It was a stroke of genius to get Nicky Henson to read this book. With its quietly rueful chuckles and knowing asides, his assured delivery has the fruity richness of a top-notch Dundee cake, washed down with a fine single malt. There is a large cast, and he has a good shot at all their widely varied accents, but his is really the voice of Buffy, and this is Buffy's story.
Buffy is a retired actor. Over his years with Birmingham Rep, gently mutating "from lithe Hotspur to portly Falstaff", he lodged in the welcoming abode, and usually in the arms, of Bridie, a theatrical landlady in Edgbaston. Eventually Bridie herself retired and opened a boarding house in Knockton, a little town in Wales. Buffy, barely surviving in the Edgware Road, learns that Bridie has died and left him her house. He ups sticks and moves into his dilapidated inheritance.
In Knockton, to his joy, he discovers glories he had believed extinct: the Scotch egg, for example, along with an antiquated gents' outfitters, a jolly butcher, several tea-shops and a sense of community he hadn't realised still existed anywhere. He has several – maybe six – grown-up children and three ex-wives, who cherish still a certain tendresse for the old boy, for he possesses the rare gift of being able to talk, and more importantly to listen, to women. His moment of truth comes when he realises how to use this to his advantage.
He lays on courses for the jetsam of life, people abandoned by spouses, lovers or luck, who need survival skills and don't mind the antique plumbing at Myrtle House – one of them remarks, almost approvingly, that she hasn't seen an avocado basin since Edward Heath was PM. They come, ostensibly to study car-maintenance, cookery, or gardening but, as it turns out, to begin to understand how to enjoy each other's company, and to regain a little joie de vivre. Usefully, they also repair Buffy's car, sort out his garden, and feed him, and they are amply repaid by his generous geniality.
Just as Moggach's These Foolish Things was a lot less saccharine than the film they made of it, so Myrtle House is no Marigold Hotel. But both books are informed by their clever author's witty and bathetic style, and her unflinching eye for human frailty: as someone says, we don't know if we're in an Ayckbourn farce or a Strindberg tragedy. In the end, it is pure fairytale – but we are not deceived by the surface froth. Sydney Smith once reprimanded a pompous guest, saying: "Do not assume that because I am frivolous I am shallow." This delightfully frivolous novel has serious, compassion- ate depths to balance its hilarity. Buffy is drawn to one of his guests, the anxiously botoxed Monica, but it is only when he sees her naked, cracked heels, as she precedes him up the stairs in her fluffy backless slippers, that he realises how much he loves her.