Oh, I love this time of year, don’t you? When the first proper rays of summer sun strike the pavements and send the entire urban population crazy. The first hot lunch hour and every patch of green is colonised. Parks, riverbanks, tiny strips of infill turf, a patch of moss on a paving stone – I’ve seen people sunbathing on the grass in the middle of roundabouts before.
No matter what its size or intended use, it will soon be covered with workers lying back-to-back for however much of their break is left to them after queuing in Pret a Manger. From a distance, it looks like someone has scattered handfuls of peeled prawns across every open space in the city.
And, most astonishingly of all, everywhere you look there are smiles. People are grinning, ear to ear, and in exceptional cases even making eye contact with each other. I love that this is all it takes to make us happy.
Of course, it also speaks to the fact that our default historic and modern day condition is one of mild but persistent misery. Our customary demeanour is one bred into us over generations who were reared under our septic isle’s lowering skies and drizzle, within mean, dank, smogged and sodden streets. We don’t stand tall, we hunch over. We don’t stroll, we scurry. We keep our eyes on our feet, not our heads in the air.
I’ll never forget my first (and so far only) trip to Italy and watching La Passeggiata for the first time – the ritual evening walk by the young people of whatever weepingly beautiful city you are in, through the still-warm night air, to flirt and generally display their gorgeous selves to the world and each other. That’s the kind of ritual you can evolve when you can rely on days and weeks and months of solid sunshine all your life. Back home, we have instead pub crawls, DVD box sets and the 15-tog duvet.
“When the sun comes out, we sunbathe the s*** out of it”
So when our little piece of sunshine comes, we grab it and we sunbathe the sh*t out of it. (Well, I don’t, actually. It would be an act of substantial hostility to unveil my body – which makes a bottle of milk look like David Dickinson – in a public arena, plus I am liberally spattered with moles that a doctor once told me are ‘just begging’ to turn nasty, so I remain decently covered at all times.) At home, as well as at work, the world seems to expand. When I lived in a flat, being able to use the communal garden tripled the amount of space I had to live in. When you live in a house, even the smallest scrap of a garden effectively gives you a whole new room in which to bounce around – as tiggerishly as you like! It’s summer!
Despite a lifetime’s experience of global warming and ever more record-breaking temperatures, we still seem to believe that the season is vanishingly short and unreliable. It will take generations to change this feeling. We will probably still be carrying round cardigans ‘just in case’ when the last of us is dying of thirst and skin cancer on the spinning ball of dust that once was earth.
It’s the kind of thing that reminds you that, although we don’t think about it from one day to the next, and maybe wouldn’t even accept the notion if we did, we are all moulded in part by influences far beyond our control. Folk memories live long and die hard. Just as our family backgrounds shape us in ways that we are barely aware of (until one day you’re walking down the aisle and realise that you’re heading for a man who behaves exactly like your father – at which point you either sigh with relief, or run screaming for the hills. point is, either way, you probably won’t have been consciously aware of choosing such a man), so does our national background.
In Italy, I could feel a tight, hard knot in what, if I were a different kind of person I might call my soul, but as I am not, I shall call my stomach, that I had never been aware of before gradually uncoiling. I relaxed in the warm, balmy air of a country committed to La Dolce Vita – words the British can translate literally but not conceptually – in a way that I never had before. It was perturbing but salutary. Our reaction to a bit of sun is a clutch at the chance to be different, just for a little while. Just don’t forget the sunscreen. Red-burned flesh is not the kind of difference we’re after. Happy summer, everyone!”
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