Two Memorable Summers

The summer of 1976. Long, hot, dry days. A summer that stretched on in an endless, sweaty haze punctuated by occasional fires, hosepipe bans and exhortations to ‘bath with a friend’.

I was still in the early years of my career, although I’d switched jobs and had moved from a school in a 3 story tenement building in Stockwell to a light, airy, leafy special school [for ‘delicate’ children] in Putney where I was responsible for all of twelve children in a huge classroom. I loved everything about my new job, from the joys of working with such a small number of children to the social life of the staffroom; from the three delicious meals each day, [cooked on site] to the convenience of living a twenty minute walk away. I’d moved from Wimbledon to share a flat in Putney with a girl who’d begun working at the school at the same time.

One wall of each classroom in this modern building was glass, giving a view on to landscaped grounds but in a hot spell heating the rooms to oven temperatures in the afternoons. Our gregarious, eccentric boss, who had a gammy leg and was given to gesturing wildly with his stick, instructed us to take the children outside under the trees, a directive that we were only too delighted to follow. These were sick children, suffering from a range of conditions that included chronic asthma, heart problems and cycstic fibrosis. They flopped down under the trees and slept while we worked on our tans, having given up all pretence of holding meetings or making teaching aids.

By the time the long summer holiday came I’d acquired skin the shade you would expect from a long sojourn in a tropical location-and remember this era pre-dated any enlightened warnings about sunbathing.

This summer is the longest and hottest in the UK since that heady season of 76. And while I may not tolerate blistering sunshine as well as I could in my 20s I continue to love hot weather. I love soft, still early mornings and long, light, balmy evenings. Yes, the garden is dry. The grass is golden and crispy. Bumble bees have taken up residence in the lawn, tunnelling underneath the decking. The come and go in a relentless, dedicated relay, circling drunkenly before they make their inelegant landings then disappearing into the grassy tunnel.

As yet we’ve been spared a hosepipe ban, unlike 1976. I no longer loll around in the sun and am more likely to be walking, cycling or gardening. To relax I’ll seek out some dappled shade and settle with a book. I’ve become a conscientious user of sun cream and wearer of hats. We eat dinner with the doors wide open and a view of the river at the lowest it’s been since we moved here, flowing slowly and exposing islands of weed for hopeful moorhens to pick over.

Some day soon it will be over, this hot spell-and autumn will be upon us. But for now I’m going to enjoy every day, just as I did 42 years ago.

 

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Literature, Religion and the Other Thing

                We have come to Ireland, just as I am reading Maggie O’Farrell’s ‘Instructions for a Heatwave’. Set in London, against the background of 1976’s long, hot summer it is the story of an Irish family’s struggle with the disappearance of the patriarch, a plot device that serves to bring together the disparate adult children with all their demons including abortion, infidelity and dyslexia. When we travel I like to read a work of fiction that relates to the location I’m in, such as ‘Winter in Madrid’ by C J Sansom, when in Spain last year, although the selection of reading material is sometimes by design but more often by accident.

                The summer of 1976 stands out in my memory as no other for its exceptional heat-wave that seemed to last forever. I was working in Putney, London, in a special school-the best teaching job I ever had. There were 12 children in my class in a purpose built school made almost entirely of glass. The kindly, avuncular head teacher insisted we take our children out on to the grass under the trees each afternoon to avoid overheating so we decamped into the al fresco, where I then acquired the best tan of my life, and all before the holidays.

                It shames me to say I’ve only ever been for a short visit to Dublin before, despite my advanced years and the proximity of the emerald isle, but at least I’ve got around to it now.

                For a small country, Ireland seems to have produced a huge number of literary giants; James Joyce, Edna O’Brien, Maeve Binchy, Samuel Becket and Oscar Wilde, to name a few. It makes me wonder if one’s origins need to be rooted in a country with a strong history of religious conflict, poverty, oppression and hardship in order to be able to achieve success in writing. But perhaps I’m merely using lack of robust historical identity as an excuse for my own shortcomings!

                We spent our first day striding out on the coast path in a warm breeze, along strands of boulder strewn beaches in the company of seabirds. There were few other walkers, except for a couple we passed and exchanged pleasantries with. “Bless St Steven for the good weather”, the woman exhorted, startling me with this first glimpse into the Irish psyche. Later we came to ‘Our Lady Island’ where there was a special well and a shrine. Turning inland I was struck by the plethora of lurid, newly built bungalows, personalised with eccentric faux period features-stone cladding, gable adornments or pretend Georgian windows. A considerable number featured white, plaster columns at the door. Perhaps some salesman with an eye for the main chance had passed that way? Despite their proximity to the coast, none of the bungalows actually faced out to the Irish Sea for a stupendous view, although judging by the number of crumbling stone piles littering the countryside a sea view must once have been a desirable aspect. Tractors outnumbered cars by about five to one here in the lanes.

                Passing through the countryside and the villages sweeps me back in time, as in New Zealand, to my fifties childhood, when there was a village garage, a dairy, a rustic barn of hay bales and an overgrown churchyard, although without the eternal summer!