This, the third great sum­mer of my life­time, feels omi­nous

The Guardian - Journal - - Front page - Ian Jack,

The sun shone and shone over County Cork last week, just as it did over most of Bri­tain. When we came last year, to the same place in the same week, the steep banks of the lanes grew thick with wild roses, fuch­sia and fox­gloves; now the veg­e­ta­tion looked limper and dustier, the roses drier, the fox­gloves soli­tary and stooped. But a poorer fore­ground view had its com­pen­sa­tion in the back­ground, where the lack of driz­zle, cloud and mist re­vealed a rolling land­scape of hills and woods that was un­ex­pect­edly Tus­can in its clar­ity. By four in the af­ter­noon, the air­less main streets of the small towns felt like ovens.

On the coast east of Sk­ib­bereen we found a cove, of the sort that in my ex­pe­ri­ence rarely ex­ists out­side chil­dren’s fic­tion: per­fect in its firm sand, its pro­tec­tive reefs of smooth black rock, and its war­ren of caves that ran back into the cliffs, in­vaded every day by the tide, and en­tirely free of plas­tic flot­sam. The sea was calm and clear, and changed its shade of blue ac­cord­ing to the depth and com­po­si­tion of the seabed. More­over, it wasn’t chill. In 60-odd years swim­ming off the Bri­tish coast­line, I’ve rarely known wa­ter as wel­com­ing or as hard to leave.

News­pa­per re­ports said the pro­longed heatwave had raised sea tem­per­a­tures in other places to over 20C, which sounded im­pos­si­bly warm, al­most like a heated swim­ming pool. In that tem­per­a­ture, there would surely be no dal­ly­ing in the shal­lows, no the­atri­cal shiv­er­ing when the wa­ter reached crotch level, no com­plain­ing that the cold was un­bear­able, no need to stand there un­cer­tainly while your com­pan­ion, al­ready swim­ming briskly, urged you to “get in and get it over with”. In­stead im­mer­sion would be a swift, Mediter­ranean ex­pe­ri­ence – a run or brisk walk into the sea and then a splash as you struck out for the div­ing plat­form.

Tem­per­a­tures in the Firth of Forth never made get­ting into the wa­ter so easy. To be con­sis­tently tempt­ing, the es­tu­ary needed ex­cep­tional con­di­tions – and the sum­mer of 1955 pro­vided them. The sun shone for weeks, and day af­ter day my friends and I made the 10-minute walk to the beach – not a Blue Flag can­di­date, if Blue Flags had ex­isted then, be­cause a pipe ran right down the mid­dle of it that car­ried sewage to the sea from the army bar­racks to the rear.

Look­ing back, it seems odd that peo­ple made no fuss about this, or about an­other more tor­ren­tial out­let not far up­stream, where the sewage turned the sea pink with its in­fu­sions of potas­sium per­man­ganate.

But it was a beach, all the same, with a sand­bank that ap­peared at low tide and a hut at the far end that opened on es­pe­cially busy days to sell crisps and le­mon­ade; and by the sec­ond week, I had taught my­self to swim.

All kinds of things hap­pened in 1955: An­thony Eden won the gen­eral elec­tion; Princess Mar­garet an­nounced that she didn’t in­tend to marry RAF Group Cap­tain

Peter Townsend; Ruth El­lis be­came the last woman to be hanged in the UK. I re­mem­ber none of them. For me, it was the year I was turned brown by the sun.

A fam­ily snap­shot, one of our first in colour, shows me in swim­ming trunks, star­ing across a shiny flat sea to­wards a vis­it­ing Amer­i­can bat­tle­ship, the USS Wis­con­sin, which lay an­chored in the firth. My back is un­self­con­sciously brown – there had been no ly­ing on tow­els and striv­ing for this ef­fect – which tells a story of ca­per­ing about on the beach with no re­course to the plas­tic macs and sweaters that in most years the vis­i­tor to the Scot­tish sea­side was wise to bring. (As the ac­tor and co­me­dian Stan­ley Bax­ter re­mem­bers, re­turned Glaswe­gian holidaymakers when ques­tioned about the weather might re­ply sto­ically, “Well, it never kept us in.”)

The strong sun­light gave ev­ery­thing a mem­o­rable clar­ity, just as it did in Ire­land last week, so that cer­tain scenes of no par­tic­u­lar emo­tional im­por­tance re­main fixed, when in other years they would have faded: the sight of a spoil tip near an old mine or iron­works that re­vealed an in­te­rior of bright red cin­ders where a jagged crack had split its grassy sur­face. It makes no sense to re­mem­ber it, and yet there it is through the win­dow of the Glas­gow bus, un­der a bright blue sky.

Un­clothed adults at the sea­side were then hardly vis­i­ble, other than in news­pa­per pic­tures of crowded beaches at so­phis­ti­cated re­sorts such as Ayr or Black­pool. When my grand­fa­thers came to the beach, they re­tained their flat caps and waist­coats. My mother never owned a swim­suit. My fa­ther had trunks – as a boy he’d liked to swim – but I only once saw him wear them. None of this was very ex­cep­tional. I can’t think of any adult in our street who went to the beach and did much more than roll up a trouser leg.

No­body could have com­plained, as the aes­thete James Lees-Milne did in his di­ary in July 1976: “Heatwave con­tin­u­ing. Whole coun­try parched, and trees dy­ing. Found E naked but for a pair of long blue shorts, with white skin, smarmed hair (for he had just had a bath), flabby mus­cles, pen­du­lous breasts, look­ing like Pi­casso aged 90. How can aes­thetic per­sons bear to be seen in this con­di­tion at 74 even by their in­ti­mates?”

The great sum­mers of my life­time have been

1955, 1976 and now this one. With each, a lit­tle more in­no­cence has been shed as well as clothes. Pro­longed sun­shine now seems omi­nous – a por­tent as well as a plea­sure. Ire­land, for in­stance, has a ru­ral econ­omy that largely de­pends on grass, and in a drought grass fails to thrive. That has huge con­se­quences for every cat­tle farmer, but pos­ter­ity may see it as no more than a lit­tle lo­cal dif­fi­culty, one of the neg­li­gi­ble ef­fects of a global tem­per­a­ture change that melts glaciers and ice caps. Carpe diem, then, in a cove near Sk­ib­bereen.

Un­clothed adults at the beach were rare. That sum­mer of 1955, I can’t think of any who did more than roll up a trouser leg


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