The 1951 Club

the 1951 club

I’ve read and blogged about quite a few books that were published in 1951 in recent years, so if you’re interested in my thoughts on them click on the titles.

A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor

The Wooden Overcoat by Pamela Branch

The Willow Cabin by Pamela Frankau

Cork on the Water by Macdonald Hastings

The Catherine Wheel by Patricia Wentworth

The Duke’s Daughter by Angela Thirkell

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

Merry Hall by Beverley Nichols

Duplicate Death by Georgette Heyer

School for Love by Olivia Manning

Of course 1951 was an important year in Britain as we had The Festival of Britain which went on for most of the year – or at least until the general election when Churchill became PM again and he saw the whole thing as being Socialist so he shut it all down – spoilsport!

But apparently the Festival was a life-saver for the people who had by then been suffering under austerity for years and years what with the war and even worse rationing post-war. It cheered people up no end to see the bright colours and modern designs, and was a great opportunity for artists, designers and makers.

Before I started blogging I read and enjoyed Festival at Farbridge by J.B. Priestley which was published in 1951 and has local events featuring the festival.

I blogged about the festival some years ago and if you’re interested you can see that post here.

Garden Open Tomorrow by Beverley Nichols

 Garden Open Tomorrow cover

Garden Open Tomorrow by Beverley Nichols was first published in 1968 although my copy is a Country Book Club publication from 1972.

Beverley Nichols was of course a well known garden writer and he also appeared on TV but he was just a bit before my time I think, I certainly don’t ever remember him being on TV. Percy Thrower was the first TV garden presenter in my life. But I’ve really enjoyed the Nichols books that I’ve read, particularly his early 1930s series of four books about his life in the country and the making of his homes and gardens.

Garden Open Tomorrow feels very much like a series of newspaper articles to me, I know he wrote for gardening magazines so possibly it is a compilation of those articles. There’s a lot more botany involved than in his other books I think, no bad thing mind you.

By this time he was spending quite a lot of time in America, this book begins:

‘The weather in England’ – so wrote my friends with monotonous persistence throughout the cruel winter – ‘is quite indescribable.’ Whereupon they proceed in great detail to describe it.

I was out of it all, lecturing in America, where the weather so they assumed, was not ‘indescribable’. In a sense they were right. It would have been easy for example to write a description of the tornado which hit Detroit at fourteen below zero, at the precise moment of my arrival, lifting me bodily into the air and depositing me in a gutter full of slush, whence I was removed to hospital in an ambulance, x-rayed, bandaged, and inoculated against lockjaw.

This isn’t my favourite of Beverley Nichols’ books but it’s still well worth reading if you’re interested in gardening and amusing general chit chat.

Scottish Highland Book Purchases

books 2

The photo above is of the books that I managed to buy on our brief jaunt up to the Highlands with Peggy. Some were bought at the Pitlochry railway station, a local charity has turned an old waiting room into a bookshop, and they have some great books at very reasonable prices. There’s also another second-hand bookshop just off the high street, well worth a look. I think it’s called Priory Books. I bought two there I believe.

Others I bought in Fort William in a second-hand bookshop just off the main street. It’s not that big but I’m always lucky there.

A few of these books jumped right to the top of my queue so I’ve already read three of them, but only managed to blog about one of them so far – Candleshoe.

Garden Open Tomorrow by Beverley Nichols
The Small Dark Man by Maurice Walsh
The River Monster by Compton Mackenzie
The Progress of a Crime by Julian Symons
The Wooden Overcoat by Pamela Branch
King Hereafter by Dorothy Dunnett (about Macbeth)
Quenn’s Play by Dorothy Dunnett
A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute
Candleshoe by Michael Innes
A Child’s Garden of Verses by R.L. Stevenson (illustrated by Michael Foreman)

A decent haul I think but it is a wee bit worrying that within less than two weeks I bought 24 books, apart from anything else I need another bookcase now, or maybe I should perform a book cull, but I’ve done that before and ended up regretting getting rid of some books. I might have a six months cooling off period for them in the garage and see how I feel about them after that.

Have you bought many books recently?

Back Home

We went on another British road trip last week and I managed to be organised enough to schedule some posts to be published while I was away, just in case I didn’t have access to the internet. It turned out that I didn’t feel much like being online anyway, I was too tired as usual, what with running around during the day.

We visited mainly places which we hadn’t visited before. It’s sad but true that I enjoy visiting places in the UK which I’ve heard about, mainly on the TV or radio – often just on road traffic reports, and I wonder what they’re like if I’ve not visited them.

So now I can envisage Wigan, Haydock, Biddulph Gardens, Buxton, Alcester, Blenheim Palace (Woodstock and Bladon) Geddington, Market Harborough, Geoff Hamilton’s Garden at Barnsdale (Rutland), Uppingham, Oakham, Wetherby, Northallerton, Mount Grace Priory, Sedgefield, Washington Village, Morpeth, Rothbury, Cragside and Wooler. The only places we had visited before were Alcester, Blenheim/Woodstock, Morpeth, Cragside and Wooler.

This time we started off driving down south via Moffat in the Scottish Borders. The bookshop was open and I bought two books –
1. Murder Among Friends by Elizabeth Ferrars
2. Crazy Pavements by Beverley Nichols

It was a bookish beginning to our break, we were heading for Wigan, an unlikely place to visit but as I had just read George Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier I was intrigued to find out what it was like now. It has a newish shopping mall but you can tell from the older buildings that Wigan was indeed down at heel in the 1930s. Unlike many places, mainly down south, there was virtually nothing in the way of art deco/1930s buildings. From which I assume that nobody was doing any building at that time, it was a very depressed area. It’s not exactly vibrant at the moment but it’s still an awful lot better than Kirkcaldy, my nearest large town, which seems to have yet another empty shop each time I visit it.

We stopped off at Buxton, mainly because it was a Georgian spa town and has associations with Jane Austen.

Sedgefield was chosen as an overnight visit mainly because it was Tony Blair’s constituency when he was an MP and I wanted to compare it with Kirkcaldy. In the end I didn’t even take any photos there as it was such a wee place with just a few shops, a village really. I feel quite unreasonably aggrieved with the inhabitants of Sedgefield for voting in Tony Blair as their MP and allowing Blair to set off on his egomaniacal merry power binge which has put us in the horrendous position we are in now.

Anyway, that’s what I’ve been up to over the last week or so and I plan to show you some photos of the various places which I hope you might be quite interested to see.

What did I buy when I was away? Not a lot really, apart from some more books, but that’s another blogpost.

The Moonflower by Beverley Nichols

I think that in the US this book goes under the title of The Moonflower Mystery, I bought it ages ago when I was on a bit of a Beverley Nichols reading spree. I read all of his gardening/house memoirs which I really enjoyed and when I discovered that he had written some crime fiction I decided to see what they were like, then promptly put this one on a pile and forgot about it. It was first published in 1955 and it was only when Joan @Planet Joan mentioned that she had read one that I remembered I had bought this one so pulled it out. You can read what Joan thought of the one she read, Murder by Request here.

In fact The Moonflower isn’t all that unlike the one Joan read as Nichols seems to have stuck to a gardening/plant theme and cats also get a mention. The detective is Mr Horatio Green and the setting is the edge of Dartmoor. A prisoner has escaped from the prison and he’s the third one to have escaped in six months.

Meanwhile Mr Green is ensconced in a little inn, The Greyhound, in the hamlet of Moreton Fallow and the inhabitants aren’t happy about yet another dangerous prisoner on the loose but Mr Green is more interested in a rare flower which is just about to bloom at Candle Court, the local big house. The Moonflower’s seeds cost £1,000 each and of the 13 seeds which had been obtained only seven of them have germinated. Green is determined to see the rare flower and finds himself involved in a murder of course.

This was okay-ish and mildly diverting but I prefer Beverley Nichols’ earlier books about his own life, gardens and houses.

Merry Hall by Beverley Nichols

This book was first published in 1951 and in it Beverley Nichols recounts how he purchased his very large house – Merry Hall, in Ashtead, Surrey in 1945.

As a bachelor Merry Hall was obviously a property which he didn’t need but he fell in love with its simple lines and Georgian splendour, or I suppose I should say he could visualise the splendour which had been, in its heyday, and he wanted to reinstate it.

Nichols had just returned from working in India and had been given the particulars of many houses, all of which seemed to boast ‘a wealth of ancient oak’ which was not a feature which he pined for in fact he hated them. Merry Hall didn’t have any oaks but it did have lots of elm trees which he got rid of fairly quickly, stating that they were dangerous and inclined to collapse with no warning!

Nichols was a cat lover and his cats do appear in this one, their names are One and Four, Two and Three had sucumbed to cat flu. He had intended to have 100 cats in his life, hence his choice of names.

His Allways trilogy is about buying his first home, a thatched cottage, and obviously he had grown out of twee, but Merry Hall is written along similar lines, about planning a garden and the neighbours. He has inherited an old gardener with the house and a massive kitchen garden, the produce of which two local women have their eyes on, but he is determined to hold on to it all.

It’s an enjoyable read but I didn’t like it quite as much as Down the Garden Path. He doesn’t really write much about his work in any of his books so if you are interested in how he was able to finance his project you can have a look here. It’s a chronological list of his writing career.

He mentions in this book that he was a war correspondent in World War II. It seems such an unlikely thing for him to do, from his books I would have thought that he would have avoided anything to do with war, but perhaps it was his way of ‘doing his bit’ without actually fighting.

A Village in a Valley by Beverley Nichols

This is the last book in Beverley Nichols’s Allways trilogy and I enjoyed it just as much as the first two, Down the Garden Path and A Thatched Roof, despite the fact that there isn’t a lot about his garden in this one.

His books are based on his life in the village of Glatton in what is now Cambridgeshire. They seem to be true accounts of his experiences, to an extent, with a lot of embroidery of details I’m sure. There is a part of the book which is very similar to bits in the previous book, about a lazy servant, but you know – you couldn’t get the staff!

In fact Beverley Nichols rarely has a good word to say about women in general. Miss Hazlitt, his old governess is the exception and she takes the place of a mother in his affections. So far I haven’t come across any mention of his actual mother, which is very strange given that he was obviously gay and in my experience gay chaps often have a very close relationship with their mother. He mentions his father quite a lot, and apparently he hated him, but you wouldn’t know it from the books I’ve read.

I did realise whilst reading this one that the characters remind me very much of those in the Mapp and Lucia books of E.F. Benson. The whole set up is very similar, sleepy English village, early 1930s, buying shares in mines, financial disaster for one of them, penny pinching and remodelling of old clothes by the characters, one of them setting up a shop/teashop… the list goes on! There isn’t as much bitchy wit in the Nichols books but it would be difficult to top the spats between Mapp and Lucia, let’s face it.

I had to laugh when they were all discussing what should be sold in the village shop, they were sure that Miss Hazlitt wouldn’t want to sell tobacco or cigarettes but thought they could get around her if they promised to hand out a leaflet with every packet, warning of the evils of smoking too much.

It was surely proof of the distance we had departed from reality that this suggestion was received with complete gravity. For as I look back on it, I can imagine no stranger principles on which any commercial undertaking could have been begun. To warn one’s customers, with each packet of cigarettes of the dire effects which would result from smoking them, to tell them that they were straining their hearts, impairing their digestions, lowering their morale, and generally hurrying themselves at full tilt towards the nearest lunatic asylum … this would be, indeed, an odd way in which to build up a flourishing retail business.

As Beverley Nichols lived a fairly long life, not dying until 1985, he must have lived to see cigarettes packaged with health warnings I think. How times change, my own mother was actually advised to take up smoking cigarettes by a doctor in the 1940s, to help her digestive problems! Luckily for her she couldn’t get on with smoking at all, and preferred to put up with the indigestion.

Anyway, if you like Beverley Nichols you’ll probably enjoy this book, although he seems to forget what he has written in previous books as I know that he mentioned before that he was a Christian, but suddenly in this one he is an atheist, although he would like to believe. Maybe it depended on his mood at the time of writing!

I had wondered why he ended up moving from his idyllic thatched cottage after only nine years their, apparently the villagers were unhappy that some of his weekend guests (male) were chatting up the young village lads. The possibility of police involvment seems to have resulted in his move away from the village. I can just imagine the parents’ outrage at the possibility of their sons being corrupted, and I can’t say I blame them really.

If you want to read more about Beverley Nichols, have a look at this New York Times article. If you want to see some images of the village of Glatton, the original Allways, have a look here.

My copy of this book is an old library book, first edition I suppose you would call it, in not bad condition, but not as good as the others I have, but it does still have the original library sticker on it. It cost 3d, to borrow the book for 7 days. That seems quite expensive to me considering it was 1934. Thank goodness for free libraries nowadays!

No Place Like Home by Beverley Nichols

No Place Like Home was first published in 1936. I started reading Beverley Nichols books after buying a couple of lovely old editions of his – Down the Garden Path and A Thatched Roof. I enjoyed those ones and it was when I was trying to find the third one of that trilogy on the internet that I came across this book and just bought it, not having any idea what it was about but having a fair idea that I would enjoy it – which I did.

Beverley Nichols travels from his home in England to Austria where his lack of language skills meant that he ended up spending his first night there in a sanatorium for TB sufferers, instead of a luxurious hotel. When he did get to a hotel things weren’t much better due to the strange man who was in the room next to his. I must say that it was a comfort to discover that Beverley Nichols experienced nutty neighbours, just as we did in earlier days.

By coincidence a lot of the countries which Nichols visited were the same as those visited by Patrick Leigh Fermor in his book Between the Woods and the Water just a few years earlier, but the books are very different, although neither of them comment much on the politics of the time. Obviously Nichols sets out to be amusing, and he manages it on his journey through Austria, Hungary, Rumania, Turkey, Greece, Egypt and Palestine.

I was really surprised at his description of the Pyramids of Giza as the World’s Biggest Flop because I thought that they would have been fairly unspoiled way back in 1936, but it seems that even then the place was ruined by tourist tat just a stone’s throw from the pyramids.

As a serious Christian, and by that I mean one who obviously knew the Bible well, Nichols was keen to visit Palestine – as it was then. There are some places which are probably best kept to the imagination though as almost all of the Biblical places were a disappointment. Jerusalem was basically an open sewer, so the smell was terrible.

This part of the book doesn’t have so much humour in it as he was obviously not impressed by the state of the place, but it’s the most interesting part and the saddest really when you consider that things have gone from bad to much worse for the Palestinians since 1936. At this time Jews were moving in to Palestine and setting up the first Kibbutz, financed by Americans I believe, and he did visit one, but he was appalled by it. The thought of parents not being with their children in a normal family way was horrific to him, but the squalor of Zion Vale, and the fact that they didn’t seem to realise that it was hellish, but were in fact very proud of it, was a mystery to him. Where had all the money which had been poured into it gone?

Anyway, I think this book is out of print and probably quite difficult to get a hold of, which is a shame because it’s an interesting, and at times funny read. At the end of it he has to get home to his garden because he doesn’t want to miss his daffodils blooming. It’s a common experience of keen gardeners, especially at the time of year when new things are popping up every day – if the weather is half decent – why would you ever want to leave your garden?!

A Thatched Roof by Beverley Nichols

This is the second book in the Beverley Nichols Allways trilogy, the first one is Down the Garden Path which as you would expect is mainly about the making of his first garden in his first house, a thatched Tudor cottage in a village which he calls Allways, in Huntingdonshire.

I had to laugh as the beginning is about how he hadn’t taken possession of his house for a few years after he bought it but had rented it out to an American couple. They kept writing to him telling him of improvements they had made to the property so when they departed and he eventually moved in himself he was horrified to discover that the improvements included painting everything with lemon coloured distemper, which was a cheap sort of paint which came off on your hands and clothes if you brushed against it. Even the original Tudor beams had been covered by it.

His tenants had also left a lot of furniture and ornaments behind, for which they expected him to stump up payment, but he was appalled by their taste in furniture. What really amused me though was that his description is almost a copy of the decor in Cragside, Northumberland, even down to a Welsh dresser which had the words East, West – Hame’s Best carved into it! The mock warming pans, samplers, pewter and even mock patchwork quilts (it was printed patchwork fabric) were just not to his taste, although I can imagine that nowadays a lot of people would be keen to give house space to those possessions.

Inevitably his garden does play a part in the book from time to time, as do his neighbours Mrs M and Undine and at times he is really quite catty, if he had been a friend of mine I would have offered him a saucer of cream. He was of course ‘gay’ in the modern sense of the word – and how I wish we could recapture that word for its original use now, as in ‘don’t those flowers look gay’ but it was a time when homosexuality was still illegal, for men, and I suppose the usual description in the 1930s would have been ‘flamboyant’. His name was actually John Beverley Nichols and as an adult he opted to be known as Beverley, he seems to have been comfortable in his own skin, rather than suppressing his character as so many did in those times.

So apart from this being a funny account of the sort of dreadful staff which he had to put up with in the beginning (you can’t get the servants you know!) – it’s also a peek into a way of life which was only 80 years ago, but – my – how things have come on in that time.

To begin with his thatched cottage didn’t have a proper water supply, he relied on a well in the garden and the water was brown, but lovely and soft! He did get central heating, almost unheard of in those days and electricity pylons began to stalk across the countryside, marring the landscape but still not bringing electricity to the village. What they would have thought about life as we live it now, I don’t know. But I suspect that Beverley Nichols would have been one of the first to try out any new technology. Anyway, I enjoyed the book and intend to read the last one of the trilogy, A Village in a Valley, whenever I can get a hold of it.

We happen to have friends who own a thatched cottage in an English village and so I know that as soon as it starts to get chilly of an evening – the local wildlife move into their winter quarters AKA the thatched roof and walls of the cottage, and they can be heard moving about and galloping across ceilings all winter, then there are the creepy crawlies too which find the thatch very cosy.

So, whenever you see a thatched cottage, bear that in mind. Beverley Nichols doesn’t mention mice but he does mention rats – quite a lot!

Down the Garden Path by Beverley Nichols

This is the first book which I’ve read by Beverley Nichols and I did enjoy it, but then it’s about how he bought his country cottage, actually three small cottages knocked into one, and how he planned and planted the surrounding garden and woodland. There are a few lists of plants and trees which he bought for the garden and there are verbal spats between him and Mrs M, his neighbour and gardening rival.

The book is wittily sarcastic and catty, and speaking of cats, he has also written books about them, he was obviously a cat lover. That’s quite an unusual combination, gardeners are often plagued by the neighbourhood cats who can be quite destructive and have a habit of lying all over your seedlings, and I’ll not mention the unmentionables which they leave behind!

By the time Nichols wrote this he was in his mid 30s and enjoying a successful career as a playwright, novelist and he even dabbled with music, writing for the opera singer Nellie Melba. Melba is mentioned in Down the Garden Path, in fact he does quite a lot of name dropping but he obviously mixed with people such as Melba, Somerset Maugham, Ramsay MacDonald and Rebecca West. He throws in some local peasants for extra colour – you can’t get the servants you know!

The book was first published in 1932 and my copy is a 1933 edition, a fourtenth impression, so I think I can safely say that this was a very popular book in its day. It’s illustrated by Rex Whistler.

Ages ago I saw someone remarking that they remembered seeing Beverley Nichols on TV shows years ago, I think this must have been before my time as I don’t recall seeing him. Apparently he was a sort of upper class, madly camp pain in the neck and total snob. I can quite imagine it but going by this book his writing is entertaining, so I’ll be reading the sequel, A Thatched Cottage, which I already have.