Please note that this blog no longer accepts comments (there was
too much spam coming in!). If you're reading this blog and want to
respond then please use the contact form on the site.
You can also follow me on twitter.
Update: The `hungry time' was even later in the
year than I said. See below.
A meditation on the English spring I wrote for
I live on the 55th degree north parallel. If I had gone round
the world along that line last week, through Denmark, Lithuania,
Russia, Kamchatka, Alaska, Hudson's Bay and Labrador, I would be
trudging through snow nearly all the way (there is a handy northern
hemisphere weekly snow map on the website of Florida State
University, whence I gleaned this fact). Yet instead I ate a picnic
on a Northumbrian riverbank as a blizzard of orange-tip butterflies
danced over a snowfield of wood anemones in the mild sunshine.
A snowfield of wood anemones
Is there anything as glorious as an English spring? I don't want
to sound jingoistic, but surely nowhere does it quite as well as we
do. In most of America, spring is a shockingly sudden transition
from cold and mud to heat and mosquitoes, with a brief dogwood
moment in between. My American-born wife retorts that we do every
other season abominably. Certainly the Americans do autumn (fall)
much better than we do; they have clear, crisp days and bright
leaves, while we shelter from gales and drizzle. That is because we
live downwind of an ocean, which is warm in autumn and generates
And (not to keep boasting) we generally do spring better than
most of Eurasia, too. The almond blossom is nice in Andalusia, and
the thaw on the Ob is (I am told) magnificent, but nobody can match
a dawn chorus of birds in an English copse. The chiffchaff and the
chaffinch, the blackcap and the blackbird, the rapture-recapturing
song thrush, the drowsy numbness of the nightingale - you just
cannot beat them. A tropical rain forest chorus is an atonal mess
of squawks and honks.
Few knew the magic of spring better than my fellow Northumbrian
Sir Edward Grey, who was always a naturalist first and a statesman
second, as revealed by his obsession with seeing beech leaves at
their freshest: "A Japanese Mission is being sent all the way from
Japan on purpose to destroy by another official dinner my beech
Sunday in May," he wrote in 1907, after a year as Foreign
Spring raises the spirits. A winter snowfall, a summer heat wave
and an autumn gale can be thrilling but never quite so
life-enhancing as a fine day in April. Every swallow, every
primrose and every bumblebee seems to be infected with contagious
joy. It's a myth, of course. They are not being joyful, only randy.
Maybe that is true of us, too. Maybe the excitement we feel about
warmer breezes is really just a form of seasonal lust. A young
man's fancy . . .
And yet this makes no evolutionary sense. Human beings do not
even have a mating season, let alone breed in spring. If we did
have a rut, it would be in autumn, like red deer, so that babies
could be born at a time of plenty. We are a tropical species that
lived exclusively in Africa until just 65,000 years ago and, like
the other great apes, throughout our history we bred at all times
of the year. Sure, young men feel lusty in spring, but it's the
first cotton dresses that do it, not seasonal instinct.
In fact, we never even knew about spring for 90 per cent of our
history as Homo sapiens. Unlike our cousins the
Neanderthals, who spent nearly half a million years (and four ice
ages) living through long, dark European winters, we knew only wet
and dry seasons. It seems unlikely, by the way, that this spring
worship is a late-evolving northern European peculiarity, bred into
just white people by 20,000 northern springs: that would imply that
black people do not feel the same way about spring in England as
white people, but they do.
Those who have lived in the tropics say that the arrival of rain
after a tropical drought is just as joyous a moment as the arrival
of spring after a northern winter. Maybe, then, spring worship is a
sort of mental proxy in our tropical savannah souls for the ending
of the dry season, the coming of the rains, the flush of green, the
salient colours of new fruit and the sudden proliferation of bird's
eggs, new-born gazelles and other tasty morsels.
Or perhaps to like spring is not instinct at all but a cultural
tradition passed down by our forebears and drummed into us by
Wordsworth, Housman and Browning. It certainly must have been a
relief to see the back of winter when we spent our days
Yet back in the Middle Ages and even into the 18th century,
spring was the "hunger season", when the winter stores of grain ran
out and the dairy cows stood dry for lack of hay.
It was often in April or May, not January, that hapless peasants
starved to death after lean harvests.
[Update: Tim Worstall writes in to point out that the hungry
time was even later, in June and July. In this book, for example, it says:
"....since the midsummer harvest produced no
food for humans.......So when the arduous work of haymaking was
done the medieval cultivator found himself facing another stretch
that was harder still- the toughest month of the entire year, in
fact, sincce the spring crops had not matured. The barns were at
their lowest point and the grain bins could well be empty.
Tantalisingly, on the very eve of the August harvest, people could
find themselves starving in the balmiest month of all. July was the
time of another phenomenon quite unknown to us in the modern West-
"the hungry gap".]
The coming abundance of oats, fruit, nuts and piglets was still
many weeks or months away, and a few sticks of rhubarb or the odd
pigeon squab were thin consolation. ("Here we go gathering nuts in
May" never made sense.) So here I stand, a killjoy rationalist, to
tell you that the pleasure Wordsworth felt in the "twofold shout"
of the cuckoo, or Housman in "the cherry hung with snow", or
Browning in tiny leaves round the elm-tree bole is understandable -
yet inexplicable. And none the worse for it.