Leith on life: Our fossilised calendar

We will never experience winter’s deep darkness as more than a curiosity...

December 11, 2014
© Andrada Radu
© Andrada Radu

It was her mentioning harvest festival assembly that first kicked it off. Walking down the street from my daughter’s primary school, one of those amazing autumn days when the sun is low and simply blazes off the pavement, and—struck suddenly by a memory of the prayerbooky smell of the small parish church to which my own primary school was attached, and the glum tins of peaches in dusty wicker baskets intended for the old of the parish—I thought: this is something I can explain. A rite of dadhood.

And so I embarked, on how once upon a time our ancestors—“like your grandmother’s grandmother’s grandmother’s grandmother...”; she, frowning to take in the concept—had needed to farm crops to live. Because they didn’t yet have—sidestepping Adam Smith and David Ricardo and just sort of gesturing at Tony’s minimart as we passed it—er, all this. And how every year, around autumn time, they had the harvest and if the harvest worked they had a big pile of food and they knew they’d live through the winter so they said thanks, to, er, God—the gaps in my knowledge starting to show—or perhaps someone else originally, because everything depended on this. And now the tradition is...

“Can I have a Yo Yo?” she asked, brightly changing the subject. A Yo Yo is a processed fruit snack, much favoured by the six-and-under demographic and virtually unknown to our hibernating, harvest-festival-having forebears. That was a few weeks ago. Then there was Halloween. And now we are embarking on winter solstice, Christmas and what’s under the bodywork of Christmas. But, Lord, how that conversation gave me time-vertigo. These annual fossils, set in the limestone of the calendar, observed but evacuated of meaning.

With the exception of a handful of determined seasonal shoppers—I don’t mean the pre-Christmas Selfridges crowd; rather, the sort of people who spend Saturday mornings at farmers’ markets and won’t buy strawberries in February—the cycles of sowing and reaping, which used to be so profound, so fundamental to us, have vanished. And even those shoppers are hobbyists: crop failure won’t kill them.

We will never experience winter’s deep darkness as more than a curiosity; though the very poor still, appallingly, will be vulnerable to its cold. There are no spirits we need to propitiate. We live in clock-time, in 24-hour electric light, in chilly aisles of Kenyan mangetout and Chilean coffee.

Most of all, the start of winter has been turned on its head. It’s now a time not of retrospection and relief, but of anxiety. Once it was a time when you sat back and said: thank God, the granaries are full (assuming of course you weren’t thinking: shit, we may not make it through winter). Now, it’s simply that point in the year when you start to accept, ruefully, that the things you hoped you’d achieve this year aren’t to be completed; that there is the usual fuss of the arbitrary holidays to be navigated; and that sometime very soon—this being the closest thing we now have to the actual crop cycle in terms of the annual moment of thanksgiving or despair—you’re going to have to file a tax-return. Is this, I wonder, what Marxists call alienation? We’ve taken a jump back from the materiality of crop cycles to cycles of money; abstract, fiat money.

Out there in the world, though, where we fly it all in from, there are crops and there are seasons. The weather continues, and the cycle of the earth round the sun creates just as much darkness as ever it did, and what powers the light holding it at bay may not be a bottomless resource. Reading William Gibson and David Mitchell’s new books—both of which peer into the medium-range future, and neither of which much likes what they see—may have had an effect on my thinking.

And that thinking, walking today down the same pavement on which a few weeks ago she was eating her Yo Yo in the autumn sunshine, is: mercury’s falling. Perhaps it will freeze soon. Thin ice.