Sunday, April 19, 2020.

Woken by wood pigeons pecking in the gutters for moss and leaves to line their nest. They go at it like bargain hunters rummaging in a sale. The hills are hidden by mist and as we have breakfast, the village green is empty, apart from two scampering young squirrels, getting their hour’s daily exercise. A glossy male pheasant hurries down the lane as if he’s late for church. Yesterday he was making a racket in the next-door garden, as if he owned the place. Once he’s gone, nothing stirs in Hoolet until mid-morning, when a cyclist goes past, bent over her narrow wheels like a racer in a Sempé cartoon. Shortly afterwards, a police car drives by. The sun has burned off the mist, and by eleven it almost feels like summer. Sundays are always leisurely here, but since lockdown, they stretch to infinity.

A week after arriving in Hoolet, I started a diary. It is not the sort that the writer secretly hopes will be found posthumously and published as a literary masterpiece, more a haphazard reminder of how we have adjusted to a different mode of living, and a record of the people and wildlife around us.

Real diarists have a natural ability to condense the essence of a day into a few lines, but they put as much thought into their prose as any novelist or poet. In some ways theirs is an even harder task, because it requires a special kind of imagination and flair to turn the everyday – each and every day – into something noteworthy.

The proliferation of citizen diarists airing their thoughts on the coronavirus crisis has turned my mind to diaries. My own random jottings occasionally refer to the crisis, but there is something paralysing about its scale that makes it hard to capture in the passing, seemingly casual way diarising requires. Instead, I am absorbed by the outdoors: the new hole I’ve found among the roots of the beech hedge – foraging thrush or resident rodent?; the absence of the toad that moved into our rockery two years ago; and the arrival of fat, low-flying bumblebees, which zig-zag across the garden, loud as drones.

The great diarists, from Pepys and Dorothy Wordsworth to Alan Bennett, don’t need a crisis to fill their pages, but when one comes along, their perspective is invaluable. History – as this awful situation one day will be – is at its most immediate when captured in small personal details demonstrating one individual getting by. That’s why I enjoy diaries so much, and there are none I like better than those that are country-based.

This wasn’t always the case. I remember as a girl a book whose flowery cover filled me with the same dread as the thought of being obliged to wear a flouncy frock. The Diary of an Edwardian Lady was a bestseller in the late 1970s. A beautifully illustrated journal it was by Edith Holden, an artist from Birmingham. Reading it now, I realise what I was missing. The drawings of birds and plants are charming, and the entries show a woman after my own heart. The one for 23 April, 1906, reads: “Saw two live vipers which had been brought in from the moor; one of them was more than two feet long. The gentleman who had captured them handled them quite fearlessly, held up one by the back of the neck and forcing its mouth open with a stick, he showed me the two little pink fangs in the upper jaw. When on the ground they reared themselves up and hissed, and struck repeatedly at a walking stick placed in front of them.”

I’ve yet to see a snake in Hoolet, so have added that to the wish list. I did once almost step on an adder barefoot as a young child, in Tarland, Aberdeenshire, where it slithered out of the tree stump I was perched on. I got a closer look some years later, on a Borders forest track, where one was sunning itself. Like a fool, I got within touching distance, thinking it was dead, before it unfurled itself like a Catherine Wheel and disappeared into the undergrowth.

Living as I do with a diary anthologist, the house is filled with them. Among my favourites is the 18th-century clergyman, the Reverend James Woodforde, who lived in Norfolk. Better than any documentary, he brings his shire alive with accounts of chimneys going on fire, deaths on horseback, moonlit evenings when he’d go out for bibulous dinners he later regretted. Most pertinently for Alan this past 10 days when, with all dentists’ practices and dental hospitals indefinitely closed, desperate measures have been contemplated, Woodforde gives an account of having a tooth pulled in 1776. It was not a success: “he broke away a great Piece of my Gum and broke one of the Fangs of the Tooth it gave me exquisite Pain all the Day after and my Face swelled prodigiously”. He realised too late that the chap was no longer in his prime: “He is too old I think to draw Teeth, can’t see very well”.

Country diarists record fox hunts and deer stalking, tree-felling storms, village feuds, cake competitions and frog-spawnings, but there is relatively little about the great affairs of state. During World War One, for instance, Alice Dudney, from Lewes, reports her own war against slugs with far greater assiduity than what was taking place on the western front. I don’t think this was because country dwellers in previous centuries were less interested in the news, even if it sometimes arrived days or weeks after events. But back then, country living was hard. What was happening on your doorstep was of more pressing concern unless loved ones were in the firing line.

It’s quite the opposite in Hoolet. The few conversations now held – through a hedge, across a garden wall, or in passing up in the woods – are all about the pandemic, and the best stratagems for getting by. A diary on this subject alone risks deepening the gloom. Where better to find distraction and consolation than in what’s going on right outside the window? Such as the wonderful news that a blue tit has moved into the nest box on our garden shed – the original definition of Airbnb.

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