You have to look hard for colour in the landscape at the moment, even on sunny days. But on drab, drear ones, when the chill factor drags the heartiest walker down, the search becomes nearly pointless. In the snow, which we still have, even more so.
But soon Lesser Celandine will be a bright exception. Last year, when my photograph was taken, a combination of cold, rain and light made the small carpets they form in the woodlands exceptionally thick and yellow. However the cheerful sight of them is always laced with professional guilt. I confused them with winter aconite, the other early flower, in one of my first novels. The result has been three decades of uncertainty of this particular flower, like a grown man who still hesitates over long division because his maths teacher once bellowed in his ear, ‘You don’t do it that way, Horwood!’
Today, after a cold and colourless walk and a restorative hot bath, I continue to strip the wallpaper in a room in my writing house. There’s not much colour there either since the nearly eighty-year-old walls (the house was built in 1932) have an accretion of papers and paints all of which but the first have been unprofessionally applied. The last is, or was, magnolia, that favourite of all colours among the Undecideds. Yet colour suddenly appears when I remove the cladding around the window put up in the Seventies when secondary glazing became the craze.
It reveals the original wallpaper, floral and to some eyes, horrible. But to a novelist, or this one, everything is a source of interest if not beauty. Someone chose this paper and as it happens I know who it was: the original owner of my house was Oxford’s premier car dealer and he built the house as his first family home, not knowing that one day it would be marginalized on a ring road by the very product on which they built their fortune. When cars began to roar by in ever-increasing numbers they moved somewhere better but kept the house for sentimental reasons until their children, by then growing old, sold it to me.
One reason it appealed was that the original owner’s surname began with H like mine and he had two ghastly tiled fireplaces built in the shape of that letter in the main bedrooms. I’ve removed them now, no easy task, but I like physical labour between writing words. Now I’ve reached the wallpaper.
I’ll leave the last good bit to the end but meanwhile continue the slow and curiously relaxing business of stripping the rest of the walls with my steamer. This brings off the layers only slowly, meaning that shadows of the old wallpaper appear like Christ’s face on the Turin Shroud. But my palette knife brutally slides through these vestiges of what went before and then the old is gone forever. Not-so-random thoughts come to me as I continue the job: redecorating a room like this, I tell myself, is not unlike writing a novel. You have to strip away a lot before getting to the essence and then you start building up again. For the novelist, like the decorator, the greatest reward often lies in the process itself.
This morning the snow began to melt and the sun to shine. I went out into my garden to see if, at least, colour’s finally appearing there. Just a winter crocus or two, already wan and fallen, their lifetime over; and sunshine in the netting of the chicken-run (the chickens long gone) in the old orchard. But at least the air’s not freezing any more and amazingly I find the daffodils, like a pack of dogs awaiting freedom, bursting to get out of the carapaces that now seemed barely to hold them. When they come colour will finally return to my garden and also across the landscape, and soon, where the celandine briefly were, bluebells will start to show.