Wednesday 18 September 2019

Emily Hourican: 'An ode to summer'

As the long and lazy days of summer begin to recede, Emily Hourican reflects on the hopes and regrets of what is our most enchanting season

'Partly, the magic comes from the sheer expanse of time: long, slow months, in which anything can happen.'
'Partly, the magic comes from the sheer expanse of time: long, slow months, in which anything can happen.'

Emily Hourican

Summer. Did you make the most of it? Did it live up to your expectations?

Is there anything more heady than the promise thrown out at the start of this season of possibility?

It's the suggestion of change, of better - all the more seductive for being oblique, unspecified - hidden inside the long days and balmy nights. The seduction of the possible that comes with warm winds and sunlight glittering on sea.

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We don't look for change from Christmas - frankly, survival will do most of us - and Easter is little more than a pleasant interlude. But summer? Hard not to have high hopes. Hopes of growth, of change, of becoming. Of starting out as ourselves, and ending someone else, someone wiser and better.

Many of us tell funny stories about Christmas - we share tales of near-disaster, family rows, epic Santa fails - but I think we close ranks a bit over summer.

"Oh, it was amazing," we say earnestly, no matter where we've been. Two weeks in Kerry, a month in Brazil, 10 days in the Algarve: "It was lovely."

The stories we tell are ones of triumph: the unbroken sunshine, an amazing fish restaurant, the man in the local gelateria who loved the kids so much he gave them free ice creams by the end. And the stories are true - it's not like we're lying - but they aren't the full picture. They don't take into account the night we were totally ripped off in that pizzeria, or the wind that whipped up on the beach every day at 4pm and blew like sandpaper into our eyes. The stories we tell are summer stories, that reinforce the myth: It was amazing. We were different.

It is no accident that so many famous coming-of-age novels and films are set over the course of a summer. There's Bonjour Tristesse, Pauline a la Plage, Stand By Me, To Kill A Mocking Bird, Dirty Dancing and so many more. But even though all of these are part of the subconscious blueprint of our summers, lending them context and inspiring them with expectation, the way we feel about summer is not just a question of homage. The excitement isn't generated just by an urge to imitate, it is in the DNA of summer itself.

Partly, the magic comes from the sheer expanse of time: long, slow months, in which anything can happen. As a child, that time, those eight weeks, really are forever - a limitless expanse of anything goes. It's an impression that dies hard, so that even now, when really we're talking about a couple of weeks' holiday for most of us, that expansive flesh memory persists.

Partly, too, it's the displacement. Going somewhere new, with the possibility of being someone new when you get there. Mostly, it's the freedom, from everyday life, responsibility, routine, parental supervision, familiarity. It's the freedom to make new friends who may reflect back the new person you wish to be. They don't know the ''old'' you, and so they are entirely susceptible to whoever you now choose to be. Try it on, whatever it is, because you know it'll fit.

The fact that there is a special place for these friends, in memory and wistful recollection rather than real life, is clear proof of the kind of out-of-time zone occupied by summer. Remember the look of horror on Danny's face when Sandy turns up at his high school in Grease? Think of your own horror when a ''holiday friend'', no matter how much fun you had with them, announces that they are coming to visit? These friendships aren't built to last - they belong to the fantasy of the perfect summer, not to real life.

The thing is, we romanticise summer because we need to, but also because it lets us. Even encourages us. Summer promises us that we can slip off the old us and put on something - someone - new, as easily as we swap jeans and jumpers for floaty dresses and jewelled sandals.

This is probably fairly true when we are 13, 14, 15 - ages at which change is rapid and profound, and three months can make a huge difference, physically and psychologically (we all remember the girl or boy who left school in June spotty and awkward, only to reappear in September with clear skin, good hair, and a fully-fledged sense of self).

Alas, transformation is obviously far less likely when we are fully grown. And yet, the illusion, the call to arms, remains.

Even now, when the profound alterations of summer are likely to be in my children, not me, there is a small part of me that believes that the person who makes school lunches this week for the first day back, will be subtly different to the one who made the last batch in June. That I will, somehow, have learned the secrets of serenity and living in the moment over the intervening months.

And that's where the tiny hint of disappointment comes in - summer's end is particularly poignant because it feels, a little, like a wasted opportunity. Did you live the summer of your dreams? No, of course you didn't.

As an adult, the conditions for the perfect summer aren't there - the freedom, the lack of responsibility and supervision. They can't be, because you are now the one providing them. The sad truth is that, as an adult, ''You take yourself with you''.

Off you go on holiday, only to find that you are still yourself and not some magic new creation who lives each moment intensely and immersively. Still the same you who gets annoyed at how long it takes to deliver four cervezas to an outdoor table, or worries about how much the bill at the end of this fabulous meal is actually going to be.

Summer dangles a promise of growth and change that it can't deliver, and if you're me, you fall for it again and again. "This time," I think. "This one."

And even when I have finally begun to talk myself out of the absurd belief in summer's transformative power for myself, I still believe in it for my children.

No sooner have I given up trying to create the conditions for the perfect summer for myself, than I am busily trying to do so for them, and feeling guilty that they aren't romping through unmowed grass from dawn to dusk every day, with a gang of friends and a hastily-packed lunch, getting into scrapes and danger, falling in love and learning profound lessons.

The lure is so strong that even as we move into back-to-school stuff, and secretly admit that no, this wasn't the one, another, equally secret part, thinks ''maybe next year…''

Emily Hourican's latest novel, 'The Outsider', is set across successive summers, as characters grow from children to adults, together and apart, learning and doing wonderful, terrible things as they go

Sunday Independent

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