Looking forward to Autumn – why September is my favourite month

I always think that autumn (fall) gets a bit of a raw deal in the popularity stakes.  Spring has lots of fans, summer is everyone’s favourite, and even winter has its proponents (due in no small part, I suspect, to the midwinter festivals of December and their associated jollification – I should perhaps note here that I am writing from a northern hemisphere perspective).  But apart from the show of colour in the trees of New England, and to a lesser extent elsewhere, autumn gets a bit of a bad press.  It’s the season when the heating goes back on, the days shorten, the casual linen and cotton of summer gives way to woollies and coats, equinoctial storms batter western coasts, and summer holidays are well and truly over.

There is one thing I hate about September – wasps.  In the UK, September is peak season for wasps, timed to allow them to feast drunkenly on the apple harvest.  As I both have a phobia about wasps and also react very badly to their stings, this makes being outdoors – and especially eating outdoors – stressful.  But other than the wasps, not only is the autumn my favourite season, September is my favourite month.

For me, the year turns several weeks earlier – usually in early August, although in 2020 it was in mid-July.  One morning, you go outside and realise that the air feels different.  It’s not necessarily colder – just different.  There is a sense that it is the beginning of the end of summer, although often the hottest weather is still to come during August.  The swifts, which have been screeching around the summer skies, are ready for their epic migration to Africa, and suddenly, from one day to the next, they are gone.

The start of meteorological autumn in the northern hemisphere is 1 September.  This makes a lot of sense – historically, the grain harvest was pretty much all gathered in by the end of August (as evidenced by Lammas (Loaf Mass, or festival of the First Fruits) on or about 1 August, in thanksgiving for the harvest.  Before modern farming practices, the land would then rest until January, when ploughing would begin for the next year’s crop.  Geese fattened on the stubble would be eaten on the feast of St Michael and All Angels, on 29 September.  St Michael the archangel is probably my favourite saint – whilst I take a dim view of his persecution of dragons (I like dragons), I like that he is the saint associated with high places, and churches on hilltops in remote locations are often dedicated to him (for example, Mont Saint Michel in France, St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall, St Michael’s Church on Brent Tor in Devon, and the tower on Glastonbury Tor, which is all that remains of St Michael’s Church, to name but a few).

Photograph of an Orthodox Christian icon of St Michael the Archangel

September’s weather often seems better than August (hot and humid) or October (wet and windy), and most years I choose to go on holiday then, to take advantage of the weather and also of the relative quiet once the children have gone back to school.  For September is a month of new starts, with the school year in England starting at the beginning of the month, and the university year at the end (in some universities, the autumn term is still called the Michaelmas Term).  It feels fresh, full of potential and possibilities, of projects begun in hopeful anticipation.  The days are still long – the curse of the end of British Summer Time doesn’t take effect till late October – temperatures are pleasant, and mornings start to be crisply or mistily autumnal.  The archetypal poem about autumn (John Keats’ Ode to Autumn) https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44484/to-autumn has a melancholy tinge to its celebration of the season, but for me, September is more upbeat, full of promise and purpose rather than an elegy for the summer that is ended.  I feel energised, roll my sleeves up and get stuck into life and work.  Although it’s many years since the academic year governed my working calendar, I still find that this is the month when I gear up to start new work, find my mojo again, and start looking forward.

This September, I am back in Somerset, becoming re-acquainted with the landscape – coasts, hills and wetlands – ancient landmarks, and contemporary communities.  No doubt I shall be writing about some of them too.  Perhaps, especially if you are in the northern hemisphere and it’s the start of autumn where you are too, you might also like to go exploring during this month of September, watching out for the signs of the changing seasons.  Let’s enjoy it and make the most of it before the darkness of winter closes in.

Noticing things differently – why creative nonfiction is like poetry

Apart from the occasional poem, most of what I write is nonfiction.  Creative nonfiction is a genre which is increasingly discussed – hard to define, but including narrative accounts, personal responses, place writing, reflection and imaginative explorations.  This is what I have written since long before I knew it had a name!

I have long thought that the two forms of writing I engage in – creative nonfiction and poetry – are two sides of the same coin.  That statement may make a bit more sense if I take you back to Wales in 1986, when I first started writing in an intentional way.

In a recent blog post I wrote about being fortunate to be part of a pilot for an A level creative writing course.  The exam board commissioned leading Welsh writers to run creative writing residentials for the students in the pilot because, as most teachers were used to delivering a traditional, Shakespeare-and-the-classics English Literature syllabus, teaching creative writing was something quite new to them.  Six of us from my school travelled with the Head of English, Liz Pugh, to Plas Tan y Bwlch (now the Snowdonia National Park Study Centre) for two days with, amongst others, Gillian Clarke.

A word here about Gillian Clarke.  Now aged 82 and something of a ‘national treasure’ in Welsh cultural life, she had at that point recently published her fourth collection, Selected Poems (although I didn’t read her work until later).  With decades of experience of teaching English and creative writing in schools and colleges, she was the perfect choice to encourage young people to explore the process of writing poetry.  From 2008-2016 she was the National Poet of Wales (the Welsh version of a Poet Laureate), and as well as her award-winning poetry she has created a fine legacy in the form of Ty Newydd, the national writing centre for Wales, which she co-founded in 1990.

Back in 1986, it’s a glorious spring day, with sunshine flooding into the big lecture room at Plas Tan y Bwlch. Huge windows offer panoramic views of the valley and the wooded hills beyond, but we aren’t paying much attention, because Gillian Clarke is speaking.  She has seated us – some 30-odd students aged 16-18 – in a large circle.  She has a basket beside her, and from this she takes a small object, about the size of an egg.  I’m going to pass this round the circle, she says.  Take as long as you like when it comes to you.  What I want you to do is notice.  What do you notice about this object?

The object passes slowly from hand to hand, as each student holds it, turns it over, gazes at it, frowns or nods in recognition, maybe runs a finger over a detail, passes it to their neighbour.  I watch them as the object makes its way to me, about two thirds of the way round the circle.  Then, it is in my hands – feather light, delicate yet curiously strong, like an eggshell.  The size of a small egg, and almost the same shape, with a hooked point at one end.  Smooth, with hollows divided by sharp, paper-thin membranes.  Notice, Gillian had said.  How should I notice?  I have looked at it.  I have turned it over and over and looked at it from all sides.  I have used touch to explore its textures and weight.  I’m not going to taste it!  But there are other senses I could use – maybe, if I hold it to my ear it will sing of the sea, like a shell?  No.  But how about smell?  Tentatively, I lift it to my nose – earthy, organic, and yet almost like stone.  I hear a soft hiss from Gillian – yesss.  I look at it one last time, and pass it to my neighbour.

Afterwards, Gillian tells us about the object – it’s a buzzard’s skull that she found on a walk, and she has written a poem about it.  But, she says, that’s not why she brought it today.  It’s just a way, she says, of getting us to notice things differently.  She mentions that one person went beyond looking and touching by listening and smelling (I squirm with embarrassment at this).  She’s delighted – this is what she was hoping we would do.  Now, she says, go away and write a poem.

As we move away, she calls me back, and we talk about the senses, and how important she thinks it is that a writer should notice differently – from a different angle, using different senses, and without what we think we know about the object getting in the way of our noticing.  She is enthusiastic, encouraging.  I take my notebook to a corner of the terrace and start to write – this is the poem.

The Buzzard’s Skull

This ritual is new, and yet
along the distance of my mind
I know that I remember.
The circle is held, spellbound;
the sacrament is passed from hand to hand:
a ceremony of initiation?

Blindfold and afraid, I hear
the holy word approach,
rhythmic, sinister,
along the chain.
The object is in my hands,
stirring a memory that
my fingers cannot grasp –
a forest or a beach?
My life,
or life that lingers in my mind,
beyond (my) memory?
My fingers’ eyes have been in the dark
so long,
they are blinded by this light,
and cannot see.

Although I never saw Gillian again after that residential, I followed her career and occasionally heard her on the radio.  I know that many writers were encouraged into writing by her, and I am always grateful to her for that hissed yesss that made me realise that I was on the right lines in how I observed the world around me, rather than just being weird.  She made me realise that I was starting to think like a writer.

And like a writer, rather than solely a poet – because the nonfiction I write is also about noticing things differently.   Poetry is about precisely that – a good poem leaves the reader thinking “wow, I never looked at it like that before” and can weave magic around the most familiar and mundane subject.  Creative nonfiction, I would suggest, has a similar role – to explore the homely as well as the exotic, looking with fresh eyes and an unexpected perspective, touching and listening and smelling and tasting, and telling the stories of people, places and objects with new voices.

Cover of Selected Poems Gillian Clarke