September Song: It's time to celebrate the Queen of Months
The summer's gone – and everything's suddenly coming back to life. Michael Bywater writes in praise of our most glorious time of year
Saturday 04 September 2010
It's over. It's starting. Thank Copernicus and Galileo and, above all, Isaac Newton.
Before them, all you could do was hope. Now we know. They gave us a mechanism, a system, predictability. The earth went round the sun. Seasons came. You could count on them. No more shuddering in midwinter, wondering whether it really was midwinter and, if it was, whether there was going to be a spring this year, or perhaps it would cut straight to the August droughts, or maybe even roll back to November, again and again and again, so perhaps the thing to do would be to sacrifice something, now, with a knife and a ritual.
Now we could be certain. Spring, summer, autumn, winter. In that order. As mechanistically and relentlessly as a provincial council parking enforcer. No intelligence required. The Universe ceased to be capricious and declared itself (like a provincial council parking enforcer) entirely satisfied with the way it conducted its operations.
Except here. White Christmas? Maybe. More likely, mild, with rain. Flaming June? Perhaps. Rumour had it that June was bustin' out all over, but that was elsewhere. Here? More likely mild, with rain. November? Not quite so mild, with rain and darkness. February? Mercifully short. And so it went, and so it still goes.
Except for one British month. A strangely neglected month, seldom sung, not really noticed until suddenly, one day, as with that one girl in the corner, you realise that you are in the presence of beauty and wonder why you'd never noticed.
If there was ever a month you could fall in love with, it's September. And like real beauty, September wears her glories subtly. To appreciate her (and if ever there were a female month, it's September) it's necessary to gaze directly, with a new eye. Look out of the window. Look at the light: the sun low enough to cast shadows, like side-lit danseuses, but not yet veiled and peremptory. Smell the air: dust and the first trace of wood smoke, the silver ghost of a dormant frost moon. The scent of September is the scent of creosote, privet, warm stone and the strange, cleaned smell of traffic on the evening streets. September mornings are alive with promise. The air lies slantwise, a slight pinch of chill with the windows open in the evening and the murmur and laughter in the streets below. Other months we hope our way through like gruff men with sticks and a purpose, or loll, stiff and unaccustomed, like chrysalids. Only September is now. For once in the year, we're here and we're happy.
Partly, perhaps, it's a question of distance. September is far enough away from anything momentous that it can exercise a peaceful self-containment. What's past are the monstrosities of the hols, the wretched diaspora of people who live their lives for the times when they're not part of them. "The Great Getaway," as the man from the RAC announces every time he gets the chance, but nobody ever questions the nature of an existence whose main reward is to get away from it from it for a while. All the anxiety of choice, the horrors of Thomson and the EasyJet queue at Gatwick, the plastic bags and 100cc bottles, the kiddies not as excited as they'd hoped, the men uneasy in the striped leisure-shirts bought by their wives, the wives soothing the uneasy men or petitioning to be loved or at least acknowledged. "When did we last go on holiday?" said the woman on the Cambridge to London train a couple of weeks back when it was still August, to her husband, natty and ill-at-ease in his careful chinos; "Just the two of us. Just together?" "France," he grunted. "Gosh," she said, "10 years ago." She smiled in that hopeful appeasing way. "I'm excited," she said. He turned a page of his Times. She became smaller. "Please don't read the paper," she said.
Needed a slap, of course. What did she expect? Silly thing. Too much hope crammed into too little space: a suitcase, a hotel room, the Euros not going that far even with the very reasonable wine and then there's the UV damage to the epidermis, now that the sun gives you cancer. What did she expect?
It's hell, the summer getaway. It's doing a geographical, when what you should be getting away from is the people you spend the rest of the year doing it all for, and they think they're doing it all for you, too. It's an ending, a runner, the climax, and like all climaxes it provokes an instant opposite, the balloon deflating, the smile becoming fixed and rigid. Here we are, we think, and is this IT?
Yes. And it's got worse. "Have a good week," they used to say, meaning Southport, perhaps, or Bridlington or Filey or Angmering. Now they say, "Have a good summer?" It stretches out. People yoked by vows and by blood spending all their time together. It's unnatural. You can see them thinking: Who are these people?
And then comes September. The world resumes turning. People come back, shell-shocked. They've been bored. Those at work have been resenting those not, because they can't get anything done. Then they change places and resentments. But now it's September, and they're all back. Time to get stuff on the road. New beginnings. Sharpen up our act. We think it's because we're refreshed from our vacation, reinvigorated after the languors of summer, but it's not. It's because we're relieved. And because it's September. Christmas may be skulking round the corner with a sock full of wet sand – hell, in nine weeks' time it'll all be going tits-up in a welter of alcopops, hair product, testosterone and mottled thighs – but we haven't cottoned on. September, not spring, is the new beginning.
It starts when we're young. September is the start of the new school year, new subjects, new clothes, new four-colour Biro, new hope. This year I'll work hard. This year I'll get into the team. This year I'll get a girlfriend. This year I'll not fuck up. Then university: even if there's no point, second-string in Clearing, no funding, no job, no point, it's still new, coming down the highway, new jeans and Mum proud as punch, off in a couple of weeks to start a new life in a strange town. September is the year's birthday.
It's the time when the fairs go on the move. When I was a boy there was September magic in the Nottingham air: candy-floss and neon, music from the calliopes fighting with pop from the waltzer, candyfloss and toffee-apples and mushy green peas with mint. This year Dad might let me go on the Rotor: a giant barrel which spun round and then the floor dropped away and you STUCK to the WALL! Like a FLY! You could hear the Goose Fair coming throughout September, in the distance, like a lonely train crossing the prairie at night.
And Goose Fair was only one iteration, a secular one. Christians may have moved their great festivals forward to synchronise with Yole and Eostre, but Muslims emerge cleansed and, if my Islamic friends are typical, almost ecstatic from the strange beguiling disciplines of Ramadan into the three days of Eid-ul-Fitr on the same day that Jews begin Rosh Hashanah, the two-days-which-count-as-one New Year and the beginning of the 10 days of penitence culminating in Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, when slates are wiped clean, debts paid or forgiven, and fresh starts are made. Hindus celebrate Krishna Janmashtami, Krishna's birthday, the exemplar of heroism and mischief. And then the world turns. On the 23rd of September, the Equinox. Day and night in perfect balance, then toppling irrevocably towards winter. But for the moment, we are suspended in the light and abundance: locus refrigerii, lucis et pacis of the Lapidary prayers, the place of refreshment, of light and peace.
In the cities there's a sense of something in the air; nobody knows what it is but there's a vast harvest moon at the end of High Holborn as though the end of the world has come and it's beautiful. In the countryside, the apple-trees are bending low with Bountiful, Arthur Turner, Charles Ross, Cox's Orange Pippin, Ellison's Orange, Greensleeves, Kay, Limelight, Peasgood's Nonsuch, Pitmaston Pine, Queen Cox, Red Devil, Red Windsor, Reverend Wilks, Scrumptious, Suntan and Yellow Ingestrie ... not to mention Concorde pears and Shinseiki. Victoria plums and blackberries ripen, Penny Bun fungi are plucked from the Yorkshire countryside, crabs and lobsters almost leap into the pot and the native oysters rejoice in their grim fate (or so we choose to believe) along with mallard, pheasant and partridge, and salsify, celeriac, pumpkins and chestnuts wait to accompany them. Life is on the turn again. Here's the Ryder Cup heading inexorably for the vast Celtic Manor Resort, a crazed-looking giant blockhouse brooding over the M4 on the way to Newport. Here are the arts approaching their annual harvest: the Booker, the Mercury Prize, the run-up to the Turner shortlist. Look! A new Robert Plant album! And over there: Tristan und Isolde, and Birdsong at the theatre, and Benedict in Birmingham, the Prada Pope. Here's the Venice Film Festival, here's Black Swan and The Switch and Dinner for Schmucks, here's George Michael in court, here's Lord Taylor of Warwick in court, here's broccoli, spinach, green beans and flageolets, conferences of coppers and vice-chancellors, the Enigma reunion of Bletchley Park codebreakers, the TUC, the Royal Television Society, London Fashion Week and those B-I-I-I-G issues of Vogue and the first stirrings of the political conferences, big beasts beasting and the movers and shakers grabbing ass and necking bevvies and in general hanging, man, with the people they really enjoy being with: their homies. Their colleagues. Spring? To hell with spring. Spring is when the world gets its mojo on. September is when things are born.
Yet behind it all lies the anticipation of the delicious melancholy of autumn. September is the time to listen to Mahler, to walk across the park at dusk, to fly a small aeroplane through an anticyclone sky smooth as glass and notice for the first time in your life – as you notice it for the first time in your life every year – the colour of the world. "Russet," you murmur to yourself, then run out of words because words don't meet the bill in September. It's the month to fall in love; the girls whose skins have been glowing on show all summer are beginning to wrap up, the first hint of cashmere, the first misting of breath in the nippy evenings, the first little pink noses poking out of a swathe of scarves – dear God, if the girls ever realised how enchanting a pink nose was, the make-up industry would collapse for ever – so that we can at last imagine what they're like underneath it all, and imagine ourselves tucking them up and bringing them little cups of soup and soothing them and eventually (play our cards right) get what all men really want: that they should find lying in our arms compelling and want to stay there forever. (But even if they only stayed there for September it would be ... almost enough.)
The world may be preparing for its winter sleep. But now it's awake, shaking itself, stretching languorously, looking about. We're alive. The summer's over. It's beginning.
Hooray! The country is limbering up, ready for a busy month.
The big beasts and new intake return from holiday on Monday, with renewed ambition, to resume hostilities in the Commons. The election of the new Labour leader should shake up PMQs, while Nick Clegg must placate rebellious grassroots.
The first major Gauguin exhibition at the Tate in more than 50 years, with Turner Prize winner Rachel Whiteread also showing. Then there's the Liverpool Biennial and the Royal Academy's Treasures from Budapest, with European masterpieces from Leonardo to Schiele.
Whether they be for headmistresses, scientists, politicos or members of the Enigma Reunion of Bletchley Park code-breakers, the September conferences are the chance for like-minded individuals to meet, gossip, drink and get carried away.
Launch parties for Jonathan Franzen, Robbie Williams, the Stig, our own Andy McSmith's history of the 80s, and releases from Stephen Hawking and John le Carré.
The Papal state visit
His Holiness's four-day tour begins on 16 September. The Pontiff (above right) will beatify Cardinal John Henry Newman, and meet the Queen – and noisy protestors.
Celebrities in court
George Michael (awaiting sentencing for driving under the influence), Paris Hilton (alleged possession of cocaine) and Lord Taylor of Warwick (six counts of false accounting) will keep court scribes busy.
After Venice, there's Toronto, increasingly used by studios as a platform for the awards season.
The Mercury Music Prize will be awarded, and the shortlists for the Booker and Turner Prize are released.
The peak of the festival season may have passed but the Isle of Wight's Bestival will close the season and Robert Plant releases a new album.
After New York we get London Fashion Week before the fashion focus moves on to Milan and Paris.
Rachel Wagstaff's stage adaptation of the Sebastian Faulks novel Birdsong comes to the London West End and the Broadway comedy-thriller Deathtrap plays at the Noel Coward Theatre. John Simm plays Hamlet in Sheffield and Michael Gambon plays Samuel Beckett's "wearish old man" in Krapp's Last Tape at the Duchess in London.
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