I’d like to celebrate this, the first weekend of spring, by offering homage to my local pub. It’s been there all winter (and, I guess, for several centuries of winters, as it’s a former inn on an old drovers’ road), a perennial stalwart, dispensing warmth, hospitality and good cheer on the coldest and most miserable of evenings. It boasts an open fire and its own generator, which means that when there’s a power cut or the water supply fizzles out (not infrequent events in this village) we and all our neighbours can rely on the pub to produce heart-warming soup and sustenance in our hour of need. There are no other buildings in the village except houses and a deconsecrated church – we don’t even have a shop – so the pub also does sterling service as a polling station for both local and general elections. Not surprisingly, this village always achieves a high turn-out. Most of us vote in the evening, which gives us a chance to catch up with each other and sample the beverages on offer at the same time.
Yesterday evening was light and clear. The trees across the valley had just begun to bud and were glowing with promise in the hazy sunshine of the early evening. The local sheep have now had their lambs, which were bleating softly. The towns across the valley were also tinged with the glow of the setting sun. As on many first days of spring, however, there was a fierce wind and some of winter’s chills still lingered in the air. My husband and I, out with the dog on his evening perambulation, decided to call in at the pub.
It is only a slight exaggeration to say that all human life was there. A group of four beer-bellied blokes occupying a corner table hilariously trooped out together every half hour or so for a cigarette break, and then trooped back in. A large family, complete with granddad (who seemed to be footing the bill) had just finished an early supper. Also eating supper was a morose middle-aged couple who appeared not to be speaking to each other. A largish hen party came in, evidently consisting of the bride and her mates plus her mother and several of hers. She was wearing a sash proclaiming her a bride to be, a crown of tinsel and, somewhat incongruously, some red ‘Rudolph’ felt antlers left over from Christmas. A little later, an extremely thin, elderly woman arrived, the advance reconnoitring party for another group of ladies, these somewhat older. She left the pub briefly before returning to usher them all in, so it must have passed her selection criteria for acceptable hostelries. The usual old cronies were seated on high stools at the end of the bar, putting the world to rights. More young men braved the trestle tables outside, clearly finding the cold preferable to the prospect of losing seats inside whilst out for fag breaks. And there were several ‘casuals’ in for a swift pint before departing, all of whom stooped to stroke the dog. The landlord, a dog-lover, brought him a handful of chews.
And, of course, included in the number, a pair of wellie-wearing eccentrics with an amiable hound, all three a little miry around the edges.
City pubs have an aura of their own, a suave immaculateness inspired by fierce competition and, for the most part, a shifting clientele that harbours no sentiments of loyalty. There is something quite different, timeless as well as uplifting, about a country pub and its dynamic. Dressed in mediaeval clothes, the patrons of my local yesterday evening might have been encountered by Chaucer and his pilgrims, in an inn en route to Canterbury. And I’m sure they’d all have had a tale to tell…
Like most writers, I abhor clichés, but one cliché that makes me glad each year is the certainty of the English spring, in all its sweet naffness: little lambs gambolling, pale flowers bursting into bloom, pussy willows, forced rhubarb and chocolate cream eggs jazzing up the fare in the supermarkets… and all of the 101 other things that mean that winter is being pushed off into exile. And, if I hadn’t realised this before, last year’s spring (which, if you remember, didn’t happen) left me mourning for an annual cliché that was then even more powerfully etched into our minds by its absence.
When I was young, I didn’t mind heading into the winter: autumn meant pristine new school exercise books or, some years later, the excitement of a new university year; it meant going home in the slightly scary darkness; it meant that the ice cream van that had stood at the end of the street on long summer Sundays had been replaced by the toffee apple man’s van (he who vigorously summoned the children of the neighbourhood by ringing an old school bell out of his window); it meant chestnuts and hot toast and Heinz vegetable soup. But that kind of cosiness and the underlying slightly edgy sense of the danger that might be lurking in the dark (and would, perhaps, grasp you in its claws if you were sent up to Mrs Dack’s shop for some milk after the 6 p.m. news) has long since been replaced for me by the dreary feeling of unwell-being that winter brings: of snivels and snuffles, mornings that are wet and foggy rather than icy and bright and, in the part of the world where I now live, mud, mud and more mud.
I think that much of the problem lies in the fact that we English don’t ‘do’ winter well. Go further South in Europe and the Italians and Spanish celebrate short sharp winters that include coping with heroic bursts of snow before getting back to the norm of a balmy spring-to-autumn of sunshine that lasts for eight months of the year. Go North, and you find Germans, Scandinavians and Russians revelling in the winter, showing off their prowess on skis and skates, sometimes with a great deal of bravado. (A few years ago, I had a Finnish client (day-job) who boasted that he always skied in T-shirt and shorts.)
Perhaps the only country that is as bad at wintering as we are (or worse!) is France, but the French people that I know seem to solve the problem by going into virtual hibernation: The weather is foul – they stay at home – and eat and drink, mon brave, and sulk until the spring appears. Then there are the Scots, whose winters are colder and gloomier than ours and who succeed in behaving in a correspondingly chill and more lugubrious way. However, there is a grandeur about their melancholy: it is a Carlylean gloom of grandiose proportions, not to be compared with the trivial gnat-like whining about the weather in which we English indulge. And, like the French, the Scots understand that the only way to get through the winter is by eating the appropriate food and taking a wee dram whenever the opportunity presents itself. I endured three Scottish winters when I was working in Dumfries (home of the deep-fried Mars Bar, though even Dumfries folk regard this delicacy as an extreme remedy, to be used only at times of urgent necessity) and I have to admit that getting through day after day on six hours of daylight was not easy. At the place where I worked, we were supported through the winter months by the culinary achievements of our two stalwart canteen ladies. Menu favourites were meat and tatties, beefsteak suet pudding and haggis or hash with chips. If we asked for something light, they served up lasagne. I once suggested that a winter salad would make a nice change and they nearly fainted. ‘Salad? In the winter? How will you get the energy to do your work, hen? How will you keep warm while you’re working?’ (Of our workforce of 160, half a dozen worked in the packing bay; the rest of us were seated at desks, with the heating turned up a good 5 degrees higher than was strictly necessary.) Yet perhaps they had the right idea: we were trapped in the catastrophe of winter, and they were battling with it on our behalf.
So I say again that the English are the most hopeless of all nations when it comes to winter. But we are good at spring, and especially at perpetuating the clichés that go with it. Tomorrow is the first of March: not officially spring yet, therefore, but good enough for me! And I invite you to celebrate it with me in whatever joyful, hackneyed way you wish.
[Being as usual snowed under (a winter metaphor indeed!) with work, I asked my husband to take some clichéd photos to go with this post, but, with his usual delicate touch when behind a camera, he has instead, I think you’ll agree, managed to capture some extraordinarily un-clichéd pictures from what would otherwise have been very commonplace spring-time situations.]
Yesterday was the first of March, St. David’s Day. Although there was frost on the ground, the sun, when it broke through the cloud, was shining brightly and with real warmth. The snowdrops and primulas have already been in flower for some time and yesterday I noticed that the dwarf daffodil buds are swelling. When I drove out at 6.15 p.m., there was still some daylight left. Spring is pushing aside a bleak winter!
Yesterday was also the day on which I wrote the last few sentences of Almost Love. Because of the non-sequential way in which I write (a habit that I am trying to break), they belong to a chapter about one hundred pages from the end; it was a chapter that I’d been trying to finalise for some time. Then, when there was nothing else left to work on (and therefore no way out of attending to it), it almost sorted itself, quietly and relatively quickly.
There’s still revision to be done, of course, although I revise all the time while I’m writing, but rounding off this novel has been quite different from finishing In the Family, which left me feeling battered and dazed. (I remember it well, partly because it was completed on the day of the royal wedding, which gave me more time to myself than usual.) This time I just felt happy in an understated sort of way.
The next novel is germinating at the back of my mind. It will need quite a lot of research, which I shall enjoy. For the moment, however, I shall focus on tending to Almost Love and enjoying the time before it bursts into bloom in June.