Tales Of The City: Why can't we do summers properly?

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The Independent Online

By the time you read this, it could be bucketing down, and ducklings might be floating on puddles in London's Oxford Street under torrential needles of rain - but right now it's the end of the most awesome heatwave since I was a kid and Clapham Junction was just a glade of hawthorn bushes.

By the time you read this, it could be bucketing down, and ducklings might be floating on puddles in London's Oxford Street under torrential needles of rain - but right now it's the end of the most awesome heatwave since I was a kid and Clapham Junction was just a glade of hawthorn bushes. After a week and a half of scorch, I have to say this: we still can't quite manage summer, can we? We never get the hang of it. We're as far from being cool Mediterraneans as ever. Look at the evidence:

Alfresco. The simple business of sitting outside in sunny weather, eating and drinking in the open - how hard can that be? But we get it wrong. In Italy you sit in a piazza surrounded by tubs of foliage and geraniums, toying with a gelato, a salad, a prosecco. In London, you sit on the pavement of the King's Road or Kilburn High Street, inhaling the fumes from passing Smart cars, glared at by ambulant psychopaths enraged by the 2pm heat. At home, we moved the round, white kitchen table outside the back door into the shade-less patio, there to take breakfast every morning. But try this simple experiment: eat a bowl of Cheerios and read the newspaper while sitting at a pure white formica table under the direct gaze of the sun. Now go back into the house for the marmalade... That's right, your eyes have gone funny. You're completely blinded. You cannot make out simple shapes until lunchtime. Had you sat in the reflected sun five minutes more, you'd have burned your retina. At work, some kind soul in Human Resources has put some lunchtime tables and chairs outside the dining area, on a gravel-strewn balcony. No shade has been provided so, sadly, everybody tucking in to their cold salmon is getting bombarded with carcinogens out of the sky. Every Continental knows that the al fresco thing is a subtle blend of shade and breeze and minimal sunlight. We've never worked it out.

The Siesta. The lunch venues of London are full to bursting at 12.30pm mid-week; every wine bar, pasta joint, All Bar One, Pizza Express and the other Italianate eating houses are a-bustle and a-chatter. Heatwaves make people drink carafes of white wine when they know they shouldn't, because it seems harmless as well as delicious. But by 2.45pm, the venues are mostly deserted, except for tourists and drunkards. Everyone is back at work, weary, depleted, 80-per-cent asleep by 4.15pm. Everywhere else in Europe, they've gone for lunch at 2pm, had a leisurely four courses, the shops have shut, and around 4pm the diners retire for a little lie-down, a little snooze, a little snog, just for a hour, to get their strength back, for...

The Passeggiata. The evening stroll. The twilight promenade. They've been doing it for decades in Milan and Rome and Venice and Paris and Toulouse and "Las Ramblas" in Barcelona, hell, they're even doing it in Dublin now, but we've never got the hang of it. Three handsome chaps, in floral shirts and tight white trousers, walking line abreast, making oh-so-charming conversation with each other, and cruising the Monica Bellucci types in their polka-dot microskirts and strappy tops. Is that so difficult to copy? Yes, apparently. Our nearest equivalent is Old Compton Street, where the population of on-the-pull Romeos and bra-strap-flashing Jezebels is overwhelmed by beggars, cycle-rickshaw impresarios, minicab crooks and strange older men eyeing you for reasons you'd rather not explore.

The bella figura. The final frontier. Only when we get the clothing right will we start becoming Med-heads. Why do London chaps clump around, in mid-July, in worsted suits, black leather brogues and woolly socks? Will they ever go to work in light, parachute-cotton trousers, loafers and no socks? (Steady on.) Will they ever buy a cream linen suit and a light blue T-shirt and be taken seriously by their peers? Will they ever find an alternative to rolling their sleeves up and sinking pints of Hoegaarden outside the Dog and Duck, or sitting in an un- air-conditioned Tube fanning their boiled-farmer complexions with folded copies of Metro?

The critic cut short

It's hard to think of the weekly output of movies without thinking of the late Alexander Walker, the nation's best film critic, and his urbane, patrician, highly moral judgements, always cooked into prose of poise and deadly eloquence. I worked with him at the Evening Standard, where the sight of his tall, punctilious figure in the office meant that everyone would be on their best behaviour.

Alex disapproved of swearing. He disapproved of smoking. ("Leave your message at the tone," his answering machine said, "and remember - smoking is the slow way to suicide.") He disapproved of Ken Russell, who once bopped him with a rolled-up newspaper, right on his snowy pompadour, for having dissed The Devils. He reminded me of a Margaret Dumont in the Marx Brothers films, surrounded by vulgarians.

How marvellous, then, to think of him quivering with apprehension on the day (as recorded in his book, It's Only a Movie, Ingrid) he found himself sharing a sofa with William Randolph Hearst Jr, the son of the great newspaper magnate who was the model for Charles Foster Kane, star of Citizen Kane, which was Alex's favourite film. Learning that the quaking Walker was a film critic, Hearst Jr demanded to know what he thought were the six best films of all time, and the two men played cat-and-mouse for several minutes, talking about every movie in the world except the one which portrayed William's dad as a megalomaniac and a fool for love. Finally, "And how could any list leave out Citizen Kane?" said Alex, a little too airily. He was met with a glare that would have frozen the blood of a lesser man. "We think it's a very overrated movie," said Hearst's wife, whisking him away before blood could be spilt. Dealing with the Ken Russells of the world was child's play after that.