As our run of annual Shadows and Reflections draws to a close, Ian Preece looks back over 2021.
Things were simpler back in the day. According to my 1968 edition of The Observer Book of Trees there are three types of cherry tree native to the British Isles. The relative low-dwelling height and bush-like tangled suckers – roughly half of which have leant over our fence for longer than we’ve been here – suggest the one next door is a Wild or Dwarf Cherry. The cherries are perhaps more white than red – that can depend on the amount of sunshine that breaks through past other people’s loft extensions – but they are slightly acidy, or possess the ‘juicy flesh of a distinctly acid character’. Morellos, possibly – but they look more like Napoleons. Still, urbanite ignorance notwithstanding, in the two decades we’ve lived here there’s perhaps been one summer where the boughs haven’t been laden with fruit. Last summer I made four cherry loaf cakes. The blossom every April makes you want to weep.
Next door have sold up and moved to Cambridgeshire. The sign outside says ‘sold’ but the house has been eerily empty since September. This is great for playing U-Roy’s Version Galore at wall-shaking volume. Every morning I look out the kitchen window at the overhanging cherry tree, catch the occasional robin hopping on a branch, some blue tits hovering by next door’s empty bird feeder, make porridge and tea and stick the needle on a record. Over the summers, I seem to have come to an understanding with the local birdlife: come mid-to-late June, no more swearing and lobbing of cherry stones – the upper branches are for pigeons, crows, blue tits, coal tits and great tits; the lower for me and my stepladder and colander. Even the squirrels have started clearing up fallen half-eaten cherries from the concrete before raiding the branches.
When we moved in here there was a magnificent apricot tree at the back of our narrow strip of garden. For a few Julys it was a blaze of orange. Then one year it just died. Our fence came down in a storm and I came home from work one evening and the guy putting a new fence in had cut the tree down, just leaving the stump.
A few doors down there used to be an apple tree and a pear tree. The latter was cut down because ‘they didn’t like clearing up the leaves’ in autumn – according to the youth operating the woodchipper out in the street when I asked him about this destruction and if he could please turn the racket off between feeding the branches in. For some reason – getting older, I guess – this left me far more depressed than our own apricot tree dying. It brought to mind Christopher Kirkley’s (of Sahel Sounds) sleevenotes to Lewlewal de Podor’s LP Yiilo Jaam, which quote the Malian writer Amadou Hampâté Bâ: ‘Every time an old man dies a library has burned.’ My favourite quote of this year is from Terry Hall. In an article in Uncut about the new Specials album of protest songs, he recalled the isolation of the pandemic and how home-schooling his young son got him through it all: ‘When I had time to reflect, I decided I’d rather not reflect. I’d rather watch a goat climbing a tree on YouTube.’
Admittedly, in winter, the gnarled, twisted and blackened stump of next door’s cherry tree doesn’t look so good – it’s definitely not a Tibetan cherry – in the misty, wet damp it resembles a harbinger of the apocalypse, a remnant from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Strangely beautiful, all the same. The other morning I was standing by the sink in my dressing gown and immediately ducked back from the window. There was a youngish couple standing in next door’s garden talking to a builder. Even a know-nothing dolt like me can tell there’s something wrong with their kitchen extension – the mud from the garden, about 3 feet from the trunk of the cherry tree, comes right up to the stucco of their back kitchen wall. The previous owners had trouble with rats. You wouldn’t build on top of that kitchen, those foundations. You’d probably have to knock the lot down.
I’ve been stressing about this all year – to the point where my mum bought me a young cherry tree in a pot for my birthday. A couple of winters back, just before the pandemic, we had a tree surgeon in to trim the out-of-control conifers that were swaying wildly in winter storms at the back of the garden, right behind the shed by the boundary wall. Much as I didn’t have a problem with them crashing down through the extension and picture window of the house on the neighbouring road that I recall once hung a UKIP poster on the side of their residence – that probably wouldn’t have been worth the insurance payout and all the hassle. After lopping off the conifers the tree surgeons wheeled in a huge kind of mechanical anteater and sucked up the stump of the old apricot tree, pulverised it to mulch. I’ve planted the new sapling there. Fuck ’em all – we’ll plant an orchard. Everyone knows cherry trees symbolise love, hope, fresh beginnings and peace. Another favourite quote of the year comes at the back of Mark Hooper’s The Great British Tree Biography, from Brian Clough’s brother Bill: ‘Brian has a thing about trees. Can’t stop looking at them. I’ve been abroad with him when he’s been in rapture over an avenue of pine trees. “Look at them, Bill,” he’d say. “Aren’t they beautiful! People don’t appreciate beauty these days. They look at everything but they don’t really see.”’
Planting the new cherry tree is about as much hope as I can muster.