Autumn has been seeping its way into my bones the past few weeks. I thought of Elizabeth Jennings' line 'Autumn is bonfires, marbles, smoke', conjuring up the smells of burning wood, dried leaves, harvested fields, and then clusters of small boys crouched in the dust concentrating on their game. Autumn for me is pullovers and cardigans, warm coats, increasing stiffness in my joints, and, this year especially, anxiety about heating bills. But, not to be too gloomy, autumn is also Strictly
back on the box with all its glitz, spectacle and high emotion.
Last Saturday, we visited a garden centre on the south side of Edinburgh in the lea of the Pentland Hills. As I stepped out of our car in my warm coat, I noticed muscled young men passing by in T-shirts and shorts, and a not so young woman wearing no more than a bathing suit top and very short shorts leaving little to the imagination.
Inside, as if autumn were already old hat, Christmas was in the air. Not that they were actually playing Jingle Bells
, but the shelves were arrayed in seasonal merchandise: stuffed felt Santas, robins with beady eyes and red-breasted bodies large as plum puddings, polar bears, giant mice, gingerbread men, aardvarks (clearly a new trend that has so far passed me by) and tomtens, those Scandinavian gnomes all pointy hats, long beards and noses. There were Christmas tree baubles too – I pondered a colourful wee metallic train – stacks of Christmas cards and 2023 calendars.
In a further corner was a whole miniature town on a hill. Houses, shops, pubs, street stalls, a skating pond with skaters, a fairground with merry-go-rounds and a giant wheel, a caravan park with street food, high flying balloons you go up in, and the sight and sound of fireworks erupting on tiny black boards. You could buy each item individually in its own box. It definitely spoke to my inner child and to some real children who came racing over to exclaim over its details.
Outside in the garden section, cyclamens of all shades were on prominent display, in hanging baskets, terracotta bowls, pots, buckets and trays, flickering like candle flames: 'Come buy, come buy'. So I did. I love the joy of cyclamens throughout the dark days of the year.
Aside from the Queen, there have been two other deaths of note in the past month. First, Mikhail Gorbachev who predeceased her by barely a week at the end of August aged 91. I mentioned him in a piece I wrote some time ago. A man who lit up the international stage in his prime, he ended up 'a man not without honour, save in his own country'. It saddened him that he was unable to persuade more Russians to join his more liberal democratic party when in the mid-1990s he brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union and, as we thought then, the end of the Cold War.
However, it was cheering to see, during his brief lying in state, in an apology for a state funeral, unattended by Vladimir Putin, a queue of Russians wishing to pay their respects that had to be extended from two hours to four, minuscule by our late Queen's standards, but clearly longer than expected. Western leaders have been unanimous in their appreciation of what he did achieve and he himself seemed proudest of the INF Treaty (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty) he signed with Ronald Reagan. He was on the side of peace and international cooperation. Putin, of course, feels otherwise.
And now Hilary Mantel has died, suddenly, at the age of 70, a writer of extraordinary range, depth and historical reach. I loved her early novel about the three principal protagonists of the French Revolution, Danton, Desmoulins and Robespierre, A Place of Greater Safety
, which remained unpublished for over a decade. One publisher, who had clearly not read it, rejected it on the grounds he did not publish 'historical romances'. Even when she was published, it wasn't until the first of the epic Wolf Hall
trilogy about the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's Grand Vizier, won the Booker Prize in 2009 that she became a household name.
Her pen was mighty in its depiction of historical events as her protagonists might have experienced them. Both the French Revolution and Henry's reign were times of dramatic political and social change and so the principal characters operate like colossi. You might know how the actual history panned out but as you read the novels you live it as it might have been.
Checking over the book reviews I meticulously keep, I found I had read the last one, The Mirror and the Light
, over six weeks in the early days of the pandemic. That's not at all how I tend to read novels. I prefer to stick to one at a time. But I found I could pick it up, lay it down, read something else and come back to it without having lost my place or forgotten who the characters were and how things were going. It's challenging as well as compelling stuff.
I was delighted both Kate Mosse and Charlotte Higgins have been extolling the qualities of another of her novels, set in the present day in towns and villages around the London Orbital. Beyond Black
is about a medium with a dreadful backstory of violence and neglect who communes with spirits of the dead and finds a new assistant to help her navigate her strange half-imaginary world. It opens with a piece of mesmerising descriptive prose that I read and reread several times for the sheer pleasure of it. I bought it originally for my mother, but she died before she could read it. Perhaps she might not have liked its Gothic darkness, but its atmosphere remains with me.
Gillean Somerville-Arjat is a writer and critic based in Edinburgh