“I fear that this book holds little practical wisdom.” is hardly the kind of comment to make someone pick up a gardening book, is it?
“You must not look to it for guidance. It will not tell you how to prune a rose-bush, nor will it suddenly explode with terrifying remarks like ‘Now is the time to thin out the carrots . . .’ . . .an observation which always makes me come out in a cold sweat, when I read it.” Yet, nonetheless, Beverley Nichols, prolific author as well an archetypal good-looking gay icon, was a great gardener whose gardening books are still in print and still deserve to be read.
Down the Garden Path, published in 1932, was his first and has remained popular ever since. This post is a quick look through the book to encourage you to go and read it -and its follow-up volumes -properly for yourself.
It tells the story of how Nichols bought a Tudor cottage in Huntingdonshire as a weekend retreat and created his first garden. Nothing particularly special about that, of course, but as the basic story unfolds so do a torrent of emotions and obsessions about gardening and life in general, and all presented with a mix of almost purple prose, dry wit, charm and more than the occasional dash of acid! This is all enhanced by by Rex Whistler’s illustrations.
The book, which he described as the tale of “a playboy-turned gardener” was written in 3 weeks. “It was hardly like writing a book at all, it was more like arranging a bunch of mixed flowers.”
Its opening lines sum up his style: “I bought my cottage by sending a wireless to Timbuctoo from the Mauretania, at midnight, with a fierce storm lashing the decks. It sounds rather vulgar, but it is true.”
Nichols had read the obituary notice of an acquaintance and remembered that he owned “an exquisite thatched cottage where I had once spent a week-end. The garden had been a blaze of roses, and there was a row of madonna lilies on either side of the porch. The scent of those lilies assailed me…. I reached for a piece of paper…and wrote an offer.”
The offer is accepted and “Within a week I was driving through the quiet lanes… hurrying towards the garden gate”. Just before entering, he notices “a little patch of grass outside which is filled to the brim with crocuses, white and yellow for spring, and mauve for autumn. People say the sight of the crocuses, blazing away in March and September, is one of the prettiest things a man could see. They are right.”
Of course the reality of village life and garden making is not quite the same as the fantasy, as Nichols quickly realises after meeting Arthur. Arthur came with the house, and was, in theory, the live-in servant/gardener, “and smelt strongly of gin”. Seeing the garden on a miserable winter’s evening made it worse: “It was a scene of utter desolation…..this garden did not look like a garden at all. There was not even a sense of order about it. All design was lacking. Even in the grimmest winter days a garden can give an appearance of discipline, and a certain amount of life and colour, no matter how wild the winds nor dark the skies. But this garden was like a rubbish heap.”
The result is that Arthur is summarily sacked, although not by Nicholas who “was sick and disheartened”, but by his manservant who he sent down with a pile of cash and instructions not to come back until Arthur had been evicted. Nichols’ manservant did not have the same qualms, and Arthur left the next day.
With Arthur gone “the work of salvage began… and the extraordinary thing about it was that gradually my impatient desire for immediate results, which is the besetting sin of all beginners, died down. I began to take a joy in the work for its own sake. Until you actually own a garden, you cannot know this joy. You may say ‘oh yes, I love a garden.’ But what do you really mean by that? You mean that you like to wander through rows of hollyhocks, swathed in tulle . . . (you, not the hollyhocks), and that you like to drink lemonade under a tree with a nice young man who will shortly pick you a large bunch of roses. You hope he will take the thorns off, and that there will not be any earwigs in them, because if you found an earwig on the rug in the car you would die with horror. (So should I.) …But you do not like grovelling on the earth in search of a peculiarly nauseating slug that has been eating those pansies….You do not like bending down for hours to pull up hateful little weeds …you do not like these things, for one reason and only one reason – because you do not own the garden. All gardeners will know what I mean. Ownership makes all the difference in the world…To dig one’s own spade into one’s own earth! Has life anything better to offer than this?”
At this point I began to warm to his style and approach, and even more so when he described the ritual of how to “Make The Tour”, since like Louis XIV and William Shenstone among others I do the same. “There are certain very definite rules to be observed when you are Making The Tour. The chief rule is that you must never take anything out of its order. You may be longing to see if a crocus has come out in the orchard, but it is strictly forbidden to look before you have inspected all the various beds, bushes and trees that lead up to the orchard. Otherwise you will find that you rush wildly round the garden, discover one or two sensational events, and then decide that nothing else has happened. Which means that you miss all the thrill of tiny shoots, the first lifting of the lids of the wallflower the first precious gold of the witch-hazel, the early spear of the snowdrop.”
To understand the topography Nichols then describes his garden, christening every separate space starting with “the Front Garden. This is a very obvious title. In fact its obviousness is its only claim to respect. It sounds prim and solid, like the front parlour. Which is what I try to make it. I like the flowers in it to be very well behaved, very formal, like glistening china ornaments on the mantelpiece of a house-proud woman.” Strangely the Front Garden isn’t named on the map that forms the endpapers of the book, although because there is only a narrow strip between the cottage and the road, perhaps he actually means what Whistler labels ‘Formal Beds’, and which would certainly fit his description.
Next “there stands, in the centre of the little circular lawn, a statue of Antinous. I don’t like garden ornaments, as a rule, especially in a humble garden like mine. I have a horror of those leaden cupids who illustrate, so gruesomely, the ultimate horrors of Bright’s disease in many suburban pleasaunces. I cannot bear those grim terra cotta pelicans that peer sharply from thickets of bamboos in the grounds of tasteless Midland persons. I am depressed unutterably by those horrible little German manikins which some people scatter over their properties . . . grouping them oh! so archly…. My Antinous, I feel, is of a different class. He is very beautiful, in himself. He once stood in the garden of an old house in Bedford Square. He was covered with grime and his limbs seemed stained eternally. I saw him first after lunch on a grey day of February. After shameless hinting and ogling I persuaded my host that he was unhappy in London… Now he shines and sparkles. He is spotless. To see him when the snow is on the ground, when the snowdrops are pushing humbly at his feet, when the winter sky is silver, white….
……and so on and so on until…. “at this point the book begins”. It is also the point where Nichols discovery of gardening begins. After a disastrous start trying to grow mushrooms: “only one example of a great many blunders” it was clear he was “still under the spell of seed catalogues.” Which gardener hasn’t been there themselves and gazed “with rapturous eyes at the photographs of some duke’s garden in the south, over which generations of slaves had toiled,into whose rich soil coffers of gold had been spilt” and expect the same in their own “few yards of newly conquered clay.” He tries gourds “but they never came up” then sweetcorn which “did remarkably well, but one gets very messy eating it, and it is really much nicer in tins.”
Then came the revelation. “It was not till I experimented with seeds plucked straight from a growing plant that I had my first success … the first thrill of creation . . . the first taste of blood. This, surely, must be akin to the pride of paternity…My first experiment was with a lupin which flowered unexpectedly in the garden three months after my arrival. When the flowers were over, the pods split open, revealing seeds, and in a mad moment I decided to plant these seeds. ‘This is mad,’ I said to myself as I tipped out the small black pellets. ‘Quite mad. Do you seriously think they will come up, for you? Do you honestly imagine that this creative miracle is actually going to occur?’ But after several more paragraphs of doubt “the seeds did come up, as lupins, and it was extremely surprising. The surprise lingers to this day.”At this point, only 50 pages in, Nichols realises what you, the reader, are feeling “this is all a vague muddle, with far too much irrelevant personal detail, and far too little about the garden itself. ‘We can learn nothing from this’ you will say. Please do not throw down the book just yet. For after a very few more pages you will learn something. I promise you that. If not, you can go and ask the bookseller for your money back.”
And what you learn is fascinating. Nichols was later in life to become an expert on winter flowering plants, and the next chapter of Down the Garden Path tells you how this came about in beautifully poetic prose interspersed with stiletto-like sharpness. He tells of his encounter with the gardening section of Hatchards where the books “did not seem very attractive…mostly in wrappers which showed women in obsolete hats standing with guilty expressions by the side of immense hollyhocks. They had terrible titles too . . . like ‘Romps in the Rockery’ and ‘A Garden of Memorie’. And then he discovered Winter Blossoms from the Outdoor Garden,by A. W. Darnell which had been published in 1926, and the uplifting and enthusiastic language starts again.
Nichols tells too of creating a rock garden, buying a field and planting a wood, building a greenhouse, and even falling for the cyclamen craze, the cineraria and then orchids…as well as adventures with cats and treacle. But who could fail to be amused when his gardening advice includes “have a couple of cocktails” before you go to the nursery to buy plants.
And its not just all plants. As he settles in to village life there are a whole soap-opera cast of country folk as well as some pointed name-dropping about lunching with the Prime Minister, Ramsay Macdonald, and Reginald McKenna, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. This was like Nichols in real life too. When showing visitors round he would point out the myrtle which he claimed was taken from a sprig in Queen Victoria’s wedding bouquet. Although he often said he didn’t mean to name-drop quite so mercilessly, he was fond of adding “and of course I gave a cutting to Princess Alexandra on one of her visits.’’
The village is filled with the sorts of people one wishes to run into – or away from – along the garden path. There is Mrs M “a middle-aged woman with a hard jaw” whose “garden is maddeningly efficient” and “who spends next to nothing and gets astonishing results.” There is Undine Wilkins who has “a sickly aestheticism grafted on to a plebeian stock. Because she is very thick-skinned, she will not recognize herself, and I should not greatly care if she did, for she is rich, thoroughly self-satisfied, and now lives in the Colonies.” There are also the note-taking Professor and the “beautiful, intelligent and amazingly amiable” Princess P who is “devoid of all sense of moral responsibility” when it comes to plants she covets and then steals from her neighbours.
The secret of this book’s success — and its timelessness — is that it does not seek to impress the reader with a wealth of expert knowledge or advice.
Nichols is openly proud of his status as a gardening novice: “The best gardening books should be written by those who still have to search their brains for the honeysuckle’s languid Latin name.” He might not have known much when he started but he was a fast learner. His writing maybe light but Down the Garden Path and its successors reveal how deep his understanding and love of plants and garden making were. No one could turn a phrase quite like Beverley Nichols and in Down the Garden Path he has left a true, if somewhat eccentric, gardening classic.