Each year when I see the first conker of the autumn I think: fire up the ancestral ovens! This incendiary thought comes from the Ronald Searle cartoon in Nigel Molesworth’s How to be Topp of a sooty retainer sliding a tray of the young master’s conkers into a brick oven. School cads, Molesworth tells us, ‘are inclined to cheat at conkers having baked them for 300 years in the ancestral ovens. These conkers belong to the National Trust they are so tough and if you strike one your new conker fly into 100000000000 bits.’ What do prep school boys do with their conkers today? Bake them in the ancestral Aga?
Autumn: season of mists and mellow pumpkin soups. Of new leather boots and sausages with red onion chutney, of sheepskin slippers and mushrooms mushrooming through the mulch. ‘So many of us! So many of us!’ Sylvia Plath had her mushrooms cry. So many of them in Kensington Gardens, where I take my morning walk. Leggy little ones with Peking hats and great flat ones for hookah-smoking caterpillars to sit on. Lewis Carroll’s Alice dares to eat her caterpillar’s mushroom, but I am not so brave. What would happen if I tried the Kensington mushrooms? Would I, like Alice, grow to horse-chestnut-height? Or would I just be very ill? I buy my mushrooms at Waitrose to be on the safe side.
The great discovery of this autumn is that it isn’t just hippies and stoners who call them ‘shrooms’. Here is Virginia Woolf in her 1918 diary: ‘I must go and pick ’shrooms, the sun being out.’
For all my cheerful talk of pumpkin soup, I am prone to glooms at this time of year. On a fine mists-and-mellow-fruitfulness morning, I am as high as Bertie Wooster waking up to ‘one of those days you sometimes get latish in the autumn, when the sun beams, the birds toot, and there is a bracing tang in the air that sends the blood beetling briskly through the veins’. But on a sodden, soggy afternoon when every conker and mushroom in the park is two inches under the mud, the blood does not beetle and efforts must be made to keep spirits up. Shopping for a new winter coat. Baked apples for tea. Book-buying sprees, laying in stores of reading for longer nights.
This year, I have returned to Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series, last read rapturously when I was seven. My memory of the books was that it was always autumn, perhaps because the Prince Edward Island maple trees lent themselves so well to the season. Anne is an autumn girl. ‘I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers,’ she says. ‘It would be terrible if we just skipped from September to November, wouldn’t it?’ When Anne is driven home in an open buggy one chilly evening against a saffron sky, she thrills to the hot supper her adoptive aunt has prepared. ‘Marilla, a broiled chicken! You don’t mean to say you cooked that for me!’ That is what you need on a chilly October night: your own aunt Marilla, putting a chicken on to broil and baking a pumpkin and pecan pie in the mighty ancestral oven.