The clocks spring forward in England later than daylight saving. This year’s changeover came nearly two weeks after lockdown, and what a fortnight it’s been.
Losses here and at home suffused the arrival of British Summer Time with a poignant, melancholic tinge. We’ve been living in London for about three years, returning to Springs as soon as school lets out for summer, working from the house and the beach parking lot, then leaping onto the last flight to England for the kids to begin their jet-lagged fall semester. Waving to friends on the sand as we drive away in late August, still wet from our last swim in the ocean, had become a bittersweet new ritual replacing a lifetime of Labor Day weekends.
Now I wonder whether there will be an American summer come Independence Day. For our barely teenage children, the question hasn’t surfaced yet, but it will. The news that Mayor de Blasio closed city pools for the summer brought a lump to my throat. The beaches can’t be far behind. The mayor said this week that they might open “in some way before summer’s end.” In other words, don’t count on it.
“British Summer Time” is a phrase that, to my American ear, always seems a euphemistic overreach, like having your cake and eating it too or, for the saucy, wanting to be both a tampon inside Camilla Parker Bowles and the King of England. Like these rhetorical yearnings, British summer is an oxymoron at best. I suspect if it doesn’t happen this year it won’t be much missed by my neighbors.
Why the difference? Well, aside from the obvious challenges of weather, their schools’ “summer holidays,” about half the length of ours and beginning in late July, warrant the same value as their countless “half-term breaks,” which are scattered generously throughout their calendar year. Even in pre-pandemic times, there was an abundance of time off in Britain. Weekends and “bank holidays” were and still are sacred. Upon moving here, I quickly noticed that holidays are talked about more than the weather. They are, it seems, a cultural fetish.
As Americans, we don’t consider “holidays” a given. How can we in a nation with such precarious regard for human rights? We have no laws to guarantee even a day’s paid vacation. Two weeks has been the company standard for decades, which, putting aside the unemployment figures, now growing exponentially, was never the pause we deserved.
And yet, if there is any one idea that unites us, it is our shared experience of summer’s pull. We anticipate summer with the hunger that precedes a much-needed meal. We are raised to romanticize the precious weeks from Memorial Day to Labor Day; we mythologize summer in all its abstractness of light, air, water, and sound. Our childhood summers define the whole of our lives. Hit songs. Barbecues. Block parties. Cracks off the bats. Mosquito bites and broken arms make memories. We cherish our summer time as dearly as we collectively mourn its end.
Like so many, I’ve been listening to John Prine, the treasured American musician who died this month from Covid-19. Prine wrote in one of his last songs,
Summer’s end’s around the bend just flying
The swimming suits are on the line just drying
In any year, “Summer’s End” is a tearjerker. The song’s theme seizes upon our attachment to summer and is an elegiac metaphor for how we bear the paradox of life itself. John Prine is certainly not the first person to draw a line from the inevitable end of summer to the inevitability of death or loss, but listening to him sing about it right now is downright heart-wrenching.
The idea for British Summer Time came from a builder named William Willett (said to be a great-great-grandfather of Coldplay’s Chris Martin). Riding his horse early one summer morning in 1905, Willett was struck by the sight of shutters closed against the fresh light. He devoted the rest of his life to this single cause, writing a then-famed pamphlet called “The Waste of Daylight.” Willett didn’t live to see his idea written into law in 1916, when it was concluded to be a sage solution for saving coal during World War I. He had died of influenza the year before.
British Summer Time will continue through the fall but so will the cold rain and this disease. To understand that the British mind-set doesn’t need summer to “holiday” is to understand a key difference between them and us. They don’t know what they’re missing.
Thinking of a year without an American summer has me pining more and more for home and questioning when and how we’ll get back.
Well you never know how far from home you’re feeling
Until you watch the shadows cross the ceiling
Summer’s end came faster than we wanted
Just come on home.
Summer in America may have been the one inalienable right that could never be taken from us. It was our psychic health care system. It was free medicine. Or so I thought until it began its barrel toward cancellation. What do I wish for my fellow Americans? I wish — whenever it is safe — a glorious and endless summer. To have our cake and, just this once, to eat it too.
Rachael Horovitz is a film and television producer who has spent more than 30 summers in Springs.