St Andrew’s Day. “Official” winter starts tomorrow, but here in the heart of the Trossachs, yesterday was really a winter’s day. 1 degree Celsius. The floods have receded in the Callander meadows, and I was able to walk by the banks of the River Teith, to the confluence of the two rivers that drain Loch Lubnaig and Loch Venachar, and then round Tullipan, a crescent of handsome villas nestling under the Callander Crags. The trim gardens border the road without fence or hedge, giving the neighbourhood a North American feel. I could have been in Canada. There wasn’t a breath of wind. Nature is hunkering down.
Some people dread the winter, this one more than most, so full of uncertainty and anxiety as it is. It’s not just Covid; there is the small matter of our departure into the mid-Atlantic in one month’s time, with as yet no sign of a deal with Brussels, and, more importantly, no convincing solution to the problem of a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. I admitted to somebody the other day that it had crossed my mind to buy in a few tins of sustenance just in case the supermarket shelves were suddenly laid bare. I was asked, “How many tins? Couple of hundred?” The trouble is, if everybody does it, the shelves will be bare. Hoarding is not good. But maybe our angst is misplaced. Do you remember the Millennium Bug? At midnight on 31/12/99 aeroplanes were going to drop out of the sky. The only excruciating thing that happened was that Tony Blair held the Queen’s hand to sing Auld Lang Syne.
I quite like winter, though I wish it didn’t last so long. But I’m always struck by a sense of readiness for change as one season morphs into another. Time to embark on the winter journey, wherever it will take us. With this in mind, I got out my recording of Schubert’s Winterreise, sung by Jon Vickers, accompanied by Geoffrey Parsons, a rendition of great beauty and simplicity, with none of the portentous gravitas that is so often laid on with a trowel.
Fremd bin ich eingezogen,
Fremd zieh ich wieder aus.
I came here as a stranger, and I will leave as a stranger. It’s that Schubertian jilted lover again. Sometimes I get impatient with him. So she chucked you! Get over it, mate.
Was soll ich länger weilen,
Daß man mich trieb’ hinaus?
Good question! Why should I tarry here any longer, so that I can be thrown out? In his Schubert’s Winter Journey, Anatomy of an Obsession (Faber & Faber 2015), Ian Bostridge translates weilen, to tarry, as “hang around”. The last thing unrequited man ought to do is hang around. Gute Nacht.
The trouble is, he never really gets over it. What are we to make of Der Leiermann, the twenty fourth and last song in the cycle? The Hurdy-Gurdy Man. It’s so bleak.
Talking of unfulfilled love, I happened to catch Brief Encounter on the telly the other night. (And incidentally, talking of the telly, I couldn’t help noticing that BBC 1 put on Shakespeare’s Coriolanus at 12.50 last night. I wonder what the viewing figures were.) But back to Brief Encounter. Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson fall for one another in a railway station tea room, embark, or nearly embark, on a furtive affair, and make one another thoroughly miserable. Ms Johnson is married to a rather dull man who does crossword puzzles. The Howard character, a GP with an interest in preventative medicine, finally departs on his own Winterreise, to Johannesburg. At least he chose a good climate. The soundtrack to Brief Encounter is, of course, Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto. Rachmaninoff had suffered a nervous collapse because the composer Cui had written a vicious and damning criticism of his First Symphony at its première. It might have finished Rachamaninoff for ever. He went off on his own Winterreise, attended a therapist, recovered, and composed the second concerto. Maybe this music explains why Yehudi Menuhin greatly admired Brief Encounter. There is a story – perhaps apocryphal – that during the film’s first night, somebody addressed Trevor Howard from the back stalls. “When are you going to **** her?” I don’t think that would have been Lord Menuhin.
Anyway, as we all embark on our Winterreise, we must make sure we don’t get down in the mouth. But personally I think we should postpone Covid Christmas until we get a vaccine. As King Lear said to Gloucester, “Thou must be patient. We came crying hither.”