Christopher Stocks


Beverley Nichols | Gardens Illustrated

Camp, snobbish, vulgar, dated and, let’s face it, lots of fun, the books of Beverley Nichols are one of those guilty pleasures (like daytime TV or Harvey’s Bristol Cream) of which one may feel slightly ashamed – and yet what ebullient confections they are. Nichols will need no introduction to lovers of gardening lit, mainly thanks to Down the Garden Path, his classic account of a Cambridgeshire country-cottage garden, first published in 1932 and in print almost continuously ever since. The rest of us are less likely, I suspect, to have come across Green Grows the City, which he wrote just seven years later on the verge of the Second World War, but a handsome facsimile of the original has recently been reissued by the estimable Timber Press, and it’s a typically chatty (if at times infuriating) read.

Beverley Nichols, 1941In 1936, having been flushed from his cottage by troops of trippers and from his Westminster pied-à-terre by seeping smog, he – or rather his Jeeves-like valet Gaskin – found a brand-new house in suburban Hampstead. Designed by a pre-Portmeirion Clough Williams-Ellis in his feeblest neo-Georgian style, it was blighted by a barren and bizarrely shaped garden: a long, acute triangle with its base against the house and its very pointy point in its furthest corner. It almost drove Nichols insane: ‘The right wall seemed to take hold of one eye and the left wall of the other, compelling them to cross each other and to focus on that horrible little apex at the end.’

His solution, which occupies much of the book, was to commission a domed, glass-topped conservatory, thus giving the garden a literal focal point. Though it sounds a great idea, the photographs reveal that it looked like a cross between a ventilation shaft and an Edwardian public lavatory – but then Nichols’ way with words often seems to have raced ahead of reality. I called his books confections, and Green Grows the City is no exception, with its invented characters and general air of frivolity. Whether you find them more-ish or slightly ill-making is, in the end, a matter of personal taste.

Review of Green Grows the City, by Beverley Nichols (Timber Press)