IN THE summer — although it is not quite summer — I get up immensely early, and write for hours. And still it is not breakfast, and still the morning chorus has not begun, and still “the gold bar of heaven” hasn’t appeared above Duncan’s farm, and still it is night.
And I think of all those novelists who did a day’s work before six in their dressing-gowns, leaving them even more time to dwell on that grim text “Of the making of books there is no end.” And that surely a great many of them in this ancient house cry out for a second reading — those of my first novelist friend James Turner, for example. Read once, and then shelved for eternity.
And now I cannot recall whether it was George II or III who exploded “Another damned thick book, Mr Gibbon!” when the unlucky historian presented his monarch with yet one more volume of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
And yet how glad I am when friends send me their latest work, for it means that they are healthy and prosperous. At the moment, I am running out of dedicatees, and must trouble the departed. I think of the writer who put “To my dear wife, without whose assistance this book would have been finished in half the time.” But there it is, the strange business of telling tales, of having headfuls of them, of releasing them into the world at large so that other folk can read them in a day so that they can be shelved for eternity.
The motor-mower is going up and down, rowdy when it passes under the window, whispering when it smooths the badger holes under the 12 oaks. Making stripes. All the roses are in bloom, the honeysuckles, too. Far away in the church they are making a flower festival, and the lane will be full of cars. The diarist Francis Kilvert described this in his 1870s Diary, that perfect rural confession. There he is, in classic profile, the handsome country parson.
Some fool of an editor removed his sermons, and some silly relation of his censored his liking for girls. But enough of his diary remains to prove his genius. And to prove that, where early mornings are concerned, at least in remote villages, the sounds and scents stay much the same, especially where there is a river to carry them. All the lanes leading to Wormingford are temptingly labelled “Flower Festival”, and their banks are dense with cow parsley.
All is as it should be, Songs of Praise and all. Meanwhile, the mighty tombstones, which were raised from the nave floor ages ago, continue their journey; for now they must make way for lavatories. What would the Constables have thought? The great artist family lie all around, celebrating their rise to “Gent”.
The horse chestnuts swing above them. It is a sumptuous moment. A vicar planted them for Queen Victoria. The Benton irises in the garden, pale blue and silky, speak of my long friendship with that iris master Sir Cedric Morris, and how, at this time of the year, we would drive to Hadleigh to see him — a lanky figure in corduroys, smoking a pipe and full of scandalous tales about plants.
Gardens everywhere are at this moment “Open to the public”, but not as they once were: rough and ready and scholarly. Also with rock cakes. “Well named,” Cedric would say.
Friends forcibly retired at 60 have little need to wonder what to do next. Rural Britain is marvellously run by them, not least the parishes. But, as I repeat, artists and writers do not retire. They die anon.