Friday, 1 June 2007

‘Feels Like Summer'

It was the hottest April in 300 years and the locals didn’t know whether to be gleeful or worried, and so they settled on a compromise of guilty enjoyment. (Unless of course they went off to Spain for Easter in which case they felt cheated and wanted their money back.)

Weather to the British is something more than a combination of barometric pressures; it is a collective measurement of mood, where the seasons are depression, hope, happiness and anxiety. Back in April we entered the season of hope, traditionally associated with ambitious gardening and travel plans, and with picnics.

The weather had been for weeks unseasonably and relentlessly warm forcing a perceptible cultural shift – the locals began to anticipate good weather, to rely on it, and even to invest in outdoor furniture (one month and several hundred millimetres of rain later expectations of the weather are back to normal). It was under similar circumstances last summer that my boyfriend decided to teach his Aussie girlfriend the art of the picnic.

However, he was bluffing, he had never ever picnicked before, despite having passed through childhood. (He insists he was out working from age 4, and for this he believes he should be admired and pitied in equal measure.) With characteristic verve he had acquired the appropriate picnic equipage some years previously, in the form of a fully stocked wicker picnic suitcase complete with straps designed to attach to one’s open-top automobile (presumably).

He was longing to have his moment; he had added a tartan blanket and even stuck in a Frisbee (he was also deprived of Frisbee play in his David Copperfield childhood). And yet despite there being several warm days in those intervening years he had not yet managed his fabled picnic.


As in all Jane Austen novels at last the great day had arrived – he had tickets for Opera in the Park to be held on the grounds of a vast country house not far from the city (yes, tickets!). With glee he skipped off to Marks and Spencer’s and bought a pre-packaged salad, some cheese and biscuits, and four bottles of wine. After a few rounds of cultural confusion we worked out that an Esky was the same as a ‘cool box’ and he was delighted to find another strange object in his cupboards actually had a use.

It was only when we joined the long, long line to get in to the park that we realised this was no casual picnic affair. Officials on either side of us herded streams of people into VIP and plebeian queues, and no guesses which one we were in.

After half an hour the British reserve broke and people started talking to each other. Conversation started with a comment on the weather, as in ‘I don’t like the look of them clouds over there’, and progressed through complaint, ‘the queuing was just as bad last year, you’d think they’d’ve got it right this time round’, to end up with comments of admiration and envy, ‘Gosh, you’ve got a lot of equipment, no wonder you need a trolley!’

The boyfriend noticed how other people there had elevated the picnic to a fine art. The man with the trolley had four folding chairs, a table, lanterns, a stereo, and about half the kitchen. He was accompanied by two women who had enormous backpacks usually seen humped around Sumatra by 20-year olds except that theirs were bulging with farmer’s produce, ‘Organic,’ they told me.

By this stage the boyfriend had decided it was better to put the attractive but heavy wicker picnic basket down between queue movements, and, glancing back along the queue stretching over hill and dale he was starting to get the idea there would not be enough room to toss someone the cheese knife, let alone a Frisbee.


After a full hour and a half we entered the park grounds to be met with a sea of garden furniture. The locals seemed to have turned the humble picnic into an ironic art form.

Everywhere over the crowded hill there were men dressed in black tie. They were accompanied by women in ball gowns, who had plastic tiaras on their heads. Each party was seated formally at table, faces flushed red from wine drunk out of real glasses. On the table was serious dining crockery and cutlery, one table even had a butler (in shorts) and a lantern done up like a chandelier. The effort! The one-upmanship! The organisation! The Victorians who sent the servants on ahead to set up their picnics would have been proud.

The numbers alone would have overwhelmed their forebears; the scrap of lawn where we spread our humble tartan blanket was overlooked by tables on all sides preventing any view of the stage which was probably over a kilometre away. The only saving grace was we could find the blanket again when we came back from the Portaloo queues because we were the only ones on ground level.

And then, after weeks of sunshine, with the locals gnashing teeth about the state of their lawns and crying ‘drought!’ and ‘hosepipe ban!’, the heavens opened up and poured scorn on the butler in shorts, on the ladies in taffeta and on our pathetic blanket. Two seconds later in concert all around us we heard popping noises, as enormous golf umbrellas sprouted everywhere, as in a David Attenborough time-lapse sequence of fungi sprouting in the rainforest.

The locals were determined to enjoy themselves. I even heard one group singing rain-song medleys with ‘Have You Ever Seen the Rain’ segueing into ‘Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head’, until the ‘Shhs!’ were too loud to ignore. I had entirely forgotten that there that somewhere far away they were playing opera.


At about 11pm a fireworks splutter from the other side of the ornamental lake was the signal that the seasoned ironic picnickers knew well – the race was on. Crockery and cutlery and butlers in shorts were put on trolleys and trundled away in great haste. We knew something was up, and bundled up our sodden blanket, put the mushy biscuits back in the Esky with the empties and made a made dash for it.

It took a full three hours to get out of the car park. The rain was bucketing down, the fluro-coated traffic wardens were splattered with mud and in foul moods. We didn’t talk much. It was after 1am before we got through the front door. The picnic basket went back in the cupboard, with the blanket, dirty cups and wet biscuits still inside.

That was a year ago. The Frisbee I am sure is fine, although it has yet to be given its maiden flight. We are too frightened to see what might have grown on the more organic elements in the basket. And all I know is that the boyfriend is cured of picnics, ironic or otherwise. Yes, now he wants to have a BBQ.



At 2 June 2007 at 18:42 , Blogger NicoVA said...

Hi Karen, I'm taken here by a link from your Pre-Animate website:P

After the warmest winter, I think we're going to have the hottest summer in HK. And I dress like going to the beach everyday! Probably there'll be no more winters 10 yrs later.....

Anyway, nice to get your news from the blog! Keep it up!


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