What's so great about the outdoors?
Whether it's cafe tables or cinema screenings, concerts or picnics in the park, we're obsessed with going alfresco. But, argues Tim Walker, life on the inside is far more civilised
Monday 13 June 2011
Cast your mind back to the first genuinely sunny weekend of the year. I can't remember precisely when it was but, until the Met Office returns my call, let's say for the sake of argument that it was late April or early May.
If you happen to be a middle-class city-dweller, you probably foraged for last summer's pair of shorts at the bottom of a drawer, transferred a bottle of Prosecco and a Scotch egg from the fridge to the cool bag, then set off for the nearest park, via the newsagent. Perhaps you were pushing a pram, or riding a fixed-wheel bicycle.
You found what looked like a suitable spot – close to a tree, but not so close as to be shady – and eased your limbs gingerly to the ground. It's not that wet, you told yourself, trying to unfold the newspaper while your buttocks darkened with dew. These espadrilles are seriously comfortable, you assured your wife/girlfriend/husband/boyfriend with unflinching optimism, as the sport section fluttered away on the wind, which was, you had to admit, a touch chillier than predicted.
Before long, your toddler's Mr Whippy was a sad white blob on the grass, being dive-bombed by wasps. A rogue football had knocked over your Tupperware container of homemade tabbouleh. The sun was getting in your eyes, or it had crept behind that tree. So you picked up the cool bag, the toddler, and the damp remains of The Sunday Whatever, and you walked (or cycled) home. Because, in fact, the outdoors isn't all it's cracked up to be. Especially not in this country, in late April or early May. Not even now, in June, by which time most newspapers or magazines have published their annual lifestyle feature about barbecuing: the dubious propaganda that awakens every reader's inner Outdoors Nazi.
I appreciate the outdoors as much as the next man. I do. The outdoors can be perfectly enchanting, under certain circumstances. What I object to, however, is the idea that it's some sort of moral obligation for me to be out there, just because the clouds have briefly parted. If I happen to be inside, happily reading a book or watching a DVD on a sunny afternoon, there's always some indignant family member or flatmate ready to berate me for not "taking advantage" of the "glorious" weather. But the nature of weather is such that there will be more glorious days – tomorrow, for instance – and I do not have to "take advantage" of all of them.
Several activities are, of course, best enjoyed outdoors. Such as walking, or flying a kite. Or staring at attractive women. Or ball sports. (Watch out for the tabbouleh!) Swimming is a borderline case: assuming you don't live on the Great British coastline, your best option is your local lido, which precedent suggests will be glacially cold and speckled with bird poo, or worse. That duck floating past you while you're doing your breast-stroke lengths may seem charming now, but give him a few minutes and I expect you'll change your mind.
Sunbathing, too, seems like an obvious example of a hobby for which the outdoors is indispensable, yet one often finds that the people whose self-esteem is most closely linked to their skin's shade of nut-brown are the same ones who'll happily fork out their hard-earned sponds to sunbathe indoors for eight or more months of the year. It's not especially enjoyable for them; it's more a necessary chore, leading to what's commonly described as a healthy glow, followed by skin cancer. And I'd rather have vitamin D deficiency than skin cancer. Tanning is such a 20th-century obsession. Have the tedious and orange never heard the phrase "pale and interesting"? Because most things that make people interesting – reading, watching, listening, eating – are better done indoors. That, surely, is why evolved homo sapiens learned to build houses.
Take food. The contemporary alfresco dining consensus means that every proprietor in the country has deemed it necessary to deposit a handful of sorry tables and chairs on the pavement outside their panini shop, where they expect their customers to take in the air, however smog-filled it might be. Who needs a smoking section when you can enjoy coffee and biscotti on the hard shoulder of the A10? Rotherhithe suddenly thinks it's Rome, so convinced are its coffee vendors that so-called "cafe culture" is somehow fundamentally desirable. Well, it may be fundamentally desirable to Italians. But they live in Italy. In this country, the profusion of patio heaters and marqee-sized umbrellas is proof that, secretly, we'd all rather be inside.
Still, the same misguided notion takes hold when people travel to some unfamiliar rural county on their hols. Instead of visiting a museum or a National Trust property, domestic tourists seem inexplicably drawn to open-air markets. "Let's go to the market!" the Outdoors Nazis shriek, regardless of said market's reputation, and then spend inordinate amounts of money on sweaty artisanal cheese and the same brand of honey mustard that they could get at the deli counter in their local Waitrose. (And that's before they get to the craft stalls, where they're persuaded to buy oddly shaped crockery or wooden seven-piece jigsaws: they'd turn their noses up at such tat in a regular shop, but display it beneath a grubby sheet of striped tarpaulin and they'll gladly open their wallets.)
At the Fat Duck in Bray, Heston Blumenthal invites diners to listen to an iPod playing the sounds of the seaside – gulls crying, waves lapping – while they eat his signature shellfish dish. His jelly of quail allegedly evokes the experience of truffle-hunting in Provence, with the help of some liquid nitrogen and moss. Significantly, at no point does the country's most celebrated chef ask his guests to actually venture outside; he's safe in the knowledge that the imagined outdoors is far more pleasurable than the real one. No wonder he has three Michelin stars.
The country's amateur cooks are not so discerning. Despite their prevalence, those lifestyle features about barbecuing have had a negligible effect on the grilling skills of the British man, Blumenthal notwithstanding. The only way to add any taste at all to the average barbecuer's blackened, barely identifiable cuts of generic meat, is to slather them in the overpriced honey mustard their Outdoors Nazi wife bought at that delightful market in Norfolk. Worse, barbecuers tend to demand that their guests eat off their laps, or while standing up, balancing their hosts' oddly-shaped crockery in one hand and hoping their glass of cheap fizz won't tip over when they try to prop it upright on the lawn. Inside, meanwhile, perfectly serviceable tables and chairs remain tragically unused.
The same level of discomfort afflicts outdoor cinemagoers – an oxymoron if ever there was one. Last week, tickets went on sale for the Film Four Summer Screen season at Somerset House, which doesn't begin until late July, meaning that there's not even a mildly reliable weather forecast available at time of writing. And yet, more than a month in advance, Outdoors Nazis are already paying £14.50 per head (not including the booking fee) to sit on a pins-and-needles-inducing stone floor with a decent chance of drizzle, to half-watch a film whose audio is indistinct beneath the blustery wind and the conversation of the couple in front of them. To clarify: there are no seats. You have to fight for the best available patch of concrete, and then you have to sit on it for the duration of the film. One of this summer's titles – Luc Besson's The Big Blue – is 161 minutes long.
Live music? Great. Camping? Fine, up to a point – specifically, the point where I have to put up my own tent. Live music and camping? No thanks. Frankly, I'm jolly glad the BBC sends so many of its licence fee payer-funded staff to Glastonbury each year: not because it gives me another excuse to disagree with the Daily Mail (though that never hurts), but because it allows me to enjoy the entire weekend from the comfort of my own sitting room, after which I get to sleep in my own bed, rather than on a half-pumped inflatable mattress that's swimming in e.coli soup in a field in Somerset.
It may come as a shock, but those big Summer gigs in Hyde Park aren't organised because the evening sunlight is so pleasant: no, this is the only time of year that credulous punters can be persuaded to join such a huge crowd while still adhering to health and safety regulations – a crowd far huger than any promoter could legally squeeze into the Albert Hall across the road, say, or even the O2 arena.
The Wireless Festival sponsored by Barclaycard, for example, is sold on the premise that we can all be part of some transcendent collective musical happening, courtesy of the Black Eyed Peas. But when the day itself arrives, we find ourselves hemmed into a crowd bristling with the possibility of violence or teenagers snogging. We're always half a mile from a urinal, and we have to wait half an hour to get a drink at the bar – during which time our favourite band have played their greatest hits and gone back to their Winnebago. And then the Black Eyed Peas are on.
As for the myth that reading outdoors is an agreeable pastime, I do hope that if you're still reading this, you're reading it under a roof. I hope you're reading it on your favourite chair, with the sunlight spilling through an open window (which, of course, you could close again should the sun go in). Is it lunchtime? There's a Scotch egg in the fridge. You could chase that with a nice cup of tea – seeing as you have easy access to a kettle, and running water, and electricity. But if you're reading this in the park, then you really only have yourself to blame for the distracting breeze that's perpetually flapping the pages, and the acrid, eye-watering smoke from your disposable barbecue, and the haemorrhoids you're about to contract from sitting on that moist patch of grass for so long. It's glorious indoors, you know. You should take advantage.
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