Legends of the fall: is autumn all it’s cracked up to be?

·9 min read
<span>Photograph: Tatyana Tomsickova/Alamy Stock Photo</span>
Photograph: Tatyana Tomsickova/Alamy Stock Photo

Depending on your view, autumn has a bad rap, or an easy time of it. Overdue a renaissance or passé to even admit liking at all. As a child, I considered autumn the red-headed stepchild of the calendar. It was the end of summer. It was back to school. It was a period in which blue skies turned white and the sun started showing up less and less, like texts from a friend you’d made on holiday. Then, in a strange move, the government would surgically remove an entire hour of sunlight, presumably at the behest of whatever grisly nest of vampires came up with daylight savings time.

So far, so bad. But autumn was also a twilight time of change and spookiness, of crisp air, Halloween and substantially better television programmes. Sure, it’s the time of school uniforms, but it’s also the time of soup and candles and, again, much better television programmes.

Autumn has always captured the creative imagination. This may have been lost on me as a child, but even I could be stirred by the passion poets appeared to have for the season. If love, death and the tormented whims of the human condition were poets’ absolute favourite subjects to write their little rhymes about, a close runner-up appeared to be how nice it is when leaves change colour, and I had to agree.

It’s perhaps because of all these very good points that fetishising autumn has become something of a cliché, and one with a considerable backlash against the kind of generically toothsome influencers who mistake “proving how much they like autumn on Instagram” for an identity.

So let us address autumn in its totality, the Thursday afternoon of each calendar year. The cosy, chintzy, shareable heart of smug people on social media; and the centre of the northern hemisphere’s slow, gothic death march into primordial darkness. Is it over-rated or under-rated? Let’s find out.

Fashions

This has got to go down as a huge win for autumn up top. Winter couture is more about survival while summer thinks it has nice clothes, but is more often a dizzying spiral through inappropriate layers, sweat and the bodily insecurities inherent in unveiling our pinkest and wobbliest portions.

Spring should, logically, evince similar clothing standards to autumn since it’s basically the same weather in reverse, but the feckless, benighted inhabitants of our patch of the North Atlantic have never realised this and skip straight to summer clothes when it’s neither warm nor dry enough for them to make any sense.

Autumn, by contrast, comes with labels attached. Jumpers and light knits just look nicer than any other clothes while being warm and comfortable at the same time. Autumn also heralds the most useful period of time for shackets, those shirts that are worn as jackets instead of shirts, creating a convenient halfway spot for the eight or so habitable weeks of September and October where you don’t end up freezing or sweating, while dressed like a character in a mid-00s romantic comedy.

Food

Casseroles, pies, big fat soups for growing lads – all things we can technically enjoy in the summer, but which really come into their own as the light fades and we discover that having a big pot of something boiling away noisily makes us feel less cold and alone. As a further plus, autumn usually means dining will no longer be alfresco, a boon for anyone with the sense to realise that eating outside is rubbish. The only fairly major minus for autumn is that you will probably, at least once, end up being cajoled into eating outside anyway and remember all over again why you feel this way.

Very pretty leaves

Clear win here for autumn. What can we say, my GCSE poetry modules were right, they have absolutely smashed this. Big win.

Calling it ‘Fall’

Americans do this because of the aforementioned leaves which, we have got to admit, they really do. It’s the only season to have its own alias, which I think makes it pretty special. It may only be a matter of time before the others catch up with chintzy little social media-ready monikers of their own: Freeze, Bloom and Shine. Something to think about.

Guy Fawkes Night

All right if you like it, I guess. A tad underwritten as a festival and lacking in the ancillary cultural treats of the other festivals we’ll mention here. V for Vendetta tried its best to popularise Guy himself, but since he’s not really the hero of the holiday that bears his own name, this has been unsuccessful. Probably also bad for the environment. I haven’t looked it up.

Social media

Here we may run into particularly controversial territory as nothing about autumn appears to rile people more than the vogue for cataloguing the delights of autumn via Instagram. You know the type of thing: fireplaces with logs in them; leaves held in stunning 8K resolution by exquisitely manicured nails; influencers making the DreamWorks smirk next to some gourds; whatever a pumpkin spiced latte is; those pictures where it shows a tree in various states of shedding its leaves; basically anything, anything related to leaves and socks and the gathered mass of people for whom autumn is nothing more than a photocall from the Earth designed exclusively to populate everyone else’s timeline with proof that they – and they alone – love leaves more than every poet that has ever lived before.

It’s hard to go in to bat for this, so I’ll have to say this is a clear mark against autumn on its record, with one proviso to be added in the margins: videos of dogs jumping headfirst into massive piles of leaves are OK.

Halloween

This is the thorny crown of autumn – arguably the best holiday in the calendar. Growing up in Derry this was, in fact, inarguable since the entire city throws the biggest Halloween festival on Earth, explicitly for no other reason than they desired to appeal to more tourists and reckoned that this was the way to do it. They reckoned right, and my childhood was spent going into the town centre for the parades, events and fireworks display that now attract more than 120,000 people to the festivities every year.

Of course, in other less committed locales, Halloween is not given the respect it deserves, which may lead people to think of it as some sort of lesser holiday; a goth cousin of Christmas, good for nothing more than using scary puns in marketing copy, and dressing as topical references at your office party.

I could talk about Halloween’s pagan roots (which are debatable) and its Irish ancestry (questionable to say the least), but instead I’ll simply say that dressing up is pretty rad if you’re willing to put in a little more effort than the usual types and you should stop overthinking it.

One downside I will freely admit is that last year’s lockdown does place us in a tricky space regarding costumes. It’s still unclear whether that counted as a null year, granting the less imaginative among us a do-over that enables them to dress as Tiger King, banana bread or Connell from Normal People, or whether they’ll have to wipe that slate clean and focus on the cultural highlights of 2021 instead. Since there haven’t yet been any cultural highlights in 2021, government guidance on this issue is desperately warranted.

Television

The onset of September is traditionally huge for event TV. Since most people work all year round, this school’s in/school’s out approach to culture has always been slightly confusing, but I can only presume it’s because TV producers, like MPs, are so busy and important that they need to unwind with a nice big mandatory holiday every summer.

Whatever the reasons, autumn still packs a bigger TV punch than its counterparts throughout the rest of the year. Strictly and Bake Off for people who like bright lights and smiling faces, while the more dour and dramatic among us can enjoy weightier fare like the BBC’s Vigil and ITV’s Stephen.

Our American cousins truly go all out for autumn telly, with a fall release schedule so lavish that it really makes you wonder just how much money there is in the entire world. Apple will be launching its lavish adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, Netflix a live-action version of legendary anime series Cowboy Bebop, and Hulu will be releasing its long-gestating adaptation of Bryan K Vaughan and Pia Guerra’s Y: The Last Man comic series.

If you prefer your prestige TV at its most transatlantic, the brightest star in this year’s TV firmament is Succession, a show about capitalism helmed by Americans and created by a Briton. It’s the kind of snarling, bristling, sweary treat that more than makes up for the slowly dimming daylight.

Thanksgiving

Not being American, few of us are sure what exactly this commemorates, other than a very simplified version of historical events that once seemed charming and might not any more. Perhaps proof of this crumbling under scrutiny can be found in the fact that, like Christmas, it now seems to be less about the historical facts of one slightly unlikely dinner party and embodies more of a calendar-marking role in American culture; a vague period of time in which the American media we consume starts to speak about thankfulness, turkeys, returning home to eat large meals, and falling out with family while you’re there.

That every single one of these plotpoints is done bigger, better, and four weeks later at Christmas, suggests the pilgrims needed a marketing manager, or at the very least someone who knew how to coordinate the rollout of a new brand so it didn’t get stomped on by the competition.

Thanksgiving 2: Black Friday

Perhaps the oddest part of the inscrutability of the above to those of us across the pond is that we appear to have cheerfully adopted some of Thanksgiving’s other rubrics, not least the jarringly craven feast of commerce that is Black Friday – a twisted carnival of late capitalism in which very expensive things are temporarily only very slightly less expensive.

Not long ago, Black Friday only seemed to have a foothold in the British imagination via the viral videos of stampedes and occasional serious injuries that blighted social media a few years ago. Since these were not exactly ringing endorsements for the practice, and it makes no literal sense in any country that doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving in the first place, it seemed unlikely that “the day after thanksgiving” would be a big commercial tentpole for the year, but maybe all publicity is good publicity.

So many of our favourite things about autumn involve horror, alarm, and the passing of the world from light into darkness – what’s one more to add to the pile?

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