I'm sitting in my little office on this gorgeous afternoon, looking out the window at the next-door neighbour's washing as it bobs playfully in the breeze. A few towels, in various pastel shades; a Laura Ashley-style printed skirt; one or two brightly-coloured items of baby-wear. But maybe I shouldn't be telling you about my neighbour's washing. Maybe it isn't polite.
I can't help looking at it though. It's all I can see. My window looks out directly over my neighbour's yard, and the only other things I can see are the lines of rickety fencing bordering an alley, and then another row of gardens behind that, which I only get sneaking glimpses into when the wind blows the bushes aside. It's a picturesque enough scene, in a peculiarly urban way. But sometimes I long for the countryside again.
A few years back I was living in a van and, instead of fences and paving slabs and lines of washing, all I could see out my windows were trees. Apple trees, as it happens. It was an orchard. And, of course - this being late Summer - the apple trees were full of apples, most of them still clinging stubbornly to the branches, looking like the brightly coloured baubles, red, green and golden, in a field full of Christmas Trees.
That was in Somerset. It was where I lived while I was writing my second book. And in between writing I did the logical thing. I went round picking up the windfalls to give to local farmer to make cider with.
Well I wasn't exactly giving them away. We'd got a deal. I'd give him the apples, and he'd give me cider. I was hoping for lots of cider to make up for all the work I was doing, bending down and picking up apples by the bucketful, and then emptying the buckets into sacks, and then loading the sacks into a trailer to take down to the farm. It was back-breaking work, but worth it. In the end the farmer gave me two gallons of rough, strong cider, about 2lb of Farmhouse Cheddar and the same of creamy Stilton, and fifty pounds in cash. That was for over two months work, and worth every minute of it. There's nothing like a plate of creamy, electric Stilton or tangy, nose-curling Cheddar with a pint of rough, wild cider to end a day of apple-picking. It's not so much a job, as a privilege under those circumstances.
In case you don't know, cider apples are small and tough. You can't eat them. They taste like parchment soaked in dish-water. But they make lovely cider. Also, you pick up every apple, no matter what the condition is. Under-ripe apples. Bruised apples. Spotted apples. Grubby apples. Half-eaten apples. Rotten apples. Under-sized apples. Over-ripe apples. Insect-ridden apples. Mouldy, brown, sloppy apples, dripping with slime and smelling of yeast. Every apple you can see. It's the mould that makes the cider brew.
So I was musing about this, as I was absent-mindedly loading this unpromising harvest into buckets, in between bouts of my writing-work. My mind was wandering. I started to think that apple-picking was a bit like writing, really. "All this dry, tasteless, grubby fruit," I thought, "all this rotten, slimy, bruised and molested material, loaded into paragraphs, then tied up in chapters, to give to the publisher to make a book with. Such an unpromising harvest. Such a heady brew."
Also - as anyone who has ever picked apples will know - you become obsessed. You dream about apples. Every time you close your eyes, you see apples. Every time you're relaxed, it's apples you're thinking about. Apples, apples, apples, dancing about before your eyes, nestled in the bushes or peeping out at you from the long grass. It's your life. You can't see an apple without wanting to grab it. You'll put your hand anywhere, into briars, and nettles and cowpats. You can't stop yourself. Even when the briars catch your flesh and the nettles sting, you just can't stop. In the end you hardly notice the pain. It's apples you want. The sight of an unpicked apple is an affront to your eyes. It belongs in the bucket, and then in the sack. It belongs in the cider press and then in the vat. It belongs in the barrel and then in your glass. Finally it belongs in your mouth.
And while you're doing it, while you're picking up those apples, breathing in the strong, sweet scent, sweating and panting slightly, there's a sense of deep satisfaction, that this process has been going on since the beginning of Time. You know you are doing something ancient and true. Thousands of generations of human beings just like me, picking up the Summer's harvest, so that it can be preserved and enjoyed in the depths of Winter. Sharp, strong cider: like the Summer Sun glowing in your glass.
Steve Andrews, my old friend (known to many of my readers) likes cider too. He calls it "the Amber Nectar" or "Druid Fluid", and he drinks it with relish (and to excess) about four or five times a year. Good, strong, West Country Cider: you can't beat it, once in a while. But, watch out. It's dangerous stuff. At 6% proof, and under 60p a pint from the farmer, it's liable to rot your brains. All the West Country farm-workers have florid faces, like mashed strawberries, and they talk in a low, incomprehensible drawl, like the burble of water over a weir. They say they were weaned on cider. And it shows.
It was an apple tree that led to the Fall, remember. Adam and Eve were idling around beneath the Tree of Knowledge, looking at the windfalls on the ground. "What can we do with these?" they wondered. Then they ate of the fruit. It tasted like parchment soaked in dishwater. "I know," they said, "we'll make cider." And the human race was never the same again.