That Summer: Why some years are unforgettable
The sun always shone, the sand was golden and ice cream has never tasted so delicious. We've all had summers that stay forever in our memories. Michael Bywater remembers his favourite
Monday 06 July 2009
We have time machines and they take us to places which are broken. There is such a time machine in our nose. It can be triggered by anything, and sends us the ghosts of scents so powerful that we can shed tears for everything that changes and is gone. But sometimes it's not gone; sometimes it's we who have gone, changed into an uncertain future.
Two words sprung the mind's nose this time: Canford Cliffs. Europe's most expensive real estate, they say. House salesmen cite some football bugger as an example of who you'll find there. HSBC won't serve old folks in the Canford Cliffs branch because they don't have enough money. They have to use a machine. Images of Swarowski crystal, of too much Kouros cologne on too-old skin, tanned to leather. Late-model wives, bought in cash. Acres of toughened glass looking out on the grey windswept Channel. Blown rain and spray. The bottle of Laphroaig looking more tempting every evening. They are rich in Canford Cliffs, and old.
But there's another version, triggered by a remembered drift of friable sandy soil, of the green chypre of moss and bark, the abrasive smell of pine-bark, the aldehyde waft of the sewer outfall. There's turpentine and methylated spirits, salt-peeled paintwork from the random kraal of beach-huts – sold for £100,000 not so long ago. (But that's over now. That's finished.)
With the smells come remembered textures: sand between the toes, sand which the push-down tap wouldn't properly wash off, sand drifting up from the beach into the steep, serpentine path called a chine, back up the hill to Flagstaff Road and, because we are in a time machine, the past becomes the present, and the voice changes from the voice of memory – a solemn, querulous narrator like an actor playing a detective – to that more artless, foolish voice we use when we're nattering to ourselves in our heads about what's going on now, like Snoopy on his doghouse roof: Here's the famous World War One fighter ace... and it's just Daddy and me and Mummy's waiting at the top of the chine and one day there was a snake and it was in a tree and Mummy didn't come down to the beach today because she didn't feel very well (she's expecting my sister says the voice of memory but I don't know that), and she's tired and it's just me and Daddy today which is nice and so I sing too doo doo dooo doodle doo doo-dooo.
Daddy lets me play by the outfall and climb the crumbling cliffs behind the beach huts we don't go to and you can see the cliffs turn into sand and how can that be? And there's a striped inflatable canoe and a foot thing wooph wooph wooph to blow it up and Daddy doesn't say for heaven's sake you only had one an hour ago, Daddy says you can have a Sno-Creme or a Sno-Frute which come from something called 'kiosk', where there is a man and a fridge, and next to it is the lavatories which have their own smell which is wee and sand and sea-water and rust from the tank and there's seaweed and things called groynes and if you look over there, which is called 'east' you can see the paddle steamer, which is called 'Monarch 'and that goes to Swanage. Another day. There's plenty of time. We're going back now. Bucket and spade which are made of all sorts of rubber mixed up in colours, just like Plasticine before it goes brown.
In the beach hut methylated spirits makes the kettle go. There is a little steam railway in Poole Park. It is real but small. You can go to Sandbanks and get on a ferry. On the way to the ferry there is another ice-cream shop and your father gets a film for his camera and your mother says "Make sure the handbrake is on" just like she said "Christ, Keith, I think I left the iron on" when we get to Kegworth and then when we get to Ashby your father says "Did you turn the gas off at the main?" and Ashby is called "de la Zouch" but you never get to see The Zouch who is a bit like Zorro in a cape with a sword and a hat but you never see him. He is indoors. I am on the verge being sick. "Christ, Keith, pull over, can't you see he's going to be sick?" (My nephew still believes in his heart of hearts that my father was called Christ Keith.)
Sometimes there is a picnic, with a hamper. The special plates are held in with leather straps. Christ Keith you forgot the sugar. Someone drops the Thermos and the thing inside breaks and silver glass falls out. Whoever didn't do it tells whoever did do it: "Now look what you've done" as if they hadn't noticed.
They take it in turns to drive. Nottingham (23 Park Valley, you have to remember that if you get lost and the telephone number is 43802) to Canford Cliffs is a long way. It needs to be planned. It is not an adventure. It is an expedition. We never go any further until I am seven, when we go to France, where they eat octopus with saffron rice. (Every time you smell saffron you are there again, the Memory Narrator reminds me. Shut up, Memory Narrator, I explain.)
After that, we only go to Dorset every other year. One time, Mr Budd who runs the Ormonde Hotel goes mad and chases Mrs Budd along the cliffs with a chopper. Or she chases him. Or nobody chases anybody. Perhaps it is just a story.
Other years we go to Canford Cliffs and keep going, on to the Sandbanks Ferry, which has a man who works a steam engine and you can watch him doing it and the ferry goes on chains, but then they take it away and the new one is called 'diesel' and smells wrong. If you go to Studland Bay on the ferry and head 'west' you get to Knoll House which has a pirate ship called 'The Purbeck Pirate' and there is a gong which chimes for children's supper so that the parents can eat later, with the grown-ups.
The ferry is best. And the Isle of Purbeck is best: gorse and bracken. And you can see Brownsea Island where a mad old lady lives and where Scouting was invented and where the Famous Five spent the summer with their Aunt and Uncle who was a professor, and so the mad old lady must be Enid Blyton. And sometimes we went further south and west. Torquay. Minehead. Exmoor. Salcombe, which was incomprehensible because my father couldn't ("Christ, Keith") get the hang of which side of the inlet we were one. The West was a different country. The South was a different country. The South-West was a different planet, with different weather and different botany – whoever heard of gorse in Nottingham? of plaice? of ferries? – but it was best. If by the primitive compass in a child's head we were pointing south-west, then good things were going to happen.
But Canford Cliffs was – is – the best best. If you go the wrong way up the chine, you get to a road which is called 'Esplanade' where the bucket-and-spade shop is, and windmills, and cylinders of ice-cream in greaseproof paper. Greaseproof paper was very important for things. And that particular holiday was the best best of all, because that's when I discovered I was me.
So when I have had my Sno-Creme which is called 'banana' but is much better than real banana which doesn't taste of banana at all, Daddy says put the crab back in the sea and wash the sand off while I push the tap down and sandals on now laddie and back up the chine we go and I can smell tar, too, which is the memory of boats, and I sing the song doodoo doodle doodle doooo doo and when we get back to the Ormonde Hotel Mummy says I could hear you hooting all the way up the chine.
Which (says the Memory Narrator) is why this summer was that summer. Even at the time, I knew that, at that moment, something had changed; even now, I can't say exactly what it was, but the effect was that suddenly I saw myself differently. Perhaps it was just that suddenly I saw myself. If my mother could hear me hooting my way up the chine it must have meant that she knew me even when I wasn't there. She must have thought "Here comes Michael", which, in turn, meant that I was an actual something, and that I was wherever I was, not whoever I was with.
That summer was, if you like, my first experience of self-awareness and perhaps that's what the myth of the expulsion from Eden was trying to encode. Suddenly, you're yourself; but, equally suddenly, you're on your own. I didn't know that at the time but the moment stuck in memory and I know that for ages afterwards I would drive myself into a sort of vertigo by looking in the mirror and saying "I am me. I am me," until the words became meaningless and I felt peculiar and had to stop.
And I suppose like most of us, I've spent the rest of my life hooting my way up the chine so that someone, somewhere, will think "That's Michael."
You can't go back, they say, but there is another time machine, called a car. Now the drive to Canford Cliffs is easy. Straight down the motorway. But going back is unnerving. Everything has changed. The Poole Park miniature railway doesn't have a steam engine. There are road signs. The Ormonde Hotel has gone.
But Flagstaff Road is the same and the chine is the same and even the 1930s building on the Promenade is the same. Even the lavatories smell the same. Sand still drifts up the chine, the beach-huts (white-painted wood, like a seaside Vermont in miniature) are the same, and the south-west English holiday is the same.
And the years roll back. The footballing buggers and the other rich shags may be more prolific and the houses modernised, but we never saw them much; our Canford Cliffs was more austere. More fun. It was real in a way the rest of the year was not real.
It still is. Gingerly, going back, I went on the Sandbanks Ferry. It's much bigger now – usually, with childhood haunts revisited, it's the opposite; things are smaller – and Knoll House was still there and the Purbeck Pirate, too, where I fell in love with a bossy girl in a bandana.
Perhaps she's still there, too. But I didn't go further. Torquay, Minehead, Exmoor, Salcombe... I stopped. The time machine in my car had proved the time machine in my nose correct. It was as I remembered it.
For a child of the east Midlands, it was magical, redolent, strange as Australia, mad as a chine. It still is.
Postcards from the past: Wonderful summers remembered
Michael Winner, director
I spent probably my most memorable summer in Burma a few years ago when my girlfriend and I went on a cruise up the Irrawaddy River on an Orient Express German Rhine steamer. It's not politically correct to go there but it was the most enchanting place. The people are beautiful and the land seems untouched. We saw oxen pulling carts and people on bamboo rafts taking their wares to sell at Rangoon. When they got there they would dismantle their rafts to sell the bamboo. I've no idea how they got back.
It was a magical world but the problem was that the swimming pool on the boat was far too small and there were too few sun loungers around it. It was an invite-only cruise and it was all Baron this or Duke of that – everyone had a title. I said to the man who ran the boat: "I want my sun loungers here and there." And he said: "You will have them." "Just a minute," I said, "if I come down late how will you prevent the Duke of Twaddle and Baron Jokey-Face sitting on my sun loungers?" He said: "I'll tell you why they won't be sitting on your loungers, because they won't be there – there will be a space and when you come down we will carry out your loungers." It was some of the best service I've ever had.
Kate Silverton, TV presenter
The summer of 1988 evokes happy memories – I passed my driving test and bought my first car ... a red Citroën Dyane. I bought it from my sister for £150 – she had bought it a year earlier for £75! But it was such a thrill to have the freedom to travel.
I loved that car. Claire had painted big black spots on it and I covered it in stickers from my recent inter-railing holiday. My friends and I would leave school in the glorious sunshine and drive in convoy through Epping Forest where my friend's father had a pub. We'd sit outside and toast the end of our A-Level studies. Our convoy included two Beetle convertibles, a Mini, a Morris Minor convertible and me in my much-loved "Daphne". We'd drive along, roof down, music loud and with that great sense of freedom and fun that I am reminded of every time I hear our favourite group at the time, Hothouse Flowers – singing along loudly with "Don't Go". It seemed like a perfect summer song as it has wonderfully sunny lyrics, although someone told me recently it was written about someone who was dying – which puts a bit of a different take on it.
Tony Hawks, comedian
About 10 years ago I was driving through Ireland when I saw an old boy hitchhiking with a fridge. I couldn't believe my eyes but the Irish man I was with didn't even pass comment. I told this story at a dinner party later and a lot of wine went down and I ended making a £100 bet with an old school friend that I could hitchhike round Ireland with a fridge.
So the following summer I found myself in Dublin, where I bought a small fridge – I wanted something that would fit into people's cars – and spent the next three weeks going clockwise round Ireland. I had no intention of doing anything media-related but people kept saying I should call the Gerry Ryan show on Irish radio. Gerry loved it – he said it sounded like a completely purposeless idea but a damn fine one. It was the purposelessness of it that appealed to the Irish psyche and they tracked my progress.
My fridge was christened Saoirse, which means freedom, and I got everyone who gave me a lift to sign the "freedom fridge" with a marker pen. Soon it was covered in signatures. At one stage a fisherman helped me lift her into his car and looked at it, spent the next hour chatting about politics, then dropped me off and helped me get the fridge out and set it down by the road. But it never crossed his mind to ask what I was doing with a signed fridge.
James Nesbitt, actor
In 1983 I had just scraped through my A-levels and, for the first part of the summer, I played Jesus in the musical "Godspell" with the Ulster Youth Theatre. We started it at the Riverside Theatre in Coleraine, where I'm from, and took it all over Northern Ireland, including the Grand Opera House in Belfast.
I had grown up away from the Troubles but I was working with people who had grown up on both sides. Playing Jesus in a cross-community play was symbolic but for most of us at the time it was an opportunity to drink and have fun. It meant freedom from school – there was huge excitement and rather than show me I wanted to be an actor, it showed me I wanted to have a good time. But I found my voice and, by the end of it, we'd taken rave reviews and thought we had solved the Northern Irish problems single handed. It was a real voyage of discovery.
Rosie Boycott, journalist
In the summer of 1969 I travelled across America with a man who, 27 years later, would become my husband. We had known each other as teenagers and, aged about 18, set off for New York and on to San Francisco, and Mexico, back through the Grand Canyon to Chicago and Boston, and back to New York. We hitchhiked and at one stage we got stranded by a cowboy on Rattlesnake Mountain, which really was full of rattlesnakes. We followed Kerouac's route with "On the Road" in our backpacks, listening to music and smoking dope as we camped out. We weren't the only one doing it in those days – we always ended up talking to people at truck stops heading west to San Francisco, which was the place to be. We would listen to the Grateful Dead and hang out on Freak Street.
And then Charlie and I went our separate ways and got on with our lives. It was only about 10 years ago that we were reintroduced by a friend. It's nice having known someone all your life, despite having spent so long out of touch and, soon we were married. Three summers ago we went back to America to retrace some of our steps. It was weird doing it older, richer, wiser and in a great deal more comfort, but it was no less magical as a trip.
Julian Clary, comedian
Three summers ago I moved from London into the Kent countryside. I had always lived in the city but thought moving out would be the dignified thing to do when you're approaching 50 – there's only so long you can spend hanging around Soho. I was ready for a change of pace and wanted a place to write. I remember it being incredibly hot the week I moved – almost Mediterranean. The lawn was cracked and there was a hosepipe ban, but it was fine; I could leave the windows and doors open and swan about in the sun.
The dark and silence in the night took a while to get used to, especially coming from Camden Town in North London, where there's the constant din of shouting and vomiting. I had grown quite fond of that and I missed the hubbub, although I have kept a place in London so I can creep back when I feel the need to see a stabbing or something...
Monty Don, gardener
It was the summer of 1979, and I had just left university. I eloped with the woman who is now my wife. That was a special summer. I felt free. I was 24, she was 25 and we ran away to a village near Whitby in North Yorkshire.
I remember loading the car with a hundredweight of brown rice, a few possessions and my dog, then we drove up the A1. My cousins lent me a house on the condition that I painted the windows and exercised their horse. I had never ridden before but anything seemed possible. It was a very frugal existence. We were living off £18 a week. There were two farms either side of where we were staying and they let us have unlimited potatoes, swedes and milk. One of the old farmers would tell us these long stories – it was worth it for the storytelling. I was completely in love and having this extraordinarily rich experience. My wife and I have been married for 26 years, so we obviously did something right.
Edwina Currie, writer
The summer that springs to mind is that of 1968. I was reading politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford – I was interested in politics and knew I would pursue it as a career, but at that time thought I would be involved as a volunteer or a fundraiser. It was a time of political unrest, both here and abroad. Students in other countries were doing sit-ins and were building barricades, although personally I couldn't see the point of that, because on the whole I thought the lecturers knew a lot more than we did.
What especially interested me was that in Prague there was political liberalisation afoot. They had lived with the Cold War all of their lives, as we had; and both had had to cope with the constant threat of nuclear war. It thrilled us that the world looked like it was becoming softer. But on 21 August 1968 the Russians sent the tanks into Prague, and student freedom there was no more. I felt very upset. I felt personally involved in what had happened. I told my friends that if it were me, I would have greeted the Soviets with an anti-tank weapon.
Someone said that I should be the person making sure that those weapons were ready. The way I could do this was by becoming a politician or a member of parliament. And that was when my mind was made up regarding what I was going to do for the rest of my life.
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