IT IS A BOON to us that, from year to year, we have the same things to complain about. It is all very well to pick at a president - or whoever may lucklessly be the coach of the Redskins - but these in the end are unsatisfying. They come and go; anyhow, they are small beer. What we need are fixed and more elemental targets for our grumbling. That is why God gave us weather.
In the infinity of His wisdom, what is more, He knew that winter is not enough. Out of His great and all-seeing love for us, He led us to look forward to summer each year, and then made it a premonition of hell. Like most of His ways, this is clearest in America. But it is worth our consideration that, even in countries where the climate is more temperate, summer is the least poetic of months.
With the advent of spring, poets fill their lungs, open their throats, and begin to warble. Only because he was writing about spring could Thomas Nashe get away with the line: "Cuckoo, jug-jug, pu-we, to-witta-woo:" Autumn has always appealed to the poet, especially to the romantic, with its wistfulness and melancholy: "Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness." Even winter has a sharpness that captures the poet, and we tingle with the cold as we read, "When icicles hang by the wall, and Dick, the shepherd, blows his nail." But rarely has the poet ever been carried away by the summer.
Thinking that my memory might be at fault, I turned to the index of a dictionary of quotations. No! There is not much that is memorable about summer, and even that is about June, which happily rhymes with moon. Summer seems to come abruptly to an end in the poet's mind with Midsummer Night, and July and August are ignored as the listless dog days of the year.
Summer has very little to be said for it. The grain goes on filling, the fruit goes on ripening. But we celebrate the harvest in the fall: Thanksgiving Day in America; Harvest Festival in England. It is already autumn when Dijon, the capital of Burgundy, fills its fountain with its red wine and revels for a week. In fact, surely it is significant that summer, July and August, is a time of no festival or revelry, except the prim "festivals of the arts," things for which one needs tickets, that we contrive as substitutes. Summer is the middle age of the year.
We look forward to summer, but only to escape from it. Summer is when most of us - especially while our lives are still dictated by our children's calendars - take our annual vacations. It is the season when we leave what is familiar to us, and endure the misery that we planned in the comfort of winter. Summer is the only season of the year that drives us from our homes and our friends. The winter of our discontent, indeed[*] Rather, the summer of our discontent.
Almost any family halfway through its summer vacation is like a bedraggled army that has disintegrated into a vagrant and foraging mob. Leaderless, for too long on half rations at each burger shop, and desperate, it will at last stumble gratefully home as if mercifully to Valley Forge.
Summer vacations are a recent invention of industrialized society. I am not talking of the privileged few who, since the days of Rome, have had their summer homes in the country. They are not really going on vacation. They are simply removing their lives from the valleys, where most cities are built, to the coasts or the hills, where there is at least a breeze. But even they are trying to escape the summer.
But when the captains of industry realized that they would have to give holidays to the proletariat, to keep their bodies and souls together for another year of slave-driving, it was convenient for them to get the whole thing over in one season. To maintain a holiday roster for the whole year would be inefficient. So they benevolently set aside the worst months of the year for the holidays of their workers.
They then provided the industry of tourism, which is today one of the opiates of the masses. Very little in our lives today is more proletarian than the holiday industry; so treats us each as a common denominator of a mass that it can move at will. From the cheap contemporary decoration of the travel agent's office to the gaudy literature that advertises the hidden-away but strangely still popular resorts, the rulers of society spread before us a hoax to keep us as torpid on vacation as television is intended to do for the rest of the year. In that at least, Marcuse was on the ball.
But it is summer in itself - our having somehow to get through summer - that gives them the chance. They are able to prey on our desire to escape from the season for which no one has a good world.
I admit that my feelings on this subject have been sharpened by my experience of summer in America. I remember a friend who was then a Canadian journalist - from the heart of its prairie - once gazing with disbelief at a headline in a Scottish newspaper: "HEATWAVE TO CONTINUE - TEMPERATURE ABOVE 68 AGAIN TODAY." I apologized that it should be so uncomfortable; but we would just have to sweat it out.
But it is not the heat of the American summer that in itself unnerves me. It is the phenomena - human and natural, perhaps even supernatural - that accompany it. I have covered Africa from tip to toe, and its tropics have their wet seasons and their storms, but not the unpredictable visitations that strike here, even though no part of the United States is genuinely in the tropics, and some of the visitations take place far to the north in what in Europe is a temperate zone.
My friends in southeast Texas have just been laid low by a hurricane. I have other friends on the Louisiana coast who after their own hurricanes have had to go looking the next morning for the second stories of their houses. I have yet other friends who have fled down highways in the Midwest with tornadoes on their tails. I do not think that I am wrong in saying that the Great Plains in summer are an area of violent climatic turbulence.
Although there are some exceptions from year to year, floods in Europe do not normally come from the skies. They come from the melting of snow in the mountains in spring, and anyhow in England, as the American poet, Marianne Moore, once pleasingly put it, we have only baby rivers, which flood only very complaisantly. But even though most of the United States is on the same latitude as Europe, its skies in summer are constantly opening, and deluging its countryside with waters that then rage over it. All of this speaks well of the Americans: They endure so much so unpredictably from the gods.
But is it necessary, even for the character of the people, to endure such bugs? Bugs of such monstrosity? You may mock me; but that will hardly be new. When Washington had the British bottled up in Boston in 1775, the story went round the American camp that some British officers, walking on Bunker Hill, had been frightened by "bullet-like whinings in the air," even though they heard no accompanying shots. According to this American slander, they fled, crying that the rebels were now using air guns against them. But they were fleeing only from what an American historian, no doubt much to the amusement of his native readers, calls "the redoubtable bugs of New England."
This is no matter for jest. I have known Patrick O'Donovan of the London Observer, a man with the build and command of an officer of the Irish Guards in which he had served, cower behind a sofa in Georgetown under the attack of an American bug, which came at him with all the misplaced viciousness of a kamikaze pilot, calling to his wife for reinforcement as he never did on the field of battle.
But the American summer still holds in reserve the most discomfiting of its aspects for the stranger. When an American family on their vacation are all dressed in Bermuda shorts, it has much the same effect as when the Germans first saw a Scottish regiment advance in its kilts to the wail of the bagpipes. They retreated pellmell. So do I.