‘To John Borie, still at Allways’
Is John Borie still at Allways? I have always wondered…
In his curious dedication to A Thatched Roof, Beverley Nichols infuses a sense of timelessness. At Allways, a rambling old Tudor cottage in Huntingdonshire, nothing will ever change. The fifteenth century low lintels will still bang heads, bees are still gathering nectar, the roses drug the air with perfume, the grapevine is still scratching at the window—wanting in, the graceless Undine is dancing on her lawn, and John Borie is still there.
Speaking of timelessness, in my side bar, it has had showing, for some time, the book ‘Currently Reading’ as A Thatched Roof. This was true then, when I posted it, and it continues to be true, as I am still reading it.
I am still at Allways.
‘Therefore this book is not a sequel to an early love, it is rather the other half of the same love. The first book was about a garden; this one is about the cottage which stands in that garden.’ —Beverley Nichols, A Thatched Roof
How could one want to leave? A delightful reminiscence, as with Nichols’ other books of gardening and house-keeping, A Thatched Roof is of the sort that can be picked up and put down, re-read, mulled over, glossed over, chuckled over, and generally be quite useful when the mind needs to be somewhere else, but the body and brain need a safe place to rest.
This is not to trivialize Nichols’ writing. I have quite enjoyed his books related to home and garden, and some of his asides, commentary, and psuedo-factual characters are extremely funny. Who can forget shy and anxious Miss Mint, whom Nichols obviously adored, or gimlet-eyed Mrs. M, whom Nichols obviously detested…?
‘Then loathsomely refreshed, she sat up, and fixed her gimlet eyes upon me.’
As charming as it is, A Thatched Roof sat neglected on my bookshelf for years. I kept beginning it, then putting it down. Why? It was simply too powerful. Surely an odd thing to feel from a writer whose output has been described as ‘rather twee’? Yet Nichols writes with such sprightly reminiscence, with such warm gushes of affection and affectation about his experience with home and garden, that in my situation for five years in a city condo, without either, it was too difficult for me to read.
‘It is always next year when you have a garden.’
It is a book that provided the perfect accompaniment to our recent move, dovetailing here and there in a surprising twist. In it, we experience Nichols’ pure joy in home ownership, his adventures with a dour Scottish housekeeper and the hilarious shenanigans he goes through in an effort to keep her from having to work, we thatch a roof, dig a well, stock the pantry, move in the piano with great ceremony (‘I always feel the piano is a living thing and I hate to see it with its legs wrenched off’), agonize over proper window placement, decorate The Garden Room, discuss with catty delight ‘how white has been done to death’, fall quite terribly in love with Bristol blue glass, and enjoy a host of other waftings into the winsome world of Beverley Nichols, 1920’s Bright Young Thing and fey man about town.
This is the first of what may be a series of posts featuring A Thatched Roof. It is appropriately named for, with all its lightness, few things are more important in a frail human’s life than the acquisition of a roof. Even the determinedly anti-materialist Thoreau began his transcendental, life-changing Walden experience by an old fashioned roof raising.
My new roof from under which I write is not so thatched as Beverley Nichols’ quaint cottage existence, living on a different continent, in a different time and generation as we are. (And I’m quite convinced, with a touch of Nichols’ own querulousness, I would not want anyone but the Duke of Wellington to thatch my roof. Mr. Penrose, that is.)
But that’s getting ahead. It’s easy to do when reading daffy darling Nichols, who has a tendency to rush giddily into everything from philosophical grape tending to the perfect ethereal blue to poetic bee keeping. It is one of the secrets of his charm. His humility is another.
‘I wanted music. I had music….but it would not flow through my pen. It is a terrible thing to be filled with an emotion that one cannot express. People are always telling you, in these days, of the danger of suppressed sex. The dangers of suppressed poetry are surely greater. For the room was charged, drunken, electric–any word you care for–with poetry. The white walls were thick with images….
Yet with all this tolling, this fainting, this sadness among the blossoms, with all this shadowy drift of beauty to the grave, I could make no poem….that is the ultimate bitterness…to put a pen in a man’s hand, and then to freeze his hand, so that he cannot write.
Well, at least you will admit that I have been honest about it.’
Nichols has a way of saying more when he is not trying, and those moments come flitting throughout his prose. I have already mentioned the roses in my new (old) yard—two neglected bushes, giving me flowers of delightful beauty and sweetness. No better ‘welcome to your new home’ could there be. Yet, if you could see the sorry looking bushes they came from, you would wonder how on earth these blooms came about.
After Nichols has saved an ivy with gentle watering and ‘kind words’ he writes the following:
‘I feel at liberty to ask you a question.
Have you this same odd affection for things, like my ivy, which show tremendous courage in the face of adversity? For plants, and animals and people, even if they are common plants…It may be a purely personal weakness, but I feel that somewhere there must be someone who shares it with me.
Often, in the garden, I have found some plant that has seeded itself in a spot where you would think its frail roots could not possibly gain a hold. Perhaps it is only a common rock-plant that has pitched its gay camp on some wind-swept, barren wall, and is flying its yellow flag in the teeth of every wind. But though it is ‘common’, the miraculous courage of such a plant defeats me. I I could no more destroy it, even if it is an intruder, than I could tear up a rose tree that was decked in all the crimson regalia of July.’
I do feel an odd affection for these roses. It’s impossible to know who planted them or how long they’ve been neglected, but I do know they are survivors.
Who doesn’t respect a survivor?
It’s unlikely we’ll name them Hoover and Al Smith, as Nichols’ named his ivy plants, but they will certainly get the benefit of every ‘kind word’ I can give them. And Nichols’ hoped for ‘somewhere there must be someone who shares it’ has struck a chord with likely more than just me.
A Thatched Roof begins, in the Foreword, with the lovely lines of Cowper:
‘Time as he passes us has a dove’s wing,
Unsoiled and swift and of a silken sound.’
Like the rustle of a dove’s wing, or the fragrant floating path of rose petals, let us continue enjoying these silken sounds floating to us through time.
In an upcoming post–more about my odd pairing of Thoreau and Nichols.
Beverley Nichols: 1898-1983
Books by Beverley Nichols related to gardening and household lore (via wiki):
Gardening, homes and restoration
• Down the Garden Path (1932) ISBN 978-0-88192-710-8
• A Thatched Roof (1933) ISBN 978-0-88192-728-3
• A Village in a Valley (1934) ISBN 978-0-88192-729-0
• How Does Your Garden Grow? (1935)
• Green Grows the City (1939) ISBN 978-0-88192-779-5
• Merry Hall (1951) ISBN 978-0-88192-804-4
• Laughter on the Stairs (1953) ISBN 978-0-88192-460-2
• Sunlight on the Lawn (1956) ISBN 978-0-88192-467-1
• Garden Open Today (1963) ISBN 978-0-88192-533-3
• Forty Favourite Flowers (1964)
• The Art of Flower Arrangement (1967)
• Garden Open Tomorrow (1968) ISBN 978-0-88192-552-4