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The Seasons: An Elegy for the Passing of the Year, by Nick Groom, Atlantic Books, RRP£22, 400 pages
Whether it’s cheese-rolling or frost fairs, folk songs or cuckoo days, interest in England’s traditions is on the rise. With increasing globalisation has come a counter-swing towards localism, driven by a fear that we are losing track of what makes one place different to another and forgetting our connection to a more rural past. The publishing industry has not been slow to react, and several books in recent years have attempted to collect together ancient seasonal customs, including The English Year by folk historian Steve Roud, Mummers, Maypoles and Milkmaids by Sarah Hannant and the wonderful England In Particular by Sue Clifford and Angela King.
Joining them now is academic and critic Nick Groom’s scholarly book The Seasons, which, as well as covering local traditions and folk history relating to the English calendar, includes discussions of the seasons’ depiction in literature, some weather lore and a little natural history. His stated aim is hortative: in the face of climate change, local homogenisation and galloping species loss, he wants culture to be “enlisted in the defence of the environment” and used “to repossess it, if you will – by conserving, maintaining, reviving and also inventing traditions that celebrate both the seasons and the calendrical year, and our place within them”.
For wildlife fans and countryphiles it can be hard not to feel pessimistic about the times we live in, and from this perspective any attempt to reconnect people with nature and the seasons is to be welcomed. But despite its title, The Seasons isn’t about how spring, summer, autumn and winter look, sound and smell, or their role in our lives today. Instead it’s about their place in literature, folklore and history – because behind it is a sense that modern society has gone astray, and that the answers we need lie firmly in our past.
Groom seems to take a dim view of modern life; he dislikes the “preening antics” of modern footballers, laments “mass-produced keg beer”, is critical of much of the media, particularly “neo-pastoral” television and radio (including – gasp – The Archers), and wishes instead to recapture and revivify what he sees as a more authentic and connected past – both for the sake of England’s countryside and its sense of itself. His previous book was about the Union Jack and he has a clear interest in national identity: how it’s formed and how it is – in his view – being lost. It’s an interesting, if tricky, subject; but he’s right to locate part of England’s identity in the richness and diversity of its folk history, and to link that history to a calendar year that was once determined (of necessity) by farming, and no longer is.
Certainly, English national identity is changing, as it has at several junctures in the past; whether it is being lost is another matter. Future folk historians may study the urban exploration movement, graffiti or – who knows? – the Caravan Club, finding in such things the seeds of an as-yet-unimaginable new sense of nationhood; the boom in nature writing, psychogeography and the literature of place may prove a symptom of the same enduring desire for local connection. It’s a good bet that our innate need for meaning will continue to generate fulfilling ways to engage with our environment, even if they do differ from what’s come before.
Where Groom is right to fear the worst, though, is for our fellow species, because while England faces changes to its cultural landscape, much native wildlife is facing the loss of the physical landscapes it relies on to survive. And if preserving things like morris dancing and midsummer celebrations helps, in turn, to protect the places from which they’ve sprung, then by all means: bring on the bells.
Melissa Harrison is author of ‘Clay’ (Bloomsbury)