I STAND on a chair to reach down Francis Kilvert’s Diary. Long ago, I shelved the apple-room to make a library, and the books smell of fruit; and, when it came to mature fruit, of D’Arcy Spice. These apples were left to wrinkle and even to rot, and were eaten with maggoty cheese, and thought a great treat. The maggots were affectionately called cheese-hoppers, and the post-Christmas Stilton on the sideboard would have its craters topped up with port and last until Easter.
Here I am in the apple-room-cum-library, however, with Kilvert in my hand, as indeed he should be; for am I not President of his Society, and a lifelong devotee of his enchanting Diary? So what does he say for late September?
See him, a sturdy-looking curate from the Welsh border who walked miles and miles, who kept one of the best rural diaries ever written, who loved girls, who married late and died soon after, and who had his sermons torn from his papers by William Plomer just before the last war.
Such is life. I for one would have very much liked to have “read” young Francis’s sermons. He was one of those people who hesitated to call himself a writer, although he did nervously publish some poetry. As for the wonderful diary, it lay in the dark until a young South African returned it to the light.
Anyway, returning to the house after calling on St Francis, I began to re-read it, the entries for autumn: “Monday 14 October. Last night I had a strange and horrible dream. It was one of those curious things, a dream within a dream, like a picture within a picture.
“I dreamt that I dreamt that Mr Venables and Mrs Venables tried to murder me. We were all together in a small room, and they were trying to poison me, but I was aware of their intention and baffled them repeatedly. At length, Mr Venables put me off my guard, came round fondling me, and suddenly clapped his hand on my neck behind, and said: ‘It’s of no use, Mr Kilvert. You’re done for!’”
Alas, poor Kilvert would be done for at the age of 39. He had just been married, and his coffin was carried under the same floral avenue as had been made for his wedding. I read his Diary constantly, now and then at matins — just fragments from it, when his Welsh rain seems to join our East Anglian down-pours, and we ourselves, all these years on, are so little different from his parishioners.
Except — and it is a big exception — his parish was full of encounters. Other than the postman, one could walk to my stranded farmhouse for a week without meeting a soul.
Five horses commune in the hilly meadow opposite, and might be ridden on a Sunday morning. But only might. The rain has made their coats shine like conkers. When I was a boy, I used to wonder why horses did not leap over the gate and gallop off to Bedford, this town being as far as I could imagine.
I once went there to see John Bunyan’s anvil. He was a strong craftsman who humped it on his back when he strode off to repair pewter. He was a whitesmith, as opposed to a blacksmith. In The Pilgrim’s Progress it became each person’s load of sin. As Bunyan walked, he could see in the distance the heavenly blue Chilterns — his celestial mountains.
Once, Alan and I walked in his steps. There it all is, for anyone looking for a great walk through a great book: a decided progression still, just like Kilvert’s Diary.