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13 September 2022

From the NS archive: The last days of summer

22 September 1917: The warm weather is gone. But we have no quarrel with autumn.

By New Statesman

As autumn approaches, the anonymous author of this 1917 piece looks back on the delights of the flora and fauna that the warmer months brought to his urban garden. The early summer in the countryside was not easy: the caterpillar-moth destroyed the apples growing in the orchard, and the wireworm ruined the potatoes in the field. But in the city gardens the plants grew strong and bright: “Clematis, montbretia, tobacco-plant, balsam, sunflower – they came in mobs, the beautiful and the ugly side by side, a tangle of colour.” Now September brings the rain, and anyone listening out for birdsong must try to distinguish the creatures’ calls from the pitter-patter outside. The end of summer marks a change – the coloured flowers are fewer and further between, while the rust on the ferns looks “like a disease” but autumn brings different delights.

Summer, we suppose, may be taken to be departed. At least, all the clocks have been put right, and the world is once more moving according to strict rule, like a schoolboy gone back to his classes. It has been a rheumy-eyed summer for the most part, but one is inclined to forget that. One looks after its retreating figure and its bedraggled skirts with feelings not entirely empty of kindliness. How glorious was its youth! There never were such holidays of apple-blossom. The violets were almost heavy with beauty. June scattered flowers and birds to us gaily, carelessly, abundantly, like a conjurer as seen by a child. Then came the caterpillar-moth – an enemy in the orchard. One heard that something worse than a plague of locusts had fallen upon the apples, and some people said that this was because the schoolchildren had been encouraged to murder the sparrows, which are the natural defenders of fruit-trees.

As the summer advanced, the prophets became equally dismal in the fields. They discovered the wireworm among the potatoes, and some other beast in the cabbage-leaves, and saw the corn beaten down by the rain. Then came storms as well as floods, and two hundred million apples that the caterpillar-moth had spared tumbled, like hard stones, on the ground. Even in peace-time one could hardly have lived in the same house with such a season without complaining. In time of war, it was the sort of thing that would have depressed our ancestors as a judgment. We, who do not accuse ourselves so easily, simply regard it as one unmerited injury on the top of another.

On the whole, the man who spent the summer in his London garden did not notice many signs of death and destruction. August settled down with a full lap. The gardens were thick as jungles. The flowerbeds ran wild with beauty. The hollyhocks were broken in the rain, but others sprang up and boasted above the other flowers, with their pink and puce and white and red rosettes. The monkshood, blue and splendid and poisonous, grew near them in clumps – a peril to wolves, they say, but a pleasure to children, who find a tiny Noah and his wife hiding in the hood. White phlox on a sunny afternoon shone bright as a lime-washed cottage, and calceolarias – which some people find as detestable as their name, but which, when you call them lady’s purses, are charming enough – stood in crimson and yellow alternations nearer the borders. Clematis, montbretia, tobacco-plant, balsam, sunflower – they came in mobs, the beautiful and the ugly side by side, a tangle of colour.

Even now, though the withered petals of some of the flowers are no more attractive than dirty cloths in the rain, the garden has not begun to be dull. There are still the fiery borders of nasturtiums that were the delight of one’s infancy. One loved their crimson-and-orange trumpets; one loved the peppery taste of their leaves; one loved them for the large crumpled seed that afterwards came in place of the flower and attracted one’s curiosity like something a little unnatural. There are plenty of asters, too, their colours mingled and various, like a Bank Holiday crowd on Hampstead Heath. Poppies, their petals delicate as butterflies’ wings, grow under the low wall beside a very bush of Michaelmas daisies, a company of lilac-coloured stars. Here are flaming marigolds, here flaming geraniums, which the botanists apparently declare do not belong to the geranium family at all, but which we have no intention of calling pelargoniums, even as an expression of dislike. The snapdragon, its mouth dangerous as the door of a castle in a fairy-tale, is everywhere, dark and flushed in its most charming variety; and roses are scattering their leaves over many a little circular bed.

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Here and there a last relic of purple hangs on among the green of the veronica leaves, a late store of honey. The fuchsia-hedges, too – how could they call a flower after a man named Fuchs! – are dropping their petals and making a border of blood along many a southern country road. It is some years since we lost our taste for fuchsias. Even their spelling could not alienate us, but we became hostile when we went to live in a farmhouse with too many fuchsias in the neighbourhood, so that the bees used to flavour their honey with fuchsia instead of heather.

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It is from a window that one watches the garden for the most part. One has not the enthusiasm for rain that one used to have. One agrees in spirit with the jackdaw that sits a little way off on the edge of a chimney-pot and humps up his shoulders about his neck disconsolately. Other jackdaws sail into view occasionally, a fleet of chatterers, their voices seeming in some curious way in harmony with the colour of slate roofs in the rain. A starling – how lack-lustre now, how drowned his metallic glitter! – sits on another chimney-pot and attempts to sing, but produces only a sound like the snipping of scissors. Almost alone among the birds, the robin, flitting in the green-brown light of the hedges, maintains the world’s music. And even of him no one can say whether he is sad or glad. We have heard men arguing hotly on the point – one defending the glad robin against the sad, another defending the sad robin against the glad. For ourselves, we find something plaintive in his song – something plaintive, too, as he hops piping from bough to bough of the thorn. He has, moreover, we feel, too sympathetic an eye to be entirely merry. He has never quite recovered his spirits since the day on which he found the two small bodies in the wood and had to be gravedigger, undertaker and parson all in one. We defy anyone to note any comic swagger in his voice amid the gentle swish of the rain that closes in the world as we write.

One might as well think of the rain itself as cheerful. One used to do that, but it was a long time ago. One could stand at the yard-door by the hour in those days and listen to the rain tinkling into the water-barrel. One could watch a gushing spout all day: it attracted one like rivers and waterfalls on a small scale. One used even to take pleasure in opening one’s father’s umbrella and holding it up, so that the rain might tap, tap upon it, and add another instrument to the orchestra of the bad weather. No sound came amiss to one in those clays. All the noises of Nature – even Nature aided by an umbrella – were good. Alas! we soon cease listening to Nature. Instead of taking more pleasure, and more subtly, in mere sounds, we go about like deaf creatures, listening only to our thoughts – unpleasant thoughts about people and diseases and the way the dinner was cooked. We even find it difficult to believe that other people have a wider range of hearing. As we read Mr Hardy’s Woodlanders – an overrated novel, by the way – and come to the place where we are told that Giles Winterbourne and Marty could tell trees in the dark by the sound the wind made in the branches, we indignantly cry, “Impossible!” Nor is our scepticism removed, if we ourselves go out among trees and with our untrained ears listen. The sound of the wind in one tree is very like the sound of the wind in another. It is all “like the hiss of mounded grain … “

If the rain ceases for an afternoon, one escapes in a measure from these quarrelsome meditations. The rain still runs in straggling rivulets down the country lane behind the house, but the sun, too, has straggled through the leaves of a thousand trees and one walks along a path of chequered gold. On the top of a stony wall foxgloves still ring their fairy bells. One reaches a bank on which blackberry bushes scramble among hawthorns and ferns, blossoms, red berries and blackberries all growing on the same bramble. The rust is coming on the ferns like a disease. It is as if it had been put on with a tar-brush, which had clumsily skipped patches of green here and there. The haws are set among the bushes like a host of ladybirds. On a bush beside them, with thorns of uncanny length, an autumn of sloes is turning purple. The cornfields are empty of grain, but they are still butter-coloured with stubble. Cows that are parti-coloured like maps – continents of red amid oceans of white – stand stupidly by each other’s side in the grass. Here, as in the garden, there are flowers, but they do not colour the countryside. They are isolated, and one regards them as discoveries.

Herb Robert, more geranium than the geranium itself, lifts its pink head in stony places. Knapweed, ugly enough in the mass, but charming in the detail of its florets and the brown feathers of its knob; pink campion; golden rod; dandelion; scabious; dead nettle; and betony – “sell your coat and buy betony,” says the proverb – are all to be found; and the clover is not entirely withered. The scarlet pimpernel, too, blushing to find itself famous on every bookstall, peeps from the foot of the wall, at once modest and showy. The peppermint rises lilac-coloured from the mud; the honeysuckle is still sweet in the hedge; and at least one dog-violet was in blossom during the week. We were base enough to deflower it and to sip the honey from its green tubes. And there is heather on the hill that would be a cloud of honey if only the sun were permitted to shine for a whole day at a time. If only!

Good-bye, summer! Enter autumn – “season” (as the indignant parodist called it) “season of mists and general beastliness!” But even here we differ. Did we not yesterday see a butterfly coloured like a velvet leopard? Did we not see other butterflies that justified those who give them wonderful names and call them red admirals and painted ladies? No, we have no quarrel with autumn.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).