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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Christmas Climates-what’s your preference?

In 2011, towards the middle of November, in the midst of an extended trip to New Zealand followed by Australia we found ourselves in Adelaide in temperatures of around 30 degrees. And Christmas was cranking up.

Adelaide was delightful-quaint architecture [what goes for ‘olde worlde’ in the New World], a busy, buzzing city with a vibrant night life, cheeky, fun bars and plenty of attractive, green spaces.

During most of our road trip we’d been disappointed with evening, cultural life. The vast majority of bars, devoted almost entirely to gambling-‘pokies’ and horse racing-tended to shut around 9.00pm. We’d show up just before, at a time we are accustomed to setting out in the UK to be told we could get one drink before they closed up, or that they were in fact just closing. We were mystified. Where was the fabled ‘wild west’ lifestyle, the Bohemian, carefree, party, outdoor social whirl?

Turned out I’d been watching too many ‘Wanted Down Under’ programmes. Other than for an early evening meal no one bothered with going out except hardened gamblers, who sloped off in inevitable disappointment once the books were closed.

Adelaide, though was different. The nightspots were thriving. There were throngs in abundance. The locals enjoyed life. One bar proclaimed it was ‘the worst vegetarian restaurant in the world’, in praise of its steaks. Result.

Our hotel, reserved by Trailfinders [hence not a penny-pinching hostel such as we’d have selected if left to our own devices] was magnificent; a monument to luxury and decked tastefully in the burgeoning Christmas items that were adorning the city. Christmas trees sparkled at the foot of the sweeping staircase.

Outside in the street the stores sported their own Christmas displays-Santa and his reindeer cavorting above the porch of a department store, tinsel glinting in the searing heat of the sun.

To those of us accustomed to Christmas in the Northern hemisphere the appearance of Yuletide decorations in a heatwave is a surreal experience. I responded with a driven desire to obtain Australian style tree decorations-a mission in which I failed, until my kind, Antipodean aunt, seeing my predicament mailed me a beautiful, red and white felt kangaroo to dangle from the branches of our own tree.

Still more outlandish, Hong Kong-where we stopped over on our return in late November-boasted enormous Disney-style Christmas trees constructed entirely of plastic cartoon frogs and vast ornate merry-go-rounds in glittering gold and shiny purple. All this in an atmosphere that could wilt a cactus.

I am in awe of those who celebrate the festive season in a hot climate. But despite being one of the first to complain about cold, dark, frosty mornings and bleak winter nights there is something very special about Christmas at home, here in the UK where we still retain some semblance of changing seasons. And after all, with only one week until the shortest day [in daylight hours] spring is just around the corner.

London Heatwave

                The underground train is a stifling capsule of wilting passengers, staring mute into the clammy air.

                A slim, elegant woman in a long, floaty dress, large, ugly feet restrained by thin, strappy sandals. Her big toe gross, like a giant’s thumb-

                Stepping out on to the platform; a surge of cool air pursues us through the rounded tunnels.

                Heedless, purposeful travellers walk between us, barge into us or stand in the way, intent on their tiny screens.

                Throngs on the shady side of Bond Street-a forest of smooth, bare legs in the shortest of buttock-skimming denim shorts.

                I grimace when I spot my baggy knees reflected in the mirrors of the hotel lobby as I await the lift.

                We are the ‘Out of Towners’-Jack Lemmon and his wife-I am a tourist in a city where I lived for years-aeons ago-

                The restaurant terrace overhung by subway tracks-trains squealing by overhead, their wheels grinding as they round the bend, counteracting conversation; the waiter beams and his lips form a question, soundless in the train’s passing hubbub.

                Shoppers clutching bags-Dolce e Gabbana, Liberty’s, Reiss-

                The gift stalls crammed with a million items no one could want-Union Jack mugs, fridge magnets, Tee shirts, metal models of Big Ben, Buck House in a snowstorm.

                I fall exhausted on to the soft, white sheets in the air conditioned room-am asleep in seconds.

                When I wake I am sixty years of age…