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Word from Wormingford

17 June 2016

Ronald Blythe re-reads a diary that is suited to all times of life

SOFT summery rain. Blue tits nesting by the brick gate-post. Shrubs heavy with rain, having fallen across the path. Drenched roses. The stream and the guttering in competition as the water dispels. Gentle gray light. Giant weeds. Friends look a little ascant. Red kites reeling around. Sometimes they have flown before us to Newmarket.

I estimate how long it will take me to do some substantial weeding. But not today, my turn to take matins. I read the banns for the young strangers sitting below me and think of the rural dramas such duties used to create. “If you know any just cause or impediment why these two people may not be joined together in holy matrimony, you are to declare it.”

How Thomas Hardy revelled in such language. His wonderful poems caught the rhythm of the Book of Common Prayer. He liked to spend Whitsun in Suffolk in a houseful of agnostics in Aldeburgh who accused him of being a humbug, because he would now and then enter a church to pray. He never explained, and perhaps he couldn’t.

Benjamin Britten, who set Hardy’s poems to music, would have refused the sacraments on his death-bed, were it not to hurt the feelings of his friend, the Bishop of St Edmundsbury & Ipswich. We all do so many things out of convention and politeness rather than out of belief. But there are moments of great faith and illumination. Now is comfort itself to be denied. “I would be your Comforter.”

I am re-reading Francis Kilvert’s Diary. The picnics in it remind me of the flower shows that used Constable tombs as tables, laying tablecloths and places, but standing up to eat because of their height. Kilvert was the youthful priest of St Harmon’s, in Radnorshire and Bredwardine, in Herefordshire, during the late 19th century. Also a remarkable writer. His Diary unselfconsciously reveals the soul of rural Anglicanism.

Would anyone read it, he asked himself. His clergyman-father would have taken great care that he did not. But when William Plomer encountered it just before the Second World War, he knew he had met with a masterpiece. Plomer and my friend Ralph Currey were South Africans who had won Oxford scholarships, and I always wished I had asked Ralph about Kilvert’s diary. But Miss Kilvert, the diarist’s niece, lived near me in Suffolk, and I always felt that I was touching, as it were, a huge stretch of Anglican time.

One of my favourite stories in this wonderful diary is about a youthful curate who brought a lad to church to be confirmed — and was himself confirmed by the bishop. Kilvert was somewhat overwhelmed by pretty girls, before he married. His death was sudden and not a little Shakespearian; for he died after only a few days after his wedding, and his coffin passed under the bridal arch. Peritonitis.

Although his diary does not hesitate to reveal the horrors of Victorian rural life, it is essentially beautiful and enchanting, a book to re-read for all one’s life. Also one to accompany the lectionary, the parish magazine, and, for myself at this moment, the great business of putting lavatories in the church — although never once have I been asked for one. But you never know.

At the moment, the horse chestnuts, which a young clergyman selflessly set in the 1890s, are reaching for the sky, and their conkers will soon descend on graves, bouncing about on almost obscured names and dates. And rivulets will find their way to the tarmac and thus to their old journey to the River Stour.

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