« … that country where it is always turning late in the year… » Ray Bradbury’s October Country. « That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. » It wasn’t just Mr Bradbury’s writing but also those uniquely haunting illustrations by Joe Mugnaini that captured the darker side to this season of “mists and mellow fruitfulness. »
My October country never used to be as dark. It was all about Sunday afternoon walks though the park with my dad, kicking up leaves, gathering up armfuls of conkers, trailing along the river bank and then going for tea at the tiny café in the park – Marble Hill park, just a stone’s throw from our crumbling red brick Victorian terrace house in Norman Avenue. Then dad died prematurely, too young to be taken and me, too young to have any real memories. Over the years though, the October landscape never changed. The green hues of summer turning to autumn gold, leaves cascading from the trees, morning mists, the nights closing in and the smell of wood smoke on the wind as the first fires are lit and families get round the hearth for afternoon tea, good books and a nap.
I am one of Mr Bradbury’s autumn people, born in the midst of the October country – a lynchpin month where time and tides change, where the last balmy days of the Indian summer fade and die. The clocks go back, the fingers of darkness slowly scratch away the light, night encroaches on the day and our vision begins to mist over until we are totally lost in a damp and chill November fog.
Born in October, you are born on the edge of death, new to the world and already one foot firmly lodged in a winter grave. Born in October, you are never much of an optimist; you are always looking towards the approaching darkness. Born in October, you come into the world at a time of change and as such you are eternally unsatisfied, always looking to change, ever indecisive, living life as a balancing act, because you are born in a time when the seasonal scales change for the worse
As the years go by, I try to cling to the October country of my childhood, I like to traipse nonchalantly though the park, dragging my feet through the leaves, picking up a conker or two. I take long and secret drives into the country see the changing colours. I wander through forests or take the long twisting tracks that lead through local vineyards – there is nothing so beautiful row upon row of vines when the leaves change from their summer green to their blood charged autumn red. And then when I have strayed enough, I head down through the hills to the quaint villages below – from afar they are quaint red tiled cottages nestling round churches. Wisps of smoke wind their way out red clay chimney pots and all the air is reassuringly sweet with the smell of wood as it burns slowly in the heart, taking the edge off the autumn chill. My secret October country that I rarely share because no one in my entourage is an autumn person. They may have been conceived in mellow fruitfulness, but they were born in the spring or summer, born in a time of vitality, of renewal, looking towards. They don’t melt in the sun like me, but actively worship it.
Back in the October country of my formative years. Half term holidays, birthdays, Halloween. October was the gateway to Guy Fawkes Night, and the crawl into Christmas – rehearsing our first Christmas carols with the school choir, tinsel and lights going up in the shops in late October…
So, I try to hang on desperately to this October country, knowing damn well that it has changed forever. It changed three years ago, standing by a hospital bed, watching mum breathe her last and then succumb. October 12th 2010 or 12102010 – never quite sure if there was some kind of symbolism in this almost binary date, but that day, my October country took on a darker side, I began to feel the seasonal melancholy that I had never felt before. The world was winter.
The October country now feels like some kind of tundra. Bleak like the Highlands of mum’s native Scotland. It is a land before winter, a land before snow and ice, a prelude to death. As long as I was still someone’s child, I still had a childlike outlook on autumn, but when mum died, the last tinge of childhood nostalgia died with her, the October country withered and died with her last breath.
October was perhaps a good month to die. Mum was one of those summer people, born in July, born in the light, born in the full flow of summer and she died as nature prepares for hibernation, the great winter shutdown, and the seasonal and symbolic end
The October country – “that country where it is always turning late in the year” and as I prepare to notch up another year in a couple of days, it feels like I am finally entering the October country of life