Sunday, 9 January 2011
Penguin no. 7: Twenty-Five by Beverley Nichols
III Containing a fruitless search for American vulgarity
V In which Mr G.K. Chesterton reveals his fears and hopes
VI In which Mrs. Asquith behaves with characteristic energy
VII In which Mr. Winston Churchill loses his temper, and Mr. Horatio Bottomley wins his debate
VIII Being an impression of two ladies of genius
XXVI Containing the hideous truth about Noel Coward
XXVII In which I allow myself to be entirely sentimental
I've given a sample of the chapter headings in this book. They wonderfully capture Mr Nichols' droll sense of humour. For despite the name, Beverley Nichols is male, and this is what he refers to as his autobiography, rather audaciously penned at the age of 25. He knows that it is outrageous to write an autobiography so young; he justifies it on the grounds that youth is a time of enthusiasm, and middle age a time of boredom. Better to write about the things he has seen while they still excite him.
It's not really an autobiography at all, not even a memoir. It's more a collection of anecdotes about the famous people he has met, and these include many of the important literary and political figures of his time. The book has 27 small chapters, and each contains a thumb-nail sketch of one or two famous people. The sketches are all personal: he tells us about when he met them, what they said, and how they behaved. But there is no simpering here, these are predominately his friends. He is himself a published author and playwright, and he knows these people because he is one of them. Many of the names were unfamiliar, but others I knew including G.K. Chesterton, H.L. Mencken, W.B. Yeats, Osbert Sitwell, Winston Churchill, Noel Coward, Rudyard Kipling, Nellie Melba and Norman Lindsay. Beverley Nichols fame hasn't lasted as long, he is now largely forgotten, although I found an interesting blog post written about him here.
Is it interesting to read all this now, so long after its original publication date? It must have been interesting at the time, as all the evidence suggests this was an extremely popular book in its day. It was first published in 1926, and Penguin chose to include it as one of their first 10 titles nine years later. They published three impressions in the first three months, and these early copies are easy to find. I have five, and four have the words The Bodley Head printed on the cover, which means they were published early on (supposedly in the first six months, but you find later copies which still bear these words). Not all the first ten titles are like this, some are quite difficult to source. In later copies this reference to what is by then a rival publishing house is replaced with a word describing the category, in this case Memoirs.
And, yes, it was interesting. Nichols sets out to amuse, and perhaps to shock. He generally shows affection for his subjects, he wants to reveal them to us, and he brings them to life with his amusing and perceptive short sketches. Perhaps the highlight is the chapter on Dame Nellie Melba. He presents her as committed, confidant, formidable and perhaps overwhelming; he clearly adores her. And I was even interested in the names I didn't know. He had no doubt that Oliver Baldwin, the son of the Prime Minister, was a rising star. He saw him as "a figure unique in English history", and said "as biographies will certainly be written about him when he is old and respectable there seems every reason for writing something about him while is young". I was intrigued: who was this person, and what happened? It captures what I loved about reading this book at this distance. The story has been told, and with a click of a mouse button I can find out how it ends.