Dear British Summertime,
You, my friend, are a beautiful thing. Beautiful, and frustrating, and downright confusing, but entirely wonderful.
You have a habit of starting far too early, sometime in that space when it’s May, but no one ever remembers that it’s May. You start by showing your warmth and brightness and spreading that energy that comes from a summer, but only a little bit. And all us silly British people, every year, are lulled into this false idea that for once, we’re going to have a proper summer, that lasts more than two weeks. And we replace our layers of knits and woolly jumpers with layers and layers of sun cream, even though we all get burned anyway. But then, within days, it’s as if the sun seems to remember that actually, in this country, summer doesn’t really start till July. And so, it goes away again to hide, but it’s too late now. In the eyes of all of us – you have arrived.
Regardless of the weather, you begin here in May. May onward is the only time of the year we get frustrated with the rain – it’s the time we say ‘it shouldn’t be raining! It’s practically summer!’. Because a single day of sun means summer, and once we have it, we absolutely loathe to let it go. No amount of rain, no number of grey skies and single-digit temperatures (in centigrade, of course) could make us admit that actually, May isn’t summer.
And half the time, by June, the weather is even more stubbornly miserable than it was in May, but it’s June, and June is literal summertime so it really, really needs to start being properly summery. But it never does – it doesn’t get properly warm until the end of June is in sight, and it’s always those last couple of weeks of school that are when summer really begins. I remember how at my school – a girls school – people would take off their blouses at lunchtime and sunbathe in sports bra’s on the field, and we’d all rejoice in not having to wear tights anymore, and everyone would always tie their hair back because their necks were so sweaty. And skirts wouldn’t be rolled up, just because that makes your waist really warm, and people wouldn’t even bother taking jumpers into school, and everyone was constantly checking with their friends if they had sweat patches under their arms. When these things happened, that is when I’d know it was summer, that you were finally here.
But that doesn’t happen until July, really, or halfway through June, if we’re really lucky. But there are always those few weeks, in May and June, that we all pretend are summer, because every week or so there’s another day that can be spent outside, and that is really all it takes for Britain to embrace you.
And there are so many things that make these first few weeks (non-weeks) of you so recognisable, so iconic. Some telltale signs that us Brits, at least those of the suburbia I know so well, are kidding themselves that you’re here.
The first tell-tale sign of your arrival, aside from the weather, is that the potted plants come out. Parents persuade their children to spend the day helping them with the garden, and hours are spent choosing between lobelias or fuchsias, and between a blue and purple colour scheme, or a pink and red one. And gardens are overtaken by big bags of compost, and little plastic pots holding 9 plants each, which get lovingly (clumsily) placed (dropped) into baskets, and hung either side of the front door. And there are normally big ceramic pots to go on the driveway, and a trough to go along the side of the house, and within a week, every house on the street has decorated their front with greenery, and are all waiting anxiously to see who’s will look the nicest by the time they all begin to bloom.
The first barbecue of the season is normally sometime around the end of May, when everyone is stubbornly insisting it’s the weather for it, but really it’s much too cold still to be sitting outside past about 4 o’clock, ‘but it was warm earlier, so we’ll give it a go’. And families sit on their patios, smoke rising out of the rusty grill that Dad refuses to replace, wrapped up in blankets, munching on free-range, fat-free burgers with toasted sesame rolls, and if you’re lucky, some squeaky cheese. And no one complains about the cold, because we’re British, and here the cold is nothing.
Proper gardening begins, too. That barbecue makes everyone realise how grimy the patio’s gotten, and how overgrown the hedgerows are. And so a day is dedicated to getting a pressure-washer to the stones out back, and a trowel to the weeds lining the flowerbeds. New fences get put up – new rose bushes planted – new hedge trimmers purchased. And then the garden is clear and sparkling and a little bit boring, without the overgrown hedges making things more interesting and a little like a jungle.
During these early weeks of you – these days of temperatures stubbornly sitting in the teens, clouds that aren’t really fluffy, and skies that just aren’t sky-blue, this is when we look forward to our domestic harvest. It’s when every day, someone is down the garden, or at the allotment, checking on the berry bushes and plum trees, and bean runners and rhubarb plants. And ‘it’s summer now!’ so of course they must be ripe! And yet, of course they aren’t, because it’s much too early for them. So, every day, we walk back inside with empty punnets, and hearts a little more hopeful, because ‘they aren’t quite so green as yesterday!’
And for all these things that we do to pretend you’re here, we know you really are when the flowers on the bushes in the garden bloom, when we have barbecues just because it’s too warm inside to bear, and when the garden starts looking a mess again.
And, especially for me, you are truly here and no longer just pretending on the day I pick the first raspberry off the bushes at the end of the garden, and savour the blandness that characterises the first few berries of the season. But that first pick, disappointing as it is, that is the start of proper summer. That comes around the end of June or the start of July, just as the weather is really starting to pick up. But that first berry of the season – that means you have arrived.
You have well and truly kicked off when I spend half an hour every day picking raspberries and blackberries and redcurrants and blackcurrants, and twisting the plums and the figs off the trees, and checking on the beans and the rhubarb and the tomatoes.
You have properly begun when I can spend my days lying in the garden, reading, writing, revising, and I don’t have to savour it because I don’t know when I’ll be able to next. That is what I do in those pre-Summer weeks, the weeks we all lie to ourselves. But once it’s truly summer, once the berries are ripe and the cats rarely come inside because of the heat, and I put ice cubes in all my drinks – that is when I can sunbathe without a care. When I haven’t worn jeans in days, and my hoodie hangs unworn on the back of my bedroom door. True Summer – true you – is not choosing to go outside to ‘make the most of the sun’, it’s having to go outside because it’s ‘far too warm in there.’
Although of course, right into July, right into August, right during the throes of full-on Summer, there will still be days of rain. We all still carry our mini-umbrella’s around in our bags, and we all still take a jumper everywhere we go ‘just in case’. Because, British Summertime, you are painfully unpredictable. And yet, we still love you.
Because there are days when the temperature climbs as high as 30, and days where it barely scrapes 20. There are days without a single cloud, and days where all the skies are solid grey. That, I guess, is our compromise for all the joy you bring – and oh, do you bring joy.
Because, Summer, you mean water-fights, at least here in suburbia. The children of a whole street will club together, and dig out water guns, and stretch hoses longer than they should be stretched, and fill up water balloons and line up buckets of ice water. And we all used to soak our trampolines, because when you jump on a sopping trampoline it makes a funny noise. And we’d spend a few happy hours throwing water at each other, getting cold and wet and uncomfortable, but loving it all, really. And when I see that now, I do get a little jealous. Because once you’ve hit your teens, you don’t really get to participate in the water fights, and so instead I go inside, safe from the spray, and watch from a window, over a book, as all the neighbour-children squeal with joy as they play.
Summer in suburbia means community barbecues. That friend from work, or church, or mum’s coffee club, choosing to spend a day making salads, and then throwing open their doors for guests to bring bottles and salad offerings, and an evening is spent harmoniously sharing burgers and hot dogs and grilled corn on the cob. The adults getting tipsy at the table, the teenagers sunbathing and gossiping and teasing on the sunny patch of grass, and the little ones playing with the tubs of Lego dragged out from the house.
You, Summer, mean walks, with family friends and a dog or two. Walks that result in a lunchtime pub stop, before trekking back to someone’s house to enjoy Pimms on the patio. You mean nettle stings and grass stains, sun burnt necks and thistle-rips in clothing. Dusty shoes and leafy hats, sweaty hair and dry tongues, and the end of a long day walking through fields being drowsing in the car on the way back home.
British Summertime, you mean afternoons spent in the park, to me. Picnicking for a friend’s birthday, and then, when the sun begins to set, and the little ones have gone home, descending upon the playpark. Pushing each other too high on swings, too fast on roundabouts. Chasing each other through an adventure structure – perhaps snapping ropes not meant to hold our weight and bending wooden planks that are far too small for us. And then, exhausted and warm, we’ll collapse in a heap on the bank, and find a discarded tennis ball to throw around as we all have ‘deep’ conversations and wait for our rides home.
You mean afternoons spent on DIY projects with my family – there’s always something that needs fixing, painting, sorting, and we’ll take it outside and a mix of the five of us will mess around for hours, doing a shoddy job as we have too much fun. Or, failing that, if the house is all sorted and there are no wardrobes to be fixed or chairs to be painted, my brothers and I will come up with some silly idea of a thing to build, like an air cannon or a projector. And we buy the bits, and put on some 80’s pop hits, and we set to work bodging a project that’s really just for the fun of it.
British summertime – you mean constantly complaining that I’m melting, and always wanting ice cream. You mean never closing the windows, and the fan always being on. You mean floaty dresses, and a hundred different ways to tie my hair back. You mean not bothering with make-up, and embracing a super-shiny face. You mean trying to find the perfect pair of sunglasses, and wearing floppy sunhats. You mean being sunburnt, and my ginger friends always being even more sunburnt. You mean the rolling hills of the countryside looking more beautiful than ever, and the sunlight being dappled on the concrete because of all the trees.
Summertime in Britain – thank you for all of your unpredictability and your gorgeousness. For your ability to confuse us all, and your ability to be eternally wonderful.
As always, with love,