I never see autumn leaves drifting past my window as in the song; but they bluster about and lie in piles in the back garden and on the pavements. Barney and Abigail have accelerated their fall this year, whirling leaves about like those funny giant hair dryers that parkies use to blow them into heaps. Apparently in Hampstead Garden Suburb they are trying to ban these gadgets because of noise pollution. It would drive me mad using one – like herding cats. It’s bad enough sweeping up leaves in a wind, without having to manipulate currents of artificial electric air. I like an old besom or a wide rake. The great thing about raking the lawn is that while you’re scooping up the leaves you can simultaneously aerate the earth and scrape off the dead grass and mosses, thus promoting healthy new growth come the spring.
Autumn leaves: one of my earliest memories is jumping through piles of them, all golden and crunchy and crackling, and being told that Christmas was not far off. This was the first time I’d ever heard of Christmas so I guess I was 2 or 3 then. It’s been a long while now since I jumped on anything. I remember the leaves being heaped up almost to my waist but of course I was only a wee thing. Nowadays I admire the amber, ruby, topaz, gamboge and jetty tints among the tree tops but I’m less entranced by fallen foliage. Very slick the pavements get, especially down our north London road in the damp weather. I have never been lucky with my shoes and always seem to end up like Cinderella in footwear with glass soles. I sidle home in the dark, cautiously crab-wise, with a wary shuffle and a probing, supportive umbrella. Once safely on the door step I whip off the shoes to see what is stuck to their bottoms.
Leaves are symbols of life; intimations of mortality.
‘We blossom and flourish
As leaves on the tree.
And wither and perish
But nought changeth Thee’
…that great standard of funeral hymns: we had it regularly at school, too. The Alpha and the Omega. Do you remember it being sung by the Queen of Hearts’s¤ retinue in Jonathan Miller’s 1966 television adaptation of ‘Alice in Wonderland’? Very strange. Weirdly stirring. Admiring eighteenth century diarists described the complexions of great public beauties such as the Du Barry as glowing like rose leaves in a saucer of milk; the leaves being what we would now call the petals. I well remember many years ago Barbara Cartland decrying young housewives and “shut-ins” who complained of poverty-induced boredom.
“Go out into the parks and the roads!” she said. “Fallen leaves are free and plentiful. Gather yourself a basketful, take them home and dip them in molten gold. Then you’ll have original and beautiful pieces of home-made jewellery for unique Christmas gifts!”
All young leaves are delicately and wonderfully fragrant, whether the sweet and juicy subtleties of the hedgerow hawthorn – the poor man’s bread and cheese; the succulence of blades of grass; the catty bite of box; or the savoury redolence of the herb garden. Leaves of fig, vetiver, tobacco, citrus fruit, lavender, bay and mint flourish in myriads of perfumes. Dying and dead leaves are another matter. They lose their individual identity and exude a collective damp dark mulchy mucky odour; a vegetal soily aroma. Old leaves smell of the earth and the creatures and objects that find a home or a hiding place beneath them: hibernating toads; fallen apples; peppery nasturtium seeds rolling around like jade beads; the last rose of summer held together only by ice crystals. Even, once, in that horrible folk tale, the luckless ‘Babes In The Wood’ –
“Robin Redbreast, sorrowing,
Covered them with leaves”.
A kind family friend gave me a vintage edition of ‘The Babes’ when I was an infant. It was one of the very rare occasions on which a book was discouraged by my parents. “Morbid”. And “ugh!” said my mother when the panto version came round. She had a point. Latterly, ‘Babes’ was always tactfully combined with ‘Robin Hood’ and had the hell burlesque’d out of it. So that was all right.
Lifetime toilers in the fields of retail often develop chancey feeding habits, what with missed meals and odd hours. I try – rather, I am compelled! – to listen to my body – and this despite an increasing hardness of hearing. I’ve lately had a craving for crisp leaves – bitter endives with lemon juice; spicy rocket; celery eaten right up to the feathery ends; the first sprouts, cooked al dente; baby spinach served as a warm salad¤¤. I missed Nigella’s amazingly controversial grilled lettuce last week, but I love the scent and the taste of lettuces ripped to shreds¤¤¤ in a dish of peas with a hint of mint and onion. Use lettuce to wrap your sandwiches: it keeps the bread fresh and moist. And again, that sappy sharp slightly bitter leafy fragrance delights the nose.
I’ll leave you with a thought from that sinister Edwardian classic ‘The Golden Bough’ – another much-discouraged book of my youth. Fraser repeats an extraordinary travellers’ tale of girls being stitched up in huge bee hives (as it were) made of tropical leaves; one girl per hive, to be set free, years later, to begin adult life like the blooming of a rare plant, rediscovering light, sun and good fresh air as though for the first time. This bizarre fable may have had some truth to it: it also seems to conflate so many equations of flora and humanity, symbolic and actual.
¤ The Queen was played by Alison Leggatt, better remembered as Auntie Sylvia in David Lean’s THIS HAPPY BREED (1944).
¤¤ this sounds frightfully grand but it simply means: wash the spinach to rinse off the chlorine; drain it but don’t dry it; set in a pan on a warm stove until it wilts. Eat it with all the nourishing iron-laden juices flowing freely. In early summer you may use the same method with nettles.
¤¤¤”Tear the hearts out of the young lettuces. Whip the cream. Beat the eggs. Isn’t cooking CRUEL?” – as Hermione Gingold used to say.