Summer is here: I can smell it (lighter-fuel-doused charcoal and the ammonia punch of After Bite dabbed on giant angry weals) and hear it (strimmers and mowers and the ice-cream van). I can feel it too: a slither of itchy unease at the core of my being, a tight-chested sense that everything is slipping out of my control when I see a few sun icons on my phone.
“Which summer tribe are you?” the magazine quizzes ask, but I’m not mermaidcore, Riviera chic or Amish prairie cowgirl: I’m “looking longingly at cardigans” – and not just because this season has got off to such a damp and chilly start.
My melanin-deficient Celtic forebears were not summer people: those of Scottish/Irish heritage burn, chafe and get mercilessly bitten. But the itch is on the inside as well as the out: something about the no-rules formlessness of “school’s out” life sends me spiralling. It’s more than the rational dread of being asked what’s for lunch every day for six weeks, or the thrum of low-level guilt at the amount of first-person-shooting going on in darkened rooms, although I have both: it’s a sense of inadequacy. Pre-pandemic, summers were supposed to be amazing – a firework display of a season; a crucible in which indelible, life-defining memories are forged – but mine were always a sweaty stretch of inertia, anxiety and climate doom.
But I have realised my summer disappointment has become a self-fulfilling – and self-sabotaging – prophecy. It felt like a revelation a decade ago when I realised it was possible not to like summer, and I giddily gave myself permission to hate it. “Bad stuff happens in summer,” I insisted, peering suspiciously round drawn curtains, citing relationship meltdowns, accidents and mental-health wobbles. Worse things happened many winters, but primed to hate summer, I did.
But this year it stops. I’m 46; there isn’t an infinity of days available to me and it’s a churlish waste to hate 60-plus of them annually. On top of that, this is surely one of the years when expectations for summer are at their lowest. “Freedom day” comes with the prospect of 2 million Covid cases in the offing, festivals are cancelled, and unless you had a crystal ball or blackmail material on a Cornwall cottage owner, you probably haven’t got a dream holiday planned. My local paper covered a story about a family finding a crack pipe in their rented caravan recently; a friend’s idyllic shepherd’s hut break came with a view of violent duck sexual assault and an overwhelming bouquet of guano.
Liberated from its oppressively good PR, a summer where our aspirations are recalibrated to “staying alive” and “maybe getting an ice-cream” is one even I can cope with. So, armed with insect repellent and factor 50, I am teaching myself to love summer in its newly humbled form.
Ask “summer people” what they love about the season and their replies are pure poetry: light and birdsong, the scent of honeysuckle and jasmine, perfect peaches, sun-warmed skin, bare feet on soft grass and late-night blue dusk walks. That sounds gorgeous, but most of it also sounds sticky or itchy. I need to start small and prosaic, so I have identified two absolutely undeniable great things about summer.
The first is salty snacks. Theoretically, I might have lost some salt through sweating (I haven’t, because I have been lying motionless in a darkened room for weeks, but I could have), so eating endless crisps, olives, wasabi nuts and those little Italian crackers is basically an act of wellness. Yes, all the salt will mean I retain water until I look and feel like a taut-skinned white pudding, but I’ll be a happy pudding.
The other is washing. My French-Cambodian best friend thinks the British obsession with line drying is a quaint peasant absurdity and she may be right. But I live somewhere that is about 95% humidity for 10 months of the year, and that includes inside the house. The few snatched weeks when I can do the washing and not look forward to it slowly developing powdery mildew on every radiator without getting discernibly drier are truly times to be celebrated. Of course, now I have said this, we can confidently assume it will rain until September: but perhaps that was my plan all along?