DECEMBER CHARLES NEVIN
What other month can hold a candle to December? Yule, Yalda, Saturnalia, Hannukah, Christmas and more: when else can you find such feasts of fun, generosity and goodwill? What more benign times are there than when children hear the magic creak on the midnight stair, auntie sips her cream sherry and gets ever chattier, uncle unwraps his socks (again), or granddad gently snores off his lunch, with his mouth still open and his paper crown rakishly askance? Exactly.
It’s true that December has not been as feted as some of its flashier fellows. No darling buds and mellow fruitfulness here; rather, on the few occasions the 12th month has inspired verse, there has been a sad concentration on the dark, the drear and the bare (thank you, W. Shakespeare and J. Keats). You could argue, too, that a principal reason why many of these festivals are when they are (in northern climes at least) is because of that drear, dark, bareness: they are a defiant celebration, a great cock-snook to nature at its most miserable.
But such negativity does December a rank injustice: its excellence is precisely because of the verve and delight of this compelling contrast and many others: glittering frost icing dark branches; figures black against the snow in best Brueghel fashion; glowing cheeks, stamping feet and steaming breath in the early dusk, with the promise of inside warmth soon to come; mirth and melancholy. It does rain, of course, but it’s somehow more acceptable in December. The country is the place to be, too, and not just this country: December in Australia is a disconcertingly good time, involving sunny surfing Santas and flying sleigh-towing kangaroos. I can also recommend the holy city of Najaf, where I once spent Christmas Day interviewing an Iraqi ayatollah. It went rather well.
December has always been the high month for those of a contemplative turn. The soldiery halted their campaigns for a bit of rest and boasting, there were few of those irritating chores on the land (planting, harvesting, that sort of thing), and the long nights and the home fires were made for stories, reflection and resolution. And so it remains. December’s greatest gift is still the solstice sun, diamond-bright or vibrant orange against the cold air and the clear light. Anyone still unconvinced should try, if habit and habitat allow, an open fire on Christmas morning with a streaming sun and a glass of the iciest champagne.
MAY A.D. MILLER
You survive the winter. If there was snow, it has melted. If there were New Year resolutions, you have broken them. The days have started to lengthen: you see daylight while you commute, rather than only through the office window. Yet spring seems like a broken promise. March is dismal: you would prefer a crisp, blue January day to this drizzle and mulch. April is showery and cruel: you yearn for a month whose literary associations are less obvious and depressing.
Then, one day in May, it is warm. You sweat into the coat you mistrustingly put on in the morning, and you don’t mind. Trees blossom. Birds chirp. Buds darling. Instantaneously it feels not only that the worst is over, but somehow as if it never really happened at all.
In Moscow, where I lived for a few years, on this golden day in May there is an almost audible crackle in the atmosphere and on the streets, as all the pent-up energy of the long winter bursts free. The summer cafés unfurl their awnings. Long, amiable queues form outside the beer kiosks. Guitarists strum in the boulevards. The riot police look twitchy.
London has its own version of this liberation-day ritual, tamer but still edged with anarchy and lust. Crowds gather outside pubs, the women in their retrieved summer wardrobes, the men loosening their ties, thrusting out their hips and reminding themselves that they are married. (An early 18th-century marchioness vowed to be chaste for the whole year, but couldn’t swear to May.) It isn’t only sex that is in the air. For a few weeks, while the warmth lasts, everything is possible. This year will be better than last. You will be a better you.
It won’t, of course, and neither will you. If you live in Britain, summer may well be a wash-out. On the rare occasions that the sun shines, you will over-excitedly wear shorts and an embarrassing shirt and get burned. Your holiday will be a disappointment—with so much riding on it, how could it not be?—beginning with the sharp buyer’s remorse of your no-frills air flight, and going downhill from there. August will be a let-down, but the reimmersion of autumn will still be demoralising. In December you will be haunted by everything you haven’t accomplished that year, and every other.
Then another cold, sullen slog—until next May, when everything seems possible again, the world is new again, and a naive, hopeful, better you emerges from the chrysalis of winter for another brief flutter.
JULY JOHN BURNSIDE
There is no denying its resonance, but I must confess that I have never understood L.P. Hartley’s contention that "the past is a foreign country." For me, what is foreign is the present; the past is poignantly familiar, a land where everything that was ever lost continues undiminished in a perpetual July of deep lanes shuttered with branches and little owls hunting in pairs along a hedge—and anything true or exact that happens now is immediately absorbed into the fabric of that eternal summer.
A ball game of some sort continues in the distance, children play hide-and-seek with their shadow selves, or with what remains of the pagan gods, in the ruins of old barns and water houses, clandestine lovers come together in the greenwood in "necessarye coniunction". This is the absolute of July, a month that never really begins or ends, but is resumed whenever the conditions are right: still afternoons of bone-deep heat, improbable shadows in the orchard. In that interim zone, on any patch of heathland or beach, everything is negotiable: solid form and hallucination; substance and shadow; too too solid flesh and weightless, polymorphous shimmer.
Postcards and calendars place July in ice-cream parlours and penny arcades, and it is true, up to a point, that we were all children in those places once upon a time. But absolute July happens elsewhere, around bonfires on waste ground or the stairwells of damp tenements, in the viridian borderlands of public parks and the dancing shadows under old stone bridges where nobody goes any more (or nobody but the curious and the perverse, remembering the bodies they should have possessed long ago, before they succumbed to an authorised version of deferred gratification and marriage and the mortgaged bliss of haplessly ever after).
These secret dens and slivers of no-man’s-land are summer’s true lease—and if April is the cruellest month, July is the most dangerously erotic. And that eroticism includes not just the boys on the promenade, or the women in print dresses building sandcastles on the sunwashed beach with their four-year-olds, but also the darkness in the pine woods and the massed presence of all life everywhere. It is a life that once seemed close and dark and intimate, but is now, in the foreign, degraded regency of the present, little more than a masque of rumours and echoes swaying around us in the July heat, feverish and distant and filled with unsayable longing.
OCTOBER KATHLEEN JAMIE
October is a liminal month, a threshold both threatening and alluring. The dark begins to press its case, but as though in response, the days are often clear (but with wild cloudscapes when it’s not), and of course there’s that leaf tang in the air. Even in the most urban places, there comes that leaf-and-woodsmoke smell, which seems naturally to invoke memories, so October looks both ways, past and future.
It also suggests distance and closeness. Closeness because it’s a time of closing in and storing up and laying down supplies. Distance, because of course the geese arrive and who can’t be moved by the sound of geese high overhead? In these parts, it’s ragged skeins of pinkfoot mostly. Once you’ve heard them, urging themselves on, you can’t not search the skies for them, so they do us that favour, make us look up from our own concerns. Because of the geese, I probably look up at the sky more often in October than any other month. They make us aware that the world is wider and stranger than we usually give it credit for, in our daily lives. As refugees from that otherworld, the Arctic, they gabble: "if you think it’s dark and cold here, you should try where we’ve come from."
So October is the closing down of the year, but it suggests not death but mystery: a sense of worlds beyond this, of past and future.
And of course there is the other otherworld. Let no one say Hallowe’en is an American invention. It is ancient, and has been celebrated here in Scotland since Celtic times. Then it was called Samhain, and is the time when the fairy world was held to be at its closest to our own, when it was deemed possible to cross the border into that realm, to tell futures and consort with supernatural beings. In the great Border ballad Tam Lin, young Tam is imprisoned in fairyland, and can only be rescued on Hallowe’en. I still think that on a late October dusk, you can sense a presence.
We think of October’s colours as dark brown and orange, but it’s rare if October doesn’t bring the first snow. One crisp morning after a starry night (proper winter stars!), the distant hills will be sternly white; this is both thrilling and deeply reassuring. Overnight, they have become a serious proposition. Store the apples and potatoes and firewood, winter is nigh.
APRIL JAMES LASDUN
There’s a famous joke postcard of New York, showing a Manhattan street view in each of the four seasons; the joke being that each image is identical. It isn’t quite fair to the city, but it does make me appreciate the sharp differentiation of the seasons where I live, upstate in the Catskill Mountains. Each has its charms, and I’d find it hard to choose between them on aesthetic grounds, though our autumn foliage still floors me every year with its hallucinatory pinks and oranges.
But since turning 50 I’ve noticed two new things about myself. One is that I’m reacting more primitively to heat and cold than I used to. The winters here are long and hard. For a good five months there’s the daily possibility of snow, sleet, ice, freezing rain. It’s all fantastically bracing and I wouldn’t change it for the world, but the constant battle with the elements takes its toll, and after a while the body—or my body—succumbs to an increasingly desperate craving for sun-warmed air.
Logically, then, I should choose a summer month. But there’s the second mid-life change to consider, namely the speeding-up of time, specifically pleasurable time. Almost as soon as the warm weather arrives and we start living al fresco, under the stars every evening with drinks and friends and candles, I grow morbidly aware of how quickly the days are passing; how soon this interlude of ease will be over again. It seriously impairs my enjoyment.
April then: the one month that neither drags nor rushes. The weather’s still raw, but the haze of buds on the mountainside tells you winter’s losing its grip, while the occasional balmy day gives you a miraculous taste of things to come. Miraculous because nothing is diminished: the store of real heat still awaits you, far off and fully intact. Robert Frost captures this volatile poise perfectly in “Two Tramps in Mud Time” :
You know how it is with an April day
When the sun is out and the wind is still,
You’re one month on in the middle of May.
But if you so much as dare to speak,
A cloud comes over the sunlit arch,
A wind comes off a frozen peak,
And you’re two months back in the middle of March...
For a few weeks in this precarious, partly imaginary warmth, the gods permit you to have your cake and eat it.
BRUMAIRE ANN WROE
Brumaire is the second month of the twelve-month French revolutionary calendar; it runs from mid-October to mid-November. Its heyday lasted long enough to leave one date in history, 18 Brumaire (in Year VIII, roughly 1799), when Napoleon established the consular government that led to his despotism. Otherwise, like its companions—snowy Nivôse and rain-sprinkled Pluviôse, garlanded Floréal and Germinal of the green, growing shoots—it has faded into the fogs of human arrangements past.
It’s not just perversity that makes me choose it, but also a sense of dissatisfaction with Western months as they are: a dull march of gods, emperors and numerals, with no flavour or scent of the seasons they are meant to represent. Bengalis know that in Phalgun the dust flies like a harum-scarum boy down village lanes, and in Sraban the loud monsoon soaks the thatch; just as, in revolutionary France, Frimaire brought hoar-frost creaking under the sabots, and Ventôse the blasts of late winter roaring through the oaks.
Brumaire expresses—rather than marks—Keats’s season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. It is the quintessence of autumn, damps as well as brights, in a way neat October or pure November can never be. Its essence is stillness: the lull before the storm, the lit pipe, the comfort of apples laid up in newspaper and heavy barn doors shut. A quiet cloak of vapour announces the day, gathered in bushes and hanging in the trees. Through that mist colours appear, glowing like separated flames. The same fog enshrouds the sky, which clears slowly to a cold, deep blue before, in mid-afternoon, the air thickens perceptibly, as if filled with smoke from the pinkly burning sun.
Leaves still crowd the boughs, but they are falling fast, the trees shedding and reflecting themselves on the muddy ground. It was in Brumaire, give or take a day or two, that Dorothy Wordsworth saw her favourite birch tree, bright yellow against the dark mountains, swept by a “flying sunshiny shower”, to become a spirit-tree. This is the moment the autumn palette spreads across the woods. Pale gold, dark crimson, yellow ochre, burnt umber, now join with lingering green, as if the leaves turned over in their minds their memories of the sun. Beside fresh-ploughed fields, stray straws and stubble still glint golden in the sunlight before bonfires consume them and the night mists rise.
This is a month of scarves and boots, when hope of any brief return to summer is finally put away. We batten down, and turn our faces towards the dissolving and vaporising and falling away of things. It is a month of letting go, as the trees do, the lighter to leap towards the spring—as if the dead weight of winter did not lie in between.