On 9 September 1983, Beverley Nichols spent the morning of his 85th birthday working on a poem about his birth. He called it ‘Lamplight’ because his mother had told him he was born at dusk. In the first verse he describes the scene: ‘shadows flit across the lawn,’ ‘roses fade,’ ‘stars, like silver sentinels, take up their watch.’ The second verse imagines the octogenarian Nichols hovering over the cradle with the power to spare or choke his infant self. The third would presumably have given us his decision, but he never finished it. Rising to his feet to look at something in his last garden, he collapsed, rallied temporarily in hospital, but died six days later.
It’s a very bad poem: self-dramatising, cliché-ridden and embarrassing. Its syntax and imagery are those of a minor of the period it describes – Eliot and Auden might never have existed. And yet, as with so much of his vast output, it is shamingly compulsive reading. I wanted to know if Baby Beverley would have lived or died.
In my school library in the early Forties, I came across almost a whole shelf of books by Nichols bound, only too appropriately, in shades of purple. There were the homes-and-gardens trilogies, an early novel, a youthful autobiography, a state-of-the-nation survey, an overheated religious tract. How they found their way into that otherwise rather fastidious collection was a mystery, but I became completely hooked on them. Hooked and yet guilty, because I knew, even then, that they were no good, and I would never have admitted my addiction to my circle of somewhat intellectually snobbish friends. Denton Welch yes. Beverley Nichols no. Even at that time he was at best a camp joke linked to the equally risible Godfrey Winn, something he didn’t deserve: he was always far superior to that stingy and treacherous little reptile, weeping his crocodile tears. I didn’t read much post-war Nichols, although I couldn’t resist his attack on Somerset Maugham in 1966. I was, however, fairly easily persuaded to review this book – largely to find out if there was more to the prolific and once enormously popular Beverley than whimsical humour and rank sentimentality. What I read was a fascinating account of a very English tragi-comedy.
The author, Bryan Connon, was invited to take it on by Nichols before his death, and assured there would be no restraints. ‘You must tell the truth as you see it. However unflattering it may be.’ I wonder, had he lived to read it, if he would have regretted this carte blanche. It’s not that Connon is unfair – he is clearly sympathetic to his subject – but he pursues the truth doggedly, while Nichols himself would twist and distort any fact to heighten a tale or feed an obsession. His journals, frequently contradicting his public version of events, are not what most of us would choose to expose to our admirers: the crowing at social or professional triumph, the open snobbery, the self-praise. Yet Nichols comes out of it not too badly. For one thing, he had real courage. He may have taken up several indefensible causes, but as soon as he realised he had been wrong, he came clean. There were, after all, many people who were initially deceived by Hitler or attracted by the Oxford Group, but few of them renounced their misplaced enthusiasm quite so openly. He was, given the law and the general climate of opinion, remarkably brave in his defence of the right of homosexuals to follow their nature. He was also touchingly loyal in a traditional sense. Although he was offered a job in America by the Government, he refused to spend the last war there or to consider becoming a tax exile after it was over, even though this left him badly-off, and dependent eventually on the kindness of friends. Brilliant promise, early fame and success, leading to a rather sad and obscure old age, might suggest that he would have chosen to commit self-infanticide in the conclusion of that last unfinished poem, and yet I doubt it.
The most dramatic element in this book, the enigma which gives it a shape beyond mere pathos, is Nichols’s escalating hatred of his father, a mania which culminated with the publication of Father Figure in 1972.
His father was without doubt an alcoholic, a factor Connon tends to play down, and an alcoholic can cause untold misery. Certainly Beverley’s belief that his mother should have left her husband is at one with the precepts of AA. Even so, the book is excessively economical with the truth. Nichols senior was not, as his son maintains, mean. His family was never deprived (he was too rich) to pay for his drinking. He may have refused to finance Beverley’s ambition to study music, but he supported him generously through Oxford and paid his considerable debts. Furthermore, although John Nichols, a womanising Edwardian dandy, was the antithesis of his homosexual son, they didn’t get on too badly. John was even proud of Beverley’s early achievements and advised him sensibly on those initially amateur horticultural endeavours which were to yield such profitable literary fruit. Nor was Beverley himself abstemious. He would, unfortunately, drink a great deal when writing, and even secreted a bottle to top up his glass en route to the lavatory.
Why, then, did he turn, not only against his father, but, with one exception, against the whole Nichols family? According to his brother, he was a much-indulged and happy boy: why did he describe his childhood as that of a terrified little victim? The most bizarre aspect of Father Figure is its author’s account of his unsuccessful attempts at parricide – first poison, then a lawn-roller. Both stories are, as Connon demonstrates, as full of holes as a colander, mere wish-fulfilment, but why wish such things in the first place?
The key to it all, so Connon believes, is what caused John Nichols, the prosperous descendant of yeomen, to decide at the age of 40 to leave Bristol, where he was highly respected and successful, to live in self-destructive idleness in Suffolk, Torquay and finally London. Connon’s explanation, while he admits it to be pure conjecture, makes more sense than mere antipathy, or even the humiliation of a drunken father. What Nichols found out, what transformed mild dislike into an almost insane loathing, was that John was not his true father, but had been cuckolded by his artistic, music-loving brother George – the only member of the family to escape Beverley’s obloquy. If this was so, a great deal falls into place: John’s irrational flight from Bristol, his alcoholism, his wife’s expiatory acceptance, and Beverley’s hysterical venom. It was not because John was his father that he hated him with such a passion, but because he wasn’t.
Cyril Connolly, who also suffered from an alcoholic father, admitted in his Sunday Times review to being engrossed by Father Figure. ‘Homicidal ruthlessness,’ he wrote, ‘must be added to my estimate of Mr Nichols’s character.’ He used most of the review, however, to speculate as to why Beverley’s ‘immense promise’ in the Twenties had, unlike Auden’s or Waugh’s, petered out. The answer, I believe, is not only that he was far less promising to start with (had Connolly reread the early Nichols? I doubt it), but that he conceived writing as a way of becoming famous rather than as an end in itself. Furthermore, he needed to produce continuously to support an extravagance always ahead of his income, even when he was earning a lot of money. He wrote far too much, far too fast.
Noel Coward would have served Connolly as a better comparison than Auden or Waugh. As social and, at times, just as silly as Nichols, he had that core of steel that Beverley lacked. His craftsmanship and his awareness of his own limitations have ensured his survival. His sentimentality is somewhat less embarrassing, his wit more polished. Coward understood the flaw in Nichols better than Connolly, recognising its dangers in himself. After reading a book about the Twenties, he writes of his friend in his journal: ‘He is incurably sentimental, of course, and always was, but I have a feeling that wouldn’t matter so much if only he wrote a little better.’ He concludes: ‘One is left with the impression that he has observed too much and understood too little.’ Connolly, who, on the contrary, wrote too little, saw Nichols’s failure as simply a burning-out. Connon maintains that Connolly’s review reflected ‘with deadly accuracy the literary Establishment’s view of Nichols’s work’, but perhaps the literary Establishment was right.
Beverley’s tragedy was that, elbowing his 85-year-old shade aside, there were far too many good fairies round his cradle. They gave him irresistible charm, extreme good looks, facility, agreeable wit. As a result, he sailed through most of his life, first as the protégé of distinguished homosexual dons, then as the darling of fashionable hostesses, and later as the hero of those middle-aged ladies who subscribed to lending-libraries (Graham Greene, in a review of one of Nichols’s travel books, pretended that its author, an adventurous spinster, was hiding behind a nom de plume).
By the end of the Fifties that middle-class, middlebrow world which had sustained his reputation was vanishing, and he knew it. His books turned, to quote Coward again, ‘bitchy’, but his main failing, almost from the beginning, was a kind of literary insincerity, all the more deadly for being sincere.
Apart from autobiography, novels and polemics, Nichols wrote plays, review sketches, popular songs and serious music, all of them just not quite good enough to triumph. He also wrote detective novels – which were apparently first-rate until, typically, he became bored with working out the plots – and some childrens’ books of which one at least, The tree which sat down, has been placed on a level with those of Wilde. In general, however, he fell an early victim to the enemies of promise. I fear he will never be found, as hoped, ‘on the same shelf as Jane Austen, Mrs Gaskell, Hazlitt and Lewis Carroll’. He was quite lucky in life, though. He employed for many years a faithful manservant and outstanding cook called Reginald Gaskin, a kind of gay Jeeves. There was also Cyril Butcher, an actor, who remained a good and faithful friend long after he had ceased to be a lover, and was with him until the end. Nor did his wide circle abandon him. His memorial service was both packed and star-studded, and he would have loved that. This book, despite its glittering cast list, would have pleased him less, but it is without malice, a generous epitaph for a far from despicable human being, and an evocative recreation of that vanished world he stooped all too eagerly to conquer.