August is a yellow month – hypericum, mullein, alchemilla, ragwort, oilseed rape. A small black beetle is inexorably drawn to all that yellow and the promise of protein-rich pollen, hence its generic name ‘pollen beetle’. August is also the month for an insect less visible to the eye – the berry bug or harvest mite, in the Trombiculidae family, relative of the tick.
Every August the wily, indiscriminate berry bug (that the French call aoûtat after the wily, indiscrimate month) comes to my garden – and me – to feed, enjoying what sweetness I have left. With its precise and persistent mandibles, the larva punctures my skin, injects a digestive enzyme, chews a hole called a stylostome and leaves raised red itchy spots on my arms, legs, torso, neck. Without realising what’s in the air, I start scratching and then, it dawns – the hypericum’s in bloom, and I remember it’s that time of year again: August, the difficult month.
Looking back, the long summer holidays stretched out into an infinity of sunshine and sand and no school – an exciting, dangerous mixture of freedom and boredom. Where we lived, on the south coast, most of that happened near water, either salt or chlorinated, but sunny days that weren’t beach or pool days would be spent either ‘down the lane’ or ‘over the railway line’. These were lonelier places and therefore potent with risk, though no one spoke of that; the taboo carrying a terrible weight of darkness.
‘Down the lane’ there was water, a trickling stream and a flat wooden bridge, and sometimes boys, precocious with leer and innuendo. It was where I learned what an oak tree was, saw my first celandine and picked blackberries, scratched much worse than a hundred berry bug bites. It was where a girl called Hazel from ‘up the road’ fell out of a tree and got spiked on a piece of metal jutting out of an abandoned van. The drama – screams, blood, sirens, uniforms – hushed us all for days.
‘Over the railway line’ there were pigs that squealed and grunted and boys on scramble bikes that whined like giant insects. Hidden by trees, there was a circuit they would ride around in pointless ovals on Sunday afternoons, a ritual of speed and petrol. This was the place where every December Mum and I would go in search of a Christmas tree. My mother trying to carry her saw nonchalantly, as if it were a handbag or umbrella. Again, this was dangerous, forbidden but necessary, some ancient feudal right. No one else used to have Christmas trees like ours, long-needled straggly pines, sticky with resin, rather than compact, domesticated, garage-bought spruce. We’d spend a long time choosing ‘the best one’ – the right size (no taller than the ceiling), a good branching shape – and carry it back, Mum at one end, me at the other, like a comedy double act.
We’d also collect cones that my mother would paint white or scatter with glitter to make Christmas decorations, miniature worlds that confounded scale, where a tiny Santa Claus sat on his sleigh in a forest of enormous pinecones and a tall red candle that year after year was never lit. We’d find holly and cut a carrier bagful to prop sprigs behind pictures or on the mantelpiece in odd little pots that only appeared at Christmas out of one of the big brown cardboard boxes Mum kept on top of her wardrobe. The holly also scratched and prickled but it was easier to bear then because we were all wrapped up in coats and scarves.
I grew up thinking that was what ‘Nature’ did to you – cut through your skin, made you itch, sometimes drew blood. It wasn’t clear to whom it belonged, whether we were entitled to it or not. It was all somewhere else, prepositional – ‘down’, ‘over’, ‘across’, ‘beyond’. Entering it meant crossing a threshold into another world, transgressive, full of menace. Our occasional forays to find something we needed, according to the season – brambles or greenery – involved taking something that both was and wasn’t ours. The house was changed by it, more and less itself. It made me feel the gnaw of adrenalin, cortisol, that sense of a bigger, unknown world beyond our street, my school, the town.
My mother had a phase of making arrangements out of dried grasses and ornamental seedheads – arid affairs that gathered dust on the radiogram and windowsills. I’d keep going back to look at them, touch them, puzzled by this bit of outside brought indoors, not knowing if they were dead or alive.
Because we lived in a flat we didn’t have a garden. There was a small patch of green in front of our block planted with bland shrubs that never flowered, mostly waxy laurels, a single oak tree, with thin grass in between. My mother was the self-elected custodian of this contingent green space, requiring her to go out with shears and saw at regular intervals to keep everything in check. The job was really housework outdoors, a stay against chaos and doom, the shame of untidiness.
A bookish child, I recoiled from anything with a whiff of animals. The nearest I got to the countryside was Anne of Green Gables, and later Wuthering Heights – an unhealthy bipolar map of the world. When we read The Wind in the Willows at school, I sulked and tuned out, listening to my own thoughts instead. What had a talking toad to say to me? I have great caverns in my imagination full of trapped rabbits and lost otters, caged bears and dark horses.
One reliable zone of fascination however was the wildflower series of Brooke Bond Tea cards. It was incredibly exciting when my mother opened a new packet and I could slip my fingers between the green paper and the lining to fish out a new card and see what it was. I learnt everything I know about flags of the world, the history of cars and costume from them. And wildflowers. That’s how I knew that the yellow flower that grew down the lane in the spring was lesser celandine, and recognized others from C.F. Tunnicliffe’s blurry paintings: cowslip, sweet violet, foxglove, ragged robin.
Their names were enchanting – the sound of them like snatches of song, a spell, the sort of thing you might call someone you loved. These flowers might have been printed on small rectangular pieces of card tucked inside packets of tea but I recognized them. Naturally they became part of me, my story, an almost whispered, immensely seductive invitation to explore one corner of the natural world that didn’t bite and mostly didn’t scratch, that stayed still, didn’t run away and abandon you. Flowers made no noise. Among them there was no sense of trouble. I knew I could go there because I was there already – I was ‘of’ it – a lesson in the genitive case.
Another geometric world I shared with my mother was more arcane – even the name sounded mysterious, like a flower itself. Philately. Around the age of ten I became interested in stamps and, with my junior kit (album, hinges, starter set and magnifying glass) bought from Woolworths in the town a bus ride away, I began collecting. I soon graduated to being a specialist – having ascertained that a proper philatelist concentrated on stamps from one country, or illustrated with a chosen theme. More for pragmatic reasons than patriotic ones, I decided to collect stamps from what everyone in those Commonwealth days called Great Britain. I pounced on all the letters that arrived through our letterbox and soaked the stamps off their envelopes in saucers of water; big commemorative ones, a special prize. As with the tea cards, this is where I extended my education and learned about the world’s currencies and capitals, British bridges, the origins of antiseptics and the Red Cross. My mother and I would go to stamp fairs and look at thousands and thousands of stamps in an afternoon. I’d buy a few sets or first day covers to add to my collection and when we got home we’d consult the Stanley Gibbons catalogue, amazed how much each scrap of coloured paper was worth. Whenever a new set of stamps was issued, my middle sister, who still lived at home, would post me a first day cover. Although the anniversaries they commemorate have long past, I still have them – Votes for Women (50 years), TUC (100 years), Captain Cook’s First Voyage (200 years); my sister’s rounded capitals in thick blue biro, my name and our address, before postcodes were invented.
Turning the musty yellowing pages of my home-made loose-leaf folder, which I still have, I discover the threepenny Spring Gentian issued in 1964 to mark the Tenth International Botanical Congress in Edinburgh. There’s a smudge and a space where both the hinge and stamp have been lost above my note recording the ‘1/3d Fringed Water Lily’. By the time I was nearly nine in April 1967, the price of a second-class stamp had risen to 4d. There were four different ones in the British Wildflowers series – Hawthorn and Bramble; Larger Bindweed and Viper’s Bugloss; Ox-Eye Daisy, Colstfoot and Buttercup; Bluebell, Red Campion and Wood Anemone – all taken from Keble Martin’s classic Concise British Flora. The 9d Dog Violet and the 1/9d Primrose were drawn by the distinguished botanical artist Mary Grierson. Both their names in tiny capitals at the bottom of each stamp; I had no idea who they were, or what many of these flowers looked like in Real Life. But I was touched in a place that stamps celebrating National Productivity Year or British Technology, or even the First Flight of Concorde, could never reach.
Despite my focus on British stamps, I also had a soft spot for stamps from other countries emblazoned with flowers, intriguing as book covers in a foreign language – lilies from Hungary (Magyar), cacti from Brazil (40 pesetas), waterlilies from Viet Nam, tulips from Afghanistan (‘Queen of Sheba’ and ‘Jewel of Spring’). When I went to the Grammar School and started to learn it, I began to understand the usefulness of botanical Latin – all those different countries, alphabets and painting styles, using the same way of describing their flowers.
And for all their bright extravagance, it was comforting that they were contained in squares and rectangles. Sometimes even triangles, from countries I’d never heard of. The shapes were like flowerbeds, small pieces of garden you could hold in your hand, carry in your pocket or pencil case, put in a special book to look at on rainy days or lonely nights.
Edna O’Brien called August ‘a wicked month’. It is a difficult month for us all, I think, but especially for gardeners. The big story about growth is past, fewer plants are in flower and things are starting to get blousy, set seed. Hungry caterpillars and insects leave their perforated calling cards in petals, leaves and stalks. Green is starting to fade and dry. Karel Capek, in his curious and wonderful book The Gardener’s Year, published in 1929, says ‘a real gardener feels it in his bones that August is already a turning point.’
Those achingly long summer holidays. Nights still short, showered with meteors, petals falling from the heavens. Postcards landing on the mat, pictures of faraway places and exotic stamps. Tanned skin freckled with bites. A big fat book to disappear inside. My mother’s birthday, Lily – named after a flower – who showed me all she could of Nature, in that strange, tight world, the working-class garden of the 1960s.
I wrote this for Durham Book Festival nearly a decade ago when I began the botanical journey that led to my poetry collection ‘Reading the Flowers’, published by Arc in 2016. To celebrate it being on this year’s new Laurel Prize longlist, initiated by Poet Laureate Simon Armitage and the Poetry School, Arc have a special offer throughout August. You can buy the hardback for the price of the paperback (the offer also applies to my previous collection ‘You are Her’) via their website. In these difficult times for small presses (and poets), buying poetry books is a great way to support literature and culture and keep us all thriving.
Enjoy your August and stay well.