Winter Solstice – I should go down to the canal

Winter Heliotrope on the Kennet and Avon Canal

Christmas brings out my inner Thomas Hardy. I’d really like life to be like “Under the Greenwood Tree” his only cheerful, not to say funny book; but reality turns out to be – in the main – “Jude the Obscure”.

I wake up early this morning at around 4.30am and lie in bed filled with the sense of a recurrent dream in which I am slowly becoming invisible; a wraith moving through remembered places and among people I loved and some who loathed me -evoking feelings inviolable to passing time but always there; a miasma.

Madame asks “can’t you sleep?“; “No”; “What’s up?”; “Dreams”. A pause. “Go and make a cup of tea”. And so I shuffle off to the kitchen and boil the kettle – searching for a packet of shortbread biscuits to cheer myself up. I give myself a stern talking to: “For crying out loud – do try to stop being so down!” – so I read for a bit, drinking tea and eating biscuits. I’ve just started “The Waste Land – Biography of a poem.” by Matthew Hollis. I’ve been spending far too much time reading in the past, and I quickly run out of concentration – it’s possibly a bad choice for a chronic melancholic. Then I remember that this evening at 21.47 we will celebrate the Winter Solstice. For some bizarre reason it feels like a personal achievement, although in truth it’s the beginning and not the end of winter. But seasons come sheathed inside one another like celestial music, and so today we celebrate a subtle change of key. The buds are on the trees. The long winter nights concede their dominion to the sun and from now until the summer solstice the light dominates and thistledown memories give way to new life.

We haven’t been down there yet, but the canalside will be showing the first flowers of Winter Heliotrope. When they’re in their full glory they have a strange perfume – like almonds possibly – but subtle – you have to search for it. There will be Coltsfoot – but in eight years we’ve not seen it here in Bath, and in fact the last time I saw it I was on my bicycle taking a turn around my parishes bordering the Severn and I spotted it peeping through snow. Of course there are many winter flowering garden plants but they never lift the heart as much as wildflowers. We greet them one by one in the spring like old friends with whom we’d lost touch.

The seasons aren’t just measured by day length but by events like this and – as my sister reminded me yesterday – some time in mid January we will suddenly notice that the brief snatches of the themes we overheard in the overture, have broadened out and asserted themselves. The woodwinds have been joined by the strings and by June it will have become a full Brahmsian orchestra. The saints pass in procession; the old Christian calendar which had the good sense to borrow extensively from the (so-called) pagans – is the liturgical song of the earth. Plough Monday – the first Monday after the Feast of the Epiphany – when the Young Farmers carried an old Ransomes Plough into the church to be blessed and it was so bitterly cold that the Archdeacon lost his voice as he preached at the beginning of the old farming year and his breath crystallized in the air. These are the furnishings of the memory; a form of defence against the enslavement of technology and greed.

And so I shall throw off my gloomy cloak and we will celebrate. The season that begins tonight and lasts around two weeks is often deprecated as a festival of overconsumption and indulgence. From 1644 until 1660 Christmas celebrations were officially banned in England by the Puritans and replaced by a period of solemn reflection on our sins! – In their dreams! Of course Christmas and its revelries were never suppressed and our reputation for surly disobedience remains untarnished – but the celebrations always ran deeper than the deepest roots of imposed religion. The fear of the dying of the light and the joy when it returns defies all logic. We know perfectly well that the sun will triumph – until next year – and yet – the return of green shoots leaves us shuddering with thankfulness and we celebrate. In this time of catastrophic climate change we know that the unthinkable may yet come to pass.

And so this week, as we all meet up again, I’m cooking; practicing and planning. The diary is marked up with the day we need to collect our meat from the farm, the exact time and day I need to start a sourdough loaf to be ready, fresh, on Christmas day. We’ve hunted down our best pickles and chutneys; I’ve taught myself to bone, stuff and roll a chicken; our groceries and a good deal of wine will arrive early on Christmas Eve and there is fresh stock in the fridge. I’ve learned how to make hollandaise reliably with a good deal of help from our youngest (chef) son and so Christmas breakfast will be eggs royale, or benedict according to taste. Madame – who likes neither – will probably have poached eggs on toast; either way we all get spoiled. We won’t be eating anything like a month’s calories in a day. We’ll be spending money we haven’t got on treats we can’t afford but the government hasn’t crushed our will to live yet. Christmas Eve will be Italian; a light salad of lambs lettuce, dried ham and burrata followed by pappardelle in a rich ragu of tomato and ox cheek and Christmas lunch will be utterly traditional by popular demand.

In the midst of Covid lockdown Madame and I had a Mexican and really enjoyed it. For the first time in decades I haven’t made a Christmas cake or Christmas puddings – all far too rich for us these days and then the festival of cold meat and lentil soup will take us up to New Year’s Eve when we’ll probably be in bed by 10.00pm. I see nothing much to celebrate from last year apart from its ending and short of an unexpected political earthquake nothing much to look forward to. The earth, though, has her own seasons and we’ll begin by looking for those Winter Heliotropes whose faint perfume will certainly overpower the stench of corruption and idiocy that surrounds us. Our celebrations are an act of resistance.

And if I don’t post again before the weekend – we wish you a very happy time this weekend. Whatever name and faith you give it, we hope it’s cheerful Hardy, not too Laurel and Hardy and not at all dark Hardy!

Orion’s spell

Madame is in the kitchen cooking pasta al fagioli and the earthy fragrance of the borlotti beans, simmering with the onion, carrot and celery and a bunch of rosemary from the allotment is already wafting around the flat. With the excesses of Christmas out of the way we’ve needed to rest not just from the cooking, but the eating of so much rich food. If there’s a symbol of seasonal excess it’s the enormous French cast iron paté mould that I bought on impulse maybe fifteen years ago and which annually lures me into making more paté than we could ever eat at one family meal. We eat it all eventually, with the help of the freezer, but it takes most of the year. So: home baked everyday bread and this hearty cross between a soup and a stew is what we’ll eat today. The borlotti beans are our own, grown on the allotment along with most of the other ingredients apart from the pasta and some lardons. It’s the day of the seed order and, fortified with cake and cups of tea, we negotiate next season’s crops, sort out boxes of leftover seeds to eliminate the out of date ones, and complete the online orders. Oh and we have our annual discussion about indexing seeds better so that we don’t double buy on impulse, or forget something really important.

Completing the seed order feels as much liturgy as chore. Our discussions invoke memories of meals, successes and failures as well as new opportunities. We work from a computer list that I wrote years ago and update each January. You’d think that level of organisation would display at least some talent for planning, but every year the list is overwritten with so many pencilled amendments and flashes of inspiration that it becomes a kind of aspirational but redundant piece of crumpled paper. As I said; it’s liturgy – confessions and absolutions. The smell and the creamy taste of the cooking beans are so far beyond the agri industrial canned products you could cheerfully eat them with no more than some salt and a dash of oil. In fact you could keep the beans for another day and just drink the cooking water! It’s not about virtue. Virtue is just the spinoff from the sheer pleasure of growing, cooking and eating.

Depending on the way you frame it – whether or not they have any spiritual significance for you – these weeks between the solstice and the epiphany are days of waiting. Solstice is a moment, but it always seems to me that this is one of those great seasonal pauses; a kind of transitional silence as the enormous inertia of the solar system resolves itself and settles for the months until the summer solstice in June, into ever longer days. Traditionally – I mean possibly even for millennia – this period has marked a break in the farming year overlaid by twelfth night and inscribed beneath that, yuletide. The land was too cold, too hard or too wet and so the labourers deserted the unworkable fields. The day after Epiphany, on the 6th January marked the return to work.

So there’s an ingrained sense of therapeutic idleness tucked away somewhere in our unconscious memory; a break from the routine marked by partying and also – quite often – by being out and about, intensely alive and perhaps a bit drunk, late at night. All of which is a long winded way of saying that the constellation that I associate especially with this time of year is Orion. It would be nice to call these the dog days, but that title has already been bagged by Sirius in high summer, when it rises just before the sun. Normally the word “dog” before almost anything in nature is a sign of something inferior or unworthy but in this instance the term comes from Canis Majoris, the constellation in which Sirius, the Dog Star, is the brightest object. Anyway, the listless and sultry days of high summer are not in the same league as the high energy memories of dancing home in a winter frost with the stars so bright they seem to generate an angelic music beyond the reach of your ears: as if you could listen to a single phrase of Tallis’ Spem in Alium through some undiscovered faculty of bone and brain. You look up and there is Orion the the hunter, sword in belt, and the meaning of that music is on the tip of your tongue not to be spoken, ever.

However this year I haven’t seen Orion because not only was it the mildest December on record, it was also the dullest; cloud upon cloud heaping up from the south west. Clear skies and partying opportunities have all but disappeared; courtesy of Covid and climate change. Madame – who specializes in delphic announcements in the middle of the night – woke me against the sounds of the young people upstairs, partying on New Year’s Eve and declared “ There’s no-one we can have a laugh with.…… ” – and she’s right. Our social life has all but withered on the vine these last two years; we’re not evolved to live like this. How can we sing our song in this strange land?

Such mournful thoughts were soon blown away when we went scouting for Seville oranges and found them on exactly the same day – my journal records – as we did three years ago. And so we brought three kilos back and we shall have marmalade again after months of abstinence. I love blackcurrant jam and damson jam (my personal favorite) but breakfast without marmalade is an impoverished feast. We eat so much of it I should make around forty pounds to keep us going until next January with a bit to spare. We’re going down to Cornwall, to the Lizard, soon and God willing and a fair wind as my old friend Joan Williams would often say, I’ll be able to lie on my back on the grass to seek out Orion in a clear sky, and listen to the angels singing again.

More consolations of endings

1080863I love the sculptural qualities and the sheer complexity of this seed head.  It’s a wild carrot – Daucus carota – and this one was photographed earlier in the autumn on the Llyn Peninsula. The incurved stalks (peduncles I suppose) always seem protecting and enclosing of the dead flowers and long-gone seeds, and the whole shape resembles an old style willow lobster pot.

The procession of the seasons never really gives us the excuse to feel sorry for ourselves.  Like the procession of the stars, the seasons  (and all plants have their individual seasons), begin and end at the same time and place.  I remember what a revelation it was, when I was very young,  to discover that where the leaves fell from the conker trees, the new bud – perfectly formed – was all ready to go. In general the plants in autumn and winter are more sculptural and in spring and summer, the more painterly hues and impressionist sweeps of colour take precedence, but there’s never a time when nothing is happening. Just now much of the action is at ground level where the rosettes of next years plants are in plain view. Go take a look – it’s all there!

Celebrating the last afternoon of Winter!

 

It just wouldn’t be right to keep Christmas cake beyond the end of winter, that’s to say, beyond today because:

Oh frabjous day, calloo callay

This is the last day of winter and I woke up predictably gloomy because I said I would yesterday – and I always keep my word. Madame, however, seemed very motivated and after a morning tidying up the garage, (OK man cave if you must), in the pouring rain – we loaded up an unfeasibly large number of wine bottles, which in truth we were never going to fill with home made wine, along with a car load of other junk and took it all to the tip where she unloaded the wine bottles as silently as possible in order to avoid us being breathylized as we left.  I should add that after years of austerity, living on a stipend in the parishes, we have developed an ethos of hoarding anything that might even conceivably become useful at some point in the future. Therefore no hawk-eyed scavengers ever follow us to the bins to filch our pre-loved belongings. When I say junk I mean proper ram-stamped rubbish!

Shortly afterwards we finished some repurposed leftovers from roast belly of pork – turned into fabulous soup – we do live well – Madame took me off into town where we spent a pile of money on new walking boots ready for our next trip to Snowdonia. I loved my old ones as if they were my children, but they were worn down to next to nothing after hundreds of miles of tough walking and in truth they’d always been a bit lethal on wet rock. Socks followed swiftly – why is it so hard to buy socks and pants for yourself when you are a man? I can’t remember the last time I ever bought any without being escorted to a shop.  It always seems criminal to put them in the bin when you might get a couple of days more out of them (see paragraph above!).

During this whole time there was not so much as a raised eyebrow from her angelic goodness.  No labels were examined, no cheaper alternatives even hinted at – I should have smelt a rat but I was completely oblivious.  Then we walked around to the Louise Bourgeois exhibition. She is probably the most important artist of all – for me. There is something about her work that puts me straight back on the couch in analysis, and breaks down my barriers as if I’d just arrived in Robin’s room. I constantly have to surreptitiously wipe away tears when I’m around her work. Next, to Waitrose and ten scallops with a bottle of nice wine.  By now I knew something was up, but it felt good so I wasn’t arguing.  “This is nice” I said as we went through the checkout.  “I thought you needed cheering up” she replied.

Which is how we came to celebrate the last day of winter with a cup of tea and the very last slice of Christmas cake. Tomorrow is a whole new season.

 

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