Terence Blacker: Our strange summer migration patterns

The parasites are everywhere in July and August, cawing over their Chardonnay
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The Independent Online

They are here again, those brave, wispy, delightful birds of the sea, the Little Terns. Nesting in colonies on the dunes and shingle beaches around the East Anglian coast, they need protection from the worst that their summer home can provide, kestrels, herons, cats, foxes, clod-hopping humans and their yapping, crapping dogs. Within a month they will be on their long journey back to west Africa.

The media birds are here, too, slightly later than the Little Terns and generally less pleasing to the eye. There have already been early sightings of them in the family sections of weekend newspapers - a think-piece on going to the beach, perhaps, or a report of their return to a favourite pub, restaurant, oyster bar, garden, church or second-hand bookshop.

With the school holidays approaching, a mighty colony of these birds will soon be settling into their favourite summer visiting places in Europe. Around here, they favour Southwold, Aldeburgh, Walberswick in Suffolk and Cromer, Blakeney, Salthouse and Cley on the north Norfolk coast. Between these two popular nesting areas, there lies the hostile, rarely visited terrain of Great Yarmouth, an alien place of casinos, kiss-me-quick hats and summer specials starring Jim Davidson with music from The Searchers.

Whereas Little Terns require protection from local humans, with media birds it is the other way around. Scavenging for copy for their columns and material for their novels they and their many parasites - producers, editors, packagers, publishers and agents - are everywhere during July and August, cawing over their Chardonnay, displaying themselves in their sailing boats, setting up alarm calls over the news that some ghastly, distressing cheap housing is to be built for locals, and clucking proudly over Jeremy's or Chloe's GCSE results.

It is customary for several of these summer visitors to hatch a novel during their stay. There are, after all, such marvellous characters in the country -some of them surprisingly bright in their way - and the meeting of sophisticated Londoners with crusty locals is so hilarious and fascinating that it just demands to be used as a background. In this area alone, there have been four attempts at the great Southwold novel published in recent years and more contenders will doubtless soon be on the way.

Conversation with friends is richer, deeper, during the summer holidays; people with whom one can only snatch a few words on the way to lunch at The Ivy have the leisure and the weather to talk of more important things. The East Coast has the effect of ratchetting up the general meaningfulness of life: around here one can spend simply hours re-evaluating, prioritising, generally working out what at the end of the day its all about. Romance happens, of course. Media birds rarely mate for life and summer in the country can stir enough desire, or simply curiosity, for an affair which might be recreational - "we'll always have Snape, darling" - or even life-changing.

Then there are the young. Here they roam, sweet, free Enid Blyton children from the Fifties, all rosy-cheeked and floppy-haired on their bikes as they ride off to catch crabs at Walberswick as if the computer game had never been invented. Happy, you see? It makes parents wonder whether they had been right when they decided to bring them up in a town. Now, for several weeks, they get to know their children again - not always a pleasurable experience, as it happens, but one that is full of useful stuff when it comes to squeezing out a few bashfully boastful family-based columns over the summer. The guano that issues from media birds during the children's holidays may offer the reader little, but for the writer it combines life and work - "daddy's in the beach house, writing his column, darling" -and in a way which brings immediate financial satisfaction.

It is the habit of those with summer homes to pretendthat they are not visitors at all but residents who have to go to London now and then. Names of local characters are carefully dropped into conversation, with reminiscences of the days when the delicatessen was still a fish market and you could buy a house on the front for £25,000.

In a sense, none of this matters too much. It is probably good for human beings to impersonate someone entirely different for a few weeks during the year. Londoners tend to change remarkably with the sun and the air, becoming chatty, interested in nature, open to the ideas of others, and sometimes appearing to be almost as nice as those who live in the country all the time. Then they go home and become their old selves.

But while their lives become sunnier, that of those left behind in the cities is merely hotter. The divide between those who have and those who can only dream of having is never wider than in the months of July and August. In towns, at work, the weather brings resentment and factiousness. There are punch-ups outside pubs. Marriages crack in the heat. Every patch of greenery is occupied by an almost naked city dweller attempting to absorb and store up the sun's rays as if a bit of ultraviolet will bring warmth and hope to their souls. There is little to keep these non-migrators going through the holiday months. On TV, there are repeats and Big Brother. The press, meanwhile, is full of asinine and irritating silly-season stories, accompanied by the self-satisfied twitterings of media birds on their holidays.

terblacker@aol.com

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