Human Flower Project
October in the Sun
Heps, skullers, and “The true joy of the long dead child” from John Levett’s almanac.
Essay and photos by John Levett
It’s late Friday afternoon. I’m sitting on the bed looking across the Close where I live. I’m looking through the condensation on the window. The condensation tells me that it’s about the time of the year to switch the heating back on to low. There are few resentments in my life; paying money to energy companies is one of them so I switch off from May to October, patch up heavy-duty socks, upgrade to a thick top and start shutting doors.
On the desk below the window is a pile of books. It’s only twenty days to go before The Long Dark. The Long Dark lasts from November to the end of February. It’s the time for all those things that get pushed to the back burner when long walks, cycling days, rose fussing, garden visiting and sunset gazing take over. Mostly it’s study time—keeping the brain in gear, clearing the bookshelf of the unread, planning the listening. This year I’m going back to Kolakowski & ‘Main Currents of Marxism.’ He was one of the great writers of the last century and ‘Main Currents …’ was his greatest piece, his greatest challenge. I’m also re-reading Hobsbawm, Christopher Hill and Edward Thompson. It’s as much an exercise in how history has been written as the history itself. I’m reading Shaw and Nietzsche on Wagner too. I listen to a lot of opera during The Long Dark, go to a lot of films, go to dance, go to theatre. Most of The Long Dark is what I owe to the left side of my brain.
Last Sunday was one of the days of the year. One of those days in which I tip the hat to moments that are long gone but still linger as worth bathing in. The first Sunday of October is a day for coming up for the start of the new term; bringing up the luggage with mum and dad, brothers, sisters, boyfriends, girlfriends. It’s the start of everything that you’ve worked and wished for; the day of leaving behind; the moment of the fresh new start when everything and anything is possible and life has changed forever. At least, that’s what I hope it means to everyone on the start of their new term. Last Sunday was beautiful. I’d spent all morning trying to complete a photo series for publication and needed the break. Sun was past its peak and catching the trees across the commons; leaf-fall was enough to kick up; hot enough still for casual; ice-cream still on sale by the Cam; dipping sun on red brick. The best of Autumn days; it’s only ever there for a snatch.
New term, new teams. New scullers trying to get the hang of going round in circles. New conkers, old hands still collecting them.
New term for me too this morning. I chair an economics seminar; another interesting ball I try to keep in the air. The numbers are up this year. We’ve more engineers, a new agriculturalist, a co-operative entrepreneur, at last another historian. New term, same questions, different answers—about time.
So it goes.
The garden sheds itself.
There comes a time when I say I’ve had enough. Such is my garden that by this time of year there’s been so much new growth from the ramblers & species that it’s easier to just let it have its way, wait for full leaf fall, clear up in November then get to tying everything back in. There are still heps to be admired (R. Davidii has been outstanding this year) but a drabness is closing in. I sweep the path and recent strong winds have usefully created leaf piles; the chairs are back in the shed. The sun barely rises above the warehouse next door.
There always seems something relentless about this garden; or is it gardening in general; or just like housework. Sometimes I treat it like that. I can never clean my flat in one go; I nibble at it through a day. So it goes with the garden. I stop work there at this time of year and do the inevitable planning, seed catalogue browsing, the usual suspects. Then from November I’ll spend half an hour wrapped up to the nines out there snipping, clearing, tying. So it will go until January when I clear out the last of the old wood. It’s easier in small spells; it doesn’t seem so relentless, the distance still to go so far. Each year I promise myself that I’ll keep to the daily half-hour rhythm. I’m getting better by the year.
October means Spring too. However drab things look right now I know what’s coming next. I comes too in poetry—Edward Thomas does it and Thomas Hardy too. I mostly remember Dylan Thomas and ‘Poem in October’:
A springful of larks in a rolling
Cloud and the roadside bushes brimming with whistling
Blackbirds and the sun of October
On the hill’s shoulder,
Here were fond climates and sweet singers suddenly
Come in the morning where I wandered and listened
To the rain wringing
Wind blow cold
In the wood faraway under me.
And there could I marvel my birthday
Away but the weather turned around. And the true
Joy of the long dead child sang burning
In the sun.
It was my thirtieth
Year to heaven stood there then in the summer noon
Though the town below lay leaved with October blood.
O may my heart’s truth
Still be sung
On this high hill in a year’s turning.
I remember it, I think, because he wrote it in the year that I was born, which attached me to Thomas’s poems thereafter. There’s much to be got from October in the sun.
After I retired from teaching I took myself on holidays from October onwards. No crowds, empty beaches, cheaper rooms. For a couple of years I took off to the Kent marshes around Romney. There used to be old army encampments there after the war and children were packed off there for cheap holidays so I still held an affection for the landscape. Sissinghurst was on the way home and so too was Emmett’s Garden. At one point there were over five hundred species of tree planted. I’ve never had a great affection for tree collections but the view across the southern Weald is stunning.
Many of the original plantings were destroyed during the Great Storm of October 1987. It was the day that I had decided to move house. Looking at my garden that morning there was little left of it. Both trees had wrecked the back fence, roses bushes had been uprooted, the greenhouse destroyed, the conservatory adrift from its moorings. The removal van surprisingly was still intact when it arrived.
There are innumerable books that bang on about Autumn colour but I can never get it. I think you need a plantation for that sort of thing. Some space you can stand back into and get a fill of the big picture. Given the amount of money spent on the amount of gardening volumes each year you’d expect someone somewhere outside a magazine article would have cracked the Autumn-colour thing. I walk around and it’s tough to see where. It seems that most of us have the same inclination—the big Spring effort has been made, the Summer enjoyed, September randomly marvelled at, October the moment for putting away the chairs, snapping down the shutters, locking up the fairground rides, putting the donkeys out to grass.
October’s also a time I remember places I’d meant to get to this year but they passed right through my memory. I meant to get to Mannington Hall in Norfolk and the Rose Society’s gardens in St. Albans to see the early flowerers. There’s a fine iris nursery in the Fens and a clematis place in Suffolk. Now that Ingwersen’s has closed down I wanted a trip up to Potterton’s in Lincolnshire. There’s a visit to the Morris garden at Kelmscott outstanding and the delphinium displays at the RHS gardens at Wisley which reminds me I’ve a subscription to The Delphinium Society to fill in too. 2010 is my year of The Great Leap Forward with delphiniums; I’ve gone too long without them. Things in pots too.