T’is the season… no, not of ludicrously early Christmas shopping, though that will surely be on us all too soon… but of the crisp crunch and crack of fallen leaves underfoot. Or in my case the simple if eccentric pleasure of hearing dried leaves scrunching under my cycle tyres on my regular rides around Richmond Park… It's all right, don’t worry - that's as close as I’ll get in this column to the sweaty business of training.
Back to leaves. Small beech and oak leaves give a light click and tick, but you get a good crunch out of a curled up lime tree leaf. And a good-sized London plane tree leaf, as big as a skiing glove, well that goes off with a satisfying crack.
I can't be sure – would barely dare to ask – whether as children everyone played that game in which you try to catch falling leaves straight off the tree. It was a happy half hour a few times each autumn standing in the wind as leaves cascaded around you. They floated, and spiralled, or swung on an invisible pendulum, or tumbled and somersaulted down towards you, defying any knowable logic in their descent. And we, beneath, ran left and right, lunging and grabbing at them. A catch was lucky. Actually that was the point. To catch one brought good luck.
Of course, being an unreconstructed bloke, I haven't quite forgotten the magic of the game and I'll still snatch a leaf from the air if it doesn't cause too much embarrassment to me or my companions (it’s just slightly humiliating for everyone to watch a grown man charging off after a pleasure so puerile). And to be fair I don't really expect actual luck to result from it any more, except in the most distant, incalculable sense – perhaps, for a whole year, every piece of toast you drop will defy Murphy’s Law and land jam-side up... or maybe the cast of Green Wing will reassemble to make a third series of the funniest comedy series there ever was. Or, miraculously, the whole world, that’s every single person in it, at a stroke, might decide that Love Island is a ridiculous waste of time and energy after all.
Instead, when I snaffle a leaf in mid-air nowadays it becomes a book-mark. I should explain. I work on the assumption that although leaves mustn't be allowed to touch the ground or they will lose all their lucky charm, clearly there must be somewhere for them and their magic to reside undrained. And inside a book, with all its potential magic (I also believe in the magic of books, of course), is surely the place.
But what about this? For cyclists there's a variant on the game. Which is, of course, catching leaves while on the road. I have always assumed that with the decreased likelihood of grabbing a leaf while cycling, catching one comes with a correspondingly higher fortune quotient. Obviously you wouldn't want to lunge at it otherwise you'd end up in a clattering heap, so bagging one in passing is surely luckier. Just think what might happen. Maybe all your pieces of thrown paper will land in the waste-bin for a change (unlike your average leaf). Or perhaps all your socks will inexplicably resolve themselves into pairs… Or Prue Leith and Paul Hollywood will unwittingly order their contestants to create a cake that spontaneously explodes.
Lately, in order finally to learn some proper technique, I have started kayaking again. So, as I cope with the concentration on paddling (Hey, I'm a bloke: I find it really hard to do three things at once – in case you’re interested, that’s the straight-armed, left-right swing, the full-upper-body swivel from right down at lumbar 5 and the leg cycle, while all the time fighting the rudder), I’d like you to know that there's yet another variation on the game to be played there too.
You’ll have to take my word that catching a leaf while kayaking is an even higher stakes game than doing it on a bicycle. These boats are so finely balanced that there is no hope of making a lunge to catch a falling leaf. You would simply tip yourself in. And so a leaf has to be almost destined for you, to come close enough to be snatched in one deft flick of an arm. Which in turn means it really must be simply fizzing with good luck, freighted with fortune, so to speak.
And just imagine the power of the luck residing in a leaf like that. Perhaps, for a whole day, all your traffic lights will be green (with just one exception to break the seeming rule). Or maybe the boffins will discover that the half of all matter in the cosmos, which has inexplicably been missing since the Big Bang, is there after all. (They did, just the other day – apparently it’s in gas lines running between the galaxies – I’ll stake all the leaves I’ve ever caught on a bicycle for that one). Or just think, maybe the world will spontaneously but universally decide that the best way to approach Russell Brand is simply to ignore him.
So to snatch a leaf in a kayak is a near impossibility, an infinitesimal chance. Either that or you'd have to wait around under a shedding tree in the middle of a river, paddling to maintain your position in the stream, in full view of the other boats and passers by.
Which would be odd. Though probably not much more odd than thinking that the divine tragi-comedian governing life might actually invest some good fortune in a moment as puerile and wonderful as catching a leaf before it hits the ground in the first place. Meantime though, don't forget the joy of the multiple cri-cri-crick, snap, crunch and crack of a carpet of freshly fallen dried leaves under your slicks as you race through the park.