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This report is taken from PN Review 174, Volume 33 Number 4, March - April 2007.

Autumn Letter from the Fens M.C. Caseley

Seven weeks into term, autumn finally made an appearance. The late summer days, hot and indistinguishable from August, disappeared overnight and we woke to morning mists, some of which hung over this pocket of South Lincolnshire until lunchtime. Driving over the Bedford Levels, headlights were necessary from 3.30 pm. As for fruitfulness, that was indeed all around us: hedges bore complex constellations of haws and berries, mature trees groaned under a weight of horse-chestnuts and boxes of surplus apples appeared at the church porch, labelled 'help yourself'.

The annual task of teaching Keats' 'To Autumn' to sixth-formers arrived, serendipitously. It is no chore - the lines never lose their lustre - but as always, I wondered about the cultural relevance of the detail and our remoteness from it. Thatches and cottage-eaves had to be explained, despite the proximity of self-consciously unspoilt villages such as Clare's Helpston, less than ten miles away, over the border in Cambridgeshire. The job of gleaning after the harvest, a more obscure allusion these days, also needed footnoting; the emptied, ploughed fields, earth richly gleaming in patterned rows, were a handy illustration that, whatever the changes within farming itself, the annual ritual to some extent remains.

What has largely disappeared from harvesting is the back-breaking labour: the winnowing, reaping and the use of the granary Keats alludes to in his second stanza. Nominal traces remain - drive through any village nearby and wealthy folk live in 'The Old Granary', 'West Barn', ...


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