evelyn Waugh's greatest and most accessible work, was right to take note of what Anthony was saying.  Charm, what Anthony calls 'creamy English charm', was what was eating away at Charles' exhibited paintings, attacking the surface and taking hold.  It is fitting that Blanche mentions blight as the agent of charm, to pervert and destroy a sensibility.  In a literal sense, of course, blight is confined to plants - or their flowering organs.

Beverly Nichols (1898-1983) is arguably the greatest writer on gardens and their environs, ever.  Down the Garden Path, his first book on gardening, published in 1932, has never gone out of print.  No one touches him in terms of his incisiveness, wit and precious perfection.  He was HGTV long before television ever made home renos and back gardens a craze, and to a certain extent yet, a snobbery.  There is all of that in his work and more, an archness decidedly, and a good dash of that 'creamy English charm.'
But there is also the man who went out and did something -  sometimes with no mentor to guide him - and with a plain face, exclaimed to the reader that he was an amateur at it.  And therein lies his good humour and the one thing that makes him readable.  It is his saving grace, his anti-charm.

His one love was winter flowers.  No gaudy hot house breeds for him, no sir.  He chased Lentin roses and Jasmine and was determined to make his space look pretty even during a gusty English winter.  His cottage at Glatton was his space for these horticultural experiments, and it became his showcase, and the spot where he is buried.

One whole part of his first book (it is broken into seasons) relates to these winter blooms and his determination to see colour in the midst of a gray English winter, that drabbest of the drab, only licked lightly by the Gulf Stream.

Books on flowers and gardening were not his only artistic pursuits.  He was also an essayist, playwright, and a journalist.  He even broadcast on radio.  He wrote about cats and composed music as well.  The man was clearly ahead of his time.  He was a prig, a pansy and a pervert.  Thankfully, he reveled in all three pursuits.

Like a contemporary, Montague Glover, Nichols had a penchant for guardsmen and trade.  Glover preferred to photograph them - and even took Ralph Hall, a young guardsman, as his lover.  Nichols preferred that they leave marks.  He enjoyed their rough company and frankly liked it rough, but he was too much of a social snob (in a country and at a time when the social classes were very clearly defined) to take one as a lover. Trade for him was a thrilling distraction.  "Being a bachelor," he said, "is the first requisite of the man who wants to form an ideal home."

His books trumpet, like a brass band at a funeral, that sense of English charm.  Make no mistake, it was also a stroke of genius to have Rex Whistler do the illustrations for Down the Garden Path, but it is the precious sensibility in his prose that shines through and is arresting.  The prig in him is entertaining, but it is not an authorial voice to everyone's taste.

I couldn't help myself but to subtitle this work after a comment made at the end of one of articles I read about him.  The commentator said Nichols was a 'weed' whose writing was 'cringe-makingly twee'.  I actually had to look up what 'twee' meant as I was fascinated by what is a cuttingly bitchy remark.  It's a British expression which means sickeningly sweet or affectedly dainty.  Sounds perfect to me.

"To be overcome by the fragrance of flowers is a delectable form of defeat"


Nicco said...

So, he's one of those guily of putting English gardening on a pedestal so obscenely high that nobody will ever stand a chance of dethroning.

It became art a long time ago and I love it.

Starched Collar said...

A wonderful side to be on! It has always fascinated me that the English garden, compared to the French, is a wild one, jungle-like in it's artistic presentation. And yet the British have always seemed to me to take some cultural cues from the Germans, with their exactitude of manner. It's funny, I'd have expected the French garden to be the wild one :)

Nicco said...

The French garden is not my cup of tea. I love spontaneity even if it's planned. :)

I don't trim any of the plants we have on our roof garden and I love them. I also rescue semi-destroyed plants people left in the street. They become so grateful for that. I love them even more.

Starched Collar said...

Waaaah! You rescue plants! Nicco that is SO sweet and charming!

Anonymous said...

I know nothing about gardens, but the name Beverly Nichols caught my eye scanning this blog. He used his acquaintance with W Somerset Maugham to advance himself as a writer. One of Maugham's biographers described Nichols as "a young man on the make". They both got what they wanted.