Autumn comes but once a year

Branch

The season turns. I wear a jacket for the first time in months, with a faint but definite sensation of relief. Strolling around in a shirt is fine—but where do you put things? In summer, I always have to carry a bag, not least because a good many shirt makers seem unacquainted with the concept of pockets. In any case: book, phone, notebook, memory sticks, black pen, red pen, pencil (rubber, pencil sharpener), tissues, sugar free sweets? What you need, my man, is a jacket.

We have had a week of uneasy, rather schizophrenic weather, some of it quite lively—though even the reported 70 m.p.h. around Avonmouth would likely seem a soothing breeze to the poor, battered Caribbean and southern United States. Yesterday, though, when I walked through the park, everything was so calm, bright, untroubled, so normal, that I experienced one of my apocalyptic moments. Unsurprisingly, these occur more often these days, given the last fifteen months or so and tend to consist of images of mayhem overlaying the scene in front of my eyes, the mown grass, trimmed flowerbeds, relaxed adults, playing children, gambolling dogs somehow provoking and evoking their opposite. That opposite is, of course, the ‘normal’ for a great many people: if not barrel bombs, snipers and nerve gas, then insufficient food, filthy water, inadequate shelter. And, always, the fear.

But in Bath, again, there are crowds of people at their ease, tourists from every part of the world as well as locals revelling in what may be one of the last really warm days of the year. We thread our way through, reach the bookshop, head directly home again.

New-Books

I revisit George Orwell’s essay ‘Inside the Whale’, looking at his explanation of why the young British writers in the thirties had turned to Communism, one of which was ‘the softness and security of life in England itself’. ‘With all its injustices,’ Orwell went on, ‘England is still the land of habeas corpus, and the overwhelming majority of English people have no experience of violence or illegality.’[1] This is still true, of course, though Orwell would find the current state of the country rather more worrying than he did then, I suspect, even though his essay was published in March 1940. The ordeal of the Blitz was still to come yet, bad as that was, other countries—Poland, Japan, China, Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union and, of course, Germany itself—fared far worse.

Yes, we have been lucky: but that luck has had its negative effects. One is an enduring fixation on the Second World War and a largely mythical version of our country’s role in it. This oddly skewed version of history, with its inflated view of our current relative importance in the world is constantly reinforced by the virulently anti-EU and anti-immigration sections of the press. Yet we also see, on an almost daily basis, a markedly tangential relation to reality displayed by some senior politicians, including cabinet ministers. Elsewhere, there seems a curious sense of paralysis and exhaustion, as if a period of extreme complexity and challenge were ended, rather than barely begun. Almost a century ago, John Maynard Keynes, in the aftermath of the First World War, wrote:

Keynes_Consequences

‘In this autumn of 1919, in which I write, we are at the dead season of our fortunes. The reaction from the exertions, the fears, and the sufferings of the past five years is at its height. Our power of feeling or caring beyond the immediate questions of our own material well-being is temporarily eclipsed. The greatest events outside our own direct experience and the most dreadful anticipations cannot move us.’[2]

There are dreadful anticipations enough. But, as the saying goes, we must bet: we are in the game. Okay, not actually a saying: this is Pascal on the ‘wager’ of whether or not God exists. (The comments that ‘Reason cannot decide anything. There is an infinite chaos separating us’ seem worryingly topical.)[3]

It is this we learn after so many failures,
The building of castles in sand, of queens in snow,

That we cannot make any corner in life or in life’s beauty,
That no river is a river which does not flow.[4]

 

References

[1] George Orwell, ‘Inside the Whale’, in A Patriot After All: 1940-1941, edited by Peter Davison, revised and updated edition (London: Secker and Warburg, 2000), 103.

[2] John Maynard Keynes, The Economic Consequences of the Peace (London: Macmillan, 1919), 278.

[3] Blaise Pascal, Pensées and Other Writings, translated by Honor Levi (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 154; the English phrasing is more that of John Fowles, in The Aristos (London: Pan Books, 1968), 220.

[4] Louis MacNeice, ‘Autumn Journal’, in Collected Poems, edited by Peter McDonald (London: Faber, 2007), 102.

 

 

August and blackberrying

Orpen, William, 1878-1931; Harvest

William Orpen, Harvest (1918), © Imperial War Museum.
The ambiguities of autumn enlarged: war and peace, life and death.

August. High summer, though you’d hardly know it as the rainclouds roll over the house and the showers come and go. The first day of August, in fact. Lammas, hlafmaesse, ‘loaf-mass’. First fruits, harvest. Hurry into your local church with the bread and the wheat.[1] ‘After Lammas corn ripens as much by night as by day.’[2]

The harvest (a word related in origin to ‘autumn’) has been, is still, quite literally a matter of life and death for a great many people. It’s been a rich source for the horror genre too, both on the screen and on the page (Stephen King, Thomas Tryon, The Harvest, Dark Harvest, Blood Harvest, and more, no doubt). And it has its visionary or mystical moments. Poet and playwright Ronald Duncan, a pacifist, ran a co-operative farm in Devon during the Second World War. He recalled of an August day in 1940 that, ‘Binding up these sheaves of oats, I am certain I believe in oats. The stalks falling behind the cutter which we draw behind an old car, the monk binding methodically, the new members binding enthusiastically, women with coloured scarves round their heads are gleaning and one cannot glean ungracefully. If one cannot see God in an oatfield one will never see. For, here is the whole of it.’[3]

West-Mill-Welcombe-Devon

West Mill, Welcombe, Devon: http://www.literaryplaces.co.uk/?p=147

‘Standing there in the morning happiness,’ T. H. White recalled, ‘with a saffron sky in the east and the moon in the south-west still lemon yellow, beside a field where the harvest had already begun, one saw in the mind’s eye the imaginary lines all over England: the roads coming up macadamized to the invisible threads, and going on as stone, the ditches suddenly changing from cut to uncut, the parishes and territories and neighbours’ landmarks: all slept at peace now, all this beautiful achievement of cooperation and forethought among our fathers who were at peace also, in dust.’[4]

Light-in-August-US-1932

Over the years, William Faulkner’s 1932 novel, Light in August provoked a good deal of discussion over the meaning of its title. Lena Grove is heavily pregnant at the novel’s opening and Faulkner was once asked at the University of Virginia whether his title did indeed refer to a ‘colloquialism for the completion of a pregnancy’. He said no, it was to do with the peculiar quality of light in that month.[5] In his biography of Faulkner, Joseph Blotner tells of the novelist sitting with his wife Estelle in the late afternoon. ‘“Bill,” she said, “does it ever seem to you that the light in August is different from any other time of the year?”’ In this account, Faulkner goes directly to his worktable, crosses out his working title for the novel, ‘Dark House’ and replaces it with ‘Light in August’. It has to be said, though, that Faulkner was largely responsible for the later uncertainty over the ‘meaning’ of his title.[6]

This morning, I noticed a tiny stain on the shoulder of the shirt I wore yesterday: blackberry juice. We’d been wading in among the brambles and nettles for the second time in a few days. Blackberrying is ‘the one almost universal act of foraging to survive in our industrialised island’, Richard Mabey writes.[7] The country in the city, so to speak. We pick them on a path which certainly isn’t hidden. There’s a fair amount of traffic but only by foot and bicycle—there’s no motor traffic nearby which is the main consideration, since we object to being poisoned. Still, it’s odd that quite a few passers-by seem baffled by what we’re doing and hurry their children past. (‘What are they doing, mummy?’ ‘Picking delicious free food, dear, I’ve no idea why.’) Blackberry and apple crumble: even the words taste good.

Gash, Walter Bonner, 1869-1928; Two Girls Picking Blackberries*

Walter Bonner Gash, Two Girls Picking Blackberries
© Alfred East Art Gallery Permanent Collection

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking.

The speaker in Heaney’s poem recalls how quickly the blackberries would rot. ‘Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.’[8]

Blackberries

And we have thorn pricks, nettle stings, stained hands. Still—two and a half kilos of blackberries in the freezer. Kilos! What am I saying? That may be a little too foreign for these troubled time. Say five and a half pounds, avoirdupois—but there I go again. . .

I have, though, called to mind a story that Ford Madox Ford told, which seems to me to hint at why some people chose the option that they did in last year’s referendum (and perhaps in more than one election since). Ford was, for a brief time, working on a small farm on the outskirts of Philadelphia. His employer eventually hired another worker, which released Ford from his labours. He was stopping up a wasp’s nest one day, while the hired man was on the roof, fixing the shingles.

I heard him call:
“I’m coming down now.”
I said: “Wait while I fetch a ladder.” When I came back he was lying on the ground.
He said: “I’ve bruck me leg.”
I said: “What did you jump for?”
He answered: “Wal, I thought I’d see.”[9]

 

References

[1] Steve Roud, The English Year: A Month-by-Month Guide to the Nation’s Customs and Festivals, from May Day to Mischief Night (London: Penguin Books, 2006), 260-261.

[2] Bonnie Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Companion to the Year (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 315.

[3] Ronald Duncan, Journal of a Husbandman (London: Faber and Faber, 1944), 52-53.

[4] T. H. White, The Goshawk (1951; Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1975), 39.

[5] Cleanth Brooks, William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966), 375.

[6] Joseph Blotner, William Faulkner : A Biography, two volumes (London: Chatto & Windus, 1974), I, 702 and ‘Notes’, 102.

[7] Richard Mabey, Flora Britannica (London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1996), 183.

[8] Seamus Heaney, ‘Blackberry-Picking’, Death of a Naturalist (1966; London: Faber and Faber, 2006), 8.

[9] Ford, Return to Yesterday: Reminiscences 1894-1914 (London: Victor Gollancz, 1931), 166-167.