Each morning, I gaze wistfully at my linen museum. The collection mainly consists of skirts mid-calf in length and cut on the bias, in prints that belong somewhere between the Festival of Britain and La Dolce Vita. Most are vintage Hobbs, which no longer makes linen skirts this length, which is a shame because they’re comfortable and flattering. I could also add that they’re made to last, but I’m not sure. Their pristine condition reflects their limited exposure to sunlight.
Like many clothes that take up space in crowded cupboards, my linen skirts-and linen jackets, dresses, waistcoats, blouses-are part fantasy, part memory. The memory is of summer days, sandals, hoop earrings, Mexican blouses, thin cotton T-shirts, Ma Griffe, poste restante, an annual pedicure, pêches blanches.
The fantasy: that those days will return. With dreamy optimism, each spring, I remove the skirts from the oak chest where they spend nine months of the year. I actually enjoy ironing each piece, a ceremony during which I think of vaporous lan-gours, sun, white wine, olives and Adirondack chairs with flat arms wide enough to hold wine glasses, coffee cups and books. These are not Italian fantasies or hazy dreams of the South of France or California.
I remember warm evenings in Aldeburgh, summer days in Cornwall, mornings at Wyken with dog and Stanley thermos of coffee, sitting in the canoe, paddling to the centre of Lake Bofus, squinting at the silver field where the sun bounces off the water. I’m pretty sure I remember summers when my son went barefoot for three months, his feet becoming so tough that he could run on the gravel paths as casually as a zealot walking on hot coals.
Although the gurus of clearing clutter advise you to get rid of any clothes you haven’t worn for two years, I can’t part with my linen souvenirs of summer. In part, this is because I haven’t got my money’s worth out of them, but to clear the cupboard would be to surrender hope, to admit that all the English summers of my life will be spent in the arc of a mistral, under a steel-grey sky, with a soundtrack of rain, rain, rain. We have been warned that the cool, wet weather is the result of the Arctic ice melting. Like a butterfly flapping its wings in Venezuela, it’s having a catastrophic effect on our English summers.
And yet. I feel a fraud whimpering about a disappointing summer. As fields in the USA turn into the Sahara and crops burn like kindling, we’ve had the highest yields of barley and wheat in living memory. It’s a mystery-the drought in April, the record rainfall in May, June, July and August-but then a bountiful harvest and no drying required. The grapes look as if they may not ripen before November-did I really once write on this page that Suffolk was the new Médoc?-but we live or die by the amber waves of grain, not the fruit of the vine.
If I have a choice, I choose the rain. The grey, the green and the surprise of a sunny week that weighs one’s heart down with gratitude. I can live without the searing heat, the violent thunderstorms, the parched earth. This week, I will put away the frivolous linens, yank the last tomato vine from the ground.
The cold, wet summer was deadly for the grey partridge and the first brood of turkeys, but now we turn the seasonal corner. As I shake out the sweaters and reunite with wool jackets, I remember when, each May, my grandmother dressed the living-room furniture in slipcovers, a flowery chintz of morning glory and pink roses, then returned it to its wintry gravitas in the first week of September. Even as the prophets of climate change predict the end of English summers, there is consolation in knowing that this is still a land of seasons. Unseasonable seasons, but seasons all the same.
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