We woke one morning to discover that someone had run through the village, spraying the trees with gold. Outside the kitchen window the green looks as if a thousand boxes of cornflakes have been spilled across it; cars that are parked nearby overnight drive off in the morning with a mosaic of leaves stuck to their windscreens.

WE WOKE one morning to discover that someone had run through the village, spraying the tree leaves gold. Outside the kitchen window the back green looks as if a thousand boxes of large cornflakes have been spilled across it; cars that are parked nearby overnight drive off in the morning with a mosaic of leaves stuck to their windscreens.

Beneath the spreading horse chestnut, the split shells of conkers lie like our answer to coconuts, white, gleaming and empty. For the past couple of weeks children have been throwing up sticks to dislodge beauties, or sitting on their mums’ and dads’ shoulders, straining to reach higher fruit. The chestnut’s splayed leaves mock their outstretched fingers, in giant gloves as drawn by Quentin Blake.

The Borders are ablaze with colours of a tint seen only on Van Gogh’s palette. It is spectacular and, in this of all years, the sight of woodland turned into a paintbox could not be a more timely pick-me-up. Yet even as I write, leaves flutter downward, dislodged by blackbirds or by the pull of October gravity. By the time you’re reading this, some trees will be almost bare. In the back garden, the whitebeam is shaking its head, scattering oval ribbed leaves over the grass. Whenever I sweep up, there’s plenty more where they came from. It’s a task I enjoy, a sort of horticultural hoovering although, unlike some, we don’t have a leaf blower. I prefer the swish of the rake and gathering armfuls, along with windfall apples nibbled by birds and mice.

I’ve always loved late autumn, but its arrival is less welcome than usual. Most poetry, as in Keats’ famous ode, glories in the abundance of colour and atmosphere, although WH Auden is as miserablist as they come in Autumn Song. More appropriate this year, to my mind, is Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal, which I spent a rainy afternoon reading. Previously I’d only known a few lines, often read aloud by my husband, who knows parts of it by heart: “And August going out to the tin trumpets of nasturtiums/And the sunflowers’ Salvation Army blare of brass”. The whole work is an immersion in desperate times in Europe, as observed by a man too young to offer much hope.

Autumn Journal was written as the summer of 1938 turned to winter, during which the Munich Agreement was settled, and the Spanish Civil War began stuttering to its end. MacNeice was in London and his evocations of the city and his own affairs over the months to New Year are vivid and sombre. For all its picaresque observations, this is a profound, plangent and foreboding piece of work. While he wrote, he could not have known that one year later the country, and much of the world, would be at war. Nevertheless, intimations of menace underlie its mood. Many of its lines could have been written for our present predicament, not just Covid but also Brexit: “Conferences, adjournments, ultimatums,/Flights in the air, castles in the air/The autopsy of treaties, dynamite under the bridges,/The end of laissez faire.”

In MacNeice’s epic poem, as today, autumn reaches into the heart of every city but in the countryside it is all-pervasive, and offers a misleading sense of normality. Tractors rattle past, their trailers heaped with potatoes so pungent you can smell them from a distance. On the main road out of the village earlier in the week an escaped bull, a Belted Galloway, created a logjam. Grazing by the roadside, he could not be budged. It was two hours before he could be coaxed back into his field and traffic could get by once again. I see he had been put into solitary confinement, well away from the heifers and calves.

Meanwhile, gardens are being put to bed or, in our case, allowed to stay up a little too late, as we catch up on a backlog of muddy duties, among them planting bulbs. This involves the almost industrial-scale removal of stones as, inch by inch, we reclaim the garden from its subcutaneous layer of rubble. As I was in the process of doing this, half the village seemed to pass and pause for a chat. It was a heart-warming glimmer of the old days, when people would often meet up for coffee, or gin, and jamboree in the village hall. With falling temperatures and heavy rain, all of that has fallen into abeyance and the lack is sorely felt.

With Hallowe’en approaching, carved pumpkins are beginning to appear on windowsills. They are the embodiment of autumn, night-time suns that banish the gloom and merrily brighten the darkening evenings. As I was thinking of carving one of my own for the doorstep, I found YouTube filled with the most gruesome examples, which turn fun into horror as big pumpkins crunch screaming baby pumpkins, or have their heads split open, allowing their seedy “brains” to spill out. I know this is the season of ghouls, but I’ll be putting a smiley face on mine.

Listening to the news, it’s hard to believe that the crisis looming over us will one day be history. MacNeice was living in far graver times than ours and, while the present predicament is deeply worrying, his era puts ours in perspective. “Sleep to the noise of running water/Tomorrow to be crossed, however deep;/ This is no river of the dead or Lethe,/ To-night we sleep/On the banks of Rubicon – the die is cast;/There will be time to audit/The accounts later, there will be sunlight later/And the equation will come out at last.”

He was, of course, right. Just as Derek Mahon, who died at the start of this month, was right when he wrote his popular poem, Everything Is Going To Be All Right. This injunction to optimism, written 40 years ago when he was very ill, was often quoted as the pandemic took hold: “There will be dying, there will be dying,/ but there is no need to go into that.”

Like MacNeice, Mahon calls on the sun for solace. “The sun rises in spite of everything”, he writes. As I type, the late morning sun comes and goes. When it breaks through the clouds and hits the trees and the carpet of leaves at their feet, the golden light is dazzling.