The Month that Likes to Say No – Frank McNally on the struggle to love November

An Irishman’s Diary

November is hard to love in its own right. Photograph: Elena Leonova/iStock

It has become a point of annual principle with me to embrace the eleventh month of the year as an event in itself, without reference to the twelfth. But this is not easy, as I found during the debacle surrounding my attempted launch recently of the Society for the Appreciation of November as a Thing Apart, which collapsed in a split over the acronym (SANTA).

Resisting the premature gratification of Chr*s*m*s, which is being everywhere foisted upon is, is a struggle, although I continue to try.

Only last weekend, I abandoned a shopping mission because the store was playing Johnny Mathis's When A Child is Born, which is a thing I refuse to tolerate earlier than December. Equally, if I hear Chr*s*m*s songs in a café before then, and haven't yet committed to ordering my Americano, I flee while I still can.

Even so, November is hard to love in its own right, especially in a week like this one, when the last glimmers of autumn are gone and none of the compensatory charms of winter – a snowfall without bread shortages, for example – have yet arrived.


Around Dublin at least, it has been cold and windy and wet, with gun-metal-grey skies blotting out the sun during the short interludes between night.

In the nature-worshipping French Revolutionary Calendar, November was split between Brumaire (month of Fog) and Frimaire (month of frost).

But we haven’t had either of those weather conditions yet. Instead this week, thanks to the wind chill, we just had air that felt cold enough for frost, but without any cheering glitter on the ground.

Speaking of Frost, the poet of that surname was a November enthusiast. Or so he let on in My November Guest, in which his imagined visitor is melancholy (the noun, that is, not the adjective), who loves this month and assumes he doesn't, partly because she talks so much he can't get a word in:

“The desolate, deserted trees,/The faded earth, the heavy sky,/The beauties she so truly sees,/She thinks I have no eye for these,/And vexes me for reason why.”

Only as an apparent aside, while she’s still busy gabbing, does Frost let us in on his secret: “Not yesterday I learned to know/The love of bare November days/Before the coming of the snow,/But it were vain to tell her so,/And they are better for her praise.”

Yes, I think I recognise that feeling, although whenever I see melancholy calling around my house at this time of year, I pretend not to be in. As for trees, in contrast with Frost's poetic versions, I'm also reminded of the one Tom Waits used when comparing this month with a firing squad: "November has tied me/To an old dead tree/Get word to April/To rescue me."

If November had a voice, it would be something like the one Waits has had since the late-1980s, when he started playing the role of a ruined old drunk called Frank (no sarcastic comments, reader).

As with Frank's Wild Years, in fact, his November song was written as part of a musical play, The Black Rider, which was in turned based on an old German opera called Der Freischütz ("The Marksman").

Hence the firing squad, I suppose, although that image aside, Waits’s lyrics also play on November’s most obvious PR problem: the negativity of its opening syllable.

Here’s his first verse: “No shadow/No stars/There’s no moon and/No cars/November/It only believes/In a pile of dead leaves...”

This bears more than a passing likeness to a 19th-century poem by Thomas Hood, which didn't so much have the last word on November as the first. "No sun – no moon!/No morn – no noon –/No dawn – no dusk – no proper time of day" it began, and failed to grow any more cheerful thereafter.

By contrast, the other word contained in the name – ember – is underexploited by poets, especially considering its aptness for a time when the year’s fire is dying. Of course that is mere etymological accidental.

Nor have the “Ember Days” of church calendars anything to do with fire, either. Derived instead from a word meaning “period”, they refer to days of fasting and abstinence at the start of each season.

And although days of fasting and abstinence might be well timed now, before the imminent splurge, the next official one on this year’s calendar is December 19th. In keeping with its general lack of highlights, November does not even have Ember Days.