Tea or Books? #52: Detective Fiction vs Crime Fiction and Merry Hall vs The Sweet and Twenties

Detective fiction, crime fiction, and Beverley Nichols – what fun!


Rachel has had to take a quick break from the podcast, but I was delighted to have a special guest in the form of Karen, from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings, who took to it all brilliantly. After an introductory chat with Karen, we talked about Golden Age detective fiction vs modern crime fiction – with my usual lack of research, though Karen is rather better informed.

Karen and I are both besotted with Beverley Nichols, and it seemed like a good opportunity to compare two of his books – Merry Hall and The Sweet and Twenties.

Rachel should be back for our next episode. In the meantime, you can visit our iTunes page – and we’ve also set up a Patreon page. Obviously we are very, very happy for people to keep listening without signing up for Patreon, but if you’d like to help us recover hosting costs etc. and get some ‘rewards’ (from shout-outs to book parcels) then you can check out our page.

In the episode, we talk about a wonderful clip of Beverley Nichols – here it is:

The books and authors we mention are:

Nairn’s Paris by Ian Nairn
Leadon Hill by Richmal Crompton
Weatherley Parade by Richmal Crompton
Narcissa by Richmal Crompton
Family Roundabout by Richmal Crompton
Frost at Morning by Richmal Crompton
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
The Double by Fyodor Dostoevsky
The Eternal Husband by Fyodor Dostoevsky
The Gambler by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Dashiell Hammett
Raymond Chandler
Sherlock Holmes series by Arthur Conan Doyle
Val McDermid
Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
A Murder is Announced by Agatha Christie
And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
Endless Night by Agatha Christie
The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith
Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
Martin Beck series by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö
Wallander series by Henning Mankell
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson
Jo Nesbo
The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkeley
The Wychford Poisoning Case by Anthony Berkeley
John Bude
John Dickson Carr
Strong Poison by Dorothy L Sayers
Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers
The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards
Quick Curtain by Alan Melville
Death of Anton by Alan Melville
The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books by Martin Edwards
Murder in the Museum by John Rowland
Calamity in Kent by John Rowland
Merry Hall by Beverley Nichols
The Sweet and Twenties by Beverley Nichols
Crazy Pavements by Beverley Nichols
Yours Sincerely by Beverley Nichols and Monica Dickens
Down the Garden Path by Beverley Nichols
Twenty Five by Beverley Nichols
A Pin to See the Peepshow by F Tennyson Jesse
Messalina of the Suburbs by E.M. Delafield
Virginia Woolf
Noel Coward
Oscar Wilde
Mrs Tim of the Regiment by D.E. Stevenson
Vita Sackville-West
Sunlight on the Lawn by Beverley Nichols
Laughter on the Stairs by Beverley Nichols
Elizabeth Bowen
Molly Keane
Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell
The ABC of Cats by Beverley Nichols
The XYZ of Cats by Beverley Nichols
This is Sylvia by Sandy Wilson
Nancy Spain
L.P. Hartley
The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald
According to Mark by Penelope Lively

Crazy Pavements by Beverley Nichols

My friends Kirsty and Paul bought me a pile of books for my birthday which were PERFECTLY chosen, which says what good friends they are (and how loudly I talk about the things I like) – one of which was Beverley Nichols’ novel Crazy Pavements (1927). This has undoubtedly been the Year of Beverley for me, but I had yet to read any of his novels – indeed, I don’t think I own any, though I did almost accidentally spend about £60 on one earlier in the year, under the impression that it was £2.

This was Nichols’ fourth novel, written before any of the gardening books, and it is quintessentially 1920s in many ways. Brian – an unusual name for a hero, but we’ll let it slide – is a handsome young gossip columnist, writing anonymously about the day-to-day doings of the rich and famous, but living in not-so-well-to-do situations himself. How does he know so much about the habits and sins of the titled people of London? The long and short of it: he makes it up.

This section of the novel was Nichols at his most irrepressible; his most effervescent. I loved it, and laughed a lot. It’s everything I want from the slightly (but only slightly) cynical voyeur of the Bright Young Things. Or at least the titled classes, for it is the sort of gossip column more interested in Lord and Lady Such-and-Such than in film stars. And his editor is a glorious creation: she is constantly trying to misinterpret his innocent words (or, indeed, innocent silences) as the most outrageous innuendos, so that she can look shocked and chew her pen and say ‘oh, you are wicked‘, to his horror and embarrassment.

I enjoyed the whole novel, but it was certainly the first few chapters that I truly loved. But such things cannot be stretched to 80,000 words – I do beg your pardon, Michael Arlen – and so we must move to the next scene. Most people do not question Brian’s fabrications, either because they are on long sea voyages (he notes these, as being the best subjects to choose) or because the lies are more flattering than the truth. But Julia is different. She demands a retraction and an apology.

When an awkward Brian turns up at her house, he – would you believe it – falls instantly in love with Julia. In turn, she is surprised that he is so handsome and gauche. The former attracts; the latter is an amusing challenge. She thrusts him into her echelons of 1920s chatter and glamour.

He was already beginning to understand the technique of these people’s conversation. The chief knack seemed to be in a stupendous exaggeration of everyday statements. If, for instance, the waiter forgot to give one a wooden ‘spinner’, with which to take the fizz out of one’s champagne, the right phrase was, ‘this is more than I can bear’, or ‘this is agony‘. ‘Divine’, ‘amazing’, ‘shattering’, ‘monstrous’, were all employed for the most ordinary feelings and facts. He found himself wondering what language they would have to speak if anything really awful did happen. They would either have to relapse into Russian, or else express themselves in dumb-show.

Nichols keeps his wit about him, if you’ll pardon the pun, but the mantle of a Serious Novel About Love gets a bit in the way at times. The story takes us on a fish-out-of-water journey, in which Julia and Brian learn that their different backgrounds are more of an impediment than they realised – as is Julia’s insouciant refusal to commit to a single person. As usual, the romantic elements of the plot didn’t hugely interest me, and I got the feeling that they didn’t enormously interest Nichols either (he seems much more authentic when describing the fall out between Brian and his kind housemate Walter) – but there is enough of humour to more than make up for it.

As a grand love story against the odds, this is a bit novel-by-rote. But as a comic novel showcasing Nichols’ witty and very 1920s view of the world, it’s a total delight. The Year of Beverley closes out successfully.


Are They The Same at Home? by Beverley Nichols

Are They The Same At Home

The Year of Beverley continues! I actually read Are They The Same at Home? (1927) steadily over a few months, dipping in and out of it, and finished it during my hinterland in the internetless years. (It felt like years; it was not.) I bought it back in 2010, and it’s a collection of his encounters with… well, with more or less everyone you can imagine from the cultural world of the 1920s.

Indeed, this isn’t going to be a review so much as a list – at least at the bottom – because I think this could be a wonderful little resource for fans of any of these people, and you probably wouldn’t stumble across it by accident. Each chapter describes his interview or friendship – and I say ‘describes’ because almost none of these are set out like discussions; instead, he gives his impressions, he darts around the topic or the room or the theatre, he throws in a few choice words from the subject – and the matter is closed. It is fanciful, fey, and entirely Nichols. It tells us very little in hard fact, and everything in impression. I came away knowing not what these people were like, but what Nichols thought of them.

Each essay is like an impressionist painting, giving us the outline and the character, if not the exact portrait. When he writes about Rose Macaulay, for instance, he spends half the time talking about whether or not people need to wipe their glasses when they cry – Macaulay says no; American friends of his say yes. No biography of Macaulay would use this as a keynote, but he is able to extrapolate much about her lack of romantic imagination – linking in, neatly, her most recent (and, of hers, my favourite) novel Crewe Train. Only Nichols could put together feats like this with such bravado and such delightful inconsequence. They are nothings, but delightful, almost accidentally insightful, nothings. Any lover of the 1920s world should have this on their shelves.

And who were they? Well, they came mostly from the arts, but with some sportspeople and politicians thrown in. While I knew who all the authors were, and have read most of them, there were plenty of names from other spheres which meant nothing to me. An impressive variety. And here they are, all 61 of them. In alphabetical order, as in the book, with one out of order at the end. Why? Who knows.

Senorita de Alvarez
Michael Arlen
Lilian Baylis
Thomas Beecham
Hilaire Belloc
Arnold Bennett
E.F. Benson
Lord Berners
Edna Best
John Bland-Sutton
Andre Charlot
Alan Cobham
C.B. Cochran
Duff Cooper
Noel Coward
Arthur Conan Doyle
Alice Delysia
Sergei Diaghileff
Gerald du Maurier
Jacob Epstein
George Gershwin
Eugene Goossens
Philip Guedalla
Sacha Guitry
Seymour Hicks
Anthony Hope
Aldous Huxley
Margaret Kennedy
Theodore Komisarjevsky
Ronald Knox
Philip de Laszlo
John Lavery
Suzanne Lenglen
David Lloyd George
W.J. Locke
Frederick Lonsdale
Edwin Lutyens
Rose Macaulay
John McCormack
Eddie Marsh
Cyril Maude
W. Somerset Maugham
Nellie Melba
Florence Mills
George Moore
Beverley Nichols
Cyril Norwood
Sean O’Casey
William Orpen
Arthur Pinero
Landon Ronald
Osbert Sitwell
Marie Tempest
Edgar Wallace
Hugh Walpole
H.G. Wells
Rebecca West
Jimmie White
Ellen Wilkinson
P.G. Wodehouse
Georges Carpentier



Down The Garden Path by Beverley Nichols

Down the Garden PathI suppose it was inevitable, if sad, that the shine would have to come off eventually. This has been the Year of Beverley Nichols chez moi, but this is my first venture with him that hasn’t proved quite as runaway a success as the others. Would it have become the YoBN (yes) if this had been my first experience with him? Possibly not. But Down the Garden Path remains entertaining – if overshadowed by his later work.

I don’t know how popular this opinion is. I asked on Twitter a while ago, and those who replied agreed with my preference for the Merry Hall trilogy over the Allways trilogy (albeit I still have two to go). For those not yet in the know – in the 1930s, Nichols wrote three books about his house, Allways, and its garden. Fast forward to the 1950s, and he wrote three about Merry Hall – which I had always assumed was a pun on ‘merry Hell’, but am no longer sure. Based on Down the Garden Path (1932), they cover similar ground – moving to a new house; developing the garden; getting entangled with neighbours good and bad.

The main difference, I think, is tone. While Nichols is still light-hearted in Down the Garden Path, he has yet (to my mind) to develop the easy hilarity of his later books. The jokes hit home, but aren’t developed with the same glee. The neighbours and staff are half-portraits, compared to Oldfield (gardener) and Miss Emily (officious neighbour) in the latter trilogy. In the former, the neighbours don’t even get names – they’re all Mrs W and Mrs X. It’s hard to see what’s different except that the second trilogy is a better version of the first.

Having said that, the highlights in Down the Garden Path were, I found, those anonymous interlopers. If they don’t reach the heights of his jovial nemeses in the Merry Hall trilogy, then they certainly provide amusement. Nichols is at his finest when sassing people – and the visitor who prances through the garden imagining herself to be some sort of muse is only mildly less entertaining to read about than the neighbour who criticises everything she sees in his garden.

Ah, the garden. I read all these books as a fraud – somebody who doesn’t know anything at all about gardening. Occasionally curiosity bites and I google the flower he is mentioning (and find that our tastes don’t match; his favourite flowers look a little twee to me) but generally I read past, waiting for a more gossipy anecdote to take centre stage.

If you are a great expert, with a case of medals from the Horticultural Society on your mantelpiece… if you have written treatises on the Ionopsidium Acaule (which, by the way, is well worth growing)… if you have a huge drooping moustache and a huge drooping head-gardener, then you had better throw this book aside. I am not writing for you.

As you see, he claims that his gardening prowess is rather basic in this one – putting me even more to shame – but perhaps this book was more aimed at gardeners than the others were? Or, at least, Nichols got better at satisfying the ignorant and the knowledgeable at the same time?

I should mention, before I close, those intriguing snippet – ‘Mrs E. M. Delafield, who is the only living writer with whom I should ever dare to take a trip to Cranford, hurled dizzying insults at me in numerous publications.‘ – None are quoted! I want to know so much more!

So, it was an enjoyable read, for sure. But my hopes were a bit high, and I didn’t race through it as I did the other three. I’ll still read the two sequels (which I’ve had for ages) but perhaps not with quite the same alacrity. But, fear not, 2017 is still very much the YoBN.

Merry Hall by Beverley Nichols – #1951Club

Merry HallAnd so we come to the end of the 1951 Club – what fun it has been (even though I think I might do most of my catching-up with it after the week is over – again, why on earth did we decide on Easter week?!) – and I’ve saved my favourite book of the week til last. It’s the entirely, utterly, scrumptiously delightful Merry Hall by Beverley Nichols.

I had planned to start writing this review by saying that I’d never read a book by Beverley Nichols, but discovered – while looking through my review list for other 1951 books – that, a handful of years ago, I read and reviewed a selection of essays he wrote with Monica Dickens. How embarrassing that I remember none of this. So, to all intents and purposes, this is my first Beverley Nichols book.

Which isn’t to say he’s new to me. I’ve long believed that I would love his books – and huge numbers of people whose views I trust wholeheartedly have vouched for him. I’m in the happy position of owning another 12 books by him, bought over the past 13 years (!), with this belief firmly in mind – which has, happily, been entirely justified.

Merry Hall is the first book in a trilogy (I am already well under way in the sequel, Laughter on the Stairs) about Nichols buying and doing up a Georgian house with several acres of garden and woodland. It’s non-fiction, presumably heavily tinged with fiction, and it is – well, I am going to use the word ‘delight’ a lot in this review, I can sense.

It begins with house hunting. When I am not having to do it myself, I adore house hunting, and will read any length of it – though, in Merry Hall, it doesn’t last very long. Money is clearly no object, and Nichols buys this substantial property in more or less a trice.

Most of the book examines the plants and planting arrangements that Nichols decides upon, with Oldfield his gardener, and I thoroughly enjoyed it while often not really understanding it. My knowledge of flowers and plants is nil, and I got less from this than somebody more practically-minded might have done. As such, I’ll mostly write about the rest – because there is just as much to love about Merry Hall for those who don’t have green fingers.

It was previously owned by Mr and Mrs Stebbings, and (before that) the Doves – known as the Doovz to the broad-accented, old, and extremely talented Oldfield. Nichols takes an immediate and long-lasting position of loathing to Mr Stebbings, who apparently did every single wrong with house and garden, from planting elm trees – how Nichols would have welcomed Dutch elms disease! – to his choice of wallpaper. (In Merry Hall, he focuses almost entirely on the garden – Laughter on the Stairs looks at the house.) This is a keynote of Nichols’ writing – he is very, very sure of his own taste, and very, very dismissive of anybody else’s. Luckily, he does it in a very, very amusing fashion.

Mr Stebbings has passed on to a better place, but he has an acolyte remaining in the area: Miss Emily. One hopes – for his sake and for hers – that there was no prototype for Miss Emily – or, if there was, that she is sufficiently altered in these pages so as not to recognise herself. In fact, the edition I’m reading was published for The Companion Book Club in 1953 and, rather delightfully, still has the little pamphlet with which it was initially distributed – and, in that, Nichols writes ‘where the female characters are concerned, I have naturally been obliged to invent a few elementary disguises, which are familiar to all authors who wish to avoid libel actions’.

Miss Emily is ‘one big flinch’ – she pops up regularly at Merry Hall, disparaging everything Nichols has introduced and lamenting every element of Stebbings that has been removed. Nichols can’t stand the sight of her, but she is always there – along with her friend Rose, apparently a note flower arranger, who tortures flowers out of their original shape – much to Nichols’ discuss. Terrible person that I am, my favourite moments in the book were when Nichols talks about how appalling he finds this pair – and is similarly wittily irate about a succession of labourers who do not labour. Of course, he wouldn’t dream of doing any of the hard work himself. (Curiously, he is much nicer about Emily and Rose in the sequel – I wonder if locals recognised themselves and threatened action??)

Nichols is everything one expects of a rich, creative, aesthetically-minded gent – albeit maybe more usual in one of the 1920s than the 1950s. Here’s a representative sample of his thoughts:

It is the same when you are furnishing a house. If you have only just enough money to buy a bed, a chair, a table and a soup-plate, you should buy none of these squalid objects; you should immediately pay the first instalment on a Steinway grand. Why? Because the aforesaid squalidities are essentials, and essentials have a peculiar was, somehow or other, of providing for themselves. ‘Look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves’… that is the meanest, drabbest little axiom that ever poisoned the mind of youth. People who look after pennies deserve all they get. All they get is more pennies.

While I don’t agree with Nichols’ politics or his cheerful snobbery – though neither of these things stop me loving every moment of the book – there is one area in which I am in wholehearted agreement with him. I don’t think anybody has ever written as wonderfully about cats.

Nichols has two cats – One and Four. These whimsical names supposedly come from the idea that he would have 100 cats over the rest of his life. One is Siamese (the second Siamese of the 1951 Club!) and Four is a black cat, and he writes beautifully about their character and mannerisms, with every bit of the devotion that cats deserve. They weave in and out of the narrative, and won my heart completely.

There is so much I would like to say about this book, but I have already written quite a bit – and I suspect I’ll be writing more about Nichols often over the years. Basically, this is a very funny, very charming book that reminded me a lot of A.A. Milne’s Edwardian stories. It probably says quite a lot about me that my favourite 1951 Club book is completely anachronistic – but I will say to anybody who has yet to read Beverley Nichols: don’t be like me and put it off for a decade; read something by him immediately.

Yours Sincerely – Monica Dickens & Beverley Nichols

When my e-friend Sarah mentioned that Monica Dickens and Beverley Nichols had co-authored a selection of light essays called Yours Sincerely (1949), can you really imagine me not immediately buying a copy?  If you answered ‘yes’ then you’re either new around these parts, or you have a stronger sense of my self-control than is just.

So, back in autumn, it arrived – and I started reading it in a gradual way, such as befits this sort of book.  It is great fun.  I don’t know quite where the articles came from – they’re quite varying lengths, and don’t seem to have been written specially for this volume, but cover topics in the same line as Rose Macaulay’s Personal Pleasures.   Everything from ‘Planting Bulbs’ (reminiscent of Provincial Lady, no?) to ‘Sensuality’; ‘Talkative Women’ to ‘Coddled Men’; ‘Losing Your Temper’ to ‘Brides in White.’  All the sort of topics of middle-class chatter in the 1940s – but feeling, somehow, old-fashioned even for the 1940s.

Indeed, Beverley Nichols has no qualms in describing himself as ‘old-fashioned, out-of-date, and generally encrusted in lichen’.  Even when I agree with him, he’s so curmudgeonly that I felt like I wanted to distance myself from him…  it’s enjoyable to read, but not quite the laugh-out-loud, self-deprecating whimsy that I’d expected – and which Monica Dickens delivers in spades.  Sometimes he was just too saccharine and worthy for my taste…

You can’t bruise a plant and feel aggrieved because it grows up stunted or deformed or “odd.”  The slightest twist or wound, in it infancy, grows and swells, till in the end the plant is an ugly wretched thing that you have to throw onto the rubbish heap.

It is the same with children.  A lie, an injustice, a cruelty – these get under the skin.  And they too grow and swell, till at last a miserable man or a wretched woman is rejected by society.
Undeniably true, but… am I bad person for wishing that he’d been jollier?  I still haven’t read any of his books, and now I’ll be rushing towards them a little less eagerly.

Whereas Monica Dickens, after getting all serious in The Winds of Heaven, is on fine form in Yours Sincerely.  Lots of smiles all round, and never too earnest.  Just the sort of light essay which I adore, and which doesn’t seem to happen any more.  Here she is on proposing…

We’ve all dreamed much the same dreams, I expect.  You know – you’re in a diaphanous evening dress of unearthly beauty.  You’re the belle of the ball.  You’ve danced like a disembodied fairy and now you drift out on to a moonlit terrace, mysterious with the scent of gardenias. 

He follows, in faultless evening dress, no doubt (mine sometimes used to be in white monkey jackets), and says – IT.

Or, he says IT on the boat-deck of a liner gliding through phosphorescent tropic seas, or on a Riviera beach, or sometimes at the crisis of some highly improbable adventure.  He’s just rescued you – or you him – from a fire.  You’re besieged in an attic firing your last round at the enemy now battering at the door below.  You’re a beautiful nurse and he’s a dying soldier – but not irretrievably dying.

There are endless variations but always the same theme song : “Will you marry me?”  The implication is that when one is very young the actual moment of proposal is one of the high-spots of marriage.

I used to pester my mother over and over again to tell me how my father proposed.  I couldn’t believe she wasn’t holding out on me when she swore that he never really had.  She couldn’t remember when he started saying and writing : “When we’re married we’ll do so and so.”
I have a small section of a shelf devoted to light essays – it is only a small section, because I haven’t managed to find very many.  Alongside this and some by Rose Macaulay are Angela Milne’s Jame and Genius, A.A. Milne’s various offerings in this genre, J.B. Priestley’s Delight, Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris, Christopher Morley’s Safety Pins, and probably one or two others which have slipped my mind.  Any suggestions?

In the meantime, Yours Sincerely isn’t groundbreaking or even exceptionally good, but it’s a jolly, enjoyable contribution to that often-overlooked form of the familiar essay, and so steeped in the mores of the early 20th century that a flick through fills me with nostalgia for an age in which I never lived.