Last rose of summer

It’s mid September, and my instincts are driving me towards rich, warm soups and meaty stews. I am even baking a ham this weekend: an event that usually only happens in our house at christmas, season of strong mustard, cloves and sugar glazes – but I am breaking my own tradition, and baking early. It’s a comfort thing.

When the British were languishing this year under leaden August skies, shivering, cold, and grumbling happily – I have never met a native of these islands who doesn’t enjoy whingeing about the weather – a wise old farmer came on the radio and confidently predicted an Indian Summer. “We’ll have to wait until the second or third week of September” he said,”But then the skies will clear and we will have some lovely days.”

Yesterday, September 19th, was just one of those days: with a crystal blue sky over Leeds, and the sort of soft but penetrating light that only comes with the early autumn season. Ineffable, truly. The apple tree needed pruning – and some old paper had to be burnt in a newly-acquired incinerator bin. Neither of these endeavours was entirely successful: the tree now has a lop-sided haircut, (the kind I used to give my daughter until she was big enough to fight me off, tooth and claw); and the flames that leapt up, red and angry, out of the burning bin, from just a few sheets of paper, were so terrifying that I think I’ll stick to cutting and shredding in future.

But the best moments came, as always, from the simple act of looking. Derek Jarman, film and garden maker extraordinary, is always – many years after his death – a guru for me, in this regard. Suffering though he was, towards the end of his life, with an encroaching loss of sight, and  with all manner of horrible afflictions, connected to his HIV illness, he still managed to revel and rejoice in the simple, strange beauty of his shingle garden down in Dungeness: nestled between the sea and the nuclear power station! Here are some snippets from his diary, ‘Modern Nature’. “The garden is looking bright and cheerful. The Californian poppies shimmer in the sunlight – deep blue sage, pinks…The day of our death is sealed up. I do not wish to die…yet. I would love to see my garden through several summers…Full dusty orange moon glimmers over the sea, climbs over the house. A midnight hedgehog rustles through the flower bed…”

Yesterday, I suppose I was seeing for Derek – who can no longer see for himself. And in my own garden I saw a fat bee crawling over the dusky purple thistle head of the giant cardoon. I gazed at flat- top yellow seedheads, scattered over the feathery fennel and etched against the wide plum leaves of Cotinus “Grace”. Best of all, I was soothed by the soft yellow of the “Easy Going” – ever-giving – floribunda rose, framing herself beautifully against the blue, blue high September sky. Sometimes, it is enough, just to look, and to be thankful for the looking. Yesterday was one of those days.

‘Modern Nature’ by Derek Jarman (Vintage books)

‘Blooming in the Shadows’ – an article about how the garden ‘rescued’ me:

Which led to this book – ‘A Handful of Earth’ by Barney Bardsley (John Murray)


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I am a writer and dance/movement practitioner in Leeds, West Yorkshire. I teach at the West Yorkshire Playhouse and when I am not there I am either writing freelance books and articles, or digging in my garden, or learning fiendishly hard Hungarian grammar. Hungary is my favourite place, after Yorkshire!

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