In bloom: the golden flowers of a forsythia bush. Photo: Cyrus McCrimmon
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To every place there is a season – or several

From the glorious July that I once spent deep in the Arctic Circle to the treacherous climate of central California.

“Midwinter spring is its own season.” So T S Eliot remarks at the start of “Little Gidding”, reminding us that, in the time “between melting and freezing/The soul’s sap quivers” – and we recognise this brief, transitional season immediately, in much the same way as we recognise e e cummings’s very different “Just-spring”, that first phase after the thaw when the world is “mud-luscious” and “puddle-wonderful”.

The truth is, every place has its own, sometimes surprising, seasons, from the glorious July that I once spent deep in the Arctic Circle – cloudless, dazzling days when the thermometer frequently hit 30°C – to the treacherous climate of central California. “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco” may not be an authentic Mark Twain quotation but it describes perfectly the foggy midsummer chill that, in the Bay Area, clamps itself on to the unprepared tourist and gnaws down to the very bone.

On the other hand, some places seem to have no seasons at all. I recall a horticulturalist friend of mine leading a party of visitors around the arboretum at Sheffield Park Garden during a particularly spectacular autumn. He pointed out the rich crimsons and deep golds of the black tupelos, the several varieties of maple and the Persian ironwoods reflected in the lake – then suddenly a young African woman in his party began to cry, thick tears rolling down her face as Mike launched into yet another rhapsody on falling leaves. It turned out that the young woman, never having seen an autumn garden before, thought that the trees were dying – a sight only too common in her home landscape – and she was upset that Mike could take such pleasure in the transient beauty occasioned by their demise.

Here in Berlin, it is one of my favourite in-between times, the fortnight or so that I think of as forsythia season. One of the first garden shrubs to bloom, the forsythia bears its flowers in bright, golden rows along the elegant, bare branches around about the time of cummings’s “Just-spring”, the leaves only emerging later, when full springtime has arrived and the other, more cautious shrubs put out their blossoms. Now the soul’s sap, which quivered for Eliot’s midwinter, warms and quickens. Meanwhile, another season has begun to unfold, one that is taken very seriously here. To my mind, a clear sign of a successful society is its ability, notwithstanding all the agribusiness and supermarket pressures, to recognise and celebrate the changing seasons in its cuisine – and now that it is asparagus season, the market stalls and greengrocers’ displays not only foreground both the white and green spears of this wonderfully earthy product, they also sell sacks of specially selected potato varieties and bottles of wine to complement the asparagus recipes that have been handed down from one food-loving generation to the next.

Keats writes: “Four Seasons fill the measure of the year;/There are four seasons in the mind of man . . .” I cannot help but think he is wrong on both counts. The year unfolds through its first summer, heavy with the scent of mock-orange, and on into strawberry time – followed, sometimes, by the second summer of Emily Dickinson (“There is a June when Corn is cut”), before slipping into autumn colours, when the tree sheds everything but its essentials in order to go on living. It seems clear to me that there are many seasons in the measure of one year – and many seasons in the human mind. This is what keeps us interesting, this ability to surprise others and ourselves with new flowerings, unforeseen growth, inward winters made to host some Pentecostal fire and, most of all, the unlooked-for fruit-falls that come when we thought that harvest time was long gone.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory triumph

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.