Sunday 4 September 2011
Brian Viner: Let's hear it for autumn – my favourite season of all
Some may mourn, but our writer explains why, for him, the pumpkin-soup mug is always half full
Autumn is upon us. The pedants might cling to the notion that summer is not officially over until the autumnal equinox towards the end of September, but most of us know better than to waffle on about the tilt of the earth's axis. That's not what announces autumn. It's the renewed traffic chaos of the school run that announces autumn; the sexy new TV schedules; the first full month of the football season.
For some of us, moreover, the beginning of September is not merely the start of autumn, but effectively the start of the year. The calendar might suggest otherwise, but the children's return to school after what my 86-year-old mother still refers to as "the long vac" means a restored sense of shape and discipline to the working week. As the old leaves start to fall from the trees, there arrives the figurative opportunity to turn over new leaves. September, not January, is the time for personal resolutions.
Not everyone likes autumn. For some, it trumpets the relentless march towards winter, towards four o'clock dusks, icy pavements and yet another series of Strictly Come Dancing. But those people are instinctive pessimists, whose mug of pumpkin soup is always half empty and never half full.
For me, autumn is the best of the seasons. Wood smoke on a bright autumnal afternoon is my favourite smell, apples and pears my favourite fruits, browns and oranges my favourite colours in nature's palette.
It is also a season that includes my birthday, which, this year, happens to be a significant one. If each of the four seasons can optimistically be said to represent 25 years in a life span, then on 25 October I'll be moving from the late summer of my days into the early autumn.
Of course, 50 is just a number. It shouldn't make this autumn any more meaningful than last year's or next. But to compound the feeling that I'm reaching a milestone on the long and winding road of life, the eldest of my three children is preparing to leave for university. For her, too, autumn means fresh and exciting opportunities: new friends; new netball teammates; new nightclubs; new cocktails. Oh yes, and new academic challenges.
"New", of course, is not by definition a good thing. As a child, the start of the autumn term meant a trip with my mother to the school outfitters, Rawcliffes, to buy a blazer. And in the 1970s, which come to think of it was a browny-orange, altogether autumnal kind of decade, no purchase was made without a calculation for what my mum and everyone else's mum called "growing room". What happened to growing room? Now, when my wife buys school blazers for our sons, they fit. Back then, I was lucky if my knuckles showed.
Nevertheless, despite the annual sartorial humiliation, I loved autumn as much then as I love it now, partly because it presaged not just my birthday – which itself usually coincided, excitingly, with October half-term and a chance to get out of that damn blazer for a week – but also a hugely anticipated annual treat, the trip to Blackpool Illuminations.
Now, Bill Bryson in his enduringly delightful 1995 book Notes From a Small Island does rather skewer the reputation of Blackpool's famous light spectacular, a fixture on the promenade since 1902. "I thought there would be lasers sweeping the sky, strobe lights tattooing the clouds and other gasp-making dazzlements," he wrote. "Instead there was just a rumbling procession of old trams decorated as rocket ships or Christmas crackers, and several miles of paltry decorations on lampposts. I suppose if you had never seen electricity in action, it would be pretty breathtaking, but I'm not even sure of that."
I can't really argue with that cruel assessment of "Blackpool Lights", as my boyhood friends and I knew the illuminations. Indeed, I took my daughter and three of her mates to Blackpool three autumns ago, and saw the lights afresh through the young and unimpressed eyes of the Facebook and iPod generation. They chortled at the very idea that I might once have been entertained by so mundane a spectacle. Bill Bryson would have been proud of them.
Nevertheless, the illuminations thrilled me at the time, and probably play some kind of subliminal role in my excitement about the onset of autumn now. Besides, the gasp-making dazzlements that Bryson was denied on Blackpool prom are plentiful enough in the Herefordshire countryside, where I now live, and which is at its spectacular best as the trees begin to change colour.
It is nine years since we moved out of London, and diehard metropolitans will call me insufferably smug for suggesting that autumn is much more meaningful out here in the sticks. Do I think that the colours aren't also marvellous on Hampstead Heath, or that freshly-picked apples don't taste as crisply delicious in Crouch End as they do in the Welsh Marches?
Well, no, but every season is more vivid in the countryside, especially autumn, when mushrooms appear in the woods, when the harvest is manifest in every orchard and field, and, slightly less charmingly, when every car journey can take 20 minutes longer because of the potato lorries trundling along. Nothing trundles quite like a potato lorry.
Still, this proper working relationship with the land hereabouts makes the harvest festival a genuine celebration. At their primary school in London, my kids took in the ritual tins as their harvest festival offerings, to be donated to the poor and needy, which possibly made them wonder how needy you would have to be to eat spaghetti hoops with pilchards. Here, by contrast, there is a harvest auction every October at my local pub, to which villagers donate the produce they have harvested: apples, pears, potatoes, beetroot, beans, marrows, with not a tin of pilchards to be seen. And that is another autumnal pleasure; digging and picking the last of the summer crops, tying in next summer's raspberry canes, preparing the ground and planting the tulip bulbs for spring.
But I wouldn't want you to get the wrong idea of me, as some kind of adopted horny-handed son of the soil. Nine years of country living might have taught me the difference between first-early and main-crop potatoes, but they haven't stopped me being a couch potato, and from the comfort of the sofa too the autumn looks like the best time of year, as the broadcasters seek to outgun each other in the schedules.
In truth, they don't keep their powder dry for autumn quite as they used to; The Hour, the BBC's highly-praised drama, was unveiled in July, which telly executives would once have regarded as a kiss of death. But the BBC has held plenty back for September, while the second series of Downton Abbey, about lives and loves above and below stairs in a big house during the First World War, is the main ammunition in ITV's autumn barrage.
And then there's sport. The hateful transfer window has shut on Premier League football, and the clubs have to make the best of the players they've got, which means at least an approximation of a level playing field until the window opens in January. Plus, this year, we have six weeks of rugby union's World Cup to look forward to, beginning on Friday in New Zealand, where unfortunately for them they've just embarked on spring, not a bad season, but not a patch on wood smoke-scented, browny-orange, back-to-school, leaf-dropping autumn.
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