So there we are. That’s it then for another year…
For a few days every year either side of the solstice, I go into mourning. My wife and daughter have learnt to handle me with care. Dutifully, they respect my annual suggestion to ‘appreciate’ the last few protracted evenings before the 21st (without ever questioning what ‘appreciation’ entails).
It’s hard to spell it out. Appreciation for me means being more aware than usual that it’s still light outside. It means stepping outside or staring mournfully out of the window, soon after the 10pm watershed, at the delicious mysterious half-light, as it hangs on tenaciously before slipping into darkness.
19th century doctors would probably diagnose my complaint as ‘acute melancholia’ and prescribe laudanum to be taken in increasing doses until helpless, hopeless addiction set in. Fuelled by opiates, I could settle down with my quill and bottle of ink and compose countless odes on the subject of all things bright and beautiful and the sadness of knowing that all such things must pass.
The solstice equals the end of the best part of summer and the beginning of two mad months when you can’t move for holidaymakers. When everything and everyone wilts in the heat. It means: Wimbledon, then the British Open, the Oval Test Match, the Last Night of the Proms, September, October and bye-bye blue skies, here comes winter.
Fortunately, the mood dissipates. For one thing, I sensibly elected to share my life with a perennial optimist. Where I might stare glumly at a half-empty glass, she rejoices in what’s left. While I see a world stripped bare by voracious humanity, she sees richness and abundance. It’s hard to shake off a lifetime’s pessimism, but bit-by-bit I’m learning to see things in a healthier perspective.
In France, the longest day coincides with the national Fête de Musique. Back in the UK, druids, pagans and even ordinary citizens wend their way to Stonehenge to do whatever they tend to do within the ancient stone circle. The French cluster throughout the land to eat and drink and listen to music.
It’s a lovely tradition and one that’s catching on apparently in other continental countries. Nearly 20 years ago, I first stumbled upon it as a holidaymaker one sultry evening in the sleepy medieval town of Argentat-sur-Dordogne. Ella Fitzgerald accompanied us on our romantic evening promenade via a network of municipal speakers suspended from trees and lampposts and the eaves of buildings. It was ‘de-lovely’, if rather be-wildering.
So now we tend to take to the streets en famille with everyone else. Of course, you’re at the mercy of the elements. A few summers ago in Brive, torrential downpours rained off all the long-planned outdoor concerts and we were left to throng aimlessly with hundreds of others in search of… something. We ended up buying ice creams and going home.
Another summer we took The Daughter to nearby Martel to see her school band play under the remarkable parasol-like roof of the 18th century market ‘hall’. Locals ate their collective picnics at the trestle tables set out around the square, while the pizzeria plied the drinkers with hooch. The headmaster was there to support his group of final-year pupils. Even when a neo-grunge outfit from the nearest lycée came on to assail our ears, no one moaned about ‘the racket’. Not a mouth was puckered in disapproval. Everyone was there to enjoy the occasion and celebrate life out-of-doors.
We missed out on the Fête this summer, because the child was too busy revising for her BAC. So I was left to brood on the relentless march of time. I’m trying to train myself to see the 21st symbolically as a gateway to all the concerts and festivals (for which there’s never enough time) that are crowded into the ensuing months of a French summer, but I’ve still got a way to go.
When I get ‘dem ol’ summer solstice blues again, mama’, I remind myself that Blues, the music, though born of suffering, celebrates life with all its vicissitudes. And after all, as a child, the solstice represented the imminent end-of-June and the beginning of the long school holidays. I guess I need to learn to ‘appreciate’ every evening on earth, protracted or not. Instant karma would then be mine for the deriving.