“Kilvert’s Diary”: A Selection Edited and Introduced by William Plomer

Why do I keep this voluminous journal? I can hardly tell. Partly because life appears to me such a curious and wonderful thing that it almost seems a pity that even such a humble and uneventful life as mine should pass altogether away without some such record as this, and partly too because I think the record may amuse and interest some who come after me.

Kilvert’s Diary is another work I have to thank Susan Hill for (https://annabarbermyartisliving.wordpress.com/tag/susan-hill/). It is a treasure: an affectionate, vivid portrait of rural life in England and Wales in the latter half of the nineteenth century written by Reverend Francis Kilvert. Kilvert kept the diary in the nine years preceding his premature death, and in it records the almost fairytale qualities of his life with sensitivity, humour, and a deep love of the natural world. It is a great shame that much of it is now lost, thanks in part to the edits undertaken by Kilvert’s wife, and more significantly because a descendant – herself a minor novelist – burned most of his notebooks in the 1950s. What remains was expertly edited by the poet, William Plomer – and happily there is still a huge amount to enjoy.

My 1980 Penguin edition begins with the entry for Tuesday 8 February, 1870. Rather wonderfully, this first passage describes the misadventures of one Miss Child, who had tried to spend a night in a London hotel with a brown wood owl. The owl hooted all night in spite of their putting it up the chimney, before the looking glass, under the bedclothes, and in a circle of lighted candles which they hoped it would mistake for the sun. What a brilliantly batty introduction to our diarist – proving that, as is so often the way, real life is invariably stranger than fiction. There are several passages like this that demonstrate a keen sense of humour – the one which is frequently quoted being the description of a relation’s funeral, during which the weighty coffin nearly crushed the poor bearers. Once or twice I thought the whole mass of men must have been down together with the coffin atop of them and someone killed or maimed at least. But now came the time of the fat chief mourner… Throughout his diary, Reverend Kilvert demonstrates a love of life in all its strangeness and absurdity, and though he is generally extremely affectionate, he is not above gently pocking fun at his fellow man: High tea at 7 just before which someone managed to shoot a chicken with an arrow, or it was said so, and Margaret Oswald told me that as I put my head through the railings to rake a croquet ball out of the field on to the lawn, my head looked so tempting that she felt greatly inclined to shoot at it. Certainly there would have been this comfort that if she had shot at me I should have been very much safer than if she had not, because wherever else the arrow might have gone it certainly would not have hit me.

I loved the almost gothic strangeness of many of the vignettes, in a world in which life and death walked so closely together. There are descriptions of suicides and murder; winds so ferocious that it takes four men to carry a lady safely indoors from a carriage; ship-wrecks; Miss Sylvester, who has legs like a frog; soldiers scaring off wolves by snapping the locks of their flint muskets; and an old woman who punishes a dairy thief by making him sit by her fire with a hot ale in his hand, so that the stolen butter seeps through his hat and into his eyes. On Easter Eve, the entire village makes its way to the graveyard to dress the graves of loved-ones with flowers. The sun went down in glory behind the dingle, but still the work of love went on through the twilight and into the dusk until the moon rose full and splendid. People believe in fairies and ghosts; the distinction between the real and the supernatural is blurred at best, and Reverend Kilvert observes it all with fascination and love. There’s almost something Mervyn Peake-like about some of the more bizarre details – One day, Perch skinned an owl in London and from midnight till one o’clock he roamed about the streets seeking where he might bestow the body of the owl, fearing that the carcase of the owl might be found and described in the papers as the body of a fine full grown male child. Eventually he whirled the corpse over a garden wall. What a wonderfully strange tapestry.

In keeping with that vivid appreciation for life’s oddities, Kilvert also seemed to live his life at an extraordinary emotional pitch. Several times through the diary he declares himself to be desperately in love, feeling as though his world has been thrown upside down by an encounter with a pretty woman. He spends “feverish” nights fretting about his love for Daisy, and then Kathleen, and at one point describes himself as being exhausted with emotion. He nearly breaks down in Church when the King is ill, and when giving his final sermon in Clyro, gives himself up to his tears. It is unusual and bewitching to read the words of a man who felt everything so keenly – his orbit may have been narrow in some ways, but that does not mean that he did not experience things on a grand scale. Rather like Jane Austen, he demonstrates perfectly that there is nothing automatically limiting about a small community or a parochial life.

The only issue I had with that flood of feeling was the way in which Kilvert appeared to experience female, particularly pre-pubescent, beauty. Generally speaking this is mentioned by reviewers as being a sometimes awkward susceptibility, but I have to confess I found it more difficult than that. Perhaps it is because I am a product of my time as much as he is a product of his, but the way he lingers over descriptions of schoolgirls or young, naked bathers occasionally made me deeply uncomfortable. The fact that he was so ready to share his diaries with others suggests that he felt he had nothing to hide, and the descriptions never stray beyond a kind of breathless wonder at the girls’ innocent perfection, but still – it isn’t always easy reading. I think every reader probably has to find a way of fitting these passages into the context of the diary, and to make up his or her own mind about what they say about the man.

Putting that slight hesitation to one side, for me the most captivating thing about these diaries is the way in which Kilvert experienced, and talked about nature. The combination of his eye for detail and lyrical turn of phrase result in some truly exquisite passages. I love the description of his beard freezing to his mackintosh after a February walk; trees dripping from early showers, the tears of the morning; the sound of frogs croaking, snoring and bubbling in the pool under the full moon; and his assertion that it was a positive luxury to be alive. A tender haze brooded melting over the beautiful landscape, and the peaceful silence was only broken by the chuckling and grumbling of a squirrel leaping among the acacia boughs overhead, and the clear sweet solitary notes of a robin singing from the copper beech. Rather like Laurie Lee, Kilvert is extremely good at holding a mirror up to the British countryside, and showing us what treasures we are surrounded by if we will only stuff our pockets with biscuits and flasks of wine, and stride out into the hills.

Shiny New Books: “Reunion” by Fred Uhlman

The “Extra Shiny” edition of Shiny New Books is now live! Including my review of Reunion, by Fred Uhlman:

Reunion by Fred Uhlman


#EnoughisEnough: we need protection for our ancient woodland

This has not been a good week for conservationists – or indeed, anyone in England with an affection for where they live. The Government has announced new measures to fast-track fracking applications if local authorities don’t act quickly enough (i.e. make a decision within 16 week). In addition Greg Clark, the secretary of state for communities, will also have the right to ‘call in’ applications and decide on them himself. This follows a decision made by a local authority in Lancashire recently to reject a fracking application: evidently this wasn’t something the fracking industry, or a Prime Minister who promised to go “all out for shale”, wanted to hear. So they’re changing the rules.

Whatever your views on fracking – whether you think the lack of knowledge about methane leakage and water pollution is a cause for concern, or whether you think it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread and should be exploited as quickly and comprehensively as possible – it’s difficult to ignore the fact that it has the potential to affect huge swathes of our countryside. As Naomi Klein argues so well, it has been relatively easy to ignore the fossil fuel industry to date because it’s “sacrifice zones” tend to be kept relatively out of sight. With fracking, though, the sacrifice zone is immense, and visible. This has prompted opposition from people motivated not only by environmental concern and an interest in local self-determinism, but also out of a simple, apolitical love of place. In essence, we are being forced to ask how much we are willing to sacrifice for the sake of the energy industry.

Whilst that debate continues, it would be easy to assume that the most beloved and beautiful parts of our countryside are protected by legislation. We all know about national parks, and have probably seen the letters SSSI here and there, even if we don’t understand exactly what they mean. You may even live near a popular area of woodland, and believe that it must be safe from development or extractivism – after all, “Jerusalem” is our unofficial national anthem. We define ourselves as being a “green and pleasant land.”

However that is palpably not the case. What little legislation we do have owes its existence to two EU Directives currently been reviewed (and potentially overhauled), and the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) as introduced by the Coalition Government, has proven itself to be utterly toothless. Yes, the NPPF states that “planning permission should be refused for development resulting in the loss or deterioration of irreplaceable habitats, including ancient woodland and the loss of aged or veteran trees found outside ancient woodland,” but what follows is the caveat “unless the need for, and benefits of, the development in that location clearly outweigh the loss”. As Eric Pickles demonstrated in March, what that means in practice is that a centuries’ old Kentish wood can be felled to make way for a quarry if a politician decides that’s an economically sound prospect. In reality, to borrow the Woodland Trust’s phrase, the NFFP is about as much use as a chocolate tea-pot: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pu3zT3oYJ-M

Ancient woodland is, by definition, a woodland which has existed continuously since 1600 – which is an extraordinary idea, and gives us a uniquely physical connection to our natural history. They are home to complex ecosystems which have developed over centuries, and are entirely irreplaceable as sites of historical and environmental interest. It now covers only 2% of the country;  Britain boasts less tree cover than any European country other than Malta, Ireland and the Netherlands (http://www.telegraph.co.uk). And it is dangerously vulnerable to attack: the Woodland Trust is currently aware over 600 woods currently under threat, which have nothing more than the NPPF to protect them.

Whether you’re interested in the cultural, environmental, and even poetic implications of woods which have survived for hundreds of years, it seems extraordinary to permit our Government to treat them in such a cavalier manner – for the sake of a quarry, or a petrol station. If Eric Pickles announced that he was going to tear down Blenheim or Hampton Court Palace to make room for a motorway, I imagine the nation would be fairly exercised by the prospect of its loss. We need to start thinking about our landscape, and our natural heritage, in comparable terms – particularly in the current environment, in which industries like fracking are being promoted so enthusiastically. The Government already has plans to let energy companies extract shale gas from beneath national parks; as it stands, ancient woodland barely has a chance.

And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.
I would not change it.


As You Like It Act II.I


“Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure” by Artemis Cooper

In her biography, Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, Artemis Cooper has achieved something very special – to transmit the effervescent charm and joie de vivre of her subject in such a way as to give the reader a very real sense of having experienced it first-hand. It is an affectionate, fast-paced and entirely non-judgmental portrait of an extraordinary life. As Robert Macfarlane puts it, PLF appears at the end more glorious for the faint tarnish he acquires in its course. There is tarnish; flaws are revealed unflinchingly – and the heroic figure who has been mythologised since he strode out across Europe emerges as an extraordinarily gifted, rather fragile, swashbuckling buccaneer.

When I first read A Time of Gifts earlier this year, I conjured a very clear image in my mind of what PLF must have been like. Magnificent, charming, perhaps a little naive, striding through pre-War Europe with almost no money and nothing to recommend him but his irresistible personality. There is always that sense of mystery, too – he never reveals more than would be chivalrous about the women he encounters, and whilst one gets the impression that his childhood was not necessarily an easy one, his consequent insecurities are not examined. Artemis Cooper gives flesh to this literary persona in the most affectionate way; reading her book is to feel entirely immersed in both PLF’s world and his character.

It is self-evident from the network of generous friends he made throughout Europe that he was possessed of the kind of enchanting, extrovert charm which endeared him to (most) people. What Artermis Cooper does so successfully, though, is to reveal a personality of light and shade. His experiences at school, coupled with an absent father and the manically inconsistent affections of his mother, left him with fundamental insecurities as a young man. Despite his eidetic memory and hungry intelligence he had been convinced that his peculiar cocktail of bookishness and boisterous was worth very little – it was only by abandoning England entirely and setting off across Europe that he began to relish his abilities and to satisfy his appetite for living. It was during these travels that he forged friendships with the noble families of a dying Europe (connections which would colour the rest of his life) and fell in love for the first time, with a woman sixteen years his senior. As AC puts it, Balasha was touched by Paddy’s youth, and saw that his erratic brilliance was in need of some polish. His love of a party and willingness to become embroiled in a pace of life he could not afford did not appeal to everyone – Somerset Maugham once witheringly described him as that middle class gigolo for upper-class women – and his fondness for fun made him careless with other people’s feelings on occasion. Without either fighting his corner or passing judgment, Cooper demonstrates that this was perhaps the inevitable accompaniment to the force of his personality – a man who shone with joy is a thing of extremes.

On the other side of that exuberant coin were bouts of depression. His gorgeously dense prose did not always come easily, and the difficulty he had in finishing his books exacerbated those periods of melancholy. The early pages of A Time to Keep Silence articulate that beautifully. What that book doesn’t mention, though, is Paddy’s reliance not just on monastic solitude, but also on his wife Joan when it came to managing his depression.

The description of their relationship is lovingly, but very honestly, drawn. Like Basha, Joan was older than Paddy – the Wendy to his Peter Pan, as AC puts it – and although an adventurous, independent sole in her own right, and a very talented photographer, she was a steadier soul. AC describes how she would sit in a bar, contentedly wrapped in her own thoughts, whilst PLF held court during long drinking sessions. Her scrupulously catalogued photographs were crucial prompts for his writing, and she almost always insisted in being written out of his stories. They didn’t marry for many years and never had children – and, in the strictest sense, their relationship was not truly exclusive until they finally wed in 1963, despite the fact that she essentially funded this life-style from her own trust fund in the years before he was making any real money from his writing. There is a wonderful dit about them finding the Mediterranean heat too strong one evening as they were trying to dine, prompting them to carry their table into the sea until they were sitting waist-deep in cool water. It comes across as a unique,very loving relationship, seemingly founded on loyalty and a shared sense of fun – I would thoroughly enjoy reading a book dedicated to their shared story.

AC’s book is as exciting and full of anecdotes as Paddy’s life, built upon interviews with his friends, private letters, PLF’s writing, and her own meticulous research. He famously captured a German General during the War; was fundamental to the Cretan resistance; scaled Peruvian mountains in his 50s; waged war on tongue cancer; and swam the Hellespont when he was 69. There are reams of hilarious and heart-warming tales, and above all Paddy emerges as a man who felt an imperative to wring joy from every moment. It is a masterclass in turning one’s own story into an adventure. We may not all be able to match his feats of courage or his vivacity, but PLF, channelled by AC, certainly inspires you to try.

Hadrian’s Way and the joys of walking

Neil and I arrived at the end of Hadrian’s Way on Friday evening, sore but very content. I am so fond of spending days walking through the countryside, pack on back, and am growing to love it even more as the years go by, and as I find myself caring more deeply about the English countryside. For a few days everything slips away in the rhythm of the trail, and the modern demand for distraction is replaced by attention to maps and stiles and aching feet. I can’t claim that I ever quite manage to forget about the difficulties of work, but it’s much harder to interrogate the wisdom of going to law school all those years ago when you are trying to make your way to the top of an exceedingly steep hill. People say hello to one another as they pass, and when you see a familiar face from the trail in a pub, nobody asks what you do – they want to know how far you’ve walked, whether you’re camping, and how many days you’ve been on the go. Apart from posting a jubilant picture of Neil when Australian wickets started to fall on Thursday, I didn’t go anywhere near Facebook, and I didn’t plug myself into my music – as I usually do every day to distance myself from the traffic or other people in the gym.

I have always had a tendency to drift about not really looking at things, and this holiday made a conscious effort to try to change that. As a result, I spotted scores of tiny frogs creeping through the long-grass at the edges of Cumbrian fields and plump slugs scattering the footpath – which I would certainly have missed in previous years. The new focus was a welcome development – every philosophy of happiness I’ve come across talks about the importance of living in the moment rather than worrying about the past or future. Forget mindfulness – slug-counting is the thing.

Lots has been written about the philosophy of walking and the importance it can have in people’s lives (I intend to read Frederic Gros’ book shortly) – for me it is the perfect way to quieten my mind; untangle worries; experience the world at a gentler pace; and to find that you can still walk for miles without seeing another human being, should you wish to. It is also the ideal justification for eating lots of custardy puddings.

Kilvert’s Diary is proving to be the perfect back-to-work antidote. From what I have read so far, Reverend Francis Kilvert spent a great deal of time yomping through the countryside around Clyro, with a flask of wine and some apples in his pocket. “Struck over the top of the Vicar’s Hill and as I passed Cross Ffordd the frogs were croaking, snoring, and bubbling in the pool under the full moon.” Even if I can’t strike out across the fields for a few weeks now, this lively diary from the 1870s is sure to keep my spirits up.
Hadrian's Way_n