Cutting through an Edinburgh department store last week, I suddenly wished I hadn't. A sign dangling overhead screamed three words that triggered an instant, sub-Proustian reaction: "Back to school!" Happily, school wasn't spelt with a K, as I've sometimes seen in that phrase, but memories of fresh polyester and fountain pens swam into my head, and the heart-sinking chill of that first morning back – in winter uniform, and with a distinct nip in the air.
You know the summer's nearly over when this sign appears. It's like the shock of a ripe blackberry in a hedgerow, and noticing the farmers are already cutting the hay. For anyone who grew up loving long British summers, with all their suggestions of freedom and laziness, this can be a depressing time of year. It's the end of having time to read fiction, of not having to wear socks, and of getting up late. At least, that's what I have always thought.
All that changes once you become a grown-up. Life is no longer dictated by the academic calendar, (unless you become a teacher, or immediately start having children), so you can go on holiday whenever you want. And as soon as you let go of the idea that August is some kind of Laurie Lee vision of hot weather and carelessness, you realise how disappointing it often is.
The past few years have given us not blue skies and sunshine, but horizon-to-horizon cloud, with a bit of a chill. Except in Scotland, with its lovely long evenings, August days are never as long as you think they should be. So, far from spending days swimming and lounging around outdoors, you are forced inside to fetch a jumper and watch the news.
And there is nothing in that news, because everyone else is also busy trying to enjoy their summer holidays. Politics has shut down, the usual order of life has disappeared, and we are out of our regular routines. What seemed like a release from normal life early in July has by now become a slightly unsettling suspension of normality. The last days of August drag like a dead dog on its lead.
In fact, the best thing about this time of year is that September is round the corner. I can say that because I'm not going back to skool. Sorry, kids. You see, the strange thing is that the weather often picks up for a late burst. After that initial chilly morning, timed to coincide with the first day back at school, temperatures tend to shoot up to the mid-20s, as they memorably did every year in the mid-Noughties, culminating in the heat wave of September 2006.
All this coincides with life going back to normal again. There is a new energy in the air, as people return to work refreshed and full of ideas. Gyms enjoy their second annual peak in membership, and resolutions to eat and drink less are easier to maintain now than in January, a ridiculous time to try to abstain from pleasure. Theatres and galleries time their new hits for September, and publishers, after sitting on all their best books, release them all at once on one day.
September is a particularly good month if you live in a university town: the tourists have bussed off, but the students are yet to descend. Gardens, now dowdy, burst back to life with chrysanthemums and dahlias. And if the weather isn't much cop, you can always grab a cheap holiday. Greece and the southern Mediterranean are at their finest: the sea has warmed up and everyone has gone home. But we're getting ahead of ourselves. There's still a whole bank holiday weekend to get through, and then the last dog days of August. Thank goodness for the Paralympics.
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