September 4, 2020

Summer’s lease hath all too short a date, and there is always a day when you realise that the lease is about to expire. This year it was the Tuesday of the third week of August. After a fortnight of high temperatures, a last hurrah for the sun god’s English devotees, the heavens opened and the clouds finally had mercy on the scorched, sighing grass after a long dry spell. A strong, gusty wind sprung up, its force strengthened by the funnel effect of our valley. Suddenly — almost overnight, it seemed — the lanes and paths around the village were full of fallen leaves, and the woods along the valley had added gold and red and brown to their colour palette, after months of reliance on greens.

You notice the chill at either end of the day. The dewfall is heavier. You still get hot days here and there but the heat doesn’t start early and linger into the evening as it does in high summer. There is a change in the light. To adequately describe it is far beyond my poetic powers, but in the evening, when the long shadows fall on the hills behind the house, the glow from the sinking sun seems somehow richer and deeper.

I do regret the end of summer. It means no cricket on the radio and no picnics with the children; no early morning cups of tea in the garden, listening to the dawn chorus before the rest of the family are awake. It means no more pleasant evenings sitting outside with a cigar and a beer after the children are in bed, watching the stars come out and hearing the owls hooting in the trees on the hillside.

More than other seasonal transition, the end of summer feels a little sad. Winter into spring is joyous, exciting, a triumph of colour and warmth and fertility. Spring into summer is a promise fulfilled, a glorious unfolding. Autumn into winter is often almost imperceptible. But the fading of summer is unmistakeably the end of something. Possibly it’s an artefact of childhood memory, when the second half of August meant that the long carefree days of the summer holidays were drawing to a close.

The approach of autumn is undoubtedly also a symbol of the passage of time, especially at my time of life, when middle age is starting to loom on the horizon in a mildly alarming fashion. It is a reminder that the children are growing up, nothing ever stays the same, beauty is fragile. If you’re anything like me you think of other summers long ago, old friends neglected or departed, the roads not taken. As Housman puts it, “The happy highways where I went, and cannot come again”.

All the same, autumn is my favourite season. The best part of the year, for my money, is the stretch from Michaelmas (30 September) until Epiphany. To some extent I think it’s my North European soul. I remember with great fondness the exhilaration of walking across the causeway to Holy Island in Northumberland as a fierce wind whipped in off the North Sea. I like bare trees and storms and empty moors and big waves crashing on to windswept beaches. I like how the world feels shortly after dawn on a grey, clear morning, when there’s been rain overnight.

I like returning to the warm glow of the front door on a cold, drizzly evening, that magical moment of homecoming. I even find a sort of contentment in the slightly melancholic mood of October and November, which is tempered by looking forward to Advent and Christmas. It’s probably also nostalgia: I look back very fondly on my university days, and my first term stands out particularly in my memory as a time of promise and excitement and novelty. Nor can I deny the pure childish satisfaction to be gained from crunching leaves underfoot or aiming a big kick at a pile of them. It is a longstanding theory of mine, strongly confirmed by having children, that one of the secrets of a happy life is to cultivate your delight in simple, innocent pleasures.

On a less poetic level, autumn is more promising on the fashion front than summer. Like most Englishmen, I am not at my sartorial best in the warm months, heavily dependent on ageing T-shirts of uncertain shape and lurid Bermuda shorts. One such pair is lively enough that a fellow cycling commuter once said that she noticed me every day on the Clapham Road. Greyer skies and cooler temperatures offer the opportunity for a more varied and elegant wardrobe — jackets and jumpers and scarves, subdued colours and an air of sophistication that is only achievable in summer by dressing in a white linen suit like the villain Belloq from Raiders Of the Lost Ark.

In my childhood, a highlight of the season was always Bonfire Night, that old and strange English celebration, full of dramatic historical resonance. I wonder now whether mine was one of the last generations to experience proper Guy Fawkes celebrations. Just in my adult life — the last two decades — the Fifth seems to be fading away, partly of course due to being overshadowed by the hideously ersatz commercialised ghoulfest of Halloween, but also, I suspect, because the cultural and demographic revolution in Britain since the 1960s has rendered it more and more incomprehensible to modern people.

We are no longer defined by Protestant Christianity, and the virtues that supposedly or actually flow from that. What does it really matter, then, if the Protestant Settlement and national independence were saved from destruction at the hands of plotters working for a foreign Catholic power 400 years ago?

Nevertheless, in those places where 5 November is going strong, like Sussex and west Kent, which have a venerable and robust tradition of extremely raucous Bonfire Nights, you can get a sense of an organic institution deeply rooted in our shared history. The notorious Lewes Bonfire commemorates the Lewes Martyrs, Protestant dissidents burned in the 1550s under Mary I, but its historical significance goes well beyond that.

In later centuries it became a focus for anti-establishment radicalism, and an opportunity for the kind of occasional tolerated mayhem that was a feature of earlier feasts — think Lords of Misrule on Twelfth Night. So perhaps there is hope for its survival. After all, it falls at the right point in the calendar, halfway between the end of summer and Christmas, soon after the clocks go back to make the evenings darker still. It is a moment when a cheerful, boisterous communal event, rooted in what remains of our collective memory, is much needed.

The subjects of memory, and the more sinister and bloody parts of the past, bring to mind another wonderful feature of autumn, namely that it is undoubtedly the perfect season for the classic ghost story. The steadily darkening days and the unsettled weather, the increasingly stark landscapes, and the way in which each house becomes a small island of light in a great mass of darkness; they all combine to create the ideal atmosphere for settling down with M.R. James or Sheridan Le Fanu or Algernon Blackwood.

James is a particular favourite of mine. On those late November days where it barely seems to get light at all, I might find myself thinking of Dennistoun, the protagonist of Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook, who uncovers a gruesome supernatural secret after poking round a church in a sleepy Pyrenean town one dark afternoon. Or Archdeacon Haynes from The Stalls Of Barchester Cathedral, who undergoes a gruelling winter, alone and tormented by a guilty conscience, in in a large and poorly lit house.

There is a comfort in the unceasing cycle of the seasons. Like religious liturgies, these reliable transitions give a rhythm and pattern to our lives, providing a counterpoint in the natural world to the changes and chances of our human existence. Autumn is reassuring in this way; the obvious glories and delights of summer are gone, just as everything we know and cherish in this world is ultimately transient, but there is nobility and beauty in the change, and the sure and certain hope of renewal in the midst of decay and loss.