Bitter-sweet at the Summer Solstice

An early Polyphonic Spree gig. This was before they brought in the new bass player.

Don’t forget, pagans and geography ‘O’ level-takers of Britain, it’s the Summer Solstice today. That is, the “longest day of the year”. Actually, I am a bit surprised we don’t all make more of this, one of the four big natural milestones of the year (with the Winter Solstice and the two Equinoxes). After all, we still very much live our lives in this country by the seasons. What could be more significant a day to mark than the peak day of daylight?

As someone who loves the sense of light and space of the summer months more than most, but who has also just scored highly for Neuroticism on a recent personality trait assessment, the Summer Solstice is a bitter-sweet moment – like just about all the rest of my moments, if this tool is to be believed. I mean the assessment tool, I wasn’t insulting myself there. (And don’t worry, I’m also high on Agreeableness and Openness, apparently*, so I’m obviously a really good bloke and just need to stop worrying).  The Solstice though is particularly bitter-sweet because of what I see as our tragic geo-meteorological fate: by the time the really warm months come in July and August, the nights are already drawing in towards the darkening of Autumn.

pagan with child
Embarrassing Dads of the World: No117 – the Weekend Pagan

I enjoyed Alain de Botton‘s “Religion for Atheists” – where he argued for having secular occasions that give non-believers some of the same thrills ‘n’ spills that religion has excelled at giving its adherents over the centuries – even if I didn’t swallow every word. His vision for communal dining left me as cold as the gazpacho I imagine people consuming there. But I am one of those people who feels an urge to mark the big seasonal milestones – if only by raising a glass or two of summer ale / winter warmer (delete as appropriate).

The Croats – and most of Catholic Europe – peak at the right time with their mid-August celebrations for Vela Gospa, just as Luka Modric plays his most telling passes deep in the second half. I’m not well versed in Catholicism but it’s something to do with the Assumption, evoking the fecundity of the Lord’s earthly mum. More to the point, it marks the high point of a summer parabola of expectation, with plenty of build-up and a suitably short winding down period afterwards. In Sali in Dalmacija where we go every summer, they also have their annual Festa (complete with a donkey race around the harbour that the RSPCA would not approve of) around the same time. The distant bell of work duties only starts to become audible once the sounds of Cro-rockers The Sexy Mother-F***ers have finally faded from the festival stage and the last Karlovacko empty has been bagged.

But we Brits have nothing really as a festive marker of late summer, except the August bank holiday. And that’s a kind of sweaty nightmare, celebrated only through the ritual family rows on the M40.

Perhaps it’s a very British thing to mark the start and end of summer indirectly, without fanfare. Summer half term in late May / early June is the start of the summer season for me. Around this time the thwack of leather against willow heralds either the English cricket season in full swing or a “party” in the basement of Max Moseley’s house. Then there’s the Summer Solstice – in many ways, really the start of the serious summer. It certainly starts well before the English school holidays, which feel very late to me in the second half of July (in my home province of Ulster, kids get June and July off completely).**

For football obsessives like me, the Community Shield marks the start of that late summer period where we all gear up again for the season ahead (i.e. the football season, August to May). Then there’s the first day back to school, for those of us who are parents of school-age kids – a movable feast these days. I’ve found the seasons have much more meaning again now that I’m a parent and move once more to the rhythms of the school year and the draconian anti-family pricing policies of travel operators.

So here’s to another summer of bored children, prime ministers swanning around Italy in big shirts, the newspaper “silly season”, road rage, dehydration, half-arsed transfer speculation, melting on public transport, uncomfortable sleep, recreational rioting and reading the odd book from start to finish. My favourite time of year.

* according to the Newcastle Personality Assessor. It has a battery of ten questions to produce a score for where you sit for the Big 5 Personality Traits (Extraversion, Neuroticism, Conscientiousness, Agreeableness and Openness). If I revealed the full results, I’d never be employed again, except by experimental psychologists as a case study. But I think I still like myself.
** In Northern Ireland, we have 12th July as the big summer landmark in the calendar, though actual celebration of the day itself is a minority pursuit really – and certainly enjoyed much more by some than others. The period around it is known as the Twelfth Fortnight. For most, apart from people steeped in the Orange tradition or from the most Loyalist areas, or those who enjoy baiting them, it’s a good time to go on holiday. 

Published by Simon Riley

Qualitative researcher in the UK. I listen to people from all walks of life and think about what it all means. I work for leading brands, media companies and government.

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