Half-price diaries, cricketers at Heathrow - it's spring]

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A READER writes to ask: How do you know when winter is over and spring is finally here?

I'll tell you how you know.

It's that time of year when people start asking: How do you know when winter is over and spring is finally here?

It's the time of year when you try to get a football result on Ceefax and all you can find is an interim report on the second day of Oxford or Cambridge University's vital opening cricket match against Nowhereshire, and you say to yourself, Goodness gracious - is it time to lose interest in our great national summer game already? And yes, it is, because we all lost interest in our great national winter game weeks ago, and the extraordinary thing is that we in Britain have no great national spring game at all, with the possible exception of turning up at Heathrow as our bronzed cricketers totter off an aeroplane from somewhere that has winter sunshine to cries of (delete which does not apply):

a) 'Well done, lads]'

b) 'What a disgrace]'

c) 'Well, to be quite frank, lads, we didn't know you'd been away . . .'

and they get straight to the nets for the coming season, which is

Spring] When diaries are suddenly half-price in the newsagents and last year's crop of calendars curls up at the edges and dies, when the hedgerows are full of this season's new chocolate wrappers and crushed orange cartons, as the first of the ramblers pour out of the buses and check that they have got their stout boots, their stout wives, their see- through map bibs and their copies of the Good Dry-Stone Wall Guide before setting off among the fields of white lambs in search of the Holy Grail (which was named as Pub of the Year in 1977), because this is

Spring] When our cricketers stop getting pairs of ducks overseas, and here at home ducks pair off in the rivers and canals, when swans go off into the wet undergrowth and swan-upping takes place and, for all I know, swan- downing, swan-offing, swanning around and swan effing and blinding, and in a month or two, but not yet, ducks will produce ducklings and swans will produce cygnets, which is one of the wonders of nature, because how do you get the word 'cygnet' from 'swan'?

Never mind, anything's possible when it's

Spring] And the last of the winter bargain breaks are fading in the travel shops, there goes '2 Weeks in Zermatt, only pounds 24', there goes '4 Weeks in Biermatt, absolutely free' and here comes 'See the spring flowers in Provence, a special coach tour leaving on Sunday and never coming back]' and 'April in Paris Special', or if you can't afford that, how about 'A Foggy Day In London Town'?

Ah yes, the old songs come back again, don't they, and Spring can really hang you up the most and It might as well be spring and Younger than springtime and When they light up the bulbs in Lincolnshire, it blows a fuse in Essex, and that lovely old song. . . .

'You always know it's springtime

When the snow comes back to Perth,

And Scotland freezes over

And you can't make a dent in the earth.

Ah, you always know that spring is here

When roads are blocked up north,

And the Scots are all out skating

On the frozen Firth of Forth. . . .'

And the ramblers look over the dry-stone walls at the little white lambs and say, How young and frail they are, and the lambs look back and say, How old and frail they are, which would be a definite victory for the lambs were it not for the smell of mint sauce over the horizon, and the coming of spring lamb on the menu, not to mention spring greens, spring tides, spring locks, spring onions, springboards and springboks, a South African antelope named from, and I quote, 'its habit of jumping vertically in the air when alarmed', hence the cruel habit of South African hunters of creeping up behind the springbok, alarming it, and then quickly sliding a spring mattress underneath it as it shoots vertically in the air and catching it as it bounces uncertainly on its return to earth. . . .

Correction: 'Springbok Special' should of course have read 'Spring Book Special', the supplement produced at this time of year by every newspaper and magazine desperate for advertising, even that from publishers.

And finally I'd like to sing a song, a little one entitled

'How do you know when winter's gone

And spring is finally here?

It's when we think of reordering Pimms

And cutting down on beer. . . .'

Coming soon: Our annual 'How do we know when spring is over and summer is finally here?' supplement.