Thomas Sutcliffe: Season of mists and melancholic musing

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The Independent Online

Is it only after the age of fifty that autumn begins to get depressing? I certainly can't remember it being like this when I was younger – and smoke in the air and a chilly morning seemed like a fresh kind of arrival rather than an unavoidable departure. It really wasn't hard to go along with the literature back then and treat the shortening of the days and the yellowing of the leaves as a kind of paradoxical refreshment of life, a season that was less brash and bumptious than spring, more philosophically productive than high summer and considerably less uncomfortable than winter.

Look at any book of quotations and you can find the sort of thing I have in mind. "Autumn is a second spring," says Albert Camus, " ...when every leaf is a flower". "No spring nor summer beauty hath such grace," adds John Donne, "As I have seen in one autumnal face." "What we lose in flowers we more than gain in fruits," argues Samuel Butler, drawing an explicit parallel between the seasonal cycle and the human lifespan.

But it all smacks a bit of whistling in the dark thisdoesn't it? Protesting too much, so that a thin moan of distress doesn't escape at the inexorable slipping away of yet another year. I haven't checked but I'd hazard a guess that these are not young men's lines – they're the consolatory lash-ups of writers looking hard for a silver lining in all that bronze.

And, yes, some of the most famous lines about autumn – Keats's "season of mists and mellow-fruitfulness" – are by a young writer, but also one with an unusually precocious sense of his own mortality. I'm no longer convinced anyway. It's still easy to see that autumn has its beauties, but a damn sight harder to appreciate them without a powerfully melancholy undertow. I prefer Tennyson these days, writing of how "Tears from the depth of some divine despair / Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes, / In looking on the happy autumn-fields, / And thinking of the days that are no more".

What Tennyson tacitly acknowledges without quite saying it ("Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean") is that the metaphor – of human life and seasonal cycle – isn't candidly honest. Because people are not deciduous trees, they're bedding plants, good for one season only – and by and large they blossom early. For every Philip Roth who flares just before leaf-fall into a prodigious blaze of colour, there are a thousand others who just slowly discolour.

Ripeness is all, sure, but what the hell do you do with over-ripeness or a failure to crop... with fruit left too long on the branch? And why are Tennyson's autumn fields happy? Because they get to have another go, I would suggest, and another after that. And when you realise that (as we all do, at heart) the trees' annual rehearsal of death can come to seem almost mocking – as it does in Sonnet 73, where Shakespeare writes of how "yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang / Upon those boughs which shake against the cold" (what a brilliant indecision that is, incidentally, with its ragged flutter of defoliation).

Trees flaunt this trick – to age and then rejuvenate – every year, and it's undeniably a beautiful one. But it's a lot easier to take when you're young enough to feel no real identity with them. And Shakespeare, unlike a lot of poets who take refuge in euphemistic talk of maturity and mellowing, understands that we're the leaf – sere and yellow – and not the branch. That's not us on the horizon, casting an attitude against the twilight. We're what's on the pavement underfoot.

Gaps in a corporate conscience

Only the most self-deluding consumer could have been surprised to discover that sweatshop child labour had been involved in the manufacture of Gap clothing. Sub-contracting and outsourcing have always been the quickest way to cleanse a corporate conscience. But even the most cynical consumers should have been shocked to learn that the company intended to destroy the offending garments – as if they harboured some contagious sweatshop virus. Wouldn't it have been better to let the children involved see the full profit from labour that had already been completed? It's bad enough to exploit the energies of such children, but even worse to waste them in a bit of corporate breast-beating.

* I lost interest in the royal blackmail story as soon as I saw the sum allegedly involved. £50,000 for a story involving oral sex and cocaine seemed such small change that only two conclusions were possible. Either the accused were village idiots and had not the first idea of the value of the information that had fallen into their hands. Or the royal blackmail victim was so minor that tabloid splashes would have to be accompanied by a box explaining who he or she was. And then I felt a mild pang of shame at having ever been interested in the first place, since my prurient interest (and that of others) was an essential element of the plot. What it would cost £50,000 to avoid was public humiliation rather than a jail sentence and the scale of that humiliation entirely depends on our avidity for such exposures. If nobody cared, neither would the victim. So, two men in the dock and about 50 million accomplices at large, all eagerly hoping more details will emerge in time.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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