PICTURE: Laurie Lee’s Slad Valley in the summer
In the spring, a young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of love, said Alfred Tennyson in 1835. That may be true for Alf, but in the spring my thoughts turn to what to read in the summer. Not so much the beach bonkbuster (although visitors to the shop will know how much I love Jilly Cooper. Yes I am *that* cool) but the novel which sums up the long lazy days of a British summer to perfection. I’m not going to wax lyrical about Watership Down, because I’ve already done that. Except to say that if you know of a book more fitting for a summer read than one which starts in May and ends in September, charting the drowsy, sultry beauty of the baking countryside as it builds to the cloudburst climax, then you are a better bookworm than me. Did I say I WASN’T going to wax lyrical about Watership Down? Dammit.
However Watership Down is by no means the only contender for the ideal summer read. Laurie Lee’s memoir Cider With Rosie, harking back to a bygone era of a Gloucestershire childhood in the Slad Valley during and after the First World War, contains some of the most gorgeous descriptions of nature in literature. But russet apples and plump, rosy-cheeked maidens aside, It’s not shy of showing the darker side of country life. Villagers are party to murder, suicide and bitter rivalry and death and poverty lurks around every corner. Nature itself is double-edged - the bucolic golden landscape can turn to a threatening monster in the blink of an eyelid: ‘For the first time in my life I was alone in a world whose behaviour I could not fathom; I put back my head and the sun hit me smartly on the face, like a bully.’ Ouch. I’ve had mornings after like that too.
On a similar note, the more pessimistic Coming Up for Air by George Orwell contains equally evocative descriptions of an English summer but retains a creeping sense of menace. In this, aging middle-class wage slave George Bowling attempts to throw off the shackles of suburbia to escape to his idyllic childhood village, Lower Binfield, for a stolen summer afternoon of fishing. But, this being Orwell, Bowling arrives to find the village swamped by new development which has stripped the landscape of the bustling hedgerows and cool green spinneys of his memories. The final indignity lies in the fishing lake itself which has become - brace yourself - a rubbish dump. Bowling’s realisation that his rural retreat no longer exists, either physically or metaphorically, prompts the damning indictment: ‘Coming up for air! But there isn’t any air. The dustbin we’re in reaches right to the stratosphere… I’m finished with this notion of trying to get into the past.’ Double ouch. A chilling warning to anyone who has ever been tempted to look up their ex on Facebook.
I started writing with the intention of revisiting some of the best descriptions of summer. What I’ve found is all my favourites are laced with sorrow, eeriness or bitterness. I’m not sure if that says more about them or me.