The Bum (gosh, that seems awfully familiar, but so he refers to himself) tagged me a week or two back, but at the time the weather had regressed to the earliest, most blustery form of pre-springtime and I was unable to find the mood. June has busted out since then and I am back in languorously summery relaxation – in feeling, if not in behaviour.
Eight things I like about the summer.
In England, that rather begs the question, what is summer? And that question is enough to start me off.
1 Its unpredictability. There is not one event that can be arranged with the certainty of suitable weather. However hot the summer, it might rain. It might even hail. From June to September, it is really unlikely that there will be a frost, but you could, conceivably, have snow. This gives rise to the most popular pastime of the British.
2. Talking about the weather. Like all clichés, it has a foundation in fact, and it is more true than most. Talking about the weather is an ice-breaker (not literally, at present, but figuratively it’s always true). We like an introduction into a conversation with a stranger or a new acquaintance (I take the difference, as a true Englishwoman, as whether or not you have been introduced. No, I am a modern Englishwoman. Introducing yourself is perfectly acceptable. Rather, whether or not you know each other’s names) and the weather works very nicely. I do it myself, as a shop assistant – I keenly ask if the temperature outside is as chilly as it is within? If it looks like rain? If it’s a True Scorcher?
3. The modest English gift for exaggeration. I think I’ve mentioned before that we are so happy with a modest rise in temperature. “England Sizzles in the Seventies!” That is, anything much over 20 degrees C. I don’t think we’ve ever reached more than 85F: 30C is a near yet distant dream for us. We call low temperatures by their degrees in Celsius, because it sounds colder (minus zero is so much colder than 30C) but, once the thermometer rises, we slip seamlessly into Farenheit. We are comfortable with both Imperial and Metric measurements, even though we pretend not to be. A customer will ask for a kilo of carrots, but a quarter (of a pound) of mushrooms. 100 grams (I know that’s not as much as a quarter) seems pernickety.
After a few days of heat, we become twitchy. However much we enjoy the sunshine, we hanker after some contrast. “The farmers need the rain” we observe, even if we would not know a dollop of muck if it were thrown at us. “There’ll be a thunderstorm to finish, you mark my words” we add. This is true. The longer a heatwave goes on, the more dramatically it is likely to end. I remember (I say to show my age) the summer of 1976, the long hot summer that is still held up as the epitome of heatwaves. It finished, unsurprisingly, on August Bank Holiday weekend. It poured. It poured for weeks. The government had just appointed a Minister for Drought. I don’t remember his name, but he was otherwise notorious for falling asleep, seated next to the Queen, at an official fly-past by the Royal Air Force. I don’t remember his rôle in the government then, but he succeeded beyond dreams of triumph as Minister for Drought. Within weeks, we all beseeched him to make it stop.
4. Air conditioning. It is only recently that we have even become aware of the desirability of air con. There are some summers, now, when I will not shop in a place that doesn’t have it installed. Well, a correction – I don’t expect small shops to have it, but multi-nationals? They have to woo me before they win me. If only they did not heat their stores in winter as effectively as they cool them in summer. I dislike extremely the sort of shop where it’s so warm that the assistants wear thin, short-sleeved shirts at a time when you are kitted out in warm coats and winter scarves. But when the sun beats down I become tolerant and forgive them again. And air con in cars. Mm. Yes. Mmm.
5. Seasonal food. Everything, except Seville oranges, is available all the year round, from one country or another. Yet many of us still wait keenly for food in season. The English asparagus season, for example, runs from sometime in the middle of April or early May, depending on the weather, until the longest day, 21st June. After that, asparagus isn’t cut any more, to give the plants a chance to recover for next year. The seasons are stretched, nowadays, but even so they are observed. Al has Norfolk strawberries from Wroxham now, but not the local ones yet, for they have been grown under cover. He has fresh peas and broad beans, but if he wants to order sugar snap peas or runner beans, he has to get them from Kenya or some other faraway land. English spinach is in, from Wiltshire, and so are young carrots, but the full-size ones, beautiful and tasty as they are, come from Italy. Grapes are currently from India, but English grapes are an autumn rarity. I had one customer who asked, today, for English cherries, but it’s too early – the season is short and chancy and hasn’t arrived yet. But that makes it valued all the more. Samphire, that Norfolk delicacy – that’s not going to be around for at least a month and, although a vegetable, it’s sold by fishmongers – is worth waiting for. So is corn on the cob. It’s not quite as vital as it used to be, in the days of the super-sweet varieties, but we used to wait until the pot of water was actually boiling on the stove before we went to cut the corn.
6. Barbecues. Ah yes, what an English institution this has become. On any summer evening, particularly at the weekend, the distinctive aroma of the barbecue wafts itself across the land. Mostly, we cook sausages and burgers, but steaks, chicken portion (often, with sensible caution, cooked beforehand, then coated in barbecue sauce or Dad’s special marinade and barbied) and brochettes – kebabs, if you prefer – are also popular. We like them because we enjoy the idea of outdoor living. We love informality, without a niggling feel of being slobby or uncaring. Men like the feeling of expansiveness hostiness (the very opposite of hostility) engendered by a barbecue. Their wives, who have trotted back and forth with salads, rolls, plates, condiments, bottles of wine and cans of lager – for if there is any place when lager, rather than real beer, is called for, it’s at the barbecue – feel a little more harassed and a little less expansive, but it is one occasion where an extra dozen guests are enjoyed but hardly noticed. There is, of course, always the gentle frisson of anxiety lest it should rain (ah, you notice, my beloved subjunctive again), but if it were to, then the men will still, with remarkable good-humour, brave the rain and the rest of you can crowd into the house and take us as you find us.
And then we look out and talk about the rain. We always marvel at the rain, even as we complain. Especially when it pours, it teems, it buckets down in torrents. When we plan the barbecue, we do not always make provision for rain, but we are never surprised when it happens. You only have to look at the good humour of the crowd, hunched under their umbrellas at Wimbledon, waving cheerily at the camera as their long anticipated and expensive day out trickles down the drain. It’s all accepted as something that always happens but is never truly expected, for we are, underneath our stolid outer faces, an optimistic and philosophical people.
7. Dharmabum mentions sweat. And yes, surprisingly, I find this one of the pleasures of summer too. It’s rare, in this country, to sweat unashamedly and profusely. I’m not talking, of course, about the tension sweatiness of a Blair at a party conference, but that engendered by being in humid heat. Its rarity makes it surprisingly welcome.
A lady, it is said, merely glows. And I would never admit to perspiration. But honest sweat is different. Digging the garden as the sun grows hotter, working in the greenhouse and feeling a wetness trickling down my spine, licking my lips and tasting salt, looking in the mirror, even, and seeing my fringe sticking to my forehead and my mascara blurring below my eyes, gives the summer a healthy feel of elimination leading to a feeling, however inaccurately based, of a new start that is unexpectedly satisfying.
The warm summer nights, for which we are so unprepared. Maybe we should all keep damp cloths by our bedsides, to dab when we wake. We’re bad at sleeping in the heat. But, and this is where I should lose Dharmabum and other young readers, whose minds will be sullied by the thought of an old girl having this at the call of her imagination, it’s not altogether unpleasant. True, I don’t get much sleep. I wake at 3 and rise at 5, sometimes not having slept in the intervening hours. But summer nights warm the blood in other ways than insomnia. They raise the libido. You can’t sleep, your darling can’t either – your limbs touch and instantly become moist, but not unpleasantly so. It’s an intimate thing, sweating together. Not caring, total uninhibition, the lick of salt on his skin as well as your own – is it, indeed, your salt or his? Increasing wetness, and a blurring of its source – how is one to know, except by taste, what secretion makes one’s skin slippery and hot? Rubbing your face against his body and the very wetness cooling you as you heat from inside.
Later, a sudden deep sleep that engulfs you for an hour, until the heat wakens you again. And then that wetness is annoying and you want to wipe it away…how tired or fastidious you are lets you use a sheet or stumble into the bathroom to find a towel. Either, a long cool drink and you sleep again, pressed against the coldly damp skin beside you, too sensually alive to be clammy, though not bearable unless it’s that of a lover.
8. Still number 8 to come. Can I omit the English seaside holiday? Surely not, for I grew up by the seaside. I have watched those stalwart holidaymakers, determined to enjoy their break, whatever the weather. We stride along the prom, holding our umbrellas against the driving rain, we crowd onto the beach at the least glimmer of sun, we splash merrily in the sea, bobbing under the water as quickly as possible and staying there, as the water, however cold, is not as chilling as the wind. And then the chattering of children’s teeth as they are rubbed down with a scratchy, sandy towel, until the sound of an icecream van is heard, when they warm up in an instant at the prospect of a 99. No, them, not you, not a 69, shuttup, this is a family blog, you know.
And the next day, the sun blazes down and we rub sunblock carefully on our children and always forget a bit of ourself, so that we glow red the next day on our neck or shoulders or ears.
I like all the seasons. Probably, I like springtime best. But summer is good. I like summer.