John Sutherland: It's a long, long time from May to September – but it's certainly worth the wait

Poets and musicians fall over each other in the rush to celebrate autumn. Our writer joins them
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The platitude of the season this year is about the season – "autumn's come a bit early, don't you think?". Everyone seems to be saying it. Even Sian Lloyd and those other weather people.

But at least, they reassure us, it looks as if we'll get an Indian summer: what the Germans, in their teutonically precise way, call a Nachsommer (after summer). In Russia, Professor Google informs me, it's called "old women's summer". Because, one assumes, the aged biddies can finally make themselves useful by stacking the firewood for the Siberian winter ahead.

But even the omniscient web-prof can't tell me why it's called "Indian summer" in the English-speaking world. The phrase is known to have originated in America. But no one, it seems, knows why native Americans are associated with this seasonal bonus. None the less, everyone knows what Indian summer means: golden days and cool nights – the latter drawing in, as the British say, usually with a little sigh.

All four seasons have their songs, but none, I think, has lovelier songs than autumn. Is there three minutes' more beautiful jazz than George Shearing's laconic piano version of "September in the Rain"? The lyrics can be quite happily dispensed with: they're banal:

The leaves of brown came tumbling down

That September

That September in the rain...

But the imagery of title, and the haunting sadness of the tune, etch themselves on the sensibility. It gives you the shivers. I like to think that, because he was blind, Shearing felt autumn, and that that feeling came through his fingers, colouring the melody sad.

This Shearingesque tinge of sadness is always there in songs about autumn. Another jazz standard (beloved, particularly, by tenor saxophonists) is "Autumn Leaves". Its lyrics are sublime:

The falling leaves drift by my window

The falling leaves of red and gold...

Since you went away the days grow long

And soon I'll hear old winter's song...

And what, exactly, is old winter's song? No more falling leaves, no more love, no more anything. Enjoy what's left while it's still here, and you're still here.

In New England "fall"(as autumn's crisply called over there) is dramatic. I remember waking up one morning in New Hampshire in late August (fall comes really early up there) feeling somehow strangely restless. The world outside didn't look different: the elms were still in leaf, the grass was green. But there was a palpable crispness in the air. A prickliness on the skin. There had been the first cold snap overnight. Not quite frost but a warning chill.

America is a country constantly in seething migration within itself, and one of its finest autumn anthems captures the ominous meaning of those little harbingers of "old winter" on its way. It's the country and western classic, the hobo's refrain, "Gotta Travel On", by Billy Grammer, accompanied by his driving steel guitar:

I've laid around and played around

This old town too long

Summer's almost gone, winter's coming on

And I feel like I've gotta travel on...

We live in a softer time than that immortalised by Grammer, who was thinking of the bleak 1930s. Nowadays tourists in New England travel north, week by week, to watch the leaves turn. The trees blaze, yellow and vivid red, as the first frosts hit. It's like a reverse forest fire.

None the less, in large parts of America that lingering wariness about autumn is still there. Winter, when it comes on, is not something you want to tangle with. It kills. The superannuated snowbirds in their RVs have got the message –they trundle down to Florida in winter and live for ever.

British autumns are gentler than those in the US. Everything is gentler in England, Orwell once said. If you've an American friend flying in from the East Coast this Christmas, ask them what struck them as they looked out of the window over Heathrow. Chances are they'll say "everything looks so green". If you're flying in the other direction, into JFK, anytime from November to March, what you'll see beneath is withered, brown and dead.

English autumn is not the season of death. Keats's great "Ode to Autumn" celebrates the season's life:

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,

Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;

Conspiring with him how to load and bless

With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;

To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,

And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;

To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells

With a sweet kernel...

The underlying image is that of love, sex, fruition. It's the pregnant time of year. And it's essentially unthreatening. Our winter is nothing to fear; it's just a few months' intermission between good times.

English autumn is, as Keats puts it, "mellow". But socially and historically it carries a strangely mixed message. If you have an undergraduate handy, ask him/her what they did over the "long vacation". The answers will vary. They may say they got a temporary job, went hitch-hiking in Russia, climbed in the Himalayas, or kept their nose to a book in the British Library. What they won't say is that they did what the long vacation was originally intended for. When, 500 years ago, the academic calendar was established those three months were built into it to allow strong young men to return to the fields and help in the harvest.

After everything was gathered in for the old rural communities, everyone would settle down and, wrapped up warm, sit out the winter. Despite the chill, autumn meant good things. Gathered harvests, full barns, apples in the apple drawer, cider in the vat, fruit preserved as jams and pickles, hams hanging, smoked from the rafters, plenty of wood in the shed outside. It was the annual rest between the labours of harvest and of planting.

But most of us, nowadays, don't live in the country. We live in towns and cities. Urban rhythms are quite different. September in the city is like a starting gun. School and college terms kick into life – frantically. You're supposed to have come back from the summer hols like a giant refreshed, and hit the ground running. It's confusing. Something deep inside, inherited from generations ago, says "rest, take it easy". But all the signals around tell us to get into crazy-hurry mode.

Shakespeare (a man of town and city) had the same oddly ambivalent attitude to autumn. He uses it as a striking metaphor in Antony and Cleopatra where, elegising her dead lover, the queen, herself soon to die, rhapsodises:

For his bounty,

There was no winter in't; an autumn 'twas

That grew the more by reaping...

Striking; but nonsense. What she's saying is that Antony's generosity to his dependants was a harvest that grew up stronger the more you cut it. Elsewhere, Shakespeare is more direct about autumn. As he contemplates his imminent end, after his beloved has (like Antony) committed suicide, Macbeth utters those eery lines:

I have lived long enough. My way of life

Is fallen into the sere, the yellow leaf...

Even George Shearing couldn't make that anything other than spine-chilling. In this mood I think Shakespeare really disliked autumn. Not for what it was, but for what it forecast. He lived, historically, through the period which is known to meteorologists as the little ice age. It was so cold the Thames froze over. The ice was so thick on the river that in 1607 they had the famous 'ice fair' – it's the same period that Macbeth was first performed.

We have our hard winters: 1947 (the hunger winter, as it was called in Europe); 1963 (when the cold was one of the things that drove Sylvia Plath to suicide), or 1982 (when temperatures as low as -20C were recorded). But no one living has ever walked across the water of the Thames. When Shakespeare saw the leaves of brown come tumbling down it was bad news and you reached for your thermal underwear. No fuel allowance in those days.

There will always be those who hate autumn, because it turns trees to deciduous skeletons. Top of the autumn-hater list is Shelley, whose great ode (written, one should bear in mind, in Italy) is bitter on the subject:

O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being,

Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead

Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing...

He goes on interminably in the same vein. Each to his own. I'm more of the Keats-Shearing party. Short and sweet as they are, I love the falling leaves and the songs of September. Let's hope we're in for a good one.