Published:

37 comments

HANNAN Dan Krieg square blue background

Daniel Hannan is an MEP for South-East England, and a journalist, author and broadcaster.

Do you remember the end of The Last Battle, the culmination of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series? The children enter a sort of Platonic heaven, in which everything is as it is in this world, only idealised.

‘What was the fruit like? Unfortunately no one can describe a taste. All I can say is that, compared with those fruits, the freshest grapefruit you’ve ever eaten was dull, and the juiciest orange was dry, and the most melting pear was hard and woody, and the sweetest wild strawberry was sour. And there were no seeds or stones, and no wasps. If you had once eaten that fruit, all the nicest things in this world would taste like medicines after it. But I can’t describe it. You can’t find out what it is like unless you can get to that country and taste it for yourself.’

Actually, you don’t need to go to such lengths. If you tasted the wild blackberries this year, you’ll have a pretty good idea. They were – at least in Hampshire  – perfect abstractions of how blackberries are supposed to taste. We managed to get a couple of rounds of blackberry and apple crumble out of our hedgerows and our one fecund apple tree; but the soft berries were so exquisite that, more often than not, we devoured them on our walk home.

This is the loveliest season in England. The rankness of high summer has faded, but the hedgerows are still in full leaf. In the shifting of the colours there is something immeasurably melancholy.

Here’s another line from a classic children’s story, this one from Richard Adams’ Watership Down. The rabbits have come to a new warren which, though they don’t know it, is full of death: a local farmer leaves carrots and lettuce for its inhabitants, and snares some of them each time they go to feed. Living with that cull has made them fatalistic and fey. The sensitive Pipkin observes:

‘They all seem terribly sad. I can’t think why, when they’re so big and strong and have this beautiful warren. But they put me in mind of trees in November.’

Trees in November. It’s one of the oldest of English images. Listen to this haunting line of Anglo-Saxon poetry, written more than a thousand years ago:

Beam sceal on eorðan

leafum liþan; leomu gnornian.

A tree on the earth must

Lose its leaves; the branches mourn.

How much harder life was for those speakers of Old English. Getting through the winter was challenge enough. And yet, watching the leaves turn, they felt just as we do. Staring into the fragile mass of red and amber and topaz, they, too, glimpsed the terrible beauty of mortality.

I pass Watership Down most days. If you can remember the story, the warren of Efrafa lies at the other end of the field that stretches from my front door. Nothing makes me happier than to tramp across the chalk downs at this time of year, scattering rabbits and fat, fatuous pheasants with every step.

We think of England’s countryside as permanent but, in truth, it is a whirl of commotion. These broad, sloping fields are now our largest source of grain outside East Anglia but, until half a century ago, they were sheep country. The pheasants were introduced, as far as we can tell, by the Romans; the rabbits by the Normans.

Those rabbits appear slightly to have altered their behaviour even since Richard Adams wrote his epic, becoming marginally more solitary, possibly in response to myxomatosis.

Nothing is permanent, though we long to convince ourselves otherwise. We like to imagine these downlands in a pristine form before the first farmers came. In fact, though, the downs were created when people introduced sheep: before then, they were woods. Then again, they only became woods because our earliest ancestors had hunted down the mammoths that used to eat the tree shoots: before that, they were downs again. Go back a bit further and they were under ice.

Everything changes, and often for the better. I never saw a red kite in the wild before my thirties; now they are more common in these parts than magpies. Last year, for the first time, I saw an otter (I would have doubted my eyes, but you can hardly mistake an otter for anything else).

The only thing that doesn’t alter is our sense of nostalgia, keenest as November looms. Listen again to that wistful Anglo-Saxon couplet. Here is its full context:

A woman and man must bring into the world

A child by birth. A tree on the earth must

Lose its leaves; the branches mourn.

Those who are ready must go; the doomed die

And every day struggle against their departure

From the world.

Our lives are more comfortable than the author of those lines could have imagined. We barely think about death: we tuck it away in hospitals and nursing homes, we euphemise it in a thousand ways. But take a look outside at this time of year and tell me that those lines don’t move you.

A tree on the earth must

Lose its leaves; the branches mourn.

37 comments for: Daniel Hannan: The beautiful melancholy of an English autumn

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.