As I write this, my last post for the Human Seasons, the days are stretching. Climatically, if not geopolitically, the darkest days are behind us.
In terms of human culture, there’s no better way to celebrate and channel light than through stained glass. A few weeks ago I was in the Sainte Chapelle, the world’s greatest light box. This week I was in the Cavendish Arcade, a sort of Georgian shopping mall in Buxton, where the stained glass is more modest but still throws the light into the space, enriched with new colours.
But material culture, no matter how elegant, is not what gladdens the heart most. I’ve realised that time and again during this project. The action of walking in a landscape, the unchangeable qualities of water and air, the sharing of good company from one end of the year to the next, are what make the seasons human.
Like many others, I’ve spent my winter coughing and spluttering by the fire. My recuperation and leisure time is occupied largely with these two pieces of technology.
The radio cost me £3 a dozen years ago from a charity shop next to the rubbish dump in Stratford, where salvageable items were cleaned up and recycled. It’s been my trusty companion ever since, on long boat trips and sunny afternoons of working outdoors.
The knitting needles are a new obsession. Everyone I know is practicing their ‘oh, how lovely, you made me a slightly peculiar hat’ face. You might think knitting was as old a tradition as spinning wool, but knitting with two needles only began in the middle ages. At any rate, some of my happiest afternoons in January have been spent listening to Radio 4 and working the wool slowly into a shape that looks about right. During these short days and long nights, it’s a comforting and meditative way to make something new.
I have fallen among morris dancers, and people of that ilk. They take a lively interest in English traditions, including the mummers’ play. This is an oddity dating from the eighteenth century. During the Christmas/ New Year period, the mummers occasionally appear in pubs to deliver a very silly, very short, very traditional performance. This one involved cutlasses, a glass of whisky and a horse who was clearly the worse for wear as he made his entrance in the third pub of the evening.
The clothes and props were striking. If they survive at all they won’t make much sense to the archaeologists of the future. But to the drinkers of the Vale Inn, and to the Macmillan nurses for whom they were collecting, it was a worthy and wholesome entertainment.
I’ve spent much of this week making chocolate reindeer noses. That’s chocolate truffles to you – recipe here if you’re interested. I make mine with a splosh of Bailey’s or amaretto, and wrap one of them in red foil to signify that this particular nose belongs to Rudolf.
It’s silly, of course. Personally I’m all in favour of silliness, and clearly so are many of my friends. Call it Christmas, Saturnalia or Yule – the winter festivals of the north have always been about feasting, partying and banging a drum in the face of the long nights. Like all good parties, there will be nothing much to show of it except the hangover, and the chocolate truffles will leave barely a crumb on the table by Boxing Day. But ’tis, after all, the season to be jolly. #Tralalalala
If you don’t mind, I’d rather we called it pharyngitis. That sounds more impressive. I get it annually, but this one is a real doozy. I haven’t been able to speak at all for three days, and it doesn’t look good for the weekend either.
Never ask a boat-dweller ‘Is it cold in the winter?’ With the stove lit constantly, the atmosphere inside can be very dry and hot, much more so than in a house. A hint of woodsmoke is lovely, but the inevitable puff of ash when you clear out the grate is less so. Some of it must end up in my throat, and since my voice is my fortune I lose my living for a few days. It hurts and it knocks me flat for a while, but it’s nothing epic. So I can step back for a moment and look about me for evidence.
The material culture of mild illness is similar to that of a cafe. Mugs, bottles and glasses for a hot toddy or herbal tea; the kettle which sits on that stove top to keep the air moist; a pan and bowl for soup. A cheap spoon in a jar of wildly expensive honey which (hold the front page) really does seem to make a difference. Add to this the paraphernalia of self pity, in a time and culture when the patient can afford to rest for a couple of days. Here is a scatter of plastic-and-foil blister packs, there a heap of blankets and cardigans on a comfortable sofa. A pile of DVDs, a Kindle, reading glasses, a box of tissues.
It’s an assemblage which reflects human experience in the early winter, replicated in homes across the nation. And there are many people suffering much worse in the way of illness or seasonal difficulty. All the same, this afternoon when I went into town for a doctor’s appointment I appreciated the fresh air of November a little more than usual, and the berries of the newly-leafless trees seemed particularly bright.
Autumn, and though the days are shrinking there is lots of colour in the scattered leaves. On a trip to Brixton Windmill recently, I saw the leaf above; it had been spattered with paint and returned to the wild, perhaps by a very young artist.
The snail chalked in a nearby playground was just as ephemeral. The mural in the playground, and the jolly lettering on the Windmill Cafe (complete with rooftop Alsatian) will last a little longer.
In the archaeological sense, most of the painted surfaces that brighten our days will not survive; nor will woodsmoke, laughter or the Portuguese pastel that we ate in the Vera Cruz coffee bar. But they made a lively backdrop for my 49th birthday with friends.
Photo by Stephen Churchus
I was poet in residence at the Jersey Festival of Words this weekend, running a workshop at La Hougue Bie. It’s a Neolithic chambered tomb with a massive earthwork on top of it and a chapel stuck on top of that, in the proprietorial way of medieval Christians. Next to the mound on one side, a small museum with world-class collections of Celtic coins and other artefacts. On the other side, a Nazi bunker which was the command centre for the occupying forces during World War II.
Clambering from the soil above the bunker is a disturbing and perfectly appropriate sculpture by a former slave worker in the Nazi camps of the island. My workshoppers stood looking at this tortured figure in the sunshine between rainstorms. As they did so, a late butterfly seeking the last of the season’s warmth settled on it. Nature triumphs, even over the worst of what humans can do to one another.