Like Proust, we all have our madeleine moments. It’s not only food that takes you back in time. For me, it’s the daffodil. Seeing a daffodil always stirs a whirl of memories. It’s amazing that such a simple flower can evoke such powerful images.
I’ve come to love so many of the beautiful flowering plants in Australia, from the colour overload of bougainvillea to the soft summer scent of waxy white frangipani.
And yet, perhaps inevitably, I miss the flowers that I grew up with. Like bluebells spreading a blue mist through a woodland or crocus, huddling together to form richly coloured carpets of petals. I love how delicate snowdrops suddenly appear like spells, and happy primroses hide in plain sight on grassy banks. But most of all, I miss daffodils.
So it was rather wonderful when Anthony quietly sneaked in a few daffodil bulbs among the hundreds of jonquils and narcissus he planted when we first arrived in this house, knowing how much it would delight me. Today, the first one burst into flower, as golden yellow as a buttercup, and instantly I am transported to other times. Given that I take such pleasure in looking back, it’s not surprising that I am today not quite out of my body but certainly in another place.
Three other places, actually.
It was hard to avoid daffodils growing up in Wales. On March 1st, or St David’s Day, the national day, everyone would come to school with either a daffodil or a leek pinned to his or her jumper. They were real, too, and sometimes the leeks were almost as big as the boy who wore it. Some girls wore Welsh national costume, too, with shawls and those funny black hats that look a bit witchy. The daffodils weren’t just buttonholes, either, but the flower and its whole stem, attached using two safety pins. Seeing a playground filled with kids decorated with flowers or vegetables is something you never forget. Invariably some would get thrown about or shredded in some fracas or play. I’m not sure that other nations sport flowers in such a way – Ireland does shamrock, I suppose, but I never saw anyone in England wear a white rose on St George’s Day. Why the daffodil and the leek in Wales? The leek was supposedly worn by soldiers fighting the Saxons so they’d recognise each other on the battlefield. The daffodil became popular as a national symbol in Victorian times, prettier than wearing a cousin of the onion. Some grown-ups wore fabric versions but to wear the real thing as we children did was to tap into the magical power of Mother Nature as strongly as any nature table in the classroom ever did. It made the day feel extra-special and planted the daffodil in my heart.
Oddly, despite having the Welshness of the daffodil instilled into me at an early age, it was after we moved to Yorkshire that I began to appreciate them as flowers growing in the ground. The grassy slopes that buttress the stone walls of York are famously and picturesquely smothered in golden daffodils each spring. Elsewhere they grow along roadsides, brighten people’s gardens and are planted in Wordsworthian hosts by councils in parks. Perhaps it was because I lived in a particularly flower-obsessed town, Harrogate, that they seemed to be everywhere. Their yellow signifies the hope of spring’s arrival, the yellow of a warming sun. How simple they are, too – the trumpet blaring out from a ragged ring of petals, so much less formal than a tight-budded tulip. They seem almost wild and yet have the decorum and design of something a little more perfect. Unpretentious and gentle, they seem to inspire graciousness.
When I moved to my flat in Greenwich in my late twenties, I would often buy a bunch or two of daffodils on my way home from work. As I walked from Embankment station up to Charing Cross to catch the overland train to Greenwich, I would often stop at the flower stall outside the Tube. It always had a colourful display and, along with the red roses and white lilies meant for anniversaries, were buckets of the lowly daffodil, fifty pence a bunch. A couple of bunches plonked any-old-how in a clear glass vase so you could see the pale green stems brightened my sitting room far more than it had any right to. Again, they promised renewal, the coming of spring, the hint of summer in the yellow. Graciousness, again.
The daffodils that are poking their heads up and beginning to flower here will probably not divide and form drifts as they would if they were planted in an English garden. Here, they don’t get the proper winter chill to do that so it’s best to think of them as annuals. I don’t mind. For the moment at least, I can look forward to enjoying their nodding heads, all flouncy and proud, and be an infant in Abergavenny again or a teenager laughing with friends in York. Or the weary young man clutching a wrapped bundle of flowers as he makes his way to the crush of a commuter train in London, wondering what lies ahead in life. I think he’d be pretty happy to know that what lay ahead was a partner who planted daffodils for him in a beautiful garden.
Do you have a Proustian flower?