When I was 7, I was given The Tree that Sat Down and The Stream that Stood Still, published as companion volumes in an abridged edition and written by Beverley Nichols. Apart from a strange dedication on the flyleaf, there were no clues about the author, no dust-jacket with photograph and potted biography. As a result, for years I assumed that Beverley Nichols, like Evelyn Waugh, was a lady novelist, having seen their names beside those of Marie Corelli, Mary Webb, Clemence Dane and Lady Fortescue on the bookshelves of my grandmother and her contemporaries. This entirely plausible belief lasted until A levels, when Evelyn’s true identity was unmasked in a set text. Beverley too, I now knew, was also male and the author of archly titled books on houses and gardens. But that was all.
Evelyn Waugh’s books are now classics, but Beverley Nichols has largely faded from the collective literary memory, mentioned en passant in the obituaries of his few remaining contemporaries. Yet he was an extraordinary man, both of his time and outside it, a man of unconventional beliefs and, oh, so opinionated about the world at large.
He was, as it turns out, a very Bright Young Thing (he wrote his autobiography at the age of 25), a jobbing journalist, fervently pacifist and against capital punishment, whose grandmother died laughing. He worshipped his mother and loathed his father, claiming in later life to have attempted patricide three times, with poison, a garden roller, and by exposure. It must have been a terrible burden, that early promise, but it gained him an entrée into the highest echelons of 1920s London Society. The ladies who took him up treated him like an indulged pet, and he was clearly fond of them after a fashion: apart from the food and dazzling company, they provided him with prodigious amounts of copy.
After the Second World War he settled in the country to live a life of cosy domesticity, writing mostly non-fiction a
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