“And I have something to expiate: a pettiness.” So ends D H Lawrence’s poem “Snake”. The pettiness in question being the fear that drives him to throw a stick at a snake that has sidled into his garden on a hot, hot day in Sicily. “And so I missed my chance with one of the lords of life.” I loved that poem as a boy and years later made a pilgrimage to the garden in order to experience the heat, taste the fear, and think about the idea of expiating a pettiness. The phrase has a lovely sound, as though, in a reversal of the Eden story, it’s the snake hissing the judgement.
This week I have something to expiate. Not a petty sin against one of the lords of life, unless you are prepared to think of Australian cricketers as divinities. But a pettiness none the less. Reader – and it isn’t easy for me to admit this – on that final day of the third Test at Old Trafford I joined others in praying for rain. No one could be sure, but without rain there was a better than even chance that England would lose, not just that match but the momentum, and with it the Ashes, and with it the brief superiority we’ve been enjoying over a country that is admirable in everything except the attitude of its cricketers. If sport cannot be justified by the opportunity it provides to wipe the smugness off the face of an Australian in a baggy green cap, it cannot be justified by anything. And so we prayed. And lo! – it rained. And behold! – the smirk vanished.
Whereupon, of course, we saw what we had done and were sorry. That was no way to keep the Ashes. We had forfeited not just the moral high ground, but the moral low ground as well. In our hearts, we knew that in the celestial book of winners Australia’s name was inscribed. “Sssss!” said the snake.
But that wasn’t all we had to expiate. The other and far more serious sin we had committed was against the sun. The First Commandment of an English summer: do not complain about the heat and beg for cold; do not say it’s too dry and hope for rain. There are places where it’s permissible to bemoan the sun, but England isn’t one of them. There are also times when it’s reasonable to hope for rain – I recall doing so as a schoolboy every Wednesday in term time in the hope we wouldn’t have to do a cross-country run. A vain hope, as it turned out, as the sadists sent us out in all weathers and wouldn’t have relented had the fires of Gomorrah descended on us. But at least, if only in imagination, the rain promised relief.
No excuse, though, for seeking such relief in an English August. All hail the sun! Especially in the city. “Earth has not anything to show more fair,” Wordsworth declared, standing on Westminster Bridge, overcome by the majesty of the morning, the towers and domes and temples glittering under a sun that never did “more beautifully steep/ In his first splendour valley, rock or hill”.
Quite some compliment from the greatest poet of our natural landscape. And Wordsworth had no National Theatre or Festival Hall, no Gherkin, Heron Tower, Shard or London Eye to move him – gaudy monuments to commerce and tourism, you could argue, but thrilling when the sun silvers them, bleaching them of all imputation of triviality or greed. Look right or left on Westminster Bridge today and Earth still has nothing to show more fair.
Not quite the calm Wordsworth speaks of, I agree, but you can get that in any one of the city’s parks drowsing in the sun. I am new to the conjunction of park and calm. For me, a park in summer used to be a place of agitation, as though the sun quickened nervous energy and wild anticipation. Were I back home in Manchester now, I’d be rowing on the lake in Heaton Park, warmed to the bone with the promise of I don’t know what, but 50 years ago it would have been romance. I might not have resembled any known plant or flower as an adolescent, but I was as subject to the sun’s influence as they were. Out it came and I was in love; in it went and I wasn’t.
Quieter now, I let the sun tempt me into St James’s Park to see the pelicans strut about and watch mother swans leading their flotillas of cygnets in precise and stately formation across the lake, as though on their way to meet the Queen. On the hottest days the pelicans retire to the rocky island provided for their privacy, leaving the showmanship to the squirrels who pose like minor celebrities on crack for every camera that flashes.
The excitement generated by the squirrels of St James’s Park is hard to fathom. Don’t squirrels exist in Volgograd or Bogota? The spectacle of people allowing themselves to be overwhelmed by the unexceptional – musicals, boy bands, a squirrel – normally irritates me, but when the sun’s out I turn benign, like Marlon Brando’s Godfather playing with his grandson. “My blessings,” I whisper hoarsely, and don’t even object to the sight of tourists sitting at tables outside my favourite restaurants in shorts. But it’s the noise of heat in the city that stirs me the most. The roar of it. Not sharing Wordsworth’s love of quiet, I strain my ear to that roar as though to the din of life itself.
Whatever happens in the fourth Test, now under way, I won’t be praying for rain to thwart the Australians. Should all the infections that the sun sucks up fall on them, however, as Caliban called on them to fall on Prospero – blisters, radiation poisoning, exhaustion, jock itch – that’s something else.