I have got a sore throat, a headache and a cough. Intermittent sneezing too. Brilliant! I can loll on the sofa with Beverley Nichols.
Most people under the age of sixty have never heard of Beverley Nichols. In fact many people over sixty haven’t heard of him either, unless they are British and gardeners.
I discovered him over a decade ago in the brilliant bookshop attached to Harrogate’s famous Harlow Carr gardens. As a novice gardener, I was feeling a bit intimidated by the big books full of dauntingly expert advice, when I came across something that looked reassuringly smaller.
‘Down the Garden Path’ was an old-fashioned, pinky-brown hardback illustrated with some rather sweet drawings by Rex Whistler.
The publisher was Timber Press, a company I’d never heard of. I opened it at random, read a few paragraphs and quickly realised that it wasn’t a gardening manual at all but something else altogether. It confused me. It bemused me. And then it made me laugh.
The book I purchased that day was a proper gardening book that tells you how and when and where to plant things so they will grow. But I didn’t forget the little brown book. Every time I went back to Harlow Carr to buy plants, I would nip into the bookshop and steal a few more minutes with Beverley. I never once thought of buying it: it was far too silly for that. Any practical gardening tips were so buried in purple prose, sentiment and overblown drama that they were as good as useless. On the other hand, I couldn’t quite stay away. Any excuse to walk through the woods and up to the gardens for a few minutes loitering between the bookshelves, giggling with Mr Nichols.
So things remained – till I got the flu.
‘What can I bring you?’ said a kindly visiting friend. She meant paracetamol I expect, or grapes.
‘Beverley Nichols,’ I spluttered and she was as good as her word.
I now have all eight Beverley Nichols books reproduced in facsimile by Timber Press.
(Timber Press, I have learnt, is an American publisher that specialises in proper books for real gardeners. They have titles like ‘Planting in a post-wild world: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes’ so clearly they are serious minded people. Yet they too have been won over by Mr Nichols own brand of silliness.)
When we moved a year ago to this little flat and most of my books went into storage, G didn’t understand why Beverley Nichols was in the pile to keep. ‘We haven’t got a garden,’ he pointed out.
‘No,’ I said. ‘But I’m bound to get a cold.’
Can you think of a better room to feel poorly in than this one?
In the last decade I have coughed through the Merry Hall trilogy and then sneezed through the Allways books. The books – novels? memoirs? loosely linked anecdotes? – are only superficially about gardening. They portray a dottily fanciful mid C20th vision of Englishness, one that includes daggers at dawn dramas provoked by village hall flower displays and far more kittens than most readers can stomach. I occasionally lend them to friends, hoping to find a sister soul out there to share my sickbed passion with. People return them with expressions of bewilderment or appalled horror. ‘But Diane!’ they say. ‘It’s so twee!’ Well, yes. And whimsical and frothy and insubstantial and sentimental and melodramatic. It has nothing to recommend it to the serious reader, nothing at all. But when I am unwell, there’s nobody I would sooner have nursing me than Mr Nichols. Even now, when I have coughed so much it hurts to laugh.