I am repeatedly on record as a Big Fan of autumn. The beautiful colours! The crisp mornings! The early evenings! The scarves; the jumpers; the boots!
It’s strange being a grown up at this time of year, though. There’s something unsettling about the back-to-schoolishness of everything. I do not believe that there is a single person who can get to mid-September without being compelled to go out and buy some new stationery. I still feel a little bit lost knowing that I’ll never again have an awkwardly posed portrait of myself in front of a faux-library or sub-Monet-woodland backdrop.
And it’s just not as acceptable to frolic, is it? You might get away with kicking a crunchy-looking pile of leaves, but only if you make it look like it might conceivably be an inevitability of your trudge along the pavement. It’s certainly no longer ok to pounce on interesting looking things that fall from trees – and what a shame that is.
When I started primary school, our school logo was a child’s drawing of a seagull swooping on a playground. Somewhere along the way, someone in authority realised that aligning their pupils with menacing sky-vermin was perhaps not the image they wanted, and so it was replaced with something altogether jollier: Red Squirrel Reading a Book.
That’s a rebrand I can get behind. I am wholeheartedly supportive of woodland iconography. How disappointing, then, that my secondary school also rebranded – and in doing so got rid of its charming acorn logo.
I love acorns, you see. Last year, I nearly spent fifteen pounds on four candles made from wax-filled acorn cups – and only didn’t because they were out of stock. So small and charming and twee!
Acorns are so very pleasing to touch and hold and smell. When I was about 9, I was walking home from school with my friend Sarah and her mum. I picked up an acorn, and split it with my thumbnail. I thrust it under Sarah’s nose. “Sniff this!” I said, “It smells like autumn!”
Her mum, according to my mum, later rang to complain that I was trying to bring her daughter into a life of drug sniffing. In retrospect, this seems unlikely – but as I have no way to verify, I am going to choose to believe that it is true. ACORNS: THE GATEWAY DRUG.
Every year, my lovely sister would win a prize in the Jersey Evening Post Writing Competition, for she is a talented and marvellous writer. At 8 years old, I wanted nothing more than to be exactly like her in every way. (And, tbh, I still think this is a laudable life goal).
So, when the competition rolled around, I was determined to enter. The catch was, it was 1995 – the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the Channel Islands from Nazi occupation – and so the JEP had themed the competition Freedom.
But it was autumn, and I had autumnal things on the brain. And so, I submitted a poem which my family helped me to title: Ode to the Fruit of the Horse Chestnut Tree.
I hereby reproduce the first stanza, for your reading pleasure:
Do conkers drive you bonkers
When they’re falling from the tree?
Do conkers drive you bonkers
Because they are so free?
Bafflingly, this literary masterpiece did not win a prize. Thank goodness, then, that I had also submitted a terribly sincere piece of prose, The Bear – a first person exploration of the misery of being a caged bear. Victory! Third place in the under-10s category was mine.
Once a week, we’d go to swimming lessons. The drive there and back felt like it took hours and hours and hours. I will remind you that we lived in Jersey: it must have been twenty minutes, at most.
Lots happened on those journeys, though. I asked my mum what a penis was. I learned the constellations (well, Orion and Cassiopeia, at least). I invented elaborate games based on raindrops racing their way down the car window.
Although these lessons happened all year round, in my memory they exist in a perpetual autumn. It was always dark when we finished. My chloriney hair would turn to icy strings on the walk to the car. But none of that mattered, because just outside the door of the pool was the most fantastic sycamore tree imaginable.
The ground was strewn with helicopters. Piles and piles of them; singles and doubles. You could grab them by the handful and throw them to the sky. No sycamore helicopter before or since has ever spiralled as perfectly as a Le Mourier helicopter. I’d stuff my pockets with them, crushing their wings, trying to capture their magic and take it home.
My first London flat had a balcony which looked out over a quiet side-street. I was 22, had no idea what I was doing with my life, and wasn’t convinced that London was for me.
Walking home from the tube one day, I took an absent-minded detour. And there, improbably, in a grey suburban neighbourhood, was a glorious golden sycamore tree. I did the only thing I could – scooped up a handful of helicopters, stuffed my coat pocket, and headed home.
I stood on the balcony and dropped them down, slowly, one by one. Watching them spin to the street brought no great revelations. I was still as confused and aimless as I had been. But I realised, with pleasure, that I was still myself – no matter how small or lost I felt. The core of me was still me, the same as it always had been. I would be OK.
Don’t let the dying leaves fool you: autumn brings fresh starts and new beginnings. As helicopters fall, hope rises. Let the bonfires burn away your fears. Something great is about to begin.