Lamentation for a lost summer

Conjure up a handful of your most cherished memories. Some will date from childhood. Others will be of decidedly adult happenings. Some will evoke distant places. Others will be nearer to home. Some will make you feel unambiguously happy. Most will elicit a wistful pang. Only one feature, I wager, will hold across these reveries: the season. Whatever the event being summoned, it is likely to play out against improbably beatific sunshine. Or a high-pollen haze, as though a crop-duster had just released a cache of gold shavings.

The summer has an outsize place in our picture of the past. Even the language of memory — of things being “burnt” into it — suggests heat. In this summer, The Summer That Isn’t, we should lament all the holidays not taken, the rooftop bars not thronged, the Shirley Valentine-ish trysts not savoured. That is, we should lament all the memories that are not being formed. It is no less a loss for our being unaware of it.

With luck, missing out on a real summer will endear the season to us again. If this seems unnecessary, consider how, as a quirk of modernity, we have come to take this time of year for granted.

In his lush, elliptical book Winter, Adam Gopnik described how the colder months have gained in esteem over recent centuries. With the advent of coal heating, the Romantics began to reimagine winter as something sublime and atmospheric, not an ordeal to be survived.

The trend continued with electricity and insulative clothing until a once-feared season became the cue for high-minded reflection and gentlemanly sport. In an urbanised society, the preciousness of summer — farming’s make-or-break time — was rather lost. A few years after the book’s release in 2011, the fad for hygge, Denmark’s fireside cosiness, showed how far the shift charted by Gopnik had gone, at least among the elites.

The corollary, of course, is a view of summer as the vulgarian’s season, good for socialising but not real intimacy, for surface pleasures but not the life of the mind. It shows up in odd ways, this prejudice. Los Angeles is as complex and layered a city as any I know. If the idea of it as shallow dies hard, it is, I have realised, for no better reason than its eternal sunshine. To a certain cast of mind, living in such benign conditions is fundamentally unserious. Real cities, it seems, must suffer for at least a third of the year. Cultural depth comes from the prolonged turn inward. Overcast Melbourne’s attitude to radiant Sydney carries a trace of this hauteur.

If summer were just the Stupid Season, that would be slander enough. As the globe warms, though, it has become the Dangerous Season too. In a grim inversion of the premodern world, it is now summer, not winter, that has connotations of death. The life-giving sun can also take it away.

Nor is it just in the elites’ imaginative lives that summer struggles for favour. Polled by YouGov in 2013, Americans named autumn as their preferred season, followed by spring. There have always been people who claim to prefer the cooler months, in what I took to be either an emo joke or a tweedy affectation, peculiar to England. I had no idea that so many meant it.

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They shouldn’t. We tend to remember our lives through summers. We only get 70 or so attempts to load up on the experiences. Because of the quiet bars, the circumscribed travel, the romantic Ice Age, there is going to be a void where a season’s worth of recollections should be.

If there is a perverse upside to a year without summer, it might be that the sense of loss will restore the season to its proper standing as the most cherished of the four. Here is to a sort of counter-hygge in the 2020s.

They say that JMW Turner, the great painter of light, was inarticulate, as though a deft tongue to go with a supernatural eye would just be
spoiling him. Still, in this lost summer, which might not be the last we know, the words that were supposedly his last keep coming to me. The sun is indeed God.

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