DJ Taylor: Season of bikinis and noisy beaches

Keats, you feel, would have been appalled by current October temperatures
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Looking out of the kitchen window yesterday morning at the shrivelled surface of a back garden scorching under 80 degrees of heat and a swimming pool drained and covered up these three weeks past, I found myself thinking of a passage in George Orwell's novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936). It is spring in Lambeth ("there were vile dusty winds and sometimes in the sky patches of harsh blue appeared") and Gordon Comstock, its ground-down bookseller's assistant hero, is canvassing the futility of writing poems about the changing of the seasons. How absurd, he declares, having cantered through a few celebrations of spring by Chaucer and Shakespeare, "that even now, in the era of central heating and tinned peaches, a thousand so-called poets are still writing in the same strain!"

Orwell's point – or rather Comstock's – is that the shift from winter to spring or from summer to autumn has been rendered more or less negligible by the advent of a modern urban civilisation. "What difference," as he puts it, "does spring or winter or any other time of year make to the average civilised person nowadays?" There was some sense in writing poems about spring when it meant you could eat fresh meat and green vegetables after months of frowsting in a windowless hut, or hymning fecund autumn when it meant mist and mellow fruitfulness and gargantuan harvest suppers. In an age where the idea of obstreperous "nature" (warnings about global warming notwithstanding) can be safely ignored by the average Briton, then surely these things have ceased to matter?

Three-quarters of a century later, you have an idea that, queerly, they do still matter, and what the essayists of a bygone generation used to call "the rhythm of the seasons" has a profoundly important influence on the way in which the specimen life gets lived. As a young man, the novelist Anthony Powell was inveigled into a conversation of this kind by Lady Ottoline Morrell, the intimidating chatelaine of Garsington Manor. What was his favourite season, she demanded? Powell indicated that it was the autumn. When he was older he would prefer the spring, Lady Ottoline remarked. The curious thing, Powell decided, five decades later, was that she was absolutely right.

But Lady Ottoline's nod to the metaphorical impact of the seasons on the average person's corporeal or psychological life presupposes that the natural phenomena held up to view remain the same. In other words, for spring to matter to anyone it has to consist of sharp breezes and gambolling lambs. Keats, you feel, would have been appalled by current October temperatures ("season of bikinis and clamorous beaches" etc). But quite apart from the deeply unsettling effect of freak weather on the individual psyche – I can still remember the unease with which I approached Laura Ingalls Wilder's classic children's book The Long Winter, where a blizzard covers the prairie for eight whole months and the family is reduced to eating seed-corn – there is also the question of its implications for what might be called our communal life.

In the fish-and-chip-shop queue the other night, nudged by the incongruity of the bright sunshine falling on our heads, I found myself discussing extreme (yet conventionally extreme) weather situations of the recent past with an elderly fellow-queuer. I could (just about) recall the freeze-up of 1963. My acquaintance, on the other hand, remembered the winter of 1947, when his wife had fallen on the ice and suffered a miscarriage. For a moment or two the sense of a universal signifier hung in the air – very hot and unseasonable air – between us. There are few enough elements in contemporary life with the ability to bring people together, and now it looks as though another of them will be gone. A swimming pool kept open until November will be scant compensation.

Comments