It’s better to burn out than to fade away. That’s what the torn-jeans-and-flannelette-shirt-loving North American rocker Neil Young famously reckoned in Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black). Regrettably, some of our number, including grunge god Kurt Cobain, have taken the wisdom to heart – it’s better to go out with an almighty bang than to age gracefully. Or disgracefully, as the Ulysses Motorcycle Club likes to have it.
As odd as it might sound, recently I’ve been thinking that Neil Young may actually have been referring to autumn, though being a Canadian he’d call it "fall". Let me explain.
As everyone knows, autumn is officially the best season, especially if you’re lucky enough to live in or around the Australian Capital Territory. Have you seen a better sky than the one we get at this time of year? It’s almost always as blue as a Sunday afternoon. Plus there’s a hint – or promise – of frost.
We can pull the second doona down from the cupboard and feel its comforting weight on our lap and legs. The heaters are given a run: the smell of burning dust, which reminds us that those with the neatest, cleanest homes really do have the dullest lives. And for those who are fortunate to live in an older house, there’s the piece de resistance: an open fire at 6pm, the gorgeous dry heat, the soft crinkle of the last of the coals as we stagger to bed. I could go on, and give me half an opportunity I will.
Except there’s this: autumn isn’t all sweetness and light.
The word "autumn" may derive from the Latin "autumnus", which may or may not mean – or refer to – "harvest", but it’s also a time of darkness. For a start there’s the end of daylight saving, which is always cause for much celebration in my little world (and usually results in the opening of a cheeky local red). There’s also the lengthening of the evening and night – we’re allowed to draw the curtains and forget about the world and it’s not even yet time for the TV news.
March, April, May: these are our burrowing months, our snuggle time; it’s when tracksuit pants and ugg boots become de rigueur. But, again, all this just sounds so very comforting, and it’s not really how it is.
My beloved and increasingly dog-eared Oxford Australian Reference Dictionary (1992) has this to say about autumn: "The season between summer and winter [thanks for that – I would never have guessed]; a time of insipient decline". A time of insipient decline. Isn’t that just marvellous? Let’s unpack that a bit further. Insipient: beginning, in its early stages. Decline: to deteriorate, to lose strength or vigour, or decrease. So, putting it bluntly, autumn is the beginning of the end.
Isn’t that the truth.
Firstly, we’ve had Easter to get through - that festival of torture both spiritual and culinary. That thin young bloke strung up high on the cross in his loin cloth – if only I could admit to you how I’d find the whole thing enormously erotic when as a 16-year-old boy I’d think of him while singing my way through the weekly chapel service I had to endure courtesy of the Anglican private school I attended on the oh-so-very-pious North Shore. But, luckily, the story ends well: the thin young bloke rolls away the stone, straps rockets to his feet, shoots off into the sky, and showers us all with tasteless chocolate eggs … which we hide behind garden gnomes. In a country as modern and diverse as ours, Easter has to be one of the most absurd public holidays on the calendar.
Then there’s Anzac Day, the annual memorial that no one’s allowed to criticise. Only the unpatriotic or unsympathetic has a go at Anzac Day. Which is OK – I’ve been unpatriotic and unsympathetic since I was knee high to a rat. So, let me get this off my chest. Reflecting quietly in our own private way on what war has done to nations, families and individuals, how the horrors hurt for generations, is something a fair and open-minded person might like to do. Getting up on the morning of April 25 and hanging an Australian flag from one’s shoulders? Not so much. Drinking beer from noon till nightfall while playing two-up? Inane as hosing your driveway. Letterboxing your constituents because you believe it’s politically advantageous to worship a part of our history that’s been allowed to empty into myth? There should be a law against it.
Finally, rubbing blue-ribbon salt into the wound, we’ve recently had to suffer the announcement of the latest Australian government budget. All the broken promises. All those false alarms. All that meretricious sloganeering. I’m not an economist; I’m a writer, which means I can’t even get the word "maths" on the screen without pressing the magic spell-check button. But I do know this. Roads are nice, but an internet superhighway would be nicer, particularly for those of us in regional areas who are forced to waft a handkerchief over a candle to send a message. A mention of creative enterprise – i.e. the poor old arts – wouldn’t go astray, especially if it allowed school kids the opportunity to explore their secret selves and discover bright new worlds. And – please, no drum roll – the sentence "The first duty of a government is to protect our people and strengthen our borders" doesn’t belong in a budget-night speech. It belongs in a science fiction novel, or a horror movie. The first priority of a mature first-world nation is to be a good global citizen. Will the opposition say this? If only.
So, yes, the evidence is clear: autumn really is the season of insipient decline.
It’s better to burn out than to fade away? Probably not. But, right about now, it is good to draw the blinds, light the fire, and pour a glass of cabernet, merlot, or shiraz, or a cheap-and-nasty blend of all three. And forget about the world.
Until the first day in August. When it all starts again.
Nigel Featherstone is the author of the novellas Fall on Me and I’m Ready Now.