For my money, autumn is the most civilised of seasons. Spring fills me with the kind of unease I get when I read Virginia Woolf: the underlying sadness, the vulnerability of tender plants that will be struck down by a late frost of sensitivity.
English summers have become like a striptease flirting and provocative, but disappointing: a week of glorious sunshine followed by days and days of overcast grey, rain, rain, then drought. Drought by Nicole Farhi: black, taupe, grey, beige. Our patch here in the East is so dry that the cows look like they are grazing in High Noon. Months early, I’m supplementing their diet with the hay we made for their winter breakfasts.
The grapes in the vineyard are intensely sweet, but no bigger than cabochon emeralds: no rain has swelled them and softened their flavour. Even the jewels in autumn’s crown, blackberries and apples, are cameo versions of their usual selves, exquisite stunted replicas.
Whenever I say that autumn is my favourite time of the year, my son groans. ‘That sounds so middle-aged,’ his words a warning that now is the time for a verbal facelift. I believe that, by some primal instinct, we love best the season of the year that is nearest our own season of life, and I’ve strayed unthinking away from the June of weddings, sleeveless dresses and midnight swims, and wandered into the October of pumpkin risotto, cashmere cardigans, blackberrying with the dog. It feels right and I’m not tempted to take the gloomy metaphor any further.
But if spring is now abbreviated and summer unreliable, autumn offers a leisurely peacefulness. Two weeks ago, my husband went to London for a new hip, a surgical miracle that really is a coup de jeunesse, bringing renewed energy and kick. His surgeon, the brilliant Mr Villar, opted for the technically more difficult hip resurfacing because ‘the bone is in good shape’. The procedure gives the patient a faster recovery and more options in the future, nicely prolonging life’s season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.
Mention new hip, and suddenly you discover there’s a vast constituency out there. Say cataract op, and there’s a landslide. My Aunt Edna, who lived to the age of 101, was sceptical about all these improvements. ‘Doctors can keep us alive, but we live in a world that has no place for us. We’re outliving our children, who are worn out looking after us.’ My grandfather, a High Church atheist in the land of Southern Baptists, went further, maintaining that medical science was obstructing the evolutionary law of the survival of the fittest. ‘Medicine is producing a race of monsters,’ he bellowed every time Dr Lee arrived with a life-saving shot of penicillin.
But the truth is, as long as we can see, hear and walk, most of us prefer to live. You can download a living will on the internet and keep a signed copy in your handbag, but when push comes to shove, chances are you’ll do as my mother did. When the tracheotomy tube was due to come out, she was reminded that she had signed a living will. There was a chance that she wouldn’t be able to breathe without the tube and her instructions were ‘Do not resuscitate’. She instantly wrote in large letters: ‘LET ME RE-PHRASE THAT.’ Similarly, everyone I know (including myself) vows that, if they’re diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, they’re going to drink a bottle of Krug and wade into a river with rocks in their pockets. But, in real life, that’s not what folks do.
Autumn is the last Utopia. A time of preparation: new hips, firewood, blackberry jam, cataracts peeled away and pheasants piled in the freezer. A time of satisfaction and tranquility. Open fires. The owl chorus. It’s not too hot. It’s not too cold. It’s peaceful. And exciting.