In what I like to think of as The Spectator’s back garden — most people call it St James’s Park — the cherry trees are in blossom. There’s a group of six or seven of them, clouds of bright pink, in the corner nearest 22 Old Queen Street. They’re worth a look, even if you think blossom’s a bit of a girlie interest. There are more dotted around. A little grove of white cherries on the south side of the lake is ranked among the best in London, according to one website: ‘A simple point-and-shoot photo of these trees somehow transforms itself into an impressionist painting.’
But we shouldn’t rank blossom, or feel compelled to photograph it (the blossom hashtag on Instagram has five million posts), or think of it as girlie. Because all of that is beneath it. As the Japanese poet Otomo no Kuronushi wrote in the 9th century, ‘Every-one feels grief when cherry blossoms scatter.’ That’s the depth of feeling this tree can produce.
The Japanese understand this better than anyone. The native cherry blossom, they say, inspires mono no aware: a rejoicing in ephemeral beauty, and an untranslatable sense of the pathos of things. Blossom is a reminder of the fleeting nature of life, of its heartbreaking quickness.
Which is why the moment when the trees burst into flower in Japan is party time, as it has been for maybe a thousand years. People celebrate the blossom with hanami, or ‘flower-viewing’, picnics — boozy ones. Like irritating Germans with beach towels, Japanese office workers lay down big tarpaulins or rugs under the best trees to secure their spots, with signs that say when they’ll be back to eat and drink sake, which they do late into the night. They anticipate this for weeks. Segments after the evening news follow the progress of the sakura-zensen — the blossom front — in the same way that India keeps an eye on the approaching monsoon rains.
Here it’s different. Cherry blossom — even if it arrives early on in Lent — is seen as a more hopeful sign of the Christian festival round the corner. A.E. Housman writes of the ‘Loveliest of trees, the cherry now… Wearing white for Eastertide.’ But we don’t tend to indulge anything like mono no aware, that sense of pathos. So you get the anonymous 1930s parody: ‘Loveliest of cheese, the cheddar now…’ Or Ezra Pound’s sarcastic ‘O woe, woe,/ People are born and die,/ We also shall be dead pretty soon/ Therefore let us act as if we were dead already.’
But isn’t that ancient Japanese response a better one? I think so. While the blossom lasts, let’s drink, be merry, enjoy life — think on its quickness. If you can get there in time, take a picnic at the Brogdale Collections in Kent, for example, where there are 350 or so flowering cherry varieties and a little collection of Japanese artefacts. Or try Doddington Hall in Lincolnshire, the Kew Gardens Cherry Walk, Regent’s Park, or Batsford Arboretum in Gloucestershire.
Some of the best cherry trees grab your attention unexpectedly. There’s a spectacular one blossoming right now on Balham High Road, just south of the station near a hideous Jobcentre building. Not the place for a picnic, but it works its magic. Walk past a tree like this every day for a few years and you find yourself looking for buds in March and willing it to bloom. When it does, spring’s here.