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Autumn Leaves

Autumn Leaves by John Everett Millais (1855-56): Manchester Art Gallery

I think autumn is my favourite season. Summer is great but I always have the feeling that it is more transitory than the other seasons - its glory can be brief and there's a sense that one is just waiting for it to be over. Do farmers wish it away so that harvest can take place? Autumn comes in many forms - this one appears to be of the damp variety - but I am enjoying the early morning sharp light and the mists of late afternoon and the growing desire to be cosy and tucked away. A recent journey across the flatlands of the Breckland around Thetford saw the lowest of low-lying mist creeping across the fields.

photo: Phil Baker

Many years ago I was staying in a country hotel in a location I can no longer recall. Sitting in the grounds in the afternoon I watched an elderly gardener raking the lawn of its fallen autumnal leaves. He had an easy lazy style with the spring-tine rake that not only gathered the leaves but scarified the lawn to take out dead grass and moss. The fine detritus of the scarifying laying like cut hair and fluff swept into the corner of the barber's floor. The gardener pulled the leaves into a pile, scooped them into his high-sided barrow and tipped them onto a larger pile on the edge of the lawn that was gently smoking away before returning to his raking. A little later I looked up and he was gone, leaving a pristine, fresh looking sward. The following morning the leaves had returned.

An ex-colleague, who lives in a nearby town, fights an annual battle against a large oak tree that, whilst not in her garden, dumps its leaves in the small space at the back of her house. We used to spend October & November Monday mornings bemoaning the tide of leaves that had descended over the weekend. There's something cathartic about revealing the lawn from under the leaf-fall at the end of a long day at work - using the last of the light to make inroads into the day's efforts by the trees that are part of our garden. Both of us wished for strong winds from the west that would take the leaves far away so that they would be raked up from a garden in The Netherlands!

John Everett Millais:self-portrait 1881

I have a tendency to fixate on a topic and when I 'discovered' the creativity of the Pre-Raphaelites I read several books about the artists, writers and others that formed part of their circle. One of a number of favourite art works is Autumn Leaves as it connected to the memory related above. Painted by John Everett Millais when he was living in Perth, Scotland and exhibited at the

Royal Academy in 1856, it was described by the critic John Ruskin as "the first instance of a perfectly painted twilight." The picture depicts four girls in the twilight collecting and raking together fallen leaves in a garden. They are making a bonfire, but the fire itself is invisible, only smoke emerging from between the leaves. The two girls on the left, modelled on Millais' sisters-in-law Alice and Sophy Gray, are portrayed in middle-class clothing of the era; the two on the right are in rougher, working class clothing and the painting has typically been interpreted as a representation of the transience of youth and beauty, a common theme in Millais' art.

Johnny Mercer c1947

Autumn Leaves is also the title of composition by John Mercer (1909-1976) who was an American lyricist, songwriter, and singer. He was also a record label executive who co-founded Capitol Records. He is best known as a Tin Pan Alley lyricist, but he also composed music. He was a popular singer who recorded his own songs as well as songs written by others from the mid-1930s through the mid-1950s. Mercer's songs were among the most popular hits of the time, including "Jeepers Creepers", "Moon River", "Fools Rush In", "Days of Wine and Roses", "Hooray for Hollywood", "Too Marvelous for Words" and "Autumn Leaves". He wrote the lyrics to more than 1,500 songs, including compositions for movies and Broadway shows. He received nineteen Oscar nominations and won four Best Original Song Oscars.

As a lyricist, Johnny Mercer has many famous lines attributed to him but my favourite quote is from a conversation with Michael Parkinson. When asked about another writer he responded, "I've s**t better lyrics than him!" Over 20 years ago a young George played a simple jazz piano version in a little concert in Durham - it was a proud parent moment!


Autumn always brings out the need in me to cook with cider. Our garden provides us with wonderfully sharp Bramley and small crisp Cox as well as large James Grieve - tangy when young and sweet when mature. The latter no longer a shop apple but was grown as an excellent pollinator variety in orchards around Canterbury - makes great juice. Sadly, we do not have a press so the cider comes from local supermarkets - I'm a fan of dry cider from Herefordshire.

One-pot cider chicken

Serves 4


4 Fresh Chicken Breast Fillets

1 tbsp plain flour, seasoned

1 tbsp olive oil 500ml English Cider

250g/8oz small potatoes, thickly sliced

1 medium Bramley apple, peeled, cored and chopped

10g /less than ½oz fresh thyme

200ml/6fl oz half-fat crème fraîche

1 Cox eating apple, sliced into 16 pieces


1. Coat the chicken in the seasoned flour.

2. In a large frying pan with a tight-fitting lid, heat the oil then brown the chicken on both sides for 2-3 minutes.

3. Pour in the cider and add the potatoes. Bring to the boil then add the chopped Bramley apple and thyme. Season well, cover and simmer for 20-25 minutes, until the potatoes are tender and the chicken is thoroughly cooked with no pink meat.

4. Stir in the crème fraîche and Cox apple slices and simmer uncovered for 5 minutes until the apples are just tender.

Serve with shredded greens or broccoli.

Try this: replace the chicken breast fillets with 4 pork loin steaks.

Word of the Day is ...

"Ochlophobist" -


noun: one who fears large crowds

from; Greek okhlos (crowd, mob) and phobos (fear). First used in 1867

Endurance ice-bound

ps: Sophy Gray married the Dundee jute millionaire James Caird. He was one of the sponsors of Sir Ernest Shackleton's ill-fated Antarctic expedition of 1914 to 1916. The ship's boat, the James Caird, in which six of Shackleton's expedition made an epic voyage of 800 nautical miles (1,500 km) from Elephant Island to South Georgia, was named in appreciation of Caird's contribution. Shackleton's journey was a remarkable feat and worthy of further investigation if you are unfamiliar with the story. The James Caird is on display at Dulwich College but due to Covid-19 is currently not open to the public.

pps: that Young woman playing Autumn Leaves is not George!


"The falling leaves drift by the window The autumn leaves of red and gold.... I see your lips, the summer kisses The sunburned hands, I used to hold since you went away, the days grow long And soon I'll hear ol' winter's song. But I miss you most of all my darling, When autumn leaves start to fall." - Johnny Mercer
"To succeed in the world, it is much more necessary to possess the penetration to discern who is a fool than to discover who is a clever man." - Talleyrand
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