“Summer afternoon – summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.” – Henry James
One of my abiding childhood memories is – perhaps unsurprisingly – of the summer holidays: the long school summer holidays, dreaded by most parents and adored by most children. Sometimes, as late spring tipped over into early summer, we would literally cross the days off on the calendar on the classroom wall. Working in a school now, I see that not much has changed. The school year begins with a storm of nervous energy, but by May and June that energy has largely fizzled out, and the school walls might as well be those of a prison. The beginning of the summer holidays brings the promise of freedom.
Those early memories are probably one of the reasons why summer always feels special to me, even now. It’s a time apart, somehow; the ordinary rules of life either cease to apply or at least relax their grip. I have time off work, of course, but I never seem to be idle; indeed, I seem to be more furiously busy than ever. Far from being exhausting or unpleasant, this is actually quite an agreeable sensation. Perhaps it’s because summer also brings a certain laziness of the soul, a different mindset. Judgements are set aside, minor irritations are forgotten. Summer, for me, brings peace, acceptance – and dreams. One dream, in particular, might make the basis for a fine story; in fact, when I woke up it seemed to me that a complete novel had just appeared in my sleeping mind.
Along with the dreams of the night are the waking dreams: lovely, probably idle, and easy to dismiss at other times. Some of these dreams seem almost achingly close, heartbreakingly plausible; perhaps this is because, at certain times in the summer – at dawn or dusk, say, or on those still, close afternoons when a storm seems imminent – the world itself seems like a dream.
This feeling seems to be particularly pronounced this year. Perhaps it’s because the weather here in Italy is so impossibly hot that at times you feel light-headed, dreamy, not quite yourself. Perhaps it’s because I’ve taken advantage of the summer break to start growing things in earnest: figs, apples, tomatoes, courgettes, peppers… There is something magical about this most earthy of activities. Growing things – and being rewarded when they flower or fruit – is a uniquely satisfying experience, and one from which the modern world frequently leaves us alienated.
It is, perhaps, akin to the writing process. You start with the tiny seed of an idea, which sometimes germinates and grows but, more frequently, dies. With time and care, those that survive mature, but even then their existence is precarious: pests, droughts, or unseasonal frosts might still damage or kill them. But then, one day, there comes a magical moment when you see a small fruit bursting from the bough, growing and taking on a life of its own…