Sunday, April 1, 2012

Down the Garden Path

When I was about 16, I fell in love with a Brit. Not what you're thinking (sexy rock star, cute exchange student): my dear one was a 70 year old gay novelist, gardener and dramatist named Beverley Nichols. Nichols, largely unknown in this place and this time, was tremendously popular in mid-20th century England. He was incredibly prolific, churning out everything from poetry to memoir to children's books.

What drew me to Beverley, I can't honestly say. I had been dallying with several other authors from the U.K. for years--Trollope, Dickens, Galsworthy. When, in 9th grade, after one too many moves with my family, I was deposited in the huge and impersonal North Springs High School in Atlanta, Georgia, I rebelled against making yet another group of temporary friends. My rebellion took two forms—one healthy, one not so much. On the plus side, I spent my school lunch hours immersed in thick and engrossing novels from merrie old Englande. On the flip side, I essentially stopped eating, relying on chicken broth and ice cream for sustenance. It was a tough year, made bearable by The Forsyte Saga and David Copperfield.

Later, when I had regained my equilibrium and graduated from size 00, I continued my love affair with British literature. At a used bookstore one afternoon I discovered Merry Hall, the cozy and witty tale of Nichols' purchase and renovation of a suburban London Georgian cottage. The characters were utterly charming: the neighbors, the manservant Gaskin, the cats One and Four, and most of all, the garden. Everything and everyone was sweet, quirky and delightful, and evoked a bucolic scene totally alien to me in real life...escapism at its finest.

Now I was on the prowl, tracking down Beverley's oeuvre in used bookstores from Ithaca to Minneapolis. A find in Philadelphia, or at the fabled Strand bookstore in Manhattan, was cause for celebration. Mind you, these were pre-internet days, so there really was the thrill of the chase for these out-of-print gems. Gradually, I became the owner of the Nichols canon, over 20 books, from The Stream that Stood Still to A Thatched Roof to No Place Like Home. Reading a Nichols tome was like pulling up the covers in bed on a cold and gloomy night--warm and comforting.

When was the last time I re-read one of these much-loved tales? I can’t recall. Currently, once I wade through a stack of books on Christianity and spirituality for work, I either tackle an edgy new piece of fiction, or plunge into the sugar-sweet pool of chick lit and fashion mags. Beverley Nichols sits on my bookshelf, patiently waiting. Offering me an escape to a place and time I truly love, a literary visit with people I feel are my soul-neighbors. Beverley is, above all, a gentleman. He would never press.

Whenever I’m ready, he will be too. To delight me with gentle stories of an era long gone.

Hang in there, Mr. Nichols. I’ll be there soon.

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