THE peerless August goes its way: day after day of sunshine, the
garden heavy with scents, the churches, too. St Paul tells us "not
to murmur"; the News tells us ghastly things. In his Diary, Francis
Kilvert tells me what he did on an August day a century-and-a-half
ago. He is the 32-year-old curate of Langley Burrell, Wiltshire - a
strong, handsome young man who would die before he was 40,
suddenly, from peritonitis. The floral arches for his wedding
served for his funeral.
So how could I possibly murmur, given so many years, so many
summers? In fact, having to go to London to talk after a literary
lunch, I grew quite scolding, myself and the elderly audience
having been awarded all these summers, and doing anything but sing
But then there comes August weeding. Searching for something to
complain about, we look at the towering plants that have taken over
the flowerbeds. How have they usurped them without our seeing them
before they were splendid in their own right, and too good for the
I find myself apologising for them to visitors, the wicked
balsam in particular. Then I find an enthusiastic note on it in the
matchless Victorian Dictionary of Gardening, edited by
none other than the Director of Kew, and I must quote it in order
that anyone afflicted by the current abuse of certain specimens
should find heart.
This is how our ancestors saw balsam: "It is one of the showiest
of summer and autumn flowers, and well deserves a place in every
garden. Although of comparatively easy cultivation, good blossoms .
. . are far too rarely seen. A good Balsam flower should be quite
as double asa perfect Camellia."
Sitting among my balsam, their seeds peppering me, and the white
cat sound asleep at their roots, I say to myself that August
wouldn't be August without them.
A different firing, that of August 1914, fills the commemorative
radio programmes. To the young, the First World War must sound like
the Crimea. But, in church, an old man listens to his great-uncles'
names being read aloud, and, shaking hands with him after the
service, I am astonished and moved to see that his eyes are full of
At dinner, we hazard guesses at which of our women deans - or,
indeed, curates - might become women bishops. And what would Mrs
Proudie have said? Or indeed Barbara Pym? It is fatal to take one
of her novels out into the sun on a day like this. Nothing else
will be done for hours. There should be a special place in the
order of blessedness of those who take us into realms of delight
via idleness, as reading is often called. "They tell me that lifeis
the thing," remarked a young American long ago, "but I prefer
There is a big chair in our departed village school, now closed
down, where anyone is invited to just - read. Perhaps nothing in
the history of mankind has produced so much happiness as reading.
Ordered to bed when we were children, we would plead: "Oh, Mum,
just this last chapter."
Now and then I think - and not at all dismally - just to read
this summer, because it seems enough. Faith brings its own
philosophy. It structures time. At this minute, two men are
abseiling across the face of Big Ben, giving it a wipe. It is made
of thin glass. The fragility of our existence!