George Henry, Autumn: Glasgow Museums Resource Centre (GMRC)
First day of August. ‘Very lovely with calm lake,’ John Ruskin wrote at Brantwood of Coniston Water in 1884, ‘but the roses fading, the hay cut. The summer is ended. Autumn begun.’ It seems a little early. Still, in February of that year, Ruskin had given his lectures on ‘The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century’ and the details of weather that he’d entered in his diary in the intervening months tended to focus on darkness, fierce wind and heavy rain.
As Jeeves conveys the seasonal news to Bertie, at the opening of The Code of the Woosters: ‘There is a fog, sir. If you will recollect, we are now in autumn – season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.’ Literature not being his strong point, Bertie can only reply, ‘Season of what?’ John Keats—he of To Autumn fame—probably wrote the poem in the second or third week of September, in 1819, a more autumnal sort of date.
So here, in a manner of speaking, we all are (as Ford Madox Ford often had Henry James say). Not that we have a very clear idea of where we are, though the general direction of travel is, alas, only too obvious. There seem to be increasingly loud hints and assertions that this country might end up with no EU deal ‘by accident’. That is to say, we might be moving in the direction that the extremists have been angling for from the outset, a result to suit their ideologies, their unsavoury friends and perhaps their business plans too. I heard one of them, a notable reactionary, say on the radio a week or two back, apropos of something or other: ‘this is not what the people of this country voted for’. Careful with the negative there, I thought, since 63% of the British electorate didn’t vote to leave the European Union at all.
Jonathan Franzen once referred to ‘the one benefit of being a depressive pessimist, which is the propensity to laugh in dark times.’ There’s something in that though the laughter, like much else, is wearing a little thin of late. Even not particularly literary people have taken to quoting Yeats’s ‘The Second Coming’ (‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity’).
Certainly, I’ve more or less given up on the Labour leadership: the last few years should have resulted in nothing remaining of the Tories apart from some unsavoury stains on the floor. But that would have required an opposition to oppose instead of sniping, posturing and bitching among themselves, endlessly inventing new pretexts for internal wrangling.
I look back to Mollie Panter-Downes’ London War Notes: 1941, since the Second World War seems to be the period that so many people in this country are still totally and curiously fixated upon. ‘As a nation’, she wrote, ‘the British wear disaster more gracefully than they do victory.’ Well, that was then and this is now; and while there’s absolutely no danger of victory I strongly suspect that there will be no visible signs of grace when the magic moment comes.